Foreign Policy

Russia, With an Eye on the Syrian Prize, Blocks Humanitarian Assist

Russia on Saturday succeeded in shuttering a humanitarian aid pipeline that provides lifesaving food, medicine, and other essentials to more than a million Syrians, brushing aside humanitarian appeals from the Trump administration and European governments to bolster its own geopolitical position in the region.

The move comes six months after Moscow eliminated two U.N.-approved humanitarian aid crossings in Jordan and Iraq, which served as the main channel for the delivery of medical supplies into communities in northeastern Syria. The closure of the Iraq crossing at Yaroubia has heightened concerns about the ability of international and private aid agencies to confront the spread of the coronavirus.

Together, the actions aim to consolidate Syrian government control over a broader swath of Syrian territory, key to Russia’s long-term aims of maintaining a pliant client state that can expand its power projection in the Eastern Mediterranean. Additionally, the moves threaten to increase the flight of Syrian civilians across the border into Turkey—and potentially into Europe. They also underscore how little appeals to Russia’s sense of conscience carry any weight.

“Russia and China have decided that millions of Syrian lives are an insignificant cost of their partnership with the murderous Assad regime,” Kelly Craft, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said on July 8, after Russia, backed by China, vetoed a resolution extending the mandate of two other crossing points. “This breathtaking callousness and dishonesty is now an established pattern, and all U.N. member states need to take note.”

The U.N. Security Council on Saturday voted 13 to 0, with abstentions from China, the Dominican Republic and Russia, to extend the U.N. mandate for one year to deliver humanitarian assistance to nearly three million Syrians in the northwest region of Idlib. Russia effectively blocked an effort by the resolution’s cosponsors, Belgium and Germany, to authorize aid deliveries through two other crossing points at Yaroubia, along the Iraqi border, and Bab al-Salam, which serves as a critical aid pipeline from Turkey to about 1.4 million civilians, including 500,000 children, in and around Aleppo in northwest Syria.

Following Saturday’s vote, Craft told the council in a virtual meeting that the approval of the Bab al-Hawa crossing “will make a difference” for the millions of Syrians in Idlib, but that it fell “far short of what the Syrian people need.”

“The Syrians themselves, if they had a voice, would tell you that the loss of those crossings is unacceptable, and risks the health and welfare of millions of their fellow Syrians,” she added.

A senior Russian diplomat, Dmitry Polyanskiy, accused Craft and her Western partners of “hypocrisy,” citing a tweet by the American ambassador accusing Russia of opposing humanitarian assistance to Syrians. He noted that Russia supports such deliveries but that aid can be delivered directly by the Syrian government. The United Nations, however, has repeatedly claimed that the Syrian government — which has previously withheld aid in opposition controlled territory — has failed to fill the gap left by the closed-border crossing at Yaroubia.

“Now is not the time to scale-back aid,” Janti Soeripto, the president and CEO of Save the Children, said in a statement after the vote. “There is no excuse for limiting the ability for humanitarian organisations to deliver aid when we are seeing a sharp increase in needs due to conflict, the first cases of COVID 19 announced, and economic collapse across the country. Millions of Syria’s children depend on this lifeline and will suffer the consequences of this decision.”

The Russian action follows a well-established pattern of interference in the Syrian conflict—with Moscow’s own aims in mind—that stops short of doing anything constructive.

“They want to be the spoiler-in-chief at all times, but they don’t necessarily want to manage any of the problems or pay for it,” said Bessma Momani, a Syria expert at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

The fate of the Syrian relief effort has been the subject of intense big-power negotiations in the U.N. Security Council over the past weeks that have exposed the West’s weak diplomatic leverage. This month, Belgium and Germany mounted an effort to restore the border crossing in Yaroubia on the grounds that its closure in January was hamstringing the international response to COVID-19.

But Moscow made clear that it would veto the measure. The Europeans dropped the provision, but it was still not enough to satisfy Russia, which vetoed a watered-down draft resolution that would have extended the life of two remaining crossing points on the Turkish border, Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salaam, which provide assistance to nearly 3 million Syrians in northwestern Syria.

Relief experts say the Russian move to eliminate the U.N. mandate for the Syrian border crossings will prohibit the United Nations from channeling funds into the area or playing its traditional coordinating role, limiting international efforts to scale up aid programs, even if it won’t necessarily halt efforts by private relief agencies to deliver aid into northwestern Syria.

“In January, Russia and China forced the Security Council to cut off cross-border aid to the northeast, severely worsening a dire humanitarian crisis there,” Louis Charbonneau, the U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement following the vote. “Today, council members buckled and gave Moscow what it wanted — a further drastic reduction of cross-border aid to desperate Syrians who rely on it for survival.”

Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in Syria is worsening as the war drags into its ninth year. Syria’s rebel-held northwest region, including the Idlib pocket where millions of people are crammed in with severely limited access to health care, saw its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on Thursday. Food shortages across the country, including in both rebel- and government-controlled areas, are heightening the risks of famine. Battling both hunger and the pandemic may prove to be impossible for overstretched aid agencies.

Diplomats acknowledged they are playing a stronger diplomatic hand. The cross-border humanitarian operation represents one of the sole meaningful components of Western policy toward Syria. “I think the Russians, on Syria, have less to lose than the rest of us,” one Security Council diplomat said. “If the resolution doesn’t get passed, they have achieved their objectives.”

Meanwhile, appeals like Craft’s to Russia’s better angels fall on deaf ears. “Russia has spent almost a decade fending off moral pleas and denunciations over its Syria policy at the U.N., and it is pretty confident it can ride out another of these storms,” said Richard Gowan, the U.N. director at the International Crisis Group.

“Ultimately Moscow can take the reputational hit of messing with the humanitarian access regime in its stride, while it would be an awful embarrassment for Berlin and Brussels if it all falls apart,” he added. “The Belgians and Germans have a weak hand because, at the end of the day, they will have to take whatever Russia offers them or be accused of failing the Syrians.”

Moscow’s gambits underscore how committed it is to propping up Bashar al-Assad’s regime to maintain a Russian footprint in the Middle East with access to the Mediterranean Sea on NATO’s southeastern flank. For Moscow, geopolitics trumps any argument on humanitarian grounds, Momani said.

“Russia [has] always been very committed to the Assad regime, and that’s not going to change. They have a long-term plan in keeping a presence in Syria, both militarily and as a proxy,” she said.

The U.N. Security Council established four crossing points in Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq back in 2014 to enable the delivery of lifesaving assistance to millions of Syrian civilians living in rebel-controlled territory, including hundreds of thousands under siege by the Syrian government. Russia has long backed Syria’s contention that the cross-border delivery of assistance violates the Syrian government’s sovereignty and provides a life line to armed groups seeking to overthrow Assad.

Some experts see Russian President Vladimir Putin as deploying a Trumpian strategy: creating a crisis that only he can solve. Others say Russia has outmaneuvered the West by siphoning all major decisions on Syria into the U.N. Security Council, where it can wield its veto votes in favor of Assad.

“Russia has used U.N. mechanisms to prevent and paralyze any real action on Syria and any real political resolution for Syria. And that has always worked in favor of the Syrian regime,” said Jomana Qaddour, a Syria expert with the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

On Friday, Russia vetoed a second attempt by Belgium and Germany to adopt a resolution that would extend the mandate of the two Turkish crossing points for a truncated period of six months. China joined Russia in the veto, on the grounds of respecting Syria’s sovereignty, meanwhile criticizing U.S. economic sanctions on Syria that Beijing argues undermine Syria’s ability to respond to the humanitarian crisis.

Shortly after Friday’s double veto, Russia tabled its own “compromise” resolution, which would have ended the mandate for Bab al-Salaam and called for regular reporting by the U.N. secretary-general on the impact that U.S. sanctions are having on the humanitarian situation in Syria. It also called for extending for a year the mandate for a single crossing hub at Bab al-Hawa, which provides aid for millions of Syrians in Idlib.

“We categorically reject claims that Russia wants to stop humanitarian deliveries to the Syrian population in need. Our draft is the best proof that these allegations are groundless,” Polyanskiy tweeted Thursday night, after circulating Moscow’s final offer. “If they block our compromise proposal they will be responsible for the consequences.” 

The Russian draft resolution was defeated on Friday evening, securing only four votes in favor from China, Russia, South Africa and Vietnam, five short of the nine votes needed to adopt a resolution in the 15-nation council. The U.S., Belgium, Britain, Estonia, France, Germany and the Dominican Republic voted no, while the council four remaining members abstained. Belgium and Germany, meanwhile, pressed the Russians to compromise in the hope of securing the cross-border aid program’s future before it expires at midnight.

On Saturday, the two Europeans put their final resolution to a vote. It extended the mandate for the Bab al-Hawa crossing for one year. The Europeans, however, failed to persuade Russia to permit the council to grant the U.N. a three-month transition period to close its operations at the Bab al-Salam crossing point. In addition, the Europeans refused to accept amendments by China and Russia calling on the U.N. Secretary General to conduct regular reports to the Security Council on the impact U.S. and European sanctions may have on the humanitarian situation in Syria. In the end, it was enough to avoid a third Chines and Russian veto.

Update, July 11, 2020: This story has been updated to reflect Saturday Security Council vote authorizing the continued delivery of humanitarian assistance into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa crossing point.


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