Syria: Russia vulnerable should UN withdraw from Damascus
The Issam Fares Institute held a series of webinars last week on the effects of the Caesar Act on Syria and Lebanon. Russian, American, European and Syrian experts discussed the issue. A large part of the discussion revolved around the Belgian-German crossings proposal that was vetoed by China and Russia at the UN Security Council this month. In the current conditions, delivery of humanitarian aid is a crucial matter, but unfortunately the issue is subject to politicization.
The Russians use their weight at the Security Council to pressure the international community to channel aid through Damascus, forcing it to deal with the regime and its affiliated organizations, such as the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Trust for Development headed by President Bashar Assad’s wife. They rely on the fact that international aid should be delivered in coordination with the government of the affected country.
However, Assad is the source of the calamity of the Syrian people, waging war on a large part of the population. A 2018 article by Foreign Affairs found that only between two and 18 percent of Syrian international aid goes to people in need — the rest gets swallowed up by the regime. Assad uses food and medical supplies provided by the UN to pressure his opponents in the north of the country. Social media has previously shown that tents provided by the UN and intended for refugees have been used by Assad’s supporters as a center for his re-election campaign. This is only one example of the usurpation of UN aid that has been going on for years.
At the Brussels IV Conference on Syria held by the EU last month, one of the speakers from a civil society organization expressed frustration and said that it is impossible to work with the regime regarding aid. Because of this, the international community is growing increasingly frustrated. In fact, some say UN aid has propped up Assad. He has been able to extort cash from UN agencies based in Damascus by forcing them to lodge in a government-owned hotel and imposing taxes on them, in addition to the embezzlement of aid that is being sold on to provide a source of income for Assad operations. According to one source of mine who is a member of the opposition, the aid is being used to reward his “shabiha” (thugs), who rule the streets of Damascus, for their criminality.
The refugees could have a boomerang effect on Russia, which would find itself responsible for millions of people.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
The West was very frustrated by the Russian/Chinese veto on the proposal to keep both the Bal Al-Hawa and Bab Al-Salam border crossings open for aid deliveries. Two other crossings with Iraq and Jordan were closed earlier this year. Now, only Bab Al-Hawa is open and, in a year’s time, this crossing could be closed altogether. However, the West is unlikely to bow to Russia and China and give Assad any “breathing space,” according to Charles Lister, the director of the counterterrorism and extremism program at the Middle East Institute, who was one of the panelists at the session on Syria.
Another panelist, Marc Otte, the vice president of the European Institute for Peace, said that the closure of one of the crossings will not prevent the delivery of aid, but it will make it slower. He added that aid “can be delivered anyway,” even without a Security Council resolution, and that the West has all the legal arguments to do so. Lister warned that, unless Russia changes its course and pushes Assad for a change of behavior, it is heading toward a “war of attrition.”
Actually, the West is in a much more comfortable position than Russia. It is not enmeshed with its military the same way Russia is. The West can simply give the Russians what they want and tell them “Assad’s Syria is yours; deal with it.” What if UN organizations decided to exit Damascus altogether, leaving Russia to deal with a looming famine and an increasingly incompetent and brutal ally? The UN estimates that 9.3 million people in Syria are now food insecure. Then Russia will have to apply the “Pottery Barn rule:” You break it, you own it.
The West will not give another chance to Assad, especially as he has not shown any signs of goodwill toward his own people. He recently issued an order asking people who wanted to return to the country to pay a $100 fee — a sum no refugee can afford. This was another way of telling them to stay in Lebanon after the Lebanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs devised a plan regarding the return of refugees to Syria.
The West can come to an agreement with Turkey to deliver aid to the north of Syria and render that area viable, while the areas under Assad’s rule linger. Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Iraq can close their borders to prevent another wave of refugees. The West, meanwhile, could handle accommodating the existing refugees in neighboring countries by helping them so that they don’t affect the host community.
In this case, the Russians would have to deal with hungry people, with the closed borders preventing another wave of Syrians from leaving the country. Then, the refugees — the point of pressure Assad and his allies are using against the international community — could have a boomerang effect on Russia, which would find itself responsible for millions of people. Russia is already incurring heavy costs that its economy cannot afford. It cannot, on top of this, feed people in regime areas.
The next American administration, regardless whether it is Joe Biden or Donald Trump who wins the November election, must be united on the issue of Syria. The Caesar Act is set in stone. It is a law ratified by Congress; therefore, it is unlikely that a new administration would change course. One panelist last week signaled that the Russians and the Americans have been holding ongoing talks on Syria. This is why Moscow is better off negotiating with the international community on a future for Syria without Assad, rather than entering a long war of attrition, in which it has the less favorable position.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She holds a PhD in politics from the University of Exeter and is an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.