Syrians block main highway in Neyrab, Sunday, March 15, 2020 as they protest agreement on joint Turkish and Russian patrols in northwest Syria.

Syrians block main highway in Neyrab, Sunday, March 15, 2020 as they protest agreement on joint Turkish and Russian patrols in northwest Syria. AP / Ghaith Alsayed

Why Is Russia Undermining International Efforts in Syria?

Western negotiators must give no ground in Moscow’s attempts to evade its responsibilities.

Russia has taken two significant steps in the last fortnight that suggest their diplomatic engagement on Syria is less than sincere. The moves leave the UN Security Council once again undertaking high-stakes negotiation for necessary humanitarian access and protection in Syria during a pandemic and economic crisis. While U.S.-Russian dialogues have improved recently, Moscow’s positions could lead the United States and like-minded governments to reconsider the very nature of their engagement with Russia.

Last week, Russia informed the United Nations that it would no longer participate in the humanitarian deconfliction system in Syria. This week, Russia said it would not agree to an extension of the UNSC resolution permitting cross-border aid into Syria without significant reductions in its scope and length. Taken together, they represent a storing statement on Russia’s policy toward humanitarian access and international law.

There are two likely reasons behind the decision to pull out of the humanitarian deconfliction mechanism. Firstly, Russia is posturing ahead of the final cross-border aid resolution negotiations leading up to the mechanism’s July 10 expiry date. Removing their involvement in the mechanism gives them one more negotiation point. Secondly, they are keen to avoid being held accountable for attacks on humanitarian and civilian structures after the mechanism began to zero in on their role in these crimes.

Despite having failed to provide alternative humanitarian access arrangements through Damascus, Russia seeks to continue reducing the space for cross-border aid operations. This strategy suggests Russia is more concerned with the window dressing of Syria’s legitimacy and territorial integrity than the nuts and bolts of effective governance and compliance with international laws and norms.

Moreover, UNSC Resolution 2254, which forms the basis of the UN-led Geneva peace process, articulates the need for humanitarian access and civilian protection. Russia claims to be engaging in Geneva, going so far as to expend political capital securing Bashar Al-Assad’s begrudging participation, limited as it may be. Despite agreeing in principle to attend a constitutional committee meeting in August, Russia’s other moves undermine the process.

The humanitarian deconfliction process was not working particularly well before Russia withdrew. In other conflict settings, this kind of mechanism helps parties to the conflict avoid striking humanitarian and civilian infrastructure. In Syria, deconfliction has primarily been a tool to refine the calls for accountability for the attacks on humanitarians and civilians which began in 2011. By “deconflicting” sites, it has become possible to show that Russia was aware of the nature of the hospitals, schools, and civilian areas they have stuck. A Board of Inquiry, mandated by the UN Secretary-General, reported back earlier this year. Despite the report’s toothless findings, they were enough to suggest to Russia that they may be held to account. After years of incremental progress, there has been no justice, only process. Yet it became clear to Russia that it was time to abandon the pretense of compliance.

However, in the recent Idlib offensive, the mechanism did allow for the safe evacuation of internally displaced persons and non-governmental-organizations’ workers from frontlines. The option of involvement allowed the brave men and women delivering aid during the military campaign an element of protection. For those who do comply with international law, the mechanism’s collapse leaves difficult moral choices about how to protect these staff members and civilians in the future.

On Wednesday night, Russia presented its counter-offer for the extension of UNSC Resolution 2504. The resolution allows for cross-border aid deliveries into Syrian territories controlled by non-state actors by notification rather than with the permission of the government of Syria, was made public. First adopted in July 2014, the resolution was extended that December, and every December since, until last year. December’s renewal negotiations bled into January, and the final agreement removed half of the permitted border crossings and extended for only six months. Since then, Syria’s northeast region has been unable to receive cross-border aid. The shortened term means it is once again up for negotiation.

Since January, Russia has been unable to secure from Damascus the appropriate permissions and access for humanitarian aid to the Syrian northeast to replace the cross-border operations. As such, northeast access was reinstated in the draft extension resolution tabled by pen-holders Germany and Belgium. The text also allowed for aid through two crossings into the northwest and would be valid for 12 months. The Russian counter-offer is a six-month extension including only one crossing into the northwest and no access to the northeast.

It is worth mentioning that the mechanism was only needed because of the Syrian regime’s routine weaponization and deprivation of aid and attacks on humanitarians. Before the arrangement, support reached northern Syria from NGOs working across the border. Still, they did it secretly and without proper coordination and protection.

As the final week of negotiations for the cross-border mechanism begins, the U.S. and like-minded states must consider their negotiating posture carefully. Giving up ground in the cross-border talks in exchange for Russia returning to the deconfliction mechanism as it stood would be a mistake. Attacks on humanitarian structures are illegal, with or without such aa mechanism. Seeking Russian involvement in a new and improved mechanism can be pursued as an endeavor quite aside from other negotiations, as can ongoing efforts to seek accountability for Russia’s role in hundreds of documented attacks before their withdrawal.

Additionally, the U.S. and like-minded states must question Russia’s other motives here, particularly as they related to the Idlib ceasefire which has been in place since March. Withdrawing from the deconfliction mechanism and reducing aid access into the north raises questions about Russia’s near-term military intentions in the area. The notion that another military incursion may be within their thinking should be carefully considered.

The message in cross-border negotiations must be clear: Aid will continue to populations in need, with or without the resolution. Aid money for Syria’s northwest and northeast regions will not pivot to cross-line delivery from Damascus if the mechanism is reduced or revoked. Broader U.S.-Russian negotiations should reflect that tentatively agreeing to support the convening of a constitutional committee meeting in August, or even for maintaining the Idlib ceasefire, will undermine the humanitarian access and civilian protection element of 2254. And finally, targeting humanitarians is illegal regardless of a resolution or deconfliction mechanism, and accountability will be sought.