How Putin is starving Syria — and what Biden can do

By | March 28, 2021

Charles Lister and Jeffrey Feltman write:

From Syria’s northwest, one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world can look a lot like an endless traffic jam. Every day, lines of trucks loaded with food, water, clothes, medical supplies and construction equipment wait to cross from Turkey into the Syrian hills. Once they manage to get through, they pass into the Syrian town of Bab al-Hawa and head into a region that has seen more war than anywhere else in Syria.

For the 4.5 million people in northwestern Syria, living amidst the rubble of years of bombing by their own government, the cargo aboard those waiting trucks is a literal lifeline.

The bottleneck was not always so extreme. When the UN originally started sending cross-border aid in 2014, it had access to four crossings that ran through Turkey, Iraq and Jordan. By January 2020, only two remained open. And since last July, there has been just one: Bab al-Hawa, which has strained at the seams as the demand for humanitarian aid has intensified while COVID-19 spreads.

What changed was not the scale of need, which has actually increased since the UN aid program began and Syria’s economy fell into crisis. Nor has violence gone down. What changed was Russia, which has been exploiting its veto power at the UN Security Council to systematically shut aid gateways, one after the other.

The aid flows to regions held by Syrian opposition forces, which are being systematically starved out by dictatorial president Bashar al-Assad. Russia considers Assad an ally, and so any aid—even for humanitarian reasons—is an affront to his rule. Accordingly, last January, during negotiations scheduled to determine the extension of aid access, Russia forced the closure of a crossing from northern Iraq and another from Jordan. Both had been providing a lifeline to northeastern and eastern Syria. Then last July, Russia used the same tactic to shut down the Bab al-Salam crossing from Turkey into northern Aleppo.

That left only one road for aid to arrive, via Turkey, at Bab al-Hawa. And now the Russians have already signaled their intention to shut that as well when it comes up for a vote in the UN Security Council this summer. If they succeed, it will cut off UN cross-border aid altogether—and all but sever northwestern Syria from the global community, and from any semblance of help.

Over the past decade, Syria’s violent and intractable crisis has rarely offered policymakers a guaranteed opportunity to make a major positive difference. In the coming months, however, President Joe Biden does have such an opportunity—a chance to restore the uninhibited flow of humanitarian assistance to millions of civilians across northern Syria who are more in need of help than ever before. But the chance to have such a significant impact does not come for free. President Biden, alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken and incoming USAID Administrator Samantha Power, will need to lead a resolute effort to shift Russia’s calculus leading into July. They will need to determine broader avenues to turn the screws on Moscow far beyond Syria and the Middle East, in order to decidedly heighten the potential costs for a humanitarian cut-off in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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