Aid for Syria’s civilians threatened by great power politics
Ever since 2014, the UN has been authorized via a Security Council resolution to transport aid on trucks across the Turkish border into Syria. Such resolutions used to be renewed every 12 months. The next due date is on Friday.
This humanitarian mechanism is designed to deliver aid to areas outside the control of the Syrian regime, which otherwise would not typically have been able to receive it across lines of control inside the country.
Russia has always taken the opportunity to object to and block the resolutions, as it is now. It argues that the cross-border mechanism “has become a political tool for drawing lines of division inside Syria” — some cheek given Russia’s actions in the country.
This time, Moscow could use its veto with devastating effect. Already, in January, Russia insisted that the renewal period as specified in UN Security Council resolution 2504 should be for six months and that the Al-Yarubiyah crossing with Iraq would not be covered. This border closure has led to serious medical shortages for the 2.2 million Syrians in the northeast of the country, 64 percent of whom are in need of humanitarian assistance.
For this week’s renewal, the UN secretary-general and most of the Security Council want to revert to 12 months and reopen the Iraq crossing point. However, China might support Russia as it wants to see more aid going via Damascus. Moscow appears to be offering another six months, but with only one crossing, not two, in the northwest. The added imperative this time, if one were needed, is the coronavirus disease pandemic, as millions of Syrians — undernourished and in crowded and unsanitary camps — are particularly vulnerable due to their limited or even nonexistent access to health care. The UN says that 6.2 million Syrians live outside of Syrian government control, of whom 4.2 million require humanitarian assistance.
The Syrian regime has routinely claimed that aid coming across the Turkish border goes to terrorists. For the most part, aid agencies have to decide whether to operate in regime-controlled or opposition-controlled areas. The regime insists that all aid agencies, including the UN, go through Damascus should they wish to operate anywhere in Syria. In theory, this is correct, in that the sovereign government would normally exercise jurisdiction. But the harsh reality is that Damascus has consistently politicized aid, deciding who gets its and who gets the related contracts (i.e., regime cronies). It is a regime that has deployed the starvation of civilians as a weapon of war and has been the party responsible for nearly all of the 595 attacks on more than 350 health facilities in the last nine years. For these reasons, cross-line aid has never been sufficient to replace cross-border supplies.
The area covered by cross-border aid has shrunk as the regime has restored its control over larger areas of Syria. However, 4 million people in Idlib in the northwest are more dependent on cross-border aid than ever, which is why the number of trucks crossing every month has rocketed to record levels. The regime claims these people are terrorists and, while extremist groups are present, most are civilians, with many of them internally displaced.
If Russian stonewalling does lead to a veto of the current draft German-Belgian resolution at the Security Council, it would mean no World Health Organization delivery of medical supplies, including coronavirus testing kits. The World Food Programme would also not be able to take food parcels in for the near-starving. In short, it risks an incalculable and catastrophic humanitarian event.
All of this matters even more because of the horrendous financial meltdown Syria is experiencing. The UN says food prices are 200 percent higher than this time last year. Food has never been more expensive in the nine years of conflict. The Syrian pound has collapsed and, with it, the population’s purchasing power. A mix of causes includes the war itself, the Lebanese economic crisis, the coronavirus pandemic, and the perennial cronyism of the regime. Who knows how many billions of dollars Syrians have trapped inside the Lebanese banking system? On top of this are US and EU sanctions that render any economic recovery far harder, with the most recent American sanctions under the so-called Caesar Act entering into force last month.
If the current draft resolution is vetoed, it risks an incalculable and catastrophic humanitarian event.
The fate of the Syrian economy has become perhaps the key humanitarian issue. If this is not addressed, no amount of aid will be sufficient. The UN sought $10 billion in aid for Syria but, at the EU-UN Brussels IV Conference at the end of June, only €6.9 billion ($7.7 billion) was pledged. This goal speaks volumes about the impending disaster — all the more so if major fighting resumes over Idlib.
As ever with Syria, the priority is never the humanitarian situation facing civilians. Russia will, in all likelihood, determine its position not on aid access grounds and need, but the state of talks between itself and Turkey over the future of Idlib. Civilians are pawns in the great game, just as Turkey uses refugees to blackmail the EU and various EU states barricade their borders to avoid taking their fair share. What might trouble the Syrian regime are not the starving masses, but the increasing numbers back on the streets ready to protest once more.
- Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech