סוריה אחרי לבנון, לבנון אחרי סוריה
סוריה אחרי לבנון, לבנון אחרי סוריה
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

סוריה אחרי לבנון, לבנון אחרי סוריה

ההתנקשות הטרגית בראש הממשלה לשעבר רפיק אלחרירי היתה שיאה של סדרת ארועים הטומנת בחובה פוטנציאל לשנות מן היסוד לא רק את עתידה של לבנון, אלא גם את זה של סוריה ושל האזור בכללותו. לעת עתה, פעלו רוב השחקנים הבינלאומיים והלבנוניים בחכמה מבורכת; הסיכוי לנסיגה סורית מלבנון ולבחירות לבנוניות חופשיות מהתערבות חיצונית נראה גדול מתמיד. אך הסכנה לאלימות קשה עדיין ממשית מאד. המשטר הסורי, המרגיש שהשרדותו בסכנה, עלול לשוב ולפעול בכח, בהשתמשו בכלים ובבעלי הברית שעוד נותרו לו בלבנון ומחוצה לה; ארצות הברית, בהרגישה שמטרותיה האזוריות הרחבות נמצאות במרחק נגיעה, עלולה גם היא ללקות בשאפתנות גדולה מדי, ולגרור תגובות אלימות מצד סוריה, החזבאללה, או קבוצות חמושות פלסטיניות; החוגים הפוליטיים בלבנון, הידועים בהתפלגויותיהם ובכתתיותם, יכולים ליצור הזדמנויות חדשות להתערבות מבחוץ ולסלול את הדרך לתהו ובהו פנימי. סביר שלמתרחש בלבנון יהיו השלכות אזוריות רציניות – על סוריה ועל החזבאללה בודאי, ואולי גם על תהליך השלום הישראלי-פלסטיני ואפילו על עראק. אך עיסוק בסוגיות האלו לפני פתרון הבעיות בלבנון הוא הדרך הבטוחה למסמס את הענין.

תהא אשר תהא הכונה שמאחוריה, ההתנקשות באלחרירי הגבירה את הלחץ על סוריה, בקבצה יחדיו גורמים ומטרות שהיו נפרדים קודם לכן: ארצות הברית, החותרת להפסקת התמיכה הסורית בקבוצות פלסטיניות חמושות, בחזבאללה ובמורדים בעראק; צרפת, שהתענינותה בנעשה בלבנון היתה רבה עוד קודם לכן, ושעדיין תלתה תקוות בנשיא סוריה; ופעילים לבנוניים, שזמן רב כמעט ולא היו מסוגלים להגיע להסכמה ביניהם בשום נושא. מכיון שהשפעתו של אלחרירי חרגה בהרבה מגבולותיה של לבנון, ומכיון שהוא היה האחראי לחלק גדול מקשריה עם העולם החיצון, הריגתו האיצה את ההתאחדות – הזמנית לפחות – של אויביו הרבים של המשטר הסורי סביב שורה של דרישות: נסיגה מלאה של הצבא ושל שרותי המודיעין הסוריים (מח'אבראת) מלבנון; גלוי האמת אודות רצח אלחרירי; ובחירות לבנוניות חופשיות, תחת פיקוח בינלאומי.

האופוזיציה הלבנונית בקשה על פי רוב לשים דגש על אחדות לאומית, לעמעם את המימד הדתי ולהמנע מהצגת עמדות פרובוקטיביות מדי שעלולות להרחיק ממנה את החזבאללה רב העוצמה או את הקהילה השיעית הגדולה. החזבאללה ניסה הן להפגין סולידריות עם סוריה והן לזרז את ההדברות הלאומית, תוך הכרה למעשה בכך שעבר זמנה של סוריה בלבנון, שאין לו מה להרויח מעימות אזרחי ושעדיף לו להתרכז בשימור מעמדו בזירה הפנימית הלבנונית. לאחר היסוס מה, הפגינה גם וושינגטון ריסון ראוי לציון, בכונה לפעול בשיתוף פעולה הדוק עם הצרפתים, תוך התמקדות לעת עתה בזירה הלבנונית והתגברות על הפיתוי לערב בתוכה מימדים אזוריים ובינלאומיים רחבים יותר (גם אם כאלה הקשורים אליה), כמו פרוק החזבאללה מנשקו, המשך המלחמה בטרור או שינוי המשטר בדמשק.

בתחילת שנת 2004 טענה קבוצת המשבר שבמטרה למנוע משבר בין ארצות הברית לסוריה, על שתיהן לשנות את גישתן: על וושינגטון היה לומר באופן ברור למה היא מצפה ולמה יכולה דמשק לצפות בתמורה; סוריה היתה צריכה להוכיח חד-משמעית שהחליטה לשנות כיוון. אך בעוד שאף אחת משתיהן לא שמה לב לכך, נראה שהאסטרטגיה האמריקאית של הפעלת לחץ תקיף וסרוב לשאת ולתת על דרישותיה, היתה משתלמת. משטר הבעת' מבודד מתמיד, על סף איבוד נכס אזורי משמעותי, כשמעליו מרחפות שאלות נכבדות באשר למשך הזמן שבו יוכל לשרוד כמות שהוא. מנקודת מבטו של ממשל בוש, זהו הזמן לסחוט וללחוץ, לא הזמן לדבר.

אולם יחד עם זאת, לא ארצות הברית ולא שאר הקהילה הבינלאומית אינן יכולות להרשות לעצמן להשאר אדישות לאופן שבו יפעלו השחקנים הסורים והלבנונים. כעת ברור שסוריה צריכה לעזוב ואכן תעזוב את לבנון, אך לא ברור כיצד תעשה זאת ומה תשאיר מאחוריה. נראה שרבים מן התרחישים האפוקליפטיים ביותר ליום שאחרי הנסיגה – תהו ובהו ומלחמת אזרחים, או עימות בהיקף מלא בין ישראל לחזבאללה – אינם רלונטיים כיום, או שהיו מוגזמים מלכתחילה. אך עדיין נותרו מרכיבים של אלימות. מנקודת מבטה של סוריה, ההתרגשות הפתאומית בקשר לעצמאותה של לבנון אינה אלא תכסיס אמריקאי נוסף לערעור יציבותה ולכינון סדר אזורי חדש; למרות שהוחלשה משמעותית, למשטרה עדיין יש אמצעים ובעלי ברית המאפשרים לו ליצור אנדרלמוסיה באזור במידה ויחשוב שהשרדותו נמצאת בסכנה. מנקודת ראותו של החזבאללה, הנסיגה הנה הפרק הראשון בלבד; הפרקים הבאים בתכניתן של ארצות הברית וישראל כוללים את פרוקו מנשקו, שלפחות בטוח הקצר סביר שיתנגד לו, במקרה הצורך גם בכח. מן הזוית של הקבוצות הפוליטיות הלבנוניות המפולגות – בין אם אלו שבאופוזיציה או אלו הנאמנות לדמשק – קץ הנוכחות הסורית משמעותו חידוש הדיון בנושאים שהודחקו מאז תום מלחמת האזרחים: מיחסים כתתיים ועדתיים וחלוקת הכח במדינה, ועד לחזבאללה ולפליטים הפלסטינים. כל אלה הנם יסודות נפיצים שעלולים לפתות לבנונים ממורמרים ושחקנים מבחוץ לנצל אותם. במדינה רוויה בכלי נשק, הרגילה לשמש זירה למלחמות בין ערבים, פלסטינים וישראלים, ועל סף חלוקה מחדש של השלטון והמשאבים, האמצעים והמניעים לחידושה של האלימות מצויים בשפע.

אפשר להבין את הפיתוי – העומד במיוחד בפני ארצות הברית – להשתמש במצב הנוכחי לשם השגת מטרות רחבות יותר. אך זה עלול גם להיות מסוכן, בראש ובראשונה ללבנונים. העקרון המנחה צריך להיות הפרדה בין כינונן מחדש של רבונות, עצמאות ויציבות מלאות בלבנון – כולל עריכת בחירות חופשיות ללא דיחוי ותחת פיקוח משקיפים בינלאומיים, וחקירה בקשר לרצח אלחרירי – לבין נושאים רחבים יותר העלולים להקשות על השגת המטרה. זה ידרוש מארצות הברית לרסן את התאבון שלה, מהאופוזיציה בלבנון לשמור על מתינות ומסוריה להמנע ממדיניות אדמה חרוכה.

בירות/רבת עמון/בריסל, 12 באפריל 2005

Former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri's tragic assassination capped a series of events that carry the potential of fundamentally altering not only Lebanon's future, but also Syria's and the broader regional landscape as well. For now, most international and Lebanese actors have acted with welcome wisdom; the prospect of Syria's long-overdue withdrawal from Lebanon and of Lebanese elections free from outside interference appears closer than ever. But risks of serious violence remain very real. The Syrian regime, sensing its survival at stake, may lash out using its remaining instruments and allies in Lebanon and beyond; the U.S., feeling its broader regional goals within striking distance, may well over-reach, triggering violent reactions from Syria, Hizbollah or militant Palestinian groups; Lebanon's political class, notoriously fractured, could create fresh opportunities for outside interference and pave the way for domestic chaos. What happens in Lebanon likely will have momentous regional implications -- certainly on Syria and Hizbollah, possibly on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and even Iraq. But dealing with those matters before getting the question of Lebanon right is the surest way to get it all wrong.

Whatever the intent, Hariri's assassination heightened pressure on Syria, bringing together once disparate actors and objectives: the U.S., which had given priority to ending Syrian support for militant Palestinian groups, Hizbollah and the Iraqi insurgency; France, which was most interested in Lebanon and still invested hopes in Syria's president; and Lebanese activists, who traditionally had been unable to agree on much. Because Hariri's influence far exceeded Lebanon's confines, and he embodied its links with much of the outside world, his killing accelerated the -- at least temporary -- convergence of the Syrian regime's multiple foes on a set of demands: complete withdrawal of Syria's military and intelligence (mukhabarat) from Lebanon; the truth on Hariri's assassination; and free Lebanese elections under international supervision.

The Lebanese opposition, in the main, has sought to stress national unity, de-emphasise the underlying confessional dimension and avoid overly provocative positions that could alienate the powerful Hizbollah or the large Shiite community. Hizbollah has tried both to evince solidarity with Syria and urge a national dialogue, in effect acknowledging that Syria's time in Lebanon is over, that it has nothing to gain from civil conflict and that its priority is to preserve its position in the domestic arena. After some hesitation, Washington also displayed noteworthy restraint, intent on working closely with the French, focusing for now on the Lebanese arena and resisting the temptation to drag in broader (and evidently connected) regional and international dimensions, such as disarming Hizbollah, prosecuting the war against terrorism or changing the regime in Damascus.

Writing in early 2004, Crisis Group argued that, in order to avert a U.S.-Syria crisis, both needed to alter their approach, Washington by clearly articulating what it expected and what Damascus could expect in return; Syria by unequivocally demonstrating a decision to change course. But while neither paid heed, it is hard to dispute that a U.S. strategy of firm pressure and refusal to negotiate its demands appears to have paid off. The Baathist regime is more isolated than ever, on the verge of losing a major regional asset, and with serious questions about how long it can survive as is. From the perspective of the Bush administration, this is the time to squeeze, not to talk.

Still, neither the U.S. nor the rest of the international community can afford indifference to how Syrian and Lebanese actors react. That Syria should and will leave Lebanon is now certain but not how it departs and what it leaves behind. Many of the most apocalyptic post-withdrawal scenarios -- chaos and civil war; full-scale confrontation between Israel and Hizbollah -- appear, today, either no longer relevant or exaggerated from the start. But ingredients of violence remain. Seen from Syria's vantage, sudden excitement over Lebanon's sovereignty is just the latest U.S. ploy to destabilise it and usher in a new regional order; although significantly weakened, its regime retains instruments and allies to create havoc in the region should it conclude its survival is at risk. Seen from Hizbollah's perspective, the withdrawal is only chapter one; what comes next on U.S. and Israeli agendas is its disarmament which, in the short run at least, it is likely to resist, if necessary by force. Seen from the angle of Lebanon's fractious groups -- whether in the opposition or loyal to Damascus -- the end of Syria's presence means re-opening issues suppressed since the close of the civil war, from sectarian relations and the distribution of power through to Hizbollah and Palestinian refugees. All these are combustible elements that disgruntled Lebanese and outside actors will be tempted to exploit. In a country awash with weapons, accustomed to being a theatre for proxy wars between Arabs, Palestinian and Israelis, and on the verge of a major redistribution of power and resources, the means and motivations for violence abound.

The temptation for the U.S. in particular to use the current situation to achieve larger objectives is understandable. But it also is dangerous, for none more than the Lebanese. The guiding principle ought to be to separate the reestablishment of Lebanon's full sovereignty, independence and stability -- including the holding of free elections without delay and with international monitors and an international investigation into Hariri's assassination -- from broader issues that could impede achieving that goal. That will require the U.S. to curb its appetite, Lebanon's opposition to maintain its moderation, and Syria to avoid a scorched-earth policy.

Beirut/Amman/Brussels, 12 April 2005

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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