Inside the U.S.-Russia Deal that Eases Pressure on Assad

The United States has quietly cut a deal with Russia that eases the political pressure on Syria at the United Nations. If the 15-nation Security Council endorses it, the U.N. security body would hold fewer meetings on Syria’s chemical weapons and consolidate separate sessions on humanitarian relief and a political transition that have gained little traction over the past several years.

The proposal—which is still under negotiation by the council—reflects the growing fatigue in the council over a seemingly endless procession of meetings that diplomats contend hash over the same material, exacerbate big-power squabbles, and result in desperately few concrete achievements.

But it also represents the latest in a series of incremental concessions the United States and other Western powers have been making to Russia, which holds the presidency of the council this month. These concessions arise from key U.S. foreign-policy objectives: avoiding a clash with Moscow and ensuring the survival of a humanitarian lifeline for moving supplies from Turkey to northwestern Syria that Russia wants to shutter.

The latest pact drew sighs of relief from some Security Council diplomats who say they have been worn down by the repetitive war of words between the big powers over the fate of Syria, with little to show in terms of resolving the decadelong conflict. “I’ve been on the council for a year, and I could write every country’s statement,” said one council diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because it concerned confidential diplomatic negotiations. “We’ve been repeating the same thing again and again three times a month. That time in the Security Council could be used more productively.”

But it also prompted criticism from some Syria specialists who said the routine council meetings maintain pressure on a Syrian regime that continues to defy international norms. The decision to cut back, they said, signaled that the decadelong effort by the United States and the other Security Council members to help create an inclusive post-civil war Syria is running out of steam, and that they are demonstrating their willingness to live with repeated Syrian violations of U.N. Security Council mandates.

“Frankly this is exactly what Russia, and Iran, and Assad want,” said Jomana Qaddour, a Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council and co-founder of Syria Relief and Development, a humanitarian organization. “They want us to take away any pressure of evidence being presented publicly of what the Syrian regime is doing to its own civilians, to get them out of the hot seat.”

The United States and Russia presented their proposal to other members of the 15-nation council on Jan. 31, on a day when the two countries’ top U.N. envoys, Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Vassily Nebenzia, exchanged bitter recriminations over Ukraine. The plan has received initial pushback from some council members who said they needed more time to debate the specifics of the plan. But it is expected to ultimately be endorsed, perhaps with minor modifications, by the full council.

Russia’s second-highest-ranking diplomat at the U.N., Dmitry Polyanskiy, told Foreign Policy that people sometimes “exaggerate” the impact that these public exchanges have on the ability of the United States and Russia to work together productively.

“We are diplomats,” he added. “We understand that we all have instructions. [The] Americans have enormous domestic pressure for this madness that they promote. So we don’t take it personally.”

The U.S.-Russia agreement would scale back the council’s debates particularly sharply on Syria’s chemical weapons, replacing monthly with quarterly meetings, despite the fact that the U.N. chemical weapons watchdog, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), continues to battle Syrian officials for access to sites.

“Now is not the time to reduce efforts to hold Syria accountable for its past use of chemical weapons and continued refusal to allow [international inspectors] to verify the destruction of Syria’s remaining chemical weapons,” said Gregory Koblentz, director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University.

Koblentz, an expert on Syria’s chemical weapons program, said Syria’s obstruction of international inspectors from the OPCW has only increased in recent years, including the denial of visas and the destruction of previous evidence of chemical attacks. Syria repeatedly used chemical weapons against its own people as recently as May 2019, when it fired a chlorine rocket in the province of Latakia, U.S. intelligence found.

“As the U.N. body charged with upholding international peace and security, the Security Council has a responsibility to address Syrian violations of the [Chemical Weapons Convention] and enforce the treaty,” Koblentz said, referring to the international arms treaty aimed at curbing the use of chemical weapons.

Russia, meanwhile, has sought to undermine the legitimacy of the OPCW, hosting a series of informal Security Council briefings, known as Arria-formula meetings, by inviting guests criticizing or providing alternative findings to those of the Hague-based chemical weapons watchdog. (The name refers to a Venezuelan diplomat, Diego Arria, on the Security Council in the early 1990s who sought out briefings from ordinary people on the ground in conflicts without the agreement of all council members.)

The U.S.-Russia agreement would also reduce the number of meetings to discuss Syria’s political transition from one a month to one every two months. That meeting would be squeezed into a session dealing with the humanitarian crisis.

The move, according to some observers, signals the council’s waning interest in pursuing a Syrian power-sharing agreement that appears unlikely to become a reality. Since 2012, successive U.N. secretaries-general have recruited some of the organization’s most renowned troubleshooters, including former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former Algerian Foreign Minister Lakhdar Brahimi, to forge a coalition government and end the country’s bloody civil war. They have all failed.

Former Norwegian Ambassador Geir Pedersen, who has held the post of U.N. special envoy for Syria since October 2018, has little to show for the effort. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has gradually solidified his grip on power, with the help of Russia and Iran, offering little hope for a power-sharing agreement.

When the initial proposal to scale back the meetings faced some pushback from other council members, the United States and Russia agreed to open up discussions. The reservations, according to another council diplomat, have less to do with misgivings over the reduction of Syria meetings than with the way the proposal was presented as a done deal, denying other council members a say in determining what kind of meetings would continue to take place.

France and the United Kingdom, for instance, argued that the council should leave open the possibility to hold some of the meetings, which are typically open to the public, behind closed doors, on the grounds that private deliberations allow the council to engage in frank discussions.

The joint proposal with Russia is not the first concession the United States has made to Syria. Others include the agreement last July to include language in a Security Council resolution advocating support for vital infrastructure projects, including on water, sanitation, health and education. Washington had previously objected to so-called early recovery projects until Damascus embraces an inclusive U.N.-backed political transition.

Still, the U.S. concessions fall far short of the goals Russia has set of returning Syria to the good graces of the international community and persuading Western donors to pour billions of dollars into Syria to help it rebuild.

Russia has also faced setbacks in its effort to shield Syria from international scrutiny. In December 2021, it led a doomed effort in the U.N. budget committee to cut off funding for the International, Impartial, and Independent Mechanism (IIIM) for Syria, which was established by the U.N. General Assembly to assist states investigating or prosecuting grave crimes in Syria.

Christian Wenaweser, Liechtenstein’s U.N. ambassador, said there is a “trend of normalization,” particularly in the region and within the Arab League, and that Russia is actively trying to translate that into a more accepting attitude toward Syria at the United Nations.

Russia vigorously opposed the creation of the IIIM in 2016, and it has since sought to kill off more than $20 million in annual funding, claiming that the General Assembly lacked the legal right to create such an institution, according to Wenaweser, who was instrumental in creating the mechanism.

“The Russians have not given up their opposition, but they have not been successful,” he said.

Qaddour, the Middle East expert at the Atlantic Council, said the U.N. plays a vital role in documenting the Syrian regime’s crimes against civilians for the historical record. This can be crucial for cases where former Syrian regime officials are tried for crimes in court, as in the case of a German court convicting a former Syrian intelligence officer of crimes against humanity last month. He was sentenced to life in prison.

“These U.N. meetings and reports and debates that take place are things that can be critical for future accountability of those in the Syrian regime, for the types of hearings and trials we’re seeing take place in Europe,” Qaddour said.

Other experts said the council’s deliberations reflect the reality that the United States, along with much of the rest of the world, is moving onto other crises. In its own region, Syria has begun to reestablish commercial diplomatic relations with key regional powers, including Bahrain, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

“It seems Syria has been pushed lower on [Washington’s] priority list, with the U.S.’s greater focus now on negotiations on the Iran nuclear file and the Ukraine issue,” said Dima Moussa, a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. “It has been over a year since the Biden administration took office, and the Syria policy is still ‘under review,’ and there still isn’t a high-level official on the Syria file—that is, there is no U.S. envoy to Syria.”

“The Security Council leaning toward reducing the number of meetings on Syria is a reflection of reality, that is, the impasse the file has reached at the international level, which contributes to the complete halt in the Syrian political process,” Moussa told Foreign Policy. “However, reducing the number of meetings is not good, as it means Syria will be parked on the shelf, thus prolonging the crisis and the suffering of Syrians.”

Others say the United States is simply focusing its attention on areas where it can make a difference.

“This is reflective of the situation on the ground, where you have the humanitarian situation as dire as it has ever been in the history of the conflict,” said Mona Yacoubian, a senior advisor on Syria, the Middle East, and North Africa at the United States Institute of Peace, noting that U.N.-brokered talks on a political transition have produced little. U.S. policymakers, she said, are “putting their energy where there is a real problem and a greater chance of success.”

“There is a potential slight glimmer of hope that progress can be made in the humanitarian realm,” she added.

“Let’s face it, I don’t see the Geneva talks going anywhere. Do you?” she said. “Why spend time on something that is not working?”

Ever since President Joe Biden came into office, the United States has largely put Syria policy on the back burner, investing its political capital in bolstering relations with Gulf allies and pursuing an agreement with Iran to restore the landmark 2015 nuclear deal.

The administration’s inattention on Syria has rankled Biden’s allies on Capitol Hill. Senior U.S. lawmakers earlier this month sent a letter to Biden urging him to take more leadership on Syria. The letter was signed by the Democratic chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee, and their Republican counterparts.

The letter warned that the administration’s efforts on Syria so far, including securing a U.N. mandate renewal for cross-border humanitarian aid deliveries, “merely address symptoms of the underlying conflict and will ultimately fall flat in the absence of a broader diplomatic strategy to resolve the decade-long civil war.” The letter offered a rare formal rebuke of the administration’s foreign policy from some of the president’s most important Democratic allies on Capitol Hill. 

The Biden administration has no plans to appoint a special envoy for Syria, officials said, leaving Brett McGurk, whose priority is defeating the Islamic State and who is overseeing an administration policy of disentangling the United States from the so-called forever wars, largely in charge of Syria policy.

When approached for comment, a State Department spokesperson refused to address the U.S. move to limit the number of U.N. meetings on Syria or absence of an envoy for Syria. The spokesperson, who requested anonymity to speak about sensitive diplomatic discussions, said resolving Syria’s conflict and addressing the population’s humanitarian needs remain top U.S. priorities, and the United States has not lifted any sanctions on the Syrian government as it presses for accountability.

“We support international efforts to hold Assad accountable, including recognizing the important role of the Commission of Inquiry and the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism,” the spokesperson said.

On Thursday, Biden hailed the death of the leader of the Islamic State in a U.S. special operations forces raid, saying it “removed a major terrorist threat to the world.” The raid also left multiple civilians dead, though U.S. officials said that the target of the operation, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, was to blame for the civilian deaths after he detonated a suicide vest explosive as U.S. forces approached.

U.S. efforts to shape Syria’s political future have largely foundered, leaving the Biden administration to devote its energy to easing the country’s humanitarian burden. The administration has made the restoration of cross-border aid shipments a top foreign-policy priority and has maintained a presence of about 900 U.S. troops in northeast Syria to aid Kurdish-led groups in counterterrorism efforts.

The U.N. established border crossings into rebel-controlled Syrian territory from Turkey, Jordan, and Iraq in July 2014, providing a lifeline to millions of Syrians cut off from government-controlled aid corridors in Damascus, and undercutting the Syrian government’s practice of starving out communities that hosted anti-government forces.

The Syrian government has denounced the practice as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and insisted that the government should manage the delivery of aid to communities across Syria. Damascus has also claimed that aid channels have aided terrorist groups that have found haven in northeastern Syria, including al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Russia has taken up Syria’s case in the Security Council, pressing for years to close the border crossings, arguing that Syria has the capacity to deliver aid across the country’s battle lines, a claim that has been disputed by the U.N.

Russia has already succeeded in ending the U.N. mandate to use border crossings in Jordan and Iraq, which served as a critical hub for medical supplies into northeastern Syria, leaving a single authorized Turkish crossing at Bab al-Hawa to provide vital food an assistance to more than 3 million people.

In late March 2021, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken used his first appearance before the Security Council to rally support for continuing the cross-border aid program and urged the reopening of at least two of the closed crossings into Syria from Turkey and Iraq.

Following his first summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June 2021, Biden made it clear that Russia’s willingness to keep the aid channel open would constitute a test of the U.S. ability to work constructively with Russia on Syria.

Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, visited the Turkish border province of Hatay last June to underscore the importance to the United States of ensuring the continuation of aid deliveries to millions of Syrian civilians living in rebel-controlled territory.

But the talks are underscoring the often excruciating process of U.S.-Russian cooperation.

Last summer, the United States sought to secure the reopening of the Iraqi crossing at Yaroubiah, citing U.N. warnings that assistance was not reaching civilians at a time of surging COVID-19 cases. Russia, meanwhile, was seeking to shut down the last remaining crossing at Bab al-Hawa.

In the end, the two powers agreed to a compromise, passing Resolution 2585, which kept the Turkish crossing open for at least a year.

But the secretive nature of the U.S.-Russia talks rankled other council members, who felt they had been frozen out of the discussions.

“The backroom deals by the U.S. and Russia to get to Resolution 2585 may have ruffled some diplomatic feathers, as other members felt excluded,” said Robert Schupp, a policy analyst at Security Council Report, a nonprofit. “France and China made it known on the day that they were unhappy with some aspects of the agreement and, joined by the U.K., I think, might have preferred to be more involved in the final, bilateral discussions.”

In the end, the United States was able to secure Russian agreement to permit humanitarian access to continue flowing, at least to northwestern Syria.

But it came at a price for Washington.

The United States had previously resisted making such concessions, on the grounds that the Syrian government first needed to demonstrate a willingness to embrace a real political transition.

But on Nov. 26, 2021, the U.S. Treasury Department expanded the authorization for international charities and relief organizations to engage in the activities previously subjected to U.S. sanctions, including humanitarian activities that meet basic human needs; educational, democracy, and cultural preservation projects, and nonprofit development programs that directly benefit the Syrian people. The amended Syrian Sanctions Regulations would also permit some nonprofit investment in Syria, as well as the sale of petroleum for local use.

“[This is] a step in the right direction, and we appreciate it,” Polyanskiy, the Russian diplomat, told Foreign Policy. “It’s not a game-changer, of course, it’s still a long way to go as far as [the] U.S. position toward Syria is concerned. But it’s definitely a step in the right direction.”

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