Over the past few months, diplomatic efforts to normalize relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have gathered steam. Assad’s long-standing allies – chiefly Russia and Iran – have led the effort. But the biggest shift has come from countries in the region. This was on display in Saudi Arabia last month when Assad made his return to the Arab League. The price for this normalization will likely be paid by Syrians living in areas of the country outside government control and by the millions of refugees hosted by Syria’s neighbors.
The humanitarian situation in Northwest Syria poses an immediate concern as the population suffers through the double trauma of the February earthquake on top of twelve years of war. The United Nations (U.N.) cross-border aid lifeline upon which this population depends is once again up for renewal this July, but the diplomatic rehabilitation of the Assad regime casts that renewal into doubt. Missing in action is the Biden administration, which has yet to articulate a clear policy for Syria. Now, at minimum, the administration must make a tangible commitment to the protection of a robust humanitarian architecture for the millions of people suffering in Syria.
A Post-Earthquake Consensus
While most international attention and humanitarian action following the earthquake focused on southern Turkey, regional countries used the crisis as an opportunity to renew or deepen their engagement with the Assad regime. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided $100 million in humanitarian assistance directly to the Syrian government. More countries – notably Saudi Arabia and some European Union members – followed suit, providing earthquake relief via the Syrian government. The result was greater connectivity between Assad and the rest of the world.
In recent months, a series of diplomatic engagements between Syria and Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE suggest that this new status quo could soon be cemented. In late March, Saudi Arabia announced its intentions to restart ties with Damascus and reopened its Embassy in Syria in May. On May 19, the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia welcomed back President Assad as a full member, ending twelve years of his pariah status.
This flurry of post-earthquake diplomacy signals a new deal may be on the horizon. Major changes to the humanitarian architecture for Syria could follow with potentially dramatic consequences for civilians.
Ankara remains the lynchpin. Millions of Syrians in the northwest of the country continue to depend on U.N. cross-border aid that flows in from Turkey. If Turkey were to soften or end its support for the cross-border aid as part of normalization, a vital humanitarian lifeline could be jeopardized. As of May 10, Turkish officials agreed to improve ties with Syria following intensive brokering by Russia and Iran. These moves suggest that Turkey may consider this course. And they have yet to elicit a significant diplomatic response from Washington or other western capitals.
The Humanitarian Impact of Normalization
One major change since the earthquake has been the question of humanitarian access. The West has long sought to maintain cross-border access in Syria to areas outside of government control via a U.N. Security Council approved mechanism. Russia has often leveraged this western commitment, using the threat of its veto in the Council to chip away at cross-border aid and exact other concessions on Syria. These include the alleviation of some western sanctions and increasing international funds for reconstruction in government-controlled areas.
The earthquake pressured existing geopolitical fault lines over aid access, tipping the balance further in the regime’s favor. The international community’s response was inadequate. Search and rescue teams and other forms of emergency disaster aid failed to materialize in the critical early days of the response, leaving Syrian civil society in the lurch. Other forms of natural disaster aid were slower to arrive than in Turkey. An admission of failure from OCHA Director Martin Griffith reinforced growing frustrations for millions of Syrians in the Northwest.
A series of senior-level U.N. engagements in Damascus with the Syrian government further exacerbated the situation and deepened this sense of abandonment. Meanwhile, U.N. Member States are exhausted from protracted Security Council debates with Russia and China to maintain cross-border access in Syria. Russia and China have adeptly used the hefty and time-consuming process to gradually shrink the U.N.’s capacity for operations outside of the Syrian government.
The upshot of all this is that many states in the international community may by default accept normalization without consideration for the millions of Syrians living beyond government-controlled areas.
Refugee-hosting countries in the region, which have a poor track record of forcibly returning refugees, also view normalization as cover to pushing Syrian refugees to return prematurely. Lebanon has already ramped up efforts to round up and deport unregistered refugees and those with expired permits in recent weeks. Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi announced on May 1 a strategy to facilitate the “voluntary” return of 1,000 Syrians in coordination with Syria and UN agencies. The extent to which these returns would be “voluntary” remains a major concern. Meanwhile, Turkish President Erdogan, following his successful re-election bid on May 28, promised to send back one million Syrians within one year. These trends will push Syrian refugees across the region into unprecedented uncertainty as calls for their return ramp up in the coming weeks.
For its part, the Biden administration has gradually opened a previously-shut door for partners to normalize. According to one senior State Department official, the message to Arab partners was, “If you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for it.” This message was welcomed by the Arab League who are now driving efforts to normalize ties with Assad.
Defining Humanitarian Priorities
The West’s haphazard approach to Syria’s future needs to change. While the Biden administration seeks to move on from Syria, it should, at a minimum, outline a humanitarian policy aimed at preserving and enhancing current humanitarian efforts. This policy should clearly define U.S. policy priorities aimed at insulating the humanitarian response from the geopolitical implications of normalization.
Firstly, the Biden administration should push for the renewal of the cross-border mechanism at the U.N. Security Council session in July for a minimum of twelve months. As political trendlines bend toward Assad, the Biden administration should also prepare for a scenario where either Russia vetoes the resolution or there is a concerted effort to shift the authorization of the cross-border assistance from the resolution to regime consent. In this case, it would be critical for U.S. Representative to the U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to push for the decoupling of the U.N. cross-border mechanism authorization from the Security Council, a position meticulously outlined by the U.N. Independent Commission on Syria, the American Relief Coalition for Syria, and international legal scholars.
This position would be critical to publicly reinforcing a U.S. commitment to a principled humanitarian response and signaling to the U.N. Security Council that the United States is serious about circumventing the legal political standoff which has left millions stranded. Then, the United States must continue to work with Turkey and Syrian civil society to ensure cross-border aid remains open and fully funded through alternative pooled funds – like the Aid Fund for Northern Syria – if the U.N. authorization is not renewed in July.
In addition, the United States must keep steady pressure on Arab states to ensure that the pursuit of normalization with the Syrian regime does not trigger oppressive state policies designed to pressure Syrian refugees to leave. Washington and other donor capitals must push back against growing calls from the region for widespread return of Syrian refugees, while also fulfilling their financial commitments to refugee-hosting countries, like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, whose sense of abandonment is now being translated into pressure on Syrian refugees to leave.
Timing is critical as the movement toward normalization risks jeopardizing the humanitarian response in Syria before a U.N. Security Council vote in July. At stake are the lives and futures of millions of Syrians, inside and outside the country, who may face significant retribution if they again fall under the control of the Assad regime.