Moscow is calling for an end to the policy of collective punishment of the Syrians and has urged its partners to start rebuilding the Syrian economy, writes Ivan Bocharov, RIAC Program Coordinator.
On January 9, 2023, the UN Security Council extended the cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian aid to the north-western regions of Syria. According to Resolution 2672, the mechanism has been extended for six months, until July 10, 2023. Voting took place the day before the expiration of Resolution 2642, adopted in July 2022. Resolution 2672 was adopted unanimously, amid rather difficult humanitarian conditions for Syria.
Humanitarian situation in Syria
According to the UN, Syrians’ humanitarian needs are now at their highest since the conflict began in 2011. The humanitarian situation in the Syrian Arab Republic (SAR) has worsened because of the winter: Syrians are now facing high electricity and fuel prices. Government agencies have even had to suspend work in order to save electricity and fuel.
The outbreak of cholera, which caused alarm when it began to spread last autumn, has also had a negative impact on the humanitarian situation in Syria. In 2022, more than 60,000 people were infected as a result of the cholera epidemic in Syria. Water security issues remain relevant. Problems with access to clean water contribute to the spread of diseases and also worsen the food situation in the country. The UN World Food Programme noted that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has also exacerbated the food crisis in Syria.
The humanitarian crisis is likely to worsen due to the devastating earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria in February 2023. As of February 10, 2023, the death toll from the natural disaster in Turkey exceeded 17,000; more than 70,000 people were affected. At least 1,347 people died in Syria, and more than 2000 people were hurt. The catastrophe also led to the destruction of thousands of buildings; about 300,000 Syrians have been forced to leave their homes.
The number of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance is constantly increasing. According to the UN, in 2020 11.1 million people, in 2021 — 13.4 million Syrians, and in 2022 — about 14.6 million Syrians were dependent on humanitarian aid. Approximately 90% of the population were living below the poverty line. In 2023, the number of Syrians in need of humanitarian assistance reached
Mechanism for cross-border humanitarian aid delivery
The situation is especially difficult in the northwest of Syria — in areas controlled by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham movement. Approximately 4.1 million depend on humanitarian aid there.
In 2014, when the cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian aid was launched, the delivery of goods was carried out through four checkpoints. Now there is only one left – Bab al-Hawa, which is located on the border between Syria and Turkey. In 2022, more than 7,500 trucks loaded with humanitarian aid crossed the border, reaching an average of 2.7 million persons per month. In total, since 2014, thanks to the cross-border supply mechanism, the UN has delivered more than 55,000 trucks to Syria loaded with humanitarian aid. In addition to food, the UN delivers medicine, including vaccines against COVID-19, to the north-western regions of Syria, which is especially important in conditions where the level of vaccination among the local population is very low.
After the adoption in July 2022 of Resolution 2642, extending the cross-border mechanism for 6 months, the UN noted that the prolongation of the mechanism for such a short period creates additional organisational difficulties, including logistical ones. So, in August 2022, only four trucks crossed the border between Syria and Turkey, which was the lowest figure since 2014. The UN explained it by citing uncertainty regarding the renewal of Resolution 2585 in July 2022.
Deliveries of humanitarian aid across the line of contact
One of the conditions for extending the operation of the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint was to increase the supply of humanitarian aid to the north-western regions of Syria through the line of contact (that is, from the territory controlled by Damascus). Russia has supported this in every possible way. In 2022, the UN was able to increase aid delivered across the front lines to the north-west of the country, providing Syrians with food, medical supplies and other supplies to thousands of those in need. The UN notes that the route of humanitarian aid deliveries, which runs through the line of contact, is quite dangerous, as it passes through areas in which hostilities continue.
According to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, from July 2021, when Resolution 2585 was adopted, until June 2022 5 convoys of 14 trucks have delivered aid to tens of thousands of Syrians. António Guterres expressed hope that the volume of humanitarian aid delivered across the line of contact will increase.
Russia’s position on the cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian aid
Moscow calls for curtailing the cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian aid. Russia emphasizes that the provision of humanitarian assistance should be carried out by the Syrian government throughout the country. Its position is that the supply of humanitarian aid bypasses Damascus and violates the sovereignty of Syria. Alexander Lavrentiev, Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation for Syria, noted that this will create better living conditions in certain areas of Syria that are not controlled by the Syrian government. In addition, Moscow has concerns that under the pretext of humanitarian aid, weapons can be supplied to the north-west of Syria. Russia also directly links the issue of curtailing the cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian aid to the easing of sanctions against Syria. Moscow is calling for an end to the policy of collective punishment of the Syrians and has urged its partners to start rebuilding the Syrian economy.
Impact of sanctions against Syria on the implementation of early recovery projects
The sanctions imposed by the US and the EU against the Syrian government have contributed to the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Syria. As noted by experts participating in the round table of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) and the American Carter Center “Settlement of the Syrian conflict in the light of global and regional trends”, economic pressure on the Syrian government is unlikely to lead to a transformation of the country’s political system. At the same time, it should be noted that the decline in the economic opportunities of the Syrian government negatively affects the well-being of the Syrians.
Members of the UN Commission on Syria have called for a review of sanctions against the Syrian government. They drew attention to the need to make humanitarian exceptions to the sanctions regime. The UN noted that many countries and private companies are afraid of violating sanctions, which negatively affects the supply of food and medicine to the country. In 2021, the US eased some of the restrictions for foreign organisations. In particular, financial cooperation with the Syrian government has become possible, even outside the humanitarian sphere. However, such measures are clearly not enough.
The international community needs a qualitative change in its approach to solve the humanitarian crisis in Syria. In 2021, only 27% of the required amount was allocated for the humanitarian needs of ordinary Syrians. We need a multiple increase in aid sent to the country.
It seems important that the members of the UN Security Council continue to maintain a dialogue on a cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian assistance. It is important to remember that the termination of the cross-border mechanism for the supply of humanitarian aid does not mean that the delivery of goods to the north-western regions of Syria will stop. However, the UN will not be able to verify the humanitarian nature of these shipments. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres noted that humanitarian aid deliveries across the Turkish-Syrian border are one of the most tightly controlled humanitarian operations in the world. It is in Russia’s interests that the UN continue to monitor the humanitarian nature of the goods delivered to the north-western regions of Syria.
At the same time, it is important to facilitate the return to Syria of refugees who are now in other countries. Rebuilding infrastructure would motivate Syrians to return rather than stay in refugee camps in neighbouring countries (Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, etc.) It is important to create primary conditions to make war-torn areas liveable by restoring facilities through the implementation of early recovery projects (including facilities for supplying water and electricity, education and healthcare, electricity and landmine clearance).
As the most serious threat that in the medium term can provoke another wave of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, one should wait for a possible Turkish military operation in the country. Ankara’s previous campaigns have damaged
critical Syrian civilian infrastructure, disrupting water supplies and interrupting power generation. The intensification of hostilities can aggravate the humanitarian problems of Syria, which will inevitably provoke a new wave of local migration and worsen the living conditions of those Syrians who remain in the country.