On the 6th of February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake stuck parts of Turkey and Syria, leading to more than 20,000 deaths. Against the backdrop of this immense catastrophe, the politics surrounding the civil conflict in Syria persist, leading to the exacerbation of the situation in some earthquake-affected areas of the country. The critical issue is the restriction of aid to areas of the country under the control of armed groups in opposition to the government. These groups are based primarily in Northwestern Syria in the Idlib Governorate. The Idlib Gouvernante was hit hard by the earthquake, with images circulating on social media displaying the significant human loss currently unfolding there and Al Jazeera reporting the province’s death toll to be 1,730 at the time of this writing.
Due to factors linked to the politics of the Syrian civil war, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) has only approved the delivery of aid to the Northwestern province through the Bab al-Hawa Turkish-Syria border crossing. The Bab al-Hawa crossing is the only avenue for aid to reach Idlib, and several factors make this the case.
First, aid can only reach Northwestern Syria by crossing the Turkish border directly into that part of the country. The reason for this is the fact that the Assad government in Damascus and the armed groups based in the Northwest are still in conflict with each other, and the delivery of aid to the area through government-held areas of Syria would be tied to a condition that these groups lay down their arms. These groups, which include several Salafi-Jihadist organization’s, see these conditions as unacceptable as it would essentially end their armed struggle against the Syrian government.
With this in mind, it is clear why the Turkish border is the only path for aid to the northwestern region of Syria. For this to occur, the UNSC must approve the use of border crossings between Turkey and Syria by UN humanitarian convoys. The approval of these border crossings has become an intensely politicized issue in the UNSC due to the different parties to the Syrian conflict that UNSC member’s support.
In July 2020, Russia and China vetoed a resolution that would have extended the ability of the UN to deliver aid to Northwest Syria through two other border crossings, leaving only the Bab al-Hawa border crossing approved for this purpose. The reason cited for the veto was that aid to the region should be facilitated only through Syrian government areas, as this would place pressure on armed groups to negotiate and lead to an end to the conflict.
The longevity of the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing itself is also in question. Russia is opposed to its continued use as the country takes the position that the mechanism is prolonging the conflict. The Russian position is undoubtedly valid and is supported by sound policy arguments. They have held the same position since they entered the Syrian conflict in 2014, which is unlikely to change. For this reason, it is essential to include the Russian government in any efforts to resolve the issue of restricting aid to the province.
Amidst the politics of aid in the conflict zone, thousands of lives are now at risk due to the natural disaster, and the need for aid in Idlib is more significant than ever. Therefore, it is imperative that the UNSC members, particularly the United States, take steps to facilitate a mechanism with Russia and Assad government to remove barriers to aid. It is possible that the resolution of this issue is tied directly to the resolution of the Syrian civil war itself and should be followed closely by the international community.