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Is Russia about to block a key aid route into northwest Syria?

Hunger and poverty are both on the rise in the rebel-held region.

A woman walks through Idlib’s Kafr Arouk camp after heavy rains hit northern Syria in December 2021. Khalil Ashawi/REUTERS
A woman walks through Idlib’s Kafr Arouk camp after heavy rains hit northern Syria in December 2021.

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The UN Security Council is set to begin debating the renewal of a key mechanism for delivering aid to Syria on Monday. With a deadline looming, Russia holding veto power, and the Ukraine war complicating diplomacy and worsening the plight of Syrian civilians, humanitarians are understandably nervous. 

Since 2014, the UN has only been able to bring assistance from Turkey into rebel-held northwest Syria (which includes Idlib province and its surroundings) without the permission of President Bashar al-Assad because of UN Security Council Resolution 2585.

For years, al-Assad ally Russia has warned that it wants to get rid of the resolution, which would effectively strip UN agencies of access to the one border crossing it can use to enter the northwest. The mechanism – set to expire on July 10 – has already been haggled over, extended, and changed over time.

  • Fast facts on northwest Syria

  • 4.4 million people live in and around Idlib and northern Aleppo provinces
  • 2.8 million (63%) are internally displaced
  • 1.7 million (38%) live in camps
  • 90% of residents are in need of aid
  • An estimated 3.1 million people "do not have enough to eat"
  • A 13% ration cut by WFP is “looming” due to low levels of funding
  • Source: UN 

Although media attention has drifted off to other emergencies and fighting in Syria has slowed, Syria’s humanitarian crisis is in many ways more severe than at any point since the start of the war in 2011. Food prices are up (in part due to the conflict in Ukraine), and money is worth less. Many people sheltering in Idlib have been forced to flee from homes elsewhere in the country and are now living in desperate circumstances.

The UN insists that an end to the cross-border operation, which it says provides “food, vaccines and other vital aid” to 2.4 million people each month, would be catastrophic. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called renewal a “moral and humanitarian imperative”, and the heads of seven UN agencies recently warned of “dire humanitarian consequences” if access is cut off. 

The end of direct access from Turkey, the agencies say, would “immediately disrupt the UN’s lifesaving aid operation, plunging people in northwest Syria into deeper misery and threatening their access to the food, medical care, clean water, shelter, and protection from gender-based violence currently offered by UN-backed operations”.

But what happens in the Security Council is not up to the humanitarians. Internal Russian politics, Moscow’s relationship with al-Assad and Turkey, and the ongoing war in Ukraine will all play a role in the complex negotiations to come.

Warnings of dire consequences

The humanitarian situation in Syria, and the northwest in particular, is dire: Since late 2019, the Syrian economy has been crumbling, for reasons that include a banking crisis in Lebanon, COVID-19, and US sanctions. Millions of Syrians can no longer afford enough food or other necessities.

The UN’s World Food Programme reports that food prices in Syria rose by 800 percent between 2020 and 2022.

Russia’s 24 February invasion of Ukraine has added to the problem, sending wheat prices to record levels even as Western governments divert aid money toward refugees in Europe. 

The cost of a WFP food basket jumped 37 percent between February and April 2022, and in May the agency said it was forced to reduce the size of food rations in northwestern Syria due to insufficient funding.

If the cross-border operation ends, UN agencies like the WFP will need permission from al-Assad’s government to access rebel-held territory. The regime has routinely rejected or delayed requests like these in the past.

Established aid operations on Turkish soil would have to instead leave from Damascus, forcing convoys to travel longer distances across active front lines. Some of these convoys are already happening, but only at low levels: Since August 2021, no more than five aid convoys have reached northwestern Syria from Damascus, totalling 70 truckloads of aid. In contrast, more than 800 aid trucks entered Syria each month from Turkey in 2021. UN officials say similar volumes will be delivered this year.

Coordination and contingencies

A large proportion of aid to Idlib comes from non-UN organisations, like the Turkish Red Crescent and Western-funded NGOs. If the UN is forced to stop its operations in the northwest, they would likely keep working in the region, in defiance of Damascus. But some may not be willing to risk it, and other NGOs say that without the UN they would see a drop in their capacity and the number of people they can reach.

That’s because although the UN is not the only aid actor in northern Syria, it is the largest one, and it plays a central role in supporting the operations of other NGOs. UN agencies plan, fund, and coordinate NGO activities; they arrange bulk procurement and logistics; and they handle high-stakes diplomatic, legal, and political issues that are beyond the scope of individual NGOs.

The UN’s cross-border operation also provides a certain degree of political and legal cover, so an end to its work would mean that operating through Damascus would become politically impossible for some NGOs now based in Turkey, and unsafe for many local Syrian aid workers in the northwest. 

After years of Russian threats to end the UN’s permission to deliver aid across Syria’s borders, aid groups have had time to investigate alternative strategies. Little has been made public about any contingency planning, but it appears to include scaled-up NGO operations, pre-positioning resources inside Syria, and discussing ways to “offshore” UN involvement so that UN officials will be able to offer remote support for an NGO-run cross-border operation without actually entering Syria.

“The reality is that it would simply create more operational impediments to reaching a population that has already endured more than 11 years of crisis.”

But no matter what workarounds may be found, aid officials say that the loss of a direct UN role would be devastating for millions of Syrian civilians. 

“Due to the scale of the UN cross-border operation it will be impossible for it to be replaced by either an NGO-led response or by cross-line operations alone without there being a massive humanitarian impact,” Tanya Evans, the International Rescue Committee’s Syria country director, told The New Humanitarian.

“The reality is that it would simply create more operational impediments to reaching a population that has already endured more than 11 years of crisis,” said Amany Qaddour, the regional director for Syria Relief and Development, warning that the situation in Syria “is already rife with hopelessness and despair”.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media, a UN source said NGOs would be able to scale up their work, but not enough to fill the gap created by a UN withdrawal. As a result, the source said, around one million Syrians would be deprived of food assistance.

Cross-border v cross-line

From a humanitarian standpoint, the issue seems clear cut. But al-Assad and his Russian allies view the UN’s ability to cross into Idlib without requesting permission as an affront to Syria’s sovereignty. They want aid flows to be rerouted through Damascus, where the government can control operations by selectively granting or withholding security permits, and where dollarised procurement would help prop up the flagging economy.

Year after year, Moscow has used its veto powers to wear down the cross-border mechanism, gradually curtailing UN access to a single border crossing from Turkey into the Idlib region.

More recently, Russia has explicitly conditioned its toleration of cross-border access on two things: more Western-funded long-term resilience and early recovery aid to Syria, and more aid being shipped from Damascus (“cross-line”, as it is known in humanitarian jargon).

On early recovery, Russia’s demands have more or less won the day, but progress on cross-line work from Damascus has been slow.

The relatively low levels of convoys from Damascus to Idlib suggest to aid workers and donor governments that this route cannot replace the Turkey-based operation. But Russia sees it differently, suspecting the deliberate slow-rolling of a Security Council decision.

The root of the problem is that cross-line convoys require the approval of both al-Assad’s regime and Idlib’s Turkey-backed rebels, since they would move in territory controlled by both. Each party can block a convoy simply by notifying the UN that they cannot guarantee safe passage. They can use this power of veto as a negotiating tool, guaranteeing constant deadlocks and procrastination.

Ankara and the Idlib rebels view the Damascus convoys as a Russian-inspired scheme to replace the cross-border response and help al-Assad infiltrate their region, which has led them to approve only a minimal amount of cross-line access. For their part, the Syrian and Russian governments want a bigger role in how and where aid is distributed, and are furious that the UN has not dispatched more in-country convoys.

"Russian diplomacy has a paradoxical interest in the survival of the cross-border system that it loves to hate."

Mixed Russian interests

Russia’s dislike of the UN’s ability to enter northwest Syria as it sees fit is genuine, as is its desire to reinforce al-Assad’s position. But hardline public statements, like when Russian UN representative Dmitry Poliyansky warned in May that the slow pace of cross-line work “leaves us no reason to preserve the cross-border mechanism”, may not tell the whole story.

In fact, Russian diplomacy has a paradoxical interest in the survival of the cross-border system that it loves to hate, given that every time it is about to expire, Moscow gets to milk its rivals for favours.

By agreeing to only short-term extensions of the cross-border resolution in the Security Council (lately they have been six months), Russia forces Americans, Europeans, and Turks to regularly plead for Russian cooperation, whereas a veto would be final. Plus, after being ostracised by Western nations over its invasion of Ukraine, Russia now has even stronger incentives to engage its rivals on an issue where it holds the stronger hand.

Then there is the risk of major instability. A veto would trigger an even greater humanitarian emergency, potentially driving hundreds of thousands of desperate Syrians towards the walled and armed (but sometimes permeable with the help of smugglers) Turkish border. It could also rekindle a conflict that Russia wants to portray as over, despite the fact that al-Assad still doesn’t control Idlib or some other pockets of the country. 

It’s unlikely Moscow is in the mood for a new round of full-on fighting in Syria, given that its military is bogged down in Ukraine, and that Turkey has made resupplying Russian forces in Syria harder by blocking naval traffic from the Black Sea and banning Russian overflight to Syria. The possibility that a veto could trigger a furious reaction from Turkey is, in fact, one of the most important reasons Russia may seek a compromise this time around.

Unlike most NATO members, Turkey is still trying to maintain good ties with Russia, refusing to isolate or sanction the Kremlin for its role in Ukraine. It has also recently angered other NATO members by blocking a joint Finnish-Swedish application for membership in the alliance.

From Russia’s point of view, Turkey is far from a trusted long-term diplomatic partner, but it is not nearly as difficult or hostile as it could be, and it excels at generating intra-NATO tension.

The Kremlin presumably wants to keep it that way.

A diplomatic vacuum 

Then again, if there is to be a deal, there will first need to be diplomacy.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Russian-American agreement has been a precondition for successful Security Council action. US-Russia negotiations have often absorbed significant amounts of diplomatic bandwidth: In 2021, President Joe Biden himself was involved in persuading Russia to approve another year of cross-border aid.

But since the Ukraine invasion, high-level American-Russian contacts are almost non-existent.

“That type of diplomacy and negotiation doesn’t seem possible this time around,” Sam Heller, a Century International* fellow who closely tracks Syrian aid politics, told The New Humanitarian.

In other words, even if Moscow is open for business, high emotions and a dearth of diplomatic contact could prevent the sort of detailed talks needed to pass a resolution.

“I don’t know what will happen,” Heller said, “but I am worried.”

*The author of this piece is also a fellow at Century International.

Edited by Annie Slemrod.

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