A crucial UN Security Council resolution authorizing cross-border aid deliveries to Syria without Syrian government approval is set to expire in January. Since 2014, these deliveries have been a lifeline for millions of people living in rebel-held areas in the north of the country. If an extension is not approved, amid worsening winter conditions and a global economic crisis, it could result in a humanitarian catastrophe.
Contrary to the common perception that the situation in Syria has been resolved and that Syrians no longer need urgent humanitarian aid, conditions, especially in the rebel-held north-west, have long been deteriorating. The Assad regime and Russia continue to block access to food, medicine and other vital necessities. The COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine and the ensuing global economic downturn have exacerbated the crisis. Skyrocketing inflation in neighboring Turkey has also had a devastating effect on the region’s economy, where the Turkish lira is widely used alongside the US dollar.
Today some four million people in northwestern Syria need urgent help. More than 3.1 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) suffer from food insecurity. Clean water is scarce. Dangerous communicable diseases like cholera are spreading as families prefer to spend what little money they have on food rather than cleaning products. The security situation is also worsening, with escalating clashes between armed factions, attacks by ISIL (ISIS) and government bombings. Last month, rocket attacks on the Maram internally displaced persons camp in Idlib killed at least 10 civilians, including children.
Despite all this, we have witnessed a sharp decline in humanitarian aid to Syria, first due to the COVID-19 pandemic and then the shift in international funding towards the Ukraine crisis. As a result, humanitarian organizations are struggling to keep up with the widening gap between growing needs and dwindling resources.
As the deadline for the renewal of the cross-border aid authorization approaches, there is a need to rethink how the international community delivers aid to Syria. There are certain steps that can be taken to ensure that millions of Syrians, who have already endured years of conflict, do not continue to suffer.
First, it must be recognized that Russian approval is not needed to deliver cross-border aid to Syria under International Humanitarian Law (IHL).
Moscow has been hampering international efforts to deliver aid to Syria’s besieged populations from the start. It was Russia that demanded that the UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution on cross-border aid be renewed every six months (originally the renewal was annual) and has been constantly threatening to allow the resolution to lapse. However, under IHL, all parties to the conflict have an obligation to allow humanitarian actors to deliver essential supplies to affected populations; no one can veto humanitarian action.
Diplomatic attention is currently focused on ensuring the renewal of the cross-border aid resolution. But it is necessary to change the approach, to remember the responsibilities of the international community under IHL and to propose alternative solutions that would keep the flow of aid across the border in case it is not extended in January.
Several states and international organizations are already working to achieve this goal. The UK, for example, has led the creation of an alternative group to facilitate the flow of funds to international and Syrian NGOs in case it is not renewed in January 2023. But the UN is unlikely to continue its help. cross-border operations without a UN Security Council resolution in line with its interpretation of what constitutes respect for the principle of state sovereignty. However, as a recent report commissioned by the American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS) argued convincingly, UN entities have a legal mandate to continue cross-border aid operations under international law. Turning to the UN Security Council only perpetuates the politicization of aid to Syria.
Second, at this point, the international community must also start thinking about changing the type of aid it provides to northern Syria. Beyond simply aiming to address basic and immediate humanitarian needs, parties should focus on facilitating development and building resilience in the region through longer-term projects focused on sustainability and localization. It is not just the challenge of raising additional funds in an environment of scarce resources, but also of better linking humanitarian and development efforts.
While some donors, such as Norway and Switzerland, are shifting towards multi-year funding and support for development programming in northwestern Syria, there is much room for improvement.
Shifting to a longer-term approach that fosters economic recovery, builds service delivery capacity and supports resilience would be beneficial even if the UNSC cross-border aid resolution wins another six-month extension in January, as it would lessen dependency of the region in aid and external support in the long term. And if the resolution isn’t scaled up, that focus would become even more important.
Shifting the focus of international aid to capacity building is crucial also because of the potential for a large-scale return of Syrian refugees over the next year.
In Turkey, where millions of Syrians currently reside, anti-refugee rhetoric is gaining traction amid a rapidly deepening cost-of-living crisis. Ahead of the 2023 elections, opposition parties are taking advantage of rising anti-refugee sentiment by pledging to relocate Syrians back to their country of origin en masse. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AK party has also addressed the refugee issue. Erdoğan himself has spoken of plans to send at least a million refugees across the border.
The possible return of hundreds of thousands of refugees to Syria requires the urgent attention of donors and humanitarian and development agencies. Increased demand for funds and overburdened financial resources will make it even more difficult to maintain the current low level of delivery of supplies to those in need. Most of the refugees will not return to their places of origin, but will become internally displaced in northwest Syria, an increasingly populous territory facing economic and humanitarian crises. There are huge security concerns given the “documented human rights abuses and persecution at the hands of the Syrian government and affiliated militias” faced by returnees from Jordan and Lebanon, as well as ongoing clashes between non-state armed groups in areas outside government control.
National and international organizations must devise plans and envision scenarios based on hosting large numbers of returnees across northern Syria. The international community and the UN should intensify their diplomatic efforts to ensure that such negotiations take place in an organized manner that allows for the safe and voluntary return of refugees.
In short, after years of faltering support, the international community has an obligation to enable the four million people trapped in northwestern Syria to not only meet their basic needs, but also begin to build resilience.
In the short term, regardless of the destination of the United Nations Security Council cross-border aid resolution, unconditional access to vital aid, especially food and water, must be guaranteed for all Syrians. This requires international media coverage and fundraising campaigns to boost donations for the Syria crisis, which has largely faded from public consciousness with the proliferation of global crises. In the longer term, Syrians must be allowed to not only survive, but also to rebuild their lives and livelihoods.
The Syrian people must not be held hostage to politics.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.
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