Another United Nations Security Council (UNSC) vote on continuing the resolution that allows Syria's cross-border aid delivery is due in July, but the regime's use of “consent” to allow an extra two crossings from Turkey into the area could be used to undermine the resolution's necessity, which would risk destabilizing the conflict along with it. Twelve years of hard-won lessons show that until there is a broader political agreement with clear guardrails and guarantees, only a UNSC resolution that permits unimpeded humanitarian access to northwest Syria can secure the critical and consistent operational space required to meet the region's growing needs as articulated by the NGOs working in the area. 

Aid denial has been used as a political and military strategy by the regime since the conflict first began. The first convoys to be blocked were in Daraa in 2011 and foreshadowed a long and painful policy of restricting humanitarian action that has cost lives, occupied the UNSC and foreign ministers on numerous occasions, and squandered untold hours and resources requesting, documenting denial, and advocating for essential assistance to be allowed to reach those most in need. The endless debate about humanitarian access and aid denial continues to this day.

When states block aid

When states, or de facto states, block aid access, the U.N. takes a conservative legal view of their options. They believe they require state consent or an additional UNSC resolution or legal mandate to allow them to deliver aid, despite a range of legal perspectives on the accuracy of that position. Not all humanitarian actors share this view, but the heavily U.N.-dependent, bureaucratized, and process-driven nature of the humanitarian sector makes alternative action by those who believe in the necessity of delivering aid in any circumstance difficult.

In Syria, it took two years for donors and aid actors to begin to highlight the massive needs that were being unmet from Damascus, increase funding, and scale up covert cross-border aid operations into the country in areas outside the regime's control where they denied the U.N. and Damascus operations access. It took three and a half years before the cross-border resolution came about.

Syria is a unique case among civil wars where states block aid. In 2014, the UNSC passed a resolution specifying that aid could be delivered by notification to the regime rather than by their consent. While Syria's cross-border resolution was heralded as a diplomatic and operational win at the time and allowed for a considerable increase in aid, it was probably a negative development overall. Ultimately, under the renewal process and the Russian UNSC veto, the aid operation remains at the mercy of the same actors who blocked aid to begin with, and the fate of millions of people is consistently litigated through high-level politicized humanitarian access negotiations rather than a comprehensive solution to the conflict. It used a moment where a high-level agreement was even possible to focus on one country and an agreement that must be extended in annual increments without addressing the more significant and fundamental issues of territorial integrity, sovereignty, protection, and consent. And it created a dangerous precedent, giving traction to the U.N.’s limited legal interpretation of international law that gives bad actors somewhere to point to when trying to head off international “interference” in their own crimes, while also having a chilling effect on aid actors whose principled actions are so desperately needed in the increasing number of contexts where aid denial occurs.

However, here, two things can be true at once. The resolution was, in hindsight, probably unwise and shouldn't — and couldn't –– be replicated elsewhere, despite similar ideas being circulated and ultimately shelved in Myanmar. Instead, in the face of new conflicts, those actors with a broader view of the humanitarian imperative should immediately adopt a non-U.N.-dependent approach to operational planning and seek to meet needs through the most appropriate routes and modalities. However, Syria's aid response has, over the nine years the resolution has been in place, grown into a vast U.N.-dependent architecture that provides billions of dollars in relief every year and can only be sustained through the renewal of the resolution at this time. This is especially true in the wake of February's devastating earthquake and the recent regional push toward normalization.

Syria after the quake

Regional moves toward normalization with Damascus do not equate to political deals, a negotiated peace, or any demonstrable political or behavioral change on the part of the regime. The regime remains the same actor that has systematically denied aid on a massive scale, starved populations, bombed hospitals and schools, and endlessly quibbled over providing baby milk.

Indeed, when it comes to aid and humanitarian access, the regime's recent actions once again highlight their lack of progress toward a more principled approach. Within areas under their control, in the wake of the February earthquake, they quickly consolidated control over the aid response and reversed years of small but hard-won improvements in the process. Moreover, in the northwest, the Syrian ambassador to the U.N. came out on the day of earthquake and made a plea for additional assistance through the capital only, very firmly clarifying that they were willing to impede any attempts to expand work into the northwest, where the majority of the injured and dead were trapped under rubble. A week later, after negotiations with international actors, the same official announced their consent to open two extra crossings, making a snide remark about how they bear no responsibility for the delay. During this week, no search and rescue teams or equipment made it into the northwest, leaving many to die under the rubble unnecessarily and breaking the spirit of those living within the pocket.

In short, the week-long delay wrought enormous pain and political advantage over those the regime considers their enemies, but at a pitch that was seemingly indiscernible to international actors. Meanwhile, the regime’s pivot toward opening extra crossings a week later earned them an outsized assumption of newfound reasonableness and cooperation from the aid community and regional states, all but erasing the memory of the 12 previous years.

Wishful thinking and a powerful normative approach to aid provision are creating a gravitational pull back toward Damascus across the international aid response. A sudden change in policy after the earthquake increased the U.N. staff presence in the northwest. Why they had not crossed previously has not been explained; the resolution allowed it. However, this new role is accompanied by increased information sharing between the “hubs,” or offices, located in Damascus and Gaziantep, which have traditionally been separate in order to protect the sensitive operations, gradually chipping away at the firewall between them, necessitated by security and protection risks to those operating on the ground. In internal meetings, the new U.N. resident coordinator and humanitarian coordinator in Damascus stated that he is particularly keen on a more integrated “One Syria” approach led by Damascus instead of the current “Whole of Syria” system with separate hubs in each location that lead on work in their own areas of operation. During the forced displacement of populations across Syria that accompanied their brutal military defeat at the hands of the regime, aid workers, doctors, and other civil society actors sought refuge in the northwest after being labelled terrorists for their work by the regime. Carrying out aid work for organizations not registered with the regime remains a grave crime in Damascus’ eyes, and arrests have been made and harsh sentences issued for these acts within recent months. Simply put, any increase in information flow to the regime could risk the lives and futures of those Syrian men and women providing assistance across the pocket.

What's consent got to do with it

Even more troubling is the suggestion that the U.N. might pursue a consent-based presence in the northwest. Regime consent for adding two crossing points into the area has set a dangerous precedent that the U.N., particularly, seems keen to one day expand into a mandate for the entire operation. Twelve years of evidence suggests that the regime would manipulate any such consent in various ways, as they have with convoys and missions into besieged areas throughout the conflict, where permission would be granted only when political pressure mounted, or in ways that advanced military or political aims. Without a change in the U.N.'s legal position, this manipulation would once again plunge the response into peril.

When looking at other examples of intra-state conflicts where states have been responsible for the systematic blocking of humanitarian aid, such as Ethiopia and Myanmar, the U.N. has been unable to resolve the operational crisis that this denial creates. In this typology of conflict, where a UNSC resolution is not present, the U.N.’s belief in the necessity of state consent despite strategic and arbitrary aid denial has contributed to famine in Tigray and has left tens of thousands of those affected by Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar without assistance, weeks after the disaster.

Were the regime to remove consent after the resolution expired, the U.N. and the entire Syria response would revert to the same dysfunctional and desperate situation as we see elsewhere. Contingency plans for use in a non-renewal situation would likely atrophy in a consent-based model or at least create operational confusion for as long as the consent lasted. In Syria's northeast, when the crossing point to the area was removed from the resolution in 2020, the response became split between a Damascus-led operation and cross-border work. Information sharing fell apart, budgets separated and pooled funds had to be topped up bilaterally, duplication and significant gaps appeared, and the quality of programs suffered, despite the best efforts of those working in the area. The significant challenges the northeast presented are instructive for any such arrangement in the northwest. At the heart of these questions is consent for whom? To do what? Consent for the U.N.? Damascus-registered international NGOs? For cross-border or cross-line aid delivery, or only both? For everyone, even the unregistered national NGOs that do most of the actual delivery on the ground? Would consent from Damascus require greater information sharing with that office? Even at a purely logistical level, it would be impossible to address these questions before July, if at all.

It's not just about aid access

However, treating this as solely a question of logistics is also inappropriate. Humanitarian aid access denial is becoming more commonplace, primarily because it is not treated with the gravity it deserves. Arbitrary aid denial, starvation, and breaches of international humanitarian law are serious offences. Still, when they intersect with humanitarian aid, there is a tendency to forget about them as soon as access is, even temporarily, restored, with no accountability for the perpetrators. The space that is being lost must be reclaimed. This can happen through better documentation and information, diplomacy and advocacy, justice and accountability, and by recognizing the severity of these concerns and factoring them more prominently into peace and political agreements and transitional justice processes.

Where there is no doubt about the strategy and intentions behind the denial of aid access, as is the case in Syria's more-than-12-year-long war, these issues rise from being solely concerns of humanitarian access negotiations into central concerns of the conflict's dynamics, stability, and the long-term status and security of the population.

Given the history, the lack of any political agreement, behavior change, or international negotiation about the long-term status of the territory in the northwest, it is wholly inappropriate to upend the stability and security of millions of people by altering a humanitarian access agreement alone. Continued operational access to the northwest can only be achieved through a UNSC resolution at this time.

However, the political track and diplomatic negotiations should begin to discuss the long-term territorial and governance arrangements for the northwest, with sustained access being a component of these discussions. These agreements should consider the history of aid denial and ensure that any alteration in the current arrangement comes with solid international agreements that enjoy local buy-in, clear expectations and metrics, guardrails, and monitoring mechanisms. Additionally, any scenario in which the resolution is ended in the future must be accompanied by an agreed snapback arrangement, in which the current cross-border modalities operating by notification and not consent would be reinstated without the need for an additional UNSC vote if any indication of access restrictions, arbitrary denial, or systemic and strategic use of aid as a military or political weapon continued or reemerged.

Twelve years of aid access restrictions and denial deserve far greater consideration and concern than they receive today. Not only should parties who have perpetrated these behaviors be held to account and be closely managed through agreements and guarantees in the future, but those affected by these actions should receive justice and accountability and have their broken trust restored through recognition of their suffering and its impact, careful handling of future negotiations, access to justice and accountability, and genuine consideration of their protection and continued access to essential assistance.


Emma Beals is a Senior Advisor at the European Institute of Peace, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, and the former co-founder and editor of Syria in Context. She is an independent consultant focused on Syria and conflict.

Photo by AHMAD AL-ATRASH/AFP via Getty Images

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