Analysts say the U.S. needs use its diplomatic leverage on Russia to ensure humanitarian aid continues to flow into Syria, where 90% of the population lives in poverty and is completely aid dependent. Improving the humanitarian situation there could be a major advance for U.S. policy, they say, as Washington is also the biggest single donor of assistance to the war-ravaged country.
Improving the humanitarian situation in Syria is where the “United States can achieve positive outcomes because that is where our leverage really lies,” says Daphne McCurdy. She is the former deputy country representative for the Syria program at the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office of Transition Initiatives. Now, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, McCurdy agrees with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken who this week urged the United Nations Security Council to reopen border crossings for aid into Syria blocked by Russia.
"The Assad regime has used humanitarian assistance as a weapon of war," McCurdy said. "Life- saving aid has been denied to the people who need it most. This past July, the Russians along with the Chinese vetoed again one border crossing in Turkey and so there is only one border crossing remaining that goes to Idlib. Convincing the Russians to keep this open will be very difficult. The U.S. should be using all the tools in its diplomatic toolbox to keep this border crossing open and be prepare that it won’t be left open. We also need to prepare contingency plans.”
McCurdy and other analysts say Washington and Moscow need to talk more as each jockey for their preferred outcome not just over aid, but how to deal with the Syrian crisis. Syria researcher Joshua Landis at the University of Oklahoma says competing views by the U.S. and Russia over Syria’s sovereignty play into the aid issue.
“The United States supports Syrian sovereignty but a government change and an imposition of U.N. resolutions which would cause a political change in Damascus. And that’s where we get into this larger struggle over border issues and aid," Landis said. "America has used foreign aid to the opposition as a tool against Damascus and Damascus has used it to try to starve the opposition. America is trying to feed the opposition, and this is a struggle over who is going to control Syria.
The U.N. also argues that Syria’s cross-border humanitarian operation must continue. It says that in the past year alone, aid needs for the Syrian people have increased by 20 percent as the conflict lingers and the country battles a currency crisis along with the COVID-19 pandemic.