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Is UN aid into Syria being used as a political football?

Cathrin Schaer | Omar Albam Idlib, Syria
January 7, 2023

On Monday, the UN decides on cross-border aid into Syria. So far, it seems Russia will not veto the resolution. Displaced Syrians are hoping that they won't be used as diplomatic pawns again.

An aid worker opens a box of humanitarian goods bound for Syria at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.
Humanitarian aid trucks bound for Idlib in Syria must pass through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.Image: Muhammad al-Rifai/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Mofeed al-Yasser held up his sign proudly. On it was a demand that UN Resolution 2254 — generally considered to be a road map for a political transition toward peace in Syria — be implemented.

"This is our only choice," al-Yasser, a displaced Syrian originally from Kafranbel, told DW. On Friday he was taking part in an anti-government demonstration in the northwestern area of Idlib, a part of Syria still controlled by opponents of the dictator Bashar Assad.

"The whole world has abandoned us," al-Yasser continued. "And on top of that, Russia now wants to starve us by closing the crossing for humanitarian aid."

Saying this, he was referring to a different UN resolution altogether, but one that is becoming similarly difficult to work with. 

There are just over 4 million people in north western Syria, many of them like al-Yasser displaced due to the country's long civil war. Around 1.7 million live in displaced person's camps in this area.

Mofeed al-Yasser holds up a protest sign. It reads: "Implementing Resolution 2254 in the only way to grant peace in Syria."
Mofeed al-Yasser joined hundreds of other Syrians at anti-government protests in Idlib.Image: Omar al-Bam/DW

Many are dependent on international aid facilitated by the UN. Most of that is classified as "cross-border aid" – that is, it arrives in this part of Syria over the international border with Turkey. Far less is "cross-line aid." This means it crosses the lines of the conflict, moving from areas controlled by the Syrian government into areas controlled by its opponents.

Violating international humanitarian law

In mid-2014, the United Nation's Security Council, or UNSC, got involved in making decisions on cross-border aid for Syria.

In Resolution 2165 of July 2014, the UNSC said it was "deeply disturbed" by the fact that the Syrian government refused consent to relief operations, defining this as "a violation of international humanitarian law." Council members decided UN humanitarian agencies and their partners would be allowed to use four different border crossings — two through Turkey and one each through Jordan and Iraq —  to bring supplies into Syria, without asking the Assad government for permission.

Since 2014, the situation has obviously changed radically, and not least because of Russia's increased support for the Syrian dictator from around 2015 and then the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has heightened diplomatic tensions inside the UNSC itself.

Russia has used its seat on the 15-member council to support its allies, insisting that humanitarian aid should go through Damascus because cross border aid was only ever supposed to be an interim arrangement.

Asmaa al-Muhammad, 36 years old, from the northern Hama countryside, sits by her cooking pot.
At Kafr Nabudah camp, Asmaa al-Muhammad's family relies heavily on aid; she says it will be a catastrophe if it is curtailed.Image: Omar al-Bam/DW

Also at Russian insistence, there is now only one border crossing that can be used for aid along the Turkish border. Russia has also demanded the resolution be renewed every six months, rather than annually. The latter was agreed upon via UNSC Resolution 2642in July 2022.

Warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe

The current resolution about cross-border aid expires on Jan. 10 and this week, like clockwork, there was another chorus of alarm from humanitarian organizations. A roster of human rights experts appointed by the UN warned of catastrophic consequences should the resolution not be renewed.

"The already desperate humanitarian situation in northwest Syria will be further aggravated," they said in a statement on Wednesday.

Also this week, news agency Reuters reported that Russia has already informally agreed not to veto next week's renewal. Analysts have suggested Russia's increasingly friendly relationship with Turkey might be the reason why. Turkey supports cross-border aid and wants to avoid a large number of Syrian refugees at its border, should conditions in Idlib worsen. 

Trucks from a UN aid convoy making their way to Idlib
Every month, hundreds of trucks carrying aid make their way into Syria via Turkey.Image: Omar al-Bam/DW

"The fact that Russia seems to have accepted the latest renewal to be approved shows the Security Council option is still viable for now," said Richard Gowan, who oversees international thinktank Crisis Group's advocacy work at the UN in New York. "Although we should not be complacent about this."

Gowan suspects Russia will push for more concessions when the renewal comes up again this July, but is unlikely to get rid of it altogether.  "Russia gets more leverage by keeping the mandate alive than by killing it off," he said.

But that is also why Crisis Group and others believe there needs to be a "Plan B." 

Growing need for alternatives

In an August report, the advocacy organization Refugees International argued for options such as alternative funding pools independent of the UN, working more directly with local aid organizations inside Syria, a longer-term approach to projects promoting infrastructure and education, and restricting the UN to working only on the Turkish side of the border.

Cross-line aid delivered via Damascus would not be able to replace UN cross-border aid, they said. In all of 2022, there were only nine cross-line aid convoys — with most consisting of around 10 delivery trucks — the UN said. In contrast, an estimated 600 trucks delivered cross-border aid every month last year.

If the UNSC mandate collapsed altogether, Crisis Group estimates humanitarian deliveries to Idlib would fall by over half.

"This threat gives Russia additional leverage in [UNSC] negotiations," Gowan noted. "If there was a better 'Plan B,' Russia would be in a weaker position." 

Idlib-based widow Maryam al-Jadoua sits in a tent with her son.
Idlib-based widow Maryam al-Jadoua told DW that she supports her four children alone, with the help of UN aid.Image: Omar al-Bam/DW

There is another possibility too, one that revolves around an initiative instigated by the American Relief Coalition for Syria, or ARCS, a US-based umbrella for Syrian aid organizations, and British human rights lawyers, Guernica 37, also known as G37.

The initiative argues that the position that says UNSC permission is needed for cross-border aid is actually open to interpretation. There is no international humanitarian law saying it's illegal for UN agencies to cross the Syrian border into a part of the country the government doesn’t control, they say.

Additionally facts on the ground have quite clearly changed since 2014. UNSC involvement might have helped during the chaotic early stage of the conflict but it is now unnecessary. For one thing, rebel-controlled parts of the country, once thought to be temporary, will clearly continue to need aid in the future and could be treated like any other humanitarian issue.

Cross-border aid is not illegal in Syria

This was similar to an argument made by legal experts in 2014, before the UNSC became involved in aid delivery disputes.

"Under international humanitarian law, parties ... cannot lawfully withhold consent to weaken the resistance of the enemy, cause starvation of civilians, or deny medical assistance," a group of 35 legal experts  — including law professors, a former president of the European Court of Human Rights and a former Chief Prosecutor at numerous UN international criminal tribunals — wrote in an open letter published in The Guardian. "Where consent is withheld for these arbitrary reasons, the relief operation is lawful without consent."

The UN acknowledges that the Assad government withholds aid shipments to opposition-controlled areas arbitrarily.

The G37's legal initiativeis planning to publish a similar letter again shortly, this time with signatories including former judges at the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice.

"Changing the status-quo taken for granted by many for the past eight years is not straightforward," Ibrahim Olabi, a lawyer at G37 and a key strategist behind the initiative, told DW.

He and the initiative's legal expert, Jack Sproson, have been working behind the scenes for over six months to convince supportive governments to back the idea that cross-border aid for Syria is legal without UNSC permission. They have been meeting delegations in Berlin, Paris, Brussels, Washington, New York, London, Bern and Ankara, among others.

"The question now is how governments will be able to move on this issue," he said. "But I think realistic prospects exist. There's huge interest and some politicians have told us that the political cost of renewing [the resolution regularly] has simply become much too high," he concluded.  

Cathrin Schaer Author for the Middle East desk.