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Hopes that Russia will drop objections to UN humanitarian aid routes to Syria begin to rise

With only hours left for the UN Security Council to announce the outcome of a vote on a draft resolution extending the mandate for critical aid routes to Syria, hopes are rising that Moscow won't stand in the way.

The UN Security Council is expected to end its virtual deliberations today on a critical cross border aid mechanism that is set to expire Friday, and there are hopeful signs that Russia will not act on its threats to block access through two existing access points to rebel-held northern Syria that run through Turkey.

A well-placed source with close knowledge of the 15-member council’s negotiations said the Russian delegation had not as yet tabled a counter draft or any amendments to a draft resolution put forward by humanitarian penholders Germany and Belgium that call for extending aid pipelines through Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam on the Turkish border. 

US-led efforts to reopen a third border crossing at Yaroubiyah for aid coming through Iraq to the Kurdish-controlled northeast of Syria have been stymied by Russia, however, the source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Al-Monitor.

The source said it was too early to say what the final result of the vote would be — as “Russia is quite famous for sliding something in at the last minute” — but that if the current draft holds, "It’s actually a real win.” This is because not only will the Turkish crossings remain intact, but also the term of their mandate will have doubled from six months to 12.

“What happens today is a bellwether of whether the United States and Russia can work out mutual concessions in other areas in Syria,” the source said. Should Russia hold its fire by the time voting ends at 4.30 pm EST, this will signal a softening of its position that all aid to Syria should be handled through Damascus. The deliberations of the council are kept strictly secret till a formal outcome is announced. 

The Syrian regime has a track record of weaponizing assistance, with those loyal to the government benefiting while the rest are cut out. Since 2014, an agreement was reached at the UN Security Council whereby UN agencies and their partners could directly supply areas outside government control from four border crossings. The crossings were halved in January when Yaroubiyah and another crossing via Jordan were struck off the list after Russia threatened to block all four of them.

The source said Russia’s apparent backpedaling might be the result of “high-level calls between Washington and the Kremlin” and between “the Kremlin and Ankara.”

Russia’s overarching objective, the source recalled, “is to dismantle the UN architecture around Syria that doesn’t require dialogue with Damascus,” be it over chemical weapons, deconfliction mechanisms or the border crossings. “The question is whether that objective is more important than maintaining good relations with Turkey and maintaining dialogue with Washington at this time; we’ll know when the results are announced," the source said.

“What’s on the altar is Yaroubiyah, and the penholders may decide that it's worth sacrificing for keeping the Turkish crossings open for a whole year,” the source added. For Russia, the upside is that the haranguing over Yaroubiyah will likely cease.

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