The war in Syria continues to constitute one of the most complex contexts in the Middle East today, with few realistic policy solutions available to end the conflict. That said, the upcoming July 10 debate over the renewal of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2533 (UNSCR 2533) concerning cross-border humanitarian aid marks a flashpoint that will have serious implications for Syrians and the war that could shift the direction of the conflict.
Given the limitations of instituting a sweeping end to the fighting or toppling of the Assad regime, the United States should focus on such humanitarian efforts as access is crucial to millions of Syrians living in abject poverty. Further, Washington’s focus on cross-border aid could be designed to support stabilization efforts and a gradual military pivot from Syria – something long overdue if any realistic peace is to be achieved in the country. Ultimately, tightening focus around humanitarian access and military restraint, while simultaneously shifting towards diplomacy, will prove critical to making progress on the 10-year war – placing Syrians at the center of policy for the first time.
A focus on humanitarian access and diplomatic efforts is practical and necessary given the state of the conflict today. The degrading humanitarian situation in Syria stems from the conflict and such rivalries. Roughly 90 percent of Syrians live under the poverty line. Bread and fuel shortages run rampant due to the destruction of infrastructure, U.S. sanctions under the Caesar Act, and neighboring Lebanon’s disastrous currency crisis that has bled into Syria. This has increased food prices by 247 percent. Further, over 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced, living in makeshift refugee camps across northern Syria with little hope of returning home soon.
These humanitarian metrics are worsening as Syria is experiencing a relative lull in fighting, although frontlines remain active despite various ceasefire deals. In general, air and missile strikes, targeted assassinations of civilian and military actors, and small arms fire are a daily occurrence across the country. This includes hot spots such as Qamishli and Ain Issa in the north and the desert areas of Deir Ezzor in the east.
Hostilities occur between rebel groups and pro-government forces, as well as between various non-state actors and tribes. This has subsequently hardened divisions between foes and created a highly decentralized system with multiple centers of power within the country. In the northwest, various jihadi groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham wrestle for control of limited territory around Idlib and a potential political claim to a future Syrian peace deal and government. In northeast Syria (NES), Kurdish-Arab tensions and a sustained Islamic State presence contribute to already unstable communities.
Intra-group rivalries within these de-facto-divided territories particularly exacerbate Syria’s unstable and decentralized situation. This includes the intra-Kurdish rivalry in NES between the Democratic Union Party and Kurdish National Council. Disagreement between the two largest Syrian Kurd political entities over election and security issues causes headaches for those hoping to build Kurdish legitimacy and autonomy that would help stabilize NES. Instead, the rivalry severely hobbles the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s (AANES), the Kurdish governing authority in NES, and its ability to control the area. To be sure, many of these issues emanate from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who operate as the main security force in the area, and their repression of Arab communities. Wider economic issues experienced across the country also play a major role.
Ultimately, the conflict’s longevity, alongside hardened dividing lines between opposing military actors and within groups, contributes to humanitarian decline. The lack of control by any one political or military entity, coupled with minimal governing authority, means that no single entity can effectively address the humanitarian situation – including the Syrian government.
Given this scenario, international aid efforts are increasingly vital. Current humanitarian efforts are made possible by UNSCR 2533, which authorizes a cross-border aid site at the Bab al-Hawa crossing in northwest Syria. The resolution is part of broader UN efforts that began in 2015 as a result of Damascus’s efforts to subvert aid to the north away from rebel groups – essentially using starvation as a tool of war. However, the resolution is set to expire on July 10 as Russia is prepared to veto the crossing’s reauthorization, arguing the situation on the ground has changed as Assad now controls roughly 90 percent of the country.
Realistically, the situation on the ground has only degraded and requires renewed humanitarian assistance. The United Nations, while flawed, is the only entity with the logistical capacity to coordinate the humanitarian response required in the north, as understood by most organizations involved in the operations. Further, the Syrian government has conveyed no interest in behavioral change, highlighted by Bashar al-Assad after his victory in Syria’s sham election on May 26. The president was clear, expressing “we will be able to defeat all our enemies no matter how many the battles or how hard the road is.” The recent strike on the Al-Atareb hospital – one of many spanning the entirety of the conflict – only speaks to the brutality of the Assad regime. This suggests that any lapse in UNSCR 2533 is certain to spell disaster for millions of Syrians living under rebel control as Damascus will once again work to prevent the flow of aid in an attempt to starve those living under opposition rule.
Thus, engaged high-level diplomacy will prove critical to reauthorizing the current aid regime. Although the Biden administration has presented an ambiguous Syria policy thus far, it clearly supports cross-border aid. The debate at the UNSC is currently underway, with Russia and China advocating for cross-line aid designed to flow through Damascus and over conflict lines and the United States and its allies calling for reauthorization and expansion of UNSCR 2533. Importantly, Biden also mentioned that aid was discussed at his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, albeit seemingly in passing.
High-level U.S. diplomats such as US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have been vocal in their recent calls for cross-border aid renewal. Interestingly, Blinken expressed a maximalist position, calling for the previously closed Al Yarubiyah crossing in NES to reopen, suggesting the issue may be of higher priority for Washington than initially suspected and that a Kurdish component exists within the cross-border aid conversation.
The Biden administration is already making concessions to entice Moscow into a deal in support of UNSCR 2533 reauthorization and expansion. While denied by the administration, this likely includes the recent decision to rescind a waiver to Delta Crescent Energy that would have allowed the AANES – desperate for income – to export oil via the U.S. subsidiary. The Biden-Putin summit should be viewed in a similar light, as Washington has previously rejected dialogue with the Russians on Syria. Concessions here might be a signal to Russia that the United States is willing to move on certain activities in Syria. This, alongside Washington’s recently conveyed support for a combination of “all modalities of aid,” including some cross-line aid between government and rebel zones, shows new flexibility on previous sticking points for Russia that could produce a deal.
Concessions may be acceptable for the Biden administration if they support longer-term U.S. interests in Syria, such as Washington’s stabilization efforts in NES. Such efforts are expansive, including U.S. development funds focused on democracy and AANES elections via the Elections and Political Processes (EPP) Fund. U.S. diplomats have also been engaged with ongoing intra-Kurdish dialogue efforts designed to resolve their rift, certainly with the goal of bolstering Kurdish unity that builds on their legitimacy and argument for some degree of autonomy. The Al Yarubiyah crossing would offer substantial assistance to the AANES and SDF, suggesting Washington may hope to use any UNSCR 2533 expansion to support stabilization efforts.
This suggests a serious effort is underway by Washington to ensure reauthorization in July aligns with efforts to stabilize NES. The intersection of parallel interests – humanitarian aid and bolstering the Kurds – allow the Biden administration a future backdoor out of Syria as it supports Syrian Kurd unity, solidifies AANES legitimacy, bolsters SDF efforts to combat the Islamic State, and subsequently builds the case for Kurdish autonomy in a future peace deal. The approach aligns with Biden’s pivot from the Middle East, although the success of such efforts remains to be seen given competing interests in Ankara, Tehran, and Moscow in Syria. Still, the only way these competing interests converge is if U.S. officials get realistic about concessions – including on their military presence – in support of some semblance of a political solution to the 10-year war.
Engaging Moscow in high-level dialogue while ensuring humanitarian aid access, alongside efforts to empower Syrians on the ground, constitute practical diplomatic tools that Washington can use to ensure humanitarian access and disengage from Syria militarily. Given the negative impact of the conflict on humanitarian metrics, let alone the moral obligation of ensuring aid to mitigate civilian harm, the United States and its allies need to renew UNSCR 2533 by any means necessary. Should Biden and his team recognize this and opt for continued dialogue with Moscow – as opposed to blunt military means that only extend the conflict and risk wider regional hostilities – some positive outcomes may begin to emerge in a conflict that has rarely put Syrians at the center of policy.
Photo by Mark Veraart