February 13, 2023 | Flash Brief

UN Aid Chief Apologizes for Failure to Deliver in Northwest Syria

February 13, 2023 | Flash Brief

UN Aid Chief Apologizes for Failure to Deliver in Northwest Syria

Latest Developments

United Nations (UN) aid chief Martin Griffiths made no excuses on Monday for his organization’s slow response to the devastation last week’s earthquake caused in northwest Syria. “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” Griffiths said on Twitter. Two days earlier, Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets civil defense group, demanded an apology from the UN while asking Washington to investigate why the world body had neglected the country’s northwest.

While the regime of Bashar al-Assad controls Syria’s largest cities, 2.9 million Syrians have fled to the enclave in the northwest that remains under the control of Islamist insurgents and other militias that depend on Turkish support. Even before the February 6 earthquake, much of the population lived in tents or ruins despite the frigid weather. While a few dozen truckloads of UN aid have reached the northwest, assistance has poured into Damascus and other areas under Assad’s control, including flights with tons of specialized medical aid.

Expert Analysis

“The abandonment of northwest Syria surprised no one who has been tracking UN aid operations. The UN and its agencies have long prioritized their relationships with Damascus, even though Assad siphons off hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of assistance. Vladimir Putin also deserves much of the blame for Russia’s numerous vetoes of U.S.-led efforts to open additional border crossings to UN aid deliveries. Yet the White House is not blameless. NGOs warned last year that there was an urgent need to open a second channel for aid to northwest Syria so a cut-off of UN assistance would not leave its people desperate.” — David Adesnik, FDD Senior Fellow and Director of Research

Russian Obstruction at the Security Council

In 2020, the Assad regime, with support from Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, launched an offensive to retake the northwest from insurgents. The effort was partly successful, but the COVID-19 pandemic and a worsening economic crisis in Syria appear to be preventing further assaults. Instead, Moscow and Damascus have sought to increase pressure on their adversaries by interfering with humanitarian operations.

Before its military intervention in Syria, Russia agreed to open four border crossings to deliver aid to areas outside Assad’s control, since the regime systematically denied assistance to populations in rebel-held areas. By threatening to veto any continuation of the cross-border program, Russia ensured the closure of three out of those four crossings and that deliveries were only authorized for only six months at a time rather than 12.

During a showdown over cross-border aid last year, an interviewer asked U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield if the United States would consider opening a second cross-border aid channel independent of the UN. She said no, even arguing that opening a second channel would hurt northwest Syria since it might encourage Russian obstruction.

Related Analysis

First Aid Delivery After Quake Reaches Northwest Syria,” FDD Flash Brief

How Russia Won the UN Showdown Over Syria,” by David Adesnik

The Road to Damascus is Paved with Good Intentions,” by David Adesnik


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