Collectively failing Syrian society
Collectively failing Syrian society
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

Collectively failing Syrian society

For months, neither the Syrian regime, the international community, nor the opposition in exile have offered much hope in a dangerously deteriorating crisis. Increasingly, they seem to be unintentionally conniving in bringing about a civil war although it will serve no one's interests, destabilize Syria for years, and suck in the rest of the region. Their enduring pursuit of maximalist demands may sabotage what chance still exists for a negotiated transition.

The regime's vision consists in cracking down decisively against residual pockets of foreign-backed trouble-makers, then opening up politically within sensible boundaries -- similar to Jordan's or Bahrain's promise of limited reforms. Outside players currently bent on its demise, it wagers, ultimately will realize it cannot be destroyed; already hesitant for lack of good options and fear of ensuing chaos, they will grudgingly move to softer forms of pressure and, in time, even resume engagement. The regime's sympathizers and allies are all too keen to believe that it is strong, that the reach of the protest movement is wildly exaggerated by hostile media, that the foreign conspiracy is both all-encompassing and impotent, and that Syrian society is so disease-ridden -- a hodgepodge of fundamentalists, thugs, and third party proxies -- that it cannot but deserve the security services' tough medicine.

This narrative is flawed in more ways than one. For ten months, the regime has been collapsing in slow-motion, and it is showing. Its political structures, weak at the outset, have eroded beyond repair; the executive has lost any ability it once had to implement policy and the ruling party is an empty shell. The security services remain largely cohesive and ready to fight, but in many places they increasingly resemble at best an occupying force cut off from society, at worst a collection of sectarian militias on a rampage. The military is fragmenting, slowly but surely. The regime's territorial control depended on the protest movement remaining largely peaceful. Now that an insurgency is spreading, it is losing its grip. Arguably, the regime has refrained from using much of the firepower at its disposal, for fear of tilting the balance decisively against it within the international community. It could easily muster enough troops to put down resistance in any specific area, but at the expense of letting things slip elsewhere in a losing game of whack-a-mole; other rebellious areas would go for broke, knowing their turn would soon come if the regime was allowed to deal with them sequentially. Meanwhile, the economy's collapse is accelerating. Because none of this is lost on a majority of Syrians, once spectacular demonstrations of loyalists have narrowed to the point where official footage prefers close-ups to aerial photography. The "silent majority" the regime claimed to have on its side is now angry and scared: it both blames the country's leadership for spelling disaster and distrusts the protest movement, exiled opposition, and outside world for offering no clear prospect for the future other than growing chaos.

On a popular level, the picture also differs from what the regime, its sympathizers, and allies would like to believe. The protest movement, which to this day remains conspicuously absent from the official narrative, is remarkably broad-based, intuitively cohesive, and in many ways sophisticated. Until now, it has effectively contained the more thuggish, criminal, sectarian, and fundamentalist strands that clearly exist within society. In fact, the protest movement's better sides are the only bulwark against such demons, at a time when the regime's course of action -- exacerbating communal tensions as a divide-and-rule tactic, targeting non-violent activists, and compartmentalizing its territory while losing control within screened-off areas -- is making things worse by the day. Unlike the case of Libya, it took months of bullying, disruption, and despair for Syrians to call for international intervention (which they ordinarily would loath), to pick up arms on a large scale (an option the vast majority agreed should be kept as the last resort), and to allow a political struggle to give way insidiously to civil strife (as is occurring in some parts of central Syria). If chaos deepens further, criminals, foreign volunteers, and home-grown fundamentalists are bound to become more striking features of this crisis -- a self-fulfilling prophecy come true.

The conspiracy theory also has its limits. True, the protest movement may not have survived, let alone thrived, without a sympathetic -- and in some cases deeply biased and unprofessional -- international media, as well as considerable logistical support from abroad, notably from within an expansive and mobilized diaspora. But even taking such factors into account, realities on the ground don't come anywhere close to the regime's narrative. Bloodthirsty Islamist terrorists sponsored from abroad are hard to find in a sea of angry ordinary citizens motivated by local grievances, and above all the brutal, unaccountable behavior of the security services (which by now is all that a large proportion of Syrian society sees of the regime). Emerging armed groups complain bitterly about inadequate weapons and shortage of ammunition, suggesting for the time being a dearth of strategic depth.

The international community, powerless and deeply divided, has so far not been acting decisively. The West, which initially hoped the regime would do a better job at managing the crisis -- and thus spare it from a risky adventure in a sensitive part of the world -- has come full circle: although the practicalities remain unclear, the consensus now favors regime-change, with dreams of regional change lurking in the background giving a hoped-for domino effect on Hezbollah in Lebanon and a besieged leadership in Iran. Russia appears concerned about heightened instability in the area at large, the prospect of further empowering Islamists, and the West's typically cavalier attempts to push its agenda under the guise of noble moral values.

The Arab League has been engaged constructively, sending observers that may have failed to solve the crisis but which have staved off the escalation in violence on all sides one could have expected in their absence. Unfortunately, its more assertive members are those with the least credibility to take the lead -- Gulf monarchies that united to put down popular protests in Bahrain tend to adopt a sectarian perspective on regional events, and have paid only lip service to reforms at home. Other Arab countries are essentially in disarray, bogged down by domestic tensions, fearful of more regional instability, and distrustful of the West, given its track record of making things worse, not better, in this part of the world. The result has been a slow-moving but determined effort to lock the regime into a set of constraints that could force it to recognize the reality of its domestic crisis and negotiate an exit, while fending off any risk of hands-on Western involvement. Thus the transition plan announced this week, involving a caretaker role for the Syrian vice-president, the establishment of a national unity government, the election of a constitutional committee, and reforming the security apparatus, offers a mechanism that can be built upon and consolidated. If support for a negotiated transition comes from all quarters, critical pressure will be brought to bear on a regime whose primary asset now consists in playing Russian support and Western brinkmanship off each other.

Part of the problem has been the dismal performance of the opposition in exile. Its members, even as they repeatedly talk on satellite channels about the sufferings of their kin back home, have in fact spent the better part of their energy squabbling over personal rivalries, lobbying for international recognition, and debating a foreign intervention that -- whether it is desirable or not -- simply will not happen in the foreseeable future. Focused on following the mood on the Syrian street rather than leading the way forward, they have shut the door on any negotiated transition, decried the Arab League's initiative instead of suggesting ways to optimize it, and failed to articulate a credible, workable strategy. Even the more obvious political imperatives, such as offering the prospect of a reconciliation process with those who, although carrying out the repression have not ordered it, have run up against the opposition's preference for echoing the frustration felt by ordinary citizens after months of escalating regime violence. However, key to any resolution of the deep social divide that has emerged within Syria will be a firm but smooth process to overhaul the existing security apparatus, as the lessons of the Iraqi disaster make clear.

All sides have been incapable of agreeing on what would be a reasonable U.N. Security Council resolution: making clear it does not endorse foreign military intervention, both to reassure Russia and because within the current parameters of the conflict it is not in the cards anyway; calling all parties to cease fire; blaming the regime for bringing the country to the brink; holding it fully accountable for seeking a solution; demanding it implements the Arab League's transition plan; and insisting it respects peaceful protests under a reinforced observers mission, with the additional deployment of Arab monitors embedded within the security apparatus where required in the face of armed groups. The regime may choose to ignore what some would describe as a toothless resolution. In fact, what has enabled it to shun international pressure until now is the sense that key players like Russia and others condoned its approach, a decisive factor of self-confidence within its own ranks. A Security Council resolution is the one available lever that could be brought to bear on a Syrian leadership that feels sheltered by the prevailing divisions on the international scene, and would rather take the country down the road to civil war than negotiate in order to obtain what still can be achieved (not least guarantees for the Alawite community, a phased hand-over of power, and the assurance of institutional continuity) at the cost of giving up on the hope that hunkering down and making reforms that only satisfy its supporters somehow will enable it to stay in power.

It should come as no surprise that in the absence of any glimmer of hope, despair has been taking hold of Syrian society. It is already expressed in multiple forms, all of them disturbing, but things are poised to get worse. As more Syrians come to believe that their collective efforts are in vain, that the world has forsaken them, and that the regime can only be fought with its own methods, the nature of the struggle could be transformed into something more fragmented, narrow-minded, and brutal. Those who have given up on everything but God will be easy recruits for the Islamists. The logistical needs of armed groups will offer opportunities for whoever is willing to sustain them. Communal rifts may further deepen. Violence predictably will serve as a vehicle for the advancement of the more thuggish components within each community. The creative, responsible, and forward-looking activists within the protest movement could soon feel overpowered -- many already do. That feeling, combined with unrelenting pressure from the security services, is gradually pushing some to give up or even flee abroad.

Until now, the regime and a majority of its supporters, allies, critics, and foes appear to have been operating under the same assumption: that the deadly stalemate the crisis is locked in will endure a while longer, until the other side gives way. This could still be true, but within the current parameters, it is becoming increasingly improbable that the power structure will suddenly unravel, that it will succeed in regaining lost ground, or that its opponents will accommodate it in any way. If this impasse endures any longer, the struggle could quickly mutate into an open-ended civil war. Although the regime bears most of the responsibility for bringing the situation up to this point, the international community and exiled opposition have no excuse for moving it further along this terrifying path.

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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