The UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution Saturday calling for humanitarian aid convoys to be allowed access across war-torn Syria, but diplomats immediately voiced doubt about its effectiveness.
Syria's staunch ally Russia, with support from China, had blocked three previous resolutions aimed at pressuring the Damascus regime since the crisis began in March 2011, with an estimated half of all Syrians urgently awaiting immediate help.
But Moscow and Beijing, two of the five permanent Security Council members, did not do so this time, sending a strong message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose administration is accused of serious rights violations in attempting to cling on to power from rebels.
It will not, however, trigger automatic sanctions against Syria if it fails to comply.
The resolution, which also criticizes the dropping of barrel bombs by government aircraft, was drafted by Australia, Jordan and Luxembourg and had the backing of Britain, France and the United States, the other permanent Security Council members.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the move, but said the resolution "should not have been necessary."
"Humanitarian assistance is not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law," he said.
"Profoundly shocking to me is 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 added.
The text of the resolution, which was the subject of fierce negotiations between Moscow and the West and condemns terror attacks in Syria, calls for "all parties to immediately lift the sieges of populated areas... and other locations."
It "demands that all parties, in particular the Syrian authorities, promptly allow rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access for UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners, including across conflict lines and across borders, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need through the most direct routes."
Ban added: "If this resolution is implemented quickly and in good faith, at least some of the suffering can be eased."
The humanitarian situation in Syria, where more than 140,000 people have been killed in the nearly three-year war and millions more forced to flee their homes, "continues to deteriorate," he said.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said the resolution was "overdue" and that, if fully implemented, would save lives.
"After three years of slaughter and savagery, people rightfully will question whether progress is possible, but this resolution holds the promise of something real," he said.
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- Doubts persist -
However, some diplomats doubt the effectiveness of the resolution in the absence of automatic sanctions should Damascus refuse to let aid convoys have access to all areas, including those hardest-hit.
"Half the country's people need urgent assistance. Host countries need support in caring for more than 2.5 million refugees," said Ban.
"Civilians continue to bear the brunt of the conflict. They are the daily victims of brutal violence and indiscriminate attacks, including the use of heavy weapons, aerial bombings, mortars and car bombs in population areas."
He added: "There are continued reports of massacres and atrocities throughout the country. Women and girls have been subjected to sexual and gender-based violence."
"Syrian government and allied militias have been responsible for countless killings, disappearances, the horrendous use of barrel bombs and torture on a massive scale."
Western members of the Security Council have been mulling a humanitarian resolution for a year. After months of difficult talks, the council adopted a non-binding statement on October 2 urging more access to aid, but that statement produced little except administrative progress.
Moscow's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said Russian haggling had resulted in a resolution "of a balanced nature," while stressing that "there is no automaticity in taking sanctions."
His US counterpart Samantha Power called it "a long overdue and necessary step."
"This resolution is important because it contains clear demands for specific and concrete actions and there is a commitment to act in the event of non compliance... it remains to be seen whether our action today will have the beneficial results we intend," she said.
The move was also cautiously welcomed in London and Paris.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said in a statement: "Our priority now is the full and immediate implementation of the resolution."
In Paris, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius also said the world would be watching the Damascus regime closely.
"The Security Council requests must be followed up. The resolution provides for a monitoring mechanism to ensure this, and the adoption of additional measures if no significant improvement is observed measures," he said.