On February 22, the Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling for unfettered humanitarian access to besieged populations inside Syria. The resolution also called for ending indiscriminate attacks against civilians.
Russia voted for this resolution, rather than vetoing it or abstaining. This was significant because Russia is the only member of the Security Council with much sway in Damascus. For a while, it looked like this resolution (with Russia’s encouragement) was having a positive effect in the ground. In the weeks following the resolution, UN humanitarian officials told me that their ability to access besieged areas had marginally improved.
A look at this list of barrel bombs dropped over Syria by the Assad regime seems to back up this claim. In the several weeks prior to the resolution there were near daily indiscriminate bombings. Then, there was a pause of bombings between February 23 and March 4. After weeks of daily barrel bomb attacks they suddenly stopped, but on March 4 they resumed again in earnest.
The pace and ferocity of barrel bombings and other attacks have made the humanitarian situation on the ground right now in Syria as bad as it has ever been. Yesterday, the top UN humanitarian official Valerie Amos briefed the Security Council on the rapidly deteriorating situation. “Far from getting better, the situation is getting worse,” she said.
Why did Syria go from getting marginally better in the week following the resolution to the morass it is in today? Here’s one theory: the Ukraine crisis. Specifically, the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Moscow and the United States.
On February 23 — the day after the Security Council resolution passed with Russia’s support — the Ukraine crises erupted with the forceful ouster of the Russian-backed president. Three days later Russian forces invaded Crimea setting off the international firestorm that continues to this day.
It is not unreasonable to posit that Damascus received (or perceived to receive) a nod from Moscow to resume its offensive; and that this nod was a response to the actions that America and its allies have taken to isolate and punish Russia for its aggression in Ukraine. (Or, from a Russian perspective to the USA’s provoking anti-Russia sentiment in Ukraine and installing an anti-Russian leader on its doorstep).
In this scenario, one price Russia has exacted was ceasing its cooperation with the USA over humanitarian access in Syria. If this is correct, then there is no way that the Assad government can be compelled to cease the barrel bombings and re-open humanitarian access absent some resolution of the Ukraine crisis between the USA and Russia. In other words, the longer the spat over Ukraine continues between Russia and the United States, the worse things will get in Syria.