After months of mounting frustration, the United Nations on Monday stripped Syria’s government of the ability to block humanitarian aid, granting agencies the ability to cross into Syria without Damascus’ approval.
In a unanimous vote, the fifteen-member U.N. Security Council passed resolution 2165, which opened up four routes from Iraq, Turkey, and Jordan into Syria for humanitarian aid workers to cross into rebel-held territory. These routes — Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah, and Al-Ramtha — were cleared in “addition to those already in use, in order to ensure that humanitarian assistance, including medical and surgical supplies, reaches people in need throughout Syria,” though the document does call for the aid to move “through the most direct routes” and “with notification to the Syrian authorities.” The resolution also sets up a monitoring mechanism under the control of U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to ensure that only humanitarian aid flows through these border crossings.
The passage of the Jordan, Australia, and Luxembourg-drafted resolution was in no way guaranteed, despite the wide-ranging support for providing additional humanitarian support to the Syrian people. As with a previous resolution passed in February demanding that Syria end its blockade of rebel-held areas in the country, Russia and China went along with the rest of the Council, providing positive votes instead of merely abstaining. This in itself is important as the two had together used their ability to block any action on the Security Council to veto four resolutions and were initially wary of any new resolution.
Russian and Chinese acquiescence was likely purchased through removing any reference to Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter from the resolution. That section of the body’s founding document delineates precisely what powers the Council has been granted to enforce the peace — including issuing sanctions and clearing the use of military force — and has in the past been cited in resolutions to highlight the binding nature of Security Council decisions. Given Russia’s concerns that citing Chapter VII can be viewed as setting the UNSC down the path towards removing President Bashar al-Assad, no resolution with such a citation has passed yet on Syria.
Instead, as in the case of last year’s resolution on removing Syria’s chemical weapons, the new resolution underscores “that Member States are obligated under Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations to accept and carry out the Council’s decisions.” Any oblique reference to Chapter VII was also removed from a section outlined next steps should Syria ignore this most recent resolution as well. An earlier draft said the Security Council would “impose measures directed against that party, taking into account the relevant provisions under the Charter of the United Nations,” while the passed version merely says that U.N. will “will take further measures in the event of non-compliance with this resolution … by any Syrian party.”
Western governments, while still noting the need for implementation, were exultant following the unanimous vote. “At a time when many are raising questions about the ability of this Council to fulfill its purpose regarding Syria, we have shown again today that we can come together and take action against the horrific crisis in Syria,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power said after the vote. “Today, we are taking steps to ensure that our resolution from February has a real impact on the ground unlocking the impediments that stand in the way of cross-border assistance. … The Council must now take the cooperation and unity we have shown today and bring it to bear in ensuring the end of the horrors being perpetrated against the Syrian people.”
Somewhere between 1.3 million and 2 million Syrians can now be reached if the resolution is properly implemented, U.N. diplomats declared after the resolution’s passage. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid, nearly 6.5 million Syrians are internally displaced, forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting but still within Syria’s borders. In the past year, Syria has been repeatedly accused of cutting off access to food, medicine, and other vital supplies to civilians in areas where rebel groups maintain control. In March, as an example, one truck carrying medicine was held at a government checkpoint for hours, with government officials removing medical supplies from the trucks prior to their departure “on the basis that there were no functioning health facilities.” Of what aid did get through, the U.N. has said, 75 percent of food and 85 percent of medicine went to regime-held areas.
In a statement, the Syrian Opposition Coalition, the moderate group rebelling against Assad’s government, said that the new resolution “sends a strong signal to the Syrian regime that its calculated policy of siege warfare will no longer be tolerated.” The resolution if implemented in full, the statement continues, “has the potential to ensure delivery of urgently needed food, water and medical care to millions of Syrians needlessly suffering from malnourishment, starvation and disease,” stressing that “it can only do so if it is implemented swiftly by the UN and its partners.”
The need for implementation was echoed in a statement released under the names of 34 non-governmental organizations praising the Security Council’s resolution but urging it not to ease the pressure on Damascus. “Today’s resolution must pave the way to further action,” the statement reads, adding that the Security Council “must not lose sight of its previous demands.” David Milliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee, further praised the resolution but also said it “is also a mark of failure on the ground to reach millions of people still in desperate need after the last resolution in February. Inaction has cost too many lives for too long — it is time to live up to the ideals of the international system.”
Implementation may be harder for Syria to block than February’s resolution, which first demanded Syria allow all aid to reach those in need regardless of whether in regime- or rebel-controlled areas. Prior to the vote, the United Nations’ Office of Legal Affairs determined that the wording of the resolution — namely that only “notification” is required instead of consent — is enough that aid agencies can proceed even if the Syrian government attempts to block them.
However, just how soon aid trucks will be rolling across the border to carry out that implementation remains to be seen; the passage of February’s resolution which also demanded that aid be allowed free access into Syria was routinely ignored and the regime’s willingness to block aid at the border was not exactly tested. Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valarie Amos, who is charged with overseeing the many U.N. programs operating in Syria, has preferred to take a non-confrontational approach towards the regime for fear of being kicked out all together.
It also remains to be seen what reception the Syrian government will provide to any unauthorized access. Last month, Syrian lawyers presented a letter to the United Nations warning that any cross-border aid would amount to an attack. “Importing aid in coordination with terrorist organizations and without consultation with the Syrian state would amount to an attack on the Syrian state and on its territorial integrity and political independence,” the letter read, according to Reuters. Damascus did not provide any indiciation as to just what consequence could be expected for going against its wishes.