April 29, 2020 / 10:21 PM / a month ago

WHO changes to U.N. Syria memo risk stoking Trump-fueled criticism

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Aid groups working with the United Nations want the Security Council to urgently allow an Iraq border crossing into Syria to be used again for deliveries to help combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to a draft World Health Organization memo seen by the 15-member U.N. Security Council.

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured on the headquarters of the World Health Organization (WHO) ahead of a meeting of the Emergency Committee on the novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) in Geneva, Switzerland, January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo

But an updated version of the memo, dated Tuesday, removed the direct appeal for the Al Yarubiyah crossing to be reopened nearly four months after its use for U.N. operations was shut down by opposition from Russia and China. The WHO did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The move risks further stoking criticism - which has been led by U.S. President Donald Trump - that the Geneva-based U.N. agency allows itself to be influenced by some countries.

Earlier this month, Trump halted U.S. funding for the WHO while Washington reviews the agency’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and accused the WHO of being “China-centric,” an assertion the organization denies.

“The WHO should stand firm and not cave in to pressure from big powers. This is about saving lives, not avoiding criticism,” Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said of the changes to the memo. “The council needs to immediately reauthorize Al Yarubiyah.”

During a Security Council meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria on Wednesday, several members called for the body to help scale up cross-border aid operations into Syria. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Kelly Craft said all options should be explored, including the use of Al Yarubiyah.

But Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, warned: “We strongly urge our colleagues not to waste their time on looking for a way to advocate, explicitly or implicitly, to get Al Yarubiyah back.”

Syria has reported 43 cases - including one in the northeast - of the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, and three deaths. The updated WHO memo said the coronavirus impact in Syria could be “truly catastrophic.”

‘TERRORISM WORSE THAN VIRUS’

The Security Council annually authorized the delivery of aid through the Iraq crossing for the past six years, but dropped its approval in January in the face of opposition from Syrian ally Russia, backed by China.

“United Nations partners ... propose the re-opening of Yarubiyah crossing as a matter of urgency. This would have significant impact on the COVID-19 response in NES (northeast Syria),” the draft WHO memo said.

The updated memo said instead that “new options are needed” to replace aid that was delivered through Iraq, adding that shipments across conflict lines in the country could not be adequately expanded to meet the needs in northeast Syria.

Western diplomats have said the closure of the Iraq crossing cuts off 40 percent of medical aid to northeastern Syria.

“Gaps in medical supplies in northeast Syria are widening. At a time when we should be urgently scaling up to prepare for COVID-19, those gaps should be narrowing,” U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock told the council on Wednesday.

A crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war. Millions of people have fled Syria and millions more are displaced within the country. Security Council approval is needed for U.N. cross-border deliveries because the Syrian government did not consent.

Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bashar Ja’afari, told the council that terrorism was “more dangerous” than COVID-19 in Syria.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Peter Cooney

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