The plan is a UK-led effort, where donor governments will pledge funding to deliver humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria, a senior EU diplomat with knowledge of the effort told The New Arab under the condition of anonymity.
The plan will be implemented outside of the UN framework and thus will not be subject to UN Security Council (UNSC) approval.
The UK has already awarded a tender to a private development contractor to deliver the aid into northwest Syria, the diplomat said, without mentioning the name of the contractor.
Details of the plan were confirmed by three other sources familiar with it, including a researcher focusing on Syria and a high-ranking official working in the Syria aid sector. All preferred to remain anonymous as they were not authorised to speak to the media.
"The plan is a UK-led effort, where donor governments will pledge funding to deliver humanitarian aid from Turkey to Syria"
The UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office declined to comment on the backup plan, but told The New Arab it “strongly supports the renewal of UN Security Council Resolution to maintain vital aid access into Syria”.
The effort comes as Western states scramble to ensure the cross-border aid mechanism into northwest Syria, called a “lifeline” by aid groups, remains alive. The vast majority of the four million people that live in the area depend on the aid delivered via Turkey, and a cessation of this aid would be a “humanitarian catastrophe,” as Amnesty International warned on 5 July.
Aid has been delivered to opposition-held areas of Syria via neighbouring countries since 2014. Each year the UN Security Council (UNSC) has to approve a special resolution to continue to conduct cross-border aid deliveries without the government of Syria’s permission.
In recent years, however, Russia has insisted all aid be routed through Damascus. Thus far, Russia has been successful in closing three of the four border crossings used for aid delivery. Today, just one crossing, Bab al-Hawa in northwest Syria, remains active.
Despite the UK working on this alternative cross-border aid plan for at least a year, much needs to be done before it can be made operational. As of the time of publishing, the project is backed by only a few donor governments and pledges are small compared to the financing needed for the project.
The role of the UN also remains uncertain. Though the plan is a UK-led effort and not affiliated with the UN, the UN could potentially still help coordinate aid delivery on the Turkish side of the border.
Turkey-Syria cross-border aid delivery is a mammoth project, with hundreds of aid-laden trucks crossing through the Turkish border crossing per month. A vast network of local NGOs in Syria and Turkey helps implement programming and distribute aid. Their operations are geared towards working with the UN; working directly with donor governments could create logistical and security problems.
Some UN officials are eager to continue this coordination, but to what extent the organisation can legally do so is unclear if the UNSC cross-border resolution is vetoed.
All of the sources emphasised that though a backup plan would be better than nothing, continuing the UN cross-border mechanism is the best option for the humanitarian needs of the population of northwest Syria.
The Syria researcher warned that there was “no magic switch” that could be flipped to shift the UN’s cross-border operations to a government-led operation.
An alternative program would take time to activate, and even then, logistical concerns and funding gaps would mean the scale of cross-border aid would probably be smaller than the current UN one.
Russia: To veto or not to veto?
Since 2020, Russia has threatened to veto the UNSC cross-border resolution and close the last remaining border crossing into the country. Despite these threats, Russia has always relented at the 11th hour, allowing the resolution to be extended.
In return, Russia has extracted key political concessions from the other members of the UNSC. Last year, Western powers agreed to Russia’s demand that the UN expands reporting on early-recovery projects in Syria. This was a gift to Damascus, which desperately needs international funding to rebuild the war-torn country.
This year, analysts and diplomats seem uncertain if Russia will relent. The war in Ukraine has turned frigid relations between the West and Russia hostile. Cooperation on Syria, which had generally been shielded from other disagreements, has been harmed as a direct result. Notably, in May, the EU declined to invite Russia to the annual Brussels fundraising forum for Syria.
Diplomatic contact between the West and Russia has also been severely reduced, on Syria and otherwise.
Without this communication, there are fears that the diplomatic wrangling necessary to produce the 11th-hour compromise on the cross-border issue will not happen. In the past, it has largely been bilateral negotiations between US and Russian diplomats which prevented a veto.
"Since 2020, Russia has threatened to veto the UNSC cross-border resolution and close the last remaining border crossing into the country"
If Russia vetoes, it would strike a blow to the West’s strategic interests and put pressure on Turkey which would have to deal with a humanitarian crisis on its borders. Though Turkey and Russia are allies, Turkey has supported a number of the West’s demands in regard to the war on Ukraine, including allowing Sweden and Finland into NATO.
However, it would also mean that Moscow would abandon a high point of leverage it has on the West.
It would no longer be able to use the cross-border aid resolution as a bargaining chip in Syria and it would lose its seat at the table when it comes to UN aid programming on Syria. This would make it more difficult for Russia to push for more early-recovery funding in the future.
On the flip side, if Russia vetoes and the UK is able to successfully launch its cross-border mechanism, it would end Russia’s “blackmailing” that frustrates Western diplomats each year.
Uncertainty over whether or not aid would continue would no longer depend on the temperature of Western and Russian relations.
Aid cuts are coming … The question is how severe
The future of humanitarian aid in northwest Syria is bleak, even if the UNSC resolution is extended on Monday.
A May report by the NGO Forum, a consortium of NGOs in northwest Syria said that local NGOs had experienced a cumulative funding cut of $21 million per month in 2022.
The report warned that “more than 3 million monthly services to beneficiaries, including food and water provisions and emergency medical support will stop.” Over 400 critical facilities such as schools and health facilities will also have to stop due to funding gaps.
The World Food Programme (WFP) announced in May that it was cutting its food basket to just 1,177 calories, a little over half of the amount a human is recommended to eat per day. It warned that without additional funding, further “drastic cuts” could be made in the coming months.
"We need to learn that we cannot politicise aid. Humanitarian aid must be kept separate from political considerations"
These cuts are looming, regardless if cross-border aid deliveries continue.
Global attention has drifted away from the conflict in Syria, particularly after the war in Ukraine started. Humanitarian programming has followed, with states cutting their aid funding to Syria even as needs grow.
If the UNSC resolution is not renewed, however, aid cuts will be magnitudes worse.
Much of the aid programming in northwest Syria is emergency relief. Food and cash provision is aimed at securing the immediate needs of residents. If the aid stops, up to a million families will suddenly have empty stomachs. The prices of goods in the local market will skyrocket, as demand for food and other basics previously supplied by NGOs increases.
“We need to learn that we cannot politicise aid,” the Syria researcher said. “Humanitarian aid must be kept separate from political considerations.”
William Christou is The New Arab's Levantine correspondent, covering the politics of the Levant and the Mediterranean.
Follow him on Twitter: @will_christou