Syria risks further humanitarian catastrophe if its top ally Russia shutters the last remaining aid corridor into the country’s rebel-held northwest, United Nations officials and Western diplomats warned on Wednesday.
Lifesaving assistance for millions of Syrians is again on the line ahead of a Jan. 10 deadline for the UN Security Council to renew a resolution that permits food, fuel and other supplies to be sent from Turkey into parts of Syria that are outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, whose government has a long history of weaponizing aid.
“Not renewing that resolution jeopardizes the delivery of aid when people need it the most,” UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told the council on Wednesday, adding that more than half of Syria’s population is struggling to put food on the table.
Russia believes the UN’s cross-border aid mechanism, which was initially set up in 2014, is a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Over the years, Moscow has successfully used its veto power on the council to reduce the number of delivery routes into Syria and has threatened to shut down the UN’s relief operation altogether.
It came dangerously close this July. Russia vetoed a US-backed resolution that would have kept the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border open for one year, which relief organizations said was the minimum time needed to ensure needs were met. The council averted catastrophe days later, by adopting a compromise resolution to extend the UN’s mandate for just six months.
Keeping the aid flowing is a moral imperative, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told Al-Monitor on Tuesday.
“It is the expectation of the United States that all council members — and of course most notably, Russia — will recognize and respond to what is undeniably the urgent need to extend cross-border humanitarian efforts,” Price said.
The looming vote comes as needs across Syria have reached record levels. The UN estimates 15.3 million Syrians will require humanitarian assistance in 2023, up from 14.6 million this year.
“Cross-border aid continues to be indispensable,” Geir Pedersen, the UN special envoy for Syria, told the council on Wednesday.
“The needs of Syrians are rising just as resources are falling,” Pedersen said. “Parents are skipping meals so that their children can eat. Electricity and food ... are scarcer than ever.”
The war has also greatly impeded access to potable water, as Ahmad Fallaha wrote in Al-Monitor this week. Only 50% of water and sanitation systems are functioning properly across Syria, exacerbating the current cholera outbreak.
Until the last minute, it’s never clear how the Russians will act on Syria’s aid. This time around, Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, expects Russia to probe other members with at least a veto threat.
“It normally comes to a deal over cross-border aid in the end,” Gowan said. “In the long run, Russia gets more leverage by keeping the humanitarian mandate alive but on life support, and threatening to kill it off every six months or so.”
In prior years, Russia has used the vote on Syria’s aid to extract concessions from Western powers, such as increased early recovery projects and “cross-line” aid delivered from Damascus. The Russians have not explicitly said what they’re seeking in exchange for a yes vote in January, but UN watchers are bracing for another nasty fight.
“It's not so much whether we'll get the extension or not,” said a UN official, speaking not for attribution. “It’s a question of, how difficult will the negotiations be?”
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Biden on the Iranian nuclear deal: 'It is dead'
An off-the-cuff remark from President Joe Biden appears to confirm what some Iran watchers have suspected for months: the administration believes the landmark nuclear agreement is doomed.
In a newly surfaced video, Biden says the deal — known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — is “dead,” before adding that his administration won’t publicly announce the talks are over. The video was reportedly taken at a midterm campaign rally in California in early November.
In recent months, Biden officials have said restoring the JCPOA is not a focus of the administration while Tehran cracks down on peaceful protests, sends drones to Russia and continues to demand the UN atomic agency drop a years-long probe into nuclear material found at undeclared Iranian sites.
Publicly, the administration has refrained from calling it quits on the nuclear talks, and on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price played down Biden’s comment.
“What is very much alive is the president’s commitment and this administration’s commitment that Iran is never in possession of a nuclear weapon,” Price said.
Congress ties strings to Egypt’s military aid
The human rights conditions placed on Egypt’s annual military assistance would be strengthened under the must-pass spending bill that US lawmakers unveiled on Tuesday.
As the Project on Middle East Democracy’s Seth Binder laid out on Twitter, $320 million of Cairo’s $1.3 billion in aid for fiscal year 2023 is conditioned on human rights improvements.
Congress included a waiver for the administration to release $225 million of the restricted funds if deemed important for “national security interests” or necessary for “counterterrorism, border security, or nonproliferation programs.”
The remaining conditioned aid — $95 million — does not have a waiver. Its release would require the administration certify that the Egyptian government is making “clear and consistent progress" on the release of political prisoners, providing detainees with due process and preventing the intimidation and harassment of US citizens. (Rights groups say it has made little meaningful progress).
Compared to the previous fiscal year, lawmakers increased Egypt's restricted aid that can't be waived by $10 million — an indication, Binder said, “of the frustration with the administration’s policies to address these concerns.” As we've reported, Egypt's aid has been a source of tension between Biden and many in his own party who say the administration has fallen short of its past human rights pledges.
Other top stories from our contributors
• China has emerged as the lead funder for Egypt's new administrative city, but as Grady McGregor reports, that commitment may be tested in the coming months as Egypt’s loans come due.
• Eight years after the genocide, Amberin Zaman reports that donor resources for camps housing Iraq’s displaced Yazidis are diminishing.
• Turkey’s economic growth — a goal that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has adamantly pursued at the expense of an inflation storm — is running out of steam ahead of crucial elections next year, writes Mustafa Sonmez.
• Ben Caspit explains why tech leaders fear Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government will set Israel back.
• Al-Monitor PRO subscribers can read Samuel Wendel’s latest on why Riyadh is unlikely to unseat Dubai as a regional financial hub.
The Takeaway will take a break next week for the holidays, but will resume Jan. 4.