Putin takes his revenge while Idlib starves


For years, civil society players in Syria have had to go through agonies of uncertainty about the future of humanitarian supplies to the country every six months, as the battle over the corresponding resolution grinds into deadlock at the United Nations Security Council. It was no different this time when the mandate ran out, only to be extended yet again two days later – albeit for just another six months. If cross-border aid to Idlib dries up, the region will be under threat of famine, but medical supplies, education programmes and the fight against sexualised violence and violence against women and girls are also areas of concern.

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Atmeh Refugee Camp in Idlib, Syria
Teaser Image Caption
Atmeh Refugee Camp in Idlib, Syria

Yesterday I watched the last UN convoy crossing into Syria under Security Council resolution 2585”, the Deputy Coordinator for Humanitarian Aid in Syria, Mark Cutts, tweeted on 9 July 2022; “Deeply concerning that the Security Council was not able to reach consensus in its latest meeting. But still hoping it will reach agreement on an extension. It’s not over yet…”, he added. Even though Resolution 2642 was put back into force on Tuesday, Monday was a dark day for all those affected.

At a stroke, 423 million USD of aid, corresponding to the amount earmarked by the United Nations for north-west Syria up to the end of 2022, mostly for food, would have been broken off. For the people who live there, this means hunger in a part of the country that is home to twice as many people as before the war. For the idea that supplies could be effectively channelled via Damascus, as called for by Russia, is entirely illusory. This became quite clear in the years between 2012 and 2018, when the Syrian regime laid siege to millions of people, withholding food and medical provisions from them. Only a fraction of the aid supplies ordered by the UN actually took place, the list of requirements was rewritten and some of the most basic critical supplies removed from the convoys, such as sterile gloves and medicines to treat pneumonia and diarrhoea; they needed antibiotics, but what they got instead was headlice shampoo.

Russia takes every opportunity to put the squeeze on humanitarian aid

In 2014, the Security Council unanimously agreed on a resolution to ringfence cross-border humanitarian aid. But ever since the regime took back control of areas previously held by rebels in 2018, Russia has taken every opportunity to squeeze the mandate further. It has already had three of the four original border crossing points closed in previous rounds of negotiations and the extension of the mandate for Bab al-Hawa was agreed only at the eleventh hour in summer 2021, following a nerve-wracking wait. Russia decreed that there should be progress reports on supplies across the lines of the conflict and particular emphasis on “early recovery”, in other words “projects in the early phase of renewal”, going beyond humanitarian aid, but not as far as recconstruction. Russia is keen to turn a new page and promote normalisation with the Assad regime. Syria should no longer be perceived as a war zone, to be steered well clear of by investors. As the coordinator of an international aid organisation in Turkey puts it: “Moscow would like to move away from ‘protection language’ with the implication that the people in Syria continue to be in need of protection, it wants to start talking of Syrian in terms of a post-war country”. He considers it unrealistic for UN aid to be channelled any other way: “the aid from Turkey came in more than 1000 trucks; from the regime-controlled areas, there were maybe between 25 and 40, if that. That is a mere drop in the ocean. Another problem was the complete lack of effort to coordinate with us. This means that some deliveries went to places we had already supplied, because there was also a lack of expertise and analysis on the part of the regime as to what was needed and where”.

It's not just about food

But it is about far more than questions of logistics or simply delivering food: “it’s not just about food baskets. Education and other sensitive areas can also be supported across borders, but not across lines of conflict – healthcare, everything that comes under the heading of protection in its broadest sense. This calls for trust and there is precious little of that for the regime and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. For this reason, the aid transport out of Damascus is also a point of disagreement at the moment, as they provided the regime with insights and access to sensitive information”. Sexualised violence, violence against women and girls and child marriages are other growing problems to which it is unlikely that the existing programmes of aid across conflict lines will be able to provide an answer.

The regime is extremely interested in ensuring that all UN aid is channelled through Damascus – but not in helping it any further on its way. Syria expert Natasha Hall ascribes to the regime an “unbelievably systematic way of siphoning money before it can even be used”. In an extensive study for the American Center for Strategic and International Studies, she revealed last year that more than 50% of the resources that enter Syria in this way ends up directly in the coffers of the regime in dodgy currency exchange policy and never benefits those in need of aid. 60-80% of whatever is left over goes to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, an organisation with close ties to the regime, and the aid organisations of the President’s wife, Asma al-Assad. Something else that is all too apparent in the current configuration is that the areas considered loyal get relief, while others are deliberately neglected.

The Security Council recently accepted the Russian counter-proposal for the text of the resolution, right down to a few details, despite having initially rejected it. Instead of the one-year extension called for by thirteen of the fifteen members of the Security Council, it has been extended by just six months, with an option to extend it by six more in a further resolution in January. A minimum compromise, as the German Foreign Office put it, since it means that current planning work can only go as far as 10 January, while there are more than a million people living in tents that are not winter-proof and in urgent need of help. Even the period of one year is too short a window.

Instead of sitting back and waiting for another fight to break out with Russia over every dot and comma, it is time to put an end to this toxic dependency on Russia’s blessing once and for all. Regularly having to wait for the party that bears much of the military responsibility for the suffering to rubber-stamp the provision of humanitarian aid is an absurd situation.


This article was first published in German on boell.de.