Sam Heller is a Beirut-based researcher, analyst and fellow at The Century Foundation. His work focuses on politics and security in Lebanon, Syria and their regional neighborhood. He has published extensively with International Crisis Group and The Century Foundation and in outlets including Foreign Affairs, War on the Rocks and The Daily Beast.
The United Nations Security Council will vote next month on renewing its mandate for providing cross-border humanitarian aid into Syria, bypassing President Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus. The vote matters for its life-and-death humanitarian consequences in northwest Syria, along the Turkish border. It also matters, secondarily, as a test case for the Biden administration's early Syria policy—one premised less on confrontation with Assad and his allies, and more on doing what's necessary to aid Syrians in dire need.
For seven years of Syria's decade-long civil war, the Security Council has authorized U.N. aid agencies to provide direct, cross-border humanitarian assistance to areas outside Syrian government control "with notification to the Syrian authorities"—that is, without Damascus's prior permission. In 2014, the Security Council voted unanimously for the cross-border mandate in response to the Syrian government's continued obstruction of aid provision to areas outside its control. It was an extraordinary abridgement of the sovereignty of a U.N. member state, which, ordinarily, would oblige U.N. aid agencies to operate subject to Damascus's consent and coordinating role.
While the Security Council has since renewed this cross-border mandate for a year or six months at a time, the mandate has nevertheless been steadily pared back. The original 2014 resolution permitted use of four official border crossings with Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. As the Syrian military recaptured more territory nationwide, Russia—a permanent Security Council member and key Syrian ally—began to argue for restoring Syria's normal sovereign authority and re-centering the U.N. aid response in Damascus. Moscow also raised concerns about the diversion of aid by militants in areas of insurgent control. When the Security Council renewed the mandate in January 2020, the four original authorized crossings were reduced to two at Russia's insistence—both of them on Turkey's border with opposition-controlled northwest Syria. When the vote to renew next came in July 2020, Russia and fellow permanent member China successfully pushed for the removal of one of those two remaining crossings, in northern Aleppo province.
Today, the sole crossing still authorized by the Security Council's mandate is Bab al-Hawa, linking Idlib and Hatay province in Turkey. (On the Turkish side, the crossing is called Cilvegözü.) Aid delivered through Bab al-Hawa serves opposition-held Idlib and adjacent areas in Aleppo province.
The U.N.'s current authorization for bringing this humanitarian aid directly into northwest Syria from Turkey expires on July 10. In the lead-up to the renewal vote in the Security Council, Russian diplomats have reiterated their doubts about the cross-border mechanism's continued necessity, and about assistance to militant-controlled Idlib specifically. They have indicated that Russia's position on renewing the resolution hinges on making progress in delivering assistance "cross-line" into Idlib—across the civil war's front lines, from areas of Syrian government control. In particular, they have focused on a planned U.N. convoy to the rebel-held town of Daret Izzah, in an area of Aleppo province bordering Idlib. Russia and Turkey—the two main foreign powers on the ground there—have failed to broker security and logistical arrangements for this convoy for over a year.
THE STAKES OF RENEWAL
Syria's opposition-held northwest is an intense concentration of humanitarian need. This relatively small area is dense with displaced people who have fled the Syrian military's advances elsewhere and who have, in many cases, exhausted whatever resources they had to support themselves. According to U.N. estimates, the northwest hosts more than 4 million Syrians; more than 2.7 million are internally displaced. Roughly 1.6 million live in tent camps and are especially dependent on humanitarian aid. Overall, 2.4 million people in northwest Syria now rely on the U.N.'s cross-border assistance.
If the Security Council's cross-border mandate is not renewed, the humanitarian implications seem grave. It will mean a halt to U.N. assistance delivered via Bab al-Hawa, including, according to outgoing U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, food deliveries to 1.4 million people a month and "millions" of medical treatments. In addition to the loss of that aid, the U.N. will also have to end the technical and logistical support it provides across various humanitarian sectors and its overall role coordinating the many humanitarian actors involved in the cross-border aid response. It will no longer be able to channel approximately $300 million in financial support to local partner organizations. Nonrenewal will also seemingly mean an end to U.N.-supported COVID-19 vaccinations in northwest Syria.
Nonrenewal does not mean that the Bab al-Hawa border will close, or that the northwest will be entirely besieged. The region will still benefit from non-U.N. cargoes through the crossing, including commercial trucking that supplies major international NGOs and local and regional aid organizations and charities. Northeast Syria relies similarly on the Semalka crossing with Iraq's Kurdistan region—called Fish Khabour on the Iraqi side—through which aid organizations also operate outside U.N. auspices. U.N. agencies are currently pre-positioning aid inside northwest Syria in anticipation of the July renewal vote.
But humanitarians insist there is no substitute for continued U.N. cross-border access into northwest Syria. Without it, aid to Syria's northwest will be substantially reduced and far more muddled. To take just one key example: Syria is experiencing a nationwide hunger crisis—which I recently covered in more detail in a report for The Century Foundation—and the northwest is the country's most "food insecure" region. For now, vital food assistance reaches the area's residents from across the border in Turkey. If the cross-border mandate is not renewed, however, NGOs estimate they can replace only a fraction of the food supplies the U.N. now provides, leaving over 1 million Syrians without food assistance and at risk of hunger.
Having humanitarian assistance instead cross the front lines from areas of government control is not a real alternative. Even if Turkey and Russia manage to arrange aid convoys into Idlib, there is no plausible way that cross-line access will be able to provide the quantity and quality of assistance now delivered via Bab al-Hawa. For vulnerable Syrians in northwest Syria, cross-border renewal is a necessity.
A PRACTICAL PATH FORWARD
It is entirely reasonable to decry Russia's past insistence on reducing the U.N. cross-border mandate—which, in northeast Syria, seems to have done real harm—and its veiled threats now to the authorization for Bab al-Hawa. This is one moral, rights-based approach to this issue. There is another, though—focused on how, practically, to ensure continued life-saving assistance to residents of northwest Syria. Because when it comes to actually securing cross-border renewal, condemning Russia is unlikely to help. Russian officials seem impervious to attempts to publicly shame them. And there are few other good means by which countries can coercively "turn the screws" on the Russians and compel them to allow the mandate's renewal.
Given how the Security Council is organized—critically, the ability of any of its five permanent members to exercise a veto—any approach that pits those permanent members against each other is unlikely to be productive. Advancing any resolution requires some minimum consensus among the Security Council's core membership, if not to secure an affirmative vote from all five permanent members, then to at least convince them to abstain.
The hard reality is that the U.N.'s cross-border humanitarian mandate is an exceptional encroachment on a member state's sovereignty. It was originally agreed by the entire Security Council, and it requires all five permanent members' consent to continue. Without that consensus agreement, the default is nonrenewal. Anyone motivated to secure cross-border renewal, then, should be thinking not in terms of how to defeat dastardly Russians, but rather in terms of how the whole Security Council can, as one, keep this last border crossing into northwest Syria open.
The Biden administration, encouragingly, has so far taken a more conciliatory approach on renewing the U.N.'s mandate. It has signaled its commitment to renewal, including with a well-publicized visit earlier this month to Bab al-Hawa by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield. The administration has raised the issue with Moscow at the highest levels and adopted a hortatory tone toward the Russians, enjoining them to respond to the evident humanitarian needs in this corner of Syria.
The Biden administration has communicated, across the U.S. government, that alleviating humanitarian suffering is among its top policy priorities on Syria. July's vote on cross-border access offers an early test of this more human-centered policy approach. If Russia permits the renewal of the cross-border mandate, that could open the door to follow-on discussions between Washington and Moscow on how to improve conditions for civilians in Syria and mitigate some of the humanitarian impacts of U.S. sanctions. The United States and other countries interested in cross-border renewal may have few good sticks to influence Russia's vote, but this is their apparent carrot.
The mandate's renewal, though, will likely depend primarily on a side agreement between Turkey and Russia. Ankara's lobbying has seemed key to convincing Moscow to permit renewals before. The two countries have a complicated but important bilateral relationship that encompasses a number of files globally. Up to now, Russia has seemed unwilling to injure Turkish interests by ending cross-border access to areas of Syria where Turkey is substantially invested, which would potentially threaten stability along Turkey's border.
This time, it seems incumbent on Turkey to enable humanitarian assistance across Syria's front lines, which Russian officials have repeatedly signaled is critical to their vote on cross-border renewal. Western diplomats have told me that—contrary to the assumption of some analysts and observers—cross-line convoys into Idlib have not been blocked by Damascus, but rather by insurgent group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the successor to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Turkish troops are deployed inside Idlib as part of a cease-fire agreed with Russia, and Turkey has a running dialogue with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which controls the Idlib zone. Russian officials have complained that their Turkish counterparts have not done enough to facilitate cross-line aid and, importantly, to secure the compliance of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants.
Even if this type of cross-line assistance could never substitute for the aid coming directly from Turkey through Bab al-Hawa, attempting it still seems worthwhile, if only to satisfy Moscow's desire for a symbolic affirmation of Syria's territorial integrity and secure Russia's acquiescence to renewing the U.N.'s mandate. The Biden administration, which has coordinated closely with Turkey on renewal, has said it supports expanding humanitarian access of all kinds in Syria, including cross-border and cross-line. The U.N. has also voiced the necessity of both cross-border and cross-line aid. Turkey, for its part, has said it is ready to support assistance across Syria's front lines, as a complement to cross-border operations. Hopefully, it can do enough to win over Russia.
At some point, the U.N. cross-border aid response will come to an end. Renewal next month will only offer a reprieve for another six months or a year, at the end of which we will return to the same suspenseful debate. The mandate is abnormal, a deviation from an international order and U.N. system based on state sovereignty, and Russia's consent for continued renewal likely cannot be sustained forever. Some eventual reversion to the norm seems inevitable.
Yet given the extent of humanitarian suffering in northwest Syria—indeed, across the country—the mandate should still be renewed, for however long that remains possible. And to that end, there is no good alternative to the Biden administration's consensual approach to secure Russia's vote in the Security Council. With luck, the mandate's renewal next month will open up further opportunities to jointly improve humanitarian conditions for Syrians nationwide. But right now, the millions in northwest Syria who depend on aid from Turkey will only get the help they need if the Security Council's members can reach a compromise, together.
Photo credit: A camp that hosts internally displaced Syrian civilians near the Turkish-Syrian border in Idlib province, June 25, 2021. (Photo by Izzeddin Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images).