July 19, 2023
IntelBrief: Failure to Renew Cross-Border Aid Mechanism in Syria Leaves Millions Vulnerable
The UN Security Council (UNSC) failed to reauthorize the cross-border mechanism for the delivery of humanitarian aid to northwestern Syria last week after two competing resolutions were vetoed by permanent members of the Council. The first draft, submitted by Brazil and Switzerland and ultimately vetoed by Russia, would have extended the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing for another nine months. Russia’s competing draft resolution, which was ultimately vetoed by France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, would have provided for a six-month extension to the border crossing. Both sides traded accusations: the US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, described Russia’s use of the veto as an “act of utter cruelty,” while the Russian delegate to the Council countered that the proposed resolution by Brazil and Switzerland violated Syria’s sovereignty and that “blessing” the border crossing would only benefit terrorists. Aid to the opposition-held northwestern territory has been a perennial point of contention during the conflict in Syria, which has dragged on for more than a decade.
The Bab al-Hawa cross-border mechanism, initially established in 2014 by UNSC resolution 2165, was one of four border crossings approved by the Council that allowed aid to flow into Syria. The annual renewal process of the border crossing mandates, coupled with frictions between the permanent members of the Council, has led to the closure of all but the Bab al-Hawa crossing – until now. Negotiations over the authorization of the cross-border mechanism have been contentious for years, as political tensions related to Syria and debates over sovereignty have stymied efforts to keep multiple crossings open and threatened the impartial delivery of aid. China and Russia have repeatedly expressed their belief that the cross-border aid deliveries undermine Syria’s sovereignty and that aid should be delivered from government-held areas into areas outside of government control in the northwest or northeast of the country, or “cross-line” deliveries. Yet, cross-line deliveries contain smaller, often insufficient quantities of aid, are exposed to attacks along a dangerous delivery route, such as one shipment blocked by the militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and can be subject to discriminatory distribution practices. Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, have documented the Syrian government’s long history of obstructing cross-line aid to opposition-held territory. Relying on cross-line deliveries alone has been noted as insufficient to meet the soaring humanitarian need, particularly in areas outside government control, by both member states and UN agencies.
The cross-border aid mechanism, which according to the UN delivers 85 percent of aid to the northwest, is considered essentially defunct, placing at risk aid deliveries to millions of vulnerable Syrians in the northwestern area of the country. The northwestern territory has been particularly decimated by the over decade-long conflict in Syria, a reality compounded by the devastating earthquakes in early February that killed thousands. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 64 percent – 2.9 million – of the 4.5 million living in northwestern Syria are currently displaced, with most experiencing this displacement multiple times since 2011; 75 percent - 3.3 million people – are food insecure; and 42 percent – 1.9 million people – are living in overcrowded internally displaced persons (IDP) camps. An ongoing cholera outbreak and an intense heatwave striking the region further compounds the already acute humanitarian situation in the territory. The failure to extend the UN mandate for the border crossing severely risks deepening the humanitarian crisis, as the four million people – 90 percent of the population – who rely upon humanitarian aid to survive may see a dramatic reduction in aid supply. Without the ability to rely on cross-border programs and shipments from Türkiye, the opposition-held northwest is subject to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who in the past has generally opposed international efforts to aid the northwest territory.
Days after the vote at the UN Security Council, the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bassam Sabbagh, announced that the government had decided to grant permission to the UN to use the Bab al-Hawa crossing to provide humanitarian aid to northwestern Syria for six months, on the condition that aid delivery would be done “in full cooperation and coordination with the government.” The government also conditioned that the UN could not communicate with “terrorist organizations” and their affiliates, and that aid distribution be coordinated by the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. Both entities’ Syrian operations are headquartered in Damascus and their capacity to operate is strictly controlled by the Syrian government. In a letter to the Security Council, OCHA called the two of the conditions “unacceptable” for ensuring “principled humanitarian operations,” as a prohibition on communicating with groups the Assad government considers “terrorists” would prevent the UN and other organizations from distributing aid and engaging with necessary parties to carry out “safe and unimpeded humanitarian operations.” Moreover, requiring that aid deliveries be overseen by the Red Cross or Red Crescent was viewed by OCHA as neither independent nor practical, as the organizations do not have a presence in the northwest of Syria.
Funneling aid through Damascus, the ultimate goal of both the Syrian government and its ally Russia, risks the further instrumentalization of humanitarian aid. Despite recent efforts to normalize the Assad regime, its well-documented past efforts to weaponize aid to starve and suppress its opponents, as well its other reported war crimes and crimes against humanity, demonstrates the severity of the Bab al-Hawa closure and the unconscionable potential consequences on civilians in the northwest. Further, according to Middle East Institute Senior Fellow Charles Lister, potential efforts in the Council draft a resolution on a monitoring and evaluation mechanism to deter the Syrian government from impeding aid delivery will likely be opposed by Russia. Whether alternative aid delivery plans by donor countries and the international community come to fruition remains to be seen, but failure to do so comes at the potential expense of millions of vulnerable Syrians and the tenets of impartial humanitarian action.