Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

World Needs to Initiate More Effective Policy against Damascus Regime

On July 12, the United Nations’ Security Council passed Resolution 2642 – giving the UN a new mandate to provide cross-border humanitarian aid to northwestern Syria for a period of six months.

The resolution was described as a compromise between the international community and Russia, but in truth, it was the result of a capitulation to Russia’s aggressive veto power. A six-month timeframe gives donor governments, the UN and implementing bodies little time to focus on aid delivery before diplomats will have to begin bracing themselves for a renewed battle with Russia in the halls of the UN, to secure aid access once again.

Moscow has the world right where it wants them to be: on edge and vulnerable.

The greatest victims here, as has so often been the case, are Syrian civilians – at least 4.5 million of whom live in Syria’s northwest. Eighty percent of those 4.5 million civilians are women and children; and at least 70% of them are displaced. Over 90% of the 4.5 million are wholly dependent on UN aid coming via Turkey in a mammoth effort that delivers as many as 1,000 trucks of aid per month.

Russia’s demand at the UN – shared by its ally, the Assad regime – is that the UN deprioritize cross-border and instead, focus on delivering aid cross-line, via Damascus. However, in the past 12 months, the Syrian regime permitted a total of only 60 trucks of aid into northwestern Syria cross-line – a figure that pales in comparison to the nearly 12,000 that the UN delivered over Turkey’s border during the same timeframe.

Even with cross-border aid being securely delivered, displaced Syrians have frozen to death in poorly resourced camps in the northwest each winter. Should aid delivery be severed later this year, a “humanitarian catastrophe” will swiftly result, with at least 70% of the region’s food needs almost immediately vanishing.

According to data collected by the World Food Programme, Vladimir Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has been the primary driver responsible for a 60% surge in food prices inside Syria. The World Food Programme itself has been forced to cut the size of its food baskets in Syria by as much as 20%, due to food cost increases.

That Russia is now using its UN veto to exacerbate humanitarian suffering on an even greater level reflects a disinterest in human welfare of an extraordinary level.

Since 2014, the international community has collectively donated enormous sums of money to the UN to deliver aid – almost entirely cross-border, through a Security Council mandate – to those in need across Syria.

If Russia got its way, those billions of dollars would be funneled through Damascus, where Assad’s regime is known to siphon off as much as 50% of funding via distorted exchange rates, before empowering the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to divert as much as 50% of the aid to pro-regime forces. Put simply, the existing mechanisms utilized by the international community to support UN aid efforts inside Syria do little more than finance the regime and provide assistance to its security forces.

It is therefore long past time for the international community to adopt a different, and more just approach to assisting those in need in Syria. A criminal regime associated with more documented war crimes than the Nazi Party at Nuremberg does not deserve to determine how the world feeds the millions of people it has spent over a decade bombing, gassing and torturing en masse. With six months until yet another vote on cross-border access, world leaders must surge preparations for what has long been known as the “Plan B” for delivering assistance to the needy in Syria.

In recent months, extensive discussions had been held between the United States, Turkey, France, the United Kingdom and Germany over this Plan B, as well as within the recently evolved “Contact Group” on Syria, which also includes regional governments like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Jordan and Iraq. Collectively, such nations are more than capable of resourcing, alongside a great many other like-minded nations, a serious and effective international aid mission that would reach those in need across northern Syria without the unnecessary fear of cut-off by Russia at the UN. Given Turkey’s acute concern for the stability of northwestern Syria, it has made itself a willingly integral player in any Plan B efforts – but this will require unity of effort.

In taking better control of aid provision, the international community could also pivot towards delivering more strategic assistance and investment, within an environment in which kinetic conflict is largely frozen. That we continue to provide tents and food baskets more than 11 years into Syria’s crisis is a poor reflection of our collective response. The brutality meted out by Assad’s regime, along with Russia and Iran does mean that Syrians free of regime control still need emergency aid, but what they need the most is stabilization assistance, targeted investment aimed at building local capacity and engendering cross-line inter-connectivity and self-sustainable local economies.

The world desperately needs to initiate a more meaningful and constructive approach to Syria policy – one that helps those in need of help, but also aims to create realities that further the goal of a future political settlement. This reformed policy, which could be described as simply as “Freeze and Build,” could promise just that.