Bargaining for Idlib
Bargaining for Idlib
I was going to write about national day celebrations in America last week in the shadow of our health, social, political, and economic crises. However, there is an urgent Syria humanitarian file that will reach decision at the United Nations this week that must be my priority. On July 10 the United Nations Security Council resolution that permits delivery of humanitarian assistance from Turkey into Idlib will expire. The Security Council must vote in favor of a new resolution in order for the United Nations to continue to coordinate the delivery of the aid. Now about three million Syrian civilians in Idlib receive food and medical supplies through two border crossings from Turkey under the supervision of the United Nations. Secretary-General Guterres and many countries support an extension of the program and also the reopening of a border crossing in Hassakeh for the delivery of medical supplies there to contain the coronavirus.
The humanitarian situation in Syria is deteriorating. According to the United Nations humanitarian aid office, food prices have tripled this year. The number of Syrians in all the country who need food assistance has grown from 7.9 million to 9.3 million this year. The coordinator for the United Nations humanitarian assistance program, Imran Riza, said at the end of June that malnutrition is becoming worse and worse, including among children. In addition to the food is a crisis, there were 372 coronavirus cases recorded officially in all of Syria on July 6. The World Health Organization said in reality the true number is certainly much higher and even the official numbers are now growing fast. There are shortages of medical supplies and testing equipment so containing the virus will be very difficult in the best circumstances.
In Brussels on June 30 twenty-six countries pledged another 7.7 billion dollars for humanitarian aid to Syria. Moscow didn’t participate in the conference and it didn’t give new humanitarian assistance but it wants to direct who receives the aid. Russian diplomats in New York are threatening to halt the United Nations program to deliver vital supplies into Idlib. Moscow prefers that all the humanitarian assistance go through the United Nations center in Damascus where the Syrian government could control which towns receive aid and which towns receive nothing.
The Russian efforts to strengthen Syrian government control of all humanitarian aid is part of Russia’s diplomatic campaign to normalize the Syrian government’s political and economic relations with the Middle East and Europe. Moscow wants Damascus to be the only Syrian partner for all assistance and reconstruction issues. Moscow also wants to bring down (isqat) the Western sanctions on Syria. It claims Western sanctions impede humanitarian assistance to Syria. It is true that despite claims by Washington and Brussels, the sanctions in reality do deter some banks from undertaking any project financing in Syria, including purchase of humanitarian supplies. The bureaucratic routine to obtain exceptions from the sanctions is long and uncertain.
But as journalists, officials from the United Nations, and non-government organizations have explained in detail the biggest humanitarian aid problem is Syrian government manipulation and corruption. If Russia stops the UN delivery program from Turkey into Idlib, it won’t be sanctions that stop new aid to Idlib; it will be Syrian government actions. Already there are reductions in delivery of medical supplies into Hassakeh because the Russians succeeded last December in halting the UN program at the Yaroubiyeh border crossing from Iraq.
In New York this week Washington should have a simple message: if Moscow uses its veto to stop an extension of the UN coordination of aid into Idlib, all American aid to the UN program in Damascus will stop. I hope Washington is urging Europe to give the same message to Moscow. Russia would then be responsible for feeding the roughly six million who live under Assad’s control who need assistance. US and European aid could focus on Idlib and the five million Syrian refugees outside Syria. If Russia will not concede, the Americans and Europeans will have to replace the coordination and logistical role that the United Nations plays in Idlib. This will be difficult but it is possible with time and Turkish help. The Americans and Europeans must start preparing now because the Russian pressure will not end. They also need empowered offices that can issue exceptions to the sanctions in order for humanitarian organizations to buy supplies quickly. And they need to work with humanitarian organizations to establish a reliable project monitoring mechanism under protection of the Turkish military in Idlib. The Syria crisis will not end in 2020, and we need to consider how to preserve the humanitarian aid program from Russian attack.