Syrians need more than a compassionate plea to renew cross-border humanitarian aid

Rahaf Safi
Rahaf Safi is Syrian American and a graduate of the master's in public policy program at the Harvard Kennedy School. Her background is in human rights and humanitarian policy and has spent nearly a decade working with various local organizations, INGOs, and UN agencies, including over four years based in the Middle East directly working with displaced persons, refugees, and other vulnerable populations.

Over the past weeks and months, numerous think tanks and individuals have published reports and briefs on the looming humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria. [[1]] This déjà vu moment has not been lost on actors and agencies focused on aid in Syria.

In mere weeks, the last remaining entry-point for humanitarian aid into northwest Syria is set to expire, leaving nearly 4 million people without access to life-saving aid. [[2]] The cross-border operation from Turkey to Syria has been ongoing since 2014 after a rare action by the UN Security Council resulted in resolution 2165 to override the Syrian state’s borders and ensure people living outside the control of the Damascus-based government received humanitarian aid.

Experiencing a similar déjà vu moment, Secretary Blinken, in a recent plea to the Security Council, asked, “how is it possible that we can’t find in our hearts the common humanity to actually do something?” [[3]] Since his remarks, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited the northwest region, and the US government pledged over $400 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria. The task now is to make sure Syrians in the northwest, who in recent days have been experiencing a resurgence of bombing, can receive it. 

The central issue threatening aid has not changed: Bashar Al Assad, despite his war crimes and other crimes against humanity, along with Russia, wants full sovereignty and thus control over all borders. [[4]] At stake, then, is the seventh cross-border resolution, SCR 2533, expiring on July 10, 2021. Russia has already indicated it will veto renewal efforts and instead shift the cross-border resolution to cross-line, a system of moving aid internally across battle front lines. However, in addition to the evidence shared by researchers, as a former aid worker in Syria, I directly experienced and witnessed the Assad regime weaponizing access to aid in areas under their control. With aid already weaponized in regime areas, it is a clear signal that trusting the regime with cross-line aid would fail to ensure Syrians in the northwest receive emergency aid.

Weaponizing humanitarian aid

Since the start of the conflict, the Assad regime quickly weaponized aid. In the decade-long conflict, no legal, economic, or moral argument has dissuaded the regime from depriving vulnerable Syrians access to food, shelter, medicine, and clean water. This made the 2014 unanimous agreement by the UN Security Council to authorize a cross-border operation a reprieve to Syrians in the northwest. But by 2019, Russia, one of the five permanent members of the Council, succeeded in weaponizing aid by vetoing the cross-border resolution on the grounds that it undermined state sovereignty and reduced the number of aid entry-points from four to two. By the summer of 2020, Russia’s veto resulted in closing Bab al-Salam, leaving the only remaining entry point of Bab al Hawa. Since then, Russia continues to use aid as a negotiating tool to leverage achieving its other interests in Syria.

Russia’s unilateral support continues to embolden the Assad regime by not only denying aid to the northwest but also to people living in regime-controlled territories. While working on the ground in Syria, it quickly became clear to humanitarian organizations that some areas we were permitted access and others denied as a result of the regime’s attempt to limit interactions with those areas. While advocacy and coordination efforts among various organizations on the ground remain strong, the reality is that we are also subject to maintaining a working relationship with the government or risk altogether losing permission to provide aid. As a result, weaponizing aid places a high strain on humanitarian principles, making it a difficult balance to ensure the most vulnerable populations access aid.

The Damascus-based government has a huge need for humanitarian aid. In fact, over 13 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance, and the government has not been able to meet those needs. [[5]] The dire conditions have resulted in slightly improving coordination among Damascus-based organizations, indicating that countries pushing for cross-border renewal have more leverage than they realize to force the regime to keep the borders open and stop Russia from threatening aid with its veto power. After all, mass destruction in the country, large economic decline, [[6]] and crippling sanctions have left the regime dependent on international aid to support Syrians living under its control.

The way forward

The solution to this problem is clear: the UN Security Council must ensure that the Bab al-Hawa border crossing remains open while also working to reauthorize the other border crossings. Assad has clearly demonstrated that sending aid from inside Syria, crossing regime lines to opposition areas, will not work. While the path for renewals remains muddled with geopolitical spats, here are a few considerations for the Biden administration.

First, make sure aid does not become cross-line. This is crucial and must be a non-negotiable issue. Aid flowing into the northwest must not be under the control and whims of the Assad regime. It has already demonstrated that it will further politicize aid. There is extensive evidence showing that when given the opportunity to support the northwest, it did not, and even in areas it regained militarily, the regime continues to hinder aid to local populations. Additionally, the regime continues to target and destroy aid and medical facilities in the northwest to weaken the opposition. 

Second, humanitarian aid is vital for the survival of Syrians in the northwest and cannot be left only to the members of the Security Council to determine if Syrians in the northwest can receive aid. In the short term, the Biden administration must work to ensure the resolution does not expire without renewal. However, in the long-term, a more sustainable solution is necessary to prevent this yearly dance from occurring. As Turkey and the US unite to work together on the expiring resolution, [[7]] they should also work together to identify longer-term solutions beyond a one-year renewal of the cross-border resolution. Given the Turkish control of the border, the Biden administration could work to create a diplomatic agreement between both the US and Turkey to ensure access to assistance, even if outside the scope of the Security Council. Though this may result in the aid likely no longer coming through UN convoys, it would still carve an initial pathway for creating a more sustainable approach to providing aid.

Third, the Biden administration must present clear consequences should Russia insist on vetoing the bill if the US does not give in to its demands to legitimize the Assad regime. This option is not about flexing military might but about disincentivizing Russia from entering the negotiations believing it has full control of the situation through its veto power. Consequences, such as economic sanctions on the individuals weaponizing aid, can send a clear message that the US will not let Russia make demands on the account of denying aid to millions of people in the northwest.

Finally, while some policy recommendations [[8]] suggest testing the Assad regime this year through both cross-line and cross-border aid, the regime has proven time and again that it is not reliable with aid delivery. The Biden administration should not pursue a policy that combines this approach in the future.

Conclusion

Syria is a political crisis. Without political solutions that hold the government accountable for its actions, people will continue to rely on humanitarian aid, which will remain subject to politicization. In fact, the entire Whole of Syria humanitarian aid approach has become a very politicized structure creating more challenges to aid agencies. Aid dependency remains critically high because the war resulted in an economic crisis. A viable economy in the northwest is at best limited and practically nonexistent. Even during my interviews with doctors working in northwest Syria, they reiterated the impact of a very weak economy on all livelihoods, including their own. [[9]] Without political solutions for the northwest, the Assad regime and Russian air forces will continue weakening the area through repeated bombardment that displaces people and destroys their homes and sources of income. The way forward is to prevent Russia from holding aid hostage to the UN Security Council’s veto system and ensure accountability and justice for the Syrian people. In the meantime, it is not an option to allow resolution 2533 to expire without renewal. As Secretary Blinken stated to the UN Security Council, “[s]top making humanitarian assistance, on which millions of Syrians’ lives depends, a political issue, waiting in hope for the Security Council.” 


[[1]]  The following is a list of four by various think tanks. Many others have been published short reports or op-eds including by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty: Natasha Hall, “The Implications of the UN Cross-border Vote in Syria”, The Center for Strategic and International Studies, June 4, 2021, https://www.csis.org/analysis/implications-un-cross-border-vote-syria; Salman Husain and Yasmine Chawaf, “Syrian Lives in Peril: The Fight to Preserve Syria’s Last Humanitarian Border Crossing”, The Atlantic Council, June 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Syrian-Lives-in-Peril-The-Fight-to-Preserve-Syrias-Last-Humanitarian-Border-Crossing.pdf; Omer Karasapan, “The coming crisis in Idlib”, Brookings Institution, May 13, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2021/05/13/the-coming-crisis-in-idlib/; Aron Lund, “Syria aid at risk in Security Council vote”, The New Humanitarian, May 26, 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/5/26/syria-aid-at-risk-in-security-council-vote.

[[2]] “Cross-border Humanitarian Response Fact Sheet: Northwest Syria”, UNHCR, April 2021, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/North-west%20Syria%20-%20Cross-border%20Humanitarian%20Response%20Fact%20Sheet%20%28April%202021%29.pdf.

[[3]] Remarks by Secretary Antony J. Blinken at the UN Security Council Briefing and Consultations on the Humanitarian Situation in Syria, March 29, 2021, https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-at-the-un-security-council-briefing-and-consultations-on-the-humanitarian-situation-in-syria/.

[[4]] Edith Lederer, “US urges UN to stop making Syria a political issue”, The Associated Press News, March 30, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/antony-blinken-political-issues-united-nations-bashar-assad-syria-5bae54205bd3a939b2ba10e4fcef64e2.

[[5]] “2021 Syria Humanitarian Needs Overview”, OCHA, March 2021, https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/syria_2021_humanitarian_needs_overview.pdf.

[[6]] “Syria: Economic decline, rising hunger and surging humanitarian needs”, UN News, February 25, 2021, https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/02/1085722.

[[7]] Selcan Hacaoglu, “Turkey, US Unite to Thwart Russian Attempts to Block Syria Aid”, Bloomberg News, June 2, 2021, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-06-02/turkey-u-s-unite-to-thwart-russian-attempts-to-block-syria-aid.

[[8]] Julien Barnes-Dacey and Andrey Kortunov, “First Aid: How Russia and the West can help Syrians in Idlib”, European Council on Foreign Relations, April 14, 2021, https://ecfr.eu/article/first-aid-how-russia-and-the-west-can-help-syrians-in-idlib/.

[[9]] Adrienne Fricke and Rahaf Safi, “Window of Hope: Sustaining education of health professionals in northwest Syria”, The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, March 2021, https://hhi.harvard.edu/publications/window-hope-sustaining-education-health-professionals-northwest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *