Syria's Assad could reap rewards from aid crossing deal

A convoy of 11 trucks from a United Nations agency has crossed into northern Syria from Turkey — just hours after the U.N. and Syrian government reached an agreement to temporarily authorize two new border crossings into the rebel enclave

Kareem Chehayeb,Abby Sewell
Tuesday 14 February 2023 18:57 GMT

A convoy of 11 trucks from a United Nations agency crossed into northern Syria from Turkey on Tuesday, just hours after the U.N. and Syrian government reached an agreement to temporarily authorize two new border crossings into the rebel enclave.

Syrian officials in Damascus said the decision, seven days after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed thousands, shows their commitment to supporting victims on both sides of the front line.

However, critics say the deal is a political victory for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad, who preempted a U.N. decision to open new crossings, giving the impression that he ultimately called the shots on territory under opposition forces.

The U.N. is normally authorized to deliver aid to northwest Syria — an area already devastated by 12 years of conflict prior to the quake — from Turkey through only one border crossing. Renewing that authorization is a regular battle at the Security Council, where Assad’s ally, Russia, has advocated for all aid to be routed through Damascus.

The delay in opening new crossings slowed down immediate relief and search and rescue efforts at a time when the “time for effective search and rescue is tragically running out,” the International Rescue Committee said in statement.

Asked why it took so long to increase aid access to the northwest, Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh told reporters, “Why are you asking me? We don’t control these borders.”

Swiss-Syrian researcher and professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, Joseph Dagher said the move by Damascus to open additional border crossings a week after the quake was more political than humanitarian.

“It’s a way for the regime to reaffirm its sovereignty, its centrality, and to instrumentalize this tragedy for its own political purposes,” he said.

The United Kingdom, which sanctions the Assad government and is a major supporter of cross-border aid delivery, took a wait-and-see view on the opening of new crossings.

“Responsibility lies with the Assad regime to uphold the commitment it has given,” a spokesperson for the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, said. “This temporary decision is a welcome step, but sufficient access needs to be secured in the longer term to improve humanitarian conditions.”

Before the deal with Damascus, advocates had been pushing for the Security Council to vote to permanently open more border crossings to aid deliveries — a move that would almost certainly be vetoed by Russia.

Others have said that no Security Council resolution is needed for the U.N. to send aid across borders in an emergency. Daher pointed out that the U.N. had airdropped aid into the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor when it was besieged by Islamic State militants.

Russia's foreign ministry Tuesday issued a statement condemning attempts to “push through” a permanent expansion of the authorized aid routes.

The statement accused the United States and its allies of trying to undermine Syria’s sovereignty and said that Western nations “continue to strangle (Syria) with unilateral sanctions that provoked a large-scale fuel crisis that left even ambulances short of fuel, prohibiting the import of vital goods and equipment.”

The U.S. last week issued a license to allow earthquake-related relief to get through that would otherwise be prohibited by sanctions.

When the earthquake hit, the U.N. could not immediately access its only authorized border crossing because of infrastructure damage, leaving the shattered enclave without significant aid for 72 hours.

Northwest Syria’s civil defense organization, the White Helmets said the delay in aid and the U.N.’s failure to take unorthodox measures those first few days cost lives, as they struggled with limited equipment and manpower to rescue thousands of people trapped under the rubble.

The U.N. tried to send a delivery of aid to rebel-held Idlib through government-held territory on Sunday, but the shipment was halted after Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda-linked organization that control the area, refused to accept aid coming from Assad-controlled areas.

That standoff was “good politically ... for both sides,” Daher said, allowing the rebels “to say, ‘I’m not collaborating with the regime’ and for the regime to say, ’Look, we tried to send assistance.”

Meanwhile, cargo planes loaded with aid have landed in airports across government-held territory, including from the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt — all countries that had once shunned Assad and have slowly been rekindling ties for years.

The Syrian government’s decision to temporarily authorize additional border crossings indicates that the earthquake has paved the way for a more pragmatic approach from Assad’s government, says Charles Lister, Director of the Syria program at Washington-based think thank Middle East Institute.

The decision "goes against everything that the regime has publicly stood by for the past 10-plus years when it comes to cross border aid delivery,” Lister said, referring to Syria and Russia’s attempts at ending the U.N. cross-border aid mechanism.

But the shift now is to Assad's political advantage, he said.

The Syrian government "knows it has proved to the world that the United Nations is unwilling to do anything in Syria without the regime’s permission.”

Saria Akkad, partnerships and advocacy manager with the Ataa Humanitarian Relief Association, which works in Turkey and northwest Syria, said that Syrians like him now feel that their advoccy to the U.N. was pointless. “We should maybe go back to Assad, we should discuss with the person who killed his people, how he can support the people in northwest Syria," he said.

While he doesn’t expect a complete reintegration of Syria into the international community without a major shift in U.S. and EU policy, Lister said the current crisis has allowed Assad to “bait the international community into normalization."

Syrian officials have urged the U.N. to fund reconstruction and Lister believes that this, in addition to the lifting of Western sanctions, is what Damascus hopes to get.

The temporary authorization ends in three months, around the time negotiations take place before the U.N. Security Council meets in July to review the cross-border resolution. Lister believes that Assad’s agreement with the U.N. could allow him to ask for more in return in exchange for allowing the resolution to continue without a Russian veto.

“I think what we frankly saw yesterday was the U.N. politicizing aid delivery by going to the regime to secure access to a border crossing they don’t have control over,” he said. “It put all its eggs into the regime’s basket.”

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