Russia and China are still betting on Assad

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The UN Security Council approved a six-month extension of the UN’s remaining cross-border aid corridor to Syria last month, following extensive debate. Eight years ago, the Security Council, unanimously vote to launch this humanitarian aid mechanism under Resolution 2165, granting UN-led humanitarian groups the legal authority to deliver aid to Syria through four designated border crossings with Turkey, Iraq and Jordan.

This resolution marked the first time the United Nations agreed to this approach – and the first time China and Russia voted to overrule Syrian authority because of the human suffering in Syria. But China and Russia now want to end this access to humanitarian aid and centralize the provision of aid by Damascus. My research suggests that this change would limit access to aid for millions of people in hard-to-reach areas of Syria.

Northern Syria depends on UN aid. It could end.

Russia and China want to preserve the Assad regime

The 2014 vote allowed cross-border humanitarian access, regardless of Syrian consent. For Russia and China, this was a sea change from their earlier refusal to support such resolutions in Syria.

A series of high performance attacks in 2013 — including the Ghouta chemical attack – have targeted Syrian civilians, fueling calls within the international community for military intervention in Syria. This has increased international pressure on Russia and China to prioritize the protection of civilians.

For Russia, the punitive actions of the UN in Syria risked undermining the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s first strategic partner in the region, and threatened the Russian naval base in Tartous. China had its own reasons for vetoing UN proposals relating to the Syrian conflict, in part because Beijing had broad economic interests In the region. Beijing had also abstained on the 2011 UN authorization for humanitarian intervention in Libya – and the Chinese policy makers believed that the rampant action of NATO, under the authorization of the UN, had caused the collapse of Libya and the civil war that followed.

How the Ukraine crisis could worsen the Syrian civil war

After this abstention, China strategically used its veto in the Security Council to delegitimize regime change in Syria and lobby for alternatives to non-intervention in the Syrian conflict. The successive vetoes, in particular on the plan to refer the Syrian case to the International Criminal Court, have left Beijing vulnerable claims by the UN Commission on Human Rights that China’s position could fueling new atrocities in Syria. This soured relations with the Arab League, particularly with Saudi Arabiawho resigned his seat on the Security Council in 2013 to protest Chinese and Russian vetoes.

The UN had a rare moment of consensus

In 2014, Russia and China joined Western members of the Security Council in unanimously adopting Resolution 2139, which demanded the lifting of all sieges in Syria, as well as immediate humanitarian access and the delivery of aid. As Assad continued to resist UN demands, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2165 in July 2014.

Why did China and Russia support the resolution? The trade-off was that Western powers would not push to allow the use of force, which Russia and China feared would be given as a pretext for military intervention and regime change. The compromise, Security Council members believed, would extend UN authorization for humanitarian agencies to access hard-to-reach opposition-held areas.

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Resolution 2165 enabled the UN to mitigate the deterioration of the humanitarian situation without the Syrian government obstructing the delivery of aid, but it also reduced the likelihood of armed intervention and a diet change. This compromise, however, meant that China and Russia, staunch supporters of Syrian sovereignty, also legitimized a major tenet of the UN Responsibility to Protect Doctrine — that humanitarian concerns can override a government’s presupposed right to sovereignty.

Pressure from Russia and China on the UN-led humanitarian system to centralize aid in Syrian-controlled Damascus is growing, casting doubts on the longevity of the cross-border mechanism. China and Russia instead promote “cross line” Damascus aid, to send aid across battle lines to opposition areas. Russia has gradually undermined the current mechanism by closure of UN-approved crossings via Jordan and Iraq — all that remains is aid access via Turkey. Russia and China have also pushed for reduce renewal time for this cross-border access from one year to six months and added additional requirements for the UN Secretary-General to produce routine reports on the status of operations.

The United States and its partners Argue that the cross-border mechanism remains essential for humanitarian aid to reach Syrians who live outside government-controlled areas and lack essential infrastructure, health services and food security. In a 2022 UN Refugee Agency survey, more than 92% of Syrian refugees in the region consider conditions in Syria as untenable for their return in the coming year, due to the lack of security and basic services. And while the UAE drives normalization of Arab relations with Syria, Western decision makers have little confidence in the Syrian regime’s ability and political will to monitor post-conflict reconstruction.

China and Russia have claimed that non-governmental organizations, neighboring countries and Western nations are exploit the routes of help at undermine Assad. Both countries say that Assad work to alleviate the suffering of the nation if it is empowered to do so through international aid rather than sanctions. Western aid groups, however, point to the disarray and rubble in areas like the southern city of Dara’a, where conditions have improved little since the city returned to government control four years ago.

Russia and China are still betting on Assad

Eight years after Russia and China agreed to Resolution 2165, the Assad regime has regained control of much of the country and wants to exert more control over outside humanitarian efforts. Assad now leads the eventual restoration of state control in most geographic and normative areas of governance, including humanitarian efforts.

China has already given the green light to deeper economic and political cooperation with Syria, welcoming it to the Belt and Road Initiative and Global Development Initiative and unlocking access to Chinese funding for reconstruction projects. Russia, concerned about its invasion of Ukraine, continues to support the Assad government militarily, but will likely look to China to take on a bigger role in building Assad’s political, economic and bureaucratic capabilities.

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Jesse Marks (@JesCMarks) is a nonresident scholar at the Stimson Center, specializing in China-Middle East relations.

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