The Biden administration scored a key diplomatic victory Friday after Russia agreed to keep a crucial border crossing open in Syria for another year, allowing the United Nations to continue delivering crucial humanitarian aid to millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the decade-long civil war.
Friday’s vote at the U.N. Security Council took some US officials by surprise given Russia’s longtime opposition to the humanitarian corridor that has been used by the United Nations to deliver aid to millions of Syrians every month. Officials said it was evidence that the possibility of future US-Russia cooperation is better than was expected.
The vote came at the same time President Joe Biden was delivering a stark warning to Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in criminal cyber actors based in Russia that continue to target American companies and federal agencies. The contrast underscores the precarious nature of the US-Russia relationship, with progress in certain limited areas and setbacks in others.
“I certainly see it as an important moment in [the US-Russia] relationship,” American Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told reporters, referring to the security council vote. “And it shows what we can do with the Russians if we work with them diplomatically on common goals.”
Greenfield added that she hoped for more “opportunities to work with the Russians on issues of common interest to our two governments.” Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia similarly described the vote as “a turning point that is, indeed, in line with what Putin and Biden discussed in Geneva.”
“It demonstrates that we can cooperate when there is a need and when there is a will as well,” Nebenzia told reporters on Friday.
Friday’s vote was no small feat. The fate of the humanitarian corridor has been a key priority for the Biden administration, and was a central point of discussion between US and Russian officials at the summit in Geneva last month, according to people familiar with the talks. Russia had even sent its envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, to Geneva, and the White House sent National Security Council Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk.
The US conveyed to Russia during that summit that the Russians’ decision on whether to keep the crossing open would be a key test of the countries’ ability to work together in the future. Some officials now believe that the summit was instrumental in pushing Russia toward voting with the US on the issue of humanitarian aid, even though Putin made no commitments during the high-stakes meeting.
“For months, we’ve been concerned about the likelihood, if not the near-certainty, of a Russian veto of the UN Security Council resolution that allows for humanitarian assistance to be provided across the Syrian border from Turkey,” a senior administration official told reporters on Friday. “And it is our strong sense that only leader-level engagement along the lines of (what) took place at the summit in Geneva would’ve gotten this extension done.”
Russia had repeatedly expressed opposition to maintaining the Bab al-Hawa Border crossing, located on the Syria-Turkey border, and Russian officials have described the humanitarian corridor used by the United Nations as a violation of Syrian sovereignty. Russia’s vote on Friday at the U.N. Security Council, where it has veto power, was therefore somewhat of a curveball.
Biden administration officials, including on the National Security Council and at the United Nations, had been “fighting” with Russia to keep the crossing open for months, according to a US official. The Biden administration felt it was saddled with the “fiasco,” as the official described it, as a result of misguided Trump-era policies that failed to convince the Russians to keep several other border crossings in Syria open.
As of earlier this week, there was still little indication of how Russia would vote – Russia skipped U.N. Security Council negotiations on the aid corridor on Tuesday, and US and U.N. officials told CNN this week that they were bracing for a rebuke and weighing potential “Plan B’s” to get aid into northwestern Syria, where millions have been displaced from the decade-long civil war.
“Syria is the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world today,” said Mark Cutts, the U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. “The people in these camps are mostly women, children, and the elderly. They are totally dependent on the aid that has been coming across the border from Turkey. That aid corridor has proven to be the only safe and reliable way of getting aid to these people. This is one of the most vulnerable populations in the world.” He called Friday’s vote “very encouraging.”
Current and former officials and experts on Syria said that although Russia is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s biggest ally, and the US opposes his rule, Moscow still sees value in American involvement in the country – particularly when it comes to finding a political solution to the conflict, increasing regional stability and countering ISIS and other terror groups.
“The Russians want to have a victory in Syria – both a specific victory, where Assad reigns supreme and a major step forward in a changing architecture where they can use Syria as a good example” of a functioning state, said Jim Jeffrey, who served as the Trump administration’s special envoy to Syria. But Russia needs American help to do that, Jeffrey said, which is where US leverage lies.
To that end, Russia has been pushing the US to reduce or eliminate sanctions on Assad and his allies, raising questions about what Washington would be willing to concede in exchange for further cooperation with Moscow in the country – including against Iran, which has a relationship of convenience with Russia but is not fundamentally aligned with them.
Asked on Friday what Russia got in return for agreeing to keep the border crossing open, the senior administration official demurred and told reporters that they would leave it to Russia to explain its justification for the vote.
US officials said that while there are currently no plans to reduce the sanctions on Assad that have been imposed over the last several years, they recognize that sanctions have been having a negative impact on Syria’s civilian population, including on the issue of Covid relief. There are discussions underway about how to mitigate the impact of the sanctions on the population, but no policy decisions have been made to pull back any of the sanctions on Assad, officials said.