Aid convoy heads to Douma, Syria Photo: WFP/Basel Hassan

Getting Humanitarian Relief to Besieged Syrians Is One of the Only Things that Russia and the United States Agrees Upon. Is That About to End?

[Updated January 10th, 2019]

Since the start of conflict in Syria, deep divisions between Russia and the Unites States have stymied the Security Council’s ability to engage in meaningful diplomacy to the end the crisis.

With the Security Council unable to pursue diplomacy to end the conflict, a kind of palliative diplomacy took hold. Since the political space to try and end the war did not exist, diplomats did the next best thing and sought to mitigate its humanitarian fallout.  

These efforts came to a head in 2014. At the time, the Assad regime was routinely denying visas and permission for aid deliveries across the border from Turkey and Iraq into areas under rebel control. Aid agencies were stuck: they were being denied entry by a government to access civilian populations in areas controlled by rebel factions.  

Facing a profound humanitarian emergency, the Security Council engaged its most meaningful diplomacy yet on the Syria crisis. Diplomats’ efforts were not focused on ending the war, but on seeking a way to deliver aid to beleaguered populations without the consent of the government on whose territory they reside. After months of negotiations the Security Council passed resolution 2165, permitting the cross border delivery of aid — even if the Syrian government would not consent. 

The resolution was strictly limited to humanitarian issues. And though cross border aid delivery did commence, it did not come close to addressing any broader political questions. Still, humanitarian imperatives forced diplomats to write new international law–in this case, allowing for the violation of a state’s sovereignty in order to deliver aid. This was a big deal at the time.  Subsequent to that resolution, millions of people received life saving food, medicine and other humanitarian relief.

The last remaining issue around which the Security Council has found agreement on Syria is poised to disintegrate, endangering the lives of millions of Syrians who rely on the cross-border delivery of aid.

Resolution 2165 is an annual resolution that requires re-authorization by the Security Council. It is due to expire on January 10. But unlike year’s past, it appears that the Security Council is deeply divided over its re-authorization. Russia, in particular, has signaled its displeasure with the resolution and has presented an alternate resolution that would significantly restrict the cross border delivery of aid. That resolution will not likely have the requisite nine affirmative votes to pass. But should that resolution fail, Russia may veto a resolution that would effectively renew the Resolution 2165.  This would mean the end to cross-border delivery of aid. All aid would have to be coordinated with Damascus, which would likely restrict access to areas it does not control.

“The humanitarian situation in northwest and northeast Syria would be markedly worse without the cross-border operation,” Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Mueller told the Security Council on Thursday.

“Without the cross-border operation, we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians. That would cause a rapid increase in hunger and disease, resulting in death, suffering and further displacement—including across-borders—for a vulnerable population who have already suffered unspeakable tragedy as a result of almost nine years of conflict.”

In other words, should the last remaining element of Security Council agreement on Syria succumb to a familiar pattern of Russian obstructionism on behalf of its Syrian allies, the humanitarian crisis in Syria could go from very bad to much, much worse.

[This post will be updated following the Security Council vote]

UPDATE: The vote was delayed pending further negotiations

UPDATE 2: Russia and China cast a double veto. If a new resolution is not reached, the cross border delivery of aid to besieged Syrians will cease on January 10.

UPDATE 3: On Friday, January 10, the Security Council is scheduled to vote again on the cross border delivery of aid. If the vote fails, aid deliveries from Iraq and Turkey will will be entirely contingent on the whims of the Syrian government.