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Power & Politics Behind Humanitarian Mechanisms in Syria


The Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies is a Lebanese based think tank. The institute seeks to conduct rigorous research and analysis, done by engaging with young researchers under the oversight of experienced academics, in order to promote an enhanced understanding of the region’s political landscape and lead to better-informed decision-making by politicians and activists in the region and abroad.

While the author made all efforts possible to cross check information and reproduce only accurate facts and events, this does not overrule the possibility of inaccuracies or oversights, for which he expresses hereby his regrets.

The views, opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this paper are strictly those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS) or the professional or associative affiliations of the author.

The Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS) and the author’s affiliations take no responsibility for any errors or omissions or for the correctness of the information contained in this paper.

Cover Image:

The Bab al-Salam border crossing between Turkey and Syria in the Syrian town of Azaz, as seen from the Syrian side during the Syrian Civil War. The Turkish border gate is called Öncüpınar. January 9, 2017. Qasioun News Agency.


In 2011 and with the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the conflict gradually became a melting pot for geopolitical considerations and regional power dynamics. Unfortunately, these dynamics were also sparkled by the explosion of a regional humanitarian crisis, that further attracted regional and local power dynamics and became intrinsic to one another. To a large extent, both debates went hand in hand, both humanitarian processes and political ones included a bit of both. For example, the Brussels conference[1] is a unique annual event awaited by humanitarian actors, CSOs, governments in the region, global powers and the EU. The statements, pledges and commitments made were a political expression of the humanitarian crisis. The absence of the Syrian government, the focus on sanctions and accountability, being hosted by the EU are all translations of politicization.

While humanitarians focus on humanitarian principles and hope that their engagement is solely in the lens of the Core Humanitarian Standards[2] they often, in good faith, ignore the politics behind the humanitarian commitments of governments and political UN bodies. This detachment, or difficulty, in understanding mechanisms and models for humanitarian work in the lens of political positioning and progress often leads to ineffective advocacy efforts and an inability to influence the future of humanitarian aid. One needs to be aware however, that humanitarians don’t entirely overlook these political realities and have often a clear understanding. However reputational risks, and the impact of this political role on their perceived impartiality and independence makes it difficult to be openly engaging around influencing the politics that could make aid more effective.

The recent debates around cross-border aid to areas not under regime control in Syria is yet another moment where geopolitics and regional power dynamics been the greatest drivers behind the debates the United Nations Security Council witnessed. From 2014 onwards, the genesis of the cross-border resolution and its annual debates have been heavily marked with power and political tug-of-wars. On the 10th of July 2020 the Council saw heated discussions, spreading through the evening, around the cross-border resolution. The result was further shrinking of the cross-border aid mechanism at the expense of a Russian led call for further territorial integrity of Syria and the Government in Damascus – a language consistent with calls from the backers of the Astana Process, Turkey, Iran and Russia.

Understanding the role of geopolitics and power relations in determining humanitarian strategies could be essential to forecast and anticipate changes in the modalities but also to allow humanitarian agencies to gather the political pointers that would allow them to design more effective advocacy strategies.

This paper would seek to present a non-exhaustive geopolitical assessment of the major stakeholders in the Syrian conflict, without attempting to be considered as a geopolitical briefing of the Syrian conflict particularly. However, these pointers and positioning of the actors would be analyzed with respect to the humanitarian situation.

Syria Cross Border Resolution: 2014 – Present

The early days of the Syrian conflict have witnessed complex and constant changes in territorial jurisdictions. This shift in authority, was accompanied with a growing number of internally displaced people (IDPs), attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructures along with war methods that further affect civilian populations – such as sieges. The latter context resulted in growing humanitarian needs with shrinking humanitarian access, requiring the international community to play a role of a locksmith to unlock more favorable conditions to operate humanitarian aid.

The Security Council became the most convenient go to forum to create the multilateral environment to allow humanitarian aid to access all communities in Syria and most importantly allow humanitarian actors to pursue their compliance with the Core Humanitarian Standards as much as possible. By resorting to the Security Council, humanitarian action became as such sponsored by the power relations and geopolitical positions of its members. The changes in the members’ positions, particularly the resort to their veto power, became a translation of their power in the Syrian conflict and the interests they would like to see transcribed out of it.

This section will provide a brief overview of the jurisdictions of the cross-border resolutions since 2014 and the most important discussions taking place in parallel. The analysis of this section provides a clear outlook on how members positions shifted along the trajectory of the Syrian conflict. The future of this modality and the ability to reach the populations in need depends on them. While many of these debates could have happened without any documentation, and in closed door settings, the section will only reflect on statements made public from delegations mostly in the sessions of the Security Council.

The biggest determinant behind the need for a cross-border aid modality is intrinsic to the influx of forcibly displaced communities and refugees. Similarly, to the 1991 Northern Iraq Kurdish displacement, the cross-border followed by the Safe Haven were a result of a Turkish resistance to accept more refugees.[3] Turkish authorities, then and in 2014, showed clear unwillingness to accept more refugees and utilized their regional power to resolve this development. In 2014 approximately 100,000 Syrian displaced were stranded in almost 25 camps across the border with Turkey.[4] Many were denied entry by Turkish officials. While in 1991 the United States was able to conduct, a lengthy and expensive, safe zone to prevent Iraqi forces from targeting displaced communities. Turkey, in 2013-2014 resorted to its own air force to protect the north-west border zone from the Syrian governmental forces, imposing a unilateral safe zone.[5] The growing needs, and the growing insecurities and risks behind cross-line operations from Damascus along with the pressures from Turkey to provide safety for IDPs stranded on its borders, all created a favorable environment for the Security Council to begin considering a cross-border intervention.

The first resolution in relation to humanitarian access in Syria, UNSC-R-2139 (2014), became the benchmark for future resolutions. The UN described it as an outcome of “intense negotiations” and Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon considered it a “not something to be negotiated; it is something to be allowed by virtue of international law”.[6] While it only addresses the obligations under international law for humanitarian access, it seeks to set the principles that could be further elaborated. It represents the international consensus on humanitarian access. Remarkably the statement of Mrs. Samantha Power, ambassador of the United States, has clearly described the process behind which the Security Council, successfully (or not) adopted this resolution. She said, “for a body [ the Security Council] that had been divided, today’s resolution was long overdue and a necessary step towards reality.”[7] She added, “It was remarkable to the world that it had taken three years for action, and it was a gross understatement that it should not have taken this long.”

Resolution 2139, however, was not enough to address the growing humanitarian needs and many violations took place subsequently. On July 14, 2014 the Security Council authorized humanitarian access without the Syrian government consent into rebel-held areas through four border crossings from Turkey (Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa), Iraq (Al-Yaroubiya) and Jordan (Ramthan). Syria did consider this resolution, UNSC-R-2165 (2014), as a violation to its sovereignty and territorial integrity. The statement of Mr. Jaafari (Syria’s representative to the UN), and 2165 will become benchmarks for the coming six years. The first, a principle that gradually became adopted by allies to the Government of Syria and a justification to limit future authorizations from the Security Council. The second, a blue print for future resolutions, a breakthrough that other members of the Council try to replicate. Reuters reported that Russia, backed by China, supported the resolution after more than a month of negotiations. Western diplomats had to water down some of the initial ambitions, such as sanctions in case of non-compliance to guarantee Russian and Chinese votes.[8]

In December 2014, UNSC Resolution 2191 renewed the authorization for an additional twelve months.[9] December 15 became an annual date to many humanitarians, particularly as the epic for its renewal became either a Holliday present for many before their vacations or a worry that they might carry their advocacy work and business continuity, evacuation and the whole-nine-yard over their break. While the Russian role in Syria was not very apparent in 2014, they next year (2015) will see a forthcoming role in Syria authorized by the Russian parliament starting in September 2015. At time of renewal in December 2015, the rise of ISIS, the growing Russian role and the peak of the refugee crisis mobilized further the international community to create additional obstacles for the negotiations. In line with the Syrian government prerogatives the Russian delegation focused on terrorism and that the conflict essentially is a counter-terrorism operation. They were particularly concerned of the use of these crossings by terrorist groups either to transfer weapons or to allow the entry of foreign fighters.[10]

On the ground, humanitarian agencies were not much impressed, but were wary of the political consensus reached. World Vision International published a report three months later expressing that with both resolutions 2165 and 2191 the Security Council “proved it could finally unite to prioritize the needs of civilians in Syria and to demand an end to their suffering.” The organizations signing this report warned however, that these obligations were violated on the ground, particularly by members of the UNSC.[11] While the report does not explicitly mention the responsibility of Council members, the report does state that 90% of weapons used in Syria come from permanent members of the UNSC, particularly Russia.[12]

That year saw major changes on the military front. A three-year siege of Homs ended in December 2015 while the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura failed to reach a freeze zone for Aleppo. On the eastern front, the US-led anti-ISIS coalition supported Kurdish forces on the ground fighting the Islamic State. This diversification of actors and the regain of territories by the Government of Syria created a favorable environment for the UN Security Council roadmap for peace in Syria, resolutions 2254 represented another difficult consensus in the Security Council.

In December 2016, almost a month before the expiration of the authorization for cross-border aid, and after months of siege and fighting in Aleppo, the Security Council was able to reach a consensus for a humanitarian evacuation from Aleppo. UNSC 2328 (2015) was introduced, it came months after several appeals and attempts for a ceasefire. The fighting and human suffering continued, and the UNSC resolution was only possible to be reached when a clear winner of this battle was apparent. The resolution in this sense did not end the suffering and the targeting of civilians during hostilities. Looking back at the resolution, Christine Chinkin and Mary Kaldor, described the resolution to be issued “too late as nearly everyone had left the part of Aleppo which was then under siege.”[13] This observation is not just noted by international law experts, but it is obvious from statements from parties to the conflict. While the ICRC was announcing the safe evacuation of civilians willing to leave Aleppo, the Syrian army was declaring that the army “returned security to the city”. Moreover, the Syrian statement also affirms that “this victory represents a strategic change and a turning point in the war against terrorism on the one hand and a crushing blow to the terrorists”.[14] Russian Defense ministry officials even announced that the Syrian jets conducted 18,800 sorties to support Syrian Armed Forces ground troops between September 2015 and December 2016.[15]Two days later,  the Council was able to renew the cross-border authorization for an additional year (January 2018), resolution 2332.

Going back to the evacuation agreement, and the politics behind it, the Secretary General of the UN even described at the time that “negotiations are ongoing between the parties, for an evacuation deal, facilitated by Russia and Turkey. We support these efforts and stand ready to help implement and oversee such an agreement which we understand may now be imminent.”[16] This could easily exemplify how the humanitarian developments reached in Syria are primarily an expression of regional power dynamics and less of an effort of principled actions. The Secretary General further clarifies the politics behind humanitarianism, and the crippled role of the Council when he announces that the latter “has not exercised its preeminent responsibility with regard to the maintenance of international peace and security. History will not easily absolve us […]”. [17] Days before this statement, the Council failed to reach consensus over a ceasefire in Aleppo. The Russian delegation used multiple times its veto, this could best be described as blocking any resolution that could hamper the operations on the ground. As such the renewal of the cross-border couple of days later became a necessity to reach the additional IDPs that left Aleppo towards the Idlib Province.

Accordingly, the context in which the authorization resolution passed was constantly moving and conditioned to strategic progresses from actors on the ground. The end of the battle of Aleppo, shifted the geopolitics of the conflict. With Turkey anticipating the next conflict lines to reach Idlib, threatening its strategic depth, it had to reach a form of agreement with regional actors involved in the Syrian conflict. The Astana talks were therefore conducted, symbolically shifting the resolution process from Geneva to Astana.

The agreement is the latest in a series of ceasefire proposals aimed at ending Syria’s war. The plan calls for the cessation of hostilities between rebel groups and forces fighting on behalf of Bashar al-Assad’s government in four so-called de-escalation zones in mainly opposition-held areas of the country, with Russia, Turkey and Iran to act as guarantors.[18]

This agreement challenged the negotiations in reaching an extension of the cross-border humanitarian access in Syria. The Chinese delegation for the first time abstained from voting. The Bolivian delegation addressed the lack of consideration for the Astana agreement in the new resolution.[19]

Over the next year, the renewal of the UNSC resolution became further threatened, with multiple discussions throughout the year on the future of the resolution and aid. Developments on the ground became more influential on the content of the resolution. While Russian forces were supporting military operations that expanded the Government of Syria control on the ground, the Russian diplomacy was aiming at ensuring these gains are reflected in the UNSC. At time of renewal of the authorization in December 2018, the Russia delegation described the resolution as “divorced from reality”, and that there’s a need to end the cross-border mechanism. This mostly aims at describing the gains of the government on the ground.[20] At the same time, Mr. Jaafari affirmed that western governments have “ignored the fact that only 5 per cent of humanitarian assistance in Syria is through border crossings, while the authorization for it degrades the country’s sovereignty”.[21]This statement is only to mean that the need for cross-border is shrinking and therefore no need for it anymore. Other statements also address matters of importance in the region, such as refugee return, or related to political positions on Syria, such as reconstruction money, however both matters are not related to the resolution. The UK ambassador for example mentions that the resolution is emphatically not a call for refugees to return, but rather a call for Syrian parties to create conditions conducive to the safe and voluntary return of refugees.  She urged the Government to stop using aid as a weapon of war and emphasized that reconstruction money will only be available from the United Kingdom and its partners when a lasting political process is in place.[22] While no one doubts that the resolution is not related to these themes, raising them in the optics of this resolution is another indication of the use of the humanitarian aspects to serve other political agendas.

The subsequent renewal in January 2020 came so close to the expiry of the authorization putting at risk many operations. The reasons behind this delay came mostly following intense negotiations to reach an agreement. The negotiations over a new resolution where so tight that the UN press office, titled their press release “Avoiding a Midnight Deadline”. For the first time in 6 years the UN failed to keep all four crossings open, limiting as such the humanitarian access to all people in need in Syria. The Council resolution, 2504, only kept the Turkish border crossings open (Bab al Hawa, and Bab al Salam) preserving a Turkish role as a gate keeper to Syria and go/no-go player for humanitarian actors. The resolution also reduced the time frame for six months only.[23] The January debates in the Council were similar to the debates in 2016 (Aleppo Battle), this time taking place while the Idlib province was under siege, and Turkey further concerned of a new wave of refugees leaving the province and awaiting at the border. Turkey needed the crossings to remain open to ensure aid reaches these communities and prevent an influx, an imperative for Turkey since 2014. In the North East (Yaroubia) that was not the same.

The deadline for this new authorization being so short, kept humanitarians and governments on their toes till the last minute. In July, while negotiating a new resolution, the US delegation described the discussions as a struggle “to come to terms with the efforts of two of [Council’s] members to end cross-border humanitarian aid to the Syrian people. Good faith negotiations were met with intransigence and contempt, and resolutions repeatedly faced inexplicable veto. But today, the Council showed that resolve and unity is a powerful combination”. [24] Looking further down the line of the statement of the United States, one can clearly see the linkages between pursuing the cross-border aid and the political positions on the conflict as a whole. Although the passed resolution further restricts humanitarian access to Bab al-Hawa only, and therefore shrinking its humanitarian impact on Syria and populations in need. However, the US still considered “that the Assad regime has not yet demonstrated that it is ready to end the war against you, the Syrian people. Until the Assad regime and its backers take the necessary and irreversible steps to implement the political solution necessary to end this conflict as outlined in Resolution 2254, the United States and our allies will stand with you to ensure the humanitarian aid you deserve reaches everyone in need”.[25] The adoption of resolution 2533 became a clear platform to bring up the politics on the conflict more than the aid itself, particularly while Al-Yaroubia crossing remains closed.

Understanding the geopolitics and pointers behind humanitarian positions

As discussed in the previous section, the debates taking place in parallel the UNSC sessions in relation to cross-border humanitarian aid, were essentially driven by political positions on the conflict but also by geopolitical considerations from brokers and stakeholders involved in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey in that regard, while not a member of the Council, played a great role in influencing the cross-order mechanism for Syria in the last six years. Particularly in pushing for a humanitarian access to prevent an influx of refugees. When it comes to cross-border work Turkey is currently using its border presence as a leverage to play a bigger role around the refugee crisis, and the Syrian conflict. The cross-border resolutions currently in place allows Turkey to have a strong leverage on the North West of Syria. Turkey could be in favor of further cross border monopoly, even across the North East, that will allow Turkey to strengthen its role and influence inside Syria and play other strategic roles. This includes deterring Kurdish authorities[26], support friendly CSOs[27], keep the flow of aid to prevent influx, and carry out police role and de-escalation with Russian troops[28]. All these would allow Turkey to extend and fortify its incursion inside Syria and be able to achieve bigger goals when political talks resume.

The escalating situation with the Kurdish actors in both Iraq and Syria is worrying for Turkey. Being in control of humanitarian aid and flow would allow Turkey to have a greater leverage of the type of aid going to the North East. This would provide Turkey with the foothold to push for more conditions and control over the Kurdish authorities.

While Turkey has supported the last Astana statement calling for Syrian territorial integrity, Turkey is more interested in opposing self-rule[29]. Differently from Russia and Iran, Turkey has no Syrian approval for its operations, hence its reliance on cross-border and the Astana agreement in which and the de-escalation zones, and the joint patrol justify its presence.[30]

Turkey is also interested in maintaining its geopolitical relevance as a gatekeeper for migration to Europe. The support of a Turkish border crossing would allow Turkey to play a role of an emergency actor to ensure humanitarian aid.

The government of Syria, on the other hand, currently interested in expanding as much its authority and legitimacy as possible. As any other sovereign country, the cross-border resolution breaks the theoretical idea behind sovereignty as described since Westphalia and the UN Charter.

Closing humanitarian access from neighboring countries would allow the regime to have stronger operations in areas recently acquired and be able to condition aid and development as a form of byproduct to reconciliations.[31] The Government of Syria will also be able to use the end of the cross border as an opportunity to break the Kurdish Authority in the North East and mobilize friendly local tribes to re-spread the legitimacy of Damascus.[32] The upcoming elections could provide the best timing for this. It will also make US troops in the North East at further risk, accelerating their withdrawal from Syria.

Kurdish Authorities in the North East however, have been heavily invested in maintaining its role as a stabilizing actor in the North East. The access of humanitarian aid through Iraq to the North East has allowed the Kurdish authorities to play a strong role in effectively imposing its authority.

the region of Al-Hassaka, Rojova, Afrin, Rakka, Deir el Zour are also areas rich of Arab Sunni tribes. More than twenty tribes constitute the local community leadership. Arab tribes despite their divisions, where however concerned of the increased power of Kurdish leadership in the areas. While some were allied with Kurdish forces, and others with Syrian forces. Many cross-border tribes joined forces with ISIS resulting in its lightspeed expansion over Syria. Following the 2015 battle of Hassaka, the neutralisation of ISIS across Syria and Iraq, many clan members currently face violations related to perceived affiliations.[33] Both Syrian and Kurdish forces, collected intelligence on clanship roles in the expansion of ISIS. Many remain in multitude of detention centres, and IDP camps, awaiting reconciliations with Kurdish authorities. Many tribal leaders have requested young members to join the SDF recently as signs of pacification, while Kurdish forces would therefore be able to keep sight of at risk tribes.

Three groups now form the Arab tribes in Hassaka. The first has called for the establishment of a ‘Syrian Tribal Mobilization’ under the auspices of Damascus and Moscow. The second is loyal to the Iran-backed Baqir Brigade, Baqir being among the biggest Mesopotamian clan. The third supports the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria. In contrast to the divisions among tribes of al-Hasakah, Arab tribes in the SDF-controlled areas of Deir ez-Zor have reached a consensus on their demands, refusing to let in the regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, despite attempts by the latter to negotiate with them.

While this picture showcases massive tribal divisions, it is unlikely to see any confrontation, however power dynamics are to be watched particularly at times of extreme pressure on show of allegiance and disputes about their future. Historically, the area is not state-centric and tribes build alliances with the greatest power and join in concert. Similar to other countries in the Middle East, particularly in the Levant where tribes are pan-regional, positions constantly depend on power dynamic. What is important to mention is that tribes see themselves as supra-states where current citizenship is an incident.

In the area there are a multitude of actors involved and constitute at this point the region in Syria that holds the greatest number of actors.[34] Main additions to other regions in Syria is the operational role of the Global Coalition Against ISIS, which brings with it a myriad of military forces and intelligence actors on the ground. Particularly, intelligence services have been present to document the profiles of radical members of ISIS that have joined from their countries and to uncover recruitment and sleeper cells.

Over the years the stabilization role of the Kurdish authorities has complicated any option to dismantle it or to take over. This has been particularly important as the authorities oversee Al-Hol camp and other post-ISIS prisons. The Syrian government is ready to provide more accelerated agreements for return of displaced communities and most likely scrap perceived ISIS-affiliations in exchange to military service. This might become an offer family elders and tribal leaders might take to allow their family members to return to areas of origin. The regime would have in that step increased new-recruits in its forces for another Idlib battle and kept risky populations under close eye of loyal field commanders and military intelligence that could detect any sign of radicalization.

With the absence of cross-border aid, tribal groups allied with Damascus could challenge the Kurds authority and break their alliances with other North-East tribes. This shift in authority, in favor of Ankara and Damascus, could increase instability and violent internal tension.

As for global actors, such as the United States, the end of the cross-border represents a shrink in the influence of the Security Council over the crisis in Syria. While now the US has successfully reached an open door for the coming twelve months, the US sees the cross-border resolution only ending when 2254 starts effectively.[35] The end of a cross-border aid for the North East, particularly, would cause further discomfort for US troops in the region under the anti-ISIS coalition.[36] With less friendly authorities in the region and closer proximity to regime actors the US would avoid troops on the grounds in the area potentially accelerating the withdrawal.

The humanitarian cross-border operation has allowed US allies in the North East, particularly the YPG, to increase their legitimacy and control over the territory providing security for US troops and preventing US direct participation in hostilities.

The US will most likely be interested in a relative stability in parts of Syria without being in control from Damascus, while be able to prevent any rise of ISIS. The US presence on Syrian soil would allow to maintain a balance of power in favour (at least in a tolerable way) to US interests.

Therefore the US is primarily looking from the cross-border aid as an ability to 1)prevent a total control from the regime over the UN humanitarian programs, 2) strengthen the legitimacy of US allies and anti-Assad local governance and provide local stability, and 3) provide freer access to the North East for troops and intelligence for the fight against ISIS but also to control strategic trajectories in the conflict. An end to the cross-border mechanism would be “catastrophic for US interest.” [37]Therefore, the US administration could be quickly shifting to another modality to achieve these aims. While the Caesar Act allows to achieve some of these objectives, particularly point 1[38], it still need to negotiate other modalities. This could lead to further agreements between the US and Turkey, a step that would most likely be at the Kurdish authorities’ legitimacy.

As a neighbouring country Iraq is primarily interested in the positioning the cross-border aid will give. Following the Kurdish referendum, the Government of Erbil lost large jurisdictions particularly authority over border control.[39]The Baghdad government sees the cross-border aid as a heavyweight operation that confirms Iraq’s capacity to manage its border and therefore becomes the go/no-go actor for border relations.[40]

As a major broker, Russia has opposed any form of cross-border access to Syria. The Russians consider them as a violation to the territorial integrity of the Syrian Government. In that sense, Russia has always pushed for more humanitarian action led by Damascus. Over the years, and with the help of Assad’s authority growth on the ground, Russia was able to strengthen the institutions to make humanitarian work out of Damascus feasible. A shift that would be inevitable at some point.

Russia, possibly, sees the end of the cross-border as an ability to strengthen the Assad legitimacy on the ground and ensure that local authorities are more empowered to address community grievances. Moreover, the end of the mechanism will help Russia nationalise the conflict and limit its regional scope.

Syrian opposition groups mostly located in the North West have considered cross-border work a lifeline for their survival. Syrian opposition groups have built, through cross-border aid, a strong Civil Society Ecosystem that exemplified for them the Syrian society without Assad or extremist groups.[41] [42] After the fall of Aleppo these images ended, and cross-border became a pure necessity. Cross-border work has allowed many Syrian CSOs and opposition groups to use these linkages to have access to donors and to do advocacy. Particularly early recovery aid, allowed to build local governance and community leadership, these forms of stabilisation aid had robust links to the political positioning of their donors.[43]

The above describes the positioning of some of the stakeholders engaged in the Syrian conflict and/or active in the Security Council. The quick overview showcases the reasoning and the goals these governments seek to achieve through the cross-border aid or the lack of it. The overview of the previous section describes how these governments utilise the debates in the Security Council and the cross-border authorisation as a venue to project their power and interest in the Syrian conflict to achieve their strategic goals.

Conclusion and Recommendations

The overview in the two previous sections showcase the politics that drive humanitarian models and mechanisms in Syria. While highly unpopular among humanitarian organisations and groups, the drivers of humanitarian aid have been catalysed by consensus and compromises reached by political actors in the Security Council and less by the impartial needs of civilian populations. The mechanism was driven primarily by strategic priorities of regional and global actors.

Humanitarian advocates while, possibly, aware of these realities and the political consensus that ought to be found to continue providing principled aid, are unable to design their advocacy strategies openly to influence the politics behind aid. This discomfort allows humanitarians to protect the perceived impartiality, independence and neutrality of their operations. While the resolution is an outcome of geopolitics and power projection, humanitarian agencies found themselves unaffected by them despite operating in their shadows.

The recent debates in the Security Council, particularly the Secretary General Report presenting the challenges of cross-line aid from Damascus and the logistical capacities of cross-border entry points (used as a technical justification and advocacy tool to argue the necessity of the mechanism and the Yaroubiya crossing) had no relevance on how the Council members voted or on the concessions made in the drafting. Therefore, technical considerations and humanitarian assessments have remained marginal in the decision-making process, at least in recent renewal ventures. Advocates, from humanitarian agencies and organisations, must therefore expand their strategies and go on the “road less travelled”. This will impose on these agencies to invest more time in understanding the political considerations and strategic achievements. The recent renewal for twelve months – which further shrank the space for cross-border aid and made reaching communities more difficult – should serve as a reasonable period to analyse what could another mechanism or model look like to reach communities in need. This would require more engagement with political bodies, embassies, and diplomats but also think tanks and political analysts that are able to bridge the two “worlds”.

The coming months, and the developments around Idlib and the North East could reveal a drastic change in the humanitarian situation recalling a renewed advocacy to reach people in need. In Idlib, the North West more generally, the Turkish-Russian ceasefire brokered in early 2020 is still hanging despite some indications of increased tension and military build-up. If a renewed escalation takes place, this will leave the fragile détente between Russia and Turkey at risk and possibly a Turkish diplomacy to re-engage the humanitarian agenda to prevent a displacement influx, or at least civilian suffering under its watch (which could further damage the confidence building Ankara is trying to build with the Syrian North). In the North East, and under the Kurdish authorities, the tension could also be increasing. On one side, Operation Peace Spring, is aligned with Damascus’s interest in ending all forms of self-rule (see July Astana Communique). A renewed tension in the North East could re-create a similar environment as Operation Provide Comfort (1991 US operation to protect Iraqi Kurdistan), and push for further humanitarian relief on the side of the Kurdish authorities. A contextual analysis and engagement with think tanks will allow organisations to better foresee what model could provide better access to people in need in the current geopolitical context, and how these shifts could provide new opportunities to negotiate and propose better mechanisms to reach people in need.


[1] Supporting the Future of Syria and the Region

[2] Core Humanitarian Standards: https://corehumanitarianstandard.org/the-standard

[3] Michel Leezenberg, “Humanitarian Aid in Iraq Kurdistan”, Cahiers d’etudes sur la Mediterranee orientales et le monde turco-iranien, No29, Jan-Jun 2000, pp33.

[4] Dicer, Frederici et al, “Turkey and Syrian Refugees: The Limits of Hospitality”, Brookings Institute, November 2013.

[5] Consult: List of aviation shootdowns and accidents during the Syrian Civil War, accessible on: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_aviation_shootdowns_and_accidents_during_the_Syrian_Civil_War

[6] Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2139 (2014) to Ease Aid Delivery to Syrians, Provide Relief from ‘Chilling Darkness’ , https://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11292.doc.htm

[7] Idem

[8] Michelle Nichols, “U.N. Security Council authorizes cross-border aid access in Syria”, Reuters , July 14, 2014 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-un-aid/u-n-security-council-authorizes-cross-border-aid-access-in-syria-idUSKBN0FJ1Z320140714

[9] Security Council, Adopting Resolution 2191 (2014), Renews Authorization Allowing Agencies, Humanitarian Partners Continued Aid Access across Syrian Borders https://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11708.doc.htm

[10] Unanimously Adopting Resolution 2258 (2015), Security Council Renews Authorization for Passage of Humanitarian Aid into Syria, https://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12179.doc.htm

[11] World Vision International, “Failing Syria”, March 12, 2015 https://www.wvi.org/es/node/57261

[12] Idem.

[13] Chrstine Chinkin &Mary Kaldor, “The ‘Doctrine of Humanitarian Intervention’: and how it exposes the absence of any serious intention to help Syrians”, OpenDemocracy, April 27, 2018, https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/doctrine-of-humanitarian-intervention-and-how-it-exposes-absence-of-an/

[14] Aleppo battle: Syrian city ‘back under government control’, BBC¸December 22 2016, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-38408548

[15] Idem

[16] Secretary-General’s Briefing to the Security Council on the Situation in Aleppo, Syria [as delivered], December 13, 2016\, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2016-12-13/secretary-generals-briefing-security-council-situation-aleppo-syria

[17] Idem

[18] “Russia: Syrian safe zones plan comes into effect:, Al Jazeera, May 6, 2017, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/russia-syrian-safe-zones-plan-takes-effect-midnight-170505185444598.html

[19] Adopting Resolution 2393 (2017), Security Council Renews Authorization for Cross‑Border, Cross‑Line Humanitarian Access to Syria, https://www.un.org/press/en/2017/sc13127.doc.htm

[20] Security Council, Adopting Resolution 2449 (2018), Authorizes One-Year Extension of Cross-Border Aid Deliveries Targeting 13 Million in Syria, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13620.doc.htm

[21] Idem

[22] Idem

[23] Avoiding Midnight Deadline, Security Council Extends Authorization of Cross-Border Aid Delivery to Syria, Adopting Resolution 2504 (2020) by Recorded Vote https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14074.doc.htm

[24] Explanation of Vote on the Adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2533 on Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Aid Deliveries; https://usun.usmission.gov/explanation-of-vote-on-the-adoption-of-un-security-council-resolution-2533-on-syria-cross-border-humanitarian-aid-deliveries/

[25] Idem

[26] See example: ELENA BECATOROS and BASSEM MROUE, Syrian forces enter key border town, blocking Turkish plans, AP, October 17, 2019.

[27] Lars Hauch, Turkish restrictions make NGOs’ work in Syria harder, Ahval, September 28, 2018. https://ahvalnews.com/ngo/turkish-restrictions-make-ngos-work-syria-harder

[28] Erdoğan Çağatay Zontur, Turkey, Russia hold 20th joint patrol in northern Syria, Anadolou Agency, July 7, 2020, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-russia-hold-20th-joint-patrol-in-northern-syria/1902967

[29] Russia, Iran, Turkey condemn illegal seizure of oil revenues in Syria — statement, Tass, December 11, 2019. https://tass.com/world/1098225

[30] Lorenzo Trombetta, How the De-Escalation Zone Plan Benefits Syria’s Foreign Players, The Atlantic Council, May 23, 2017. https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/syriasource/how-the-de-escalation-zone-plan-benefits-syria-s-foreign-players/

[31] Jacob Kurtzer & Will Todman, The Possible End of Cross-border Aid in Syria, Center for Strategic & International Studies, July 6, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/possible-end-cross-border-aid-syria

[32] Mohammed Hassan, Arab Tribes in Al-Hassakah and Deir Ez-Zor Choose Their Allies, Chatham House, January 2020. https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/arab-tribes-in-al-hasakah-and-deir-ez-zor-choose-their-allies

[33] Elisabeth Tsurkov & Dareen Khalifa, An Unnerving Fate for the Families of Syria’s Northeast, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 31, 2020. https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/80950

[34] Aaron Stein & Emily Burchfield, The Future of Northeast Syria, Atlantic Council, Rafic Hariri Center for Middle East & Foreign Policy Research Institute, August 2019, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/The-Future-of-Northeast-Syria.pdf

[35] Explanation of Vote on the Adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 2533 on Syria Cross-Border Humanitarian Aid Deliveries; https://usun.usmission.gov/explanation-of-vote-on-the-adoption-of-un-security-council-resolution-2533-on-syria-cross-border-humanitarian-aid-deliveries/

[36] Benjamin Rhode, The US Withdrawal from Syria, The International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic Comment”, Volume 25, Comment 1, January 2019. https://www.iiss.org/~/publication/189d474e-6220-4fe3-a1bc-fc10a827ba50/the-us-withdrawal-from-syria.pdf

[37] Will Todman, Cross-border Aid, Covid-19, and U.S. Decisions in Syria, Center for Strategic & International Studies, May 8, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/cross-border-aid-covid-19-and-us-decisions-syria

[38] While humanitarian aid is exempted from the sanctions, they still require a form of pre-authorization from regulatory bodies in the US administration.

[39] Kurdish region refuses to hand over border crossings to Iraqi government: Rudaw, Reuters, September 29, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum-borde/kurdistan-region-refuses-to-hand-over-border-crossings-to-iraqi-government-rudaw-idUSKCN1C41OF?il=0

[40] Harith Hasan & Kheder Khaddour, The Transformation of the Iraqi-Syrian Border: From a National to a Regional Frontier, Carnegie Middle East Center, March 31, 2020, https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/31/transformation-of-iraqi-syrian-border-from-national-to-regional-frontier-pub-81396

[41] Mark Strohbehn, Creating Impact in Syria’s Shifting Environment: Four years of successes for DT Global’s Civil Society in Syria Program, DT Global, August 4, 2020. https://dt-global.com/company/news/august-4th-2020/creating-impact-syria

[42] Assaad al-Achi, Civil Society is the Last Line of Defence Against HTS in Northwest Syria, August 2020, Chatham House, https://syria.chathamhouse.org/research/civil-society-is-the-last-line-of-defence-against-hts-in-northwest-syria

[43] For example an evaluation of DFID funding noted the following: “Some multilateral partners told us of their view that the decision to prioritise smaller numbers of people with more severe needs in largely opposition held areas (including besieged areas) was a partisan attempt to strengthen opposition resistance to Syrian government forces.”  Despite the targeting being appropriate, the commission did find it controversial. Found in Report: The UK’s Humanitarian Support to Syria: A performance review, Independent Commission for Aid Impact, May 24, 2018 https://icai.independent.gov.uk/html-report/syria/

Georges Ghali
Georges Ghali
Georges Ghali is a member of the Board of Directors at ALEF-Act for Human Rights. Since 2011, Georges has worked closely on public policies in relation to humanitarian responses and human rights. He focuses on governance, public policy, humanitarian crisis and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa region, particularly the Yemen and the Syria Crisis.