UN Crossborder Aid to Syria Requires More Than Consent

The sudden closure of Bab al Hawa, a key border crossing for delivery of aid from Türkiye to Northwest Syria in July 2023 symbolized a tectonic shift in Syria’s aid landscape. For eight years, crossborder aid had operated under the aegis of the UN Security Council (UNSC). However, Russia’s veto in July placed the international community at a crossroads: either capitulate to the Syrian government’s enhanced role in humanitarian aid or risk creating an aid vacuum. Based on a UN understanding with the government on August 9, the UN has moved toward the former under a consent-based model, which threatens the humanitarian response. On August 30, more than 80 Syrian-led NGOs released a joint statement ahead of the UN General Assembly objecting to the UN consent-model and called for timely action from donors to reopen aid to northwest Syria. Filling the vacuum with a government with a track record of blocking life-saving aid will have dire consequences on nearly 4.2 million Syrians across Northwest Syria.

The scale of need across Northwest Syria has skyrocketed since the closure of Bab al Hawa on July 11. The crossing—which could support as many as 100 trucks a day—has ceased to operate, limiting the UN’s access to 4.2 million people through two additional border crossings. Since the closure, only 178 trucks of UN aid have been delivered, compared to 1,001 trucks the prior month—an estimated 82 percent loss in capacity. This loss was accompanied by severe cuts in UN food aid.

This loss has accelerated the deterioration of the humanitarian situation in Northwest Syria, leaving millions in dire need. A July survey by the Northwest Syria Protection Cluster tells a harrowing story: deepening fear and insecurity, accelerated protection risks (including exploitation and family separation), increasing rates of trauma, and the potential for further displacement. The rising scale of need is outpacing the effort to stand up an effective alternative to the UNSC-authorized mechanism.

Consequences of Unilateral Consent

Getting state approval for humanitarian efforts is generally the favored approach during a humanitarian crisis where a government lacks the feasibility to respond. However, in Syria’s context, the state is a party of the conflict and the major aggressor with a long record of weaponizing aid. Solely relying on state consent as the foundation for crossborder assistance does not guarantee steady and lasting aid for the countless people in need across the different territories in Syria. Rather, this provides the Syrian government with de-facto veto power over the rights of Syrians to access humanitarian assistance, thus subjecting them to greater harm and uncertainty. It also undermines the existing safeguards put in place to buffer those in need from the same government whose track record of brutality they initially fled, including in Ghouta, Dara’a, and Homs. 

Syrian NGOs cautioned in June 2023 that the United States and its allies should brace for a potential Russian veto of the UN Security Council resolution authorizing crossborder aid, leading to a shift to government consent for UN crossborder aid authorization. True to these concerns, Russia exercised its veto the following month, leading to the border closure and temporary cut off of aid to millions. The Syrian government then offered its consent for UN operations, similar to the previous consent that opened Bab Al-Salam and Al-Ra’i crossing points after the February 2023 earthquakes but under a strict set of conditions and restrictions for UN coordination and activities. The UN found these conditions untenable for “principled humanitarian operations.”

An agreement with the Syrian government was reached on August 9 to reopen Bab al Hawa for six months without the initial conditions. However, this decision was negotiated absent meaningful consultations with key stakeholders, including NGOs, UN agencies, and local authorities. As a result, it was rejected outright by local authorities in Northwest Syria, and Bab al Hawa remains effectively closed. UN authorities are negotiating an accompanying agreement between local authorities and UN actors, which would allow for the timely re-opening of Bab al Hawa. In both cases, the authorization by consent on which this agreement rests is fragile and can be undermined should the Syrian government or local actors withdraw consent. This residual uncertainty over aid continuity is a de-facto win for the Syrian government and a step closer to centralizing aid in Damascus.

Eroding Humanitarian Principles

The current consent framework is not an effective roadmap toward a principled response. Rather, the current pathway is likely to gradually erode humanitarian principles over time and diminish the capacity of NGOs and UN agencies to deliver aid to millions in need. It also threatens to undermine the localization of aid delivery to millions in need by limiting the participation of Syrian NGOs and jeopardizing the safety and security of beneficiaries and aid workers.

First, the consent framework allows the Syrian government to revise and introduce conditions at will, allowing them the opportunity to chip away at a principled aid delivery. Although the Assad government has temporarily rescinded its terms at the UN’s request, another round of negotiations awaits in January when consent is set to expire.

In reality, there is no real guaranteed time frame for NGOs to rely on for operational planning and logistics. This creates a system plagued by uncertainty—from suppliers to beneficiaries—if the Syrian government decides to arbitrarily close the border.

Even if the UN has secured favorable conditions for now, there is no guarantee against the introduction of new, less favorable terms later.

Another area of immediate concern is the potential erosion of safeguards around information access, analysis, and sharing. Under the Whole of Syria (WoS) framework, the UN Gaziantep hub (the primary coordination body for the Syria humanitarian response) operates with specific safeguards in place to protect information about humanitarian staff, operations, and beneficiaries involved in crossborder aid. This consent-based approach could lead to unwarranted data sharing between crossborder initiatives and Damascus operations. Such data sharing could jeopardize the safety of beneficiaries and humanitarian personnel, particularly those working for Syrian NGOs. These safeguards must remain intact.

Lastly, the new consent model could end or undermine the Syria Cross Border Humanitarian Fund (SCHF), a $150 million fund linked to the now-vetoed resolution. The SCHF has for years been the center of the implementation of the localization agenda in Syria, and the most effective means of delivering funding to local Syrian NGOs at the front line of the response in Northwest Syria. For many NGOs, the loss of the fund, without any shift in funding to other pathways, could push many Syrian NGOs to close their doors. Meanwhile, if the fund continues to function, ensuring it continues to operate under the WoS architecture is essential to shield it from the imposition of new conditions—sharing NGO data or mandating Damascus registration—which would alienate Syrian NGOs.

Strengthening a Principled Humanitarian Response

To guard against Damascus’s consent withdrawal, the UN and their agencies should fully utilize international law to legally provide crossborder assistance based on needs, rather than politics. Short of this, the remaining workable options are pushing for the UN aid delivery mechanism to be ideally codified under a new UN resolution or, at a minimum, strengthening the crossborder mechanism under the Whole of Syrian framework. All of these approaches can be pursued concurrently as the future Syrian humanitarian landscape unfolds.

It is within the power of the UN Secretary General to explore alternative authorities to facilitate crossborder aid beyond consent and outside of the UN Security Council. One viable option outlined by international legal scholars is that UN agencies can undertake crossborder activities without the need for host-state consent based on the scale of humanitarian need. While the UN continues to resist this pathway, the UN’s struggle to secure crossborder aid on principled terms opens the door for the Biden administration and other donors to push the Secretary General toward recognizing the legality of crossborder aid.

The next best option is for donors to push for codifying UN access to Northwest Syria under another UNSC resolution. While many remain skeptical of this pathway, the loss of aid volume due to the closure of Bab al Hawa underscores its significance to the crossborder aid architecture under the resolution. While this system was far from perfect, it provided a baseline set of assurances for predictable aid access and delivery.

The third and more likely pathway is to proactively build a more robust NGO response that operates complementary to a strengthened UN humanitarian hub at Gaziantep under the Whole of Syria framework. The former requires that donors expand support to NGO programming in Northwest Syria, including support for Syrian NGOs, so humanitarian aid can continue flowing to those in need through commercial channels. The latter requires that donors underscore the continuity of the WoS framework as a priority, while also pushing for greater transparency in UN negotiations with the Syrian government.

In the worst-case scenario—the UN’s capacity to deliver aid is diminished under a consent-based model—the responsibility will fall on the NGO community to lead aid delivery to Northwest Syria. Certain functions, like coordination and access negotiation, currently remain with the UN given its positionality with diplomatic immunity to directly engage with local authorities, which NGOs lack. For example, the current deterioration in communication between UN negotiators and de-facto authorities in Northwest Syria could inadvertently push NGOs into these roles. But certain donor restrictions and anti-terrorism laws are likely to limit NGO engagement with de-facto authorities, creating a worse risk environment inside of Syria.

Jesse Marks is a senior advocate for the Middle East at Refugees International, Hazem Rihawi is an independent Syrian analyst and humanitarian advocate. He previously served as the senior program manager for American Relief Coalition for Syria and led the humanitarian response inside Syria during the war. Dr. Mohamad Katoub is a project manager at IMPACT for civil society research and development. He is a licensed dentist and was a former humanitarian worker in Syria.

Featured Image: People gathered at Bab al-Hawa Border Crossing in Idlib, northern Syria, call for humanitarian aid access for those in need in northwest Syria on August 2, 2023. (Photo by Rami Alsayed/NurPhoto via Getty Images)