July 9, 2020 | Policy Brief

At UN, Russia Seeks to Cut Vital Aid for Syrian Civilians

July 9, 2020 | Policy Brief

At UN, Russia Seeks to Cut Vital Aid for Syrian Civilians

The Security Council voted down a Russian proposal yesterday to stop deliveries of UN assistance to northwest Syria via one of the two available crossings on the Turkish border. The proposal is part of Moscow’s strategy to exert pressure on opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime by blocking the supply of basic goods to populations under their control.

The secretary-general reported to the Security Council in May that there are 2.8 million individuals in northwest Syria in need of assistance; shipments of food across the Turkish border, via the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings, have reached as many as 1.8 million recipients in a single month. The Security Council initiated cross-border aid in 2014 because the Assad regime systematically blocked and expropriated deliveries from Damascus intended for populations outside its control.

Turkish forces and Islamist rebels hold sway in different parts of northwest Syria. The humanitarian situation there became especially dire following a February offensive by Assad, Russia, and Hezbollah that displaced 900,000 civilians. In a report released Tuesday, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found that pro-regime forces committed extensive war crimes in northwest Syria before and during the offensive. Thus, Russia now seeks to cut off aid to the same population it helped to immiserate.

A coalition of humanitarian non-governmental organizations warned of the danger of Russia’s demand to close the Bab al-Salam crossing. They wrote, “In May alone, over 1.7 million people received health and medical treatment and supplies via UN cross-border assistance – 1 million of them through the Bab al Salam border crossing. Additionally, through Bab al Salam, half a million people were supported with food and livelihoods assistance.”

Before this year, the Security Council issued yearlong reauthorizations for cross-border aid without much controversy. Then in January, Russian veto threats blocked reauthorization until the United States and others made two concessions: First, there would only be a six-month extension, rather than the usual 12, for deliveries from Turkey. Second, there would be no further deliveries via the Yarubiyah crossing on the Iraqi border with northeast Syria.

In February, the secretary-general reported that the closing of Yarubiyah was already having a serious humanitarian impact on northeast Syria given that half of the region’s medical facilities had been “supported solely with medicines provided from across the border.” The report explained that deliveries from Damascus were not a viable alternative because of the regime’s obstruction.

The United States and others initially called for a re-opening of Yarubiyah but dropped the demand last month, anticipating a Russian veto. Instead, Germany and Belgium put forward a resolution that would keep both Turkish crossings open for 12 months, not just six. Russia and China vetoed that proposal even though the other 13 Council members all supported it.

The current authorization for deliveries via Turkey expires on Friday, so there is still a window for action by the Security Council. The most likely compromise would entail an extension of only six months, but for both the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings.

There are few ways to circumvent a veto, so the United States should identify other means of protecting civilians and frustrating Russia’s support for Assad. First, the United States and its partners should find ways to increase aid to the northeast without UN facilitation. Second, the United States should mobilize its partners to demand the comprehensive reform of UN aid operations in Damascus, which Assad has turned into a massive subsidy for his regime. Finally, the United States should continue aggressive implementation of Caesar Act sanctions to ensure a measure of justice for Assad’s victims.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP) and Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from David, CMPP, and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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