No, Putin will not help at UN on Syria
Diplomats will soon meet in New York at the UN Security Council to renegotiate the terms of the cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria, specifically the reauthorization of relief via Resolution 2533, set to expire in July. Informal diplomatic moves have already begun this week when State Secretary Tony Blinken chaired a UN Security Council meeting on the humanitarian situation in Syria. Formal discussion on the resolution may start in May. The role of Russia, a key backer of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and a permanent Council member, is critical.
In private, some policymakers believe the Kremlin can be convinced to be less obstructive this year than in the past. Such optimism is unwarranted. Moscow will continue to push for Moscow’s own interests in these discussions, and to that end, empower Assad.
The Syrian tragedy, one of the worst humanitarian disasters since World War II, is now in its tenth year. To date, the conflict took well over a half a million lives, led more than 5 million to flee the country and created the world’s largest internally displaced population. The Assad regime’s brutality along with sheer negligence and criminality ensures the humanitarian situation remains dire.
Last year, the UN Security Council made painful compromises on humanitarian assistance to pass the cross-border resolution. After two Russian (and Chinese) vetoes, the council agreed to allow one crossing for UN aid, at Bab al-Hawa between Turkey and Syria’s Idlib province — a crossing under Assad’s control. Two other crossings had to close: Bab al-Salaam (on the Syrian-Turkish border) and al-Yaroubia (on the Syrian-Iraqi border), controlled respectively by anti-Assad rebels and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Russian officials claimed Assad is effective at controlling cross-border assistance and that Western sanctions, rather than Assad is responsible for Syria’s humanitarian disaster. By accepting only the Damascus-controlled border crossing, Moscow further enabled a humanitarian catastrophe and pushed the UN to take another step toward legitimizing Assad. Having made this gain, the Kremlin merely abstained from the final vote because Western countries blocked three of its other proposed amendments — which would have only further bolstered Assad and the Kremlin.
Moscow’s actions last year were not a one-off, but entirely consistent with years of unwavering diplomatic cover for Assad. With regard to humanitarian assistance into Syria, Russian officials consistently stated since July 2014, when the UN Security Council authorized provision of trans-border aid, that it is an “emergency temporary measure” that should be rolled back as more areas come under Assad regime’s control.
Ever the champion of international law, Moscow often reiterated that its position is based on principles of state sovereignty and consent of the affected country outlined in the UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182. Of course Moscow never acknowledged that Assad, who starved, gassed and bombed his people into submission, is accused of war crimes and responsible for Syria’s humanitarian disaster in the first place — brutality that has long since placed him — and the Kremlin that supported him — in violation of international law.
Since last July, Moscow has shown no indication that would be any more helpful this year on cross-border assistance. In the backdrop of changing American administrations, more Russian forces moved into Syria. And in February, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya said the Kremlin saw no reason to renew the existing trans-border mechanism “if we were to make the decision tomorrow.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s trip to the Persian Gulf this month only lends further support to Moscow’s intent to stick with Assad and consolidate Russia’s influence. At a press conference following a meeting with his Turkish and Qatari counterparts, Lavrov said, “We emphasized the importance of providing urgent humanitarian assistance to the Syrians,” but “illegitimate Western sanctions” against Syria’s “lawful authorities” stand in the way of this assistance, along with reconstruction of Syria.
As in the past, he stressed that Western sanctions, not Assad, hurt the Syrian people, as he added that Syria’s return to the Arab League would play a “stabilizing” role in the region. Of course, in Moscow’s vision would include acceptance of Assad. Moreover, Moscow likely hopes it can persuade Persian Gulf countries to fund Moscow-backed reconstruction in Syria, in a manner that would circumvent sanctions. Most recent Russian proposals to open three crossings from Assad regime territory into Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold, will only allow Moscow to argue that the aid line from Damascus works and there is no need for cross-border aid provision and further empower Assad to subdue Idlib.
Too often policymakers and analysts resort to wishful thinking with regard to Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Last April, a series of articles in the Russian press, unusually critical of Assad, had raised eyebrows and perhaps gave Western officials false hope. The articles ended as quickly as they began. A year later it’s clear that whatever their aim, Moscow has no intention of fundamentally changing its course, no matter the depths of Assad’s depravities. Whatever hopes policymakers may harbor this year, they misunderstand Moscow’s wider foreign policy objectives — globally, and in the Middle East. Putin seeks to erode the U.S.-led global order. This is why he sticks to the letter of international law, but not its spirit. In the Middle East, Putin wants to be seen as a regional peacemaker and loyal partner, unlike the West, so he cannot abandon Assad. Yes, Moscow wants a resolution in Syria — but on its terms.
This week, Tony Blinken appealed to “common humanity” at the Security Council, as earlier Russian airstrikes hit a hospital and gas facilities in northwest Syria. Western leaders can be sure Moscow will not be a good-faith negotiator. Deferring to ambassadors at the UN this year will only lead to more painful compromises in the face of Russian vetoes for which there is little recourse. Instead of keeping this issue compartmentalized in New York, policymakers should look for building leverage and link assistance to other issues. Pressure and increased costs — not concessions — work with Putin. Leaving humanitarian assistance to his mercy will only lead to more suffering.
Anna Borshchevskaya is a senior fellow at The Washington Institute and author of the upcoming book “Putin’s War in Syria: Russian Foreign Policy and the Price of America’s Absence.”