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The Implications of the UN Cross-Border Vote in Syria

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By Natasha Hall


In July 2021, the attention of four million people in northwestern Syria will be drawn to a drama unfolding thousands of miles away in New York City. The UN Security Council is considering whether UN agencies can continue to deliver humanitarian assistance across the border into Syria. The Damascus-based government, which considers that region to be in rebellion, says that it should coordinate all UN aid to Syrians inside the country’s borders. Since 2014, it has not.

Beginning that year, the UN began delivering, funding, and coordinating assistance to Syrians living in areas outside of government control through four international crossings. Only one of those crossings, Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish border, remains open for UN humanitarian operations to northwestern Syria. However, UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2533—which authorizes the UN to use that crossing—expires on July 10, 2021.

Russia—a permanent member of the Security Council and key military ally of the Syrian government—has signaled its intention to veto the resolution’s renewal, shutting down UN cross-border operations. Major donors to the Syrian aid response, some of whom are also Security Council members, have reiterated their commitment to extend or even expand the cross-border mandate. The outcome remains uncertain, and Syrians in the northwest see their lives and livelihoods hanging in the balance.

UN operations through Bab al-Hawa support civilians in parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, which comprise the last major rebel bastion outside of government control. Over two-thirds of the four million people living there were forcibly displaced from other parts of Syria, and conditions have been worsening. Of the people in this territory, 75 percent now depend upon the UN to meet their basic needs, and cross-border operations reach nearly 85 percent of them every month. Humanitarian organizations operating in the northwest assess that the region’s degraded infrastructure after a decade of war and closed borders make them exceptionally vulnerable to any cut in aid or uptick in violence.

For the past year, there has been a détente between Turkey and Russia, with each supporting opposing sides of the conflict in Syria. However, an increase in attacks would have significant repercussions on humanitarian aid. Bab al-Hawa lies a mere 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the front lines. The Russian and Syrian governments could move northward and seize the strategic M4 highway in Idlib if they believe Turkish actions jeopardize their interests, placing millions of civilians in the crossfire.

Drawing on almost 100 interviews with diplomats, humanitarian workers, affected Syrians, and others, this paper will argue for expanding UN cross-border operations and improving coordination of cross-border aid, with the goal of increasing access to all Syrians in need. The report begins by outlining the development of UN Security Council resolutions regarding cross-border access in Syria. It will then demonstrate the difficulty of finding any substitute for UN cross-border operations, given the impediments aid agencies have faced—and continue to face—in providing cross-line assistance instead. By assessing the current situation in Syria and the capacity of current UN cross-border operations, the report will evaluate the potential impact of a veto and the likely gaps in the aid response if the UN authorization expires. It will conclude with the broader implications of this vote and how it is negotiated, providing recommendations for how donors and Security Council members should approach the negotiations to benefit Syria’s civilian population, as well as regional and global stability.

Center for Strategic and International Studies
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