Analysis: Regional normalisation has given the Syrian regime and its allies more leverage in dictating cross-border aid conditions which further bolster Assad’s control.

The recent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) failure to reauthorise the cross-border aid mechanism for Syria on 11 July may signal the potential end of the operation for good and, at a minimum, the next phase of the conflict.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, his regime, and its supporters likely view recent political shifts pertaining to Damascus’s legitimacy – notably Turkish negotiations and Arab re-normalisation efforts – as presenting the opportune time to press for more leverage.

This reality leaves the international community in a difficult situation, stuck between severely worsened humanitarian access in non-regime areas or concessions to the pro-Assad bloc.

Trouble at the Security Council

Most UNSC members supported a resolution brought forward by Switzerland and Brazil that would have extended the previous cross-border mandate for nine months.

Russia and China rejected the resolution, with Moscow offering its resolution outlining a six-month extension with new conditions for expanded early recovery assistance and crossline aid (i.e., aid that crosses the war’s frontlines). The Russian delegation made clear their resolution was the only one that would pass, subsequently vetoing the Swiss-Brazilian proposal.

“This is a sad moment for the Syrian people and for this Council, save for one country,” said the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield during post-vote statements.

Meanwhile, the Russian delegation largely discounted accusations against their actions and the risks associated with ending the mechanism, claiming “there are other ways to help the Syrian people without it.” Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia added that the West’s concessions were largely inadequate.

Such exchanges have come to define the vote on cross-border aid for Syria – largely a common sense mechanism that offers the only reasonable path towards supporting northwest Syria’s (NWS) roughly 4.5 million people.

Russia has vetoed or watered-down cross-border re-authorisation resolutions multiple times in recent years, slowly whittling away at the mechanism that once utilised four border crossings spanning both NWS and northeast Syria (NES).

Suhail al-Ghazi, a Syrian researcher, told The New Arab that the cross-border mechanism’s lapse will “lead to further deterioration of the humanitarian situation”.


He also noted the timing of UNSC gridlock as highly inopportune due to overall humanitarian funding decreases.

“In the past few years, we saw rapid decreases in terms of financial grants and support for Syria aid response and refugee aid. This will cause further problems in delivering aid to NW Syria and I think medical support and food aid will be under pressure due to lack of funding and increased food prices around the globe.”

This reality is both the result of and further bolsters Russia’s ongoing pressure campaign in Syria. Moscow’s goal is to simultaneously rewrite the narrative around basic humanitarian principles while extracting concessions from the West on issues pressing Damascus politically and economically.

This includes sanctions and stances against early recovery and reconstruction funding for regime areas – issues that largely prevent Syria’s progression into a post-war phase.

Such an approach has succeeded in no small part due to the West’s willingness to offer concessions for deals that prevent a humanitarian catastrophe while retaining as much pressure on Assad as possible – a situation presenting itself again today.

Geopolitical shifts impact aid

Political developments in 2023 complicate the anti-Assad bloc’s efforts. The devastating February earthquakes impacting Turkey and Syria presented a game-changing moment for Damascus and the conflict, offering Arab states the excuse many had sought to re-engage Assad.

In turn, multiple Arab states utilised humanitarian aid to re-engage Syria, quickly developing into Syria’s historic return to the Arab League in May and re-normalisation of diplomatic relations with Riyadh.

These shifts have presented Assad and his allies with the opportunity they have sought out for years. As such, Damascus offered to conditionally re-open the Bab al-Hawa crossing for six months on 13 July following the failed UNSC vote, presenting an opportunity to re-open the only remaining crossing utilised by the UN cross-border mechanism.

The new rules of the game are simple: aid operations are welcome so long as it is overseen by the Syrian government, do not engage the local “terrorist” authorities, and strictly utilise the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to facilitate aid flows.

Al-Ghazi describes Assad’s decision as “a political move to show he’s the only side that can control aid even in areas he doesn’t control. He wants to add an official UN recognition to his legitimacy and control over Syria after the latest Arab normalisation. [He is also trying] to get concessions from Western governments on sanctions and early recovery [assistance]”.

Unsurprisingly, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) rejected the conditions as “unacceptable” for carrying out “principled humanitarian operations.” The reasoning is obvious – it is impossible to coordinate aid to non-regime areas without engaging local officials.

This says nothing of the fact that neither ICRC nor SARC have a presence in NWS, or that SARC is notoriously run by a regime insider. Damascus’s long-running history of aid diversion makes the conditions a non-starter.

It is unclear whether the Assad regime will budge on these conditions. Damascus is certainly emboldened by its recent successes in the conflict since Russia and Iran’s 2015 intervention in the war. The Syrian government appears to be entering a post-war phase in which propaganda and the information space are central to boosting its legitimacy.

The regime’s decision to open and extend the Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai border crossings with Turkey after the earthquakes reflect this dynamic – one in which Assad and his allies aim to appear as altruistic as possible.

To be sure, this complicates efforts to condition aid at the Bab al-Hawa crossing. While Damascus makes sovereignty claims to argue against anything but its complete control of aid flows into the country, harsh conditions impacting humanitarian access do not support the image of a benevolent or legitimate government supportive of its people.

Rather, it is a continuation of previous aid diversion tactics utilised throughout the war and a reflection of how the regime treats areas deemed hostile. Southern Syria post-2018 offers a crucial example of this reality – one of intentional deprivation and brutality.

Regardless, perceptions matter within broader political engagements focused on Syria. Damascus’s decision to authorise aid at Bab al-Hawa outside of the United Nations is notable in relation to the UN-led political process and re-normalisation efforts with Arab states.

UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen is utilising a “step-for-step” approach prioritising small concessions between the regime and anti-Assad bloc to eventually resolve the crisis. Regional states like Jordan are taking the lead on this approach as well, attempting to balance carrots and sticks that entice Assad to work on practical issues that help reach a political solution to the conflict.

Whether or not Damascus’s offer is a step within this approach remains to be seen. Assad’s conditions suggest otherwise, although the case can be made for regional actors to present carrots to the regime in exchange for a lighter touch from the Syrian government.

While possibly wishful thinking given the regime’s history, this would ultimately prove crucial for humanitarian metrics in Syria and is something influential players – such as the Gulf states and particularly the Emiratis or Saudis – can and should try to facilitate alongside the United Nations.

The future of aid in Syria

The unfortunate reality is that millions in NWS do not have time for the high-level bargaining required to move Damascus on its conditions, let alone negotiations at the UNSC on issues like early recovery and reconstruction funding.

With 4.1 million people in need of humanitarian aid amidst significant cuts due to ever-decreasing funding for operations inside and outside the country, the slow-rolling nature of political haggling presents a difficult dynamic. Assad and his supporters know this, as they have for years, and will use pain and suffering to get what they want.

“The mechanism is not dead, but I think it will be severely changed when the new resolution is voted on,” al-Ghazi told TNA. “Russia may try to limit the quantity or frequency of aid entering NW Syria in the new resolution and it can only be revived when it will include more financial grants to early recovery projects in regime-held areas.”

“I think the West will cave,” he concluded.

Indeed, the likely outcome may be identical to recent years – namely more concessions to the pro-Assad camp in exchange for humanitarian access. Early recovery projects are a huge goal for Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran in this regard, but could also constitute an easy concession.

The New Arab Newspaper