AMMAN — On Friday, UN Security Council Resolution 2504, the mechanism which allows the UN to deliver humanitarian aid from Turkey into opposition-held northwest Syria, is set to expire, risking dire shortages in food, medicine and other critical supplies for the approximately 3 million civilians who depend on that aid to survive. 

On Wednesday, Russia and China vetoed the renewal of the resolution which would authorize the UN to continue to use two of the northwest border crossings, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salameh, for an additional 12 months. Instead, Russia floated its own resolution that would extend the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing for another six months while shutting Bab al-Salameh; this resolution was blocked, with seven members voting against it.

The Russian proposal was described as “grossly inadequate” by the US mission to the UN, while the UK mission said that “if [Russia and China] truly care about the humanitarian situation, they should support the Syrian people, rather than closing routes for aid to reach them.” 

If the UN is unable to deliver aid via the two northwest crossings starting tomorrow, the result will be “suffering and death,” according to a June 28 statement by Mark Lowcock, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs. He added that he had encountered some Syrian families “cooking weeds to supplement food rations.” 

However, on the eve of the resolution’s expiration, it seems unlikely that any compromise will be reached before the deadline.

Are there any alternatives to UN cross-border aid? 

“Some 70 percent of the people in northwestern Syria need humanitarian assistance, and recent events—including the fighting this winter, the economic crisis, and the coronavirus pandemic—have made the situation much worse,” Aron Lund, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation, told Syria Direct.

Without the extension of the UNSC resolution, the UN is prohibited from sending aid to Syria from anywhere besides Damascus, as it needs either the Assad government’s permission or UNSC authorization to send aid via border crossings. However, other, non-UN affiliated NGOs are still able to send aid via the border crossings, with Turkey’s permission. 

“We discussed with the Turks and Syrian organizations the possible alternatives if the crossings are closed, including [options] where services could be delivered via the Turkish government, Turkish organizations, or maybe via the Syrian Interim Government,” Maram al-Sheikh, the Minister of Health of the opposition-affiliated Syrian Interim Government (SIG), told Syria Direct.

Al-Sheikh clarified that there were “alternative plans” which would allow medical aid to continue to enter northern Syria, regardless of the ability of the UN to send cross-border aid to the country. 

While it is true that aid will likely continue to flow to the area—and in fact, non-UN aid makes up the largest proportion of total aid sent to the area—the loss of the UN as a logistical coordinator will significantly impact cross-border humanitarian activity, Lund warned.
“The UN plays a specialized role as a planner and coordinator of the broader humanitarian relief operation, and in dealing with armed actors and governments; if the UN can’t play that role anymore, it will hurt the efforts of non-UN groups as well,” Lund explained.

Though the exact details of the impact of a cutoff of UN cross-border activity dip into the mundane details of procurement and logistical coordination, it holds immense importance for beneficiaries of said aid. 

For example, the ability of the UN to buy in bulk, as well as its large logistical transport network allows materials to be bought at cheaper prices than smaller NGOs would get because of the scale of their operations, Fadi Hakeem, the advocacy and communications manager at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), told Syria Direct

This means that even if money previously earmarked for UN cross-border aid was rerouted through non-UN actors, the lack of one coordinating body would hinder the effectiveness of humanitarian activities. 

In addition to the loss of the UN’s role as a humanitarian coordinator, the expiration of the cross-border aid authorization will mean a significant loss of funding to aid programs directed to northwest Syria.

“Last year the WHO earmarked $39 million for the cross-border response, which supports over 305 health facilities [clinics and hospitals in northwest Syria]; a loss of this amount of funding would be terrible and could impact operational efficiency by up to 50%, though it will not completely collapse the health sector,” Hakeem said. He added that if the UN cross-border aid program stops in its entirety, that would mean a loss of $400 million in aid.

Without an extension of the UNSC authorization, the future of cross-border aid to Syria’s northwest is grim. It is possible that there would still be a “UN presence helping NGOs coordinate on the Turkish side of the border somehow, but major aid organizations like the WFP and the WHO could no longer reach directly into Syria,” Lund said. Further, it is unknown how effective UN coordination would be without access to the Syrian side of the border. 

The lack of a UN presence within northwest Syria would also most likely necessitate humanitarian groups to work more closely with the Turkish government. This could cause issues with funding as “several donors do not accept working with the Turkish government, and thus provide support only as long as OCHA [the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs] is present,” Hakeem said. 

It is also possible that some major western NGOs will relocate to Damascus to distribute aid within the country, as safety concerns and issues over access over opposition-held territory in the northwest could exceed their appetite for risk. 

What if aid is rerouted through Damascus? 

In a statement on July 7, the Russian mission to the UN said that the “cross-border mechanism was created back in 2014 as a temporary and emergency measure that must not … be used to undermine the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria,” and the “uncompromising insistence on using the cross-border mechanism … cannot but cause regret.” 

The statement underlines Moscow’s view on the cross-border issue as one of sovereignty, as it sees access to Syria without Damascus’ permission as an affront to the sovereignty of the government it has propped up for the last five years. 

Damascus views the issue similarly and sees the provision of humanitarian aid to those it views as ‘terrorists’ as unacceptable and contrary to Bashar al-Assad’s pledge to “retake every inch” of the country from the opposition, whose last remaining pocket in Idlib province is the main beneficiary of cross-border aid. 

In addition, if aid is entirely rerouted through Damascus, there will be ample opportunities for the Assad government to exploit this aid flow for both economic and security purposes. 

“Most of the aid will surely provide the regime and its corrupt network with much needed foreign exchange, as well as will enable it to have full control of UN organizations and to [redirect] aid to Assad’s army,” Muhammad Hasno, an employee with the Syrian humanitarian organization, the Assistance Coordination Unit, told Syria Direct

In the past, there has also been major concern about how Damascus distributes international aid, as it is often directed to those perceived as loyal to the regime and withheld from those who are either associated with the opposition or living in former opposition-held areas. Human Rights Watch has also revealed that state security services had access to lists of aid beneficiaries, creating safety concerns for recipients of international aid and violating the idea of politically neutral aid distribution. 

Regardless of issues of political neutrality or abuse of beneficiary information, there is also a fundamental logistical barrier with transporting aid from government-held territory to opposition-held Idlib.

“There’s not really a working infrastructure for getting into Idlib at the moment, and the Syrian government has historically not offered permission for cross-line convoys,” explained Lund.

Further, given that Damascus will likely want information on aid beneficiaries, and “since many of the people in Idlib’s aid sector have fled government-held areas and may still have relatives there who are at risk of arrest, they may not be willing to provide that information” due to fears that the information would be used by the Syrian government to “spy on and blackmail them,” Lund said.