President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin participate in a tete-a-tete during a U.S.-Russia Summit on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, at the Villa La Grange in Geneva. (Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz)
An opportunity to energize multinational diplomacy on Syria

An upcoming UN report will show whether a US-Russian agreement on providing humanitarian aid is working.

As the world has focused on Afghanistan for the past month, a historic compromise agreement reached in July at the United Nations Security Council between the United States and Russia has received little attention.

On July 9, the United States and Russia forged Resolution 2585, extending for a year vital humanitarian assistance delivery through a border crossing into Syria (Bab al-Hawa) not under the control of the Syrian government.

The resolution overcame overwhelming skepticism fueled by a decade of U.S-Russian disagreements about cross-border transfers of aid, its monitoring and distribution, and the role of Western sanctions imposed on Syria. The action is subject to a six-month review for full renewal. Implementation has been slow at best. However, an important U.N. report on progress, due in October, could help accelerate progress.

In a rare, forward-looking assertion, the resolution urges the Security Council to develop “practical steps to address the urgent needs of the Syrian people in light of the profound socio-economic humanitarian impact of the COVID-19 pandemic” and “to broaden the humanitarian activities …, including water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter early recovery projects” and improve transparency in operations. Article 5 of the resolution creates a strong role for the U.N. secretary-general in monitoring the implementation of the agreement. This makes the report of Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, expected in October, central in assessing accomplishments and shortcomings of the parties that created SCR 2585 and the U.N. itself.

The challenges embedded in the resolution are twofold. The first is to solidify aid deliveries in accordance with the resolution’s provisions and in time for the six-month review in January. The second is to build on the consensus reached in July to develop a framework whereby major powers and the Syrian government take further concrete and verifiable positive steps that will relieve the suffering of Syrians throughout the country. Guterres’ report should provide a stern and frank scrutiny of how the council is meeting these challenges.

For key Western nations, UNSCR 2585 is a diplomatic triumph benefiting the Syrian people, including the more than 3 million living in northwest Syria under insurgent control. U.S. Permanent Representative to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield welcomed the elusive U.S.-Russia agreement, noting, “we averted a catastrophe for a population that has already suffered too much.”

Norway’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Ine Marie Eriksen Søreide, characterized the resolution as “a milestone … the first resolution on Syria in almost five years that was adopted unanimously, and that I think is something to build on for also the political solutions that must come in Syria.”

But for others, especially those in the human rights and humanitarian aid communities, the resolution fell significantly short of meeting the needs of vulnerable Syrians. Amnesty International critiqued the Security Council for not pressuring Russia to open other crossing points. Human Rights Watch went further, criticizing Moscow for “politicizing humanitarian aid, and dismissing … civilian lives … in northern Syria.” Guterres’ report will need to provide evidence as to whether and why the optimists or the skeptics were accurate in their assessments.

There are reasons to believe that Guterres’ analysis will reveal each of the views has some credence based on the developments of the past two months. On the one hand, credible reports from sources within Idlib province indicate the first cross-line shipment of goods from the U.N. World Food Program came only on August 31, with other shipments not likely to arrive until late September. 

On the other hand, a reliable source indicates that U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk held two meetings in July and August with Russian counterparts to engage in cooperative approaches to make more aid flow into Syria unobstracted and on time. Guterres’ commentary can be both a harsh critique of efforts to date as well as finding that despite a slow start, significant and sustainable relief can be mobilized over the coming months. The secretary-general had lobbied hard with each Security Council member to get UNSCR 2585 passed; now he may be needed to energize it fully.

Although we are deeply sympathetic to the critiques issued by the humanitarian and human rights communities, we believe strongly that UNSCR 2585 can and must be a springboard for future big-power cooperation that will benefit Syrians. This agreement is the first in which the protagonists of the Syrian conflict, both domestic and international, have shown some willingness to abandon their maximalist demands. And if UNSCR 2585 generates greater cooperation in relief operations, it can be a steady basis for relief expansion.

The U.S.-Russia compromise was neither a dangerous disaster nor an unexpected miracle. Rather, it was the outcome of determined diplomacy that even included a discussion of the impasse by Presidents Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin during their Geneva summit in June. More such diplomacy, like that which led to the July 9 resolution, must be welcomed and incentivized by the secretary-general and other Security Council members. And the two powers themselves should recall how successfully their tough-minded compromise has opened up new possibilities to halt the Syrian tragedy.

With the United States insisting on more border crossings and Russia threatening to block any delivery of humanitarian assistance through border crossings not under the control of the Syrian government, these two permanent members of the Security Council engaged in high-stakes brinkmanship — until they no longer saw a stalemate and obstructionism was in their or Syria’s interest. Ultimately, the Washington gave up the idea of adding a second border crossing and agreed to more transparency as well as “progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs.” The latter clause is code for the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance through checkpoints between territories controlled by the Syrian government and those controlled by insurgents.

The secretary-general’s reports due in October and periodically thereafter are designed to increase the transparency regarding the delivery of humanitarian assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Guterres’ judgments also can create the conditions that more crossings be opened and U.N.-monitored. And he might suggest other actions that can be taken by the actors most deeply involved in UNSCR 2585.

Our own hope is that the Biden administration continues with creative flexibility in dealing with Syria sanctions by not expanding sanctions under the dysfunctional Caesar Act and by exempting from sanctions activities aimed at responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in Syria. This has created a favorable atmosphere for cooperation. We urge further steps, including an expansion of humanitarian exemptions more broadly and U.S.-EU aid in providing COVID-19 testing kits and vaccines to the World Health Organization’s program for Syria. In addition, the United States should suspend sanctions on those critical materials needed for water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter recovery and reconstruction projects that are essential human security infrastructures for the Syrian people.

Facilitating transfers of remittances from Syrian expatriates to their families in Syria would go a long way toward alleviating suffering and would lessen Syrians’ dependence on humanitarian assistance. These remittances have totaled up to $1.6 billion per year recently through the formal banking systems, and as much as $8.5 billion if informal transfer mechanisms such as hawala are included. This person-to-person lifeline should be designated as an essential humanitarian service for the good of Syrians trying to rebuild their lives.

However, the Syrian side must respond in kind as well, and Russia can play a major role here. A good place to start would be if the Syrian government were to provide to families information on the identities of prisoners held in government facilities, allow family visits, and permit independent access by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Also, Syria could respond to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s Aug. 11 call to provide information on Austin Tice, an American journalist who was abducted near Damascus nine years ago. The excuses of not doing so are self-defeating.

The aim of these confidence-building measures and the incentive-based approach would be to energize multinational diplomacy generally, and especially U.S.-Russia joint action, toward a sustainable end to the Syrian conflict and start of an economic recovery. This new big-power cooperation has been a goal of Guterres’ throughout the Syrian conflict. We hope his forthcoming report can point to these early successes and energize how to seize emerging opportunities for humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people.

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