Syria: From One War to More
Syria: From One War to More
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West

Syria: From One War to More

Bashar al-Assad looks set to restore his authority across much of Syria. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2018 annual early-warning update, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those in need, while facilitating dialogue between the warring parties to ensure the Syrian state’s return to areas outside its control is non-violent.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2018 – Second Update

Bashar al-Assad’s regime has gained a firm upper hand in the Syrian war. With sustained support from Russia and Iran, it has restored its control in the heart of the country’s heavily populated western corridor. Now the Syrian leadership is turning its sights toward remaining areas outside its control. In the south west, a regime offensive now underway risks causing considerable loss of life, displacement and human suffering. It also could provoke tensions between Israel and Iran. The north west (held by an array of rebel factions, ringed by Turkish military observation points) and north east (controlled by the U.S.-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces) appear better protected from attack for the moment. Yet, there as well, the war may re-escalate.

In all three areas of Syria that the regime is seeking to recapture, the European Union (EU) and its member states have an important role to play in averting the worst-case scenario, in the medium term, and aiding physical and political reconstruction, in the long term. In the meantime, the EU and its member states should continue to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians in need everywhere and, by virtue of their diplomatic ties with all sides, facilitate communication and diplomatic understandings among warring parties.

The South West

In late June, Syrian forces backed by Russian air power launched an offensive to retake opposition-held areas in the south west. The attack marked the effective end of the “de-escalation” agreement negotiated among the U.S., Russia and Jordan, which had significantly reduced violence in this part of the country since July 2017, although Russia denied it had withdrawn from the deal. (It made the dubious claim that it was fulfilling the agreement’s counter-terrorism provisions by eliminating southern jihadists, which the U.S. and Jordan had failed to do.)

After a swift advance down the south west’s rebel-held eastern countryside, the Syrian regime and Russia forced the negotiated surrender of most local rebels. Only the western countryside remains unresolved, including a basin occupied by a local Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate and rebel-held sections adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. As many as 234,500 people had been displaced as of 11 July. Many who had sheltered along the Jordanian border have returned home since the reimposition of regime control, but according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), around 160,000 are currently camped out along the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Once the Syrian military and aligned paramilitaries advance on these last areas next to the Golan, the human cost will rise substantially. So will the risk of a regional escalation.

Israel has provided various forms of support (including small arms) to opposition factions and local communities along the 1974 armistice line, seeking to maintain a friendly buffer between itself and a Syrian regime which has enlisted the help of Iranian forces and various Iran-linked militias. Israel rejects the presence of such groups anywhere in Syria, and views areas alongside the occupied Golan as especially sensitive. In 2018, it has steadily escalated strikes on alleged Iranian assets as far away as the Syria-Iraq border. A dangerous series of tit-for-tat cross-border rocket attacks and airstrikes took place in May. How Israel will react to regime advances toward the Golan remains unclear, but the response almost certainly will be a function of the degree of perceived Iranian involvement. Israel may step up arms supplies to local rebels, or hit pro-regime forces directly, risking an escalatory spiral if Iran and/or Hizbollah decide to retaliate.

A conditional, non-violent return of the Syrian state would [...] mitigate the risk of escalation that any chaotic, bloody offensive would entail.

There are indications that Israel may have reached an understanding with Russia whereby the latter has committed to block the participation of Iran-backed foreign fighters in the offensive. Still, even an offensive that excludes Iran-linked militias will be complicated and risky. The regime’s military will face serious obstacles clearing a demilitarised zone holding not only tens of thousands of displaced people, but also militants fighting with the Israeli military at their back. And even if the offensive proceeds without a major regional escalation, it is not clear how long Iran-linked elements will keep their distance from the Golan.

Israel should appeal to Russia for preferential terms for the last rebel pockets near the Golan, and it should encourage rebels with whom it has collaborated to negotiate constructively. A conditional, non-violent return of the Syrian state would be better for these areas’ civilians and mitigate the risk of escalation that any chaotic, bloody offensive would entail. Meanwhile, the EU and its member states should continue to support humanitarian relief to the south west, including pushing the regime for open humanitarian access via Damascus. They should also support Jordan, which will need continuing assistance to house hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees already there. Many of those refugees will not be able to return safely to regime-held Syria. As their stay in Jordan extends, the country’s economy and institutions will need European help.

The North West

Idlib and adjacent districts of the rebel-held north west hold nearly three million Syrians, roughly half of whom are internally displaced persons. The area is controlled by a range of competing rebel factions, the strongest of which is the jihadist Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate. Conditions in the north west are chaotic, and would become truly hellish in the event of a major pro-regime offensive.

The Syrian leadership has repeatedly signalled such intent. A de-escalation deal negotiated in late 2017 and early 2018 between Russia, Turkey and Iran has averted a showdown for now and enabled the establishment of twelve Turkish observation points surrounding rebel-held areas. But the durability of this arrangement is questionable; it could shatter if and when gains in southern Syria encourage the regime and its backers to shift their focus toward regaining control of the north west. A humanitarian disaster is all but certain in the event they attack. The resulting surge of hundreds of thousands of displaced toward the Turkish border would create a new humanitarian crisis, as well as a political one, as Turkey has indicated it cannot absorb more refugees and may try to prevent them from crossing the border, or let them in only to push them to exit again on a dangerous and uncertain journey toward Europe.

Whether an offensive will take place rests largely with Russia, whose active support (especially air power) would be essential for the regime to gain and hold ground in this rebel stronghold. Though it has upheld the de-escalation deal with Ankara thus far, Moscow has indicated that it will not tolerate continued HTS control in the north west; if the jihadist faction remains ascendant and/or attacks on regime forces resume from rebel territory, an eventual Russian-backed offensive cannot be excluded.

To avoid such an outcome, Turkey should accelerate its efforts to isolate and weaken hardline jihadists, while bolstering non-jihadist alternatives within the northern armed opposition that could absorb any pragmatic, potentially reconcilable HTS elements and eventually confront the remaining jihadist hard core. The EU and its member states, alongside the United States, should appeal to Turkey to accept their help, so they can ensure that a Turkish-led counter-terrorism effort in Idlib is intelligence-driven and properly targeted, coordinated and resourced. They should also continue to support humanitarian assistance to Idlib’s millions of civilians, to avoid both a humanitarian crisis and an additional burden on Turkish relief bodies.

The North East

Compared to the south west and Idlib, north-eastern Syria today enjoys relative stability, under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its dominant faction, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). Yet the durability of the present situation appears largely dependent on decisions to be made within the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition. In this context, President Donald Trump’s stated desire for a quick U.S. withdrawal from Syria, if carried out, could expose the north east to a dangerous free-for-all.

The U.S. military presence on the ground appears to have played a key role in deterring external attack on the north east from Turkey, which views the YPG as an affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an organisation it (as well as the U.S. and European states) considers a terrorist group, one that it has battled on its own territory for decades. Once the YPG-dominated areas are no longer protected by a U.S. security umbrella, Turkey could decide to launch an attack to dislodge the organisation just as it did in the Afrin enclave in north-west Syria. The Syrian regime, too, has telegraphed its intention to restore its authority throughout the north east. If the U.S. withdraws without a negotiated arrangement mutually tolerable to the YPG, Damascus and Ankara, a fight for control of territory and resources could well ensue, and jihadists would seek to exploit any resulting opportunities.

In the meantime, the U.S. decision to freeze $200 million of stabilisation support – including essential programming to restore basic services in Raqqa and other areas liberated from ISIS – could cause a serious decline in living conditions and heighten simmering local tensions.

The EU and its member states, along with fellow members of the anti-ISIS coalition, should immediately and substantially increase their own support for restoring services in the north east. Priorities include demining, providing health services and restoring water and electricity supplies, with particular emphasis on sectors and areas directly affected by the U.S. funding freeze. The EU and its member states should do so in order to compensate for potential U.S. cuts, and to demonstrate that Washington’s allies will share the costs of stabilisation as long as the U.S. military continues to supply the protection necessary for them to do so.

Conclusion

The regime’s attempts to restore its authority over the entirety of the country are liable to cause further humanitarian suffering and attendant waves of displacement, while potentially heightening tensions between Israel and Iran. The EU and its member states should continue their humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people, and expand stabilisation assistance in areas beyond Damascus’s control where possible. They should use member states’ collective access to all sides of the conflict to continue to play a mediating and diplomatic role, from support for Syria’s ongoing peace process in Geneva down to negotiations with Damascus over humanitarian access to hard-to-reach or newly accessible areas.

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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