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

Syria’s Tipping Point

Syria's acceptance of the Arab League proposal to defuse the crisis presents an eleventh-hour opportunity to seek a negotiated transition before the conflict takes an even uglier turn. Despite understandable scepticism, both the protest movement and the international community ought to give this initiative a fair chance; for either one to dismiss or undermine it would be to offer the regime justification for rejecting both the deal and responsibility for its failure. The regime's intentions soon will be put to the test. In coming days, protesters will take to the streets with renewed energy, probing President Bashar al Assad's sincerity after months of rising repression; they cannot be expected to show patience for protracted political talks devoid of swift, tangible results on the ground. The various strands of the opposition ought to publicly reject violent attacks against security forces and accept to engage in a dialogue with no condition other than the regime's implementation of the plan. Likewise the international community should fully endorse the deal and adjust its reaction to developments on the ground. Only by giving Damascus a genuine opportunity to live up to its commitments under the plan can the international community reach consensus on holding it accountable should it choose to flout them.

The agreement unquestionably is flawed. It calls for a halt to violence and for the regime to withdraw its forces, release those detained as a result of recent events, grant access to the Arab League as well as Arab and international media, and, within two weeks, initiate a dialogue with the opposition under League auspices. But it does so in relatively vague terms, thereby virtually ensuring that the regime will try to re-negotiate in practice what it has already approved in principle. The agreement does not explicitly mention the right to peaceful demonstrations, a key opposition demand. Likewise, it fails to provide a mechanism for effective on-the-ground monitoring to supervise implementation. As far as one can tell, it is backed by neither meaningful incentives nor credible threats in the event the regime reneges on its commitments or plays for time. More fundamentally, the agreement may simply be unrealistic. It is hard to imagine why the regime would risk jeopardizing its most significant achievement to date, namely preventing the kind of mass demonstrations that would conclusively establish its lack of legitimacy – and that the protest movement will now seek to organise. Indeed, large numbers of Syrians almost certainly will take to the streets – including in Damascus – were they to conclude that the deal provides them with some protection.

This could well be a last chance. If peaceful protests face continued repression in coming days, a more violent and dangerous confrontation is almost certain to develop. Syria's eight-month-old uprising is fast approaching a dangerous tipping point.

Behind the thin veil of a so-called reform process that has been premised on the need to restore "law and order", the regime has in the past three months almost entirely delegated the task of dealing with popular discontent to its security services. In turn, their indiscriminate violence and sectarian behaviour has begun to radicalise the street. The regime's claim that it is exclusively eradicating armed groups while in reality treating non-violent demonstrators with equal ferocity is doing nothing to weaken the former while pushing the latter to the brink. The protesters' overall restraint has been remarkable and so far has helped avoid descent into all-out civil war. But there are unmistakable signs of change.

Among demonstrators, the prospect of armed resistance is gaining appeal. A pattern of attacks against regime forces has emerged in border areas. Homs has served as a magnet for a steady stream of army defectors whose success in resisting regime attempts to retake the city is inspiring others to emulate its more confrontational tactics. Although still expensive, rudimentary weapons are now widely available due to intensive smuggling. Meanwhile, uninhibited brutality of regime henchmen, chiefly members of the Allawite minority, is fuelling sectarian retribution. Long an imaginary part of the regime's propaganda, such retaliation is becoming a reality, particularly in central Syria.

For now, no credible evidence has emerged to suggest significant, organised foreign support for a developing insurgency; the regime frequently displays stacks of weapons, cash and telecommunications technology it claims to have seized from armed groups, yet has offered no proof regarding the identity and role of outside backers. This too could change. Already, Turkey is playing host to the leadership of the Free Syrian Army, which has openly claimed responsibility for attacks against Syrian forces. Some among the Syrian opposition make no secret of their goal to lure the international community into a Libyan-style military intervention, which they see as the only way of tilting the balance in their favour. On the ground, calls for a "no-fly-zone" – codeword for international military intervention – have become widespread; only weeks ago, they were unthinkable.

Should these dynamics intensify and the conflict morph into an armed, sectarian confrontation with heavy outside involvement, Syria's cohesion would be threatened. Regional instability could spread. Spill-over effects most likely would be felt in Lebanon, where sectarian conflict risks being reignited. But a Syrian Sunni insurgency also could affect confessionally-divided Iraq and neighbouring Jordan. A proxy war could intensify between Ankara and Damascus, which already has reactivated ties with Kurdish forces battling Turkey. In short, the impression of a standstill – in which predominantly peaceful protests are met by increasingly intensive repression – is misleading. Beneath the surface lie developments that should be worrisome to all.

Until recently at least, the regime appeared relatively comfortable with these trends. From the outset, it sought to portray the protest movement as an Islamist, sectarian and foreign-backed insurgency; anything that could bolster its narrative was welcome. Framing the struggle in such terms helped justify the president's decision, made in late July, to opt for a so-called "security solution" – i.e., all-out repression of all forms of dissent on the one hand and preservation of the fiction of "normalcy", "reform" and "dialogue" on the other. Since then, the regime has rejected any meaningful compromise, recovering a sense of self-confidence even as the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate.

The regime found some reasons for solace. First, the "security solution" bolstered the security services' cohesiveness, determination and loyalty; after months of internal disarray prompted by the leadership's confusing mix of symbolic concessions and hesitant repression, they finally understood what they were expected to do. Second, the massive campaign of arrests, indiscriminate killings and other scare tactics diminished the number of demonstrators while largely circumscribing the protest movement within the communal, geographic and socio-economic boundaries that best suit the regime – namely a provincial movement of the Sunni underclass. In turn, the regime has used this to keep significant segments of the upper- and middle-class, largest cities and minorities on board. Third, Damascus ensured that the interests of key allies, Iran and Hizbollah, became intimately intertwined with its own fate: insofar as they have blindly aligned themselves with the regime, they are certain to lose were it to fall. Finally, the leadership has witnessed the international community's divisions and impotence – whether motivated by fear of Islamism, suspicion of Western intervention or concern at Syria's ability to spread chaos throughout the region.

But the security solution cannot resolve the regime's most fundamental problems. It cannot address its economic predicament, which has reached alarming levels and which, in the absence of a political resolution, will only worsen as wave after wave of Western, and possibly international, sanctions are almost certainly unleashed. It cannot end the demonstrations, which invariably pick up wherever and whenever pressure relents. It cannot revive the regime's legitimacy which was based on Assad's personal reputation, a sense of communal coexistence, as well as the idea of resistance to Israel and U.S. hegemony. Instead, what support it enjoys today is almost entirely of a negative sort: fear of sectarian retribution, Islamism, foreign interference, social upheaval or, more simply, anxiety about the unknown. Nor can the regime forever count on the resilience of its security forces. For the country's intense polarisation – between those who reject the regime's brutality and those who see it as the only path to salvation – and the distrust this engenders has contaminated all institutions, including the army. Faced with an increasing number of defectors willing to take up arms against them, the security services find themselves in greater need of military protection precisely at a time when regime distrust of the army is growing. Tellingly, the regime has not yet been able to retake Homs – something it almost certainly would have done if it could muster sufficient trusted troops to do so.

The regime is not alone in having reached an impasse. In the past eight months, the protest movement has failed to break out of the straightjacket into which it has been forced by the security services. The growing number of student protests over the last several days is remarkable precisely because they break with the image carefully and relatively successfully cultivated by the regime – that of an undereducated, thuggish and extremist protest movement. Still, the middle class in the largest city, Aleppo, as well as in Damascus has remained largely quiet; only in Homs have demonstrators convincingly bridged social and communal divides. Minorities have either openly sided with the regime (in some Christian areas), kept a relatively low profile (in the Kurdish-dominated northeast and the Druze town of Sweida), or been crushed into submission (in the Ismaeli town of Salamiya). There have been few significant defections from within the regime's technocratic ranks. Although several senior officials have been sidelined, no decisive cracks have emerged in the decision-making apparatus. Having rejected any dialogue with the regime so long as it resorts to violence – an understandable position given the level of repression – and having espoused ever more radical slogans (from toppling the regime at the beginning, to executing Assad now), the opposition had left itself with no alternative but to fight till the bitter and bloody end; the Arab League proposal perhaps now provides it with a small, but vital, margin for manouver.

Nor has the opposition succeeded in unifying its ranks or presenting a coherent program. Its most visible figures, whether in exile or at home, have shown insufficient leadership, unable to articulate a political platform that could provide either a basis for negotiations with the regime or some guarantee of continuity in the event of its collapse. Divided more often by petty personal rivalries than by deep substantive issues, the opposition's failure to present a realistic way forward has helped persuade many despairing protesters that their only hope lies in domestic armed struggle or outside intervention.

A fractured international community also has been forced to watch largely from the sidelines. In the Arab world, the regime has benefited so far from support from countries such as Lebanon (which cannot afford to alienate its neighbour); Algeria (whose rulers fear the spread of popular uprisings); or Iraq (whose Shiite leadership has opted for an essentially sectarian perspective on Syria's unrest). To date, efforts to pass a UN Security Council resolution have been resisted by, among others, Russia, China and India, who share an instinctive fear of Islamism, aversion to foreign interference in domestic affairs and distaste for the what they see as the West's self-serving interpretation of international principles. As a result, Europe and the U.S. have had little to offer beyond heightened rhetorical condemnation (inevitably undermined by their inconsistent approach to other issues, such as Bahrain or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) and an array of economic sanctions whose political impact remains uncertain and whose economic legacy could undermine any future transition.

Syria's closest allies, Hizbollah and Iran, face their own perils. Their unconditional support for the regime was premised on appreciation for Syria's role within the so-called axis of resistance and belief that Assad would successfully manage the crisis. In order to justify Damascus' resort to extreme violence, they were compelled to embrace its version of a Sunni Islamist, foreign-backed insurgency seeking to tip the regional balance of powers. By the same token, they essentially dismissed the protesters' legitimate demands and obvious sufferings, casting much of Syrian society as the enemy. The net effect has been to severely damage their moral standing across the Arab world, undermine the notion of resistance, expose them to the very same accusation of double-standards they typically levy against the West – in their case by condemning in Syria the popular revolt they champion in Bahrain – and cast them in a purely sectarian light. Iran and Hizbollah already have paid a steep price. It will be steeper still should the Syrian regime's repression intensify and the conflict develop along ever-deepening sectarian lines.

There is good reason to doubt that anything will come out of the Arab League initiative. The opposition suspects a manoeuvre designed to gain time and thwart efforts at greater international involvement. It will be leery of providing the regime with any breathing space and eager to demonstrate the president's bad faith. Among outside actors, some predictably will want to rush to condemn the regime, others to exonerate it.

If only because the alternative is so bleak, however, every effort should be made to maximise the proposal's chances of success. It is crucial that President Assad sticks to his part of the agreement and rapidly implement its provisions, and crucial that the regime's remaining friends press him convincingly to do so. So too must the opposition find a way to contain its well-justified scepticism, condemn acts of violence against regime forces and put aside any precondition for negotiations save for the agreement's strict implementation. The international community, rather than follow Washington's lead – which unhelpfully greeted the announcement with a renewed call for Assad's immediate departure – should take a cautious approach and judge the regime based on its actions. But the converse also must hold, namely that Syria's violation of the agreement should be met by swift international condemnation, including by those who have proved most reluctant to date and including in the form of a UN Security Council resolution.

Should it come to that, many undoubtedly will push for such a resolution to impose sanctions. But not only would insistence on this step likely impede chances of swift passage, there also are serious questions regarding its efficacy. Sanctions hurt the regime, but they hurt what is left of the middle class even more; those in power typically find ways to circumvent them and render themselves indispensable providers of goods and services, thereby heightening society's dependency on the very forces the sanctions are intended to undermine. Rather than rush to enact new penalties, better to wait to see how those already in force play out. Above all else, the regime dreads further international isolation. That is one reason why it so warmly greeted Russia's and China's veto at the UN and why it decided to accept the Arab League's proposal. If the regime reneges on its commitments, a consensus that lays the blame at its doorstep would be the worst possible outcome from its perspective – and both the most effective and achievable lever at the international community's disposal.

Brussels

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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