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Alexey Khlebnikov

Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst, MSc Global Public Policy, Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota. PhD candidate, RIAC expert.

On July 11, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) finally adopted a resolution extending the authorization of cross-border mechanisms that guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria for another year, until July 10, 2021. However, the UN aid will now go through just one Turkish border crossing — Bab al-Hawa. The resolution did not approve the Bab al-Salam crossing on Syria’s border with Turkey, as well as Al-Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha on the country's borders with Iraq and Jordan, respectively.

Since December 2019, Western countries have been blaming Russia and China for obstructing UN humanitarian aid flow to Syria through border-crossings. This mechanism was established back in 2014 by UNSC resolution 2165 as a temporary measure to increase humanitarian aid outreach to the war-torn country, which was gradually swallowed by radical armed groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. Thus Damascus was unable to address humanitarian challenges properly. Back in 2014, the Syrian government controlled less than half of the country, and this measure/mechanism was seen as appropriate and was prolonged annually until January 2020. Since 2014, the situation on the ground changed dramatically, and by the end of 2019, Damascus, with the help of Russia and Iran, gained control over about 75 per cent of the country.

It seems that in this situation, the only possible way out is to initiate discussions on establishing some sort of joint monitoring mechanism (or update existing UN monitoring practices), which will ensure transparent and fair UN aid delivery and distribution under the supervision of the parties involved. In recent months, Moscow repeatedly sent signals to the West that it is open to discussions on this matter and that Damascus is ready for constructive dialog with humanitarians. The most recent example, which is quite telling, is the delivery of 85 tons of WHO medical supplies from Damascus to Hasaka, which were previously air-lifted from Erbil to Damascus by a Russian cargo plane. It demonstrates that both Russia and Damascus are ready for discussions and joint work with humanitarians. The biggest question in place, though, is whether the U.S. and Europeans are ready to start such dialog in order to increase humanitarian outreach in Syria.

Another obstacle is tightening Western sanctions, majorly boosted by the latest U.S. Caesar Act. Although the Act has a full humanitarian exemption and gives the U.S. president the right to waive the application of sanctions for up to 180 days, which gives some flexibility to the U.S., it is still unclear how it is going to apply the Act in practice and how humanitarians might be affected. It is also unclear how the U.S. is going to define "humanitarian aid" or "reconstruction," depending on who is providing this aid and to whom. This uncertainty doesn't help humanitarians working in Syria. Moscow has been long advocating for unilateral sanctions relief from Syria to help humanitarian and economic revival. Although it seems unrealistic, discussions on the quid pro quo approach to sanctions relief and concessions from the government in Damascus look like the only possible way to move forward.

In this context, discussions on establishing a joint monitoring mechanism on aid delivery might become the first real try to implement such an approach. If Moscow and Damascus are ready to grant unrestricted humanitarian access to the areas both under and out of government control in exchange for the aid going through Damascus with a transparent monitoring mechanism, it will be a promising test for future dialog.


On July 11, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) finally adopted a resolution extending the authorization of cross-border mechanisms that guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria for another year, until July 10, 2021. However, the UN aid will now go through just one Turkish border crossing — Bab al-Hawa. The resolution did not approve the Bab al-Salam crossing on Syria’s border with Turkey, as well as Al-Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha on the country's borders with Iraq and Jordan, respectively.

Since December 2019, Western countries have been blaming Russia and China for obstructing UN humanitarian aid flow to Syria through border-crossings. This mechanism was established back in 2014 by UNSC resolution 2165 as a temporary measure to increase humanitarian aid outreach to the war-torn country, which was gradually swallowed by radical armed groups, including ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates. Thus Damascus was unable to address humanitarian challenges properly. Back in 2014, the Syrian government controlled less than half of the country, and this measure/mechanism was seen as appropriate and was prolonged annually until January 2020. Since 2014, the situation on the ground changed dramatically, and by the end of 2019, Damascus, with the help of Russia and Iran, gained control over about 75 per cent of the country.

Such change made Russia advocate for the gradual scale back of this cross-border mechanism, as it is seen in Moscow as losing its relevance and credibility. In January 2020, the UNSC adopted resolution 2504, which resulted in closing two border crossings on Syria's border with Iraq (al-Yarubiyah) and Jordan (al-Ramtha) and keeping two crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border (Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam). According to Moscow, the Al-Ramtha and al-Yarubiyah crossings were already irrelevant for aid delivery as they were not in use for some time by 2020, since areas across the border were controlled (almost controlled) by the Syrian army. That was the first step in reducing cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria and pushing for increased coordination of the UN with Damascus. According to Russia’s permanent representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya, the West insisted on the prolongation of the cross-border aid-delivery mechanism because it wanted to preserve its status quo in Syria. He said given the fact that "some areas in Syria are still under terrorist control, some are occupied by the U.S., and some are governed by independent administration (supported by foreign states) out of the control of Damascus, humanitarian aid could be easily delivered using ordinary mechanisms, not ad hoc, if there was a genuine desire for that." This is why his suggestion to preserve the ad hoc mechanism raised a lot of questions in Moscow.

At the same time, acknowledging the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, Moscow wanted to retain and enhance access of international humanitarian NGOs to Syria by increasing coordination with Damascus and putting humanitarians in more transparent operational conditions. Since the end of 2019, Russia has been advocating this idea, pushing for UN humanitarian aid to start flowing through Damascus.

As for the recent UNSC discussions on the cross-border mechanism, Russia and China insisted on keeping only the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing open for UN humanitarian aid flow. Moscow argues that 85 per cent of all humanitarian deliveries to the Idlib de-escalation zone go via the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing and only 15 per cent through Bab al-Salam. In addition to that, according to the Russian representative to the UN, territories under terrorist control in Idlib reduced by 30 per cent, which makes the Bab al-Hawa border-crossing sufficient enough to satisfy the humanitarian needs of people in the area. It is also important to underline that the UNSC resolution on cross-border aid delivery affects only UN agencies and its implementing partners. Numerous other NGOs and INGOs that operate independently keep using those border crossings as well as many others. This is to say that although the UN is the major provider of the aid, it is not the sole one.

Russia’s Rationale

Russia is quite clear about its ultimate goal in the humanitarian domain in Syria, which is to cancel the cross-border mechanism and engage the UN and other INGOs to actively work with Damascus on humanitarian aid deliveries within the country across the lines. Moscow's position is explained by several factors.

First and foremost, the situation on the ground changed everywhere in Syria, except Idlib. This is why Russia agreed to keep only Bab al-Hawa functioning to serve Idlib needs, but eventually, it insists that all cross-border deliveries have to be replaced with deliveries in accordance with the guiding principles of UNGA res. 46/182 (1991) — through and in coordination with the central government. Russia is concerned that the humanitarian issue is used by the U.S. and its allies to undermine Syria's territorial sovereignty and create preferable conditions for the areas out of Damascus's control.

Second is the absence of adequate and transparent control over the trans-border aid delivery mechanism. Russia repeatedly expressed concerns about its flaws, including accountability issues. Moscow has no trust that humanitarian aid flowing across borders doesn't end up in the hands of radicals. Russia and China both stated that there were numerous cases when the aid ended up in terrorists’ hands. In addition to that, according to the Russian representative to the UN office in Geneva Gennady Gatilov, border-crossings are also used as a cover for illegal smuggling of all sorts to northern Syria, which even exceeds the volume of humanitarian aid flow. Moreover, UN structures do not operate inside the Idlib province. Hence, they cannot track and guarantee aid delivery and distribution to the targeted audience. It is also known that large portions of Idlib are controlled by UN-designated terrorist groups who use humanitarian aid as leverage over the civilian population, which complicates the aid flow even further.

The third factor is that Moscow is concerned with the way the UN treats humanitarian aid delivery in Syria. While Western states struggle for UN humanitarian aid deliveries to areas out of Damascus's control, government-held territories lack that aid. In 2019, 7.2 million out of a total of 11.7 million Syrians in need lived in the government-controlled areas. Additionally, 3.8 million out of 6.2 million internally displaced persons lived in such areas too. Thus, the majority — 62 percent — of those who need humanitarian aid are in government-held areas which are under strict Western sanctions that significantly complicate the delivery of humanitarian aid, in addition to the deteriorating socio-economic situation. At the same time, areas out of Damascus's control are not subject to Western sanctions, which allows any sort of cross-border aid flow. Of course, the UN cooperates with the Syrian government, and they already succeeded in establishing aid deliveries to the country's Northeast from Damascus. However, there is still not enough cross-line aid flowing there, and especially to the Syrian Northwest and North.

Finally, Russia consistently reports about the UN's refusal to organize humanitarian deliveries to the Idlib and Aleppo provinces via Damascus under the pretext of the risk of COVID-19 transfer from government-held areas. Following this logic, all humanitarian aid coming from Turkey to Syria should have been stopped, as Turkey has a significantly higher rate of COVID infections. However, a Belgium-Germany draft resolution called for an increase is cross-border flow from Turkey. Another example is that, since April 20, 2020, Damascus approved UN aid deliveries to Darrat al-Izza and Atareb in the West of the Aleppo governorate (part of the Idlib de-escalation zone), but no progress is seen in sending a joint convoy of the UN, ICRC and the Syrian Red Crescent Society. According to the Russian mission to the UNSC, the UN never tried to engage Damascus in discussions on aid delivery to areas in the Aleppo province, which recently moved under government control.

Prospects and Obstacles for UN Humanitarian Aid Flow

Russia is going to keep pushing the UN towards closer cooperation with Damascus on humanitarian aid flow. Over the last half a year or so, Russian diplomats repeatedly stated that Damascus is ready for constructive dialog with humanitarians, including on the topic of cross-line delivery within the country. Given that the only remaining border-crossing Bab al-Hawa will be functional just for one year, the UN, together with Russia, Turkey, the U.S. and Europe, should start discussions on ways to deliver humanitarian aid once the crossing is no longer functional.

It seems that Moscow is going to push for closer engagement with the Syrian government, which will be opposed by the U.S. and Europeans. They have their own legitimate concerns about working with the Syrian government, which proved to lack transparency in aid distribution and impose significant limitations and obstacles on humanitarians whilst operating inside the country. Thus, they rightly have concerns (in the same way as Russia does) that there is no working mechanism in place that can guaranty the fair and addressed distribution of humanitarian aid from within the country through Damascus. A major issue between Russia, China, Syria, Iran on one side and the U.S. and EU on the other, is lack of trust on the humanitarian matter. The only way to overcome it is to prove the sincerity of each other's humanitarian motives.

It seems that in this situation, the only possible way out is to initiate discussions on establishing some sort of joint monitoring mechanism (or update existing UN monitoring practices), which will ensure transparent and fair UN aid delivery and distribution under the supervision of the parties involved. In recent months, Moscow repeatedly sent signals to the West that it is open to discussions on this matter and that Damascus is ready for constructive dialog with humanitarians. The most recent example, which is quite telling, is the delivery of 85 tons of WHO medical supplies from Damascus to Hasaka, which were previously air-lifted from Erbil to Damascus by a Russian cargo plane. It demonstrates that both Russia and Damascus are ready for discussions and joint work with humanitarians. The biggest question in place, though, is whether the U.S. and Europeans are ready to start such dialog in order to increase humanitarian outreach in Syria.

Another obstacle is tightening Western sanctions, majorly boosted by the latest U.S. Caesar Act. Although the Act has a full humanitarian exemption and gives the U.S. president the right to waive the application of sanctions for up to 180 days, which gives some flexibility to the U.S., it is still unclear how it is going to apply the Act in practice and how humanitarians might be affected. It is also unclear how the U.S. is going to define "humanitarian aid" or "reconstruction," depending on who is providing this aid and to whom. This uncertainty doesn't help humanitarians working in Syria. Moscow has been long advocating for unilateral sanctions relief from Syria to help humanitarian and economic revival. Although it seems unrealistic, discussions on the quid pro quo approach to sanctions relief and concessions from the government in Damascus look like the only possible way to move forward.

In this context, discussions on establishing a joint monitoring mechanism on aid delivery might become the first real try to implement such an approach. If Moscow and Damascus are ready to grant unrestricted humanitarian access to the areas both under and out of government control in exchange for the aid going through Damascus with a transparent monitoring mechanism, it will be a promising test for future dialog.

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