Biden to Prod Putin on Syria Relief

Russia’s blockage of aid deliveries threatens to make Syria’s humanitarian disaster the worst it’s been since the war began.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin speak.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at a presidential campaign stop in Darby, Pennsylvania, on June 17, 2020, and Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Russian Olympic athletes at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside of Moscow on Jan. 31, 2018. Jim Watson and Grigory Dukor/AFP via Getty Images

U.S. President Joe Biden plans to personally press Russian President Vladimir Putin to expand the distribution of aid into Syria during their summit next week, elevating the U.S. role in preventing another humanitarian calamity in the heart of the Middle East and testing the president’s ability to extract concessions from one of the United States’ most prominent adversaries, according to three sources briefed on the plan.

The presidential appeal follows a March briefing to the U.N. Security Council by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Syria’s humanitarian crisis as well as a recent visit by Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to Turkey to build support for the plan to expand aid deliveries across the Turkish and Iraqi borders with Syria. It represents a concerted, though limited, effort by the administration to reengage in a country that had fallen off the radar in the Obama and Trump administrations.

Russia has forced the United Nations to scale back a massive program designed to deliver lifesaving assistance through a handful of border crossing points in Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq to millions of Syrian civilians living in rebel-controlled swaths of northwestern and northeastern Syria. Moscow has hinted it may shutter the program altogether or at least shorten its mandate from one year to six months by July 10, when it comes up for renewal, despite warnings from the U.N. it could trigger a “humanitarian catastrophe.”

Syria’s decadelong civil war has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians, displaced more than 2.7 million Syrians inside the country, and forced more than 6.5 million more people to flee the country for refuge abroad. Today, more than 3.4 million people in northwest Syria rely on humanitarian assistance, and an additional 1.8 million people in northeastern Syria are in need of assistance. Conditions in the northeast have deteriorated since last year, when Russia forced the council to shutter a U.N. aid operation at the Al-Yarubiyah crossing point on the Iraqi border, which was responsible for transporting lifesaving medical supplies required for confronting the COVID-19 epidemic.

“People are worse off today than nine months ago, when the issue was last reviewed by the Security Council,” according to a confidential April 11 assessment of the aid situation by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “The situation in the northeast has also worsened following the removal of Al-Yarubiyah as an authorized United Nations crossing last year.”

Conditions are even more dire in the northwest, where “millions of people are pressed up against the border in an active war zone in northwest Syria and remain in need of humanitarian assistance for their survival,” according to the U.N. assessment, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy. U.N.-based diplomats expect Russia to press for shutting the final Turkish crossing point at Bab al-Hawa, where the U.N. dispatches some 1,000 trucks per month to serve more than 2.4 million people in rebel-controlled territory in Idlib, Syria.

Russia has argued the Syrian government should oversee the delivery of aid in its own country, shipping goods from Damascus across the country’s battle lines. But Syria has largely prevented the U.N. from establishing such “cross-line” aid shipments. In the past, Syria routinely blocked vital aid and medical supplies from crossing battle lines into rebel-held territory, part of a military strategy aimed at starving out the population in resistance-held territory and forcing civilians to flee abroad or seek refuge in government-controlled areas.

“Cross-line convoys, even if deployed regularly, could not replicate the size and scope of this operation,” according to the U.N. assessment.

“Without the cross-border authorization, civil suffering in the northwest would increase to levels not seen in 10 years of conflict for 3.4 million people in need,” the paper added. “Hunger will increase, medical cases will go untreated, and access to water will decrease. … The additional deprivations caused by ending U.N. cross-border operations will result in preventable deaths.”

The Security Council in 2014 authorized the United Nations to oversee the distribution of aid to rebel-controlled areas in Syria through four border crossing points: Al-Ramtha in Jordan; Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa in Turkey; and Al-Yarubiyah on the Iraqi border. Russia, backed by China, blocked the council’s reauthorization of three of those crossing points, leaving Bab al-Hawa as the only crossing point for aid entering territory beyond the Syrian government’s control.

The Biden administration has made the Syrian humanitarian crisis a priority since its first weeks in office. In March, Blinken pleaded with U.N. Security Council members to “reauthorize the crossings, stop enabling the obstruction of aid, and allow humanitarians and humanitarian aid unhindered access, so they can reach Syrians in need wherever they are as quickly as possible.”

“The cruelty of closing the final humanitarian border crossing into Syria would be incalculable,” Thomas-Greenfield told reporters in Ankara, Turkey, after announcing $240 million in more U.S. funding for humanitarian aid efforts. “What I was told by the international NGO community and by the refugees themselves is that without this border crossing, they will die.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Sens. Bob Menendez, chair of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Jim Risch, the committees ranking member, and Reps. Gregory Meeks, chair of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Michael McCaul, the ranking member, sought to reinforce the message in a June 7 letter to Blinken.

“Without cross-border access, UN agencies must rely on dangerous and unreliable cross-line deliveries that the Syrian regime can obstruct at any time,” the lawmakers wrote. “Restoring the full scope of cross-border aid operations is key to mitigating further deterioration of this humanitarian catastrophe, and helps push back against the Kremlin’s efforts to undermine the UNSC’s ability to uphold international peace and security.”

“Russia’s campaign to eliminate cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries is part of a larger effort to maintain eastern Mediterranean access, encourage the international community to rehabilitate the Assad regime, and open the door to reconstruction funding that will entrench the Assad regime in power and secure Russia’s strategic foothold,” the lawmakers added.

For many U.N. observers, the Biden administration’s engagement on Syria tests Washington’s influence on the international stage and its ability to bend the international system to its will. It also demonstrates a level of policy coordination that was largely absent during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

“The quality and heft of U.S. engagement is unrecognizable compared to how it was under Trump,” said Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the International Crisis Group. “For me, this is the first time that all of the initial rhetoric about the U.S. being back in multilateral diplomacy feels real.”

The diplomatic gambit also provides an opportunity to determine whether the United States can find areas to work constructively with Russia. “The U.S. is framing this as a litmus test of the relationship with Moscow, not only over Syria but more generally,” Gowan added. “This is a test to see if the Russians are willing to compromise on anything at all.”

But others question whether the U.S. focus on humanitarian aid and containing the Islamic State may mask the lack of a comprehensive policy to address a range of even more thorny challenges, from the spread of Russian and Iranian influence and power in the country and the commission of mass war crimes to the preservation of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

“The rest of Syria’s problems are not going to go away,” said James Jeffrey, a former career foreign service officer who served as Trump’s point person on Syria. Putin won’t open the lifelines for free, Jeffrey warned.

“The Russians will be pushing for concessions,” he said.

Jeffrey recalled Russian negotiators attending previous bilateral talks with the United States over Syria with a long list of its own requests, including freezing sanctions against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and halting efforts to block other countries and international development agencies from investing in Syria’s reconstruction.

“They wanted us to lift sanctions on Assad and allow reconstruction, and we kept saying ‘no,’” he said.

U.S. officials challenged the assumption the administration is pursuing narrow policy goals in Syria, citing its support for U.N.-brokered political talks, its efforts to hold the Syrian government accountable for its use of chemical weapons, and its abuse of human rights.

“Ultimately, we believe that stability in Syria and the greater region can only be achieved through a political process that represents the will of all Syrians, and we are committed to working with allies, partners, and the U.N. to ensure that a durable political solution remains within reach,” said a U.S. State Department spokesperson, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But officials said the immediate goals include a set of “realistic” priorities, including fighting the Islamic State, preserving a cease-fire, and easing the humanitarian plight of the Syrian people.

“Any foundation for a lasting solution to the conflict has to start with a reduction of violence and alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people,” a senior U.S. official told Foreign Policy. “That is exactly what we are focused on.”

Update, June 10, 2021: This story has been updated to include a response from U.S. officials to a claim their Syria policy goals are too narrow.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch