La Coalition nationale syrienne minée par ses parrains étrangers
La Coalition nationale syrienne minée par ses parrains étrangers
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

La Coalition nationale syrienne minée par ses parrains étrangers

La Coalition nationale syrienne (CNS) se déchire pour savoir s’il lui faut ou non participer à la conférence « Genève II » avec le régime syrien. Ses divisions sont la traduction des rivalités entre les États qui la soutiennent.

La plus grande faiblesse de l’opposition syrienne réside dans ses relations extérieures, avec les États qui la soutiennent. Ces appuis sont pourtant censés faire sa force, mais ils ont déclenché une dynamique néfaste qui entame la crédibilité de l’opposition. Ce paradoxe est rarement apparu aussi évident qu’à l’heure actuelle, au moment où la Coalition nationale syrienne (CNS), le principal rassemblement de mouvements d’opposition, peine à répondre aux pressions de puissances rivales et à décider si elle doit ou non participer à la conférence « Genève II » aux côtés de représentants du régime.

Les liens de la CNS avec les puissances régionales ou occidentales qui la soutiennent ne sont pas seulement une affaire de relations internationales. Ces influences extérieures ont présidé de façon organique à la création de la Coalition, et elles restent au cœur de sa raison d’être. Il fallait s’y attendre, au moins en partie. Quatre décennies d’oppression sous les Assad ont empêché l’apparition de toute forme de solution de rechange à l’intérieur du pays. Les élites qui ont créé l’opposition au début du soulèvement manquaient totalement de base politique. Elles n’ont pu se prévaloir d’un soutien populaire. Les groupes locaux de militants qui ont émergé lors des premiers mois de l’insurrection n’ont pas été capables de développer des réseaux nationaux. Leur influence s’est érodée au fur et à mesure de la militarisation du conflit et d’une prolifération de factions armées qui donne le vertige. En l’absence de tout autre moyen pour mesurer le poids politique des mouvements, c’est le soutien de l’étranger qui est devenu le facteur décisif pour la distribution du pouvoir au sein de la Coalition, créée en novembre 2012. Pour les militants qui ont donné le feu vert à l’établissement de la CNS, son rôle était d’obtenir un soutien politique et militaire international au renversement de Bachar Al-Assad, et non de diriger l’insurrection sur le terrain.

Résultat, la géographie de la CNS a été tracée au gré des appuis d’États étrangers. Ces soutiens extérieurs sont devenus la première monnaie d’échange politique. Les blocs rivaux à l’intérieur de la Coalition se sont servis de leurs protecteurs étrangers pour avoir le dessus dans les débats internes. Et à l’inverse, les désaccords et la compétition entre États parrains ont eu des répercussions à l’intérieur de la CNS. Ces dynamiques sont apparues particulièrement évidentes — et néfastes — lors de l’élection d’un premier ministre provisoire en mars 2013. Un bloc puissant, dirigé par Moustapha Sabbagh, un homme d’affaires appuyé par le Qatar, a fait alliance avec un autre groupe mené par les Frères musulmans pour élire un candidat peu connu, Ghassan Hitto. Au grand dam des indépendants laïques de la Coalition et de l’Arabie saoudite. Tous ont craint de voir une alliance d’islamistes modérés soutenue par le Qatar mettre la main sur l’opposition politique.

LA RIPOSTE DE L’ARABIE SAOUDITE

La riposte des Saoudiens a été agressive. Ils ont refusé de soutenir Hitto et appuyé la formation d’un nouveau bloc politique par le dissident laïque Michel Kilo, tout en s’alliant à la France et aux États-Unis pour presser la CNS de s’élargir. Ainsi Riyad a modifié en sa propre faveur l’équilibre régional au sein de la Coalition et fait avorter l’installation de Hitto comme premier ministre. Mais ces luttes de pouvoir géopolitiques et régionales dans l’opposition ont surtout constitué une énorme diversion. Elles ont dominé l’emploi du temps de la CNS pendant des mois, l’empêchant de progresser sur tous les autres fronts. La Coalition a attendu septembre 2013 pour élire un nouveau premier ministre. Et début novembre, plus de sept mois après l’élection de Hitto, elle n’avait pas avancé d’un pas vers le but qui justifie tout ce processus : nommer des ministres provisoires chargés de superviser l’aide aux régions tenues par les rebelles.

À présent, plutôt que de réfléchir sérieusement à la façon dont elle pourrait commencer à jouer un rôle efficace sur le terrain, la Coalition s’enlise dans la dernière diversion géopolitique en date, l’offensive diplomatique américano-russe en faveur de la conférence dite « Genève II ». Certes, l’objectif est noble. En définitive, la meilleure chance de mettre fin à cette guerre désastreuse que personne ne peut gagner, c’est de trouver une solution politique. Mais en faisant ouvertement pression sur laCNS pour qu’elle participe aux pourparlers, les États-Unis n’ont obtenu pour le moment qu’un seul résultat, celui de diminuer un peu plus la crédibilité de la Coalition, déjà très faible, à l’intérieur de la Syrie.

En décidant, au mois de septembre, d’annuler de facto leur menace d’opérations militaires en échange de la fin du programme d’armes chimiques du régime, les États-Unis ont conclu un marché qui a écarté l’une de leurs plus grandes inquiétudes. Mais cet arrangement a laissé les mains libres au régime pour se livrer à une escalade dans la guerre conventionnelle contre les communautés favorables à l’opposition. Le marchandage a conduit l’opposition à s’interroger plus encore sur la pertinence de la Coalition. Cette dernière présentait sa capacité à obtenir le soutien des Occidentaux comme sa principale valeur ajoutée. Après le regain de respectabilité internationale du régime dû à l’accord sur le désarmement chimique, la fermeté renouvelée de Moscou dans son soutien à Damas et le scepticisme proclamé de l’Arabie saoudite, premier allié des opposants, la base de l’opposition a déjà tiré ses propres conclusions : elle considère largement Genève II comme une entreprise destinée à restaurer la légitimité du régime plutôt qu’à négocier son remplacement.

La position du régime ne les fera pas changer d’avis. Damas refuse d’emblée de négocier sur les bases, pourtant annoncées, du communiqué de Genève de juin 2012. Celui-ci prévoyait un organisme de transition approuvé par les deux parties et doté des pleins pouvoirs exécutifs L’attitude de la Russie ne rassure pas non plus les opposants. Moscou n’a donné que peu d’indications sur sa volonté — ou sa capacité — de faire pression sur le régime de Damas pour qu’il accepte une véritable transition politique.

DES GROUPES ARMÉS DE L’INTÉRIEUR REFUSENT GENÈVE II

À l’heure actuelle, en vue des pourparlers de Genève II, la Coalition paraît se trouver face à une alternative peu engageante. Si elle refuse de participer, elle apportera au régime syrien et aux alliés de Damas un succès de relations publiques et elle mettra à mal ses propres liens avec Washington. L’alliance américaine reste pourtant le principal pilier de l’influence de la Coalition ou de ce qu’il en reste. Mais, d’autre part, si la CNS accepte de prendre part à Genève II, elle portera un coup peut-être fatal à sa crédibilité auprès de la base de l’opposition, surtout dans la mesure où des groupes militants de première importance ont récemment publié des communiqués condamnant explicitement Genève II et toute personne qui y participerait. En particulier la déclaration publiée le 26 octobre par vingt-et-un groupes armés, parmi lesquels des factions puissantes telles que Liwa al-Towhid, Suqour al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham.

Du point de vue de l’opposition, le problème posé par Genève II ne réside pas dans le concept d’une conférence débouchant sur une transition politique. Le problème, c’est le scepticisme largement partagé sur ses chances de succès. Les alliés occidentaux de l’opposition ne devraient pas se fixer comme priorité de traîner la Coalition à la table des négociations, mais plutôt de faire en sorte que cette table ait des pieds pour tenir debout. Les ressources diplomatiques américaines, concentrées en ce moment sur laCNS, seraient mieux employées à Moscou, pour obtenir des Russes des indications précises sur leurs intentions. Pour savoir s’ils sont prêts à pousser le régime syrien vers un compromis, maintenant qu’une frappe militaire imminente n’est plus à l’ordre du jour. Si la Russie continue à garder le silence alors que Bachar Al-Assad réduit à la famine des quartiers pro-opposition situés à quelques kilomètres seulement de son bureau, il semble qu’il n’y aura pas grand-chose à discuter à Genève.
 

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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