Has UN aid to Syria turned political soccer?

“The already desperate humanitarian situation in northwest Syria will be further aggravated,” they said in a statement on Wednesday.
Representative image
Representative image

WASHINGTON: Mofeed al-Yasser held up his sign proudly. On it was a demand that UN Resolution 2254 — generally considered to be a road map for a political transition toward peace in Syria — be implemented. “This is our only choice,” al-Yasser, a displaced Syrian originally from Kafranbel, told DW.

On Friday he was taking part in an anti-government demonstration in the northwestern area of Idlib, a part of Syria still controlled by opponents of the dictator Bashar Assad.

“The whole world has abandoned us,” al-Yasser continued. “And on top of that, Russia now wants to starve us by closing the crossing for humanitarian aid.” Saying this, he was referring to a different UN resolution altogether, but one that is becoming similarly difficult to work with. There are just over 4 million people in north western Syria, many of them like al-Yasser displaced due to the country’s long civil war. Around 1.7 million live in displaced person’s camps in this area.

Many are dependent on international aid facilitated by the UN. Most of that is classified as “cross-border aid” – that is, it arrives in this part of Syria over the international border with Turkey. Far less is “cross-line aid.” This means it crosses the lines of the conflict, moving from areas controlled by the Syrian government into areas controlled by its opponents. In mid-2014, the United Nation’s Security Council, or UNSC, got involved in making decisions on cross-border aid for Syria.

In Resolution 2165 of July 2014, the UNSC said it was “deeply disturbed” by the fact that the Syrian government refused consent to relief operations, defining this as “a violation of international humanitarian law.” Council members decided UN humanitarian agencies and their partners would be allowed to use four different border crossings — two through Turkey and one each through Jordan and Iraq — to bring supplies into Syria, without asking the Assad government for permission.

Since 2014, the situation has obviously changed radically, and not least because of Russia’s increased support for the Syrian dictator from around 2015 and then the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has heightened diplomatic tensions inside the UNSC itself. Russia has used its seat on the 15-member council to support its allies, insisting that humanitarian aid should go through Damascus because cross border aid was only ever supposed to be an interim arrangement.

Also at Russian insistence, there is now only one border crossing that can be used for aid along the Turkish border. Russia has also demanded the resolution be renewed every six months, rather than annually. The latter was agreed upon via UNSC Resolution 2642 in July 2022.

The current resolution about cross-border aid expires on Jan. 10 and this week, like clockwork, there was another chorus of alarm from humanitarian organizations. A roster of human rights experts appointed by the UN warned of catastrophic consequences should the resolution not be renewed.

“The already desperate humanitarian situation in northwest Syria will be further aggravated,” they said in a statement on Wednesday.

Also this week, news agency Reuters reported that Russia has already informally agreed not to veto next week’s renewal. Analysts have suggested Russia’s increasingly friendly relationship with Turkey might be the reason why. Turkey supports cross-border aid and wants to avoid a large number of Syrian refugees at its border, should conditions in Idlib worsen.

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