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Syria’s agonizing decade: Crisis and stalemate

A US-Russia showdown over humanitarian border crossings stymies the UN peace process after 10 years of misery.
idlib at 10 years of revolt

Blinken: current approach to Syria aid is "indefensible"

On March 29, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, chairing a virtual UN Security Council meeting on Syria, called on the council to reauthorize the only border crossing for UN assistance and open two others that were shut down last year due to Russian and Chinese objections.

“The current approach is unjustified, ineffective, indefensible," Blinken said. "It is directly resulting in the increased suffering of the Syrian people."

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin responded that Russia considers the US posture as "discrimination against the Damascus-controlled regions when distributing humanitarian aid; refusal to facilitate the country’s recovery and the return of refugees; the toughening of sanctions during the COVID-19 pandemic; and the desire to maintain a cross border mechanism, which violates the standards of international humanitarian law.”

The deep divisions show that the UN-mediated Syrian peace process remains in stalemate, despite an agonizing decade of war, dislocation and humanitarian disaster.

Consider the following:

"No respite" for Syrians after 10 years

The Security Council session coincided with an update by UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to mark the anniversary of the Syrian uprising, which began in February 2011.

There are 6.6 million Syrian refugees (25% of all refugees in the world), and 7 million internally displaced people — more than in any other country, according to the UN agency. The 13.6 million displaced Syrians is more than 60% of Syria's population. Syrians killed in the conflict are estimated at close to 500,000.

It’s a lost decade for a generation of children, too, with 2.5 million out of school and a third of schools closed. Some children work as many as 12 hours per day to help support their families; some are forced into arranged marriages. Around 9.3 million Syrians are food insecure and 60% live in extreme poverty. All that has been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which the Syrian government underreports.

And it gets worse. The latest report by the UN Human Rights Council’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concludes that parties to the conflict have "perpetrated the most heinous violations of international humanitarian law and violations and abuses of international human rights law. Such violations and abuses have included acts that are likely to constitute crimes against humanity, war crimes and other international crimes."

Mark Lowcock, the UN Humanitarian Affairs chief, said that Syrians “see no respite” after a decade of “death, destruction, displacement, disease, dread and despair.”

An international pledging conference chaired by the UN and the EU last month generated $4.4 billion in pledges for this year, and $2 billion more for 2022 and beyond. The United States pitched in $596 million, down slightly from last year’s pledge of nearly $700 million. The United States remains the single largest humanitarian donor of Syria crisis response aid, providing nearly $13 billion since 2011. 

Economic crisis complicates trade and aid

The Blinken-Vershinin exchange just scratches the surface of the divisions and hardship in Syria.

Fehim Tastekin reports, "Tensions in Syria are increasingly marked by a struggle for the control of economic routes, as the country’s economic crisis is exacerbated amid shortages of even basic goods such as bread, fuel queues stretching for kilometers, and mounting calls for the reopening of border crossings to facilitate humanitarian aid."

"Fresh US sanctions on Syria, including moves to hamper fuel shipments to Damascus, and Turkey’s decision to put its currency in circulation in areas under its control, reinforced fears in Damascus that its adversaries were bent on collapsing Syria economically," adds Tastekin.

The UN Syrian commission adds, "Unilateral sanctions have further weakened the ability of humanitarian actors to deliver assistance, owing to increased prices and the reduction in the availability of crucial items in local markets and overcompliance."

And there are two key fault lines that reveal the politicization of economic and assistance routes, in addition to the US-Russia divisions: between Turkey and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), on the one hand, and between the SDF and the Syrian government on the other.

First, Turkey is wary of any action that would further destabilize Syria and spark even more refugees to head toward Turkey’s borders. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million refugees and controls areas of northeast Syria on the Turkish border with the support of Syrian armed groups such as the Syrian National Army (SNA).

The kicker, however, is that Ankara has no interest in aid to the regions administered by the SDF, which is made up primarily of Kurdish groups Turkey considers terrorists.

Second, the border crossings between Syrian government and SDF controlled areas are also highly politicized, as Mohammad Hardan reports.

Russia and Syria have sought "to pressure the SDF to allow more fuel into regime-controlled areas that are suffering under a stifling fuel crisis," Tastekin writes.

For Russian President Vladimir Putin, the ideal outcome in Syria, as we explain here, would be some type of detente between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, with the Syrian Kurdish parties linked again to the Syrian state. 

The areas under SDF control include Syria’s key oil fields. The SDF shut down oil trade with the government in January, and Damascus retaliated by closing trade and transit into the SDF areas. Trade resumed this month as a result of Russian intervention and pressure, as Hardan explains.

The United States has been trying to buck up the SDF, whose administration has been criticized by some Arab residents who feel marginalized (or worse) under Kurdish rule. Shelly Kittleson reports, "A move to divide Syria’s eastern Deir ez-Zor into four administrative sections to give the local Arab population more control under the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) was announced shortly before US Deputy Special Envoy to Syria David Brownstein’s visit to the oil-rich, much-suffering region" in March.

Does the US have a play in Idlib?

Russia and Turkey have been negotiating the reopening of access points around Idlib, a flashpoint for escalation, but it’s not easy. 

Erdogan, as mentioned above, would prefer to hold off a possible Russian-backed Syrian assault to retake the province to prevent another massive refugee flow. Ben Hubbard reports for the New York Times from Idlib that 2.7 million of the province’s 4.2 million people are displaced.

Turkey has sought to co-opt some of the more radical groups, such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS, Levant Liberation Committee), an al-Qaeda offshoot, which has been designated a foreign terrorist organization by the United States and the UN Security Council.

Meanwhile, HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, sporting a snappy haircut and beard trim and wearing a sharp blue suit, made all the right noises in his recent appearance on PBS Frontline. Without his sheikhly robes, and seemingly under the influence of a PR consultant, he assured Martin Smith that HTS has no ambitions beyond Syria. Jolani said he’s no global jihadi, just a Syrian nationalist fighting the good fight against Assad under the HTS "salvation government."

On the same program, former US envoy for Syria James Jeffrey referred to Jolani as an "asset" for the United States and the least of bad options in Idlib.

The US has mostly stayed out of the Idlib confrontation except to intermittently bomb more radical Idlib-based groups that challenge HTS rule and to call for restraint by Syrian and Russian forces. As we wrote previously, Idlib is Jolani’s Alamo. HTS and the other even more radical groups there, as well as non-jihadi nationalist forces and civilians, have nowhere to go. 

Life goes on

Al-Monitor’s extensive Syrian coverage reveals the complexities and hardships of life there. 

In the northeast, the absence of a functioning judiciary has led to more local and traditional solutions. "Representatives of the Kurdish, Yazidi, Arab, Syriac and Assyrian tribes in northeast Syria agreed March 26 to establish a tribal judicial system — locally known as Madbata — for the resolution of inter-clan disputes, robberies, revenge and lootings in the Jazira region in Hasakah province," writes Khaled al-Khateb from Aleppo.

Khateb also reports that a pharmaceutical lab opened recently in opposition-held areas to try to compensate for the absence of medicines otherwise coming into the country.

And Hardan explains how "urban sprawl" has come to relatively stable parts of Aleppo under the Turkish-backed SNA, as Syrians seek jobs in a booming housing and construction sector.

Flames can ignite "at any time"

"Despite the stirring plea from Blinken, it remains to be seen how much of a priority Syria will be for the new Biden administration," Elizabeth Hagedorn writes. "The White House has said little publicly about how it plans to address the decade-old conflict and has not appointed a special envoy to spearhead diplomatic efforts."

When UN Syria envoy Geir Pedersen said in January, “We can’t continue like this,” it could have been read as his own plea to the Biden administration to step up its engagement.

"In a context where military tensions remain high and frequent eruptions of violence continue to occur, where hospitals and civilians are still getting hit, and where five foreign armies operate in proximity from one another, flames can ignite anew at any time," Pedersen added this week.

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