Humanitarian Access in Syria is all about Russia

The big drama at the United Nations this week is over a draft resolution calling for unfettered humanitarian access to besieged parts of Syria and threatening sanctions on those who obstruct the delivery of aid. Not unexpectedly, the resolution is supported by the western alliance on the Security Council, but opposed by Russia and China.  In fact, the two veto-wielding countries skipped a meeting yesterday in which the resolution was to be discussed. From ABC News. 

Russia is blocking Western efforts to push through a Security Council resolution that would raise the prospect of sanctions against Syria unless the government gives unrestricted access to deliver humanitarian aid.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin vowed to veto the proposed measure if necessary. Both he and China’s U.N. ambassador were no-shows at a meeting Monday to discuss the Western and Arab-backed resolution.

“This text would not have any positive impact on the situation,” Churkin said, explaining why Russia didn’t bother to attend the meeting. “If anything, it would create disruption of humanitarian efforts.”

The fact is, progress can only be made if Russia is on board. There is no point in putting forward a resolution that Russia will veto. We’ve seen this movie before. Russia and China have vetoed three previous resolutions on Syria. What was the consequence on the ground after those vetoes were cast? Nothing, which is to say: continued fighting, death, destruction and a deepening humanitarian crisis.

On the other hand, the one resolution on Syria which Russia supported called for the Assad regime to hand over its chemical weapons stockpile to the United Nations. To that resolution, the Syrian government complied. The weapons are now in the process of being isolated and destroyed.

The lesson is clear: if Russia supports a resolution at the Security Council, the Syrian government will be compelled to abide by it. If Russia opposes the resolution it will have no practical effect on the ground.  For diplomats at the UN, the challenge is to craft a meaningful resolution to which Russia can agree. Alternatively, international diplomats need to change Russia’s calculus. Either way, without Russian support a resolution calling for greater humanitarian access in Syria will fall on deaf ears in Damascus.

Credit: Russian Mission to the UN