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Northern Syria depends on U.N. aid. Its delivery could end tomorrow.

That includes aid to Idlib, which is under attack.

- January 8, 2020

U.N. authorization for cross-border humanitarian access to areas of Syria outside government control is set to expire tomorrow, Jan. 10. This would result in an end to critical U.N. aid delivery through borders with Jordan, Turkey and Iraq.

Last month, the U.N. Security Council rejected two draft resolutions to renew authorization under Resolution 2449. China and Russia vetoed the first proposal to renew it on the grounds that the Syrian government was now capable of delivering humanitarian aid to areas outside of its control. A second draft submitted by Russia was immediately rejected by six countries due to its inflexibility. Whether or not Resolution 2449 is renewed will be a significant game changer for Syria’s future and the future of cross-border humanitarian access. Here is why.

Humanitarian access to civilians in need

The debate over Syria’s borders began in 2014, when the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2165/2449, authorizing cross-border humanitarian access to civilian populations in hard-to-reach areas through Jordan, Turkey and Iraq. The decision enabled humanitarian actors to enter Syria without the need for state permission, circumventing Syria’s authority over its borders.

This change was prompted by two factors. First, the government lacked the physical capacity to manage or enforce large parts of its borders. Second, the government actively besieged many hard-to-reach areas, preventing humanitarian aid from reaching civilians in need. Resolution 2165/2449 asserted that the government was not a reliable humanitarian partner because it largely contributed to the disparate conditions through aggressive military actions. As seen most prominently in Aleppo, government forces systematically blockaded cities, restricted humanitarian assistance from flowing into besieged areas and then carried out violent bombing campaigns in densely populated urban areas.

Because Damascus lacked both the capacity and motivation to provide aid, the resolution prompted a new humanitarian system to emerge. The “Whole of Syria” approach, led by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), widened the humanitarian response from Damascus, allowing OCHA to operate in Turkey and Jordan to deliver aid across borders into neighboring opposition-held areas of Syria.

The Syrian government now controls some, but not all, of its borders

Major changes in the geopolitical landscape on the ground in Syria are prompting new debates over the legitimacy of Resolution 2249 from within the U.N. Security Council. Since 2017, the Syrian government, with Iranian and Russian support, has made significant territorial gains, recapturing the majority of the country through direct military conquest and negotiated agreements. As a result, Bashar al-Assad’s government regained control over Jordan’s Nassib border crossing, a primary border approved for moving aid from Jordan to Syria. Meanwhile, Al-Ya’rubiyah in northeast Syria, previously under de facto U.S. control, remains contested now that Syrian forces are returning to the region after the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces. The remaining two borders, Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Hawa, remain under Turkish control.

According to the Syrian government and Russia, the present resolution does not reflect this changing reality in Syria. They argue that it undermines Syrian sovereignty. They also claim that terrorist actors benefited from aid distributions inside opposition areas, especially Bab al-Hawa in Idlib.

A state has the right to control its borders without interference from other states under the U.N. Charter, but in Syria’s case the government neither controls the whole of its borders nor has it prevented terrorist or foreign actors — including Turkish or U.S. coalition forces — from operating inside the country. The Syrian government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the international community remains hotly contested due to continued state violence against civilians. The government is in pursuit of rehabilitating regime legitimacy and restoring authority over, in Assad’s words, “every inch” of Syria. Resolution 2449 is a primary target because it represents an international consensus toward the Assad government’s guilt as the perpetrator of “widespread violations of human rights and international humanitarian law,” as the resolution notes.

If Russia and Syria defeat the resolution renewal, the Syrian government would be portrayed as capable of fulfilling the duties of a state. The regime will probably not regain control of borders under U.S. and Turkish control (at least for the time being). But defeat of the resolution would undermine the validity of international humanitarian aid organizations operating under OCHA’s cross-border operations to areas outside Syrian government control.

Humanitarian aid in Syria is being politicized — and too many civilians in need aren’t getting it

The end of cross-border operations would prevent humanitarian access

Essentially, the defeat of the resolution would end the “Whole of Syria” strategy by ending cross-border operations to nongovernment areas and centralizing aid distribution exclusively through Damascus. This would put the Syrian regime squarely in charge of humanitarian operations and access, which paints a bleak future for millions of Syrians across the country. Through a humanitarian lens, nearly 4 million civilians will suffer if the resolution is not renewed. While the regime seeks the restoration of sovereignty and legitimacy through the border debate, its opponents do not trust that the Syrian government will permit humanitarian access to critical areas such as Idlib currently under attack by Syrian and Russian forces.

If Resolution 2449 is defeated without a meaningful replacement, humanitarian aid access and distribution will be centralized to Damascus and the Syrian government’s discretion. This would mark a distinct departure from humanitarian principles — humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence — and a failure of the international humanitarian system to respond to the needs of Syrian civilians. The Syrian regime would probably tighten its controls over humanitarian operations. As seen in the Rukban camp case, this would produce disparate conditions for Syrian civilians when U.N. aid cannot be delivered due to access constraints — a preventable humanitarian catastrophe.

This would have severe internal and external consequences. Internally, vulnerable communities on the periphery — battered regions such as Raqqa, Idlib, Daraa and Deir al-Zour — would be left behind in the long term, particularly if access constraints become status quo. Externally, many Syrian refugees, who fear the risks of returning, are less likely to do so if the state assumes responsibility over the repatriation process. It will further complicate U.N. agencies’ efforts to monitor conditions for returnees to ensure their alignment with international law and to offer repatriation assistance. Under these conditions, the Damascus-based humanitarian regime will become increasingly unreliable in its capacity to access hard-to-reach areas in Syria’s periphery, deliver critical aid impartially and monitor humanitarian conditions.

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Jesse Marks is a research associate at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Global Human Movement. He was formerly a Fulbright visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic Studies in Jordan and a Scoville fellow at the Stimson Center.

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