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Russia wants to put Syria back in control of humanitarian aid

Abandoning the U.N.-established cross-border aid routes could put millions of Syrians at risk

/ Managing Editor - August 30, 2022

The U.N. Security Council approved a six-month extension of the remaining U.N. cross-border aid corridor into Syria last month, following extensive debate. Eight years ago, the Security Council unanimously voted to initiate this humanitarian aid mechanism under Resolution 2165, granting U.N.-led humanitarian groups the legal authority to bring aid into Syria through four designated border crossings with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

This resolution marked the first time the United Nations agreed on this approach — and the first time China and Russia voted to override Syrian authority because of human suffering in Syria. But both China and Russia now want to end this humanitarian aid access and centralize aid provision through Damascus. My research suggests this shift would limit aid access for millions in hard-to-reach areas of Syria.

Russia and China want to preserve the Assad regime

The 2014 vote authorized cross-border humanitarian access, regardless of Syria’s consent. For Russia and China, this was a stark departure from their prior refusal to back any such resolutions in Syria.

A series of high-profile attacks in 2013 — including the Ghouta chemical attack — targeted Syrian civilians, fueling calls within the international community for military intervention in Syria. That upped international pressure on Russia and China to prioritize civilian protection.

For Russia, U.N. punitive actions in Syria risked undermining the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s leading strategic partner in the region, and threatened the Russian naval base at Tartous. China had its own reasons for vetoing U.N. proposals related to the Syrian conflict, in part because Beijing had broad economic interests in the region. Beijing had also abstained on the 2011 U.N. authorization for humanitarian intervention in Libya — and Chinese policymakers believed the unrestrained NATO action, under U.N. authorization, prompted Libya’s collapse and subsequent civil war.

After that abstention, China used its Security Council veto strategically to delegitimize regime change in Syria and lobby for nonintervention alternatives in the Syrian conflict. The successive vetoes, particularly on the proposed referral of the Syria case to the International Criminal Court, left Beijing vulnerable to claims from the U.N. Human Rights Commission that China’s stance might fuel further atrocities in Syria. This soured relations with the Arab League, notably with Saudi Arabia, which resigned its Security Council seat in 2013 to protest the Chinese and Russian vetoes.

The U.N. had a rare moment of consensus

In 2014, Russia and China joined with Western members of the Security Council to unanimously pass Resolution 2139, which demanded the lifting of all sieges in Syria, along with immediate humanitarian access and delivery of aid. When Assad continued to resist U.N. demands, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2165 in July 2014.

Why did China and Russia back the resolution? The compromise was that Western powers wouldn’t push to authorize the use of force, which Russia and China feared would give a pretext for military intervention and regime change. The trade-off, Security Council members believed, would expand U.N. authorization for humanitarian agencies to access hard-to-reach opposition-held areas.

Resolution 2165 enabled the U.N. to alleviate the worsening humanitarian situation without the Syrian government obstructing aid deliveries, but it also reduced the likelihood of armed intervention and regime change. This trade-off, however, meant that China and Russia, strong proponents of Syrian sovereignty, also legitimized a major tenet of the U.N.’s Responsibility to Protect doctrine — that humanitarian concerns can trump a government’s presupposed right to sovereignty.

What happens now?

Pressure from Russia and China on the U.N.-led humanitarian system to centralize aid in Damascus under Syrian control is building, casting doubts about the longevity of the cross-border mechanism. China and Russia are instead promoting “crossline” aid from Damascus, to send aid across battle lines to opposition areas. Russia gradually undermined the current mechanism by closing the U.N.-approved crossings via Jordan and Iraq — only the aid access via Turkey remains. Russia and China also pushed to reduce the renewal timeline for this cross-border access from one year to six months and added further requirements for the U.N. secretary general to produce routine reports on the status of operations.

The U.S. and its partners argue that the cross-border mechanism remains critical for humanitarian aid to reach Syrians who live outside of government-controlled areas and lack critical infrastructure, health services and food security. In a 2022 U.N. Refugee Agency survey, over 92 percent of Syrian refugees in the region see conditions in Syria as untenable for their return within the next year, because of the lack of security and basic services. And while the United Arab Emirates is driving normalization of Arab relations with Syria, Western policymakers have little trust in the Syrian regime’s capacity and political will to oversee post-conflict reconstruction.

China and Russia have claimed that nongovernmental organizations, neighboring countries and Western nations are exploiting the aid routes to undermine Assad. Both countries say that Assad would work to alleviate the nation’s suffering if empowered to do so through international assistance rather than sanctions. Western aid groups, however, point to the disarray and rubble in areas like the southern city of Dara’a, where conditions have improved little since the city returned to government control four years ago.

Russia and China are still betting on Assad

Eight years after Russia and China acquiesced on Resolution 2165, the Assad regime has reclaimed control over much of the country and wants to exert more control over outside humanitarian efforts. Assad is now driving the eventual restoration of state control to most geographic and normative areas of governance, including humanitarian efforts.

China has already greenlit deeper economic and political cooperation with Syria, welcoming it to the Belt and Road Initiative and Global Development Initiative and unlocking access to Chinese financing for reconstruction projects. Russia — preoccupied with its invasion of Ukraine — continues to support the Assad government militarily but will probably look to China to assume a larger role in building Assad’s political, economic and bureaucratic capacities.

Jesse Marks (@JesCMarks) is a nonresident fellow at the Stimson Center, focusing on China-Middle East relations.