France-Syrie, l'heure de vérité
France-Syrie, l'heure de vérité
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

France-Syrie, l'heure de vérité

Pour la France et la Syrie, l'heure de vérité est sur le point de sonner. L'ultimatum lancé par le président Sarkozy - élection d'un nouveau président libanais d'ici le samedi 22 décembre, ou dégradation considérable des relations entre les deux pays - représente un tournant. Sans issue positive, la Syrie risque de sacrifier les succès engrangés ces derniers mois.

Après de longues années durant lesquelles l'administration Bush s'essaya à marginaliser Damas, la Syrie a vu subitement s'ouvrir des perspectives de rapprochement avec les Etats-Unis, le monde arabe et la France. Les rencontres entre la secrétaire d'Etat Condoleezza Rice et son homologue syrien furent suivies d'une invitation pressante à assister à la conférence d'Annapolis le 27 novembre. Vint également la visite surprise du roi de Jordanie à Damas le 18 novembre, mettant fin à une longue période d'ostracisme et annonçant peut-être le retour de la Syrie dans le giron arabe à l'occasion du prochain sommet arabe, à Damas, en mars 2008. Pour finir, l'initiative du président Sarkozy, délesté du ressentiment personnel de son prédécesseur, a consacré le rôle syrien dans la gestion de la crise libanaise.

Embellie spectaculaire et riche en possibilités, mais ô combien fragile et réversible. L'administration américaine demeure sceptique et divisée. Rice et le département d'Etat ont fait valoir les efforts accrus de la Syrie pour sécuriser sa frontière avec l'Irak ainsi que sa présence constructive à Annapolis. Mais la secrétaire d'Etat elle-même n'est qu'à moitié convaincue. Pire, une partie des conseillers de Bush guette la première occasion pour renvoyer Damas dans l'axe du mal et prouver que tout dialogue conforte le régime sans en changer le comportement. L'Arabie Saoudite, pivot de tout retour en grâce dans le monde arabe, reste également sur la réserve ; elle ne pardonnera pas facilement à Damas ses insultes répétées, son implication présumée dans l'assassinat, en 2005, du leader libanais Rafic Hariri et son alliance avec l'Iran.

Quant à la France, Sarkozy a les défauts de ses qualités. Amateur de risques pour qui seul compte le succès, il est aussi prompt à l'emballement qu'au désenchantement. Il a déjà beaucoup misé sur son partenariat avec le président syrien, allant jusqu'à convaincre l'hôte de la Maison Blanche de lui laisser la gestion de la question libano-syrienne. Le retour de bâton, en cas d'échec, n'en sera certainement que plus brutal. Humilié, Sarkozy sera accusé de naïveté par les Etats-Unis et se rangera, n'en doutons pas, au premier rang des détracteurs de Damas.

D'où l'importance de l'élection présidentielle libanaise. Qu'elle se tienne avant la fin de l'année et Sarkozy tiendra sa victoire, débouchant sur une relance massive des relations franco-syriennes et renforçant sa capacité de liaison entre la Syrie et les Etats-Unis. Si, au contraire, l'impasse libanaise se prolonge, si l'Elysée abandonne ses efforts face à la passivité, voire l'obstruction de Damas, c'est tout l'édifice qui s'écroulera. A Paris comme à Washington et Riyad, la reconversion se fera d'autant plus aisément que la foi y est précaire.

Certes le régime syrien y survivrait ; il a déjà démontré sa capacité à absorber les coups et même à en tirer profit. Mais il aura laissé s'envoler une rare opportunité et ce gâchis minera d'emblée toute dynamique de rapprochement avec la prochaine administration américaine.

Pour éviter cela, la Syrie et la France auront à résister à plusieurs tentations. Pour Damas, il existe celle du vide libanais, qui coûte davantage à la majorité anti-syrienne qu'au Hezbollah, son allié clé. Mais le président Bachar Al-Assad doit mettre dans la balance ses relations avec le monde occidental et arabe. Son homologue français peut l'y aider, en insistant sur les retombées positives d'une coopération dans le dossier libanais et sur les conséquences désastreuses du contraire.

De son côté, la France pourrait succomber à la tentation de caricaturer le rôle à attendre de la Syrie. Bien sur, ses leviers sont importants : le Hezbollah dépend entièrement de Damas pour son approvisionnement en armes, et ses autres partenaires sont plus maniables encore. Mais le parti islamiste a des lignes rouges que même Damas ne pourra lui faire franchir (protection de ses armes, des intérêts chiites et de son alliance avec les forces chrétiennes du général Aoun, qui lui évite une identité purement sectaire). Quant à Aoun, il n'est en rien subordonné aux desiderata syriens. Or c'est lui qui s'estime lésé par le choix du général Michel Suleiman comme prochain président et qui s'y oppose avec acharnement.

A la Syrie, donc, la tâche de convaincre ses alliés. En signe de bonne foi, ils doivent abandonner la multiplication de réclamations fluctuantes et, pour certaines, infondées. Il s'agit désormais de s'en tenir à une liste de revendications claires, délimitées et justifiées. A la France revient le devoir d'approfondir son travail de médiateur, en mettant en particulier l'accent sur le général Aoun. Personnage difficile, certes. Mais n'oublions pas que l'option Suleiman a été conçue pour le neutraliser en sapant sa popularité parmi les chrétiens. Tant que cela restera l'objectif, Aoun ne s'y pliera pas et ses alliés chiites ne l'abandonneront pas. Pour qu'il accepte Suleiman, Aoun aura besoin de compensations politiques. Il n'acceptera de renoncer à la présidence qu'à la condition de devenir le héros des chrétiens.

Depuis sept ans maintenant, la politique américaine envers la Syrie court d'échec en échec. La voie inédite choisie par la France offre enfin la chance de prouver que le dialogue peut obtenir ce que la pression à sens unique ne peut pas.

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Workers carry boxes of humanitarian aid near Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate, Syria, June 30, 2021. Picture taken June 30, 2021. REUTERS/Mahmoud Hassano

A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

The UN Security Council is considering renewing an understanding whereby UN agencies transport aid to Idlib, an area held by Syrian rebels. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Richard Gowan, Dareen Khalifa and Ashish Pradhan explain why the arrangement remains essential.

What is at stake in the Security Council?

The UN Security Council is set to vote soon on the renewal of a mandate that allows UN agencies to deliver aid to rebel-held Idlib in north-western Syria via a border crossing with Türkiye without asking for approval from the government in Damascus. The UN calculates that nearly two and a half million people rely on this lifeline for food and other essential supplies. Yet the arrangement is contentious. Since 2019, Russia, the Syrian regime’s ally, has aimed to curtail the mandate, arguing that the UN should work with Damascus on aid deliveries out of respect for Syria’s sovereignty.

In 2021, the U.S. made a concerted effort to convince Moscow to help keep the mandate alive, but it has made no similar push in 2022, as the two powers’ relations have collapsed over Russia’s war in Ukraine. Senior UN officials worry that Russia may veto the mandate – which should be renewed by 10 July – causing a dramatic drop in humanitarian assistance to Idlib and potentially leading to an influx of refugees into Türkiye. What happens with the mandate is a concern for the UN and, more importantly, for the people in Idlib.

The Security Council first authorised the UN to deliver cross-border aid to opposition-controlled areas of Syria without Damascus’s approval in 2014. At first, this mandate covered four crossing points, giving UN agencies access to southern and north-eastern Syria as well as the north west. The Council members’ cooperation on humanitarian issues despite their broader rifts over the war in Syria was a rare bright spot in UN diplomacy. But in rancorous debates in late 2019 and mid-2020, during which Russia and China used their vetoes three times to block resolutions renewing the mandate, Moscow succeeded in limiting the UN’s cross-border operations to a single crossing, at Bab al-Hawa between Türkiye and Idlib. Russia also made clear that the mandate could not be renewed indefinitely.

In 2021, the Biden administration identified maintaining aid to Idlib as an area for better relations with Russia. U.S. officials negotiated over the mandate’s future bilaterally with their Russian counterparts in Vienna and Geneva. While the official U.S. position was that the Council should reauthorise opening all four original crossings – an outcome few UN officials and diplomats thought likely – Russia assented that July only to keeping Bab al-Hawa open. Moscow also demanded that the UN work harder on channelling aid into Idlib from government-held Syrian territory (which is referred to as “cross-line” aid, as opposed to cross-border from Türkiye) and called for greater international funding for “early recovery” projects in government-controlled parts of Syria. Finally, Russia insisted that the UN Secretary-General report on cross-line aid halfway through the mandate period in January 2022, indicating that it might try to block the mandate’s continuation at that point (though it did not act on this threat). Despite these caveats, the Biden administration presented the fact that Russia was willing to keep the mandate alive at all – and the absence of public rows and vetoes at the UN like those in 2019 and 2020 – as proof that the U.S. could do business with the Kremlin.

Security Council members [fret] that Russian and Western diplomats would fail to reach an agreement on the future of aid to Syria.

A year on, that optimism looks like a thing of the past. Since Russia’s assault on Ukraine in February and the sharp deterioration in Moscow’s relations with Western powers, Security Council members have fretted that Russian and Western diplomats would fail to reach an agreement on the future of aid to Syria. As things stand, the mandate’s fate remains unclear with less than a week to go before the deadline for its renewal.

Ireland and Norway, the Security Council’s two elected members acting as “penholders” (diplomatic leads) on the issue, introduced a draft resolution renewing the authorisation for aid deliveries through Bab al-Hawa for twelve months on 27 June. Russia has yet to make a definitive response, and Council members expect that there may be intense wrangling over the text before the vote. The outcome will have a major effect on the lives of civilians in Idlib. It is also a crucial test of how far Russia and the West can continue to work together at the Security Council – however grudgingly – as the war in Ukraine rages and their policies become ever more hostile to one another.

How important is the mandate for Idlib and are there alternatives?

Despite the high level of tension in the Security Council over cross-border aid, this mandate has given the UN essential political backing to guide humanitarian operations in Idlib. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in particular has played a pivotal role in cross-border aid delivery. The Council mandate allowed OCHA to coordinate donor response, lead negotiations with local authorities, and guarantee a significant degree of transparency for aid delivered into these rebel-held areas. OCHA has also helped NGOs involved in relief work navigate the legal and political hurdles of operating in an area under the control of Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist militia running most of Idlib. HTS is UN-sanctioned and is listed by Russia, the U.S. and Türkiye as a terrorist organisation.

The UN has additionally led negotiations involving Damascus and the HTS-backed Salvation Government that administers Idlib over the balance between cross-border and cross-line aid operations. The Syrian government and Russia insist that the UN ramp up cross-line assistance as an alternative to channelling aid through Bab al-Hawa, as part of their effort to reinstate Damascus’s influence over aid delivery to all of Syria. UN officials and Western diplomats are sceptical that this proposal is realistic, especially given the Syrian regime’s track record of blocking aid to punish civilians in opposition-held areas and the hostility of its rhetoric toward Idlib and its residents. From a technical point of view, cross-border aid remains the cheapest, quickest and most reliable way to meet Idlib’s needs. A report from the UN Secretary-General in June stated that UN humanitarian monitors counted some 1,686 trucks carrying supplies (four fifths of them bearing food) from Türkiye into Idlib in April and May alone. By contrast, the report noted that the UN had overseen just five cross-line convoys between July 2021 and June 2022, and highlighted one in May that involved just fourteen trucks.

The U.S. and its allies have agreed that the UN should also experiment with cross-line aid ... into Idlib.

Nonetheless, the U.S. and its allies have agreed that the UN should also experiment with cross-line aid, mainly as a political concession to Russia and in hope of retaining Moscow’s acquiescence to cross-border operations. In 2021, the Security Council agreed to “encourage efforts to improve cross-line deliveries of humanitarian assistance” from government-controlled areas into Idlib. Moscow complains that the resolution has not been fully respected, as cross-line deliveries to Idlib have remained irregular, while HTS (and civil society groups in Idlib) as well as many humanitarian agency employees describe these efforts as a sop to the Kremlin rather than serious aid.

This debate has also become highly contentious for local forces in Idlib. HTS and the Salvation Government have reluctantly agreed to some of the cross-line aid deliveries, providing them with security and allowing for safe distribution. Yet HTS has come under fierce criticism from parts of the population and rivals in Syria’s opposition for thus “collaborating” with a regime that has killed thousands and displaced millions of Syrians. In private, HTS members express concern that the cross-line mechanism is a quandary for them: if they cooperate, they are criticised locally; if they don’t, they will be condemned internationally; and in neither situation can cross-line aid address even a fraction of humanitarian needs in Idlib. For the time being, HTS has found it prudent to facilitate the safe passage of several cross-line aid convoys to avoid giving Moscow a pretext to put a halt to the UN’s cross-border mandate and to strengthen Türkiye’s hand in negotiating with Russia. According to HTS, it would be much harder for them to cooperate on cross-line aid if Moscow were to veto the cross-border mandate’s renewal.

What would a Russian veto mean?

If Russia does veto renewal of the cross-border aid mandate, the immediate fallout could be chaotic. It is not clear whether OCHA would have to abruptly end its Syria operations in Türkiye or whether it could continue to play a minimal coordination function during a transitional phase. Regardless, the absence of OCHA’s irreplaceable aid infrastructure and cross-border mandate would significantly reduce the volume of aid and the efficiency of the donor response. It would also leave NGOs and donors struggling to manage aid coordination and oversight, while reducing their leverage in dealing with authorities in Türkiye and Idlib. UN officials estimate that NGOs could supply at best 30 to 40 per cent of the aid that the UN has been providing. In practice that means hunger will increase, medical cases will go untreated, and millions will be at risk of losing shelter and assistance.

Crisis Group’s interlocutors in Idlib agree that the aid flow’s disruption could lead many of the region’s inhabitants – many of whom fled other parts of Syria earlier in the war – to attempt to escape the area, mostly by trying to enter Türkiye. How Ankara would respond to chaos at the border remains unclear; already in Türkiye the presence of an estimated 3.7 million Syrian refugees is a source of socio-political tension, which is on the rise due to economic troubles and elections due in June 2023. Although living conditions in Idlib have improved considerably since Moscow and Ankara forged a de facto ceasefire in 2020, the population remains anxious about the precarious situation. “Our lives depend on the mood in the Kremlin every few months. This is inhuman and unsustainable”, an Idlib resident said.

What are the chances the mandate will survive?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Security Council members generally seemed pessimistic about the chances of renewing the mandate for cross-border aid in conversations with Crisis Group. Now, however, some are guardedly optimistic that Moscow will let it survive. It is mostly a matter of speculation. The Russian mission in New York typically has to wait until late in negotiations on this file to get clear instructions from Moscow on how to act. In negotiations on the draft resolution tabled by Ireland and Norway on 27 June extending the mandate, neither Russian nor Chinese diplomats appeared to have definite guidance from their capitals. Western diplomats hope that Moscow will decide that it will retain greater leverage over events in Idlib by agreeing to renew the mandate – which gives it a platform for pushing the UN to work harder at cross-line aid – rather than forcing a crisis.

Western officials hope that Moscow will [refrain from using its veto] on this occasion.

Although Western and Russian diplomats have had toxic relations at the Security Council over Ukraine, Moscow has refrained from using its veto on other resolutions, such as a new mandate for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, that other countries feared it might block. Western officials hope that Moscow will show similar restraint on this occasion, especially as vetoing the resolution would intensify its tensions with Türkiye (Turkish sources, by contrast, insist that they cannot prevent Russia from using its veto, and argue that Ankara should not be expected to fix this problem on behalf of the U.S. and European nations). China may also help moderate Russia’s calculations. During the 2021 negotiations over the Syrian humanitarian mandate, Chinese diplomats told Western counterparts that they did not want a repeat of the public disputes of 2019 and 2020. In 2022, they have emphasised the need to avoid too many blow-ups in the Security Council while the Russian-Ukrainian war continues.

There are different views regarding what Council negotiations will bring. Some Council members speculate that Russia could make last-minute demands – most likely over cross-line aid and funding for recovery – in the coming days. While the Council is slated to vote on mandate renewal on 7 July, it could push the date back, with negotiations perhaps running past the current mandate’s expiry on 10 July. Equally some UN officials guess that Russia will not create this sort of disruption, meaning that the process may end with a quick vote.

What is the longer-term future of cross-border aid to Syria?

It is clear that the best outcome of current UN diplomacy over Syria would be for the Security Council to renew the mandate for cross-border aid for a year. No credible alternative set of arrangements exists for cross-border aid. If Russia does veto the mandate, the fallout would provoke enormous humanitarian suffering, additional displacement and, potentially, political turmoil in and around Idlib. While Moscow has shown scant regard for the disapproval of other Security Council members over its war on Ukraine, it might be wary of straining its relationship with Ankara – and of creating a new crisis for itself in Syria while it is focused on Ukraine.

Nonetheless, Western members of the Council and UN officials need to ready themselves for an end to the cross-border-mandate, either in July or at a later date. The original Council mandate for cross-border aid to Syria in 2014 was based on the assumption that rebel-controlled enclaves around the country were temporary phenomena, and the mandate as well. For now, it appears more likely that the Syrian conflict is moving into an extended stalemate with no clear military or political resolution on the horizon. Areas of northern Syria where millions of displaced Syrians live might remain outside government control – and in need of significant external aid – for some time to come. There is no guarantee that the Security Council will continue to renew the authorisation for cross-border aid indefinitely.

Donors, the UN and NGOs already have plans for the eventuality that the cross-border arrangements end. One option – even if the mandate is renewed – may be for OCHA to gradually wind down its delivery operations while continuing to play a smaller coordination role and helping build up the capacity of NGOs to supply aid to Idlib in place of UN agencies. In this case, a future Russian veto would do less damage to aid supplies than it would do today. For the time being, however, it is essential that the Security Council renew the mandate for cross-border aid to avoid a fresh humanitarian disaster in north-western Syria.

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