After considerable Western and international pressure, numerous warnings from humanitarian agencies, and a Russian-US summit meeting, Russia refrained from using its veto to prevent the passage of a UN Security Council Resolution to extend the use of the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing to deliver humanitarian aid to Syria for another six months.
The only remaining functioning border crossing between Syria and Turkey, Bab Al-Hawa is the lifeline for more than four million people in northwestern Syria.
Moscow only assented to the extension grudgingly, however. It stipulated that the UN secretary-general would have to submit a report on this mechanism six months from now. At that point, it could once again demand the border crossing’s closure if it comes up with a strategy to lay siege to the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria.
The UN welcomed the passage of the resolution, stressing that the extension would make it possible to meet the humanitarian needs of millions of people. The US also expressed relief. Noting how this marked an “important point” in US-Russian relations, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “it shows what we can do with the Russians if we work with them diplomatically on common goals. I look forward to looking for other opportunities to work with the Russians on issues of common interest.”
Until recently, Moscow had been adamant on the closure of the crossing, which is essential for the flow of humanitarian relief to areas still outside the Syrian regime’s control. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had previously warned that his country would use its veto to prevent the resolution passing, insisting that humanitarian aid should be conveyed into northwestern Syria across the lines of conflict inside the country.
This would mean handing control of the distribution of relief to the Syrian regime, which would almost certainly disadvantage the more than four million Syrians in northwestern Syria of whom 2.6 million were displaced from other parts of the country.
Lavrov maintained that Moscow had documented attempts to prevent the arrival of humanitarian aid sent by the UN and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) via Damascus to northwestern Syria. It accused Ankara and the opposition group Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) of obstructing the relief convoys.
Inhabitants of northwestern Syria and the officials in charge of the relief agencies there say they have received no aid via the regime and that everything the UN sends is confiscated by Damascus and distributed to areas under its control. They denied the claim of Russia’s Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia that terrorists had been intercepting the aid.
Over the past two months, the European countries and the US have been urging the extension of the current aid delivery mechanism through Bab Al-Hawa. The subject was on the agenda of the meeting between Lavrov and his US counterpart Antony Blinken in May and of the summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Joe Biden in June.
Many observers had expected an agreement of sorts to emerge from these meetings, especially after Biden’s remarks in his press conference following the Geneva meeting on 16 June on “the need to preserve and reopen the humanitarian corridors in Syria so that we can get food, just simple food and basic necessities, to people who are starving to death.”
“Russia knows that the US would have alternatives for delivering aid into the areas controlled by the Syrian opposition if it insisted on shuttering Bab Al-Hawa,” Syrian political analyst Said Muqbil told Al-Ahram Weekly.
“It sustained the verbal pressure for a while. But in the end, it backed down because the alternative would be US sponsorship and there would be nothing a Russian veto could do about that. It was also clear that Biden’s pressure wasn’t motivated by the fact he had alternatives, but rather by his desire to test the extent to which Putin would respond to the desires of the new US administration and work with it to forge a new and balanced bilateral relationship.”
Some Syrian opposition members believe that Russia only refrained from wielding its veto and assented to the extension of the Bab Al-Hawa mechanism because it had obtained pledges that internal crossings between regime-controlled areas and opposition-controlled areas could be reopened under Russian supervision, a measure that would boost the revival of the economy.
They also believe that Putin obtained promises from Washington that it would reduce US sanctions imposed on Syria under the Caesar Act.
Some 1,000 trucks per month pass through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing carrying food, drinking water and medical supplies to some of the neediest people in war-torn Syria. Humanitarian agencies have warned that closing the crossing could cause hundreds of thousands of deaths, and they have pleaded for depoliticising humanitarian relief.
Most of the inhabitants of northern Syria are dependent on humanitarian aid, a condition that has worsened with the failure of attempts to reach a political solution and to secure international protection against forced displacement.
“The Western media believes that Russia’s insistence on closing down the crossing was an attempt to blackmail many parties in the region and internationally as well as within Syria,” Muqbil said. “It wants to use the hunger weapon to bring down the rest of the Syrian opposition in northwestern Syria, where HTS and other such groups operate under the supervision of and in close collaboration with Turkey.”
“Russia wants the Syrian regime to obtain the humanitarian aid so that it can use it to make up for shortages. Moscow wants to pressure Turkey into offering concessions that would widen the gulf between Ankara and Washington. Above all, it wants to tell the US and Europe that Russia is a force to be reckoned with in Syria and the Middle East and that it should have a say in these areas,” he added.
The ongoing vaccination campaign against Covid-19 was another crucial reason for keeping the crossing open. According to the US NGO Human Rights Watch, some 55,000 doses of the vaccine were delivered through Bab Al-Hawa in April alone. Closing the crossing would imperil efforts to combat the spread of the virus.
Russia began its blockade of northwestern Syria in 2014 when there were four border crossings with Turkey. Last year, Russia refused to renew the UN mandate for them, leaving only one to continue to the expiration of its term on 10 July. The recently adopted UN Security Council Resolution 2585 barely managed to secure the extension of this mechanism at the last moment.
If a clash over the crossing has been averted for the next six months, there is no guarantee that it will be averted for another six after that when the renewal comes up for a vote again. Russia will then once again resort to the same ploy in order to up the pressure on Turkey, embarrass the US, weaken the Syrian opposition and support the Syrian regime and its rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts.
Closing the crossing in six months or a year will still cause a humanitarian catastrophe unless the international community puts in place a permanent and veto-immune mechanism for delivering humanitarian relief. If a UN Security Council resolution to this effect is not adopted, over four million people in northwestern Syria will continue to have a sword hovering over their heads.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.