When an agreement to allow deliveries of UN aid directly into opposition-held areas of Syria was first established in 2014, it was a significant event in the lives of the millions of civilians living there. Suddenly, people who had committed no error other than living in the wrong part of Syria when the country’s civil war began had a lifeline to the outside world. Over the past eight years, hundreds of lorries have traversed the Turkish border into north-west Syria each month to deliver much-needed food and medicine.
The cross-border mechanism, as the agreement in the UN Security Council that has allowed for such crossings is known, was also a feat of ingenuity in the humanitarian world and a win for multilateral co-operation. The Syrian government, led by President Bashar Al Assad, has repeatedly denounced any attempts to deliver aid to Syrians that bypass its own bureaucracy. Its claims that such actions violate Syrian sovereignty have been backed by its ally Russia, which also retains veto powers in the Security Council.
The Syrian and Russian governments have also expressed valid concerns about the potential diversion of aid to the myriad militant groups who control rebel-held territories. At the same time, however, Damascus has either failed or declined to deliver much aid to areas outside its control, and this is a fact no global powers can ignore.
In truth, regardless of the entry point or direction of humanitarian aid in Syria, it will be compromised to some degree by malign actors exploiting it for leverage or profit. But in north-west Syria, the cross-border mechanism has allowed the UN and various NGOs accountable to international donors to establish a strong foothold in the area. They take issues such as aid diversion to local armed groups seriously, and put mitigation mechanisms in place to minimise the risk of such graft.
The same cannot be said for the Syrian government, whose aid distribution mechanism is a black box, with little transparency. Damascus has long argued in favour of cross-line aid (humanitarian deliveries from regime-held areas into rebel territories), a practice even the UN supports, in principle. But in practice, that strategy has had a poor track record.
Moscow’s willingness since 2014 to look beyond Mr Al Assad’s protestations and acquiesce to what are, under Syrian law, essentially illegal aid shipments was a validation of humanitarian principles over politics. Now, however, there is a heightened risk of politics once again gaining the upper hand.
The mechanism must be renewed periodically. The current term expires on July 10, and, unlike previous votes to renew it, this one will take place under the shadow of the war in Ukraine, a conflict that has nearly broken down relations between Russia and the US. The mutual antagonism between Russia and the West has played out in discussions in the Security Council, where Russia’s deputy UN representative, Dmitry Polyanskiy, has said he sees little point in the mechanism continuing, and that there should be an immediate shift towards cross-line operations.
But the war in Ukraine has also made the lives of Syrian civilians much harder, as the cost of fuel, medicine and food continue to rise dramatically. In May, Martin Griffiths, the UN’s humanitarian chief, told the Security Council that “cross-line operations cannot under current conditions replace the size or the scope of…the cross-border operation”.
The cross-border mechanism’s critics are right to say that it is not a strategy that can be sustained forever. But for now, absent a political settlement in Syria, it is the only one that works. And without it, millions of Syrians will see their only lifeline to the outside world disintegrate.