The Security Council’s Syria Cross-Border Aid Gamble

The Security Council just voted unanimously on a resolution that would authorize the cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria.  This is undoubtedly a necessary goal: there are 9.3 million people in need of humanitarian assistance inside Syria. Right now, only about 4 million people are being reached with food aid and medicine. There are a number of reasons for this huge gap, but chief among them is hat aid flows through Damascus. The government indirectly controls which needy populations get this aid–and which are excluded.

The Security Council’s proposal to remedy this is to authorize the delivery of humanitarian aid across border points that are not controlled by the Syrian government. This is a good idea in theory–after all, aid would reach about 1 million more of the people who need it the most. But in doing so, the Security Council is also taking a huge risk.

The delivery of humanitarian aid to a crisis zone like Syria requires some degree of cooperation from the government of the country receiving the aid. Despite the conflict Syria is still a sovereign country, and as such it treats its borders like most countries do, requiring visas, imposes customs duties, etc. In order to reach the 4 million civilians that are currently receiving international aid, agencies must work with Syrian authorities, as uncomfortable as that may be.  If the Assad regime objects to the cross border delivery of aid to areas it does not control, it may very well retaliate against these agencies by booting them from Damascus, which would disrupt aid flows to people currently receiving it.

But it gets worse. The Syrian government has said that it would consider the non-consensual delivery of humanitarian assistance as tantamount to an attack on Syria. In a letter to the Security Council last month, Syria’s Ambassador to the UN stated: “importing aid in coordination with terrorist organizations and without consultation with the Syrian State would amount to an attack on the Syrian State.”  This raises the very real possibility that the Syrian air force would bomb humanitarian convoys as soon as they cross the border.

The Security Council is betting that Russian support for the resolution would mitigate the risk that Syrian military would attack aid convoys. (The resolution contains a provision for the monitoring of the aid convoys, insisted by Russia, to ensure that no weapons are smuggled to rebel groups.) If Russia supports this resolution, then presumably Moscow would encourage Damascus to abide by its strictures–or at the very least, not retaliate against humanitarian agencies.

It’s logical to assume that Damascus would not cross it’s main protector at the Security Council by violating a resolution that Russia supports. And it’s welcome to finally see some unity at the Security Council. But this is still very much a gamble.