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UNSC Watch: Does the US-Russia Compromise on Syria Portend Better Times?

The West and Russia, after openly clashing on the route for delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria, have come together in a rare show of unity.

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New Delhi: The United States and Russia coming together on a contentious resolution on Syria raises the critical question as to whether this could pave the way for more change or if it was a short-lived moment of unity.

After a long time, the two countries united to work out a mutual compromise and keep a Syrian border post open for humanitarian supplies into rebel-held territory. 

In a last-minute deal, the 15-member Council on Friday, July 9, unanimously passed resolution 2585 that reauthorises the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria to remain open for six more months. It will most likely get another six-month extension from January 2022, after the UN secretary-general submits a report on ‘cross-line’ aid crossings preferred by Russia and the Syrian government.

While Syria ended the working week, the Council began on Monday (July 7) with a statement on the crisis in Haiti after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse. There was also a private meeting of the Council on July 8. Last week’s other discussions on UNSC’s agenda were about various hotspots in Africa – Democratic Republic of the Congo, West Africa and the Sahel, and Ethiopia’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD).

Intense negotiations behind the scenes in New York and world capitals focused on the scheduled vote on renewing the cross-border humanitarian aid delivery mechanism on July 9.

As the June 23 meeting on Syria’s humanitarian situation showed starkly, the West and Russia openly clashed on their differing positions on the route for delivery of humanitarian aid.

The West, along with Turkey, wanted to expand cross-border crossings in north-western Syria, which would bypass the Syrian government’s territory and keep Damascus out of the loop. Russia and China would not agree on more than one cross-border point. They also forcefully called for the UN to increasingly use ‘cross-line’ supply routes for aid convoys to move through the government-held territory to rebel-controlled areas inside Syria.

Bassam Sabbagh, Permanent Representative of the Syrian Arab Republic to the United Nations, addresses the Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East (Syria). Photo: UN Photo/Manuel Elías

In July 2020, four draft resolutions failed, out of which two were vetoed, before resolution 2533 was approved, with Russia, China and the Dominican Republic abstaining. 

In June this year, Ireland and Norway, penholders for the Syria humanitarian file, circulated a zero draft that would authorise two cross-border crossings for a year. Facing opposition, the penholders dropped the authorisation of the Al Yarubiyah crossing on July 7. However, the veto wielded by the two P-5 countries hung like Damocles’ sword.

A day later, Russia floated a draft to keep open the Bab al-Hawa crossing for six months. According to Security Council Report, the Russian draft also introduced a condition that future renewals would be contingent on progress in cross-line supply routes.

The final shape of the resolution emerged only on the morning of July 9, which led to a delay in starting the open session of the Council. Finally, the draft was submitted jointly by Ireland, Norway, Russia and the US and adopted unanimously with a show of hands. The renewal came just a day before the current mandate was scheduled to expire.

According to a Norwegian diplomat, it was the first unanimous Security Council resolution on the Syria humanitarian topic since 2016.

There were congratulations and back pats in the Security Council. US envoy Linda Thomas-Garfield said that the show of unanimity demonstrated that the US and Russia could “work together to find solutions”. At the same time, Russian Permanent Representative Vassily Nebenzia termed it a “turning point” in bilateral relations in line with the spirit of the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva.

The US and western countries spun the resolution as a renewal for a year, with no vote required in six months. The Russians, in contrast, are describing as a six-month extension, contingent on the SG’s report.

Before January arrives, Security Council members will undoubtedly be debating whether just the publication of the report would be enough for automatic renewal without a vote – or the Russians would also look at the content of the study.

The resolution states that the second extension of six months till July 2022 would be “subject to the issuance of the Secretary General’s substantive report, with particular focus on transparency in operations, and progress on cross-line access in meeting humanitarian needs”.

While there could be quibbles over semantics at the time of renewal in January, the ground realities would mean that it would be difficult for any country to cut off the supply route for humanitarian aid during deep winter in January.

FILE PHOTO: A worker holds bags and a box of humanitarian aid in the opposition-held Idlib, Syria June 9, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

To diplomatic observers, it was clear that the US had yielded to Russians on this issue. Having agreed to the extension of a cross border route last year, Russia could have done it again this year. But, it still managed to get the West to back down from two cross-borders points to one and got the UN to work on a study to make cross-line supply routes effective.

The resolution also spells out specific areas related to cross-line delivery mechanism for inclusion in the SG’s report – based on language proposed mainly by Russia.

Trying to interpret the tea leaves, diplomatic sources said that the Syria resolution was a definite signal of outreach from the Biden administration to Moscow. 

A former Indian diplomat with UN experience said that the importance of the developments should be seen in terms of the “complex triangle” between the US, Russia and China in the Security Council and beyond.

“Ultimately, because of Russian influence on Assad, it is Russia rather than China who called the final shot on this “Asian” issue. This is what I hope our policymakers will recognise and exploit on China’s dominance due to its veto power, which it has not been able to use effectively on Syria,” he said.

If this thaw sustains, one area of possible cooperation between Russia and the United States is on Afghanistan. With US President announcing that withdrawal of military troops will end by August 31, next month will be a crucial period – coinciding with India’s presidency of the Council.

Also read: India Evacuates Diplomats, Security Personnel from Kandahar as Taliban Claims New Areas

There is, of course, uncertainty about whether the Russia-China tango has gone too far ahead to be busted up by any intense wooing by a western power.

Russia is aware that it is becoming dependent on Beijing, but has found it challenging to break the belligerence pattern with elites in western capitals convinced about Moscow’s ‘insidious’ designs.

At the same time, Russia has stretched itself to take strategic roles to leverage influence even in non-traditional regions like Africa, which has naturally meant a more active role in the Security Council. With its extensive economic and capital networks, the presence of China by Russia’s side is likely providing the confidence and backing to keep Moscow building up its sway in different regions, from Syria to the Central African Republic.

The Indian position has been primarily in line with the Russian and Chinese position on cross-line sanctions. SCR reported that India, along with China and Russia, had also pointed out, at a June 30 consultation, that language about cross-line supply routes was missing in the text of the draft. 

Confirming India’s moves to The Wire, sources also pointed out that the draft also had no language related to rehabilitation.

India’s explanation of vote, as presented by permanent representative T.S. Tirumurti, had urged “active engagement” between donor agencies and Damascus “consistent with the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria to address the humanitarian situation and reconstruction needs”.

He also stated that “concrete steps need to be taken to address the hurdles that are obstructing the functioning of cross-line operations as well”. Endorsing the need for a UNSG report on cross-line routes, Tirumurti added, “We need a realistic basis to move forward”.

Tirumurti also reiterated that India was concerned that “involvement of external actors” made the situation in Syria worse. While no names were taken, the finger was pointed to Turkey’s role in Syria.

As per sources, a key difference in the Russian and Indian position on Syria is that the latter has not explicitly called for removals of the sanctions regime.

Last week also saw India – for the first time – articulate its view on the controversy between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Nile river. As lower riparian states, Egypt and Sudan have claimed that their water supply will be severely restricted due to the dam, the largest in Africa.

Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam is seen as it undergoes construction work on the river Nile in Guba Woreda, Benishangul Gumuz Region, Ethiopia September 26, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Tiksa Negeri/File Photo

While the three countries had agreed to a Declaration of Principles in 2015, there had been no progress in talks. The African Union stepped in 2020, but the regional mechanism has not made much headway too.

The first time that Security Council had discussed GERD was in June 2020, after Egypt invoked Article 35 of the UN charter.

After Ethiopia indicated that it starts the second filling of the dam in early July, Egypt and Sudan called on the Council for an urgent discussion.

Tunisia, a non-permanent member, also circulated a draft resolution, which provides a deadline of six months for all the three countries to reach a binding agreement.

At the July 8 Council meeting, Egypt’s foreign minister, Samah Hassan Shokry Selim, called on the UNSC to approve the draft resolutions, stating that it was only political in nature and does not impose a settlement.

Ethiopia pointedly sent her Water, Irrigation and Energy minister to address the Council, rather than the foreign minister, to indicate its position that the issue was a technical matter.

The Ethiopian minister, Seleshi B. Awulachew, stated that it was “unfitting” for the Security Council’s time and resources to take up the GERD dispute on its agenda.

While no mention was made of the draft resolution, India made it clear that it wasn’t in favour of UNSC intervention. 

“Based on our own experience, we know that transboundary water disputes should ideally be resolved through mechanisms agreed upon by the primary stakeholders, and taking into account their respective rights and also  issues of technical details, historical usage and socio-economic aspects,” said Tirumurti at the Council meeting.

Also read: UNSC Watch: On the Tigray Crisis, India Underlines Ethiopia’s Territorial Integrity

He noted that the three countries should continue their bilateral engagements as well as cooperate with the AU. “Only such a solution would endure and serve the developmental needs of upper and lower riparian regions. We also urge other interested countries to support the efforts of the AU in this regard”.

In the United Nations, India has been consistently pushing for regional bodies to take the lead in hotspots and disputes, from Myanmar to South Sudan.

The Indian statement also indicated that it considered the GERD issue a technical water-sharing matter, rather than a peace and security issue. 

This week in UNSC

The Council is likely to continue negotiations on the draft resolution circulated by Tunisia this week. The Egyptian foreign minister had also met with the Indian envoy over the weekend in New York.

The formal schedule begins with the monthly briefing on Syria’s chemical weapons in a closed format, followed by an open briefing on Colombia on Tuesday, July 13.

Yemen will be the focus on Wednesday, July 14, with the Council set to renew the mandate of the UN Mission to Support the Hodeidah Agreement (UNMHA) and hold a closed briefing on the security and humanitarian situation.

With France holding the presidency, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian will chair two back-to-back ministerial-level briefings on Thursday and Friday (July 15 and 16) on the topics of Libya and the protection of civilians in conflict.

This is a weekly column that tracks the UNSC during India’s current term as a non-permanent member. Previous columns can be found here.