More than four million displaced people in Syria can breathe a sigh of relief for the time being: On July 9, Moscow waived a looming veto against United Nations (UN) aid deliveries from Turkey to Syria. Washington considers these developments a success of the new dialogue between Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin. However, the White House had to make concessions for the Kremlin’s approval, and the actual issue has not been solved but rather delayed.
Since taking office on January 20, Joe Biden has made the continuation of cross-border UN aid deliveries a priority of his Syria policy. Thus, unlike under his predecessor Donald Trump, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is relevant again for the US, so much so that Biden included the topic on the agenda during his Geneva summit with Putin in June.
The UN had been supplying the displaced Syrian population in the war-torn country from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan since 2014 under UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2139. These shipments have included food, COVID-19 vaccinations, medical items, and other necessities. Because of Russia, the UN Security Council was forced to reduce the number of border crossings for these aid deliveries in July 2020 from four to, in the end, only one, at Bab al-Hawa in northwest Syria.
According to the UN, 75 percent of the population in northwest Syria are dependent on aid supplies.
This most recent resolution would have expired on July 10, threatening the Syrian population with an even more significant humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, 75 percent of the population in northwest Syria are dependent on supplies. In 2020, a thousand trucks carrying humanitarian aid crossed the border every month to help around 2.4 million people. The UN has also reported that there is currently less food supplies available in Syria than since the beginning of the civil war.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres accurately stated what would likely have happened to Syrian civilians if the remaining border access point were closed. “A failure to extend the council’s authorization would have devastating consequences,” Guterres said.
Although the UN and international NGOs had been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe for weeks, Russia seemed nonetheless determined to close the last remaining aid crossing into Syria. Moscow, which besides Tehran, is the most important ally of the Bashar al-Assad regime, insisted on the sovereignty of the Syrian state and assured that the UN could ensure the supply of aid from Damascus across the front lines.
However, Russia’s stance at this stage was rather cynical. The Syrian regime has repeatedly and systematically misused the delivery of aid supplies as leverage, favored delivery to loyal sections of the population, and obstructed supplies across front lines.
The Syrian regime has repeatedly and systematically misused the delivery of aid supplies as leverage.
Over four million people live in the northwest of Syria, a humanitarian quagmire, where the Assad regime clashed with an array of rebel and Islamist groups increasingly backed by Turkish military force.
In fact, the vast majority of Syrians have been displaced. Some had to flee from the regime several times during the last ten years of war. Had the Assad regime been given a monopoly on the distribution of UN aid, there is little doubt it would once again have utilized it as a weapon, with the consequences likely leading to a new wave of refugees towards Turkey – and eventually Europe.
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Given this bleak scenario, the COVID-19 crisis, and a further deterioration in the humanitarian situation in Syria, the US and Europe urged not only to extend the mandate for Bab al-Hawa but to reopen two more border crossings for the UN: Bab al-Salam north from Aleppo to Turkey and al-Yarubiya in the east to Iraq.
The tough negotiations dragged on for months before the showdown in the UNSC came to a close. Council members Norway and Ireland tabled a draft resolution that the Bab al-Hawa border crossing would be kept open for an additional 12 months. Moscow introduced an alternative proposal that limited the opening to six months.
Although existential aid supplies were at stake for millions, it was only on the day before the resolution expired that Russia turned to a compromise drawn up by Norway and Ireland. The corresponding UNSC Resolution 2585 was passed unanimously by the Council. It provides for an extension of the aid deliveries via Bab al-Hawa for six to 12 months. However, additional border crossings will not be opened for UN aid convoys.
Washington was quick to sell the result as the success of its foreign policy based on “diplomacy first.” “It is a real achievement that shows what patient and quiet diplomacy is capable of,” said US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations, Jeffrey Prescott. “This humanitarian agreement will literally save lives.”
The current resolution seems to be a minimal consensus in which the Americans and Europeans had to give more than they received.
In reality, the current resolution seems to be a minimal consensus in which the Americans and Europeans had to give more than they received. Russian Ambassador to the UN, Vasily Nebensia, was “grateful” that the decision was calling for an improvement in aid deliveries across the front lines for the first time.
But Moscow will also want a passage within the resolution that would define the concept of humanitarian aid very broadly. This would include not only the immediate needs of the affected population but also health, education, and early recovery projects—which it could capitalize on.
The resolution speaks of validity until January 10, 2022, and an extension of another six months, which is “subject” to a transparency report by the UN Secretary-General on aid deliveries.
According to Prescott, once this report is in, the mandate will be automatically renewed.
Yet Moscow seeks to make the extension dependent on the content of the report. In other words, it is not precisely defined whether another vote in the UNSC will be needed next January in order to extend the mandate until the summer of 2022. The uncertainty for Syrians will thus remain omnipresent.
Still, it appears Biden was able to avert the worst scenario in Syria. After indirectly calling Putin a “killer” in March, the American President succeeded in building a delicate thread of conversation with his Russian counterpart at the Geneva summit. This has now passed its first stress test in Syria, but nothing more. Moreover, one should not overstate the US’ impact on this issue.
For Russia, its political and economic relations with Turkey also remain pivotal. Ankara feared that closing the Bab al-Hawa border crossing could have resulted in refugees from northwest Syria flowing into Turkey. By agreeing to the compromise, Russia thus received all it was looking for.
Ultimately, the bigger picture suggests that in a year at the latest, deliveries of humanitarian aid in Syria will again become the plaything of the great powers – to the detriment of the Syrian people.