GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 713, 20 July 2023

Syria: Stalemate over Aid extension
Mohaimeen Khan

In the News
On 11 July, at the UNSC, Russia rejected a nine-month extension of the aid route to Syria, putting the viability of the system in jeopardy. The UN mediated deal that permits aid to be sent over land from Turkey into rebel-held regions in Syria expired on 10 July; the vote to renew the authorisation was postponed. Meanwhile, Russia used its veto to block a nine-month extension and recommended a six-month extension instead. However, the UNSC rejected the proposal, with Russia and China voting in favour and the United States, the United Kingdom, and France voting against. 

On 12 July, refugees in Northern Syria accused Russia of cutting off vital help. 

On 14 July, after the UNSC declined to renew its sanction for the operation, the Syrian government granted permission to the UN to utilise a border crossing from Turkey to transfer aid to the northwest region, which is controlled by the opposition. The Syrian government stated that the UN would need to be “in full cooperation and coordination” with them. 

On 15 July, the conditions set by the Syrian government on aid deliveries from Turkey to the country’s north-western region were deemed “unacceptable” by the UN. 

Issues at large
First, the humanitarian importance of aid in Syria. According to UNICEF, more than 50 per cent of families in Syria face food insecurity, and around 90 per cent of households live in poverty. In Syria, 13.4 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, of which 5.9 million are in acute need. Owing to a deteriorating economic crisis, ongoing hostilities, widespread population displacement, and severely damaged public infrastructure, about two-thirds of the population need aid. More than 80 per cent of the requirements of residents in rebel-held regions are met by the aid, including everything from food to diapers and blankets, and medicines. Aid distributions are routinely criticised by the government in Damascus as a breach of its sovereignty. The earthquakes exposed the weakness of the cross-border system and raised questions about the UN's humanitarian mission in Syria. Russia has been undermining the aid system for years. 

Second, the intensity of the crisis. After 12 years of conflict, the humanitarian situation in Syria is still dire and has only become worse due to severe economic crises, including decrease in the value of Syrian currency. Syrian farmers have been forced to leave their farms; their fields have been destroyed by missile attacks. The recent assessment of the Syrian human rights situation by the German Foreign Office was "catastrophic." The civilians are being targeted; hospitals and schools are being bombed; continued forced recruitment, arbitrary arrests, torture, and death sentences are handed down without a trial. There has been a rise in cholera outbreaks, measles, diphtheria, dengue along with medicine and food shortages. Although officially, there is a truce between Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, localised ceasefires are yet to result in a more comprehensive peace process. 

Third, donor fatigue. Syria's humanitarian services suffer from declining funding and donor fatigue. The UN's assistance appeal for Syria was USD three billion in 2016, the amount increased gradually each year, reaching USD 4.4 billion in 2022 before the devastating earthquake in February. Despite this increase, humanitarian organisations have seen a steady decline in funding. According to the UN, 64 per cent of the humanitarian response was funded in 2019 compared to 49 per cent in 2022. 

Fourth, Russia's veto. Several political events provoked Russia to use its veto power. These include Turkey's approval of Sweden's NATO membership, the transfer of Azov Battalion personnel to Ukraine, Turkey's insistence on Ukraine joining NATO, and the reiteration that the Crimean Peninsula is Ukrainian territory. There has also been an improvement in security coordination between Turkey and the United States with regard to Syria. 

In perspective
First, challenges to international norms. Russia's recurrent use of veto has raised concerns about the UNSC's capability to respond to the humanitarian needs of the Syrian population. Additionally, it has sparked discussions on how geopolitical concerns affect the distribution of humanitarian relief and the broader implications for international humanitarian laws and norms. 

Second, the need for alternatives. Alternative funding sources separate from the UN and collaborating more closely with regional humanitarian organisations inside Syria is required. The US and its Arab allies should pressure Assad and his northern adversaries into adopting an agreement to restore control over important state institutions in north Syria.

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