On July 10, 2022, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) will vote on whether to continue authorizing cross-border aid from Turkey into Northwest Syria. The United Nations cross-border aid mechanism is a major humanitarian lifeline to more than 4.4 million people living in Northwest Syria. Over the last eight years, UN agencies, Syrian-led non-governmental organizations (SNGOs), international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), and the government of Turkey have worked together in one of the most complex environments in the world to build a sophisticated and effective aid operation. However, increased tensions between Russia and the West over the war in Ukraine have reignited fears of a Russian veto of the UN cross-border mandate. The effects of a veto have been highlighted to Refugees International in close consultations with a number of Syrian groups providing aid, as well as in meetings with UN agencies, and local and international NGOs during a recent research trip to the Turkish border with Northwest Syria. In short, a veto would shut down UN aid efforts for the northwest and cause a major humanitarian crisis in the region.
Northwest Syria includes parts of Idlib province controlled by Hayat Tahrir as-Sham (HTS)—an offshoot of Al-Qaeda—and its Salvation Government, as well as Northern Aleppo, which is controlled by Turkey and Turkish-backed groups. More than 60 percent of the population in Northwest Syria are internally displaced, 1.7 million of whom reside in camps. It is one of the most destitute areas in the country, with more than 90 percent of people living below the poverty line. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that nearly 4.1 million people needed humanitarian assistance in January 2022, up from 3.4 million the previous year. The cross-border resolution is critical to meeting their needs.
If Russia vetoes the resolution, millions of people will be left to fend for themselves. This moment highlights the importance of the cross-border resolution for those in need and the crucial role of UN agencies in averting a humanitarian catastrophe. In the short-term, the UNSC must vote to renew the resolution to avoid further crisis for the millions of Syrians reliant on food, medicine, and basic necessities delivered through the Bab al-Hawa crossing—the main point from which aid enters from Turkey.
During a recent visit to the border, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield emphasized the importance of Bab al-Hawa as a “critical lifeline, [that is] in danger of being closed off.” However, the approaching deadline in the Security Council underscores the fragility of the cross-border mechanism and the need for a long-term strategy to reduce reliance on the resolution and build a more stable and sustainable response, which Refugees International will address in a forthcoming report.
Effects on Funding
If the cross-border resolution is terminated, the Syria Cross-border Humanitarian Fund (SCHF) will be shut down. The SCHF is one of the largest pooled funds in the world, with a total value of $154.5 million in 2021. It is a critical mechanism that allows donors to pool their contributions into a single, unearmarked fund to support humanitarian efforts through UN agencies. Furthermore, it allows large Western donors—whose domestic legal systems often prevent them from directly funding local organizations—to channel funding to local groups indirectly. SNGOs, which play a critical role in the humanitarian response, could lose major funding sources if the SHCF is abolished.
The Syria humanitarian response has suffered from significant funding shortages despite ever-increasing needs. Moreover, the war in Ukraine has resulted in a spike of global food prices and is exacerbating the food crisis in the region. In April 2022, Al-Jazeera reported that the UN World Food Program (WFP) would be cutting back food assistance in northwestern Syria, decreasing the amount of items in their emergency food baskets. WFP had already reduced assistance in September 2021. Now, all actors in the northwest are bracing for additional funding cuts, according to interviews conducted by Refugees International. These cuts are likely to be disastrous for SNGOs. “At the current level of funding, we are unsure if we will be able to retain even 25 percent of our portfolio,” said the president of one of the biggest Syrian NGOs working in the region. “We’re facing a 70 percent funding decrease.”
Access and Coordination
OCHA has been a key partner in negotiating access with both governments and groups, albeit with varying degrees of success. Yet, no other actor has the same level of legitimacy, political security, or trust as the United Nations. This status has enabled OCHA to facilitate access with Turkey, Russia, Syria’s government, and de facto groups and governing entities in the northwest, like HTS. Even within communities, the organization is held in more regard than NGOs. “The UN has more clout among local communities,” said the country director of an INGO. “They have a status that allows them to handle local dynamics more effectively and authoritatively, particularly in the camps.”
The UN operation also enjoys a significant degree of confidence and trust with key partners in the donor community and the government of Turkey. It will be very difficult for international and Syrian NGOs to build similar relationships directly with these actors. A U.S. official noted, “the UN system is not ideal; it suffers from great bureaucracy, it is slow and clunky. NGOs often criticize the UN. Definitely, logistically, [NGOs] are probably more responsive and agile. Nonetheless, the legitimacy and trust that the UN brings cannot be replaced.”
Should OCHA lose its access and be forced to give up its coordination role, the road ahead will be long and challenging for other aid groups to fill the gap. The need to preserve this UN role has become increasingly pressing. Thus, Western donors, UN agencies, and NGOs have all advocated for continued UN presence inside Turkey to negotiate access and facilitate the coordination of the humanitarian response.
Procurement and Monitoring
The loss of the UN cross-border resolution will hit aid sectors dependent on global supply chains the hardest. This is especially true for the WFP, which—due to deteriorating socioeconomic conditions that have prohibited the vast majority of the population from purchasing food at the market—remains the primary provider of food supplies in the northwest. But other aid sectors will suffer if organizations like the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), UN Population Fund (UNFPA) lose access to Northwest Syria. The organizations are essential to the supply of shelter kits, medicines, vaccines, hygiene kits, and other non-food items. Supply chains in these sectors run from procurement to storage, transshipment, and delivery to beneficiaries. To ensure the safe distribution, relief aid moves through a rigorous and labor-intensive monitoring process, involving the UN Monitoring Mechanism (UNMM) at the Bab al-Hawa crossing. An estimated 1,000 trucks pass through Bab al-Hawa carrying food, medicine, and humanitarian provisions every month.
No other participants in the cross-border aid mechanism have the deep expertise and resources to adequately take on the complex, burdensome, and high-risk aid procurement process on the scale that UN bodies do. Any other alternative will expose INGOs and SNGOs to a high level of liability and will tax the capacity of their procurement and logistical systems. Thus, many organizations have been reticent about the idea of taking over UN aid programming if the cross-border mechanism comes to an end.
Moreover, if the UN cross-border resolution is not renewed, the UNMM-operated transshipment hub near Bab al-Hawa will be lost. Unlike other agencies, the UNMM mandate is explicitly tied to the resolution. The monitoring mission was established to prevent the exploitation of UN activities for the smuggling of weapons and other illegal operations. “You can say, the UNMM is essentially the guardian of the resolution,” noted the UNMM chief. At the hub, also known as “Point Zero,” personnel inspect and monitor all cargo from Turkey. However, Turkish trucks do not cross the border. UN staff inspect vehicles entering from Syria. Then, they monitor the transfer process of all consignments from Turkish- to Syrian-registered trucks to ensure its integrity. Humanitarian non-UN organizations have also benefited from the UN channel for their convoys.
Replacing the UNMM structure will be difficult. Not only does it require significant expertise and capacity, but also the support and trust of the Turkish government, which NGOs do not enjoy to the same degree as the United Nations.
In the midst of tensions between the West and Russia, people in Northwest Syria—who have already suffered greatly—should not bear the price. The cost of ambiguity and politicization of the cross-border resolution has already been high. As UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syrian Crisis, Mark Cutts, said, “humanitarian needs are higher than they have ever been in this crisis, and the level of suffering and the level of need has increased. We need to sustain the humanitarian operation we have built over many years. This is not the time for non-renewal.” Given the importance of the resolution to the lives of millions of people in the northwest, Security Council members should support it and vote for its renewal in July. Failing to renew the resolution would cause a devastating, immediate disruption to the cross-border aid operation and interrupt critical life-saving assistance to more than 4 million Syrians.
Cover Photo Caption: Civil society and humanitarian workers form a human chain as a vigil. They are calling for the UN resolution to maintain the passage of humanitarian aid into Idlib, Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province, from Turkey. Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images.