March 30, 2021 | Policy Brief

At UN, Blinken Calls for Action on Aid to Syria

March 30, 2021 | Policy Brief

At UN, Blinken Calls for Action on Aid to Syria

Secretary of State Antony Blinken personally represented the United States at a UN Security Council briefing on Syria yesterday, where he warned, “The lives of people in Syria depend on getting urgent help. We have to do everything in our power to create ways for that aid to get to them.” Blinken’s comments represent his first extended remarks on Syria during his tenure yet included few specifics regarding how the Biden administration plans to protect the Syrian people from the regime of Bashar al-Assad and its patrons in Moscow and Tehran.

Blinken called on the Security Council to extend its authorization for UN agencies to channel aid into northwest Syria from across the Turkish border, and emphasized the need to reopen two aid crossings shut down previously. Cross-border deliveries, which bypass authorities in Damascus, began in response to the Assad regime’s deliberate blocking of aid for civilians living in rebel-held territory. There are 2.7 million displaced persons in northwest Syria, who are dependent on the UN for food, shelter, medical care, and other forms of aid.

Despite the urgent need to reauthorize cross-border assistance, Blinken declined to identify Russia and China as the parties responsible for restricting aid in the past and threatening now to stop it completely. Instead, the secretary of state framed his remarks as a message to all members of the Council. The obstruction by Beijing and Moscow is no secret, yet Blinken did not identify any sort of leverage the U.S. and the rest of the Council would employ to prevent further vetoes. A hesitation to name those responsible for blocking aid begets the question of whether the administration has a plan to protect the flow of assistance.

Blinken also missed an opportunity to underscore the need for an overhaul of the UN’s approach to delivering assistance to areas that are under Assad’s control, unlike the northwest. Since the earliest days of the war, the regime has diverted massive amounts of aid for its own purposes while surveilling and intimidating aid workers. UN agencies have resigned themselves to this abuse. Even an internal assessment found that UN personnel muted their criticism, “presumably in a judgement about access over advocacy.” The result is that funding that Congress appropriated to alleviate civilian suffering instead lines the pockets of the regime.

To his credit, Blinken noted how the coronavirus pandemic poses an especially dangerous threat in Syria. “Social distancing is impossible when one is jostling for a spot in a crowded bread line,” he said. “Many Syrians do not even have a reliable supply of clean water and soap to wash their hands.” As part of its global response to the pandemic, the Biden administration has pledged $4 billion to COVAX, an international initiative to provide coronavirus vaccines to Syria and other countries that cannot afford them. Yet there do not appear to be guardrails in place to prevent Assad from diverting the vaccines as he does other multilateral aid.

Lastly, the March 29 Security Council meeting offered an opportunity for Washington to advocate on behalf of the 10,000 displaced Syrians living in the camp at Rukban near the Jordanian border. The camp is safe from the regime’s depredations because it lies within the 55-kilometer deconfliction zone surrounding the U.S. garrison at Tanf. Yet living conditions are dire because Assad blocks UN aid deliveries, a flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. While pressuring the regime to stop this obstruction, the administration should ask the Jordanian government to allow aid into Rukban across its border and to allow the UN to re-open the border clinic that served the camp’s residents until last year. The United States could also provide aid itself.

Blinken’s advocacy at the UN helped to elevate the issue of humanitarian aid. The next step for the administration is to lay out exactly how it will alleviate the crisis in Syria.

David Adesnik is research director and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). For more analysis from David and FDD, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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