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Caught in the Crossfire: Syria’s Humanitarian Aid

In this episode of Contours, host Carolyn Moorman sits down with experts Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff and Jesse Marks to talk about current breakthroughs and obstacles in getting aid to Syria. This includes a recent aid delivery made to a blockaded refugee camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border and the Assad regime’s about-face concerning cross-border aid after a Russian veto in the U.N. Security Council.

Carolyn Moorman:

Hello and welcome to the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy’s Contours podcast. This is your host, Carolyn Moorman, and today we’ll be discussing international aid to Syria, and what obstacles and breakthroughs have occurred in cross-border mechanisms. According to the UN Human Rights Council at the end of 2022, there are 5.4 million refugees in neighboring countries and 6.8 million IDPs, or internally displaced persons, in Syria. Now, a little bit about our guests that will join me today to discuss this issue.

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff is the Executive Director of People Demand Change Incorporated and a non-resident fellow at New Lines. He is also the former executive director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a former journalist with the Congressional Quarterly. Sasha has been a guest analyst discussing Syria on several international media outlets and has also published many articles on the topic. Sasha currently works with an extensive network of civil society activists, human rights defenders, grassroots media and policy advocates across the MENA region, and has a passion for advocating in support of a thriving civil society community within MENA.

Also joining us is Jesse Marks. He is the senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International. He is a policy practitioner and humanitarian researcher with extensive experience in foreign policy and multilateral perspectives on aid. Most recently, Jesse served as a non-resident fellow at the Simpson Center’s China program where he researched China’s mediation in response to humanitarian crises in the Middle East.

Before that, he was a Middle East policy advisor and inaugural McCain fellow in the US government focusing on the Levant region, including Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Previously he was a Fulbright fellow at the Jordan Center for Strategic Studies and a Scoville fellow at the Stimson Center’s Protecting Civilians in Conflict Program. Jesse is published widely, including in Foreign affairs and the Washington Post, and with a variety of think tanks such as the Simpson Center, Middle East Institute and New Lines.

So we dive into this podcast with a recent vote that took place last month in which Russia, as one of the P5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, vetoed the extension of the UN Security Council mandate that has allowed humanitarian aid including food, medicine, and fuel to cross from the Bab al-Hawa border that crosses from Turkey into Northwest Syria’s Aleppo.

This province is so important because it is currently held by the opposition and therefore the Assad regime likes to routinely deny the access of humanitarian aid to this region. And the Bab al-Hawa border that was blocked in this veto has been very vital for aid because Russia with the aid of China has since 2020 reduced the pool of options for cross-border aid throughout other crossings in Iraq and Jordan and has halted one of the two aid crossings through Turkey.

This mandate that was blocked last month has been in place for about 10 years, despite opposition from Russia and China throughout the years. Yet this week we saw more news come out that Assad has reached a deal with the UN to continue delivering aid through Bab al-Hawa as well as two border crossings from Turkey that Turkish forces and their allies currently control.

After this decision last month, the Syrian government had offered an option to continue aid with conditions that most of the international community considered unfavorable, such as severely limiting the aid organizations who can distribute the aid. Now the Syrian government has changed its mind, with a lot of consequences that remain to be seen.

Sasha, I’d like to turn to you first and ask what is the calculus behind Russia’s move last month in the UNSC? And in your mind, do you think a plan like this, getting the regime more directly involved in the delivery of aid, was in the works the whole time, or do you think this was a change in calculus, and what do you see as the benefits and costs of a deal like this?

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff:

Sure. Thank you for having me. I think first and foremost, Russia’s long-term strategy vis-a-vis the UNSC has always been to push for the entire humanitarian aid mission to be under the purview of the Assad regime out of Damascus. So from day one, Russia was not in favor of having these cross-border aid mechanism in place that would allow the international community to bypass the Assad regime.

However, I think in the beginning there’s an understanding that there needed to be some give and take. They wanted to have skin in the game in terms of diplomatic and political leverage within the aid process. And so participating in this process was valuable, but over the years as the conflict has dragged on, and quite frankly as Russia helped the Assad regime militarily to regain control of a large portion of the country and has essentially stabilized the Assad regime into the current political military status quo that we have today on the ground, the need for playing this diplomatic game with the international community was less and less valuable.

And they wanted to find a way to push as much of the humanitarian aid mechanism into the Assad regime’s oversight and authority as quickly as possible. But that takes time. So the plan was, let us slowly but surely dial down the number of aid crossings. Let us try to ensure that the UNAID program, which is based out of Damascus, is essentially under the control of the Assad regime, which it pretty much is now.

Let us ensure that whatever cross-border aid mechanism is in place has time constraints and other constraints so that the other western nations that ostensibly back opposition groups against the Assad regime feel pressure to engage with us for a discussion about this cross-border aid mechanism and have to deal with us directly. However, I think at this point, given the deteriorating relationship between Russia and the other permanent members of the UNSC such as the UK, France, and the United States, there’s just really no reason for them to continue providing any sort of compromise or olive branch, especially considering the current war in Ukraine and the sides that everyone have chosen.

And so as a result, I don’t see that Russia found any further value in continuing this process, and more than likely they had agreed with the Assad regime in advance about what the Assad regime would offer. So one of the things to remember is that the Assad regime did a trial run on this mechanism. After the February earthquake, they consented to reopening Bab Al Salameh and Al-Rai crossings to allow emergency earthquake aid in.

And in the latest letter from the Assad regime to the UN, they stipulated that those two crossings would continue to remain open for an additional three months, in addition to Bab al-Hawa crossing being provided a six-month extension. This also provides the Assad regime more leverage over the humanitarian aid mechanism by helping to dictate the terms under which those border crossings remain open now that there is no longer a UNSC resolution to provide that framework. So overall, Russia and the regime have gotten what they wanted. They have much more extensive control and say over this process, unfortunately.

Carolyn Moorman:

So Sasha, you mentioned that we have seen a test run of the Assad regime having more control over the humanitarian aid sector after the terrible earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey this year. And it’s generally noted by most international experts that there is a very, very prevalent state of corruption within the Assad regime.

And Jesse, you follow this very closely at Refugees International about how it went for this aid to go through the regime’s hands. At New Lines, we’ve studied the state of corruption in the Assad regime for a very long time. My colleague Caroline Rose looks at how the Assad regime directly produces and manufactures the Captagon drug. So I’m wondering what did you analyze from watching this unfold and what can you tell us about, with this new deal in place, how the Assad regime having more control over this aid is likely to go?

Jesse Marks:

Certainly. Thank you for having me. I think first and foremost on the cross-border mechanism after the earthquake, it creates a distinction in the types of control and rigorous vetting mechanisms that were in place by the UN. As Sasha mentioned, some of these might be done away with under the new model that’s kind of emerged, but when we look at the issue across the line and more generally the post earthquake chaos that came with the Syrian government trying to gain control over aid flows that were moving throughout the country, even beyond non-government controlled areas, and there were widespread reports of aid diversion and obstructions, but also not only from the regime but from defacto authorities and non-government areas.

But I think in this specific case, the regime has a long history of aid diversion as a war tactic and punishment mechanism. And we saw this play out quite prominently. And I really encourage listeners here to read Sasha’s paper on aid diversion he published last year. It’s a helpful starting point for understanding how these tactics evolve and how they are employed. But it’s not surprising that similar tactics were used during the earthquake to exact concessions from earthquake support and from humanitarian organizations.

The complexity of aid access across northern Syria following the earthquake made this type of behavior significantly easier. It also amplified the consequences for victims of the earthquake who needed timely aid. I think the biggest issues that we saw were aid convoys being blocked by both sides, which made cross-line aid deliveries near impossible. In some instances, government authorities would only permit passage of aid to certain areas if a certain portion of that aid were actually earmarked for, basically were handed over to regime, the military as opposed to say, earthquake victims. And we saw this not just between the regime and Northwest Syria, but between Northeast Syria convoys that were trying to go into Northwest Syria.

Thankfully there was a wide level of reporting on the ground from both beneficiaries and reporters inside of Syria. Again, reinforcing the importance of having that robust civil society operating and monitoring internally. Otherwise, in some cases we might not have been able to see some of this stuff evolve. But increasingly what it highlights is the more control that Assad gains over the humanitarian environment, the more restrictions and conditions he’s able to place on that aid.

But reversely, without any kind of UN Security Council resolution or mechanism, the UN has increasingly less negotiation space to ensure that those conditions are not employed. I think as Sasha pointed out, these have direct implications for many of the Syrian NGOs that are leading the response on the ground, particularly non-government held areas.

Carolyn Moorman:

So you mentioned how, because of the status of the UNSC, there’s less leverage for the UN to play a role in the humanitarian sector or at least try to find a deal with the Assad regime. We’re also seeing this wave of countries in the MENA region specifically start to eye normalization with the Assad regime.

Of course, understanding that normalization is a wide spectrum. Sasha, I’m wondering in your eyes how these pushes for normalization have been impacting Syria’s aid sector. Is the Assad regime able to use these political changes, such as, for example, the return of its full-fledged membership in the Arab League that we saw a couple of months ago, as leverage to obtain more control over the aid sector?

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff:

Well, I think from day one, the Assad regime understood the value of number one, weaponizing aid provision and using it as a cudgel, frankly, against the international community and its response to the crisis in Syria. And two, using the international community’s commitment to humanitarian principles, and bend those principles in such a way to suit its own [inaudible, 11:50] needs in terms of sustaining its ability to survive.

So the international community and the regime have never been playing the same game. We say it’s like the regime is playing chess, the international community is playing checkers, and that’s a problem. And so as a result, whenever there is a crisis that the regime can exploit in order to gain more leverage, they do so. The earthquake provided them the perfect opportunity to do that. For example, the EU has these earmarked emergency funds. Those emergency funds were immediately provided, but they were provided to the Assad regime. And the regime got all this photos of them meeting with EU representatives, looking like they were working with the EU.

I mean, that was a lot of free propaganda for them that they definitely used to help rehabilitate their image. At the same time, many of the US allies in the region felt that in lieu of a comprehensive policy and political strategy from the United States vis-a-vis Syria, there was no reason not to normalize with the Assad regime. And that also has implication in terms of the type of leeway the regime is provided in terms of what it does on the ground and how it interacts with all the other stakeholders and actors on the ground in the areas that it doesn’t control like in Northwest and like in Northeast.

And I think that’s all very problematic because it erodes any minimal power leverage that the other stakeholders in Syria have vis-a-vis their interactions with the Assad regime, because again, we still have around 40% of the country that’s outside of regime control, with millions of people’s lives at stake. And their ability to determine how autonomous or not autonomous they want to be from the Assad regime is highly constrained by this continued normalization, which then impacts the way humanitarian aid does flow into the country and how independent and how much monitoring and oversight there can possibly be on that aid moving forward.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. So on a broader note, as we’re watching this normalization process, we’re also watching a lot of countries see this as a window to begin the process of repatriation of the millions of Syrian refugees, I said earlier, over five million that are in neighboring countries, countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, particularly in the case of Turkey and Lebanon, repatriating forcefully, even though that most of the international community, including organizations like Refugees International, say that Syria is not safe for the return of refugees due to the fear of extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, et cetera.

And some experts and analysts are worried that as repatriation continues, that refugees are going to return to areas that are the most aid-deprived, and the regime will be able to use this to argue that it deserves more access over aid and kind of play into that with the return of refugees. So Jesse, I’m wondering if you share any of these concerns.

Jesse Marks:

Certainly. I think the timing for this is perfect. I actually just returned from several weeks of research in the region and all three of those countries, and I think a few key takeaways are quite relevant here. At a top level, there’s a broad consensus in the region that Assad does not actually want Syrians back in large numbers, except for a small number necessary to bolster his legitimacy and secure donor commitments for things like early recovery.

Beyond this, the Syrian government does not want them because the risks of large scale return, whether voluntary or coerced, would far outweigh the legitimacy of any kind of early recovery gains or small levels of donor funding that would come in for it. Meanwhile, as you noted, neighboring countries want Syrian refugees to go back, but the concerns of those countries is that refugees themselves do not want to go back. UNHCR had a report that came out earlier this year which identified, I believe it was like 99% of people did not plan on going back in the next year.

Jordan, for its part, has raised the banner of return as part of its roadmap for normalization, but this approach has not gained much traction, particularly from donors, who have been a little bit forward leaning in terms of putting pressure on Jordan to either soften its rhetoric, but certainly do not push forward with any plans to send people back. I think for several reasons, one, donors are not keen to fund early recovery in regime areas.

So this kind of puts the brakes on any pushback that Jordan might have for people going back to Daraa, which is one of the more impoverished and problematic areas, particularly because of Captagon production, all of these things that you spoke about. I think two, the Syrian regime still will not agree to basic safeguards for returnees, things like amnesty, much less any kind of monitoring mechanisms in place. And this is kind of the third point is UNHCR is not necessarily supporting these either, because A, they don’t see these conditions as sustainable for return, they don’t see them as safe, but also they don’t want to be seen as a partner in a return scheme where the nature of voluntary is in itself opaque at best.

And any effort to negotiate those types of things like critical components like monitoring, we need to see who’s going back, are they going back in safety, but those mechanisms are not in place and the Syrian government has shown no interest in opening them up. But I think the resulting crisis, as you noted, for Turkey and Lebanon, has been twofold.

One, they’re resorting to forced deportations. In Lebanon, were talking about hundreds and thousands and Turkey were talking upwards of 20000 as some folks reported to me when I was there. This induces fear among refugee communities who see the protection space in their communities shrinking, and they’re increasingly considering onward movement to third countries and Europe by dangerous means. And this precipitates to the early stages of another Mediterranean migration crisis. And this is something that I don’t think donors are necessarily observing at the moment because we’re still at their early stages, but if this trend continues, this might actually balloon into a bigger issue set.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. So we’ve talked about Syria at large. We’ve talked about the UNSC and we’ve talked about how neighboring countries are looking to receive for normalization with the return of refugees. I’d like to turn now to another specific instance of the regime weaponizing aid, which is with the Rukban camp. So this is, besides Idlib, one of the hardest regions to reach in Syria because it is located in the demilitarized zone between Syria and Iraq, and it is surrounded by regime controlled territory.

It is about 35 miles or so, or about 55 kilometers, from the deconfliction zone that the US’s Al-Tanf base is located in. And it once had as many as 60000 people who, due to frankly the lack of aid and the struggle of living there, have either returned to Assad-controlled Syria or gone elsewhere via smugglers. And the regime routinely, as I mentioned, cuts off aid from this camp.

It currently has about 8000 residents, and it leaves these people reliant on either the regime to allow the UN to deliver aid as it did in 2019, or the most likely scenario is international organizations have to find a way to go around Assad’s authority, as we saw in July. So this July, the US-based Syrian Emergency Task Force, SETF, delivered aid to Rukban with the help of the US military, which has always had a finicky role with Rukban. Multiple US administrations have chosen to rely on Assad’s permission and ability to get aid to Rukban

Sasha, I’d love for you to go into detail about how this delivery was carried out and why SETF used the strategy it did, and also what role the US played here given the Rukban’s proximity to the US’ Al-Tanf base.

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff:

So I think it’s important to understand that from the beginning, Rukban was not supposed to be a long-term internally displaced camp. It was supposed to be a very temporary situation. Due to the way the conflict unfolded in the southern portions of the country, it became a refuge for people fleeing the Assad regime and fleeing violence of the South, which then became a defacto protected area due to the US military presence.

The US military was not planning on providing a humanitarian shield to a bunch of internally displaced people in Syria. They were there for counter-terrorism reasons and to help protect Jordan and Iraq’s borders from ISIS and from other non-state actors. So there was from the day one, a misalignment between US policy goals and objectives for why they were in the Tanf area and the realities on the ground vis-a-vis the unfolding of the conflict itself.

So as a result, there’s been a lot of complications on the US government side regarding what type of policy they should have towards region and towards the people stuck in Rukban. This is also not to mention that there have been several Free Syrian Army units based in Tanf, which the United States at one point supported then didn’t support, then supported again, then didn’t support, which muddied the waters because a lot of these groups’ families are also residents in Rukban camp.

So although the United States government would like to make the impression that they’re very hands-off, there’s a direct linkage between their military support for these free Syrian Army units and the residents of the Rukban camp, purely because a lot of these people are family members of these Free Syrian Army units that the United States government supported. That being said, the UN has tried numerous times to provide humanitarian aid convoys to Rukban. These were by and large stopped by the Assad regime for one reason or another.

And it’s not just a matter of getting through regime held checkpoints, it’s also a matter of getting through checkpoints held by Hezbollah and held by Iranian backed groups that have checkpoints along the way towards the Tanf zone. So after numerous tries and after numerous INGOs by the way, have contacted the Department of Defense and asked how they might go about providing aid through a framework that would be acceptable and then given up, SETF figured out that one way they could get aid in was through something called the Denton Program for Private Donations.

And this program is jointly administrated by USAID, the Department of State, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, and the Department of Defense. However, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency is the primary agency responsible for this program. So basically what it means is if there are places where there’s US military presence, US military bases available, and there’s some extra space in some of the cargo containers that the Department of Defense is using to transport its own materials, if private donors like nonprofit organizations want to add aid supplies that will then get transported for free to a location near a military base, they will help move that aid.

So what’s interesting is the Denton Program stipulates that there’s some very specific areas where transportation is frequently available, such as Iraq, and there’s a military base in Anbar province in Iraq that’s just across the border from Tanf. So basically the plan was get this stuff to Anbar Province, and then from there, theoretically there is a US military supply line that runs from that base into Tanf. So it’s technically, Jesse may correct me about this, but it’s technically under the purview, or there’s a connection between the Tanf military base in Syria and the military base in Iraq to kind of stretch that supply line, which then conceivably could be used to get that aid at least into the Tanf zone.

And then from there, SETF’s local staff or some of the residents of Rukban camp could go and get the aid and move it in and distribute it, which is what they were able to do. So that was a very creative way to get aid into Rukban. I understand that SETF is interested to repeat this process as many times as they can. However, we need to be cognizant of the fact that this is not a sustainable solution to providing the residents of Rukban with access to humanitarian aid.

If you look at the cross-border mechanisms that the aid and development community uses in Northwest Syria, we have extensive warehouses, people and organizations pre-positioned, months and months worth of supplies. There’s all sorts of humanitarian standards that the humanitarian community uses to provide access to the right amount of nutrition and caloric intake, to provide access to healthcare and health services in a way that’s quantifiable and sustainable. You can’t do any of this if you’re relying on maybe a quarter of a cargo container’s worth of space, maybe if it’s available, when it’s available to get aid in.

That’s not to say that what was provided wasn’t necessary. It absolutely was. But no one in the international community should think that this is like the solution going forward for providing aid to this area. And realistically, what should happen is that the United States and its allies should agree on a process of relocating all remaining residents of Rukban camp, either to a third country for resettlement or to another area of Syria in which they could negotiate their resettlement internally within Syria in a way that provides them a degree of safety.

Because the remaining people in Rukban have made it clear they’re not able to go back to regime areas for a whole host of reasons, but the primary one being safety. So with that in mind, I think, again, we are lacking the political will required to solve this problem, which is endemic to the Syrian conflict at large. But this is just one microcosm of a wider problem that we have in terms of international policy toward Syria.

Carolyn Moorman:

Sasha, you mentioned how this last aid delivery that SETF carried out is not a long-lasting solution. There needs to be something else. Well, we’ve seen that in 2019, for example, the Assad regime allowed UNAID to go to Rukban. And Jesse, I’m wondering in your analysis of the situation, what has changed in these last four years that Assad wouldn’t consider this now, what leverage did the international community have then to pressure Assad that it doesn’t have now?

Would normalization be relevant here? And also if you’d like to add on anything to what Sasha has said, because I know that you have also been heavily involved in the Rukban camp as well.

Jesse Marks:

Certainly Sasha gave a very somber and realistic overview of the crisis there. I’ve watched since my time at the UN in 2015 working on Rukban as a cycle of failure on the part of pretty much every actor to get aid into the camp. And I’ve been part of a number of policy pushes myself from inside and outside of government. Fundamentally, all of them have fallen flat.

And the most recent push by SETF was the first in a long time that’s successful in getting anything through. So I think there’s merit in recognizing that, but I concur with Sasha that it’s not a sustainable solution and that the impetus really lies with the US. On the piece of Syria, this has been an interesting conversation for the better part of five years now. So there were several cases where Syria approved some convoys bringing in goods to Rukban, but those were largely linked to intention surveys for Syrian residents at the camp regarding what they wanted in terms of whether they wanted to go back, return, why were they staying?

And Sasha hit the overwhelming issue set is that most of them, particularly men in the camp, did not see return to regime areas as a viable solution. What we saw as a result over time is that after these convoys stopped, the Syrian government basically imposed quite a severe restriction on pretty much all goods moving into the area. This includes the only avenue by which the camp gets basic goods, which is smuggling. And it created this circular economy by which the Syrian regime was able to gain leverage by restricting the flow of goods in and out of the camp to induce a shift in the desire of Syrians to leave.

And so there was this dual offer made, which is, come back to our areas and receive aid or stay there and essentially die. And as you mentioned, the camp, at the time 60, 70000 plus now is down to eight to 10000 people, maybe fewer because people have reached the point of starvation and they flee and they go back to government held areas.

I know cases of people who have sent their children, and have sent their grandchildren back, but they themselves will not go over concerns. We’ve seen a level of splitting of families. It’s truly atrocious where we’re at. I think the key question of why the Syrian government stopped, I mean, it comes down to this intransigence. The Syrian government has not budged on its position. OCHA and Damascus has submitted numerous proposals for aid convoys over the years, but at the end of the day, the Syrian government will not push them, which I find comical, given the pressure that Russia and Syria have leveraged for cross line aid into Northwest Syria.

As we’re talking about a principled humanitarian response, it shows you the level of which aid manipulation persists within the regime, because okay, fine, we can open up and push from the UN side for cross line aid into the Northwest, which fundamentally Rukban is still over here on the side basically being blocked by the Syrian government.

So when we get down to the question of whose responsibility is it, in terms of a legal standpoint, pretty much every actor at play in and around Rukban, which includes the US, Russia, China, Syria, and Jordan all have a legal obligation to protect Syrians at Rukban. The impetus, however, for solving the quagmire lies from my perspective with the US and Jordan. Russia and Syria have proven unwilling to budge on their demands for residents to return. And they’ve also thrown out there consistently that any kind of action require US forces to leave ATG, otherwise they would continue to block any UN convoy.

And for the US, the likelihood of leaving Al-Tanf anytime soon is quite low. So then the US as the force that is present in the area and given their proximity to Jordan, the impetus really lies on those two partners to figure out a way to get aid across the border. And most efforts within the US government to push for aid have fallen flat. Jordan has an absolute red line that they will not open the border. They did on previous occasions, and they do privately, on certain occasions, allow certain cases that reach to a certain threshold of emergency to receive treatment in Jordan.

But at the end of the day, most of those people then go back to Rukban. There were several pushes that I was a part of in 2019, 2020 with several women, for example, that needed neonatal care due to C-section requirements. However, earlier on, we were able to help facilitate their movement across the border with Jordan’s permission to get treatment inside of Jordan. However, that closed down and over time, the complexity of getting those emergency cases out of Rukban got harder and harder, to the point where one pregnant mother was driven to the coalition base at Tanf and requesting emergency treatment.

And it created quite a level of frustration within the US government because their mandate is counter-terrorism, not humanitarian response. Point being, at the end of the day, the impetus really lies with the US and the actions taken by SETF have reinforced that there’s a willingness because the need is so bad on behalf of the US military to take steps to lessen the suffering in the camp.

But at what point does the US, the US government, the Biden administration, state department, USAID, come on board and say, okay, let’s collectively find a policy solution which is workable to the current crisis given that the US is right there, whether that’s from the border of Jordan or from ATG itself. And most of the arguments laid out, forced protection, all of these types of issues at the end of the day fall flat given the scale of humanitarian need present.

Carolyn Moorman:

So both of you pointed out how the impetus lies with the US here, and Jordan, but mostly the US. And Jesse, in your response, you mentioned how with your time at the UN, you were very involved in Rukban, looking at the UNSC’s efficiency with conflict zones when a member of the P5 is directly involved, such as Syria and such as Ukraine now. Do you see these as reasons to consider alternate mechanisms to the UNSC process, and what are your thoughts on this?

Jesse Marks:

If I solve this issue, I’ll be the Secretary General one day. I’m joking, but I mean the UN Security Council is a consensus based institution, sadly, hyperpoliticization of international [inaudible, 33:32] of wars, whether that be Syria, Yemen means that lines of effort like humanitarian protection, human response access, are overtly politicized. Alternatives have emerged and are emerging, such as the UNGA, the UNGA resolution requiring UNSC members to justify their vetoes after they’re cast.

Following Russia’s veto in July at the cross border mechanism, they basically were required to then go to UNGA and make a justification as to why they vetoed the resolution. To some extent, this creates opportunities to put pressure on P5 member states when they cast a veto by getting a broader consensus of support from the groupings within the UNGA, whether that’s the Arab League, the Global South, however that the community evolves, but they’re not necessarily an effective means of breaking gridlock.

So increasingly in the case of humanitarian gridlock, I think where people are finally beginning to coalesce around is that local actors are the ones who are now leading the response in the absence of an effective UN. And this is why I think it’s particularly critical to invest in localized humanitarian response in conflict areas as we are seeing with Northwest Syria, where a limited feasibility of the UN to engage due to these constraints over sovereignty, on and on, it has been the Syrian NGOs and the national local actors that have been standing up to actually fill that gap, in addition with INGOs and other communities.

But really they’ve been the ones, as we saw with the earthquake who were the most efficient in responding when no aid arrived. So I think there’s still a huge space by which, in the absence of a UN Security Council consensus, that donors have to look to building the capacity of local actors to lead humanitarian efforts, which includes more funding, better coordination, capacity building, on and on.

Carolyn Moorman:

Absolutely. You’ve led into our final question with an introduction to what the international community can look to for help in this situation by outlining the need to rely on local actors, local organizations within Syria. We’ve outlined throughout this podcast all of the problems that are occurring within the aid sector in Syria, bound to get worse throughout the normalization process, throughout this new deal that passed. Where do we go from here?

Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff:

Sure. I think if we take a 30000-foot view, we need to find the overall political will within the international community to end this war. Within the minutiae of our discussion here, I mean, the reality is that this is a decade long conflict that has permeated not only the region, but global politics. We have multiple countries with sizable military positions on the ground in the country. The country is cut up into multiple spheres of control.

No side seems to have the capability to win outright through military conflict. And at the same time, we’ve seen the Syrian conflict impact other areas of the globe such as Europe through the migration crisis that has resulted in an increase in right wing politics and the right wing political establishment of Europe rising, which has been bad overall in terms of global democratic trends. And we’ve seen through Syria, leading up to now other issues with regards to Ukraine, but I mean the United States, France, the UK, and a number of other Western countries having to deal with Russia and having that relationship deteriorate over time, which has created less of an ability to have, as Jesse has pointed out, any sort of consensus built through the UN with regards to how to tackle this issue.

So I think even though the Syrian conflict has faded from the mainstream media, it’s still a highly active conflict that’s still impacting quite a number of issues across the world. It requires attention and it honestly requires a solution. And although we’ll probably find ways to continue providing humanitarian aid and continue providing support into the country, it’s still just a bandaid, but it’s not a solution and we need a solution.

Carolyn Moorman:

Jesse, would you like to add anything to that?

Jesse Marks:

Yeah, certainly, kind of just putting my humanitarian hat on. I think from a humanitarian side, given the current quagmire we are in with Northwest, I think this is going to expand out as we deal with the complexities across the line aid into Rukban, but even into the Northeast. I think that’s the whole piece of this conversation, which is just as intricately complex. People seem to have a short-term amnesia about Assad’s violence against civilians and are negotiating as if he’s a good faith actor.

I mean, from a humanitarian standpoint, having worked on this crisis for near 10 years, it’s baffling. I mean, when you engage with any Syrian RLO in Turkey, you’ll hear the stories of sieges, of the bombardments on Aleppo. It’s baffling that we have the short-term amnesia, particularly in the UN, given a number of people who are continuing to operate within the UN Syria environment, have been around the horn on this issue before.

So I think kind of reinforcing that, there has to be a line drawn when it comes to a principled humanitarian response about how humanitarian aid needs to be implemented. So for example, on cross-border, we’re making an argument to move toward a consent-based model because the Syrian government is still in control and is still a sovereign state. Yet there’s still a powerful argument that’s being made by the international legal community, including Syrian organizations that have helped develop this conversation, an idea that cross-border aid under international law is like UN agencies, if they wanted based on international law, could go into Northwest Syria and provide aid.

This has been a long-winded debate since 2014, but fundamentally, because of the treatments and abuse by which the resolution was established, because Assad would not allow aid in, fundamentally, the UN still has that right to go in, but they relied on a resolution because it was more politically expedient. That said, moving forward, it now relies on the donors to reinforce that line, that a principled humanitarian response is critical to ensure that aid reaches areas of Syria that are outside of government control.

At a top level, I think particularly timely, the Biden administration needs to publicly reinforce the US commitment to a principled humanitarian response, and at the same time actively work with Turkey and other donor countries to ensure that cross-border remains open and funded even through the mechanisms that have emerged outside of the UN. That’s not saying the UN doesn’t play a role here, they still do very much so, because they do a lot of great work in terms of funding sphere and NGOs and ensuring that localization efforts are pushed forward. But at the end of the day, we’re seeing a closing window, where the UN’s flexibility with the regime is closing, as we’re seeing a gradual shift toward kind of a centralization of Damascus, by which donors have to step up and basically say to the international community, we are going to protect this space.

We are going to invest our time here, and as Sasha put, we should be investing our political will into ensuring that a localized NGO humanitarian response can continue. And this also means that Turkey, which has been actively involved in deporting Syrians, which has been actively involved in creating conditions by which Syrians are wanting to leave, need to back off of those stark and heavy-handed approaches to allow that humanitarian environment to continue.

If Turkey is creating pressure on Syrian NGOs and Syrian NGO workers are scared to work in the morning because of potential raids, then how are they going to actually effectively help develop a cross-border humanitarian response that’s effective? There’s a lot of pieces at play, but I think at the geostrategic grand level, Sasha is absolutely correct on this as well. So hopefully that minutiae adds something there.

Carolyn Moorman:

Of course. Thank you so much. I really appreciated how both of you have outlined what the international community can look to, how we can look towards other mechanisms and support a long-term solution to the war that has lasted so long, wrecked so many lives, and really bring this to a close. So I want to thank you both for appearing on the Contours Podcast. To our listeners, thank you so much for listening to this episode of Contours.

You can make sure to subscribe to the podcast on major streaming platforms, including iTunes, SoundCloud, and Spotify, so you don’t miss any of our new podcasts. And you can check out further analysis into geopolitics and US foreign policy at www.newlinesinstitute.org. All the best.

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