Syria’s crossings again

In July 2020, Moscow recognized the power of the Syrian crossings to be used as a pressure card against the countries involved in the Syrian conflict and against those anti-government and opposition parties. The crossings’ card remained forgotten until 2014, when the four crossings of Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salamah with Turkey, Tel Kochar (al-Ya’roubiya) with Iraq, and al-Ramtha with Jordan were open to the access of humanitarian aid and relief work. However, in early 2020, the four crossings were limited to two with Turkey. Then, it was limited to only one, Bab al-Hawa, in the same year, according to the UN Security Council Resolution 2533.

The crossings’ agreement is one of the tests of the relationship between the two presidents, Biden and Putin regarding the Syrian issue and the possibility of bridging the huge gap between the two countries, as the US President’s hint after the summit that brought him together with his Russian counterpart in Brussels was clear: “We will find out within the next six months to a year whether we could actually build a strategic dialogue or not.” Maybe the crossings’ test creates the adequate environment for cooperation between the two powers and it is coupled with Moscow’s return to the agreement of opening the four crossings with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan to humanitarian aid. Although most of the focus is prioritized to Syrian-Turkish crossings, through which humanitarian aid arrive to about three million Syrians in the Syrian opposition armed factions and al-Nusra Front-held areas,  many appeals by international organizations and relief bodies did not forget Tel Kochar (al-Ya’roubiyah) crossing with Iraq, whose closure seriously affected the path of aid to areas in Syria’s northeastern regions, where more than four million of people live in. 

The Russian argument is based on that the crossings should be run by the state (regime) and having them under the control of the terrorist groups (al-Nusra Front), gives breath of life to them. The current available Russian alternative is to prepare the opening of three internal crossings between the opposition-held areas and the regime-held areas, two of which in Idlib and one in the northern countryside of Aleppo. This can limit the Turkish influence, reduce the opposition, and leave the decision of food and medication at the hands of the regime which Washington fears despite the US-Turkish difference regarding the issue of Turkey’s areas of control along with its affiliated armed factions. 

The issue of the crossings, which will be discussed in the Security Council on July 10, may witness either renewing the authorization of the crossings and maintaining the UN Resolution 2533 to keep Bab al-Hawa crossing operating without being run by the regime, or raising another Russian-Chinese veto to prevent the Security Council from granting permission to any crossing that is not under the regime’s control which consequently means the canceling of UN Resolution 2533. However, the occurrence of such a scenario means the possibility of stopping any possible American-Russian strategic agreement according to the US President’s statement, and it also means the possibility to witness a humanitarian catastrophe in the areas that are outside the regime control, whether east or west of the Euphrates, especially since efforts to counter the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in Syria are still below the minimum limits. 

There is an international intensification and another American one to reopen the al-Ya’roubiyah crossing through appeals and calls by humanitarian organizations, which is considered a positive escalation in order to curb the Russian veto against areas in Syria’s northeast, where, according to the UK representative at the UN, the medical needs increased at 38% following the closure of the crossing last year. Meanwhile, Russia is arguing that the crossing is not needed as a result of the increasing aid to the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES)-held areas, which is a statement that shows a clear false, since Damascus’ role in the health field and efforts paid in countering the pandemic has declined. 

Despite all the international appeals and American efforts and although, moving the crossings issue towards a more coherent and wise American-Russian strategic dialogue in Syria, it is more likely that Russian will veto again. As for suggestions regarding another Russian veto, it is based on several facts, firstly, Russia’s will to monitor aid access to Syria and make the Syrian government the sole beneficiary of such aid which means to legitimate the regime which the Western countries and the United States reject. Secondly, the Russian-Syrian need of money secured through these humanitarian aid and accessing. Thirdly, to limit the influence of the areas outside the control of the regime and the attempt to contain them. Additionally, the Russian alternative is represented by the internal crossings with stopping the crossings with the neighboring countries, because the internal crossings will include food and medication within the means of Russia and Syria in order to control the situation and to control Syrians’ lives in the areas that are outside the regime control. Moreover, we cannot neglect another point that Russia may deem very important, which is the offer that the international community, the United States and its Western and Arab partners will pay in return for opening the borders and returning to the 2014 formula. Therefore, Moscow finds itself free to veto or not in the coming days.

Moscow and Damascus believe that reviving the crossings outside their areas of control weakens their role and urges the reality of multiple powers, but what confuses Moscow, if it vetoes, is the possibility of showing more intransigence towards Russian roles in Syria by Washington, nullify the opportunities for a dialogue between them, and refrain from providing aid through Damascus that will lead to a humanitarian catastrophe, which the international community will hold Russia responsible for, and this  is a Western propaganda that may cause Russia an additional burden.