A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

Syria Conflict Alert

Syria is at what is rapidly becoming a defining moment for its leadership. There are only two options. One involves an immediate and inevitably risky political initiative that might convince the Syrian people that the regime is willing to undertake dramatic change.  The other entails escalating repression, which has every chance of leading to a bloody and ignominious end. Already, the unfolding confrontation in the southern city of Deraa gives no sign of quieting, despite some regime concessions, forceful security measures and mounting casualties. For now, this remains a geographically isolated tragedy. But it also constitutes an ominous precedent with widespread popular resonance that could soon be repeated elsewhere.

The regime faces three inter-related challenges. First is a diffuse but deep sense of fatigue within society at large, combined with a new unwillingness to tolerate what Syrians had long grown accustomed to – namely the arrogance of power in its many forms, including brutal suppression of any dissent, the official media’s crude propaganda and vague promises of future reform. As a result of events elsewhere in the region, a new awareness and audacity have materialised over the past several weeks in myriad forms of rebelliousness, large and small, throughout the country.

Secondly, at the heart of virtually any locality in the nation is a long list of specific grievances. These typically involve a combination: rising cost of living, failing state services, unemployment, corruption and a legacy of abuse by security services. In a number of places, religious fundamentalism, sectarianism or Kurdish nationalism also form an integral part of the mix. In others, the depletion of water resources and devastation of the agriculture sector add to the tensions.

The third challenge relates to the regime’s many genuine enemies, all of whom undoubtedly will seek to seize this rare opportunity to precipitate its demise. Authorities have ascribed much of the strife to the exiled opposition, home-grown jihadi elements, local “aliens” (notably residents of Palestinian and Kurdish descent) and hostile foreign parties (notably U.S., Israeli, Lebanese and Saudi). 

As a result, the regime claims to be fighting critical threats to national unity, such as foreign interference, ethnic secessionism and sectarian retribution. It also stresses the illegitimacy of exiled Syrians they accuse of stirring unrest – some of whom, in fairness, are suspected of crimes no less deserving of investigation than those of the officials they seek to replace.

All this unquestionably forms part of the picture. But these factors are intertwined with others, far more difficult to define or to manage – a popular desire for long overdue, far-reaching change; the simultaneous expression of numerous legitimate demands; and a growing belief that the regime is incapable of shifting from a logic of entitlement and survival to one of accountability. The current blend of mounting repression, blatant disinformation, minor concessions and presidential silence is quickly hardening negative perceptions. 

A window of opportunity still exists to change these dynamics, although it is fast closing. Unlike most of his peers in the region, President Bashar Assad has accumulated significant political capital, and many Syrians are willing, for now, to give him the benefit of the doubt.  In fact, a broad range of citizens – including members of the security apparatus – are desperately waiting for him to take the lead and to propose, before it is too late, an alternative to spiraling confrontation.  Although he has held numerous consultations and sent some signals of impending reform through the foreign media and other officials, he has yet to assume clear and palpable leadership.

Instead, faced with an unprecedented, multi-faceted, fast-paced and critical challenge, the power apparatus at best is implementing chaotic steps that convey a sense of confusion, at worst is reacting according to well-ingrained habits. Left to its own devices, it will send precisely the wrong messages to a population that will not wait much longer for the regime to get its act together and to put forward a comprehensive and credible vision. At this point, only one thing can change swiftly, dramatically and effectively for the better, and that is the president’s own attitude. 

President Assad must show visible leadership and do so now. His political capital today depends less on his past foreign policy successes than on his ability to live up to popular expectations at a time of dangerous domestic crisis. Meanwhile, repression perpetrated under his responsibility is costing him dearly. He alone can prove that change is possible and already in the making, restore some sense of clarity and direction to a bewildered power apparatus and put forward a detailed framework for structural change. This should include several steps:

  • The President should speak openly and directly to his people, recognise the challenges described above, stress the unacceptable and counterproductive nature of repression, offer condolences to the families of victims, order a serious, transparent investigation into the violence in Deraa, present a package of measures for immediate implementation and suggest an inclusive mechanism for discussing more far-reaching reforms.
     
  • He should announce the following, immediate measures: release of all political prisoners; lifting of the emergency law; authorisation of peaceful demonstrations; opening of new channels for the expression of complaints, given lack of trust in local officials; and action on the many cases of corruption that already have been compiled by the security apparatus but lie dormant due to nepotistic intervention. 
     
  • Upcoming parliamentary elections should be postponed pending a referendum on sweeping constitutional amendments which should be discussed with a wide and inclusive range of Syrians. Deeper change requires broad consultation and cannot be arbitrarily implemented.

Many within the regime argue against such a radical course of action. Their points might appear logical, but none should carry the day:

“The regime has never responded to pressure, and this time-honoured principle has always served it well over the years, particularly in times of crisis”. 

While this might have been true in the past, the current situation involves an entirely different and unprecedented kind of pressure, one that is relentless and grounded in deep-seated popular feelings. If resisted, it will only swell. This is not a time for business as usual or for standing still when all around is moving.

“Any concessions are likely to be viewed as inadequate and only fuel additional demands”.  

This almost certainly will be the case. And it is why any initiative must go all the way, from the outset. Only by doing so might the president convince the people that change is real. The question, in other words, is whether the regime can accept fundamental change. If it cannot, it is headed toward a bloody confrontation. 

“People do not know what they really want and express endless demands, some of which are unacceptable”. 

Again, this likely is true and, after years of suppression, wide-ranging aspirations cannot but be expressed.  But the lack of a clear popular vision for orderly change offers the president the chance to convince citizens of the merits of his own.

“The regime’s enemies are stirring things up and must be subdued before they do more damage”. 

In reality, none of the regime’s enemies possess enough support or influence in Syria to mount a critical threat. At best, they can try to make use of broad popular anger and steer it to their advantage. But by focusing on “enemies”, the regime is giving them more space while deepening popular discontent. 

There is, in short, reason to question whether a dramatic approach will prevail. But it is the only realistic way to avoid a perilous confrontation. 

After decades of colonialism followed by authoritarian rule, the Middle East and North Africa are facing a new phenomenon: a demand for governments based on popular legitimacy. Rulers in Syria or elsewhere can pass this test of leadership, or they can fail it. Bashar Assad has important assets; he retains significant political capital measured by regional standards, and it is high time that he spends it. As each day goes by, repression will both dissipate that capital and increase popular demands, making constructive action all the more difficult. Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass may have served the regime well in days past. But now, it must fight against those instincts if it wants to preserve the possibility of a peaceful outcome.

Brussels/Damascus

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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