There have recently been increased tensions between regional and international powers engaged in the Syrian arena, as each tries to gain control over Syrian border crossings with neighboring countries, or internal crossings between areas under the control of different groups. This becomes clear from examining the recent positions taken by Russia, Turkey, and the US.
The following are the most important and salient indications of escalating conflict between Russia, Turkey, and the US regarding Syrian border crossings:
1- Russia’s attacks on the area surrounding the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing: Russia’s military activity against the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing has escalated. Russian war planes have recently resumed bombing the area around the crossing, and killed at least one person. It should be noted that the aforementioned border crossing has been used as a gate for humanitarian aid trucks to gather in order to unload and move supplies to other trucks that deliver aid to northern Syria.
Some news reports have also indicated that Russia has informed Western countries that it will vote against the new draft resolution to extend Resolution 2533 on humanitarian aid deliveries into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. This resolution is supposed to be extended in July 2021.
2- US-Russia clashes over extending cross-border aid: While presiding over a Security Council meeting on 29 March 2021 to discuss humanitarian conditions and delivery of aid to the Syrian people, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for opening two crossings on the Syrian border that had previously been closed and extending the operations of the only open crossing in order to deliver humanitarian aid to Syrians. Blinken indicated that aid needed to be delivered through astreamlined system to bring humanitarian and medical supplies to Syria from neighboring counties, especially through the border with Turkey.
US statements suggest that Washington wants to increase its involvement in the Syrian question again and also indicate the beginning of a conflict between the US and Russia over extending the UN resolution on cross-border aid, which will expire next July. However, Russia and the Syrian government have rejected US calls to do so. In a joint statement from the coordination headquarters in Russia and Syria, the two countries accused Washington of pressuring the UN to deliver humanitarian aid to the Rukban camp, and of using aid as a pretext to support US-aligned armed groups there.
3- Turkey’s denial that they had reached an agreement with Russia about the border crossings: Turkey denied that they had reached an agreement with Russia regarding opening the crossings between regime- and opposition-controlled areas in the governorates of Aleppo and Idlib. The Turkish Anadolu Agency reported that allegations of a Turkish-Russian agreement on this matter were imprecise. This occurred after protests broke out against the opening of border crossings with the regime in areas under Turkish control.
It should be mentioned that some Russian media previously announced last March that Turkey had agreed to the proposal made by Alexander Karpov, Vice President of the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria in Hmeimim, calling for Turkish forces to reopen the Saraqib and Mizanaz crossings in the Idlib region, as well as the Zaydin crossing in Aleppo. The Russian Reconciliation Center also announced last February that the Syrian government would be opening three crossings for those wishing to leave Idlib.
The increasing competition among powers engaged in the Syrian arena over these border crossings is the result of several different factors, most importantly:
1- The escalation of conflict between Moscow and Ankara: The recent conflict between Russia and Turkey regarding the Syrian border crossings comes as cooperation between the two sides has significantly faltered. Many Russian media sources have repeatedly focused recently on points of difference between the two sides, which could threaten their ability to remain committed to the truces in northern Syria.
Turkey has asked Russia to put pressure on the Syrian army to stop attacks on opposition areas, while the Turkey-aligned opposition also levelled accusations against Russian forces regarding bombing Idlib. The Turkish media displayed evident ire regarding the Russian army’s bombing of the area around the Bab al-Hawa crossing. For its part, Moscow continued to criticize the actions of the Turkish-aligned armed militias in northern Syria.
2- Efforts to lend greater international legitimacy to the Syrian government: Moscow has repeatedly tried to limit the delivery of humanitarian aid to Syria to routes through government-controlled areas in Syria only, and has repeatedly made calls to abandon the mechanism of delivering aid across the border, which was established in 2014 as a temporary arrangement.
Moscow feels that some of the forces are trying to exploit the issue of cross-border aid as a means of solidifying boundaries in Syria as they currently stand, and to support terrorist organizations, especially because many of these organizations use humanitarian aid as a means to put pressure on civilians. Moscow is trying to limit the delivery of cross-border aid to crossings controlledby the Syrian government only, in order to give the regime greater legitimacy and internationalstanding.
3- Preventing deterioration of economic conditions in regime-controlled areas: By refusing to extend the opening of the border crossing in areas controlled by Turkey and the opposition, and byrestricting the useof crossings to Syrian government-controlled areas, Moscow is trying to improve humanitarian conditions in government-controlled areas. This is especially important given the deterioration of economic conditions in these areas, after the grave crises caused by the Caesar Act, after which almost 60 percent of Syrians were at risk of going hungry, according to UN estimates. Opposition-controlled and Ankara-backed areas have enjoyed relatively good living conditions because they have exclusive access to international aid which reaches them through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.
4- US efforts to impose its vision on Syria: It seems that the current competition over border crossings in Syria is at least partly the result of the US desire to impose its vision on cross-border aid in Syria, and to impose its own conditions on this matter. It is worth mentioning that UN Resolution 2165 in 2014 called for opening several of the border crossings to deliver aid to Syria. However, on 11 July 2020, in accordance with UN Resolution 2533, the number of open crossings with Syria was reduced to just a single crossing, i.e. the Bab al-Hawa crossing located between the Idlib governorate and Turkish territory.
Many believe this constitutes a diplomatic victory for Russia, especially because the recent resolution came after four failed efforts to reach an agreement on the text of the resolution, because of the Russian-Chinese veto. Although all of the countries in the Security Council dropped some of their conditions regarding passing a resolution that would extend the opening of the one crossing, it is expected that the Biden administration will remain firmon the issue of extending the resolution after the upcoming deadline next July. This is particularly true given the current deterioration in relations between the US, Russia, and China, which could lead to a serious diplomatic conflict as the July 2021 extension deadline approaches.
In short, it is expected that the coming period will witness an increase in diplomatic tensions– and perhaps tensions on the ground as well– between groups engaged in the Syria arena, following disputes over the border crossings, and especially given the approaching deadline for extending the mechanism of international cross-border aid. This makes the situation in Syria considerably more complicated, and may impede potential paths towards a resolution.