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Aid For Syria Threatened At U.N.


An apparent win for Russia at the U.N. last night as diplomats agreed to continue a humanitarian aid program, but in reduced form, to civilians trapped in the last rebel-held areas of Syria. In 2014, the U.N. voted to support the aid program, allowing deliveries to cross Syria's borders with Turkey, Jordan and Iran. But now Russian proposal closes two border hubs, including one of the Iraqi border.

NPR's Deborah Amos has been following this from Beirut. Deborah, thanks for being with us.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Help us understand. This is about the huge Idlib province in northern Syria. How many people are at risk there?

AMOS: Scott, it depends on how you want to count. The most recently displaced - that's around 300,000. And that's just in the past month. And then there's another 3 million civilians in the province. There are two border crossings out of Turkey that will deliver aid. It's particularly important now. Those 300,000 - displaced, we say, but let me be more precise. They are running for their lives as the Syrian military, backed by the Russians, have stepped up an offensive, including airstrikes.

And to get an idea about what it's like to be on the ground, we called Majed Hamo (ph). He lives in Idlib with his wife and his children. He's a journalist there.

MAJED HAMO: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: He says it's so difficult for displaced people. He says they're sleeping in their cars. The children - their clothes are covered in mud. People don't even have tents. There are many babies who need warm shelter. Many are sick. They need medicine. Getting food is really difficult, he says. And he also says if the aid is stopped, it would be catastrophic.

SIMON: And what does the U.N. action last night mean for those very programs?

AMOS: So the cross-border aid to Idlib - that stays. It's the northwest - that's where the problem is. It's all the way on the other side of the country. There is a cross-border delivery site there. It's going to close down. The U.N. delivers food and medicine that supports about a million civilians there. Here I'm going to play you the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft after the vote last night in New York.


KELLY CRAFT: Syrians will suffer needlessly as a result of this resolution. Syrians will die as a result of this resolution. I want to be very clear about who must bear responsibility for this outcome. It is the Russian Federation that brought us to this point.

AMOS: The U.S. abstained in that vote. And Kelly said she did so, and I quote, "with disgust and dismay."

SIMON: Why would Russia - why is this so important to Russia? Why would they do this?

AMOS: You know, I think the better question is why now, because for the past five years, the Russians have approved this cross-border aid without a hitch. But not this time. The Russians wanted to cut back on the approved crossings, especially the one from Iraq. And that's the one that goes to civilians in northeast Syria, where rebels still control a lot of that territory. It's possible the Russians want to close the program entirely so all the humanitarian aid goes through Damascus and not in this cross-border program.

The argument is the war is winding down, the Syrian regime is regaining control across the country. But northern Syria is still in contention. And, you know, technically, it would be possible to deliver aid in the northwest and then drive it all the way to the northeast, except you have to travel through five different areas controlled by five different powers - the Syrian army, the Russians, the Turks, the Kurds and rebel groups.

SIMON: And, Deborah, how bad is the fighting in Idlib right now?

AMOS: So in December, there was a particularly intense bombing campaign. This is when the 300,000 took off. They're all moving towards the Turkish border. So many of them are sleeping rough because the aid agencies have been overwhelmed. Last week, Russia's Vladimir Putin met with the Turkish leader. The - both men agreed on a cease-fire in Idlib, but we're getting videos every day that shows the bombing is still going on.

SIMON: NPR's Deborah Amos in Beirut, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.