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Northwest Syria aid likely to survive Russian threats, for now

‘We have seen this movie before.’

A picture of UN cars parked outside homes. They are white with the UN acronyms on the side in blue. At the bottom right we see two children seemingly playing. Izettin Kasim/Anadolu Agency
UN vehicles arrive at a camp in Idlib on 4 July 2023, days before the expiration of a Security Council resolution on cross-border assistance to northwest Syria.

For years, the UN Security Council has been the scene of recurring battles over humanitarian aid to rebel-held regions of Syria – and it’s time for another round.

In 2014, in response to systematic sabotage by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the Security Council gave the UN’s aid agencies a special mandate to help people in rebel-controlled border areas by working through neighbouring states. 

  • Fast facts on northwest Syria

  • 4.5m total population
  • 4.1m people in need
  • 3.3m food insecure
  • 2.9m internally displaced
  • Source: UN OCHA, 2023

Although the system made it possible to bypass Damascus, it must be regularly reapproved by the Security Council. That has allowed al-Assad’s ally, Russia, to use its veto powers to press for concessions


On 10 July, the latest iteration of the mandate expires. Unless a new resolution has been adopted by that date, the Bab al-Hawa border gate from Türkiye to northern Syria will be closed to UN agencies, with potentially devastating consequences for the more than four million people who live in the region.


“It’s déjà vu all over again in the Security Council,” Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, told The New Humanitarian. “Much as last year, negotiations are boiling down to an argument over whether to extend the Bab al-Hawa crossing for six or twelve months.”


‘A lifeline to the people of northwest Syria’

After more than a decade of war, northwestern Syria, which is controlled by Tahrir al-Sham, a Turkish-backed Islamist faction, is one of the country’s most destitute regions.


The UN estimates that of some 4.5 million people who live in the region, nearly half live in temporary camps and nine out of ten depend on outside assistance. Even before the disastrous February earthquakes, UN officials said needs in Syria were higher than they had ever been since fighting began in 2011. 


“In the absence of a political solution, the UN cross-border operation continues to be a lifeline to the people of northwest Syria,” said David Carden, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis who runs the cross-border operation from the Turkish city of Gaziantep.


“We are reaching 2.7 million Syrians per month with assistance,” Carden told The New Humanitarian, noting that seven different UN agencies had brought in more than 3,300 trucks carrying aid since the start of 2023.


“At present, there is no feasible substitute for this cross-border operation in size and scope.”


Syrian aid workers agree. Even though a loss of the UN mandate would not prevent private NGOs from crossing the border with Turkish approval, humanitarian operations outside of the UN-coordinated response remain heavily dependent on UN support.

“The UN cross-border resolution renewal is very vital and critical for the continuation and sustaining of our efforts as humanitarian health organisations,” says Dr Mazen Kewara, the Middle East regional director of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which operates a network of healthcare facilities in northwestern Syria.


Local aid groups “need full cooperation with the UN agencies, which provide us with the technical support, very vital vaccines, medical supplies, and medications in northwest Syria,” Kewara told The New Humanitarian.


Following the earthquakes, al-Assad unilaterally opened two more northern crossings for UN use, on top of Bab al-Hawa. The temporary permit for these currently extends until 13 August.


Neither crossing is nearly as significant as Bab al-Hawa, but the move was widely hailed as a positive development, even by al-Assad’s critics.


Some saw it as a pitch for Arab support, linked to Syria’s ongoing normalisation with regional states; it was recently readmitted to the Arab League following a suspension 12 years ago. Others viewed it as an attempt to show that Damascus can be trusted to manage aid responsibly, or to make a shutdown of Bab al-Hawa look more palatable.


On 22 June, a group of more than 30 Syrian and international NGOs said such “context-specific, bilateral, and short-term agreements” cannot, by themselves, offer the required “stable access for planning and long-term funding and operational decisions”. 


They urged the Security Council to reauthorise UN use of Bab al-Hawa for another 12 months, which, aid groups say, is the minimum timeframe needed to plan and operate effectively.


“The reality is even prior to the earthquake there were deep vulnerabilities across the population in Syria, and now leading up to the resolution there must be a more comprehensive mechanism to address those needs. They don’t exist in a vacuum,” said Amany Qaddour, regional director of Syria Relief and Development, a humanitarian NGO that works on the ground in Syria. 


“Sustained access through the cross-border mechanism is imperative,” she added.


The issues: Mandate length, early recovery, cross-line aid, sanctions

Seeing Security Council members haggle over life-sustaining aid to their communities is a dispiriting experience for many Syrians.

“The people of Syria are watching this, and feel they are once again forgotten, as nations pursue their own interests,” said the president of SAMS, Dr Mufaddal Hamadeh.

  • The UN’s Syria cross-border aid mandate

  • Created by the Security Council in 2014
  • Must be regularly renewed, at which point Russia can veto
  • Currently enshrined in Resolution 2672 (2023)
  • Allows the UN free use of the the Bab al-Hawa crossing
  • Endorses stepped-up early recovery and cross-line aid
  • Expires on 10 July 2023, unless renewed

At the Security Council, differences are stark.


The United States and its allies back the humanitarian community’s call for a year-long extension and want to make the two new border gates part of the UN mandate, rather than left to al-Assad’s goodwill.


Russia is unlikely to let the UN wrest control over two additional crossings from Damascus, and it prefers a six-month mandate over a full year. But Moscow also seems unlikely to follow through on its threats to shutter the cross-border operation altogether, analysts say. More probably, it will press for specific concessions.


“The negotiation will likely come down to the ability to meet Russian demands, including expanded ERL and cross-line, but possibly sanctions,” said Emma Beals, a non-resident fellow with the Middle East Institute.


ERL, or early recovery and livelihoods, is a type of aid that could include, for example, the repair (but often not the actual rebuilding) of schools or wells or vocational training. But it is still considered a type of emergency assistance. It is an important distinction, given that the Western governments that last year financed the vast majority of UN-coordinated aid to Syria have long argued that anything resembling long-term reconstruction should be contingent on democratic reform, which al-Assad rejects.


In 2021, Russia forced the addition of language encouraging early recovery aid to the cross-border mandate. It’s still there in the most recent resolution, which urges more investments in “water, sanitation, health, education, electricity where essential to restore access to basic services, and shelter early recovery projects”.


Pointing to this language, Russia – which funds very little UN aid to Syria – regularly complains that Western nations aren’t giving enough such aid to government-held areas.


Russia has also made sure the mandate includes a commitment to more “cross-line” assistance, referring to deliveries through a front line, as opposed to an international border. 


That’s precisely the type of aid that al-Assad’s government used to block from reaching rebel-held areas. But now, in a 180-degree turn, Moscow and Damascus demand more cross-line assistance, as a way to pull UN operations back to Damascus, which, some say, would allow the government to control the flow while also benefiting from local procurement, employment, and embezzlement opportunities.


Unsurprisingly, the Tahrir al-Sham rebels who rule the northwest take the opposite view – if the aid stays in their area, they’re the ones to benefit, and they can’t be blackmailed by al-Assad’s government. Many local aid workers and donor states also oppose the idea of transitioning from cross-border to cross-line delivery. While welcoming additional cross-line aid as a complement to the aid that comes across from Türkiye, they argue that convoys across an unstable front line cannot sustainably replace operations at Bab al-Hawa, and view Russia’s demands as a trick to undermine cross-border aid.


As a result, convoys from Damascus to the northwest have remained rare, with the first since the earthquakes arriving late last month. Russia regularly complains about the UN’s failure to deliver more cross-line aid, which, it says, is a condition for the cross-border mandate’s continued existence.


Last but not least, Russia has tried to introduce language on Western sanctions on Syria, which it wants watered down or removed. While it has had limited success so far, Moscow likely wants – at a minimum – the US, EU, and UK post-earthquake sanctions exemptions that were put in place to ease relief efforts to be made permanent. 


Regional and UN politics to the rescue

Several activists, officials, and analysts interviewed for this article said they are hopeful that a deal can be found before or around 10 July. The reason, they say, is that the timing and recent developments favour an approval.


“Russia has already caused a stir in the Council by tacitly backing Mali’s decision to force peacekeepers out of the country,” said ICG’s Gowan.


“People underestimate the profound impact even a few days of non-renewal would represent to people on the ground.” 


“It is also doing a lot to obstruct the Black Sea Grain Initiative, and could kill that off before long. I think even the Russians would have qualms about torpedoing the Syria aid regime, which is broadly popular in the Council, given all these other frictions.”


Moscow’s past success in reshaping the UN mandate will likely make it reluctant to totally pull the plug on cross-border aid.


“I’m cautiously optimistic, because the cross-border resolution in its current form includes these elements that are of value to Damascus and Moscow, such as the Security Council’s collective endorsement of early recovery assistance, which now explicitly includes electricity projects,” said Sam Heller, a fellow with Century International.* 


Heller also noted Syria’s May re-entry into the Arab League.


As part of that process, Damascus is reportedly negotiating a plan to readmit refugees in return for Arab anti-sanctions lobbying and the financing of UN early recovery efforts. If Russia were to kill off the cross-border mandate, it would also lose the UN’s endorsement of early recovery aid – potentially undercutting al-Assad’s Arab gambit.


Moreover, doing so might anger nations that matter to both Moscow and Damascus.


In June, the oil-rich nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council said they want to see a 12-month renewal that covers all three crossings.


Later that month, the Turkish UN ambassador, Sedat Önal, said a 12-month renewal with additional crossings is “critically important”.


In short, the stars now seem to align in favour of another extension.


To Gowan, the Security Council dispute is now unlikely to be about the mandate itself, instead focusing on its content – especially the length of the extension.


“It still is not clear whether we will get to a compromise the hard way, with Russia using its veto to halt a 12-month rollover, or whether there will be a backroom deal to avoid a showdown,” he said.


“I think we’ll get to a deal in the end. We have seen this movie before. It doesn't get better on another viewing, but at least we have a good idea how it will end.”


Even so, Syrian aid workers are deeply concerned about the Security Council vote.


“People underestimate the profound impact even a few days of non-renewal would represent to people on the ground,” warned Hamadeh of SAMS.


“The most critical programme that would immediately be left in limbo are the [World Food Programme] WFP food baskets. But given the dire circumstances of so many displaced people in northwest Syria, a short break in the bare minimum of nutrition would have immediate knock-on effects,” he said.


“For instance, for our medical organisation, we already see malnutrition or malnutrition-related ailments in our centres, and a disruption would make this worse. This is to say nothing of the lag in all humanitarian operations that would follow such a disruption. We absolutely can’t afford such a break.”


 *The author is also a fellow at Century International.

This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).


Edited by Annie Slemrod.

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