Diplomats fear Russia could use Syrian aid as a bargaining chip in Ukraine

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WASHINGTON – Only one route remains open for international convoys bringing food, water and other supplies to over a million Syrians besieged by civil war. Now, officials warn, Russia could be trying to shut it down or use it as a bargaining chip with world powers in another war some 1,000 miles away in Ukraine.

Diplomats and experts said closing the corridor at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey would almost certainly force thousands of people to flee Syria. That would only exacerbate a refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East, already ranked as the world’s worst since World War II.

The UN Security Council, where Russia has a strong veto, will vote in July on whether to keep the avenue open. But the corridor already appears to be caught up in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine and the competing interests of Russia and the United States.

“The war in Ukraine has far-reaching implications for Syria – and for the entire region and the world,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said in an interview in Washington this month.

Mr Safadi said Jordan is carefully watching how Russia will approach the vote. More than a million Syrian refugees already live in Jordan, he said, and brokering a peace deal in Syria’s 11-year civil war “would definitely require a US-Russian deal.”

“Given the current dynamics,” he said, “the fallout could have serious consequences for the living conditions of Syrian refugees and displaced persons.”

Russia uses its right of veto in the Security Council helped close three other humanitarian corridors to Syria in 2020 and agreed last year to keep that in Bab al-Hawa only after intensive negotiations with the United States. She has defended the route closures as necessary to uphold Syria’s sovereignty and has urged aid to be distributed with the approval of President Bashar al-Assad’s government rather than through the United Nations.

Russia is one of Mr al-Assad’s benefactors in the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, and aid has largely gone to rebel-held areas. The route from Bab al-Hawa leads to the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, one of the country’s last rebel-held territories and an area that has become a haven for attackers extremist organization with ties to Al Qaeda.

An international pressure campaign to keep the route open is now underway. The United States holds the presidency of the Security Council this month and has done so held a series of meetings touch about the plight of Syrians who have been left homeless or otherwise need help to survive.

Russia’s deputy ambassador to the UN Dmitry Polyanskiy said Moscow has not yet decided how it will vote. But in an interview on Friday, he said aid under the current system is vulnerable to extremists in Idlib.

“I’m not denying that it’s also about refugees, but the terrorist groups – they benefit from it,” he said, adding that the extremists had attacked supplies.

Mr Polyanskiy declined to discuss negotiations to keep the corridor open, other than to say that talks between Russia and the United States have stalled given the “current geopolitical circumstances”.

“Honestly, at this stage, we don’t have very many things that make us optimistic,” he said.

But three foreign diplomats said Russia had sent vague signals suggesting it might try to use the vote to win concessions in the standoff over Ukraine. The United States and European countries have imposed a series of sanctions on Russia to punish the country for invading its neighbor.

Reluctant to describe the signals in detail, the diplomats said Moscow has stopped directly linking the fate of the corridor to the war in Ukraine. But they said they believed Moscow would look to countries directly affected by a new wave of refugees for help evading sanctions.

One of the diplomats also predicted that Russia would counter allegations that its invasion violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by denouncing the aid convoys as a violation of Syria’s territorial integrity.

Separately, a senior American diplomat said the United States and other nations in the Security Council would send “a clear message” to Moscow urging against closing the route, but there was no guarantee it would be heeded. All diplomats spoke on condition of anonymity to describe internal discussions.

“The Russians have never recognized that Bab al-Hawa was really vital and we need to keep it open,” said Sherine Tadros, Amnesty International’s director at the United Nations. “It was just part of their strategy to bang away, bang away, bang away. And this has always been the subject of many reverse deals.”

“That’s really sad too – how they play with people’s lives,” Ms Tadros added.

A vast majority of Syrian refugees live in Turkey, where officials have warned for years that the diaspora is pushing the country to a breaking point.

Turkey is preparing for what Russia might do, according to two people familiar with internal discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe them. Both said they expected the route to be part of diplomatic talks with Moscow over Ukraine.

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, supplies arms and weapons to Ukraine has blocked Moscow’s warships of strategic waterways leading out of the Black Sea. But this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signaled that the country would refuse Sweden and Finland to join NATO, citing security concerns. Moscow has long demanded that the military alliance halt its expansion toward Russia’s borders.

In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban is blocking an EU embargo on Russian oil to counteract rising energy prices. Hungary has expelled tens of thousands of refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries but has taken in more than 600,000 Ukrainians this year.

Jordan, which has ties to both Russia and the United States, has been trying to avoid being drawn deep into the standoff over Ukraine, instead urging the Biden administration to resume negotiations to end Syria’s civil war. The conflict in Ukraine, Mr Safadi said, has created “rather a stalemate”.

“From our point of view, the status quo is dangerous because it only increases the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said in an interview. Jordan is one of several Middle Eastern countries that have recently resumed ties with Mr al-Assad’s government, despite disapproval from Washington.

The Syrian civil war has forced 5.7 million people to leave their country. About 6.7 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the Russian invasion.

A looming global food shortage, caused in part by the disruption in wheat exports from Ukraine and Russia as a result of the invasion, is expected to cause even more suffering.

“Suppose we have a humanitarian crisis over food shortages,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi told journalists in Washington this month when asked about the growing number of refugees in Europe. “Then the situation could become very, very difficult to handle.”

in one statement on Thursday, the Kremlin said it would help stave off food shortages if the West eased its sanctions. President Vladimir V. Putin “stressed that the Russian Federation is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizers, provided that politically motivated restrictions imposed by the West are lifted,” the released statement said following a phone call between Mr Putin and Mr Draghi on Thursday.

hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and North Africa arrived in Italy during a crisis that peaked in 2015 when 1.3 million people fled to Europe. In Washington, Mr Draghi said Italy has taken in nearly 120,000 Ukrainians this year. But he said the number of Syrians who stayed in his country rather than elsewhere in Europe was “not significant”.

At an international donor conference in Brussels this month, the The United States agreed to send nearly $808 million in support of humanitarian needs in Syria – one of the largest single US contributions since the beginning of this war. The UN Refugee Agency Raised $6.7 billion at the conference to support Syria this year and beyond, despite having asked for it $10.5 billion for 2022 alone.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, announcing the aid, said food shortages had made humanitarian aid to Syria “particularly important this year.” Without mentioning Russia, Ms Thomas-Greenfield called the July vote on the aid route “a matter of life and death.”

Mr. Polyanskiy, the Russian diplomat, said other, unofficial border crossings into Syria could allow aid supplies to continue. “Of course it will be difficult to deliver UN aid through these points, but that does not mean that these border crossings will be idle,” he said.

The matter has also prompted comparisons between Russia’s support for a brutal government in Syria and Putin’s own aggression in Ukraine.

“No one who has followed Putin’s brutality in Syria for the past decade should be surprised that he is starving and shooting at Ukrainians — just as he is starving and shooting at Syrians,” said Sen. Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat and leader of the Senate for the United States Foreign Affairs Committee on Relations.

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