WASHINGTON — Only one route remains open to international convoys bringing food, water and other aid to more than a million Syrians under siege by civil war. Now officials are warning that Russia could try to shut it down or use it as a bargaining chip with world powers in another war about 1,000 miles away in Ukraine.
Diplomats and experts said closing the corridor at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey would almost certainly force thousands of people to flee Syria. That would only exacerbate a refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, already considered the worst since World War II.
The UN Security Council, where Russia has a strong veto, will vote in July on keeping the aid route open. But the corridor already appears to be mired in the effects of the war in Ukraine and the competing interests of Russia and the United States.
“The war in Ukraine has far-reaching implications for Syria — and for the entire region and for the world,” Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in an interview in Washington this month.
Mr Safadi said Jordan was wary of seeing how Russia would approach the vote. More than a million Syrian refugees already live in Jordan, he said, and reaching a peace deal in Syria’s 11-year civil war “would certainly require a US-Russian agreement.”
“Given the current dynamics,” he said, “the consequences could be serious for the living conditions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons.”
Using its veto power in the Security Council, Russia helped close three other humanitarian corridors to Syria in 2020 and agreed last year to keep the one in Bab al-Hawa only after intense negotiations with the United States. It has defended the closure of routes as necessary to preserve Syria’s sovereignty and has urged that aid be distributed with the approval of President Bashar al-Assad’s government rather than through the United Nations.
Russia is one of the benefactors of Mr. al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, and much of the aid went to rebel-held areas. Bab al-Hawa’s route leads to Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib, one of the last areas in the country under rebel control and an area that has become a haven for an extremist organization linked to al-Qaida.
An international press campaign to keep the route open is now underway. The United States chaired the Security Council this month and held a series of meetings addressing the plight of Syrians who have been left homeless or otherwise need help to survive.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyanskiy said Moscow had not yet decided how it would vote. But in an interview on Friday, he said aid under the current system was vulnerable to extremists in Idlib.
“I am not denying that it also goes to refugees, but the terrorist groups – they benefit from this,” he said, adding that the extremists had attacked supplies.
Mr Polyanskiy would not talk about negotiations to keep the corridor open, except to say that talks between Russia and the United States are stalling given the “current geopolitical conditions”.
“Honestly, at this stage, we don’t have a lot of things to make us optimistic,” he said.
But three foreign diplomats said Russia had sent vague signals suggesting it could try to use the vote to make concessions in the standoff over Ukraine. The United States and European countries have imposed various sanctions on Russia to punish the country for invading its neighbor.
The diplomats declined to describe the signals in detail, saying Moscow had not linked the corridor’s fate directly to the war in Ukraine. But they said they believed Moscow would turn to countries directly affected by another wave of refugees for help in evading the sanctions.
One of the diplomats also predicted that Russia would refute allegations that its invasion had violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by denouncing the aid convoys as a breach of Syria’s territorial integrity.
Separately, a senior US diplomat said the United States and other countries in the Security Council would send a “clear message” to Moscow, urging the route not to be closed, but there was no guarantee it would be followed. . All diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.
“The Russians have never recognized that Bab al-Hawa was really vital and that we need to keep it open,” said Sherine Tadros, head of Amnesty International’s office at the United Nations. “It was just part of their strategy of clipping, clipping, clipping. And this has always been subject to a lot of back deals. †
“That’s what’s really really sad too – how they play with people’s lives,” Ms Tadros added.
A vast majority of Syrian refugees live in Turkey, where officials have warned for years that the diaspora is pushing the country to a breaking point.
Turkey is bracing for what Russia might do, according to two people familiar with internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them. Both said they expected the route to be part of diplomatic talks with Moscow over Ukraine.
Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, supplies weapons to Ukraine and has barred Moscow’s warships from strategic waterways leading from the Black Sea. But this month, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the country would oppose Sweden and Finland’s entry into NATO, citing security concerns. Moscow has long demanded that the military alliance halt its expansion into Russia’s borders.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is blocking a European Union embargo on Russian oil to curb rising energy prices. Hungary has expelled tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and other countries in the Middle East, but has taken in more than 600,000 Ukrainians this year.
Jordan, which has ties to both Russia and the United States, has tried to avoid being drawn deep into the deadlock over Ukraine and is instead urging the Biden administration to resume negotiations to end to the Syrian Civil War. The conflict in Ukraine, Mr Safadi said, has created “more of a stalemate”.
“The status quo, from our perspective, is dangerous because it only adds to the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said in the interview. Jordan is one of several countries in the Middle East that have recently opened up relations with Mr. al-Assad have resumed despite Washington’s disapproval.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
The Syrian civil war has forced 5.7 million people to leave their country. About 6.7 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the Russian invasion.
An looming global food shortage, partly caused by the disruption of wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia as a result of the invasion, is expected to cause more suffering.
“Suppose we have a humanitarian crisis from lack of food,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy told reporters in Washington this month when asked about the growing number of refugees in Europe. “Then the situation can become very, very difficult to manage.”
In a statement on Thursday, the Kremlin said it would help prevent the food shortage if the West eases its sanctions. President Vladimir V. Putin “emphasized that the Russian Federation is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through grain and fertilizer exports, provided politically motivated restrictions from the West are lifted,” the statement said. was released. following a telephone conversation between Mr Putin and Mr Draghi on Thursday.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa arrived in Italy during a crisis that peaked in 2015 when 1.3 million people fled to Europe. In Washington, Mr. Draghi that Italy had taken in nearly 120,000 Ukrainians this year. But he said the number of Syrians staying in his country, rather than moving elsewhere in Europe, was “not significant”.
At an international donor conference this month in Brussels, the United States pledged to send nearly $808 million to support humanitarian needs in Syria — one of the largest single US contributions since the beginning of that war. The UN refugee agency raised $6.7 billion at the conference to support Syria this year and beyond, though it had only asked for $10.5 billion by 2022.
Announcing the aid, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the food shortage has made humanitarian aid to Syria “particularly important” this year. Without mentioning Russia, Ms Thomas-Greenfield called the July vote on the aid route “a matter of life and death”.
Mr Polyanskiy, the Russian diplomat, said other unofficial border crossings into Syria could allow aid to continue. “It will of course be difficult to deliver UN aid through these points, but it does not mean that these border crossings will be at a standstill,” he said.
The issue has also sparked comparisons between Russia’s support for a ruthless government in Syria and Putin’s own aggression in Ukraine.
“No one who has followed Putin’s brutality in Syria for the past decade should be surprised that he is starving and shooting Ukrainians — just as he has starved and shelled Syrians,” said New Jersey Democrat Senator Bob Menendez and chairman of the Senate for Foreign Affairs. Relations Committee.