.
S

yrians today face daunting challenges as the world marks the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian Civil War. This includes major humanitarian, economic, and protection shortcomings that will not be fully addressed anytime soon. Due to these constraints, the upcoming United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote in July on UNSC Resolution 2533 that allows for cross-border aid flows into northwest Syria is of critical importance. Unfortunately for Syrians, UNSCR 2533’s renewal is unlikely without immediate action by supportive states.

To be sure, the complex situation in Syria today will make such renewal efforts difficult. Syria is de facto partitioned, with President Bashar al Assad in control of much of the south and some areas in the north, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast, and Turkish-backed groups in the northwest alongside various jihadist groups like Ha’yat Tahrir al Sham (HTS). Additionally, Russian, U.S., and Israeli forces, alongside Iran-backed militias, regularly operate across the country. Worse, the so-called Islamic State is reemerging in eastern Syria.

These factions continue to compete for an edge in the country. Assad, arguably correctly, views himself as the conflict’s victor, which has bolstered his confidence. The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and HTS continue to wrestle for control of the security situation in the northwest. Turkey, Russia, and the Assad regime regularly pressure the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), with recent fighting in hotspots around Ain Issa and Qamishli.

Sustained hostilities have ravaged the Syrian economy. Today, 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line of USD $1.90 a day. Food prices have increased significantly due to decimated infrastructure, supply shortages, and a decimated currency valued at roughly 3,600 Syrian Pounds (SYP) to the USD, increasing bread prices over 247 percent since last year. The currency crisis also stems in-part from international sanctions, such as the U.S. Caesar Act, as well as a parallel economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

Today, economic stagnation and conflict have produced a humanitarian and protection crisis unseen during the war. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), nearly 11.1 million people need assistance, including 4.8 million children. COVID-19 is spreading unmitigated, with OCHA reporting severely underreported and widespread community transmission. Syria hosts the largest internally displaced person (IDP) population in the world at roughly 6.1 million. This combination of basic need, the pandemic, and a displacement has hit Syrians hard this past winter, with recent floods destroying tents used by IDPs as shelter in UN-supported camps.

Ultimately, the need for UN humanitarian programs given the current scenario goes without saying. In a setting with an ongoing conflict with no end in sight, an economy in tatters, and humanitarian need of massive proportions, issues of humanitarian access must be minimalized at all costs—making the upcoming vote on UNSCR 2533 critically important.

Resolution 2533 was adopted by the UNSC in July 2020 as a partial extension of UNSCR 2165, which in 2014 mandated cross-border aid at the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha without the consent of the Syrian government. The objective was to bypass attempts by the Assad regime to subvert aid flows to rebel-held areas, which the Syrian government achieved by stifling the process through Damascus.

In December 2019, permanent UNSC members began to disagree on cross-border aid due to territorial gains by Assad, resulting in a Russian and Chinese veto of its annual renewal. UNSCR 2504 was later passed in January 2020 as a compromise that closed both the Al-Ramtha and Al Yarubiyah crossings in the south and northeast, respectively. Then came UNSCR 2533 in July 2020, which renewed the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the northwest in exchange for the closing of Bab al-Salam.

Ultimately, Russian and Chinese actions reflect a scenario in which the Bab al-Hawa crossing will close this summer. Russia has a vested interest in ending the Syrian war and beginning a reconstruction phase that solidifies Assad’s regime. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is clear on this stance, having stated “we do not consider it practical to extend the CBM.” In Moscow’s view, Assad has recaptured large swaths of the country, making any “temporary” emergency measure designed to streamline aid flows among multiple actors in the conflict obsolete.

This stance is unacceptable if humanitarian needs are to be met in northern Syria. The Assad regime is struggling with legitimacy, due to limitations in its governing capabilities across large swaths of territory, and is disinterested in sending aid to enemies—as actions in the recaptured south reflect. Recognizing this, the United States and its UNSC partners will need to engage with their Russian counterparts to find a compromise.

Washington has indicated minimal interest in engagement recently. This includes Syria Response Director of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance Alex Mahony, who signaled that the UNSCR 2533 is a major priority for his team. Most importantly, the U.S. Secretary of State recently expressed the continued U.S. interest in renewing UNSCR 2533, as well as reopening formerly closed crossings, in an open UNSC briefing on Syria on March 29.

Yet, even with this rhetoric, more must be done by the Biden team if they hope to renew UNSCR 2533 and re-open other border crossings. The situation on the ground in Syria has shifted perceptions substantially, with many regional states now at least implicitly supportive of Assad and the war’s end. This bolsters the Russian position to call for an end to cross-border aid. Worse, the United States seems unprepared to compromise on issues that may be vital to any renewal, such as Caesar Act sanction relief that Russia views as vital to garnering reconstruction funds from regional powerhouses.

Therefore, it seems likely that millions of Syrians will lose access to critical aid coming from UN programs, almost certainly spelling an end to any resistance in the north. Assad knows this—it is why he has stalled the Syrian Constitutional Committee and continues to shell rebel positions. Unfortunately, it seems likely that limited engagement will produce a winning scenario for Russia and Assad, to the dismay of innocent Syrians.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois is a freelance writer covering MENA diplomacy, peace, and conflict topics at the intersection of global governance. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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An Even Worse Humanitarian Access Problem for Syrians

Photo by Julie Ricard via Unsplash.

April 7, 2021

S

yrians today face daunting challenges as the world marks the 10-year anniversary of the Syrian Civil War. This includes major humanitarian, economic, and protection shortcomings that will not be fully addressed anytime soon. Due to these constraints, the upcoming United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote in July on UNSC Resolution 2533 that allows for cross-border aid flows into northwest Syria is of critical importance. Unfortunately for Syrians, UNSCR 2533’s renewal is unlikely without immediate action by supportive states.

To be sure, the complex situation in Syria today will make such renewal efforts difficult. Syria is de facto partitioned, with President Bashar al Assad in control of much of the south and some areas in the north, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast, and Turkish-backed groups in the northwest alongside various jihadist groups like Ha’yat Tahrir al Sham (HTS). Additionally, Russian, U.S., and Israeli forces, alongside Iran-backed militias, regularly operate across the country. Worse, the so-called Islamic State is reemerging in eastern Syria.

These factions continue to compete for an edge in the country. Assad, arguably correctly, views himself as the conflict’s victor, which has bolstered his confidence. The Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and HTS continue to wrestle for control of the security situation in the northwest. Turkey, Russia, and the Assad regime regularly pressure the Kurdish Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES), with recent fighting in hotspots around Ain Issa and Qamishli.

Sustained hostilities have ravaged the Syrian economy. Today, 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line of USD $1.90 a day. Food prices have increased significantly due to decimated infrastructure, supply shortages, and a decimated currency valued at roughly 3,600 Syrian Pounds (SYP) to the USD, increasing bread prices over 247 percent since last year. The currency crisis also stems in-part from international sanctions, such as the U.S. Caesar Act, as well as a parallel economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon.

Today, economic stagnation and conflict have produced a humanitarian and protection crisis unseen during the war. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), nearly 11.1 million people need assistance, including 4.8 million children. COVID-19 is spreading unmitigated, with OCHA reporting severely underreported and widespread community transmission. Syria hosts the largest internally displaced person (IDP) population in the world at roughly 6.1 million. This combination of basic need, the pandemic, and a displacement has hit Syrians hard this past winter, with recent floods destroying tents used by IDPs as shelter in UN-supported camps.

Ultimately, the need for UN humanitarian programs given the current scenario goes without saying. In a setting with an ongoing conflict with no end in sight, an economy in tatters, and humanitarian need of massive proportions, issues of humanitarian access must be minimalized at all costs—making the upcoming vote on UNSCR 2533 critically important.

Resolution 2533 was adopted by the UNSC in July 2020 as a partial extension of UNSCR 2165, which in 2014 mandated cross-border aid at the border crossings of Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha without the consent of the Syrian government. The objective was to bypass attempts by the Assad regime to subvert aid flows to rebel-held areas, which the Syrian government achieved by stifling the process through Damascus.

In December 2019, permanent UNSC members began to disagree on cross-border aid due to territorial gains by Assad, resulting in a Russian and Chinese veto of its annual renewal. UNSCR 2504 was later passed in January 2020 as a compromise that closed both the Al-Ramtha and Al Yarubiyah crossings in the south and northeast, respectively. Then came UNSCR 2533 in July 2020, which renewed the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the northwest in exchange for the closing of Bab al-Salam.

Ultimately, Russian and Chinese actions reflect a scenario in which the Bab al-Hawa crossing will close this summer. Russia has a vested interest in ending the Syrian war and beginning a reconstruction phase that solidifies Assad’s regime. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs is clear on this stance, having stated “we do not consider it practical to extend the CBM.” In Moscow’s view, Assad has recaptured large swaths of the country, making any “temporary” emergency measure designed to streamline aid flows among multiple actors in the conflict obsolete.

This stance is unacceptable if humanitarian needs are to be met in northern Syria. The Assad regime is struggling with legitimacy, due to limitations in its governing capabilities across large swaths of territory, and is disinterested in sending aid to enemies—as actions in the recaptured south reflect. Recognizing this, the United States and its UNSC partners will need to engage with their Russian counterparts to find a compromise.

Washington has indicated minimal interest in engagement recently. This includes Syria Response Director of USAID’s Bureau of Humanitarian Assistance Alex Mahony, who signaled that the UNSCR 2533 is a major priority for his team. Most importantly, the U.S. Secretary of State recently expressed the continued U.S. interest in renewing UNSCR 2533, as well as reopening formerly closed crossings, in an open UNSC briefing on Syria on March 29.

Yet, even with this rhetoric, more must be done by the Biden team if they hope to renew UNSCR 2533 and re-open other border crossings. The situation on the ground in Syria has shifted perceptions substantially, with many regional states now at least implicitly supportive of Assad and the war’s end. This bolsters the Russian position to call for an end to cross-border aid. Worse, the United States seems unprepared to compromise on issues that may be vital to any renewal, such as Caesar Act sanction relief that Russia views as vital to garnering reconstruction funds from regional powerhouses.

Therefore, it seems likely that millions of Syrians will lose access to critical aid coming from UN programs, almost certainly spelling an end to any resistance in the north. Assad knows this—it is why he has stalled the Syrian Constitutional Committee and continues to shell rebel positions. Unfortunately, it seems likely that limited engagement will produce a winning scenario for Russia and Assad, to the dismay of innocent Syrians.

About
Alexander J. Langlois
:
Alexander Langlois is a freelance writer covering MENA diplomacy, peace, and conflict topics at the intersection of global governance. He holds an MA in International Affairs from American University’s School of International Service.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.