Opinion | How Putin Is Starving Syria — and What Biden Can Do

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From Syria’s northwest, one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world can look a lot like an endless traffic jam. Every day, lines of trucks loaded with food, water, clothes, medical supplies and construction equipment wait to cross from Turkey into the Syrian hills. Once they manage to get through, they pass into the Syrian town of Bab al-Hawa and head into a region that has seen more war than anywhere else in Syria.

For the 4.5 million people in northwestern Syria, living amidst the rubble of years of bombing by their own government, the cargo aboard those waiting trucks is a literal lifeline.

The bottleneck was not always so extreme. When the UN originally started sending cross-border aid in 2014, it had access to four crossings that ran through Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. By January 2020, only two remained open. And since last July, there has been just one: Bab al-Hawa, which has strained at the seams as the demand for humanitarian aid has intensified while COVID-19 spreads.

What changed was not the scale of need, which has actually increased since the UN aid program began and Syria’s economy fell into crisis. Nor has violence gone down. What changed was Russia, which has been exploiting its veto power at the UN Security Council to systematically shut aid gateways, one after the other.

The aid flows to regions held by Syrian opposition forces, which are being systematically starved out by dictatorial president Bashar al-Assad. Russia considers Assad an ally, and so any aid—even for humanitarian reasons—is an affront to his rule. Accordingly, last January, during negotiations scheduled to determine the extension of aid access, Russia forced the closure of a crossing from northern Iraq and another from Jordan. Both had been providing a lifeline to northeastern and eastern Syria. Then last July, Russia used the same tactic to shut down the Bab al-Salam crossing from Turkey into northern Aleppo.

That left only one road for aid to arrive, via Turkey, at Bab al-Hawa. And now the Russians have already signaled their intention to shut that as well when it comes up for a vote in the UN Security Council this summer. If they succeed, it will cut off UN cross-border aid altogether—and all but sever northwestern Syria from the global community, and from any semblance of help.

Over the past decade, Syria’s violent and intractable crisis has rarely offered policymakers a guaranteed opportunity to make a major positive difference. In the coming months, however, President Joe Biden does have such an opportunity—a chance to restore the uninhibited flow of humanitarian assistance to millions of civilians across northern Syria who are more in need of help than ever before. But the chance to have such a significant impact does not come for free. President Biden, alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken and incoming USAID Administrator Samantha Power, will need to lead a resolute effort to shift Russia’s calculus leading into July. They will need to determine broader avenues to turn the screws on Moscow far beyond Syria and the Middle East, in order to decidedly heighten the potential costs for a humanitarian cut-off in Syria.

Vladimir Putin has backed Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s strongman leader, for the full 10-year course of the Syrian uprising. When Syrian protesters, many clutching roses, began marching in support of political reform, Assad balked at their demands and responded with unforgiving violence. As the conflict curdled into civil war, Putin dug in, initially sending weapons and military advisors and from September 2015, launching a fully-fledged military intervention.

To Putin, the Syrian civil war has offered an opportunity to re-establish Russia as a powerful player in the region by protecting Russia’s longest-standing ally in the Middle East, and defeating what is, in his mind, a U.S.-led regime change campaign.

In 2021, few would suggest any of those objectives have gone unachieved. In propping up Assad, Russia has worked intimately with Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. And, crucially, it has secured the diplomatic backing of China, another UN Security Council member, which maintains a blanket opposition to Western support for democratic change abroad, as well as a diplomatic relationship of its own with Assad. Russian and Chinese diplomats have also indicated that their actions targeting cross-border aid access is linked to – or more pointedly, in retaliation against – American and European sanctions against Syria’s regime.

The warfare component of the Syrian fight has been well documented, but Russia’s exploitation of its diplomatic clout in the UN to further a siege-and-starve strategy is less well known. By cutting millions of people off from vitally needed aid, Russia seeks only one goal: to force populations to surrender to a regime that has shot, shelled, bombed and gassed them for a decade.

Its lever has been the UN Security Council. By 2014, at the height of Syria’s war, the UN had already given up counting the dead after years of the Assad regime’s ruthlessly blockading and carpet-bombing entire cities populated by opposition-aligned communities. The scale of the violence sparked and fueled an ever-expanding humanitarian crisis, which demanded an enormous aid response. But the regime did not want aid going to opposition communities. While international law requires that aid deliveries be coordinated and facilitated by a host government, meeting the huge humanitarian needs of opposition communities via Damascus proved all but impossible.

That prompted the UN Security Council to force through a rare vote in 2014 to permit the international community to provide vitally needed humanitarian aid to the millions of civilians living there—after informing Damascus, but not with its approval. Assad objected, but the Council set aside sovereignty concerns and authorized the use of four border posts for humanitarian deliveries into opposition-held areas. Council members recognized at the time that without cross-border assistance, millions of Syrians would starve.

The UN-led aid effort that followed swiftly turned into a mammoth operation, providing everything from food, water and baby formula to medical supplies, vaccines, and shelter to the displaced. By January 2021, nearly 44,000 trucks of aid had been delivered to opposition areas via UN-authorized crossings.

The international community consistently responded generously to UN humanitarian appeals in the months and years that followed, while the Assad regime did whatever it could to prevent life-saving assistance from reaching the Syrians who needed it. In some cases, humanitarian agencies were simply denied travel permits. In many other cases, the government stopped aid convoys and seized their most valuable and needed cargo, such as baby formula, and spoiled the rest (filling sacks of flour with glass and bird waste was one apparent favorite). Despite such interference, this cross-border aid effort helped blunt the impact of Damascus’ intentional undermining of international humanitarian law.

That all changed when conflict lines began to freeze, as Syria’s long over-stretched hodgepodge of local and foreign militias proved unable to advance any further. With Syria in an internal standoff, Russia began pursuing a different strategy to help Assad: using diplomatic levers to incrementally sever aid access to regions still opposed to Syria’s regime. Even areas violently retaken by the regime no longer receive cross-border aid, while being all but abandoned by the bankrupt government in Damascus. In southern Syria, for example, which was administered by the opposition until mid-2018, living conditions are dire and communities have been forced to call upon relatives abroad to pool money together to rebuild things like water pipes and electricity lines.

The first step in Russia’s diplomatic siege-and-starve strategy took place in January 2020, when it exploited its potential veto to force the UN Security Council to shut down an aid crossing, ending the mandate that allowed cross-border aid to arrive from Iraq via the al-Yaroubiya crossing. That meant that northeastern Syria’s 2.5 million civilians lost almost all their access to humanitarian aid, and almost half of all medicine supplies, overnight. This is an area controlled by America’s counter-ISIS allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Since the closure, it has been forced to rely upon far reduced, non-UN-mandated supplies arriving via a smaller crossing at Faysh Khabour, plus the negligible UN aid that arrives via Damascus. As a result, today in northeastern Syria, as U.S. troops continue to support a locally led campaign against ISIS, only 6 percent of hospitals are fully functional and supplies of food and other staple items has significantly reduced.

Six months later, in July 2020, Russia – again with Chinese backing – inserted itself aggressively into the scheduled negotiations to renew cross-border aid access into Syria and threatened to utilize its veto to shutter all aid. After long drawn-out negotiations and multiple vetoes, Russia and China managed to shut down everything except a single crossing at Bab al-Hawa, from Turkey into Syria’s northwest, which was given a 12 month “extension.” That compromise was in large part won by Turkey, whose government shares a border with northwestern Syria and remains locked in a complex love-hate dynamic with Moscow, sustained by both party’s capacity to threaten the interests of the other in Syria.

That compromise is set to expire this summer, and Russian diplomats have repeatedly made clear their intention to veto any further extension—meaning all cross-border aid would cease.

At least 4.5 million civilians currently live in northwestern Syria, and all rely on cross-border international assistance. One in three children there currently suffers from severe malnutrition and display signs of stunting. Living conditions have deteriorated steadily since aid was restricted to Bab al-Hawa seven months ago and debilitating conflict remains one potential shell or airstrike away. With COVID-19 continuing to spread amongst communities with little if any access to healthcare, plans to provide COVID vaccines to Syria’s northwest through the global COVAX scheme will be shelved entirely if Russia gets its way, as could much of Polio and Tuberculosis vaccination programs across the north.

As UN aid chief Mark Lowcock recently said in a briefing to the UN Security Council, if Russia gets its way in the UN in July, the humanitarian crisis in northern Syria will turn “from terrible to catastrophic.”

The implications of a shutdown go beyond the immediately obvious humanitarian realm.

In the northwest, the most likely consequence would be a resumption of major hostilities. Though a very delicate ceasefire remains in place in the northwest, Russia and the Syrian regime have recently upped their targeting of critical infrastructure in the opposition zone – including hospitals, gas facilities, key roadways and depots used by cargo trucks. Beyond representing a flagrant violation of the ceasefire, this escalation appears to be a deliberate and targeted campaign to degrade living conditions, potentially in preparation for an aid cut-off in July and an all-out military offensive. The last time hostilities broke out here, one million people were displaced within weeks, precipitating the worst humanitarian crisis of the whole war and a small-scale refugee rush towards Europe.

A dramatic deterioration of living conditions and civilian suffering could spark new conflict fissures, fuel extremism and create conditions that challenge our ability to remain engaged in combating ISIS, which is already displaying worrying signs of a possible resurgence in regime areas.

Clearly aware of the optics associated with its intended veto, Russia has blocked Syrian civil society organizations and even the International Rescue Committee from speaking to the Security Council in recent weeks. The structure of the Security Council gives Russia leverage over Syria’s aid delivery out of all proportion to its contributions to it. In this case, the U.S. and Europe fund over 90 percent of the UN aid effort to Syria, while Russia accounts for only 1 percent; and yet Russia’s veto power at the UN provides Putin with overwhelming power to hold the UN hostage and potentially sever aid access altogether.

But the United States and Europe do have some leverage of their own. For the sake of maintaining awareness surrounding the need for aid and the human consequences of Russia’s actions, the U.S. could convene Arria formula meetings in the coming weeks and months. Such meetings are less formal gatherings convened by Security Council members to provide a platform for candid discussion of otherwise sensitive issues. Though they are convened by council members, they are not officially under the purview of the council itself, meaning they are not subject to being blocked by other members. Holding such meetings would allow the United States to give a platform to vital evidence of the importance of humanitarian deliveries to be conveyed to Security Council members and the world at large.

More broadly, if the U.S. and allies are to stand any chance of preventing Russia and China’s intended vetoes, they will need to act at the highest levels. Commendable efforts are underway within the UN and across parts of the U.S. and allied governments to avoid the seemingly inevitable, by maneuvering diplomatically to counter Russia’s intentions while preparing contingency plans for non-UN mandated aid supplies. However, these efforts are unlikely to be enough. To change Russia’s calculus, President Biden will have to take on this file himself, along with Blinken and Power – and not just interject once, but consistently in the lead-up to the July vote. President-level calls and Secretary-level negotiations will necessary to convey America’s determination directly and to communicate likely consequences should aid be severed. It is hard to imagine President Putin taking anything else seriously. As is widely rumored, it took President Obama’s direct and aggressive intervention in 2014 to persuade President Putin to allow the original UN cross-border aid resolution.

Russia has thus far escaped any sanctions related to its activities in Syria, which have included proven strikes on hospitals, schools, markets and other civilian targets – and that could and arguably should change. The Russian military has not just conducted war crimes on multiple occasions, it is also the key protector of Assad, against whom the international community holds more evidence of crimes against humanity than the Nuremberg Trials had against the Nazis. It is not hard to envision sources of diplomatic deterrence and leverage resulting from such facts – not to mention the many other possible avenues for pressure resulting from Russian actions in other corners of the world, including in the U.S. homeland.

Cross-border aid must be allowed to continue to assist the millions who remain so desperately in need – not just through Bab al-Hawa, but also again via al-Yaroubiya and Bab al-Salam. The challenge ahead of us today is even greater than it was in 2014, and the stakes are even higher. Beyond all the politics, this is a matter of humanitarian principles – with stakes that amount literally to millions of human lives. If we fail to prevent Russia this time, a truly terrible precedent will have been set, from which the world could well struggle to ever reverse.

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