Diplomats Fear Russia May Use Syrian Aid as Bargaining Chip in Ukraine

Countries in Europe and the Middle East could see a new surge in refugees if Russia shuts down the last humanitarian convoy route into Syria.

WASHINGTON — Only one route remains open for international convoys bringing food, water and other aid to over one million Syrians besieged by civil war. Now, officials warn, Russia might try to shut it down or use it as a bargaining chip with world powers in another war, about 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 worsen a refugee crisis in Europe and the Middle East that is already considered the world’s largest since World War II.

The U.N. Security Council, where Russia wields a powerful veto, will vote in July on whether to keep the aid route open. But the corridor already appears caught up in the fallout from the war in Ukraine and the competing interests of Russia and the United States.

“The war in Ukraine is having wide-ranging implications for Syria — and for the whole region and for the world,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi of Jordan said in an interview this month in Washington.

Mr. Safadi said Jordan was warily watching to see how Russia would approach the vote. More than one million Syrian refugees already live in Jordan, he said, and brokering a peace agreement in Syria’s 11-year civil war “would definitely need U.S.-Russian agreement.”

“Given the dynamic right now,” he said, “consequences could be severe in terms of living conditions for Syrian refugees and displaced persons.”

Khalil Ashawi/Reuters

Using its veto power at the Security Council, Russia helped shut down three other humanitarian corridors into Syria in 2020 and last year agreed to retain the one at Bab al-Hawa only after intense negotiations with the United States. It has defended the route closures as necessary to maintain Syria’s sovereignty and has pushed for the aid to be distributed with the approval of President Bashar al-Assad’s government instead of through the United Nations.

Russia is one of Mr. al-Assad’s benefactors in Syria’s civil war, which began in 2011, and the aid was largely going to rebel-occupied areas. The route from Bab al-Hawa leads into Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, one of the last pockets of rebel-held territory in the country and an area that has become a haven for an extremist organization linked to Al Qaeda.

An international pressure campaign to keep the route open is now underway. The United States is presiding over the Security Council this month and has held a series of meetings touching on the plight of Syrians who have been become homeless or otherwise need assistance to survive.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said Moscow had not decided how it would vote. But in an interview on Friday, he said that under the current system, the aid was vulnerable to extremists in Idlib.

“I do not deny that it goes to refugees as well, but the terrorist groups — they benefit from this,” he said, adding that the extremists had attacked deliveries.

Mr. Polyanskiy would not discuss negotiations to keep the corridor open, except to say that talks between Russia and the United States were stagnant, given “current geopolitical circumstances.”

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

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

The diplomats would not describe the signals in detail and said Moscow had stopped short of directly tying the corridor’s fate to the war in Ukraine. But they said they believed Moscow would lean on countries that would be directly affected by a new wave of refugees for help in evading the sanctions.

One of the diplomats also predicted Russia would counter accusations that its invasion had violated Ukraine’s sovereignty by denouncing the aid convoys as an infringement on Syria’s territorial integrity.

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

“There was never a recognition by the Russians that Bab al-Hawa was really vital and we need to keep it open,” said Sherine Tadros, the head of Amnesty International’s office at the United Nations. “It was just part of their strategy to chip away, chip away, chip away. And this has always been subject to a lot of back deals.”

“That’s what’s really also very sad — how they play with the lives of people,” 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 bracing for what Russia might do, according to two people familiar with internal discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe them. Both said they expected the route to be part of diplomatic conversations with Moscow over Ukraine.

Turkey, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is supplying Ukraine with weapons and has barred Moscow’s warships from strategic waterways leading from the Black Sea. But this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey signaled that the country would oppose allowing 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 a European Union embargo on Russian oil to counter 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.

Bakr Alkasem/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Jordan, which has ties with both Russia and the United States, has tried to avoid being pulled deeply into the standoff over Ukraine and instead is urging the Biden administration to revive negotiations to end Syria’s civil war. The conflict in Ukraine, Mr. Safadi said, has created “more of a stalemate.”

“The status quo is, from our perspective, dangerous because it is only increasing the suffering of the Syrian people,” he said in the interview. Jordan is one of several Middle Eastern countries that have recently resumed relations 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 Russia’s invasion.

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

“Suppose we’re going to have a humanitarian crisis because of lack of food,” Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy 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 manage.”

In a statement on Thursday, the Kremlin said it would help avert the food shortage if the West eased its sanctions. President Vladimir V. Putin “emphasized 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 from the West are lifted,” said the statement, which was released after 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 as 1.3 million people fled to Europe. In Washington, Mr. Draghi said Italy had taken in nearly 120,000 Ukrainians this year. But he said the number of Syrians who remained in his country, instead of moving on elsewhere in Europe, was “not significant.”

At an international donors conference this month in Brussels, the United States pledged to send nearly $808 million to support humanitarian needs in Syria — one of the largest single U.S. contributions since that war began. The U.N. refugee agency raised $6.7 billion at the conference to support Syria this year and beyond, although it had asked for $10.5 billion just for 2022.

Announcing the aid, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the food shortage had made humanitarian aid to Syria “especially important this year.” Without mentioning Russia, Ms. Thomas-Greenfield called the July vote on the relief route “a matter of life and death.”

Mr. Polyanskiy, the Russian diplomat, said other, unofficial border crossings into Syria could allow for aid deliveries to continue. “It will be difficult to deliver U.N. aid through these points, of course, but it doesn’t mean that these crossing points will be idle,” he said.

The issue also has given rise to comparisons between Russia’s support for a brutal government in Syria and Mr. Putin’s own aggressions in Ukraine.

“No one who has followed Putin’s brutality in Syria for the past decade should be surprised that he is starving and shelling Ukrainians — just as he starved and shelled Syrians,” said Senator Bob Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

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