UN cross-border assistance from Türkiye to northwest Syria is a crucial lifeline to the 4.5 million people who live in the region, a place where the massive need for it is self-evident. Yet every six months to a year, Syrians, the UN, and other aid groups must justify why this support should continue.
The current UN Security Council resolution that allows the UN to coordinate access aid from Türkiye to Syria is due to expire early next week, by 10 July. Its renewal is by no means guaranteed: In voting to renew the resolution this January, Russia said it would not vote for extension again “unless the approach to providing humanitarian assistance in Syria changes”.
This is nothing new. Russia, a close ally of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, has vetoed aid resolutions in the past. It takes a deep interest in restricting aid access to Syria, arguing that allowing the UN to bring aid across the border without al-Assad’s permission restricts its sovereignty.
When the first cross-border resolution was passed in 2014, three years into Syria’s war, the intention was to protect humanitarian access from the grip of the al-Assad regime, which was using aid as a weapon of war. But each year the humanitarian space gets smaller: Russia has insisted on the reduction of UN-allowed border crossings into Syria from the original four to one, Bab al-Hawa, and on shorter temporal limits between renewals – from 12 months to “6+6” mandates (six month renewals with technical rollovers for another six).
All the while, the level of humanitarian suffering in parts of the northwest not controlled by the regime has continued to rise. An estimated 3.3 million people are food insecure, and 1.9 million live in camps. This year, the United States has stated publicly that the cross-border resolution should be renewed for the full 12 months, and include three border crossings – including the two that al-Assad temporarily opened after the February earthquakes – reflecting the unprecedented levels of need in the wake of the quakes.
The uncertainty surrounding humanitarian access that results from the need for renewals and debates around Security Council resolutions is a huge challenge for humanitarian groups operating in the northwest.
“Russia and the al-Assad regime know that nothing can replace the scale and scope of UN assistance. They have sought to leverage the continuation of cross-border aid in return for concessions that support the regime.”
The White Helmets are a local organisation, so a potential disruption in UN aid delivery would not have a direct impact on our operations, as we are able to use commercial border crossings for our needs. But we still have an interest in the UN mandate’s renewal. That’s because local NGOs, including the White Helmets, would likely be expected to fill the gap left by a UN withdrawal.
Sadly, we don’t need to imagine a counterfactual to consider the impact of a stop to UN support.
Bab al-Hawa, the last remaining Security Council-authorised border crossing, was temporarily obstructed by earthquake damage in early February, leaving millions of people in northwest Syria stranded without international assistance. Trucks only began to arrive three days later, at first carrying supplies that had been scheduled for delivery before the earthquake.
I know that we would have had the chance to save many more lives if the northwest had received the right kind of international assistance earlier. We needed trained search and rescue teams, heavy vehicles, and medical supplies that would have helped us find and treat more survivors. Instead, we had to listen to the screams of survivors grow fainter, and hear that some of those we had rescued later died in hospital from complications of their injuries, or from “crush syndrome”.
Local organisations simply do not have the capacity to respond to an emergency of the scale of the earthquakes, or of the ongoing crisis in northwest Syria, without international support. Indeed, I doubt many governments could either. The UN’s agencies, funds, and programmes are the types of partners we need in northwest Syria, if they are empowered to work according to their mandates and free of politicisation.
Russia and the al-Assad regime know that nothing can replace the scale and scope of UN assistance. They have sought to leverage the continuation of cross-border aid in return for concessions that support the regime. Through the UN Security Council, they seek more levers of control that provide the regime with the opportunity to continue to syphon aid money, control aid access via “cross-line” deliveries from regime to opposition territory in the northwest, and dress up rebuilding projects as early recovery.
Such manipulation aims to bolster the regime's institutions (including its prisons), restore its security systems, and support its military operations. We witnessed this in the period following the earthquake, with “disaster diplomacy”. The al-Assad regime tried to position itself as the primary coordinating authority for the earthquake response, despite its well-documented history of aid manipulation.
This cynicism is equally clear in Russia’s continued insistence of adding language on cross-line aid from regime-controlled areas into Security Council resolutions on cross-border aid. If the regime genuinely wanted to respond to needs in parts of the country it does not control, then there would be aid flowing from Damascus into all parts of Syria, from Rukban in the south to Idlib and Raqqa in the northwest and the northeast. But only one cross-line operation to the northwest has taken place since the earthquake, just as negotiations on the resolution began.
End Russia’s politicisation of aid
People living in northwest Syria also continue to be subject to shelling and bombardment. Late last month, we saw a particularly heinous Russian airstrike near a vegetable market in my hometown of Jisr al-Shughur, killing nine and injuring 61.
It’s another reminder that aside from the obvious impact on civilians if the UN has to stop cross-border work into northwest Syria, the normative impact of the status quo is disturbing, too.
The politicisation of lifesaving aid is no less dangerous than military attacks. It is a direct affront to international humanitarian law and humanitarian principles. I want the UN’s aid agencies to be freed from the political influence of the regime and of Security Council members, able to do their job and provide aid based on need.
That’s why Russia’s continued role in humanitarian decision-making is unfathomable to me. It is difficult to believe that after the atrocities it carried out in Syria and now in Ukraine, UN member states have not put forward a solution to aid access that leaves Russia out.
Syrian civil society, international lawyers, and many others know that the current Security Council mechanism is just one basis upon which states and UN agencies may conduct cross-border aid. Life-saving assistance is never illegal, and if the need exists, it does not require authorisation from the Security Council, or any other party.
Access to humanitarian assistance with dignity and without politicisation is a basic right for those in need.
I hope that by 10 July the Security Council will authorise the UN to use three border crossings for 12 months.
But what’s next? It’s time for states to develop a more sustainable solution for northwest Syria and the rest of the world. We need unhindered access to all those who need it, for as long as they need it. We must protect humanitarian aid from further politicisation and manipulation, before we forget our principles.