As Assad Turns to Syria's Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice
As Assad Turns to Syria's Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

As Assad Turns to Syria's Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice

The United States faces a critical decision in southwestern Syria. For weeks, Syrian military forces have been massing on the northern edge of the mostly opposition-held “de-escalation zone” jointly negotiated last year by the United States, Russia, and Jordan. With this deal, Washington secured a ceasefire for this geopolitically sensitive corner of the country, which borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Since then, however, the Trump administration has pursued a broader Syria policy that serves the southwest poorly and undercuts the de-escalation agreement.

A Syrian military offensive on the southwest now seems imminent. Clashes broke out on the area’s eastern edge on Tuesday, and the Syrian military bombed rebel-held towns from the air, an unambiguous breach of the de-escalation agreement. Time is short. Still, there may still be a chance for an alternative. In our latest report at the International Crisis Group, Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria, we urge all sides – the de-escalation agreement’s three sponsors as well as, indirectly, Israel and the Syrian government – to broker a deal to prevent a bloody fight for the southwest.

For the Trump administration, that means it has to choose: Will it deal with the southwest on the area’s own terms, helping to spare civilian life and promoting the interests of Jordan and Israel, two close allies? Or will it fail to engage seriously in negotiations and allow events to take a more brutal course, one that crushes the southwestern opposition, rends the area’s remaining social fabric, and squanders whatever terms and guarantees Washington and its allies might have been able to negotiate in advance?

The Terms and Logic of De-Escalation

Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the de-escalation ceasefire on July 7, 2017, following U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first in-person meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The three sponsors of the de-escalation deal further agreed in August to establish a joint monitoring center in Amman. In November, they finalized the agreement’s terms with a “memorandum of principles.” Trump and Putin announced the agreement, lending it their personal imprimatur. Along the edge of the de-escalation zone, the deal established a buffer area that would exclude Iranian-backed foreign militias supporting the Syrian government, with a concomitant commitment to eventually expel jihadists inside the de-escalation zone. The text of the original ceasefire agreement and the de-escalation agreement’s memorandum of principles have not been released publicly.

The de-escalation agreement froze the Syrian civil war in the southwestern provinces of Dara’a and al-Quneitra. The war’s southern front had been mostly dormant since Russia’s September 2015 intervention in Syria, which prompted Jordan to cut a bilateral deal with Russia to keep calm in Syria’s south. Intense fighting broke out in Dara’a’s eponymous provincial capital in the months before the de-escalation ceasefire was announced last July. Since then, however, the ceasefire has mostly held, with only a handful of exceptions.

The sponsors of the de-escalation agreement discussed expanding the size of the buffer area, but higher-level trilateral negotiations faltered late last year. The Amman-based ceasefire monitoring center has continued to meet, but any expansion of the buffer zone and other substantive developments to the de-escalation agreement are the province of trilateral political talks among the United States, Russia, and Jordan. Those talks last convened in November 2017 – and since then, the agreement has been on autopilot.

U.S. interests in southwestern Syria are basically derived from those of its regional allies, Jordan and Israel. Jordan has feared a resumption of armed conflict that could send a new wave of refugees towards its border and empower jihadists and Iranian-backed militias. Jihadists in the southwest, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State, are relatively few in number and geographically limited in their reach. If war returned to the south, however, these fighters could take on renewed relevance as they spearhead armed resistance against the Syrian military. As for Israel, its concerns revolve more specifically around Iran’s presence, both near the Golan and nationwide across Syria.

The southwest is critically important to an ongoing struggle between Israel and Iran over the nature and duration of Iran’s presence in Syria, a regional conflict that has run parallel to the country’s civil war. The intervention of Iran and Hizballah in defense of their Syrian ally has given them a political prominence and military role in Syria with no precedent prior to the 2011 uprising. Israel has become convinced that Iran’s expanded presence risks upsetting the two countries’ tenuous deterrent balance across the region and has declared it will not allow Iran to establish a lasting strategic military presence in Syria. It has outlined a set of “red lines” that, if crossed, would prompt Israeli military action. These red lines include Iranian-backed militias taking up offensive positions in the southwest, opposite the occupied Golan. Israel has attempted to establish its red lines with an escalating series of strikes against what it alleges are Iranian or Iranian-linked targets in Syria. These strikes have recently come dangerously close to escalating into open interstate war.

The ceasefire and buffer zone established by the de-escalation agreement were meant to serve both Jordanian and Israeli security needs. Israel was not a participant in the de-escalation talks, but it was briefed throughout on the negotiations and has robust bilateral relationships with all three of the deal’s sponsors. Israeli leaders have nonetheless voiced discontent about the agreement and about the width of the buffer. Within the limited buffer, Israeli defense official told my organization in March that most Hizballah fighters had left and “only a handful” remained. A senior Hizballah official denied the existence of a buffer and rejected the notion that the group was obliged to withdraw its forces.

America’s Syria Policy and an Endangered De-Escalation

The de-escalation agreement was meant to be not just a ceasefire, but also the basis for a more complete, evolving deal in the rebel-held southwest. Yet the Trump administration’s shifting policy has undermined the de-escalation deal, and, since last fall, prevented negotiated progress to advance the agreement.

U.S. Syria policy over the past year has involved a series of decisions with little relation to the southwest, each of which has worked against the de-escalation agreement. First, as de-escalation negotiations were ongoing last summer, Washington made the apparently unrelated decision to end covert support for Syrian rebels, including arms and salaries. Regardless of the merits of that decision, it threatened the cohesion of southwestern “Southern Front” rebels and whatever military balance underpinned the ceasefire.

Then the Trump administration adopted a new Syria strategy in late 2017, which Tillerson laid out publicly in January 2018. That strategy took a confrontational approach to Damascus, pressing for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad by denying the Syrian government access to large sections of the country beyond its current control and by starving it of economic resources, including normal trade with Syria’s neighbors. The administration’s new Syria strategy led it to veto the reopening of the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria to commercial traffic. The de-escalation agreement’s sponsors had considered reopening Nasib an outcome of a successful de-escalation, and one that Jordan desperately needed to revive its struggling economy. With a U.S. Syria strategy aimed at unseating Russia’s ally in Damascus, there was little of substance for Washington and Moscow to discuss and trilateral meetings dried up.

The de-escalation agreement was also meant to be underwritten by an influx of stabilization assistance to support governance and services and restore some normality to the rebel-held southwest, led by the United States and the United Kingdom. The Trump administration’s abrupt decision to freeze stabilization aid in March again undercut the de-escalation agreement and left both Jordan and the British hanging. Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syriafurther confused U.S. allies. The United States has no forces on the ground inside the southwest, but the news nonetheless alarmed U.S. allies and raised doubts about Washington’s commitment in Syria.

Besides Israel, the agreement had another silent partner: the Syrian government in Damascus. With no prospects for further developing the de-escalation deal and satisfying Damascus’ own political needs, it had limited incentive to let the rebel-held southwest alone after it finished off the last opposition enclaves elsewhere. Now those enclaves are gone.

“We’ve now headed south,” Assad told an interviewer this month. “We’re giving space for the political process; if it doesn’t succeed, there will be no choice but liberation by force.”

Militarily speaking, the rebel-held southwest seems unlikely to be a difficult target to capture for the Syrian army, particularly if Russia provides air support for an offensive. Rebel territory can be cut at a few key junctures and then defeated in pieces. The government has also been engaging in talks with rebel-held towns across the southwest to make sure they don’t act when the Syrian military marches south.

The main deterrent to a Syrian military offensive had been the danger that the involvement of Iranian-backed militias would set off Israeli intervention. That meant an offensive posed a real danger to Damascus and might have discouraged crucial involvement by Russia, which has invested in its relationships with both Israel and Jordan. Yet Damascus can muster newly mobile Syrian forces, after its victories elsewhere, and energetic Russian diplomacy may have neutralized the risk of Israeli action. According to news reports and Israeli officials who spoke to my organization, Israel and Russia have arrived at a preliminary understanding on the return of the Syrian state to the southwest, conditional on the exclusion of Iranian-backed elements from that area and Israel’s continued freedom to strike inside Syria. Israel prefers the continuation of the de-escalation agreement, Israeli officials tell my organization, but if a Russian-backed Syrian offensive is coming, Israel can hardly afford not to coordinate with Russia. Iranian officials have publicly voiced support for Russia’s efforts to restore Syrian state control in the southwest and said Iran will not participate in an offensive, while also rejecting the idea of withdrawing entirely from Syria, per Israel’s latest demands. Whether Moscow, Damascus, or any party can promise to sustainably keep Iranian elements out of the southwest is unclear.

The U.S. State Department has warned Damascus against violating the de-escalation agreement and repeatedly promised “firm and appropriate measures.” But there is no indication of what that entails, or even if that language is backed by an actual threat. The U.S. government previously told rebels that if the Syrian military attacked, it would “do everything in [its] ability” to preserve the ceasefire – a reassurance that rebels told the International Crisis Group they found ambiguous and underwhelming.

One Chance for a Negotiated Alternative

Barring some surprise development, the Syrian government is coming south. Yet there are different ways the Syrian state can return to what is now the rebel-held southwest. No side – least of all Washington’s regional allies – is well-served by a chaotic, deadly fight for the south. The United States has a compelling interest in negotiating a settlement that avoids open war and mitigates the harm to the southwest’s residents and Syria’s neighbors.

It will have to act fast, though. In our latest report, we at the International Crisis Group argue for the de-escalation agreement’s sponsors re-convene through its trilateral mechanism to preserve the ceasefire and negotiate an evolution of the deal.

As an interim step, the de-escalation agreement’s sponsors should adopt a Jordanian proposal to shift the agreement’s focus to a “stabilization zone.” Stabilization would mean new steps toward the institutional and economic integration of the rebel southwest into its Syrian government-held surroundings – including trade both cross-line and cross-border through a Nasib crossing returned to Syrian state control – and draw in a broader set of international stakeholders, including Russia. The result would hopefully reassure the Syrian government and Russia that negotiated progress is possible and forestall a military attack.

From there, all sides would need to work from the existing de-escalation agreement to negotiate a more complete settlement in the southwest. The basic outlines are clear: the return of the Syrian state to the southwest and the Syrian military to Syria’s borders; a zone parallel to the Golan Heights free of Iranian-backed groups; and the restoration of Syria and Israel’s 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, including the return of U.N. observers to their positions.

Beyond that, the details of an agreement are up for negotiation – whether it entails the entrance of only the Syrian state’s less controversial civilian institutions or, if that proves unworkable, then at least preferential terms for the southwest’s “reconciliation” and surrender.

Many southern rebels will resist any deal. But a negotiated resolution is better than a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Syrian military and the Russian air force, followed by unforgiving, prejudicial surrender deals that rip out large sections of the southwest’s clan-based society and expel southerners to Syria’s rebel-held north. Southern Syrians are better served by a deal that spares pointless bloodshed and preserves their tightly knit social fabric by keeping southern communities intact, preventing social breakdown that encourages crime, radicalism, and recruitment by Iranian-linked elements. Syria’s neighbors are better served, too. So is America.

The United States has privately signaled it will not object to Israeli and Jordanian deal-making for the south but has scaled back its own participation in negotiations.

This is a mistake. With no comprehensive deal for the southwest, a wrenching military conclusion is the alternative and, for everyone, a worse outcome. Jordan and Israel may be able to engage with Russia to minimally “de-conflict” a Syrian offensive and protect themselves. Yet they are highly unlikely to secure the sort of terms they could with Washington on their side, as part of an agreement with consensual, international approval and the sort of legitimacy that only Washington’s endorsement could provide. At this point, anything short of this seems unlikely to dissuade Damascus. If the United States hopes to achieve something better than “de-confliction,” it urgently needs to engage in talks and to make a special effort for the southwest.

And whatever the United States decides to do, it will also need to communicate that decision clearly. Threats of “firm and appropriate measures” may make Damascus think twice, but they also seem likely to confuse southern rebels about the extent of America’s commitment and encourage them to fight a lonely, doomed defensive battle.

Syria’s southwest matters. If the United States is going to protect its interests and the interests of its closest regional allies in this corner of Syria’s war, it needs to invest in talks and produce a solution specifically for the southwest – for the southwest’s sake and for America’s.

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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