AMMAN — “The shameful truth is this: People are dying needlessly in this war because the humanitarian aid they depend on is being bargained away in political negotiations; the cross-border stalemate is holding the lives of millions of people hostage,” the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer, said yesterday in an address to the Fourth Brussels Conference “Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region.” 

Maurer’s statement was directed at the UN Security Council (UNSC), as the US, Britain and France push to renew UNSC resolution 2504 for an additional year ahead of its expiration on July 10, which would allow aid to continue to enter Syria via Turkey from the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings. 

Russia opposes the renewal of the cross-border aid authorization, as according to the Russian representative to the UN on Monday, “The mechanisms set up in the past as temporary measures are no longer sufficient and no longer in line with humanitarian standards.” 

A failure to extend the resolution would “cause suffering and death,” Mark Lowcock, the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, warned the UNSC on Sunday. 

In addition, some states—chief among them Russia and China—condemned the “unilateral” sanctions imposed on Syria under the recent US Caesar Act. The US Special Representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, emphasized that the new Caesar Act would not block any forms of humanitarian assistance and announced $600 million of humanitarian assistance to Syria for 2020. He also urged the international community to “reject diplomatic normalization with the Assad regime.” 

The Brussels Conference on Syria is co-hosted by the EU and UN and has two goals: To push for a political solution to the Syria crisis under UNSC resolution 2254, and for donor countries to pledge money towards humanitarian efforts related to Syria.

This year, $5.5 billion was pledged for 2020, more than a 20 percent decrease from the previous year. The UN was seeking $10 billion, a greater amount than 2019, as it warned that after nine years of war, Syrians had “reached a breaking point.” Much of the money is slated to go to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, which host over five million refugees combined, the largest amount in the world.

Cross-border aid is vital to northwest Syria

According to Lowcock, about 70 percent of the population in Syria’s northwest require humanitarian assistance, and a third of all children under the age of five are suffering from stunting due to malnutrition, “irreversibly” damaging their cognitive and physical development.

Lowcock warned that malnutrition is a rising trend and that the drastic devaluation of the Syrian pound in recent weeks has left families “priced out of food staples and medicines in the markets, leaving them solely reliant on the food packages delivered across the border.” 

The mechanism that allows this cross-border aid—most of it food—to reach the opposition pocket in the northwest part of the country is set to expire in just ten days. 

Resolution 2504, adopted on January 10, 2020, authorized the use of two border crossings on the Turkish-Syria border, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh, to deliver aid for six months, replacing a previous UNSC resolution which allowed the use of these crossings in addition to al-Yarubiyah and al-Ramtha crossings with Iraq and Jordan, respectively. 

“These areas, and Idlib in particular, need the cross-border aid more than ever,” explained Aron Lund, a fellow with the New York-based Century Foundation. “The only place they’re getting the support they need is across the Turkish border, [as] the Syrian government has banned deliveries across the frontline from Damascus. Cross-border deliveries have gone up 75 percent since the end of last year,” he told Syria Direct

Instead of aid coming from outside of the country, Damascus and Russia argue, the aid should be routed through Damascus and should be under the purview of the Assad regime. Their objection to the cross-border aid mechanism is that it runs counter to and prevents the reimposition of the Assad regime’s sovereignty on Syria’s border areas.

However, there are serious doubts about Damascus’ ability and willingness to provide aid to civilians in a safe and non-discriminatory way. 

A June 2019 Human Rights Watch report detailed how groups perceived as more loyal to the regime were prioritized for aid, while neighborhoods or groups which had been affiliated with the opposition were excluded from aid distribution. In addition, aid funds were often siphoned off or contracts were given to cronies of the regime. 

“Damascus hopes that rerouting a lot of UN and NGO aid through Damascus will help revive the economy and create business opportunities through subcontracting and local procurement, which have a tendency to be seized by powerful regime-connected actors,” Lund said. 

The passage of the cross-border aid resolution largely hinges on Russia, as the US, UK and France have made their support for the resolution clear, and China typically follows Russia’s lead when it comes to UNSC votes on Syria. 

Turkey could play a large role in softening Russia’s stance on the renewal of the resolution, as Ankara has a vested interest in maintaining the flow of international aid to the northwest, lest it have to shoulder the burden itself to prevent a run on its border. Moscow also is keen to keep Ankara happy as it seeks to woo it from the west’s orbit to its own. 

The result might be a modified form of the resolution which either keeps Bab al-Hawa open while closing Bab al-Salameh—the former experiencing a much higher volume of aid transit—or open the Tell Abyad border crossing, according to Lund. 

Regardless, a large gap remains between the demands of the US, UK and France, which want to extend the use of the two Turkey-Syria crossings, as well as reopen the Jordan-Syria and Iraq-Syria crossings, and Russia and Damascus, which want complete closure of the border crossings. 

Judging by the statements of the involved countries at Brussels IV, there is much negotiation to be done before the July 10 deadline. If a deal fails to be reached, the results for civilians in Syria could be catastrophic. 

 

This article reflects minor changes made on 05/07/2020 at 11:56 am.