Russia agrees to extending UN cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria: Why? 

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib – 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib – 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has agreed to extend cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey for six months, to be renewed automatically for another six months. 

The UNSC’s unanimous decision came as a surprise, given Russia’s firm position that called for the closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing to UN assistance and insisted on cross-line aid delivery under the supervision of the Syrian regime. The unexpected twist has raised questions about the potential gains that Russia might have earned in exchange for not vetoing the resolution.

Russia has threatened on many occasions to veto the UNSC’s draft resolution on the renewal of the Bab al-Hawa crossing as a humanitarian aid gate to northwestern Syrian regions which was to be decided on 9 July. Russia has repeatedly demanded cross-border aid operations to be substituted with cross-line humanitarian mechanisms under the control of the Syrian regime. Still, the UNSC unanimously passed resolution 2585 of 2021 authorizing cross-border aid operations to Syria for another year through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.     

Undisclosed deals

Syrian expert in Russian affairs, Mahmoud Hamza, told Enab Baladi that Russians only agreed to extend the mandate of the Bab al-Hawa crossing after concessions made by the United States (US) and Turkey and undisclosed understandings.

He added, the Americans have technically begun to ease some economic sanctions imposed on the regime and hinted at easing some provisions of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, also known as the Caesar Act. The US government has also imported medical supplies from Turkey needed for coronavirus (COVID-19) prevention and treatment, while some major US-based health companies headed to Turkey to make investments. 

Hamza said that the Caesar Act provisions have been violated under the knowledge of the Americans. They saw Iranian ships transporting oil to the regime and turned a blind eye for the sake of the nuclear deal with Iran. The Americans also tolerate the illicit oil trade between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the force they support in northeast Syria, and the Syrian regime as part of undeclared agreements with Russia and the Syrian regime.

According to Hamza, a US-Turkish agreement of yet unknown dimensions is likely to be made in relation to Idlib and other regions in northeast Syria.   

Russia courting the US and European allies 

Journalist and Russian affairs expert Raed Jabir told Enab Baladi that Russia found itself in a difficult position after the US announced in the Geneva summit— that brought together the US President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin— that it will put Moscow under test. The Russians saw the US announcement as a threat to disrupt channels of dialogue that barely began to improve between the two sides in case Russia vetoed the cross-border aid mandate. 

The situation being thus, it was important to reach a compromise agreeable to all parties, including the US and its western allies. Therefore, Washington’s draft resolution to reopen the al-Yaarubiyah crossing was reverted in exchange for Moscow’s agreement to extend UN assistance delivery through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, Jabir said.

Moreover, Russia did not want to enrage the Turkish partner that was keen on extending the authorization of cross-border assistance via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

According to Jabir, the UNSC session’s outcome is important to Moscow, as it encourages it to engage in further dialogues in other Syrian files. This was evident through Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vassily Nebenzia’s statement delivered in a press briefing following the adoption of the UNSC resolution on the cross-border mechanism of humanitarian deliveries to Syria on 9 July. Nebenzia talked about broadening dialogue with the US regarding the lifting of US sanctions against the Syrian regime and the possibility of discussing new files related to the Syrian issue.

In the briefing, Nebenzia was asked about whether Russia had received any promises from the US regarding the easing of sanctions against Syria, to which he responded, “We raise this issue every time we speak on Syria, we are talking to them on it,” the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN mentioned on its official website.

According to Nebenzia, Russia had set out red lines during discussions on the UNSC’s draft resolution, noting that the final text of the resolution contained elements that had been absent from the previous drafts called for by western countries. 

The early recovery projects issue

 Syrian physician Mohammed Kattoub, who is also a humanitarian activist and former aid worker and advocate, pointed out to Enab Baladi that the UN resolution welcomes the expansion of humanitarian operations, including early recovery (ER) projects under the supervision of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which did not operate neutrally in Syria, as it coordinated its relief work from Damascus and never engaged in cross-border aid operations. 

Kattoub saw the UNSC’s tendency to include ER projects in its resolution as a winning point for Russia and the regime, even if donors did not respond unanimously. This tendency would facilitate the use of donated funds by UN agencies based in Damascus to implement ER projects besides humanitarian response operations.

Kattoub added, the resolution requests the UN Secretary-General to brief State Members monthly and at the end of the first six months and provide regular reports, at least every 60 days, on the implementation of the resolution and compliance by all parties, throwing all weight on the Secretary-General instead of voting at the Council when the resolution date expires. 

According to Kattoub, the Secretary-General’s briefing would prove beneficial to Syrians if it included details on the progress achieved in cross-border aid delivery operations. However, the Secretary-General is requested to brief the UNSC on overall trends, including the ER projects encouraged by the resolution under the management of the ICRC, which takes Damascus as its hub for cross-line assistance delivery but not cross-border operations. The Secretary-General would be inclined to report the need for more ER projects assistance designated to Damascus if there was a tendency towards renewing cross-border operations.  

Kattoub pointed out that the resolution requires the Secretary-General to report on the progress in cross-line aid operations, meaning further flow of assistance to northeast Syria or Daraa governorate in southwestern Syria. 

This, however, might be used by Russia as a pretext to demand UN aid access to northwestern Syria through Damascus, bringing the weight back to Damascus as the center of humanitarian response operations in Syria. 

Russian-Chinese alliance to lift sanctions on Syria

The issue of the US and European Union (EU) sanctions on the Syrian regime was raised in last year’s UNSC’s mandate, with Russia addressing the sanctions issue as having a “negative impact” on Syria’s humanitarian situation.

The US and the EU objected to the Russian allegations and insisted that their sanctions provide for humanitarian exemptions and are fully in line with all obligations under international law.

On 6 July, China’s Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, told reporters after closed briefings to the UNSC on a draft resolution to continue cross-border deliveries, “with more diplomatic efforts, we can find a solution, not just on cross-border aid.” 

Jun added that China definitely wants to see a solution concerning unilateral sanctions imposed on Syria, concerning cross-lines and the transparency of the cross-border.

When asked by reporters about the Chinese Ambassador’s comments regarding sanctions and whether the US is willing to offer any concessions on the sanctions in return for keeping the cross-border route open, US Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield replied, “This is not a discussion about sanctions, it is a question of humanitarian needs,” the U.S. Associated Press news agency reported. 

Greenfield said the US sanctions target only the Syrian regime’s president Bashar al-Assad, while US humanitarian assistance is for all Syrians, in both government-controlled and opposition-held areas. 

For his part, Jabir said that with great caution, Russia will anticipate upcoming developments and the UN Secretary-General’s report which will be submitted after six months set by the UNSC with the expectation of a subsequent renewal for another six months. If not pleased with the resolution’s implementation, Russia will call on the UNSC to stop cross-border operations even though the resolution stated the renewal of cross-border aid delivery for a year.   

If Moscow fails to create new realities on the ground over the next six months, the cross-border aid mechanism will continue until 10 July 2022. Still, Russia’s success lies in the fact that the resolution did not state the opening of other crossing borders for assistance entry to Syria, and the concessions made by Russia were necessary to achieve this goal, Jabir said. 

A step-by-step policy

Russia wants to lead the UNSC step by step towards shifting humanitarian assistance routes from border crossings to internal contact lines with the regime, where the situation on the ground is being dealt with according to conflicting forces’ map of control, Jabir said. 

According to Jabir, the situation in Idlib during the coming period cannot be pinpointed, and the future of established Russian-Turkish agreements related to Idlib’s buffer zone and reopening of international highways (M4 and M5) remains unclear. These issues were raised during previous Russian-Turkish negotiations, which mandated Turkey to bear bigger responsibility to open the M4 international highway linking Latakia and Aleppo governorate.  

If there were no major political or military developments on the ground in the next six months, then the UN mandate of the Bab al-Hawa crossing as humanitarian assistance entry point will be smoothly extended, Jabir said. 

Following the UNSC’s resolution extending cross-border humanitarian operations through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, Russia announced its intention to hold discussions with the US regarding easing sanctions against Syria.

On 6 July, the senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Robert S. Ford, said in a briefing that “Moscow’s key consideration ahead of the vote is its relationship with Ankara.” He added that the Turkish government, which supports the Syrian opposition, wants to avoid an enormous refugee rush from northwest Syria if the cross-border operation ends.

Ford, who is Washington’s former ambassador to Syria, said that Russia might accept an extension of cross-border aid deliveries “in return for reductions in Western sanctions,” clamping down on armed opposition groups in northwest Syria, and launching aid convoys from Damascus to Idlib.

Russia’s Special Presidential Envoy for Syria Alexander Lavrentyev said Russia wants to deliver assistance through the cross-line mechanism to promote the Syrian regime’s legitimacy before the international community and considers cross-border aid delivery “unhelpful.”

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