How to get aid to millions in Syria now

The people in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. However, the political and legal conditions for this have become enormously complicated.
The people in the rebel-held areas of northern Syria are in urgent need of humanitarian aid. However, the political and legal conditions for this have become enormously complicated.

The UN mandate that allowed humanitarian agencies to send aid through a single border crossing in northern Syria has lapsed. The future of such deliveries is now worryingly unclear. By Cathrin Schaer and Omar Albam

By Cathrin Schaer & Omar Albam

The United Nations does not treat us well, complains Abd al-Salam al-Youssef, a Syrian father of five who lives in the Batenta camp for displaced people in northwestern Syria.

Like millions of Syrians who fled their homes during the country's civil war, he depends on humanitarian aid coordinated by the UN and delivered into this opposition-held area in Idlib. "And I just cannot imagine why they would allow a person who displaced millions to supervise humanitarian aid now," said al-Youssef. "I really hope that doesn't happen."

The 45-year-old is talking about the fact that a long-running mandate from the United Nations Security Council, which had allowed aid to be delivered over the Syrian-Turkish border directly into opposition-held areas, has just lapsed.

Instead, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whom many of the people living in this part of Syria oppose, has demanded his own government take charge of the deliveries.

Protest against Russian veto of UN aid extension at Bab al-Hawa border crossing, July 2023 (image: Omar al-Bam/DW)
Who decides on humanitarian aid in northern Syria? In July, UN veto power Russia rejected an extension of aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Shortly afterwards, however, the Syrian dictator, who is allied to Moscow, "allowed" it again – even though his security forces do not actually have any control over the border post, which is controlled by Syrian rebel groups on one side and Turkey on the other

"Aid must not be politicised," insists Anas Khazendar, an aid worker whose foundation, Al-Bunyan Al-Marsous, distributes food, water and other supplies to 10 camps around Idlib. "It's an insult to civilians' dignity. And as humanitarian organisations, we have no confidence in a system run by the Syrian regime. This is a regime that has deliberately targeted teams working on the ground."

A political football

Then again, aid flowing into Syria across international borders has been a political issue for years now. Up to 3 million of the 4.7 million people living in opposition-held northern Syria rely on humanitarian aid deliveries to survive. For years, the Assad government had insisted it should control aid coming into the country while also doing things like starving opposition-held towns into submission and profiting from aid deliveries.

As a result, the UN Security Council, or UNSC, became involved and authorised so-called "cross-border aid" – that is, aid delivered across international borders into opposition-held areas without the Syrian government's permission. Since then, cross-border aid deliveries have been governed by a series of resolutions from the UNSC that require re-negotiation every six months.

This month, negotiations around the UNSC mandate failed after Russia vetoed a plan for a nine-month extension. Shortly afterwards, the Syrian government said it agreed to aid being delivered across the Turkish border for another six months – but only under certain conditions. It says it should be allowed to supervise all deliveries and the UN should not have any contact with what it describes as "terrorist organisations".

The UN has since replied that these conditions are unacceptable.

Nearly three million people in northern Syria are dependent on aid deliveries (image: Ahmad al-ATRASH/AFP/Getty Images)
Vital relief supplies: some 4.7 million people live in the north of Syria, which is dominated by Islamists and other opponents of the regime, and around three million of them - including numerous internally displaced persons - are dependent on humanitarian aid. For years, the Assad government has starved the opposition-held cities, at the same time seizing a proportion of the aid intended for them

They may also be unrealistic. Experts point out that while the Assad government may be in charge of the Syrian-Turkish border on paper, it does not actually control it. The Turkish government controls its side and the Syrian side is run by groups who fought the Assad government.

"[The] common portrayal of border crossings in northwest Syria as either 'open' or 'closed' is misleading", Ansgar Munichsdorfer, a researcher working on the Free University of Berlin project, "The Law of Protracted Conflict", wrote in a February post on the academic website Voelkerrechtsblog. "[Assad's] words of approval did not change the situation on the ground in any way – he does not control the border posts on either side of the border."

What next? 

But the question for the millions of Syrians dependent on aid remains: what happens now? The UNSC mandate is unlikely to be revived, says lawyer Jack Sproson, a member of the British human rights law chamber, Guernica 37. "We've never seen any of the cross-border mandates come back and I don't think the UNSC would re-adopt this," he admitted.

The fact that the Syrian government has now given permission for cross-border aid is actually "something of a get-out-of-jail-free card for the UNSC", Sproson added. The ongoing negotiations caused "a bit of a circus every six months", he said.  And even before the UNSC mandate lapsed last week, there had been plenty of debate about the UN's legal assessments of cross-border aid into Syria.

The UN said it needed permission from the sovereign government to send aid across the border. This is why the UNSC had to step in and come up with a special mandate. But the reading of the law that Sproson and a number of prominent jurists have advocated for disagrees with that.

They say that, in cases where there was an urgent need, aid could be delivered across borders by humanitarian organisations (though not by international governments or the UN; they still need an invitation) without waiting for permission from a hesitant government like Syria's. This has happened before, in the 1980s in Ethiopia and during the Nigerian civil war between 1967 and 1970.

The debate became more urgent following the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February. At the time, the UN was heavily criticised for waiting to get permission from the Assad government to enter northwestern Syria and help earthquake survivors. While the UN waited, people buried under the rubble died, locals said.

However, now that the Assad government has consented to cross-border aid, that legal debate is only happening in the background, Sproson concedes. What's more important, he argues, is that "basically every three months the [Assad] regime is going to have a chance to blackmail everyone, to say, 'this is what we want in order to get consent'. So I think the most important thing for us now will be ensuring that the consent that has been given is not arbitrarily manipulated or withdrawn gradually over time."

Negotiating access 'a process'

Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict, points out that the UNSC’s involvement in humanitarian operations Syria was unprecedented. In fact, what's happening now is more in keeping with how humanitarian operations usually work. "Humanitarian actors frequently have to negotiate with unhelpful governments," she said. "Negotiating access is a process." 

So what happens next likely depends on how skilful humanitarian organisations are at negotiating a new approach. "They need to seize the moment, they need to navigate the Syrian government's conditions and propose alternatives, that allow them to operate in accordance with humanitarian principles and as foreseen by international humanitarian law," Gillard argues. 

The UN now has a physical presence in Syria, Guernica 37's Sproson points out. "There needs to be an effort to push the UN to be more robust and to assert itself within the bounds of law; for example, to say to the Syrian government that actually you're not allowed to stop us negotiating with a certain group," the lawyer argues. "The UN cannot be allowed to just roll over."

Rebecca Barber, a researcher based at the University of Queensland in Australia, who's working with the Asia Pacific Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and has written several papers on the legal situation with Syrian cross-border aid, believes that even more is required.

"So there's international law," she says, "but then there's also the whole suite of policies, manuals and handbooks that guide humanitarian operations on the ground. If you look through all of those, and particularly those relating specifically to international search and rescue operations, you find they are almost all premised on host government consent."

For example, Barber notes, even if the UN had wanted to go straight into northwestern Syria to help after February's earthquake, many of their operational guidelines tell them they can't do that without permission from the country's government.

"It's not an easy task," says Barber, who has also worked with large humanitarian organisations like Save the Children, "but ideally I think there needs to be a big review of that whole system. What happened after the earthquake shows we can't just go on with the old way of operating."

Cathrin Schaer & Omar Albam

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