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BRICS bloc of emerging-economy nations urges direct aid to Syrians

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff listen to an orator Tuesday during their meeting in Durban, South Africa.

Alexei Druzhinin/AP

It was just a single line in a 47-point communiqué, but it could be a long-awaited sign that Russia and China are finally softening in their loyal support for Syria's beleaguered President, Bashar al-Assad.

The BRICS bloc of emerging-economy nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – ended their annual summit on Wednesday by declaring that humanitarian groups should have "full and unimpeded access" to all needy Syrians, wherever they are.

If adopted by the United Nations Security Council, this would allow UN relief agencies to deliver aid directly to opposition-controlled regions of Syria, for the first time, without having to channel it through Mr. al-Assad's government. It would mean that the UN agencies could cross the border from Turkey into northern regions of Syria to give aid directly to civilians.

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The statement provides a rare glimmer of hope for the besieged Syrian people, potentially signalling that Russia and China are shifting away from their staunch support for Mr. al-Assad. With their Security Council veto power, Russia and China have played a crucial role in protecting him from international action in a war that has killed an estimated 70,000 people over the past two years.

The move also suggests that the BRICS group is using its muscle to push for tough solutions to global crises, expanding the group's political agenda and confirming that it is becoming a bigger player on the global stage.

"In view of the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria, we call upon all parties to allow and facilitate immediate, safe, full and unimpeded access to humanitarian organizations to all in need of assistance," the BRICS nations said in their final communiqué.

"We express our deep concern with the deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in Syria and condemn the increasing violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law as a result of continued violence," the statement added.

A coalition of human-rights groups and civil-society activists, which had been lobbying BRICS to take stronger action on Syria, said it welcomed the statement.

"The test of BRICS resolve will be whether or not Assad grants immediate permission to the UN to cross Syria's borders to meet the escalating needs," the coalition said.

Caroll Bogert, a senior official of Human Rights Watch, said there are mounting signs that Russia might be reconsidering its unwavering support for Mr. al-Assad. A shift in its policy on humanitarian aid, to allow UN aid to opposition-controlled regions, could be the first indication of Russia's changing stand, she said in an interview.

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On the sidelines of the BRICS summit on Tuesday, after a meeting with South African President Jacob Zuma, Russian President Vladimir Putin was asked whether he would support a Security Council resolution to allow cross-border humanitarian aid for Syria. Rather than flatly rejecting it, he replied: "We'll think about it."

Russia, a long-time weapons supplier to Syria, had previously blocked three attempts by the UN Security Council to apply pressure on Mr. al-Assad to end the conflict. It has feuded with Western and Arab states that have urged Mr. al-Assad to give up power.

In the latest gesture of support from Moscow for Mr. al-Assad, the Russian Foreign Ministry on Wednesday criticized the Arab League for giving Syria's vacant seat in the league to the Syrian opposition. "Another anti-Syria step was taken," the ministry said in a statement. "This is about openly encouraging those powers that unfortunately continue to bet on a military solution in Syria."

Mr. al-Assad twice sent appeals to the BRICS leaders to ask for their help in resolving the Syria crisis – a sign of the expanding role of the BRICS bloc in world affairs. In a letter published on Wednesday, he asked the BRICS group to "exert all possible efforts to end the suffering of the Syrian people."

Analysts said his decision to approach BRICS made sense. "Given their rising prominence on the world stage, it's become clear that these nations play a key role in steering the international response to this crisis," Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank on Middle East issues, wrote this week.

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About the Author
Africa Bureau Chief

Geoffrey York is The Globe and Mail's Africa correspondent.He has been a foreign correspondent for the newspaper since 1994, including seven years as the Moscow Bureau Chief and seven years as the Beijing Bureau Chief.He is a veteran war correspondent who has covered war zones since 1992 in places such as Somalia, Sudan, Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan. More

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