Today, the UN Security Council renewed a resolution that allows humanitarian aid to be delivered to millions of Syrians without the permission of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In the weeks leading up to the vote, diplomats, aid workers, and millions of Syrians worried that Russia would use its veto in the Security Council to block the cross-border aid. They had good reason to be concerned. Moscow, one of Assad’s closest backers, has long argued that the humanitarian mission violates Syria’s sovereignty, and it has previously vetoed the use of other crossing points for aid delivery into Syria. This time, the crisis is averted, at least for the next six months. But the uncertainty about the resolution’s fate has exposed the difficulty of providing humanitarian aid during an era of great-power competition.

In recent years, Russia and China have shown themselves more willing to use their diplomatic muscle and veto power at the Security Council to enable governments to deprive their own people of humanitarian aid. This summer, Russia and China helped Ethiopia delay meetings of the Security Council to discuss the declaration of famine in Tigray, according to Mark Lowcock, the former undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator. Famine still has not been officially declared in northern Ethiopia, though nearly half a million children are estimated to be malnourished in Tigray.

To justify limiting or blocking aid, China and Russia argue that sovereignty is inviolable even when oppressive regimes are conducting siege warfare against their own people. Of course, theirs is a very inconsistent application of international law, especially given Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine. By politicizing and weaponizing humanitarian aid, China and Russia are expanding their influence at the expense of international stability, humanitarian norms, and human rights.

If oppressive governments can manipulate relief aid to prosecute their own internal conflicts, the international community loses an essential tool to alleviate suffering and manage crises. The United States and its allies must find ways to minimize the impact of great-power competition on humanitarian crises—in Syria and beyond. One way would be to move some of the debates over relief aid out of a polarized Security Council.

THE LAST LIFELINE

The weaponization of humanitarian aid is not a new phenomenon, but the results of it in Syria are particularly acute and tragic. After a revolution broke out in Syria in 2011, the Assad regime systematically denied humanitarian assistance to large swaths of its population, seeking to force the surrender of communities under opposition control or eliminate them altogether. In response, the Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2165 in 2014. This resolution allowed UN agencies to fund, deliver, and coordinate aid through four border crossings to areas that Assad’s forces did not control—without the regime’s consent. As a result, aid agencies reached millions of people who would otherwise have remained beyond help.

In recent years, however, Russia—Assad’s indispensable allyhas used its leverage at the Security Council to whittle the resolution’s remit down to a single crossing between Syria and Turkey. Even with these restrictions, UN aid reaches 4.5 million people trapped in northwest Syria, mostly survivors of Assad’s sieges and Russia’s bombing campaigns. Still, Moscow’s efforts have ensured that the vast majority of UN aid is funneled through Damascus, giving the Assad regime more control over aid delivery. This control has allowed Assad to withhold aid from certain areas and channel it to his allies. It also lets him shape the narrative of the conflict itself. Most infamously, the UN hub in Damascus did not disclose the Syrian government’s siege of the rebel-held town of Madaya until shocking images of starving children circulated in the media in January 2016.

Moscow has also used the threat of its veto to extract diplomatic concessions from other Security Council members, including the United States. Last year, it threatened to shut down the remaining crossing, Bab al-Hawa, to secure Security Council approval for early recovery activities in regime-controlled areas and greater support for cross-line aid operations, where humanitarian assistance is channeled through Damascus across the frontlines into opposition-controlled Syria. Cross-line aid delivery gives the Assad regime more control over what aid gets into northwest Syria. It also tends to be poorly coordinated and lacks the robust monitoring mechanisms that govern cross-border aid.

UN aid reaches 4.5 million people trapped in northwest Syria.

This past July, after furious debate at the Security Council, Russia forced through its own draft of the UN cross-border extension, which gave aid groups only six months to plan for how to meet the acute needs of Syrians in northwest Syria. Previously, the resolution would somewhat assuredly be extended for 12 months at a time. This would give aid groups the ability to hire aid workers, plan programs, and run hospitals, schools, water facilities, and food deliveries to serve millions dependent on that aid. With the resolution set to expire on January 10, the Security Council had to vote once again on whether to extend the UN mandate for another six months.

The short six-month time frame and the diplomatic uncertainty have left UN agencies and nongovernmental organizations unable to plan an effective humanitarian response. For example, they cannot hire for positions that may or may not be funded. The impact on the ground has been tangible. The Northwest Syria NGO Forum reported last year that over 8,500 nongovernmental jobs in northwest Syria had been cut and over 400 medical, educational, protection, and water and sanitation facilities’ activities suspended. The bottom line is that the mere threat of a Russian veto has already atrophied the humanitarian response.

For Russia, that is likely the point. The Syrian regime and Russia could not quickly retake northwestern Syria by force. They would face an extended and expanded insurgency, complicated by the presence of Turkish troops. But by limiting aid to the region while sporadically bombing it, they are able to contain the opposition and weaken the civilian population. Cutting off cross-border aid altogether would further tighten the noose. Millions of Syrians would pay a terrible price. Many would try to flee to Turkey or other neighboring countries, which have largely closed their doors to Syrian refugees. The results could destabilize an already fragile region, resulting in additional suffering for which U.S. and European donors would foot the bill. The United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom have already been the most generous donors to humanitarian aid worldwide for the past decade and will be hard-pressed to sustain those levels.

Worse, the harmful effects of a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Syria could easily spread beyond the region. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is facing an election later this year, would likely respond to a fresh wave of Syrian refugees by pushing the flow into Europe. The last major movement of Syrian refugees and migrants, in 2015–16, entrenched divisions within European societies, elevated far-right parties, and challenged European conceptions of human rights. Putin would surely rejoice to see Europe face such a situation again.

IS PERMISSION NEEDED?

What Assad and Putin are trying to do in Syria is not new. In 2008, the military government in Myanmar, fearing outside interference by foreign governments, forbade international aid workers from entering the country after Cyclone Nargis left nearly 140,000 people dead and another 2.4 million in peril. Today, Myanmar’s military junta is preventing aid from reaching several ethnic minority areas, whether delivered internally or by cross-border means. In the Tigray region of Ethiopia, the federal government, hoping to cut off opposition forces and weaken populations under rebel control, imposed a blockade two years ago on aid and services to millions of civilians. Over the last two years, Russia and China have blocked the Security Council from passing resolutions decrying the humanitarian crisis and calling for stronger humanitarian action in both Myanmar and Ethiopia.

An oppressive government should not be able to decide which of its citizens receive foreign assistance, knowing that Russia and China will protect it at the Security Council. The United States and its allies must find ways to minimize the human tragedy that results when great-power competition plays out in humanitarian crises. In certain cases, removing the Security Council from the equation would be an important first step.

Even before the passage of Resolution 2165, a number of legal scholars had argued that a Security Council resolution is not required to legalize the delivery of cross-border aid in the face of opposition from oppressive governments. The argument is essentially twofold. First, there is no rule of international law that says, unequivocally, that it is illegal for UN humanitarian agencies to cross an international border into part of a country over which the national government does not have territorial control to provide impartial humanitarian assistance in full cooperation with local authorities and local communities.

Second, the Assad regime’s refusal to allow humanitarian assistance to populations in need throughout the conflict suggests a pattern in which alternatives such as cross-border aid are necessary. The UN General Assembly, the Security Council, and the UN emergency relief coordinator have all implicitly or explicitly suggested that the Syrian government’s withholding of consent to humanitarian assistance in non–government controlled parts of Syria is arbitrary. This means, among other things, that the Syrian government has blocked aid in a manner that violates a state’s obligations under international law. For example, states are not allowed to starve civilian populations. Nor can they withhold aid to civilians because those civilians are deemed supportive of the state’s enemies.

The mere threat of a Russian veto has already atrophied the humanitarian response.

More recently, the American Relief Coalition for Syria, a group of Syrian diaspora–led humanitarian organizations, and international lawyers at Guernica 37, a British law practice that focuses on international criminal and human rights law, argued that although action by the Security Council gave a clearer basis for cross-border aid with Resolution 2165, the situation on the ground today makes the resolution only one of several legal justifications for such aid to continue. In short, the regime’s arbitrary denial of aid throughout the conflict and the static lines of control in the country support the argument that cross-border humanitarian assistance is legal.  

None of this is to suggest that the Security Council should refrain from renewing cross-border aid. Even a temporary disruption of aid could be catastrophic for the people of northwest Syria. The UN’s Office of Legal Affairs still considers the resolution a prerequisite for this humanitarian assistance to continue, and UN agencies clearly still feel bound by this internal legal opinion. Although the other members of the Security Council should continue their diplomatic efforts to keep Resolution 2165 alive, the current dilemma will persist until there is a vigorous and transparent debate between the Office of Legal Affairs and numerous outside experts who disagree with its analysis.

Other UN bodies have an important role to play in the case of Syria. As scholar Rebecca Barber has argued, the General Assembly and its relevant committees could pass a resolution underscoring the imperative of continuing cross-border aid in light of conditions in northwest Syria. Such a step would be an important demonstration of global political will and would strengthen the legal argument that Security Council action is not necessary.

More broadly, the United States and its allies should work to enshrine the right to humanitarian assistance even if a sovereign government arbitrarily denies it. This could be done by means of a General Assembly resolution or by an amendment to the 1991 resolution that essentially created the current international humanitarian system. Such amendments could clarify how and when the UN is able to provide for civilians in situations such as the ones that exist today in Syria and Ethiopia. The United States and other champions of the international humanitarian architecture should encourage like-minded nations to build multilateral support for this sort of approach.

Acting now is critical. China and Russia will likely grow even more willing to use their influence on behalf of tyrants as great-power competition grows fiercer. Their weaponization of humanitarian aid is devastating for millions of civilians and will be costly for the United States and its partners. Yet with diplomatic cooperation and persistence, the crisis in Syria could serve as the international community’s chance to tackle the problem head-on and, in the process, save lives in other humanitarian crises, both now and in the future.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • NATASHA HALL is Senior Fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • HARDIN LANG is Vice President for Programs and Policy at Refugees International.
  • More By Natasha Hall
  • More By Hardin Lang