Report

Russia Thwarts U.S. Bid to Expand Syrian Aid Corridors

But the rival powers strike a compromise that prevents catastrophic shut-off of lifesaving aid to Syrians.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the press at the U.N. headquarters in New York on March 1.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, speaks to the press at the U.N. headquarters in New York on March 1. Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images

The U.N. Security Council agreed Friday to preserve a vital aid corridor on the Syria-Turkey border for an additional six months, with the possibility of extending it for an additional six months, averting the immediate collapse of a relief operation that serves millions of Syrians residing in rebel-held territory in the northwest.

The council vote on the Bab al-Hawa crossing followed weeks of intense negotiations between the United States, which had sought to expand the number of aid corridors into Syria, and Russia, which had threatened it would block the continuation of the aid program altogether, contending that it was an unnecessary violation of Syrian sovereignty.

The U.N. Security Council agreed Friday to preserve a vital aid corridor on the Syria-Turkey border for an additional six months, with the possibility of extending it for an additional six months, averting the immediate collapse of a relief operation that serves millions of Syrians residing in rebel-held territory in the northwest.

The council vote on the Bab al-Hawa crossing followed weeks of intense negotiations between the United States, which had sought to expand the number of aid corridors into Syria, and Russia, which had threatened it would block the continuation of the aid program altogether, contending that it was an unnecessary violation of Syrian sovereignty.

Both Russia and the United States hailed the compromise as evidence that the two geopolitical rivals could work productively on matters of international peace and security. “Thanks to this resolution, millions of Syrians can breathe a sigh of relief tonight,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told the 15-nation council after the vote. “It’s a moment for millions of Syrians, who will not have to worry about starving to death.”

“It’s important that the United States and Russia were able to come together on a humanitarian initiative that serves the interests of the Syrian people,” she added, acknowledging that the final deal fell short of U.S. aims to expand the number of aid crossings into Syria. “And it’s an important moment for the U.N. and the Security Council, which today showed we can do more than just talk.”

Russia echoed the Americans’ upbeat assessment. “Today, we are witnessing a historical moment,” Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vassily Nebenzia, told the council, noting that Moscow and Washington jointly co-sponsored the resolution, along with key sponsors Ireland and Norway. “We expect … this kind of day would become a turning point. Not only will Syria win from this but the whole Middle East region as a whole and the world as a whole.”

But some relief officials and other observers said the agreement falls short of addressing the dire humanitarian needs of the country, where more than 13 million people are in need of some form of assistance. At the heart of those concerns is the 15-nation council’s failure to reopen two additional critical aid corridors on the Turkish and Iraqi borders, at Bab al-Salam and Yaroubiah, respectively, which were previously closed at Russia’s insistence. In March, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned the U.N. General Assembly that the humanitarian situation had worsened in northeastern Syria following the closure of the Yaroubiah crossing.

In addition, the resolution adopted by the council is ambiguous about the duration of the operation’s mandate, which will require a review by the U.N. secretary-general in six months to determine whether it should be continued for an additional six months. Thomas-Greenfield said the six-month extension is automatic, but the actual resolution did not explicitly say that, leaving open the possibility of a Russian challenge.

“This will save lives in northwest Syria, but it falls far short of what is needed to meet record levels of need,” David Miliband, the president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement after the vote. The resolution, he added, “inexcusably does not give full guarantee of a 12 month duration.”

“A compromise on a compromise on a compromise,” Sherine Tadros, the U.N. representative and deputy director of advocacy for Amnesty International, tweeted after the vote. “Russia successfully lowers the bar to the point where council members pat themselves on the back for a deal that still leaves millions of Syrians in a state of [uncertainty].”

In 2014, the U.N. Security Council first established a system for delivering humanitarian aid into rebel-controlled territory in Syria by authorizing a series of four crossing points from Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq. The so-called cross-border delivery operation provided a lifeline in northwestern and northeastern Syria to millions of civilians, who had been denied assistance, including vital medical equipment, by the Syrian government, which exerts control over aid shipments originating in the capital.

But Russia has already forced the council to shutter three of those crossing points, leaving a single crossing point at Bab al-Hawa to care for millions of Syrians, including 3.4 million in northwestern Syria. During the past year, Russia had expressed an intention to force the closure of the final crossing point on the grounds that it constituted a violation of Syria’s sovereignty and that the Syrian government had the capacity to oversee the delivery of aid throughout the country.

The Biden administration has made the restoration of cross-border aid shipments a key foreign-policy priority. In late March, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his first appearance before the Security Council to rally support for continuing the cross-border program and urged the reopening of at least two of the closed crossings into Syria from Turkey and Iraq. Thomas-Greenfield traveled to the region to highlight the need for aid. And last month, U.S. President Joe Biden personally appealed to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, during their Geneva summit to keep the aid channel open.

Following the summit meeting, Biden made it clear that the U.N. talks over Syrian aid would constitute a test of the U.S. ability to work constructively with Russia on Syria. But the talks are underscoring the often excruciating process of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

The latest phase of the relationship unfolded in highly technical talks at the U.N. over the wisdom of extending a mandate allowing U.N. and independent relief workers to continue delivering aid across a national border into Syria without Syrian government approval. The United States, and the United Nations broadly, maintained that it was vital to extend the mandate, which expires on July 10, by another year to provide lifesaving relief to millions of civilians who live in territory controlled by anti-government forces. But Russia, which initially threatened to veto the resolution, has argued that the arrangement undermines Syria’s sovereignty and its efforts to reassert control over its own territory.

Last week, the Russian special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, rejected an appeal from Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, to expand the number of aid corridors into Syria from Turkey and Iraq. Russia agreed to extend the mandate for a shorter period of six months, a timeline that relief workers say will undermine their ability to plan and procure services and force another politically contentious fight in the council as Syria heads into winter. Those talks spilled over into the U.N. Security Council negotiations over a resolution—introduced by Ireland and Norway—calling for a 12-month rollover of the mandate for Bab al-Hawa.

“Twelve months doesn’t fly,” Nebenzia, Russia’s U.N. envoy, told reporters Thursday. “What we hear from our colleagues about reopening the closed cross-border points is really a nonstarter.” That same day, Russia introduced what it characterized as a compromise draft resolution calling for the extension of the mandate to ship aid through Bab al-Hawa for six months. The mandate would expire on Jan. 10, 2022, in the heart of Syria’s winter.

The current resolution reflects Russia’s efforts to draw the international community into broadening the support for Syria’s recovery. It includes a provision urging the international community to support vital infrastructure projects, including water, sanitation, health, and education projects. The United States and other European countries have previously refused to support such so-called “early recovery projects” unless Syria embraced political reforms.

“[H]umanitarian activities are broader than solely addressing the immediate needs of the affected population and should include support to essential services through water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter early recovery projects,” the resolution states. The resolution stops short of explicitly calling for an easing of economic sanctions against Syria—a key Chinese and Russian goal. But it does appeal to U.N. member states to take “practical steps to address the urgent needs of the Syrian people in light of the profound socio-economic and humanitarian impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Syria.”

The resolution formally authorizes the continuation of cross-border aid shipments for six months. An extra six months are pending, “subject to the issuance” of a report by the U.N. secretary-general.

“The deal keeps only one crossing going for another six months but at a cost: a befuddled reporting process that the Russians are likely to use to extract more concessions from Washington,” said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former director on Syria for the National Security Council under the Trump administration. “U.S. and international isolation of the Assad regime areas are now loosened from the texts welcoming early recovery. This is a long way from the enhanced access the U.S. started with.”

The Russian diplomatic gambit on Syria is part of a longer game aimed at shoring up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy and ultimately securing international financial support for the country’s rebuilding.

The Russians “have got about as much as they are going to get from military intervention,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior advisor on Syria at the U.S. Institute of Peace. “They really are pivoting toward political objectives—principally, credibility, international credibility or at least regional credibility, of the Assad regime—and their demands for Syrian sovereignty are directly connected to this.”

While the negotiations have been largely framed as a test of Russia’s willingness to work constructively with the United States on Syria, Russia’s ability to maintain a productive relationship with Turkey may prove more important.

For Turkey, the cutoff of assistance into northeastern Syria constitutes an “existential” threat to its national interests, according to Yacoubian, potentially displacing massive numbers of desperate Syrians who could be compelled to flee to the Turkish border or seek relief in territory under Turkish control. “From a Turkish perspective, I think it’s untenable. And Russia wants to maintain its partnership with Turkey,” she said.

The U.N. has warned that the closure of the border crossing would imperil the lives of millions of Syrians in northwestern and northeastern Syria and undermine its burgeoning effort to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“After ten years of conflict and rising humanitarian needs in 2021, cross-border access is as essential today as it has ever been,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) wrote in an April internal assessment that was obtained by Foreign Policy. “Cross-line convoys, even if deployed regularly, could not replicate the size and scope of this operation.”

Syria’s humanitarian needs are epic, underfunded, and largely unmet, particularly in the country’s northeast, where Russia last year forced the closure of the Yaroubiah crossing on the Iraqi border with Syria.

The U.N. estimates that more than 13 million people are in need of some form of assistance, an increase of 20 percent over last year. In the rebel-controlled areas of northwestern Syria, including the city of Idlib, 3.4 million people are in need of assistance out of a total population of 4.2 million.

In the past year, the U.N. sent some 1,000 trucks each month across the Turkish border into the Syrian city of Idlib, reaching some 2.4 million people. “A large-scale UN cross-border response for an additional 12 months remains essential to save lives,” the OCHA assessment states. “Failure to renew the UN’s cross-border authorization would greatly diminish essential humanitarian operations and could plunge north-west Syria into yet another humanitarian catastrophe. It would also end UN COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans for millions of people in north-west Syria.”

Some observers say Washington was forced to make concessions to Russia to close the deal.

So far, the United States is committing to increase financial support for Damascus, giving the government greater control over how aid is disbursed. Washington has also signaled a willingness to support Syria’s efforts to stanch the pandemic.

“Any money that is sent to the U.N. mission in Damascus in one way or another benefits the regime. Almost all aid is distributed by bodies, or fronts, for the regime, and they obviously siphoned stuff off,” Charles Lister, a senior fellow and the director of the Syria program at the Middle East Institute, said before Friday’s agreement was reached.

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

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