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The West Must Define its Priority in Syria

The West Must Define its Priority in Syria

Wednesday, 20 July, 2022 - 05:45
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

Last week’s urgent negotiations in the Security Council should finally push the so-called Friends of Syria to prepare for the day soon when the United Nations organization can no longer supervise the delivery of humanitarian aid into rebel-controlled northwest Syria.

On July 8, Russia in the Security Council vetoed a resolution extending the UN delivery operation for another year, and thus disrupted some trucks’ movement. The Russians insist that more and more aid be sent into northwest Syria from government-controlled regions of Syria.

UN humanitarian officials warn, however, that the amounts of humanitarian aid from Turkey into northwest Syria is ten times the amounts coming from Damascus. We know the essential reasons: the Assad government limits humanitarian aid to punish and intimidate the civilians under rebel control. And there is the problem of massive corruption in Assad’s Syria. In the end, Russia does not care about Syrian civilians in northwest Syria. They provide none of the humanitarian aid. Moscow’s interest is the authorities of sovereign states, not the right of civilians to escape starvation. Only on July 12 did Russia accept a six-month extension of the UN supervision of humanitarian aid deliveries from Turkey into northwest Syria.

What next after six months? Russia will again oppose the humanitarian aid deliveries from Turkey as the winter begins. Appeals to the Kremlin about morality are useless, and Secretary of State Blinken acknowledged Washington is not even trying to talk to Moscow now. Moscow accepted the six-month extension not because of Washington’s pressure but instead because of Ankara. President Erdogan spoke to President Putin on July 11 and Moscow the next day accepted the six-month extension.

To understand the dynamics of northern Syria one must remember that Turkey until now did not impose sanctions on Russia. In addition, Russia wants Turkey to accept moving the Syrian political talks from Geneva to another country that has diplomatic relations with Syria. And Russia prefers that Turkey not attack Manbij and Tell Rifaat; it wants the Syrian government to control those towns. So, Putin had reasons to offer a small, six-month concession to Ankara on July 12. But the two and a half million Syrian civilians in northwest Syria who depend on the humanitarian aid deliveries live in the shadow of a serious downturn in relations between Russia and Turkey.

The time has come for the Americans and the Europeans, working with Turkey, to prepare for the day when the Russians completely reject UN management of the humanitarian aid deliveries from Turkey to northwest Syria.

Private humanitarian aid organizations are starting to plan how they could continue to deliver food and medical supplies without the UN role. The NGOs now do not have the UN’s capacity for management of the logistics and planning; they cannot match the 800 trucks per month now that go from Turkey through Bab al-Hawa to be distributed in northwest Syria. European and American governments must order their humanitarian and economic aid agencies to start building the capabilities of these private aid organizations urgently. December is coming.

There are two big questions. First, how will the aid organizations work with the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham which is on the American and United Nations terrorism lists and which controls much of northwest Syria? The UN manages relations with the Hayat now. Washington and European capitals have to provide legal way for the aid organizations to do planning and distribution of aid with officials connected to the Hayat. And the Hayat must guarantee safety of aid organization officials and cooperate with them. The first step would be for private aid organizations to send a planning team to northwest Syria to meet officials from the Syrian Salvation Government, controlled by the Hayat, and the opposition Syrian Interim Government.

The second challenge is bigger: how to protect the private organizations’ aid convoys from Russian and Syrian air attacks such as the attack in September 2016? The Americans will not challenge the Russian air force in the skies over Idlib. Turkish Army units deployed in northwest Syria therefore need air defense capabilities to deter Russian air attacks. They will need clear military support from Western and European capitals. Relations between Ankara and western capitals are poor, however.

The latest example is reluctance from the American Congress to sell F-16s to Turkey. To protect humanitarian aid convoys to northwest Syria, Washington in particular will have to make humanitarian aid delivery its top priority in Syria, not chasing remnants of ISIS and directly supporting the Syrian Kurdish YPG-led statelet. Unfortunately, at the present, very few in Washington are willing to define foreign policy priorities, whether global strategy priorities or priorities for the smaller file of Syria. Time is short. December is coming.

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