The UN is urgently seeking approval to dispatch an aid convoy to Syria’s Rukban refugee camp to address a humanitarian crisis that is likely to grow worse in the coming winter months. Both Russia and the Bashar al-Assad regime frequently place obstacles in the way of aid deliveries, a tactic that serves to put pressure on the nearby U.S. military base at al-Tanf.
The base at al-Tanf is located along the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway, effectively blocking Iran and its proxies from transporting troops and weapons to Syria and Hezbollah along that route. To protect al-Tanf, the U.S. has established a de-confliction zone that extends 55 km in every direction from the base. Iranian proxies and the Assad regime have launched multiple incursions into the de-confliction zone to test the U.S. ability to enforce it.
Rukban lies within the U.S. de-confliction zone, roughly 20 km south of the al-Tanf base and adjacent to the Jordanian border. It is home to an estimated 50,000 refugees.
Russia and the Assad regime wrongly blame the United States for the crisis in Rukban. Russian General Mikhail Mizintsev claimed that if the U.S. dismantled the base at al-Tanf, it would “automatically lead to the resolution of the Rukban problem and return of its residents back to their homes.” General Vladimir Savchenko said, “It was the U.S. that banned entry into the 55-kilometer [zone] around their base to Syrian government structures and humanitarian organizations.” In fact, it was Damascus that stonewalled the UN from September 2017 through the summer of 2018 when it sought permission to deliver aid. Nor does the base at al-Tanf prevent displaced persons from returning home.
General Mizintsev also disputed the U.S. claim that its presence at al-Tanf facilitates operations against the Islamic State, claiming “there are no ISIS groups in southern Syria.” The U.S. military reported capturing 30 Islamic State terrorists in the vicinity of al-Tanf in July and August 2018.
The most recent delivery of aid to Rukban arrived on November 3, after ten months without deliveries. A United Nations convoy with 78 trucks reached Rukban with food as well as supplies related to health, hygiene, and sanitation. The convoy only provided about a month’s worth of supplies, however. After permitting the delivery of aid in January 2018, Jordan has not opened its border near Rukban. For six of the last eight days, Rukban received no water from the pipeline originating in Jordan. While said to be the result of faulty pump equipment in Jordan, this is adding to the crisis. Previous pipeline malfunctions lasted more than 15 days.
A senior UN official told reporters that the organization is seeking all the permissions necessary to send another convoy soon. He singled out Russia for raising questions about the arrangements.
If Russia or the Assad regime hold up the convoy, the U.S. should act to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Rukban by allowing the U.S. military to provide the aid, which it has the capacity to do, following approval by the State Department. The U.S. military has humanitarian funds at its disposal to use in conflict zones such as this. Aid can be distributed inside the camp by local U.S. partner forces, including Jaysh Maghawir al-Thawra.
While others may have caused and exacerbated the crisis, resolving it would help defuse the Russian and Syrian threat to the base at al-Tanf and establish the United States and its allies on the ground as sources of reliable humanitarian assistance, a critical part of establishing good will and stability in the area surrounding al-Tanf.
Toby Dershowitz is senior vice president for government relations and strategy at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Dan Katz previously served as an intern. Follow Toby on Twitter @tobydersh. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.