Syria and Ukraine: Humanitarian aid is Russia’s political football
The Bab al-Hawa crossing point in northwestern Syria is no ordinary border. It’s a lifesaver. Every month, 600-800 trucks sent by international organizations travel from Turkey to the Idlib region in Syria. They provide millions of people with food, medicine and more.
“If Bab al-Hawa is closed, it could lead to a humanitarian disaster,” says Huda Khayti, head of the Idlib Women’s Center. “People in the refugee camps in this region are particularly dependent on aid. In collaboration with the organization Medico International, Khayti supports displaced people in the region with educational services.
Even a cursory glance at the numbers shows how important Bab al-Hawa is to Syrians in the northwest of their country. It is estimated that around 4 million people live in Idlib, with nearly 2 million of them in camps. Many have already fled their homes several times and almost all are dependent on humanitarian aid. In Atmeh camp alone, 10 kilometers north of the border post, around one million people live in makeshift huts and tents. There is no running water or sufficient electricity and thanks to the difficulty of maintaining good hygiene, diseases are rampant.
Bab al-Hawa – a lifeline for the internally displaced
For all these reasons, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is often described as a lifeline. However, it is a lifeline that risks being cut on July 10. On that date, the UN Security Council in New York is expected to renegotiate the extension of the mandate that allows the delivery of aid to Idlib via Bab al-Hawa. In 2014, the UN Security Council agreed that four border crossings will remain open here, allowing access to northwest Syria.
The aim was to provide basic necessities to people living in the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. The area is controlled by a staunch Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. However, this mandate is not permanent. It must be renewed each year by the UN Security Council.
Syria’s authoritarian leader Bashar Assad has protested the renewals because he would rather expand his influence in these last rebel-held parts of the country. Russia is one of Assad’s biggest allies and has been instrumental in helping the Syrian leader fight revolutionary forces. Russia is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has the power to veto any decision on the border crossing mandate. He has already used this very important veto to his advantage on several occasions. For example, in 2020 a compromise decision to keep Bab al-Hawa open was only reached with great difficulty.
Khayti says that every year she worries about that pivotal date in July. “Seriously ill people are also sent to Turkish hospitals above Bab al-Hawa,” she explained. “Where will they be treated in the future? There are no chemotherapy drugs here.”
Voting at the UN as a weapon
Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa section at the German Heinrich Boll Foundation, firmly believes that it is a problem that these decisions on cross-border aid are taken by the UN Security Council. “Russia can use its veto power as another weapon against the Syrian people,” she said.
Russia, which often sides with Syria and protects it at the UN, has pushed for all humanitarian aid to pass through the Syrian capital, Damascus. But critics say that then the Syrian regime is likely to provide aid only to people loyal to Assad. Closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing gives the Assad regime another lever to pressure the people of Idlib. This would only reinforce the Assad regime’s claim that it is the only legitimate power in Syria, with whom all foreigners should deal.
“Assad instrumentalizes humanitarian aid for political purposes,” noted Anita Starosta, of aid group Medico International, whose work focuses on northern Syria.
Revenge for the sanctions?
And now it is entirely possible that Russia will have another use of its UN Security Council veto over the Bab al-Hawa crossing. He could become a bargaining chip in his war against Ukraine.
Experts suspect Russia is using the July 10 vote to secure concessions on its own behalf after the US and EU imposed sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February .
Scheller expects Russia to effectively ban further aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, a form of revenge for the sanctions imposed there. On the other hand, Scheller said, “maybe he will decide to keep that leverage.”
At present, it is impossible to know what Russia will do. In an interview with The New York Times in May, Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said his country had not yet decided how to vote. “I do not deny that he [the aid] also goes to refugees, but terrorist groups – they take advantage of it,” he told reporters.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, militia, which dominates the area, also controls border crossings and collects customs duties on incoming goods.
“By pretending at every opportunity that there are only terrorists in Idlib, Russia wants to scare off donors,” Scheller explained. “HTS controls Idlib and is extremist,” she agreed. But millions of other people also live in the province and more than 95% of them are civilians, including “many, many children”.
Russia, Iran and Turkey are pulling the strings
In general, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains catastrophic after 11 years of war and has only been aggravated by a serious economic crisis, in particular the fall of the Syrian and Turkish currencies. Idleb was once considered the breadbasket of Syria. But not much remains of that, as many farmers have been driven out or fled, fields have been hit by missile fire, or people are camping in their fields.
Even before the war in Ukraine, Syria was struggling with a shortage of wheat. “The global supply crisis is currently making the situation worse,” admitted Starosta of Medico International. Bread, flour, sugar and fuel are lacking.
On the other hand, the security situation has improved somewhat. There is officially a ceasefire, with HTS and its ally Turkey on one side and Syrian Assad and his Russian allies on the other. The ceasefire has resulted in less fighting in Idlib over the past two years, although there are still airstrikes.
The EU and US say Syria remains high on their political agenda, but they mostly provide humanitarian aid. In May, just over 6 million euros ($6.3 million) was raised for Syria at a donors’ conference in Brussels. However, within Syria itself, only three countries really stand out: Russia and Iran on Assad’s side, and Turkey in Idlib and northeastern Syria.
It is not just Assad and Russia who could benefit from the end of the UN mandate on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Turkey could also benefit. Indeed, it is not only aid provided by the UN that enters Idlib at Bab al-Hawa. Turkish aid organizations also operate here and, if the UN mandate ends, Turkey could still decide how much aid other organizations can send to this part of Syria.
If Turkey allowed aid deliveries, one of the main motivations would be to prevent displaced Syrians from fleeing to its territory, which the Turks do not consider in their interest.
At the same time, people in Idlib also remain worried about what Turkey has done in northeast Syria. For weeks, the Turks have been bombing villages there and sending drones to monitor the inhabitants. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was because he wanted to drive Kurdish forces close to the Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, out of the border region. The PKK has been involved in a 38-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated as a terrorist organization by the US and EU.
However, Erdogan’s critics believe that the Turkish leader’s real aim is to secure more Syrian territory, in order to send refugees there, even if they come from other non-Kurdish parts of Syria. If Turkey achieves these goals, then Khayti, who is based in Idlib, said people feared being displaced again.
No one knows if Russia and Turkey discussed Bab al-Hawa’s passing behind closed doors. “But what I do know is that we in Idlib are always football for those who have political interests here, and especially when Russia wants to achieve a political goal,” Khayti explained.
Whatever happens next, Medico International’s Starosta has only one last plea to make: it simply asks that all aid organizations unite to fight against the instrumentalization of humanitarian aid.
© Deutsche Welle 2022