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

叙利亚不断蔓延的冲突

  • Share
  • Save
  • Print
  • Download PDF Full Report

执行摘要

两年的叙利亚冲突,造成了数以千计的伤亡,引发了一场不断蔓延的地区性教派战争,以及数以百万计的难民和国内流离失所的民众。国际社会对叙利亚战争有不可推卸的责任,却仍然万般纠结不知所措。反对派的外国盟友曾自信胜利在望,因而据此调整,造成的结果是危险和脱离现实的战略:他们认为,军事压力将迫使叙利亚政权权衡利弊,从而要么通过协商谈判下台,要么引发内部分裂,导致其土崩瓦解。这显然低估了伊朗、真主党和俄罗斯维护叙利亚政权,摧毁武装反对派的决心。同时流亡海外的反对派在还无权力可分的时候就争权夺利,而当下战略也显示了这些反对派的短视。这一战略还假定阿萨德政权有着可以改变的“利弊权衡”,而不是一打到底破釜沉舟的模式。现在是抛开幻想,直面严峻现实的时候了。当下主导政策辩论的各种选项将会进一步加深危机,而不能开辟一个可靠的出路。

如果目标是结束这场可怕的战争,那么解决方案有三:1)通过大规模的西方军事干预——尽管有一定风险和不确定性——果断地改变前线的力量对比;2)接受道德和政治代价来承认当局政权的胜利;以及,3)由美国与俄罗斯共同推动外交解决。第三种选择是首选,其目标是当局和反对派之间达成双方均不完全满意的权力分享协议,地区的主要敌对阵营(分别由伊朗和沙特阿拉伯领导)接受叙利亚不和任意一方结盟,但这一前景在当下无异海市蜃楼。第四个选择,即双方盟友扶持各方存活,但不支持其压倒另一方,将无尽延续一场代理战争,叙利亚民众则会是主要的受害者。但这第四选项就是当下的局势,而且最有可能持续到可预见的将来。

就目前而言,工作重点应放在立即采取措施缓解冲突,并且详细制订最终方案,以将其作为外交途径的基础。在这里需要回答的核心问题是:什么样的权力分享可以均等地保护叙利亚当局和反对派双方各自的利益?从政治进程中获取何种政体以为解决方案的持久性打下基础?现有的机构组织需要如何改变来实现这一设想? 是否有照顾地区敌对阵营各方顾虑的途径?这一方法最可能使叙利亚各方达成协议,也可能解决各方盟友的顾虑。本报告将提出一些建议以供进一步讨论。

各个选项要么令人无法接受,要么不切实际,或者既令人无法接受也不切实际,主要原因是战争动态遭到误判。这不是一个一方受益另一方就一定受损的零和游戏。政权方和反对派可能同时在某些方面具有强势而在另一些方面均具弱势。双方都经历了整合,并都具有足以长期支撑的国内和国外支持。叙利亚当局的军队更身经百战,其盟友也更亲力亲为,因此当局目前取得了重要的战术军事胜利​​。当局还拥有一些忠诚的支持者;其中一些人一开始持中立态度,但后来强忍厌恶转而支持声称为各派大多数人而战的当局。他们虽然深知阿萨德的暴行,但却更警惕反对派的散乱组织以及日益浓重的伊斯兰主义和宗派主义的倾向。最重要的是,叙利亚政权已经在战事中演变,即使有种种失败也丝毫不受影响。

因此,临界点理论应遭迅速摒弃。根据这一理论,一旦反对派的支持者规模达到临界点(种种假设包括接管阿勒颇;迁入大马士革,争取工商阶层的支持),将对当局形成压倒性优势。同样应遭到摒弃的理论为:越来越大的压力要么导致军事政变,要么导致重要人士倒戈,叙利亚当局权力机构将会自我毁灭。叙利亚当局是一个不可分割的整体,其中更易于为人们所接受的元素同最令人难以容忍的元素交织在一起,要把他们分开只能导致整个体系的崩溃。许多阿萨德的支持者在私下对他批评最严厉,他们认为,如果阿萨德下台,国家机构的残余部分将分崩离析。

同样,完全消灭反对派也几乎是不可能的。当然反对派和当局有种种差别。反对派内部相当多元化而且分歧严重,其组织结构是临时拼凑的,而且不断变化,外国支持者更缺乏一致性和协调性。即便如此,同叙利亚当局一样,反对派也拥有数量可观而且百折不挠支持者,且很大程度上不受反对派表现好坏的影响。大量的底层民众是反对派的中坚力量,他们由于受尽了阿萨德暴政的荼毒,很可能战斗到最后一刻。

对反对派的国际支持至多能称上反复无常,或者根本无效。然而,即使是反对派最不情愿的外援也不可能改变根本立场;近期美国刚做出了为反对派提供武器的决定,其他支持者也决定大幅提升援助力度,这些都表明他们更有可能坚持对反对派的支持。这些国际力量已经为摧毁叙利亚政权投入了太多,在与伊朗和真主党的较量中下注太多,转变立场已不太可能。对那些将叙利亚内战看成是与伊朗之间的代理战争的人来说,阿萨德的胜利将会成为战略性的打击。

总之,叙利亚政权和反对派的演变使得冲突既难通过军事分胜负也难通过谈判解决,而周边战略背景的转型则使争端升级的可能性增加。一位前美国官员这样评论道,这场冲突曾经是叙利亚内战波及地区,但已经演变成为以叙利亚为焦点的地区战争。局势可谓凶险。

战争的蔓延卷入了地区和国际势力,打破了疆界,一个单一的跨国危机链逐渐形成。反对派越来越像一个逊尼派联盟,其中一条激进的逊尼派街道、伊斯兰网络、叙利亚穆斯林兄弟会、海湾国家和土耳其担任领导角色。亲政权的阵营也似乎组成了一个准忏悔联盟,包括伊朗、真主党、伊拉克和伊拉克什叶派武装分子。

真主党自己也承认,它参与的是一场打击与以色列联盟的逊尼派原教旨主义者(takfiris)的意义深远的战役,从而奠定了日后长期参与争端的基调。伊拉克什叶派士兵的数量正在增加,而伊朗的参与也正在扩大。周边地区的逊尼派酋长正毫无顾忌地使用宗派语言敦促追随者加入战斗。这场冲突已经重新点燃叙利亚最脆弱邻国伊拉克和黎巴嫩国内的紧张局势,最近他们才经历了内战。

美国和以色列在这场战争中的所牵涉的利益也进一步增高。对于美国来说,叙利亚政权是一个由流氓政府领导的衰败的社会,虽然也曾与其共处,但现在默认政权的胜利将有更深远的后果。有的人认为承认当局的胜利将壮大由伊朗领导的日益一体化的反西方联盟,并且将胜利拱手让给俄罗斯(好比冷战重演,向苏联投降)。伊朗、真主党和叙利亚的军事资产融合可能会造成极难确定何种武器系统落入谁手,而以色列可能因此改变谨慎姿态,而更倾向使用武力。

出路在何方?首先早就应该对叙利亚大幅增加人道主义援助,无论是在当局或是反对派的占领区。同时还有必要采取“外围”策略,以维护脆弱邻国的国家稳定:向约旦和黎巴嫩以及那里收容的难民们提供经济援助;劝说各国当局不要再煽动黎巴嫩的教派冲突;敦促伊拉克总理马利基对逊尼反对派采取更包容的政策。

最棘手的问题是如何对待叙利亚。首先应该结束战争;在这一点上没有捷径可走,但至少需要正视这些问题:

  • 一种选择是西方国家打破目前的军事胶着。做到这一点不成问题,但这意味着远超目前规模——甚至可能超过政治所允许——的军事干预。即便如此,目前尚不清楚是否能借此“打败”阿萨德政权,或者仅仅使其转化为一系列民兵武装,甚至更加不确定的是这场战争是否会结束亦或是被重新定义。伊朗、真主党,甚至俄罗斯都将继续施加影响,加剧地区的不稳定性,并极力确保政权过渡的混乱(伊朗和什叶派运动在别处的行径证明了他们是这方面的高手),以及各区域/教派之间的冷战也会一直持续下去。
     
  • 平息暴力可能最便捷的方式是切断叛军的资源供给,默许当局的胜利,并与巴沙尔达成和解。这一选择所要付出的道德、政治和战略成本将是巨大的,也许甚至是令人望而却步的,而且它很可能也不能完全结束这场战争悲剧:愤慨的叙利亚人可能不会投降;底气十足的当局可能会寻求报复;叙利亚政府肯定在内政外交政策上不会做出任何让步,不会给它的外部敌人们保全一丁点的面子。
     
  • 最佳的解决方案是通过外交谈判来实现的,但在现阶段这几乎是幻想。外部势力——从俄罗斯和美国开始谈起——必须从根本上改变他们的残局策略。对于俄罗斯来说,这意味着首先接受,进而推动叙利亚权力结构的重大转变;对美国来说,它需要从隐性的政权更迭转移到明确的权力共享上来。任何可行的政治谈判结果都必须对叙利亚各选区起到巩固和安抚的作用。各地区势力只有在确信自身能在新政治框架下获取足够影响以确保自己核心利益时,才会支持和解,因此这些势力需要获得担保。西方显然决心将伊朗从和平会议中排除在外(在伊朗总统选举后,这一策略可能正得到重新评估),这一做法是短视的:把伊朗排除出日内瓦并不能降低其在大马士革的影响。

西方目前的策略也是选项之一,即:敦促外交解决但同时采取其它半投入措施,例如给反对派提供武装,未来还有可能进行有针对性的空袭和设立有限禁飞区。该选项还可能带来相当大附带效益:叙利亚当局的军事力量被进一步耗损;西方的影响力在叛军中间进一步加强;并且重新调整叛乱团体之间的力量对比。但这一方案并不能带来其支持者声称能够带来的结果,也就是迫使当局就国家的真正转变进行认真的谈判。同时这一方案也难以阻止宗派极端化,控制暴力行径,约束圣战组织,或是说服叙利亚的盟友退步。最终,这将意味着叙利亚进一步陷入不断升级的逊尼派/什叶派的恶性地区冲突中,而西方国家不得不冒险站边。

如果俄罗斯和美国希望表明自己严肃认真的态度,他们应该开始努力缓解冲突。俄罗斯应该敦促叙利亚当局结束最毫无理由的屠杀暴行(使用军队对平民进行大规模屠杀,对老百姓使用弹道导弹),并限制其使用外国士兵(尤其是有明显宗派性质的士兵)。美国应该推动反对派采取行动约束自己最极端的武装组织,并沿着既定的前线实施停火协议。所有这些不会从根本上改变冲突的发展轨迹或是为真正的解决方案指明方向。但至少这是一个开端,并且远好于当下的可悲境地。

大马士革/开罗/布鲁塞尔,2013年6月27日

Executive Summary

Two years, scores of thousands of dead, a mushrooming regional sectarian war and millions of refugees and internally displaced later, the Syrian war is tying the international community in knots largely of its own making. Once confident of swift victory, the opposition’s foreign allies shifted to a paradigm dangerously divorced from reality: that military pressure would force the regime to alter its calculus so that it would either negotiate its demise or experience internal cracks leading to its collapse. That discounted the apparent determination of Iran, Hizbollah and Russia to do what it takes to keep the regime afloat and bring the armed opposition to its knees. It counted without the fecklessness of an opposition in exile fighting for a share of power it has yet to achieve. And it assumed that the Assad regime has a “calculus” susceptible to be changed, not merely a fighting mode designed to last. It is past time to get over false hopes and confront a harsh truth. The options that dominate the policy debate would deepen the crisis, not produce a credible exit from it.

If the goal is to end this horrendous war, the choice is between massive Western military intervention – with attending risks and uncertainties – to decisively shift the ground balance; acceptance of regime victory with the moral and political price that would entail; and a diplomatic solution driven jointly by the U.S. and Russia. The latter is the preferred but today illusory option, in which regime and opposition would settle for a less-than-satisfactory power-sharing agreement, and the region’s main rival camps (led, respectively, by Iran and Saudi Arabia) would acquiesce in a Syria aligned with neither. A fourth option – in which allies give both sides enough to survive but not prevail – would perpetuate a proxy war with Syrians as primary victims. It is the present stage and the likeliest forecast for the foreseeable future.

For now, the focus should be on immediate steps to de-escalate the conflict and on mapping out in more detail an endgame that could serve as the basis for a diplomatic settlement. This entails answering core questions: What kind of power-sharing solution can protect regime and opposition interests alike? What kind of state could emerge from a political process and be the foundation of a lasting solution? How must existing institutions change for this vision to gain substance? Is there a way to accommodate the concerns of rival regional actors? This is where most agreement can be found among Syrians and their allies’ concerns can be addressed. This report suggests ideas for further discussion.

That choices are so unpalatable, unrealistic or both owes much to the dynamics of a war that is often misdiagnosed. It is not a zero-sum game in which one side’s gains definitely mean the other side’s loss. Both regime and opposition can be strong on some fronts, frail on others. Both have undergone consolidation processes and enjoy sufficient domestic and foreign support to endure. Its fighters more battle-hardened and its allies more hands-on, the regime has scored important tactical military victories. It retains loyal constituencies; some once on the fence, well aware of Assad’s atrocities yet alarmed by the opposition’s desultory record of governance as well as increasingly Islamist and sectarian disposition, hold their nose and lean toward a regime that claims to be fighting on behalf of a significant national cross-section. Most importantly, the regime has evolved in ways that largely make it impervious to its innumerable failings.

This is one good reason to rapidly discard the tipping-point theory, the fiction that once the opposition reached a critical mass (taking over Aleppo; moving into Damascus; bringing the business class to its side, among other hypotheticals) it would overwhelm the regime. One should do the same with the notion that, under growing pressure, the power structure would turn against itself, in a military coup or by desertion of significant personalities. The regime comes as a package deal – an inseparable whole, whose more acceptable elements cannot be dissociated from its least tolerable ones without bringing the entire edifice down. Assad supporters, often among his harshest private critics, remain persuaded that the remnants of the state would crumble were he to step down.

In its own way but with much the same result, the opposition is nearly impossible to eliminate. There are differences, of course. It is pluralistic and deeply divided, its structures improvised and shifting and its foreign backers less consistent and more uncoordinated. Still, and not unlike the regime, it has acquired a critical and resilient mass of support at least partially immune to the ups and downs of its performance. The large underclass that is its core constituency has suffered such extreme regime violence that it can be expected to fight till the end.

International support has been inconstant in the best of times, ineffectual at others. Yet even the opposition’s most reluctant foreign supporters are unlikely to fundamentally reverse course; as the recent decisions by Washington to deliver some weapons and then by others to significantly ramp up their own assistance suggest, they are more likely to do the opposite. Too much has been invested in demonising the regime, and too much is riding on the contest with Iran and Hizbollah for it to be otherwise. For those who view the conflict as a proxy war with Tehran, Assad’s survival would be a strategic body blow.

In short, the evolution of regime and opposition alike has made both military and negotiated solutions even more elusive, while transformation of the broader strategic context has made prospects for escalation even more probable. In the words of a former U.S. official, what once was a Syrian conflict with regional spillover has become a regional war with a Syrian focus. That is frightening.

The war is metastasising in ways that draw in regional and other international actors, erase boundaries and give rise to a single, transnational arc of crisis. The opposition increasingly resembles a Sunni coalition in which a radicalised Sunni street, Islamist networks, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Gulf states and Turkey take leading roles. The pro-regime camp, encompassing Iran, Hizbollah, Iraq and Iraqi Shiite militants, likewise appears to be a quasi-confessional alliance.

By its own admission, Hizbollah is directly engaged in a far-reaching battle against those it denounces as Sunni fundamentalists (takfiris) allied with Israel, thereby laying the predicate for long-term involvement. Iraqi Shiite fighters are growing in numbers, and Iran’s participation is expanding. Sunni sheikhs around the region are themselves using uninhibited sectarian language to urge followers to join the fight. The conflict has reignited tensions in Syria’s most fragile neighbours – Iraq and Lebanon – which recently had their own civil wars.

Stakes have risen for the U.S. and Israel as well. For Washington, acquiescing in the regime’s success arguably has acquired graver significance than living with a weakened regime ruling a rogue state and broken society. It is likened by some to empowering an increasingly integrated, Iranian-led axis of resistance, while handing Moscow a victory in a Cold War replay. The fusion of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian military assets could alter Israel’s cautious posture, making determination of what weapons system has been transferred to whom highly uncertain and thus a decision to use force more probable.

What is to be done? Already overdue is to vastly increase humanitarian aid within Syria, whether in regime- or opposition-held territory. There is need, too, for a “periphery” strategy for avoiding instability in vulnerable neighbours: giving economic help to Jordan and Lebanon and the refugees they host; prevailing upon regional countries not to further incite sectarian tensions in Lebanon; pressing Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki to adopt a far more inclusive policy toward his Sunni opposition.

Hardest of all is what to do about Syria. The priority should be to end the war; there are no easy choices, but there is at least need to face them squarely:

  • One option would be for the West to decisively tip the military balance. This, it almost certainly can do – albeit only by a far more massive intervention than is presently contemplated or, arguably, politically palatable. Even then, it is not clear whether the regime would be “defeated”, or merely reincarnated in a series of militias, and even less clear whether the war would be ended or only redefined. Iran, Hizbollah, perhaps even Russia would keep influence, fuel instability and ensure a chaotic transition (Tehran and the Shiite movement have elsewhere proved to be masters at this game), and the regional/sectarian Cold War would endure.
     
  • An arguably most expedient way to tamp down violence would be to starve the rebels of resources, acquiesce in de facto regime victory and seek an accommodation with Bashar. The moral, political and strategic costs would be huge, perhaps prohibitive, and it might well not end the tragedy: enraged Syrians likely would not surrender; an emboldened regime might seek revenge; and Damascus almost certainly would refrain from the domestic or foreign policy concessions necessary for its external enemies to save face.
     
  • The optimal solution – a negotiated, diplomatic one – at this stage belongs pretty much to the world of make-believe. Outside powers – beginning with Russia and the U.S. – would have to fundamentally shift their endgame approach. For Moscow, this means accepting, then pushing for a major transformation of the Syrian power structure; for Washington, it entails moving from implicit regime change to explicit power sharing. Any viable negotiated political outcome would have to empower and reassure Syria’s various constituencies. Regional actors, who will support a compromise only if they believe the new political framework gives them sufficient leverage to preserve their core interests, would need guarantees. The West’s apparent determination to exclude Iran from a peace conference (perhaps under review in the wake of that country’s presidential elections) is short-sighted: keeping Tehran from Geneva will not lessen its role in Damascus.

The West’s current trajectory – urging diplomacy while resorting to half-way measures such as arming the opposition or, conceivably in the future, targeted airstrikes and a limited no-fly zone – is an option as well, and one that might produce sizeable ancillary benefits: eroding the regime’s military; boosting Western influence over the rebels; and recalibrating the balance of power among rebel groups. But it would not produce what its promoters typically claim as justification: moving the regime to seriously negotiate a genuine transition. Nor is there any reason to believe it could arrest sectarian polarisation, contain violence, limit jihadi groups or persuade Syria’s allies to back down. Ultimately, it would mean getting further sucked into a dangerously intensifying and malignant Sunni/Shiite sectarian regional conflict in which the West would be running a risk by picking favourites.

If Russia and the U.S. wish to signal seriousness, they should start with efforts to de-escalate the conflict. Moscow should press the regime to end the most gratuitous forms of violence (notably massacres of civilians in the presence of army troops and use of ballistic missiles against civilians) and curtail the use of its foreign fighters (especially those of an overtly sectarian nature). Washington should push the opposition to act against its own most extreme armed groups and implement ceasefires along specified front lines. None of this would fundamentally alter the trajectory of the conflict or truly point to its resolution. But at least it would be a start, which is far more than one can say has been achieved at this sorry stage.

Damascus/Cairo/Brussels, 27 June 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.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.