Why is Russia pushing towards cross-line aid deliveries in Syria?

Workers at the World Food Programme (WFP) loading trucks with relief assistance to be delivered from regime areas to northwestern Syria - 30 August 2021 (Twitter)

Workers at the World Food Programme (WFP) loading trucks with relief assistance to be delivered from regime areas to northwestern Syria - 30 August 2021 (Twitter)


Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

Russia has been endeavoring to prove that the Syrian regime is suited to the task of delivering United Nations (UN)’s humanitarian aid to opposition areas through conflict lines without any obstacles aiming at economic and political gains, the reincorporation of the regime into the international society, and lifting economic sanctions on the regime. The Russian efforts culminated in the entry of the first two loads of UN assistance from regime-held areas to northwestern Syria through internal crossings.        

In late August, a convoy of 15 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid entered the opposition-controlled Idlib governorate in northwestern Syria in two stages after crossing Mirnaz village to the west of Aleppo to the Maarat al-Naasan in Idlib’s eastern countryside. 

In a statement, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the de facto authority in Idlib, clarified that the food rations shipped from the World Food Programme (WFP)’s warehouses are additional rations equivalent to 5 percent of the rations entering as cross-border aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.    

The humanitarian assistance delivery issue

In July 2014, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved Resolution 2165, which stated that UN humanitarian agencies and their implementing partners are authorized to use routes across conflict lines and the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, al-Yaarubiyah, and al-Ramtha, in addition to those already in use, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches people in need throughout Syria.

During the past years, Russia sought to cease assistance delivery through border crossings by vetoing UNSC’s resolutions on cross-border aid delivery to northwestern Syria. 

Last July, the UNSC decided to extend the entry of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, together with cross-line assistance.

The UNSC agreed to extend its previous authorization of Bab al-Hawa crossing as an entry point for humanitarian aid under paragraphs 2 and 3 of Resolution 2165 of 2014 for six months ending on 10 January 2022. The authorization applies only to Bab al-Hawa with the possibility of extension to another six months without voting, ending on 10 July 2022.   

The extension decision requests the UN Secretary-General to brief UNSC State Members monthly and to provide a report on a regular basis, at least every 60 days, on the compliance by all relevant parties in Syria and further requests the Secretary-General to include in his reports overall trends in UN cross-line operations in improving all modalities of humanitarian deliveries inside Syria.

Cross-line delivery is the distribution of UN relief aid through conflict lines from Syrian regime-held areas into areas outside the regime’s control.  

Russia has long advocated for the reliance on the cross-line aid delivery mechanism under the regime’s supervision.   

On 30 August, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement confirming humanitarian assistance delivery from regime-controlled areas to northwestern Syria.

The statement also mentioned that 27,000 food baskets are to be delivered through the regime by mid-September to cover the needs of 50,000 civilians.   

The Ministry called for a “reliable mechanism” for the distribution of assistance to “prevent it from falling into the hands of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)’s terrorists who control the de-escalation zone of Idlib.”

Undermining the Caesar Act impact

Journalist and Russian affairs expert Raed Jabir told Enab Baladi that Russia’s promotion of aid deliveries through conflict lines within Syria and under the regime’s management forces other parties to deal with the regime. It also reinforces the idea of aid distribution from regime-held areas not only through border crossings outside the regime’s control and set previously by the UN.  

Jabir added that Russia exploited Syria’s humanitarian conditions to promote cross-line aid deliveries by the Syrian government to re-impose the regime as a legitimate authority, encourage other parties to deal with the regime, and waive the Caesar Civilian Protection Act’s sanctions on Syria under the pretext of pressing humanitarian needs. 

Other countries sought exemptions from the Caesar Act sanctions like Jordan. The Jordanian King Abdullah II put forward a proposal to the United States President Joe Biden about transporting gas from Egypt to Lebanon via Jordan and Syria.   

In recent months, Arab Gulf States such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia reactivated their relations with the regime’s government on different levels.

The Arab Gulf States and other neighboring countries’ relations with Syria have been restricted by the Caesar Act sanctions and the United States policy towards Syria; therefore, countries like Jordan and the UAE attempted to pressure Washington at the highest level to waive sanctions limiting their dealings with Syria.  

According to Jabir, the next step for Russia after ensuring humanitarian aid delivery through the regime would be to undermine the Caesar Act sanctions on Syria by investing in the cross-line delivery mechanism.  

The promotion of aid distribution from Damascus

Syrian physician Mohammed Kattoub, who is also a humanitarian activist and former aid worker and advocate, pointed out to Enab Baladi that Russia is taking discussions into the second phase by proposing alternative solutions based on channeling humanitarian operations to Damascus to be under the regime’s administration, which would allow the regime further control over the humanitarian aid file. 

Kattoub added that cross-line aid distribution operations are likely to increase in the coming period; however, once the UNSC’s authorization ends, the delivery of humanitarian assistance via internal crossings will face many obstacles.  

According to Kattoub, Russia is working on strengthening its position towards supporting cross-line assistance delivery versus the cross-border one and will use current distribution operations via conflict lines as an example of the success of this mechanism. 

He added that some UN agencies seem to support the Russian approach, like the WFP, which aims to distribute food baskets throughout Syria regardless of the mechanism or the implementing partner. 

It is worth mentioning that Russia has attempted many times to stop cross-border aid deliveries in favor of distributing aid through Damascus, but its attempts were thwarted by western countries.   

In addition, the UNSC’s extension resolution of cross-border aid delivery through the Bab al-Hawa crossing was viewed as an introduction to another phase, in which the UNSC would adopt Russia’s claims that the cross-border mechanism is not needed anymore for aid delivery.  

The UNSC mandated the authorization of the Bab al-Hawa as a gate for humanitarian aid entry to northwestern Syria for another year of two six-month periods with the UN Secretary-General briefing the UNSC on the implementation of the resolution and progress achieved in cross-line aid delivery operations. 

A legal way out of United Nations’ cross-border resolution

Kattoub told Enab Baladi that humanitarian working groups and UN agencies could continue supporting the cross-border mechanism to deliver UN assistance to Syria irrespective of the UNSC’s resolutions in this regard, placing Russia under pressure.   

According to Kattoub, there is a legal way to continue cross-border aid deliveries outside the authorization of the UNSC’s resolution. A new mechanism must be put in place after identifying the parties responsible for implementing the operations and setting the role of donors and UN agencies in aid distribution plans. The new mechanism must be well studied and tested so that Russia would not veto it after only six months leading to the suspension of the cross-border mechanism.   

Security and economic gains for the Syrian regime

Syrian economist and researcher at the Middle East Institute in Washington, Karam Shaar, told Enab Baladi that the regime is trying to increase western countries’ acceptance of cross-line aid distribution operations so that Russia can argue in the next voting that the cross-line mechanism based in Damascus can achieve security and economic gains without any obstacles.   

According to Shaar, most aid entering Syria is from western countries and is delivered by UN agencies with only 20 percent assistance allocated for northwestern Syria.

By controlling the humanitarian aid sector, the regime would achieve security gains by determining aid recipients, Shaar added.

Last June, the United Nations issued a report saying that UN missions required to obtain security clearance from the regime’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs before heading to opposition areas from Damascus have applied 185 entry requests, only 93 of which were accepted by the regime. 

Shaar said that if the regime gained full control over assistance distribution, it would buy part of the aid allocated to northwestern Syria and then resell them again to that region, benefiting from the difference in the exchange rate between Syria and Turkey. 

He added that the regime imposes a preferential exchange rate of 2500 Syrian pounds on UN agencies, while the official exchange rate is nearly 3500 Syrian pounds against the US dollar. 

The regime’s service and production institutions would also benefit from the cross-line aid distribution mechanism because they will be inclined to work more to produce the largest amount of assistance to opposition areas in return for financial gains, Shaar said.    

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