Biden, Putin Face Early Post-Summit Test Over Syria Cooperation

Biden, Putin Face Early Post-Summit Test Over Syria Cooperation

President Joe Biden’s effort to reverse a free fall in U.S.-Russia relations encounters an early test in Syria as an agreement over international aid corridors into the country is set to expire this week.

Keeping aid flowing into Syria was a key request Biden made of President Vladimir Putin at their summit in Geneva last month, but that will require the two nations and other members of the United Nations Security Council to reach an accord this week.

The current agreement expires July 10.

The U.S. and allied nations want to avert a shutdown of aid operations, which benefits Syrians living in rebel-held areas. Putin, for his part, wants to extract concessions for his ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Millions of lives could hang in the balance.

“The basic strategic question is what Russia will demand from the international community and the U.S. in return for saving these 3.5 million people,” said James Jeffrey, who recently served as the American envoy for Syria and negotiated cross-border aid with Moscow. “The U.S. is putting a lot of emphasis on this and it’s getting a lot of attention, but Putin won’t do this just to make us happy.”

Russia has been gradually reducing such aid to Syria in recent years, arguing the cross-border operation -- which benefits rebel-held areas -- undermines the sovereignty of Assad’s regime. The debate comes six years after Putin’s decision to enter the conflict shifted the balance of power away from a melange of rebel and terrorist groups back to the government in Damascus.

Critics say Assad’s government is withholding basic goods like food and clean water to millions of Syrians as a tool of war. To get around Assad, the UN in 2014 approved four border crossings for aid deliveries, but Russia -- which holds veto power on the Security Council -- last year forced the closing of all but one of those crossings.

The Security Council is negotiating a resolution, drafted by Ireland and Norway, that intends to keep the current aid corridor on the Turkish border open while reopening one from Iraq. That resolution was criticized by U.S. Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who recently visited the Turkish-Syria border. She says three crossing are needed.

“Millions of Syrians are struggling, and without urgent action, millions more will be cut off from food, clean water, medicine, and Covid-19 vaccines,” said Thomas-Greenfield. “The situation is devastating, and will only get worse if we don’t act. The Security Council must meet the moment with the robust humanitarian access that people of the region desperately need.”

Yet the Russians are signaling that even keeping one crossing open will be difficult.

“What we hear from our colleagues about reopening the closed cross-border points is really a non-starter,” Russia’s UN ambassador, Vassily Nebenzya, said at a press briefing on Wednesday. “We are discussing the one that is remaining.”

While the West refuses to tie humanitarian aid negotiations to Russian demands to ease sanctions on Assad, the Treasury Department announced last month it had lifted sanctions on two Dubai-based corporations under the control of Samer Foz, a businessman it charged in 2019 was “directly supporting the murderous Assad regime.”

A Treasury spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said the department determined that there was a change in circumstances or status on the part of the companies that justified the lifting of restrictions. The official pointed out that Foz, as well as two of his siblings, continues to be sanctioned by the U.S.

Jeffrey, the former Syrian envoy, said the move on the companies could be interpreted as a signal to Moscow. But he also warned that a wider settlement on Syria would depend on a change in Assad’s behavior and accountability for his war crimes.

Acting UN humanitarian chief Ramesh Rajasingham warned that a failure to extend the aid corridor authorization would have stark consequences for the population, disrupting “life-saving aid to 3.4 million people in need across the northwest, millions of whom are among the most vulnerable in Syria.”

‘Catastrophic Situation’
“With 90% of people in need requiring assistance for their survival, they would face a truly catastrophic situation,” he said. “There is simply no substitute for the cross-border operation.”

Russia’s approach to UN negotiations has been to hold off on any resolution until the last minute, meaning any clarity on the cross-border effort is only likely to come closer to the Saturday deadline.

“The decision hasn’t been taken yet, this won’t happen until just before the vote,” said Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert based in Moscow. “We can’t exclude the option of a veto,” she said, adding “the maximum Russia would agree to is to extend the mandate for one humanitarian corridor.”

Dozens of non-governmental organizations are arguing that without crossings the results would be catastrophic, especially as they try to vaccinate populations in rebel-held areas against the coronavirus.

“In the middle of a pandemic, cutting off the ability of thousands of doctors and nurses to function would be devastating,” said Louis Charbonneau, UN director at Human Rights Watch. “How are you going to run a massive vaccination effort?”