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By Josh Rogin

Syrian president Bashar al Assad and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin shown with blood on their hands

As the Assad regime slaughters its way to victory on the ground in Syria, its partner Russia is using the United Nations to try to cut off crucial humanitarian aid to millions of innocent Syrians still living outside the government’s control. The Trump administration is trying — but so far failing — to stop Moscow’s sinister plan.

Last Friday, Russian and China vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution that would partially renew international authorization for cross-border routes allowing food, water and medicine to flow into the parts of Syria outside the control of the Syrian government. The routes, from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, have enjoyed U.N. approval for the past six years.

But now Moscow is seeking to shut them down. The Russian government sees the Assad regime as winning the war and believes that denying food to people still resisting Assad’s rule is an effective way to help him.

“To Russia and China, who have chosen to make a political statement by opposing this resolution, you have blood on your hands,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo saidin a statement Friday. “There is no substitute for UN cross border deliveries, and there are no viable alternatives to feeding millions of Syrians until the Syrian regime ceases its war on the Syrian people.”

All 13 other Security Council members besides Russia and China voted for a resolution to preserve three of the routes. The resolution was officially sponsored by Germany, Belgium and Kuwait and supported by the United States. Moscow proposed a resolution to cut the aid down to only two approved routes. That version of the resolution got only five votes.

Authority for the cross-border aid shipments expires on Jan. 10. Now the U.S. government is scrambling behind the scenes to devise a way to avert yet another humanitarian disaster in Syria.AD

A senior State Department official told me Moscow’s effort to kill the aid routes was deliberate and well-planned. The Russian government is ramping up efforts to help Assad secure a military victory and push the United States out of the country.

“Across the board, we are seeing a strong hardening of positions by the Russians,” the official said. “It’s all flashing red that these guys want to challenge us.”

Early on, the Russians “made it clear at the highest levels to the U.S. government” that this year they would challenge what previously has been a routine renewal of the resolution, according to the official.

Initially, Turkey wanted to open up the resolution to recognize a new border crossing in newly held parts of northeast Syria it now controls. But Moscow rejected that, not wanting to acknowledge Turkey’s role in that region.AD

“Erdogan went to Putin twice and Putin slapped him silly,” the official said.

The United States and its partners proposed losing the Jordan crossing, as a compromise, but Moscow rejected that as well. Russia insists on closing down the routes from both Jordan and Iraq, which would effectively block food supplies to southwest Syria, one of the last remaining liberated areas.

The United States has a small military base called Tanf just a few miles from the Syria-Iraq border. Russia wants to isolate that base to pressure U.S. forces to leave. The regime is already starving thousands of Syrians living in squalor near the Tanf base in a camp called Rukban.

Moscow believes the United States’ commitment to Syria is waning — an impression reinforced by President Trump’s chaotic policies on the region, including his recent schizophrenia on U.S. troops there. Moscow and Assad are pushing more aggressively for a military solution to the war and correspondingly deemphasizing international diplomacy. They are also stepping up on their attacks on civilians.AD

In Idlib province, Russian air power is aiding the slaughter of civilians in a renewed military advance. The Assad regime, Russia and Iran have used starvation as a weapon of war throughout the conflict. The United States is continuing to negotiate with Moscow over the aid routes, but the chances of a breakthrough are slim. 

“This is a horror … There’s a real danger of escalation and the human cost is very high,” the official said, adding, “The U.S. is committed to finding a way to keep the aid flowing.”

Aid groups are urging the parties to go back to the negotiating table and find a solution before the resolution expires in January. 

“Millions of Syrians rely on UNSCR 2449, which allows humanitarians to reach those in need through the most direct and efficient routes,” said Mercy Corps’ country director for Syria, Wolfgang Gressmann. “Since 2014, this simple piece of paper has saved countless lives. It’s hard to imagine what would happen without it.”AD

Moscow’s plan to cut off humanitarian aid is part of a larger drive to force all aid groups to work through the Damascus government. That gives Assad control over lifesaving aid, enabling him to feed his supporters and starve anyone who resists his cruel rule as he steps away from international diplomatic efforts.

If Russia won’t budge, the United States and other governments with consciences must ensure that aid continues to flow to civilians still resisting the regime. The Syrian war is not over. We cannot allow Assad and Moscow to slowly starve millions of innocent Syrians into submission.

THE Washington Post

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