Syrian Aid Resolution Feels More Like Capitulation Than Cooperation
Russia uses its influence in the United Nations Security Council, even as Washington and Moscow hail coordinated effort
“The Russians held a gun to the heads of millions of desperate Syrians, and the US patted Moscow on the back for not pulling the trigger.”
That’s how a former US National Security Council official with purview over Syria views Friday’s UN Security Council vote on a resolution to preserve a vital aid corridor through the Syria-Turkey border for at least six months.
The unanimous vote on the Bab al-Hawa (“Gate of the Winds”) crossing came after weeks of intense negotiations between the US, which wants to expand the number of aid corridors into Syria, and Russia, which had threatened it would block the continuation of the aid program altogether under the banner of protecting Syrian sovereignty, claiming the Assad regime has the capacity to oversee the delivery of aid throughout the country.
Around 1,000 truckloads of humanitarian aid pass through Bab al-Hawa every month. The crossing was set to close at the end of the week.
Critics of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad accuse him of politicizing and weaponizing humanitarian aid during the Syrian Civil War. The last bastion of rebel forces, under the control of former al-Qaida affiliates Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Turkish-backed rebel groups, is operating in Idlib Province in the northwest, making the Bab al-Hawa crossing particularly significant.
The area impacted by the crossing is home to around four million Syrians, some 75% of which are displaced from other parts of the country, and 70% of whom rely on UN aid for basic needs.
Syrian and Russian forces have pounded Idlib in recent years seeking to reclaim the province for the regime, routinely bombing hospitals, schools, markets and homes, causing a humanitarian crisis during a period in which the rest of Syria is under a relative calm. The COVID-19 pandemic also has worsened the already dire situation in Idlib.
The US and Russia co-sponsored Friday’s resolution, holding it up as a compromise that proved the two antagonists could coordinate on matters of international security.
“I think we’re very pleased with the work that the United States and Russia were able to do diplomatically together to forge this agreement, to help meet the dire humanitarian needs of the Syrian people,” Jeffrey Prescott, deputy to the US ambassador to the UN, told reporters during a Saturday briefing.
“The President [Joe Biden] had a chance to speak to [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin yesterday and they both welcomed the efforts by our teams to reach this agreement and to be able to provide the continuation of this critical assistance in the year to come. That’s obviously been a priority for the United States, and I think it’s a positive sign and positive signal that we were able to work together,” the American diplomat also said.
“Now, obviously, there are a whole host of other issues where we have disagreements with Russia, and the president and Putin were discussing some of those issues in their call yesterday, as the readout makes clear. But this is a positive outcome. It’s a good example of what diplomatic efforts between the United States and Russia can achieve,” said Prescott.
But, as recently as January 2020, there were four aid crossings into Syria – one from Jordan into the south, one from Iraq into the northeast and two from Turkey into the northwest. Russia, together with China, has wielded its veto power at the Security Council to whittle that down to a single crossing and, based on vague language in the latest resolution, it may be able to bring the extension of the Bab al-Hawa corridor up for a vote in six months, rather than a year that the US and others believe they bought with Friday’s vote.
Washington had been pushing for the reopening of the Yaroubiah crossing into the northeast in its own resolution, but Moscow deemed it a non-starter. In March, UN Secretary-General António Guterres warned the General Assembly that the humanitarian situation had worsened following the closure of the Yaroubiah crossing from Iraq.
“The Russians and the Syrians are the big winners of this vote. The Turks come out neutral. The US lost,” said the former National Security Council official, who insisted on anonymity to speak candidly.
It’s a good example of what diplomatic efforts between the United States and Russia can achieve
Turkey is already hosting four million Syrian refugees and needs to ensure that a humanitarian crisis in northwestern Syria does not provoke mass displacement on its southern border, while also keeping pressure on the Kurdish-led government in the northeast, where it has expressed concerns regarding aid.
Ankara has suggested that UN operations have benefited the northeast’s Kurdish-dominated autonomous government, which it sees as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist group that the Turkish military has battled for decades. This is likely why Moscow believed that vetoing the extension of UN cross-border operations at the Yaroubiah crossing in 2020 would not risk its relationship with Ankara.
“The Biden administration made the mistake of announcing there was no alternative to UN aid. It’s effectively ceding control of the debate to the Russians [with their Security Council veto], who now hold us and everyone hostage on this issue every six months,” the former official said.
The Biden administration made the restoration of cross-border aid shipments a foreign policy priority, placing added importance on some type of agreement with the Russians. Back in March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his first appearance before the Security Council to drum up support for extending Bab al-Hawa’s mandate, in addition to the reopening of at least two of the closed crossings into Syria from Turkey and Iraq. US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman traveled to Turkey recently to push for Ankara’s assistance in aid delivery. Meanwhile, at Biden’s behest, he and Putin discussed the UN aid issue during their June summit in Geneva.
But the Russians do not see the issue as strictly a humanitarian one. Their goals include the international community normalizing relations with the Assad government, lessening or eliminating sanctions regimes in place against Assad and pushing global powers to aid in Syria’s reconstruction following its brutal civil war.
In fact, the resolution passed on Friday includes a provision urging the international community to support vital infrastructure projects, including water, sanitation, health and education projects. It appeals to UN member states to take “practical steps to address the urgent needs of the Syrian people in light of the profound socio-economic and humanitarian impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Syria.”
Some observers see these so-called early recovery projects as reconstruction efforts in practice.
“The Biden administration was insistent that it would have nothing to do with reconstruction unless there was movement toward political change in Syria. The Russians got them to back down on that. There were early messages sent out that they [the Americans] were waiting to see how the cross-border aid mechanism played out before deciding on any kind of sanctions relief for Syria. The Russians essentially gave them nothing beyond the very bare minimum. It will be very interesting to see how sanctions play out going forward,” the former NSC official said.
“The sanctions have had the effect of also handcuffing the US in terms of developing an aid mechanism outside the UN forum in order to exclude the Russians, because NGOs and others are afraid of violating the sanctions by getting involved in a non-approved effort. But this is where the US needs to get creative. And instead, we’re simply waving a white flag to Moscow,” said the official.
Under the administration of President Donald Trump, Washington enacted the Caesar Act in an effort to prevent foreign entities or nations from taking part in Assad’s reconstruction plans by placing economic sanctions on them. A number of Gulf nations that had cut ties with Assad during the war have since re-engaged, and a few of them, including US allies such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, have pointed to the Caesar sanctions as the primary reason they cannot contribute funding to reconstruction efforts. There are carve-outs in the sanctions scheme, however, for humanitarian concerns.
Russia successfully lowers the bar to the point where council members pat themselves on the back for a deal that still leaves millions of Syrians in a state of uncertainty
The only public threat issued by Western powers during the cross-border negotiations came from French Ambassador to the UN Nicolas de Rivière, who told The Media Line and other news outlets at a news conference this month that the West would cut off all aid to Syria if the Russians closed Bab al-Hawa.
“As I said repeatedly, 92% of humanitarian relief to Syria is provided by the European Union, US, Canada, Japan. This is Western money, and nobody should expect this money to be reallocated through cross-line [aid that is controlled by the central government and funneled across conflict lines], which does not work. This is a hard choice to make, and we hope to be able to continue to finance humanitarian relief in Syria,” the ambassador said.
The Russians deemed the threat a form of blackmail.
But it is Moscow that will likely hold the cards again in January. The resolution adopted by the council is ambiguous about the duration of the Bab al-Hawa mandate, which will require a review by Guterres in six months to determine whether it should be continued for an additional six months. A debate has already started over whether the extension is automatic upon the filing of the review, or if it will be subject to another vote.
“It’s very clear this crossing has been renewed for another year. The text of the resolution makes clear that the initial six-month authorization will extend for an additional six months once the UN secretary-general issues his report. That means, importantly, there is no need for a vote in January, in the dead of winter, and that was a key diplomatic outcome that we were hoping to achieve and that we have achieved through this resolution. So, we’re very confident that this crossing will continue to be available to the UN for providing this urgent humanitarian assistance for the next year, and we’re happy with that outcome,” said Prescott.
Not so, say the Russian and Chinese missions to the UN, who insist that renewal of the mandate after six months will be conditioned on the contents of Guterres’ review, which will focus on operational transparency and progress on cross-line access.
“This compromise resolution is once again an example of Russia ignoring the humanitarian needs of Syrians, and instead playing political games with the lives and welfare of millions of people,” wrote Sherine Tadros, the UN representative and deputy director of advocacy for Amnesty International, in a statement to The Media Line.
“By blocking a draft resolution authorizing a simple 12-month extension of authorization for Bab al-Hawa, and blocking a previous version which would have reopened the al-Yaroubiah crossing from Iraq urgently needed for northeast Syria, Russia and China have displayed an utterly shameful disregard for the lives of those who are reliant on humanitarian aid to survive,” wrote Tadros.
“A compromise on a compromise on a compromise. Russia successfully lowers the bar to the point where council members pat themselves on the back for a deal that still leaves millions of Syrians in a state of uncertainty,” Tadros tweeted after the vote.