West Looks for Ways to Combat Assad’s Latest Weapon: International Aid

With Russia pushing for all UN humanitarian aid in Syria to be controlled by Damascus, some Western countries are trying to find ways to bypass the Assad regime

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Syrian President Bashar al Assad visiting Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019.
Syrian President Bashar al Assad visiting Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019. Credit: SANA/REUTERS

For millions of Syrians, Saturday’s United Nations vote was a matter of life and death. The UN Security Council approved a resolution for a cross-border mechanism that will continue to deliver humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria, retaining an essential lifeline for those caught in the decade-long war.

The issue of providing aid to Syria has become a diplomatic tug of war between the major powers, though – a confrontation with potentially deadly consequences. For now, Damascus’ main backer, Moscow, is claiming victory after repeatedly imposing its will on other Security Council members.

The current UN mechanism allows for tons of humanitarian aid to be brought into the country without the approval of the Syrian regime. However, Russia would like to see all UN operations centralized in Damascus, under President Bashar Assad’s control.

The aid system, in place since 2014, was halved on Saturday when Germany and Belgium were left with no choice but to draft a resolution that safeguarded only a single UN crossing point into Syria. At the fifth time of asking, 12 members of the Security Council passed the vote, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining.

Following the vote, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Idlib province in northwestern Syria will remain open to humanitarian aid for one year. The Bab al-Salama entry point (between Turkey and Syria’s Aleppo province) will not be reopened. Moscow had already forced the closure of two other UN crossings last January.

Civilians fleeing from Idlib province to find safety inside Syria near the border with Turkey, February 11, 2020.Credit: Ugur Can / AP

This reduction from four crossing points to just one in the space of six months comes at a time when Syria is sinking ever deeper into the quagmire.

“We didn’t see any justification for reducing the access to humanitarian aid. It’s not like the need in Syria has gone down or that there are less people to deliver aid to. If anything, the need during the last six months has gone up,” said Jomana Qaddour, who leads the Atlantic Council’s Syria portfolio as a nonresident senior fellow. The council describes itself as a “nonpartisan organization that galvanizes U.S. leadership and engagement in the world.”

A combination of factors – the coronavirus pandemic; an economic crisis and devaluation of the Syrian pound; and military operations in the northwest (early 2020) and northeast (late 2019) that have caused further population displacement – has meant that Syria’s humanitarian crisis, already catastrophic, has only worsened.

In a country that is highly fragmented between areas held by loyalist forces, Turkish troops, rebels and Kurds, limiting cross-border aid may mean depriving millions of Syrians of the support they desperately need. According to the UN, as of May 2020 there were 6.2 million people living in areas not under government control, of whom 4.2 million were in need of humanitarian assistance.

“Having only one crossing point will inevitably limit our ability to help the greatest number of people. It will make our operations slower and more expensive,” said Kevin Kennedy, the UN regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. “It will also make it more dangerous. Since northwestern Syria is controlled by several armed groups, closing one access will force us to cross checkpoints held by different actors,” he added.

It is also difficult to replace cross-border operations with so-called cross-line aid deliveries, i.e., convoys going from areas held by the regime to territories beyond its control. For example, the makeshift camp of Rukban, southeastern Syria – where at least 10,000 people are forced to live in appalling conditions – has not seen a single UN convoy since last September, due to lack of authorization from the regime, Kennedy said.

‘We had to compromise’

At the UN, Germany and Belgium had initially wished not only to maintain both accesses at the Turkish border, but also to reopen the Iraqi-Syrian crossing point of Yaroubia, which was used to supply aid to Kurdish-run northeastern Syria. It had been closed since January following a Russian veto. Berlin and Brussels then opted not to save Yaroubia in order to gain Moscow’s backing – but even that wasn’t enough. Eventually, only Bab al-Hawa could be saved.

“We had to compromise because of the threat of a veto,” Niels Annen, Germany’s minister of state at the Federal Foreign Office, told Haaretz.

“Assad’s allies want to persuade the world that, because of the regime’s military successes, there is no need for this sort of UN mechanism anymore. Russia wants to make the point that Assad is in charge and that the sovereignty of the Syrian Republic can be restored,” he said.

An internally displaced Syrian child from Idlib standing outside a tent in Azaz, Syria, February 22, 2020. Credit: KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

“To them, our humanitarian concerns are somehow weakening their political argument,” he added.

Western officials worry that the reduced number of border crossings will lead to a centralization of UN activities in Damascus, which could in turn reinforce the regime’s instrumentalization of aid.

Western officials, humanitarians and experts have all accused Assad of having skillfully – and systematically – weaponized international aid to strengthen himself militarily, financially and politically.

Militarily, by cutting off humanitarian access to areas held by the opposition, using a starvation strategy to force people to surrender. Financially, by forcing these funds to be channeled through regime cronies. Politically, by progressively managing to position his regime, in the name of national sovereignty, as the only legitimate authority with which the UN can coordinate its operations.

Critics condemn UN agencies operating out of Damascus for submitting to the demands of the regime.

“While some level of coordination with the government might be a pragmatic necessity to ensure the safety of operations in regime-controlled areas, this cooperation should not enable the government to use aid for military or political purposes,” Chatham House, an independent policy institute based in London, stated in a report last year.

The issue of aid misappropriation is all the more urgent as 6.9 billion euros ($7.9 billion) was pledged by the international community – at a major conference in Brussels last month for Syria and the main countries hosting Syrian refugees – for humanitarian support in 2020 and beyond.

The biggest donors were the European Union, the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom and France. Ironically, governments that do not recognize the legitimacy of the Assad regime are seen as indirectly strengthening him by sending millions to Damascus. (The EU and its member states have donated over 20 billion euros of aid to the Syrian problem since 2011.)

Some experts are now calling on these donor states to demand higher ethical standards from Damascus-based UN agencies or to shift their money through other channels.

“Given the diversion of aid by the regime and the volume of aid already flowing through Damascus, the priority for donors should be to improve UN governance in the capital. And, if agencies do not adopt better standards, then to consider funding outside the UN framework – including by directly supporting Syrian NGOs,” said Charles Thépaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Syrian President Bashar Assad listening to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. Credit: Alexei Nikolsky/AP

Bypassing UN agencies to avoid the regime’s stranglehold on international aid is inevitably a controversial idea, since Western countries are afraid of undermining the UN or of being accused of “politicizing” humanitarian principles. However, the idea seems to be gaining traction in some European ministries.

“We remain discreet on the subject, but it’s true that we’re studying all possibilities. The United Kingdom, for example, is definitely interested in alternatives,” a Western official told Haaretz on condition of anonymity. Other sources also confirmed this.

Asked whether Germany would consider such move, Annen said: “We will not allow our resources to be exploited by the Assad regime. Everyone must understand that this calculation [centralizing all UN operations in Damascus] will not work with us.”

‘Grave danger’

It remains to be seen whether it will be possible to find viable alternatives to withstand one of the world’s largest humanitarian operations. What will happen in a year’s time if Russia gets the very last crossing closed and humanitarian needs are still dire?

“It’s difficult to imagine that the volume of supplies needed in the northwest could be provided through Damascus,” said Janez Lenarčič, head of the European Commission’s crisis management team. “If the cross-border mechanism comes to an end, some say NGOs could replace UN operations. But that’s only partly true, because the volume of assistance required in the northwest is such that it’s simply not imaginable that they would be able to compensate for the loss of the UN system,” he said.

“In short, if cross-border operations are no longer authorized, there is a grave danger that a large number of people would be pushed on the brink of survival – if not even beyond,” Lenarčič warned. “If some countries are looking for substitutes, I wish them good luck. I hope they will succeed. … But our assessment is that there’s no viable alternative to cross-border provisions of humanitarian aid.”

For Western powers, finding a way to help as many Syrians as possible despite the decrease in cross-border access, while simultaneously avoiding having their aid controlled by Assad, will be a particularly challenging task. But the lives of countless Syrians depends on it. “We have 12 months to come up with a solution,” said the Atlantic Council’s Qaddour, who is also on the UN-facilitated Syrian Constitutional Committee.

Syrian activists were already calling on UN agencies to maintain cross-border activities even without a Security Council resolution.

When this writer visited Syria last December, he found a country disfigured by war and poverty. In Raqqa, a former stronghold of the Islamic State group, the stench of death remained among the silent ruins. Survivors spoke with grief. “There are 200 nations in the world. Why is no one helping us? I had fled to Turkey and chose to come back after the battle. But it’s better to be a refugee than live in Syria,” Mohammed, a father of two, told Haaretz at the time. The city has largely missed out on UN aid because of regime pressure on its agencies.

A general view of destroyed houses on the front line in the Al Dariya neighborhood in western Raqqa, July 24, 2017.Credit: Morukc Umnaber / dpa Picture-All

Mohammed had known conflict and exile, and believed he had seen it all. It could never get worse than this, he thought. But it did. Twice, he started saying something to Haaretz and twice he faltered, before finally declaring: “Where is hope?”