If Russia vetoes the cross-border aid mechanism, donors can establish a separate program via Turkey to circumvent the UN and ensure life-saving humanitarian aid makes it to the war-torn country.
Speaking in Geneva during a regular briefing, World Food Programme (WFP) spokesperson Tomson Phiri explained that 2.4 million people in Syria “depend entirely on cross-border assistance for their basic needs, including food. The majority of these people are women and children, many of whom have been displaced multiple times.”
Russia, however, continues to insist that cross-border aid to Syria must be cancelled, while the United States, Europe and Turkey emphasise the need to renew the UN Cross Border mechanism. While the current discussion is about the renewal of the cross-border aid legislation for the Bab al Hawa crossing, it should also include a re-opening of the Bab al Salamah border crossing as an additional entry point for aid.
More importantly, the international community must be ready with an alternative if the worst-case scenario happens. For civilians in Syria, cross-border aid is vital, and all diplomatic means must be used to ensure its continuation.
Without an alternative, the humanitarian situation in Syria could spiral, and trigger a new wave of migration. Criminals within the Bashar al Assad regime would be rewarded for their behaviour.
Russia’s argument that cross-line aid can replace cross-border aid is mistaken. Past experience shows that aid to opposition-held areas in Syria is unsustainable if they have to cross regime-held areas.
Since 2011, the deteriorating humanitarian situation has played an essential role in the regime’s strategy to achieve military victories and the regime has repeatedly exploited humanitarian aid — whether in Homs, Ghouta or other places.
The regime captured territories by literally starving the local population. Not long has passed since Syria's religious leaders authorised Syrians to eat cats and dogs to survive. Knowing this, the international community cannot reward the regime with a monopoly over humanitarian aid.
A second issue is that the Bab al Hawa border crossing is the last — and only — lifeline for civilians in northwest Syria. This has to be re-evaluated. While the Bab al Hawa border crossing is logistically crucial, it needs a supplementary entry point. As the sole point for entry of humanitarian aid, Hayat Tahrir al Sham could potentially prevent the aid from entering areas under the purview of the Syrian Interim Government.
While Hayat Tahrir al Sham has not expressed such a plan so far, the remote possibility is enough to argue for the re-opening of the Bab al Salamah border crossing in Azaz. As the Assad regime wants to weaken the legitimate Syrian opposition, it is no coincidence that Russia agreed to renew the legislation for the Bab al Hawa crossing but closed the Bab al Salamah border crossing six months ago.
On the international level, Russia should acknowledge the interests of Turkey and Europe; the deteriorating humanitarian situation in northwest Syria could pose a threat to Turkey’s national security. Or, perhaps, Russia knows this and is trying to instrumentalise its veto right. Whatever the reason, the US, Europe and Turkey need to coordinate their efforts to counterbalance Russia.
Credible threat of an alternative
Russia’s current position of strength is not only due to the veto power given to only five states in the UN Security Council. It also comes from the lack of any alternatives. Open communication of the establishment of an alternative alone would be enough to convince Russia to not use its veto right.
According to OCHA, the Cross-Border Mechanism has delivered 42,673 trucks of humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria between June 2014 and April 2021. In November 2020 alone, the mechanism delivered 420 trucks of aid via the Bab al Hawa border crossing.
In the same month, the Turkish Red Crescent delivered 404 trucks of aid to Syria using multiple border crossings and Russia’s veto right. Furthermore, since August 2012, the Turkish Red Crescent delivered 53,421 trucks of aid.
Ergo, an alternative is possible.
If Russia uses its veto and ends cross-border aid, the donors to the UN program should establish a separate program circumventing it. A special fund established by donor countries can cooperate with Turkey to reach the people in need in Syria. Until that happens, aid deliveries would be harmed by Russia’s veto. However, if donors are sincere and provide Turkey with the necessary guarantees, Turkey could step up its aid program and provide aid planned for a year in a shorter time. This would help to ease the pain caused by Russia.
With the establishment of the aid program, donor countries could benefit from the infrastructure and expertise of Turkey in humanitarian aid to help Syrians survive. The financial capital would help to establish a new mechanism and to ensure aid flow to Syria. Full control over aid would be in the hands of the donors, and Turkey, and could enter Syria without restriction.
More importantly, this would be a strong message to Russia and China not to misuse their vetoes and threaten the only lifeline for millions of civilians in the pursuit of political gains.
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