UN Security Council members Germany and Belgium are working to sustain cross-border assistance to civilians in Syria, aiming to ensure that humanitarian aid continues to reach areas that are not controlled by the Assad regime. Since 2014, yearly resolutions have renewed the mechanism that enables the United Nations and NGOs to deliver crucial food, health, and shelter assistance in northern Syria through four crossings – two on the Syrian-Turkish border, in Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa; one on the Jordanian border, in Ramtha; and one on the Iraqi border, in Al Yarubiyah.
The negotiations over these renewals have never gone smoothly. However, in December 2019, the mechanism came under serious threat for the first time. Given the significant territorial gains made by the Syrian regime throughout the year, Russia – backed by China – successfully proposed an alternative version of the mechanism to the one advanced by penholders Germany, Belgium, and Kuwait, which originally aimed to add a fifth crossing on the Turkish border, in Tal Abyad. The final result significantly changed the equation, scaling back the mechanism in terms of both crossings and timing: it now includes just the crossings in Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa, and is due to expire on 10 July.
The European members of the Security Council – France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Belgium, and Poland – were unhappy with this result, but gave in to Russian pressure at the last minute to avoid a complete implosion of the resolution. On the ground, the decision has had significant consequences. The closure of the Al Yarubiyah border crossing left 1.4 million civilians in dire need of assistance. By late 2019, only 2 out of 16 public hospitals and 4 out of 279 primary healthcare centres were operational in north-eastern Syria. Throughout 2019, the Assad regime regularly blocked requests to deliver medical assistance via Damascus. The closure of the border crossing in early 2020 created another obstacle to the delivery of basic medical supplies to the area.
Russia argues that these supplies can be delivered via Damascus – as part of its attempt to restore the regime’s political hold over the entire country. Moscow and Beijing claim that the cross-border mechanism is now irrelevant, because the Syrian government is gradually regaining such control. Indeed, some non-permanent members of the Security Council – including the only Arab one, Tunisia – share Russia’s and China’s view that the regime should exercise control over cross-border access.
Cutting off cross-border access to northern Syria would be catastrophic for the country’s overall humanitarian efforts and the coming fight against covid-19.
However, humanitarian NGOs and UN agencies disagree, citing compelling evidence that Damascus does not distribute aid to areas outside its control. European states firmly back this position. Some international NGOs that are active in Syria emphasise that cross-border operations are essential to delivering the medical supplies needed to address the covid-19 pandemic. Despite Syria’s currently low infection rates, the threat of a devastating covid-19 outbreak looms large in the country.
Meanwhile, many civilians in northern Syria are on the brink of famine. And much of this densely populated area remains outside of the Assad regime’s control. As Belgium’s ambassador to the UN pointed out in December, there is currently no viable alternative to including the Al Yarubiyah crossing in the resolution. Yet, as Russia used the threat of closing cross-border routes to pressure the US-backed authorities in north-eastern Syria into negotiations with Damascus on restoring government control, it may now attempt to do the same thing in Idlib. As government officials and NGOs have warned, a failure to sustain cross-border aid outside the framework of the yearly resolution would result in a humanitarian catastrophe. This is particularly apparent given that 70 per cent of Syria’s healthcare workers have fled the country and most of its health facilities have shut down. Completely cutting off cross-border access to northern Syria would be catastrophic for the country’s overall humanitarian efforts and the coming fight against covid-19.
Germany placed efforts to strengthen the humanitarian system high on the agenda of its two-year membership of the Security Council. As a penholder, the country needs to join other European Security Council members in showing leadership in negotiations over the mechanism, aiming to prevent it from being scaled down or eliminated altogether. They should do what they can to mitigate the hostility between members of the Security Council – particularly that between the United States and Russia – and thereby ensure that the negotiations are driven by humanitarian rather than political considerations.
European countries should also work with Turkey on these issues, given that the country has a strong interest in ensuring that the crossing in Idlib remains open and in preventing the province from sliding into a deeper humanitarian crisis. Ankara may be able to use its close relationship with Moscow to shift the Russian position in a positive direction. But European countries should also make clear to Russia that a failure to renew the resolution would result in a deepening crisis within Syria that the Assad regime – and, by extension, Moscow – would have to manage. As the biggest humanitarian donor in northern Syria, European leaders need to stress to their Russian counterparts that they see the resolution as a priority and an important condition for engaging in a constructive dialogue on the future of Syria, including its reconstruction.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.