UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.N. Security Council united for the first time on a resolution on Syria's humanitarian crisis Saturday, demanding that President Bashar Assad's government and the opposition provide immediate access everywhere in the country to deliver aid to millions of people in desperate need.
The fate of the Western and Arab-backed resolution rested with Russia, Syria's closest ally, and China, another supporter.
They decided to join the rest of the 15-member council in sending a strong message especially to the Assad government that food, medicine and other essentials must not be blocked to civilians caught in the three-year conflict.
"Today the council has finally shown that whatever its political differences over Syria, it was not entirely indifferent to the devastating humanitarian crisis," Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said after the vote.
The resolution does not threaten sanctions — Russia insisted that this reference be dropped from the original Western and Arab-backed text — but it does express the council's intention to take "further steps" if the resolution isn't implemented.
All Security Council resolutions are legally binding, but what remains to be seen is whether this resolution has an impact on the ground, especially since it doesn't have real "teeth."
U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos expressed hope in a statement that it "will facilitate the delivery of aid to people in desperate need in Syria."
The resolution demands that all parties, especially the Syrian government, "promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered access ... across conflict lines and across borders" for humanitarian aid, and it calls on both sides "to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas." It also demands that all parties "cease depriving civilians of food and medicine indispensable to their survival," and it demands a halt to all attacks against civilians, including indiscriminate shelling and aerial attacks using barrel bombs in populated areas.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told the council immediately after the vote that the resolution "should not have been necessary" because "humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated — it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law."
"Half the country's people need urgent assistance," he said. "Host countries need support in caring for more than 2.5 million refugees."
The U.N. chief said it is "profoundly shocking ... that both sides are besieging civilians as a tactic of war."
"Some 200,000 people are under siege in government-controlled areas — and 45,000 in opposition-controlled areas," he said.
Russia and China had vetoed three previous resolutions backed by Western nations that would have pressured Assad to end the conflict, which according to activists has killed more than 136,000 people.
Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said after the vote that Moscow supported the humanitarian resolution because "many Russian considerations were borne in mind, and as a result the document took on a balanced nature."
He accused the resolution's sponsors — Australia, Luxembourg and Jordan — and its supporters of raising the humanitarian crisis in the council "only after it became clear that attempts to use a deterioration of this humanitarian situation order to carry out a regime change was unsuccessful."
Churkin also insisted that efforts to get humanitarian access in Syria "although not as quickly as we would have liked is getting positive, concrete results."
Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari Syria told the council that since the beginning of the crisis "the Syrian government was keen to improve the humanitarian situation of the people" and "it has continued to work day and night in order to perform all the humanitarian needs of its citizens."
The Security Council did come together in October to approve a weaker presidential statement on the worsening humanitarian crisis in Syria.
But U.N. humanitarian chief Valerie Amos said last week that the presidential statement has not delivered the results that are critically needed, calling progress on the humanitarian front in the last four months "limited, uneven and painfully slow." She backed a council resolution if it had "levers" that lead to change on the ground.
In her statement Saturday, Amos said, "It is also vital that ordinary people, who have been bearing the brunt of the violence, are protected."
"More than anything the conflict needs to end so that people can begin to rebuild their lives. Syria is in danger of losing a generation of its children. Children are the future. We must protect them," she said.