The world community survived the UN vote on the mechanism for delivering cross-border aid to Syria. On the agenda was the issue of the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint, which stopped functioning on July 11, 2021. This checkpoint on the Turkish-Syrian border is the last of four to be shut down since the mechanism began its work. It supplies humanitarian aid to the last de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria – Idlib province. Control over the province is held by various anti-government and terrorist groups, principally Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, otherwise known as HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra, associated with al-Qaeda, banned in the Russian Federation).
Humanitarian aid vs. sanctions
According to UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, more than 70% of the population of northwestern Syria is in need of humanitarian assistance. These include 2.7 million displaced persons (it is believed that the population of Idlib province is about 4 million people). In this regard, Guterres called for a one-year extension of cross-border operations. Ankara, Washington and a number of Western countries need to extend the mechanism of cross-border operations in Idlib through Turkey. Syria itself, as well as the states supporting it, including Russia, believe that all the necessary humanitarian aid can proceed through interaction with the de jure Syrian government in Damascus. The main task for Damascus, on the one hand, and healthy opposition forces in Idlib, on the other, is to ensure humanitarian access across the contact line. Regarding humanitarian access, non-governmental organisations often have questions for both Damascus and the opposition groups.
The topic of cross-border humanitarian operations, according to US President Joe Biden, was discussed at his meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Geneva. American officials later reported that no agreement was reached on the preservation of cross-border humanitarian assistance. At the same time, unnamed American officials shared with the media statements such as: “… We made it clear that this [cross-border operations] is very important to us if we are going to continue our cooperation on Syria. ”
This logic, in which Russia should allow cross-border operations, and in return rely on potential cooperation on Syria sometime in the future, is seriously flawed, especially in the context of US sanctions against Syria, which have seriously undermined the overall humanitarian situation in the country.
The Caesar Act, passed by the US Congress in 2020, has been the most serious legislation introducing sanctions against Syria; among other things, it limits the interaction of Damascus with third countries. As part of the discussion on June 17 at the Valdai Discussion Club, titled “The Humanitarian Crisis in Syria: Is It Just the Beginning?”, Hames Zreik, CEO of the Damascus Centre for Research and Studies, said that the Western sanctions were supposedly introduced to weaken the political system, while in reality their impact is such that only the Syrian people suffer.
Today in the West, there is no logic that would lead to the successful provision of humanitarian aid; but more importantly, it does nothing for the country’s economic recovery. For the West, any conversation about reconstruction begins with a political settlement, while the topic of humanitarian aid is strictly politicised. But someone should already raise the question of what the sanctions policy has achieved in recent years, other than the deterioration of the humanitarian situation of the Syrian population. Is it not worth starting a revision of this outdated and ineffective policy, as well as a reassessment of the conflict based on the realities of today? This is not 2014, when decisions were made on cross-border humanitarian operations as an exceptional measure; the situation in the region has changed. Several facts indicate that such an opinion is at least being taken into account by the Joe Biden administration. There are reports that the American administration is considering the idea of curbing the use of sanctioned weapons (to correct a “vicious” practice under former President Donald Trump). In addition, the Biden administration has decided not to extend the exemption from sanctions of American Delta Crescent Energy, which was developing oil fields in northeastern Syria (where the Americans are present illegally as occupiers). It seems that Moscow and Washington still retain opportunities for a dialogue on Syria and, with due effort, could try to jointly unleash the accumulated tangle of contradictions.
Aid in the wrong hands
The current military-political situation in Idlib has long been cause for concern among international organisations providing humanitarian assistance. Funding for NGOs in Idlib dropped dramatically in January-February 2019, after the establishment of complete domination over the province by the HTS, headed by Abu Muhammad al-Julani. The transparency of the provision of aid in Idlib has decreased. A number of international NGOs have withdrawn from Idlib both in the face of a terrorist threat and realising that the humanitarian aid they provided could fall into the wrong hands. Nevertheless, Abu Muhammad al-Julani and the HTS militants have managed not only to establish control over the province, but also made a number of decisions to whitewash the terrorist group in the West. This rebranding, which al-Julani has been engaged in more than once since the days of his ties with Daesh (banned in the Russian Federation), is supported by certain circles in the West. This became clear in connection with recent reports of Russian diplomatic sources in the media about direct contacts between representatives of Western intelligence services (such as Jonathan Powell of MI6) and Abu Muhammad al-Julani near the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint.
Closing the Bab al-Hawa checkpoint for cross-border humanitarian operations would seriously affect the humanitarian situation in Idlib. Russia has decided to extend the mechanism for providing assistance through this checkpoint. However, time should not be wasted. An international effort is needed to move humanitarian convoys to Idlib across the contact line and in cooperation with the Syrian government. In this regard, it may be helpful to advance discussion on the details of this approach. The difficulty is that neither humanitarian convoys nor the military of Syria, Russia, Turkey or the United States will be protected from provocations by terrorists. Although Turkey has close relations in Idlib with a number of anti-government Syrian groups affiliated with the so-called “Syrian National Army”, these are weak compared with HTS. This fact has compelled Turkey to not actively oppose HTS. Recently, HTS has re-energised itself and is putting pressure on a number of smaller Idlib groups. The latest big news is connected with a native of the former Soviet Union. According to the Directorate-4 Telegram channel, “a veteran of the jihad, the leader of the Jund Ash-Sham group, Murad Margoshvili, better known as Muslim Ash-Shishani,” received an ultimatum to lay down arms and leave Idlib or join HTS. Such proposals have already been received by a number of other leaders of terrorist groups who, in one way or another, submitted to HTS.
The situation in Syria has not been resolved and is not yet close to a geopolitical equilibrium. HTS policy speaks of the further consolidation of power in Idlib in the hands of Abu Muhammad al-Julani. All this may lead to the need for a joint Russian-Turkish-Syrian (Damascus) solution to the issue via various methods. It is possible that Damascus will decide, at least, on a limited military solution in order to establish control over the logistically important M4 highway leading from Aleppo to Latakia, which would restore economic ties between the regions of the country. As for humanitarian aid, in the new (as they say in the West, rules-based) world order and given international humanitarian law in these conditions, apparently, it may turn out to be not a law, but a rule. With all the ensuing circumstances.
From our partner RIAC