“Syrian relief” is one of the four clear elements of US President Joe Biden’s policy in Syria. The priorities include military survival in the region east of the Euphrates River to ensure the defeat of ISIS and the continuation of pressure on Damascus over its use of chemical weapons, in addition to rhetorical support for the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 and diplomatic efforts to prevent “normalization” with the Syrian government.
But cross-border humanitarian aid prevailed over all others and became the window through which the Biden administration looks out onto the Syrian scene.
The United States is hoping that Biden will obtain the approval of Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Geneva on June 16, and that the latter will not veto the extension of Security Council Resolution 2533, which allows for the provision of the cross-border aid.
The only common point that was reiterated in official statements of members of Biden’s team during their contacts with their counterparts and allies was humanitarian aid and ensuring its access to the Syrians. During a donors’ conference in Brussels in March, Biden assigned US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield to represent his government and announce additional aid, bringing the total value to about USD 13 billion during the ten years of the Syrian conflict.
Moreover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken chaired a meeting of the Security Council devoted to humanitarian aid in March, to give impetus to this file. He also raised this issue when he met his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, last month in preparation for the Putin-Biden summit.
The US further made its intentions clear when Thomas-Greenfield visited Turkey where she met on Wednesday with spokesman of the Turkish President Ibrahim Kalin in Ankara. Turkey is the gateway to northern Syria, where more than 3.5 million displaced people and Syrian citizens live.
The Security Council adopted Resolution 2165 in 2014 and provided for the delivery of aid to Syria “across the borders” of Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. However, in July last year, Russia agreed on the opening of one crossing, “Bab al-Hawa”, between Turkey and Idlib, to put pressure on western countries to focus their work in Damascus and government-controlled areas.
But the Biden administration has set its sight on the reopening of three crossings: two with Turkey, and a third between the region east of the Euphrates and Iraq. US diplomats have launched a campaign to provide support for this effort.
The Kremlin, however, recently began sending signals of an intention to use a “veto” against the decision to extend the mandate for aid through a single border crossing. The White House responded by providing “incentives” to soften the Russian position.
In parallel to mobilizing support among allies, Washington sent signs of encouragement to Moscow, which included a series of steps, mainly refraining from issuing any new sanctions under the Caesar Act, providing exemptions on the transfer of medicine and food and allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid from Arab countries to Damascus.
The American administration has also recently canceled a waiver that was granted to the Delta Crescent Energy company to invest in oil in the areas east of the Euphrates, which are controlled by the US-backed Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces. The US Army also strengthened its presence east of the Euphrates.
So far, Washington has not received any clear indications about Moscow’s decision. But they will be revealed at the upcoming Geneva summit, if time allows the participants to discuss Syria. Then Biden will determine whether Putin appreciates the “humanitarian incentives” offered by Washington or will challenge the reinforced military deployment near his forces east of the Euphrates.