In Hindsight: The Demise of the Syria Cross-border Aid Mechanism
In July, the Council failed to adopt a resolution reauthorising the Syria cross-border aid mechanism. As a result, a nine-year old mechanism, which had allowed the delivery of humanitarian assistance into non-government-controlled parts of Syria without requiring the consent of the Syrian government, was shut down. The draft put forward by the co-penholders (Switzerland and Brazil), with a nine-month extension of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, was vetoed by Russia. Russia’s alternative draft, which would have reauthorised the same border crossing for six months, drew only two affirmative votes, well short of the nine favourable votes needed for a resolution to be adopted.
The failure to reauthorise this long-standing mechanism has given rise to several pertinent questions regarding the humanitarian situation in Syria and the future engagement of the Security Council and other international actors in the country. Without a resolution reauthorising the cross-border mechanism, can aid continue to flow predictably and unimpeded across the border into north-west Syria? Will the Security Council remain engaged on humanitarian issues in Syria? How will donors to Syria’s early recovery efforts respond to the failure to reauthorise the mechanism?
Background to the Vote
Since 2017, members have struggled to continue the cross-border mechanism authorised in July 2014 under resolution 2165. By 2020, only one of the original four crossings remained in the resolution. China and Russia have long argued that cross-border aid deliveries without the government’s consent were extraordinary measures that undermined Syria’s sovereignty and should be supplanted as soon as possible by “cross-line” assistance—supplies delivered via Syrian government-held areas.
Abstentions were common from 2017, and since 2019 all but two adoptions have come only after competing draft resolutions, vetoes and resolutions that failed due to insufficient votes. Each agreement required diplomatic compromises and, at times, constructively ambiguous text. Still, it seemed that it suited both Russia and Syria to allow the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Türkiye into north-west Syria to stay open. (For more, see our “In Hindsight” from the August 2020 Forecast, “Six Days, Five Resolutions, One Border Crossing”.)
Initially, this year’s negotiations appeared to be unfolding according to the same pattern. Members were divided over the duration of the cross-border aid mechanism, language on cross-line assistance, the proposed expansion of humanitarian activities in Syria, reference to unilateral coercive measures and the prospect of authorising two additional border crossings (Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee) along with Bab al-Hawa. (For more, see our What’s in Blue story of 11 July.)
The backdrop of geopolitical events that heightened tensions around this year’s negotiations included the protracted war in Ukraine, a mutiny in Russia, the faltering grain deal between the UN and Russia, and the move towards NATO membership by Finland and Sweden. And in February, Syria’s humanitarian challenges intensified with a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck the country’s north, as well as south-east Türkiye. Syria opened two additional border crossings from Türkiye into north-west Syria, Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee, for the delivery of humanitarian aid for three months beginning on 13 February, extended for three more months on 13 May. These two crossings were cited as possible models for aid delivery if the UN cross-border mechanism were to be shut down.
Negotiations Down to the Wire
With the 10 July deadline fast approaching, the penholders circulated an initial draft on 29 June, proposing a 12-month renewal of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. From the start, members were divided over this duration and the number of crossings. The UK and the US, among others, wanted to include authorisation for the Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee crossings. Russia, openly opposed to a 12-month extension, proposed six months, while China maintained that a 12-month extension required strengthening the resolution’s language on cross-line deliveries and early recovery efforts; neither supported authorising additional crossings.
The draft the penholders placed under silence procedure on 6 July included a 12-month authorisation of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, while introducing new language on cross-line deliveries, expanding humanitarian activities to include humanitarian mine action, and acknowledging the scale of the displacement crisis in Syria. Russia broke silence the next day, placing under silence its own draft text, which included a six-month reauthorisation of the Bab al-Hawa crossing and requested the Secretary-General to provide a special report on the impact of unilateral sanctions on the humanitarian situation and needs in Syria by 10 December 2023.
The penholders made further revisions in an attempt to bridge the differences and put a fresh draft into blue on 7 July, retaining the 12-month mandate; Russia placed its draft into blue soon afterwards. The vote, planned for that day, was postponed. Over the weekend (8-9 July), the penholders continued to engage with Council members, as well as with Syria, to find common ground.
On Monday morning (10 July), the United Arab Emirates (UAE) sought a postponement of the vote to allow for further deliberations on the draft text. The E-10 members also held a meeting that morning and supported a compromise nine-month reauthorisation for the Bab al-Hawa border crossing proposed by the A3 members and the UAE. Later that day, in an attempt to strike a compromise, the UAE conveyed a number of textual edits from Russia and Syria to the penholders. These included a six-month reauthorisation of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with a provision for a three-month extension with the written consent of the Syrian government. Ultimately these were not incorporated, as the penholders believed that most Council members would not find them acceptable.
With the expiry of the existing cross-border authorisation hours away, the penholders circulated a revised version of their previous draft in blue, authorising the Bab al-Hawa crossing for nine months. The penholders’ text and the Russian text were scheduled for a vote the next day (11 July). There was no expectation that either draft would be adopted, and neither was: the penholders’ draft (S/2023/506) received 13 votes in favour and one abstention (China) and was vetoed by Russia, while the draft initiated by Russia (S/2023/507) received two votes in favour (China and Russia) and three against (France, the UK, and the US), while the ten elected members abstained.
In the past, a Russian veto on this issue—this was their fifth Syria cross-border-related veto since 2019—did not signal the end of the road for reauthorisation. Rather, it appeared to have become part of the negotiation process, leading to new drafts from the penholders and Russia and, ultimately, an acceptable text. This time Russia did not appear willing to continue negotiating even though the penholders still sought to engage with other Council members to find compromises and revive the mechanism. Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya (Russia) said, before the 11 July vote on the Russian draft, “if our draft resolution does not pass, the mechanism can as well shut down”.
Reauthorisation had wide support. During the 29 June Council briefing on political and humanitarian developments in Syria, a majority of Council members advocated reauthorisation of the mandate, including European members (Albania, France, Malta, Switzerland and the UK); the three African members, the “A3” (Gabon, Ghana, and Mozambique), Brazil, Ecuador, Japan, the UAE, and the US.
The Syria humanitarian track has a history of strong elected member engagement. Since its creation by Australia and Luxembourg in 2014, elected members have continued to play a crucial role on this track, as penholders and as a group. The E10 members have usually been cohesive on this issue, and in the last two years, delivered joint statements in support of the cross-border mechanism before the votes. This year, the two penholders were strongly supported by the other elected members in their attempts to obtain agreement on their draft resolution, and, for the first time, the A3 also delivered a joint statement expressing support for the nine-month mandate and the E10 position, stating that they would vote for the penholders’ draft.
The penholders on this issue have often had to tread a fine line between the demands of the P3 and Russia and China. This balancing act has become more difficult as relations between the P3 and Russia deteriorated following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And as more countries re-establish diplomatic ties with the Syrian government, some elected members may find it harder to be as supportive of positions that are not favourable to the Syrian government.
On 13 July, Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh (Syria) informed the President of the Security Council of the Syrian government’s decision to grant the UN and its specialised agencies permission to use the Bab al-Hawa crossing to deliver humanitarian aid to civilians in need in north-west Syria, “in full cooperation and coordination with the Syrian Government”, for a period of six months, starting that day.
On 14 July, OCHA circulated a note to Council members stating that the “Syrian Government’s permission can be a basis for the [UN] to lawfully conduct cross-border humanitarian operations via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for the specified duration”, but raising concerns about the “conditions” set out in the Syrian government’s letter: that the UN not communicate with entities designated as “terrorist”, and that the ICRC and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) supervise and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid in north-west Syria. The UN and its implementing partners must continue to engage with relevant state and non-state parties as operationally necessary to carry out safe and unimpeded humanitarian operations, OCHA said, in line with the mandate of the Emergency Relief Coordinator under General Assembly resolution 46/182. The Syrian government’s demand that the ICRC and the SARC supervise and facilitate aid was neither consistent with the independence of the UN, nor practical, OCHA noted, as the ICRC and SARC are not present in north-west Syria.
Some Council members, including China, Russia, and the UAE, welcomed the Syrian government’s decision, and now view the delivery of aid into north-west Syria as a bilateral matter between the UN and the Syrian government. They have encouraged the international community to support such cooperation. The P3 and like-minded member states, meanwhile, would like the Council to reauthorise the cross-border mechanism, including the UN Monitoring Mechanism (UNMM). (The UNMM, established by resolution 2165 of July 2014 and most recently renewed by resolution 2672, monitored the UN and implementing partners’ cross-border consignments flowing through Council-authorised border crossings. The mandate for the UNMM at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing expired along with resolution 2672). They believe that this would promote the predictable and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid into north-west Syria. There are also concerns among donor countries that in the absence of a robust monitoring mechanism, aid could be diverted, looted or prevented from reaching certain communities.
With the difficult negotiations in recent years, many Council members and UN officials understood that the cross-border mechanism would eventually come to an end. Still, the abrupt end to the mechanism in July took many by surprise.
The Council’s failure to adopt a new resolution has implications beyond shutting down the mechanism. Some Council members have used the Syrian government’s decision to open the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to strengthen their call for permanently shutting down the Council-authorised mechanism. Other members object, asserting that the Council needs to maintain a leading oversight role. At the time of writing, OCHA had been engaging with the Syrian government in a bid to clarify the potential modalities for continuing aid delivery via Bab al-Hawa.
More broadly, the Council’s future engagement on Syrian humanitarian issues is under scrutiny. Russia believes that the absence of a resolution reauthorising the cross-border mechanism now negates Council engagement on Syria humanitarian issues and nullifies the effect of all provisions contained in the previous resolutions, including the reporting requirements. Some others take the view that the provision reauthorising the cross-border mechanism, and the remainder of resolution 2672, are mutually exclusive—that all the provisions except the cross-border mechanism are open-ended, and thus still applicable.
The Syria humanitarian reporting requirements have long been robust, covering the Secretary-General’s reporting on access to besieged and hard-to-reach areas (resolution 2139 of February 2014) and the implementation of resolution 2165 of July 2014, and subsequent resolutions reauthorising the cross-border aid mechanism. Over time, trends in UN cross-line operations and early recovery projects were also incorporated into the reporting, among other issues. The framework included a monthly briefing from the Secretary-General to keep the Council abreast of humanitarian developments. Some members question whether these reporting requirements remain in effect.
Some Council members, particularly donor countries, appear to believe that the lack of a new resolution authorising the cross-border mechanism may complicate their ability to continue funding early recovery projects in north-west Syria. In remarks during the 24 July Council briefing, Ambassador Nicolas de Rivière (France) said that “by censoring cross-border access a few days ago, Russia at the same time put an end to the mandate given to the [UN] to engage in early recovery activities”.
The cross-border mechanism was born out of a lack of trust in the Syrian government’s willingness to distribute aid fairly into opposition-led areas. With the Syrian government keen to prove its legitimacy and to normalise ties with the international community, members will be watching carefully to see whether aid delivery is in line with the humanitarian principles of humanity, impartiality, neutrality, and independence. Should it fall short, members may once again seek ways of ensuring greater transparency and accountability in the delivery of humanitarian aid into Syria.