A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
A Vital Humanitarian Mandate for Syria’s North West
Report 146 / Middle East & North Africa

无关政治:叙利亚反对派的现状

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叙利亚反对派常常因为其内部争斗而遭人耻笑或者被视作无足轻重,它折射出矛盾、误解、及冲突的地缘政治利益,而这些都是它得以建立的基础。反对派的主要政治团体没能克服其内在弱点,也没能起到积极主动的作用,这点令人遗憾。但是,反对派的西方和阿拉伯盟友的表现同样不尽如人意,他们信号混乱、各自为政、协调不力,在解决这些问题上毫无建树,从而削弱了他们意欲加强的组织体系。任何关于解决这场战争的可行性方案,都需要一个具有代表性可信的反对派的出现;虽然叙利亚革命与反对力量全国联盟(以下简称“联盟”)有诸多缺陷,但却是目前唯一有可能满足这个条件的反对派组织。然而,要达到这个目标,它需要大幅度提升在叙利亚底层民众中的影响力;反对派的资助者须提高援助的效率;各方都必须制定策略来处理日趋扩大的圣战现象。

反对派是在一个压迫性的国内环境中孕育产生的,这也是其面临诸多困难的首要根源。由于这种环境,“联盟”的组成部分五花八门,包括缺乏真正的政治根基的流放者、知识分子和持不同政见的非宗教人士流还有地理上的远离了其自然根基的穆斯林兄弟会成员。毫不意外,在叛乱之初,这个由不同组织和个人组成的联盟不仅缺乏与上街示威游行的民众的联系,而且也缺少有意义的政治历练和评估他们各自的公众影响力的方法。

叙利亚本地的政治活动人士先于2011年10月认可了叙利亚全国委员会,之后在2012年11月认可了“联盟”,但承认这些以流放者为主的复合组织的的合法性并不等同于承认它们的政治领袖地位。相反,他们把“反对派”这个说法当成是起义行动视为起义行动的外交表达,认为反对派的主要职责在于动员国际社会的支持。这种认识暗含了一个赌注,那就是如果叙利亚的暴力冲突加剧,西方国家会向对待利比亚起义一样,通过军事行动把总统巴沙尔·阿萨德赶下台。

目前的问题是这种观点与有关西方国家尤其是美国的观点相去甚远。奥巴马政府从未真正考虑过要采取直接军事干预。相反,它认为当务之急是将反对派联合起来,为后阿萨德时代规划一个具有更广泛吸引力的愿景。相较而言,反对派承担这些职责不过是为了赢取西方国家因此大幅提高的援助,而且由于反对派人员组成复杂且远离本土,推进这些任务难上加难。华盛顿等着反对派自我改进;反对派则等着华盛顿的扶助。双方都以建立将阿萨德赶出叙利亚为目标,各自的策略都没有考虑到对方所受的限制。这导致起义的基层成员产生了失望和不信任感,对反对派和以美国为首的西方国家均丧失了信心。

反对派在地区内的支持者之间缺乏协调,这可能对反对派不管在政治上还是军事上都更具破坏性影响。政治上,,反对派最重要的两个支持者沙特阿拉伯和卡塔尔之间的较量,已经让“联盟”内部产生了分裂。事实证明这在很大程度上极大干扰了联盟的运作,甚至在在一些关键时刻,导致其基本停止活动。

军事上,该地区更大范围内的合作也未获成功,卡塔尔和沙特之间的竞争仅仅是冰山一角。这为更多极端主义者组织的发展提供了温床。“联盟”中包括有来自最高军事委员会(Supreme Military Council, SMC)的代表,由萨利姆·伊德里斯(Salim Idris)领导的这个委员会获得了国外主要反对派支持者的认可——至少名义上如此——而成为了获取军事支持的唯一渠道。但是这一委员会在叙利亚本土的影响力非常有限,不仅因为它缺乏西方国家的实质性支持,而且人们普遍认为它对如何在各个叛军组织间分配物资没有发言权。相反,这些分配决定似乎是在多哈和利雅得做出的。另外,需要武器和资金的武装军事组织也有其它途径:从被抢占的政府武器库中掠夺武器;偶尔因控制石油设施和人员进出边境而取得高利润资产;以及大量的私人资助(主要来自海湾地区)。

糟糕的还在后头。2013年9月24日,几个颇具实力的叛军组织发表了一份声明,明确否认“联盟”的合法性。在此之前的数月,成员对“联盟”越来越失望,不仅因为人们认为“联盟”过多关注内部纷争,而且认为它未能履行主要职责,即动员具有决定性作用的国际支持。

现在能做些什么呢?建立另一个政治组织是一个诱人的想法,但其结果可能与现状相差无几。“联盟”对武装团体从来就没有什么重要的影响力,人们也没有理由相信其他任何反对派组织能够克服“联盟”所面临的地缘政治障碍。与其如此,还不如致力于在现有条件上进行现实性改革。这些条件包括:海湾国家将继续支持武装反对派;起义的各派叛军会继续抗争;美国政府对“日内瓦第二轮谈判”政治进程日益投入。具体说来:

  • 支持反对派的国家应当显著改善彼此之间的协调合作,尤其是在军事前线上;
     
  • 在采取上述措施的同时还应该努力限制物资和后勤援助的其它渠道;尤其是海湾国家需要控制私人的资金援助,土耳其则需要加倍努力阻止外国士兵和筹款者从土耳其南部边境进入叙利亚。
     
  • 要提高“联盟”在叙利亚本土的存在,“联盟”应当力求在叛军控制的地区直接提供基本服务,包括食品供给、教育和执法。这要求主要的叛军组织展开合作,反对派主要的国外资助者则要努力保证他们的合作。
  • “联盟”及其支持者需要制定一个有效策略以应对圣战组织所带来的紧迫威胁。除了要在上述三个领域取得进展之外,该策略还必需加强公民社会的自发活动和活动者之间的组织网络。
     
  • 尽管对日内瓦第二轮进程心存疑惑,“联盟”应当制定一个实际的策略,来寻求最有可能结束战争的方法,这应当包括,例如,就可行的谈判条件达成内部共识。

贝鲁特/大马士革/布鲁塞尔,2013年10月17日

Executive Summary

Often derided for its infighting or dismissed as irrelevant, Syria’s political opposition reflects the contradictions, misunderstandings and conflicting geopolitical interests upon which it was founded. That its main political bodies have failed to overcome their inherent weaknesses and play a proactive role is regrettable. But so too is the opposition’s Western and Arab allies’ striking failure to address the ways in which their own mixed signals, independent agendas and poor coordination have undermined the structures they ostensibly seek to empower. Any viable resolution of the war will require emergence of a credibly representative opposition; for all its shortcomings, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (the Coalition) currently is alone in potentially meeting that test. To do so, however, it will need to dramatically bolster its presence on the ground; opposition backers will have to streamline their assistance; and all must develop a strategy to deal with the growing jihadi phenomenon.

The roots of the political opposition’s difficulties lie, first and foremost, in the oppressive domestic environment from which it emerged. The result has been a hodgepodge of exiles, intellectuals and secular dissidents bereft of a genuine political constituency, as well as Muslim Brothers geographically detached from their natural base. Little wonder that, as the uprising began, this diverse array of groups and individuals lacked not only ties to those demonstrating on the streets, but also meaningful political experience and the means to assess their respective popular weight.

In providing a stamp of legitimacy to exile-based umbrella groups – first, in October 2011, to the Syrian National Council; later, in November 2012, to the Coalition – on-the-ground activists were not endorsing a specific political leadership. Rather, they saw the political opposition as the uprising’s diplomatic expression, a body whose job essentially was to mobilise international support. This understanding rested on an implicit wager: that as regime violence intensified, the West would follow the Libya precedent and, through military action, contribute to President Bashar Assad’s demise.

The problem is that this outlook was at sharp odds with that of relevant Western governments, Washington’s in particular. For the Obama administration, such direct military intervention never appears truly to have been in the cards. Instead, it saw the priority as getting the opposition to unite and present a more broadly appealing vision of the post-Assad future. In contrast, the opposition saw value in those tasks – made all the more difficult given its diversity and distance from the ground – only insofar as they were accompanied by substantially more Western support. Washington waited for the opposition to improve itself; the opposition waited for Washington to empower it. Both shared the goal of a Syria without Assad, but neither developed a strategy to achieve the goal that took account of the other’s constraints, triggering a cycle of frustration and mistrust that discredited the political opposition and Western governments alike in the eyes of the uprising’s rank and file.

Perhaps even more damaging to the opposition has been lack of coordination among its regional backers, ramifications of which are felt on the political and military fronts. Politically, competition between its most important supporters, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, has fuelled divisive intra-Coalition dynamics. This has proved to be a huge distraction. At critical points, it has effectively ground Coalition activity to a halt.

Militarily, Qatari-Saudi competition is but one aspect of the region’s broader failure to cooperate. This has helped create propitious conditions for more extremist groups to thrive. The Supreme Military Council (SMC), led by Salim Idris, is represented in the Coalition and has been endorsed – on paper at least – by the opposition’s main foreign backers as the lone channel for military support. But it enjoys scant leverage on the ground, debilitated not only by lack of meaningful Western backing but also by widespread perception that it cannot control which rebel faction gets what. Rather, those decisions appear to be made in Doha and Riyadh. Too, armed militant groups in need of weapons and money have alternative options: loot from capturing regime arms depots; occasionally lucrative assets deriving from control of oil facilities and border crossings; and plentiful private funding, chiefly from the Gulf.

It gets worse. On 24 September 2013, several powerful rebel factions issued a statement explicitly rejecting the Coalition’s legitimacy. This came on the heels of months of rising popular frustration with the Coalition, fuelled in part by perception that it has disproportionately focused on internal wrangling, but also by the sense that it has failed in its principal mission, mobilising decisive foreign support.

What can be done? Creation of an alternative political grouping is always tempting but unlikely to yield markedly different results. The Coalition never had significant influence over militant groups, and there is little reason to believe any other opposition body could overcome the geopolitical obstacles it has faced. Rather, the focus should be on realistic changes that take account of present circumstances: Gulf states that will persist in helping the armed opposition; rebel factions that will continue to fight; and a U.S. administration that is increasingly invested in the “Geneva II” political process. In particular:

  • the opposition’s foreign state backers ought to drastically improve their coordination, especially on the military front;
     
  • this should be accompanied by efforts to limit alternative channels of material and logistical support; notably, Gulf states need to rein in private funding, and Turkey needs to do more to disrupt the influx of foreign fighters and fundraisers across its southern border;
     
  • to enhance its presence on the ground, the Coalition should seek a direct role in providing basic services in rebel-controlled areas, including food, schooling and law enforcement. This requires cooperation of mainstream rebel groups that the opposition’s main foreign backers should work to secure;
     
  • the Coalition and its backers need to develop an effective strategy to deal with the urgent threat posed by jihadi groups. Besides progress in the above three realms, this necessitates enhancing civil society initiatives and activist networks; and
     
  • its qualms regarding the Geneva II process notwithstanding, the Coalition ought to come up with a realistic strategy toward what remains the best hope for ending the war. This should entail, for example, reaching internal consensus on workable negotiation parameters.

Beirut/Damascus/Brussels, 17 October 2013

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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