By Arab News
By Chris Doyle
Millions of lives at stake. Families in dire need of international aid. Russia plays games with them all at the UN Security Council. Repeat every six months until further notice. Welcome to the Syria debate at the UN.
This has been the case ever since 2014. The UNSC authorizes the UN to use one Turkish-Syria border crossing to deliver aid — just one, at Bab Al-Hawa — while rejecting attempts to open others, as was the case previously. The Ya’roubia border crossing from Iraq into northeast Syria has been closed since January 2020. As a result of the earthquakes that hit southern Turkiye and northwest Syria in February, the Syrian government did make the rare move to allow an extra two border crossings with Turkiye to be used. This approval runs out on Aug. 13.
All this is an exercise in cruelty for the 4.1 million Syrians who are dependent on aid, most of whom are women and children. The Bab Al-Hawa border crossing is the lifeblood for 80 percent of those living in Idlib, one of the main opposition-controlled areas. At every vote, nobody can be certain that Russia will not use its veto. Russian diplomats have expressed their objections largely on the basis that this was the sovereign decision of the Syrian authorities and that all aid should go through them. Moscow would not even concede that such decisions should be effective for 12 months.
All this happened once again last week, except Russia this time vetoed a proposal for a nine-month extension. Most observers saw this as yet another attempt to reinforce the struggling regime of Bashar Assad.
Following the Russian veto, the Syrian regime made its own announcement. The Syrian permanent representative to the UN sent a letter stating: “The government of the Syrian Arab Republic has taken the sovereign decision to grant the United Nations and its specialized agencies permission to use Bab Al-Hawa crossing.”
The word “sovereign” is working overtime here, as is “permission.” This is the Syrian authorities attempting to reacquire a role in the decision-making process regarding the country’s borders — and to take the UNSC out of the equation.
The Syrian regime, with Russian support and tacit Chinese backing, is pushing to shift the aid delivery from cross-border to a so-called cross-line mechanism. This would mean that all aid and humanitarian assistance would come to northeast and northwest Syria via Damascus, which would give it greater influence and control over these areas. As yet, the regime is not in a position to do so, but this is clearly the ambition, as part of its process to regain control of these areas through any and all means possible.
Who would be shocked to learn that the Syrian regime’s letter had a bevy of stings in its tail? The UN wasted little time in stating that the conditions were “unacceptable.” The first condition was that the UN should not be communicating with terrorist groups or entities. That sounds reasonable, not least as there are extremist groups in northwest Syria, but by the regime’s definition all groups opposing it are terrorist. The UN rightly does not want to get into a spat on this subject.
The second unworkable condition was that the regime wanted all aid in northwest Syria to be distributed by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Neither of these bodies are operational in the northwest. Few consider the Syrian group to be independent of the regime, which is one of the issues that plagues the aid that arrives via the Syrian capital. Moreover, it is just not feasible for the UN and other nongovernmental organizations not to have dealings with the de facto authorities.
Certain international actors have started to consider an alternative approach. This is not before time, given that the possibility of a Russian veto grows more likely every six months. They have drawn up a new aid mechanism called the Interim North Syria Aid Fund. The UK was at the forefront of pushing for this. Whether this will go forward amid the impasse at the UN is not clear. Some international actors are reluctant to anger Russia. Others are concerned that, having sought UNSC permission for cross-border aid, a legal precedent has been set that the council has to make the decision.
The UN’s role could be restricted to purchasing goods and storing them in warehouses in Turkiye. This would end any UN involvement at Bab Al-Hawa. It would be for Syrian and international NGOs to transport these supplies into the northwest.
The other challenge is that Turkiye would have to consent. Would Ankara view this as an opportunity to exploit and seek guarantees on the Kurdish and refugee issues? That said, any intensification of the suffering in Idlib might trigger the refugee exodus it most fears.
One of the challenges is that the UN agencies may be the only ones capable of running the complex procurement delivery systems, while ensuring it reaches the intended recipients. Most of the donor states have sanctioned and outlawed Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, the extremist organization that has dominated the area since 2019.
All of this comes at a time when donor aid is falling. Needs have skyrocketed and funding has plummeted. Worse may be to come. The World Food Programme announced last month it would have to cut its assistance from providing for 5.5 million people to just 3 million.
All of these political shenanigans do nothing for the Syrians suffering in the north. It is just a stunning failure that, with millions in need, the world powers bicker and squabble. It is time to put politics aside and start delivering not just aid but also the vital medium to long-term development needs of Syrians.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first-class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries. Twitter: @Doylech