Biden Faces Russian Test Over Aid in Syria

WASHINGTON—The Biden administration is bracing for a showdown with Russia over the delivery of United Nations aid to millions of Syrians outside the control of Syrian President

Bashar al-Assad,

a flow that Moscow is poised to block in July.

At stake is the U.N.’s use of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Syria and Turkey, which the world body has used to send about 1,000 truckloads of aid a month to a region in northwest Syria with a population of more than four million.

The U.S. and its allies say the closure of the border to the U.N. would put civilians in jeopardy, especially the 2.7 million people in the area who have been displaced by the conflict. The U.N. also has just started its Covid-19 vaccination campaign in the area, an effort not easily replaced by another organization.

Russian President Vladimir Putin conferred in November with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.


Alexei Nikolsky/Zuma Press

Moscow says, however, that the crossing is a violation of the Syrian government’s sovereignty and that assistance should be delivered from areas controlled by the regime, which has gained the upper hand against the opposition with the help of Russia and Iran after a decade of civil war.

“It’s clear that the stakes are quite high,” said a U.S. official at the U.N. “We’ll be actively engaged both with like-minded countries who are standing with us on this and with others who have expressed some skepticism.”

Current and former U.S. officials say that Moscow’s broader objective is to build up Mr. Assad’s authority, pressure the Syrian opposition and perhaps wrest concessions on Syria policy from the Biden administration.

Though Biden administration officials are still in the midst of a policy review of the region, Secretary of State

Antony Blinken

has publicly called on the U.N. Security Council to expand its use of border crossings. The issue is expected to form part of the agenda if President Biden and Russian President

Vladimir Putin

meet in Europe in June, as the White House is hoping.

The U.N.’s use of border crossings dates to 2014 when the Security Council approved a plan to send aid to Syrians through four crossings, with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan, to reach civilians on both sides of the battle lines. Under Russian pressure, the Security Council later shrank the number of crossings the U.N. is authorized to use to one: Bab al-Hawa. In July 2020, the Trump administration secured a one-year extension for U.N. use of the crossing.

The question over the future of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is applying pressure on the Biden administration regarding its overall approach to Syria.


Satellite image 2021 Maxar Technologies

“Russia has been leveraging its Security Council chokeholds on these humanitarian crossings to win acceptance of Assad and roll back sanctions on his regime,” said

James Jeffrey,

who served as the Trump administration’s special representative for Syria policy.

Moscow hasn’t yet said it would veto the extension, leaving open the possibility of negotiating continued use of the crossing in return for U.S. concessions on Syria or in other policy areas. “Termination of the cross border mechanism will not become a humanitarian tragedy,” said a spokesman for the Russian embassy, who said that delivering aid to northern Syria through government lines could be effective.

Aid organizations say, however, that the many Syrian groups that form the fabric of aid efforts in the country depend critically on the U.N. supplies and funding distributed from Turkey and that previous attempts to coordinate aid shipments from Syrian-government-controlled areas though the conflict zone had faltered.

“There are massive camps, with tents and displaced people everywhere,” said Mark Cutts, the senior U.N. official who oversees the shipment of aid to northwest Syria. “Food, almost all of the tents and vaccines for Covid all comes through the U.N. We spent years building up a mechanism that really works. Why remove it at a time when the needs are at their greatest?”

As a precautionary step against having the last remaining border crossing blocked from U.N. use, some aid groups have been storing aid within northwest Syria that could last months, aid workers say.

That, however, would be no more than a stopgap until nongovernmental organizations and foreign governments, who don’t require U.N. Security Council authorization to use the crossing, can find ways to send more aid from Turkey. Even so, those aid organizations say they wouldn’t be able to fully replace the assistance provided by the U.N.

“There are so many knock-on effects that aren’t automatically visible,” said a Mercy Corps staffer working in Syria, noting that local organizations that make up part of a complex system of humanitarian relief depend on the U.N. “There’s no way we can physically replace what the U.N. is doing now; anything that happens will be less effective, less efficient, and on a much smaller scale.”

The looming border decision is already putting pressure on the Biden administration to spell out its broader strategy for coping with the Syria crisis. Biden officials, who have named special envoys for Yemen and the crisis in the Horn of Africa, haven’t said if they planned to name one for the administration’s Syria policy.


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The administration also hasn’t outlined its diplomatic strategy for trying to quell the conflict in Syria or said whether it plans to continue the deployment of the approximately 800 U.S. troops in northeast Syria, who are supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces that are fighting Islamic State militants.

Arab Gulf states, meanwhile, are exploring sending humanitarian aid to areas controlled by the Syrian government, a step that some former U.S. officials say Moscow would welcome and which they say might be a precursor to broader acceptance of Mr. Assad’s government.

“A key question is whether the U.S. administration connects this discussion of the border crossing to other issues related to the conflict in Syria,” said Charles Thepaut, a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The room for compromise is narrow,” he added. “There is only one border crossing left. The pressure is high for all member states, especially the U.S., to avoid a deadlock at the U.N. Security Council.”

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