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Russia, Turkey and The Syria Vote in New York

Russia, Turkey and The Syria Vote in New York

Tuesday, 6 July, 2021 - 09:45
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Thursday, July 8, is a critical day for millions of Syrian civilians in the northwest part of the country. The United Nations Security Council is expected to vote on extending the United Nations humanitarian operation that delivers aid across the Turkish border at Bab al-Hawa into Idlib province.

The key vote on the Security Council is, of course, Russia. This is an example of how skillful and pitiless Russian diplomacy can be: the French ambassador in New York reminded the Security Council two weeks ago that 92 percent of the humanitarian aid to Syria comes from North America, Europe and Japan, but Russia that has the key vote.

I do not know if Moscow will record its veto number 17 of a Syria resolution. Moscow has two big strategic objectives as it considers this vote and Idlib civilians are not its concern. The most important consideration is its relationship with Turkey.

Foreign Minister Lavrov after meeting in Antalya last week with his Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu emphasized the good bilateral relationship. Lavrov mentioned trade and energy projects and Russian interests in the Caucuses and Libya where Turkey has important influence. Turkey can impede Russian efforts to pressure Ukraine. Most importantly, Moscow is exploiting Turkey’s dissatisfaction with the Americans over past years in order to weaken the North Atlantic alliance.

On July 4 President Putin’s spokesman praised the Russian relationship with Turkey as a model for its relations with other alliance members. Closing the Bab al-Hawa operation will please the Assad government in Damascus but Ankara will be furious.

It is worth remembering that already President Erdogan has signaled he wants better relations with Washington, and Putin will not want to encourage a rapprochement between Washington and Ankara.

The second consideration for Moscow is its future cooperation with Washington on the Syria file. The Americans have threatened not to cooperate in any way on Syria if Moscow closes the Bab al-Hawa operation. That is a threat from weakness.

Another idea in Washington circles is to give faster exemptions from sanctions for humanitarian aid for humanitarian operations in territories controlled by the Syrian government and its allies. As a gesture, Washington on June 17 said it would give an exemption from sanctions for medical aid related to controlling the corona pandemic. (It is interesting to note here that American experts are implicitly acknowledging that the American sanctions harm Syrian civilians.)

The Russian ambassador in New York acknowledged the June 17 gesture but he reminded that previous exemptions from sanctions disappeared inside the heavy bureaucracy of the American government and American financial institutions. Moreover, Joey Hood, the acting director of the State Department Middle East Directorate emphasized on June 28 that the Caesar Sanctions have big political support in Washington and he suggested they will not disappear.

In addition, he said Washington would continue to oppose normalization of Syria with the Arab League. Washington, Hood said, also would press for accountability for the regime’s war crimes. Therefore, Washington’s incentives don’t seem very attractive in Moscow. The Russian ambassador in New York on June 30 rejected the American request to reopen the Yaroubiya crossing from Iraq into northeast Syria where the American partner, the Autonomous Administration, governs. From Moscow’s point of view, the rejection caused no big problem in Ankara, so it was easier to reject. But the Russian ambassador on June 30 did not close the door on Bab al-Hawa.

What is Russia’s price for Bab al-Hawa? Making Damascus responsible for distribution of all humanitarian aid in Syria is an important symbol for Moscow, and it will also give Damascus a big tool against the remaining Syrian opposition. Moscow wants to close Bab al-Hawa. However, unlike Washington, Moscow can be patient. It might accept a short extension from the Security Council in return for Ankara’s commitment to compel the Syrian opposition, especially Hayat Tahrir Sham, to allow humanitarian aid convoys from Damascus to enter territory under control of the opposition.

Turkey’s ambassador to New York, and Secretary of State Blinken said their governments want such aid convoys from Damascus to begin. Maybe on July 8 the Russians will accept a short-term extension for Bab al-Hawa in return for a commitment for concrete steps to start humanitarian convoys from Damascus to Idlib.

A short extension would be better for Moscow because it could then negotiate for new concessions from Turkey and the West after a short time.

And when humanitarian aid trucks from Damascus begin to arrive in Idlib the justification for the Bab al-Hawa operation becomes weaker. Moscow thus wins some small concessions in the short-term and also builds a position to capture bigger concessions, much bigger than medical supplies, if the West and Turkey want to keep Bab al-Hawa open over the longer-term.

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