Re-envisioning the Liberal International Order | Politics and Borders Matter | Syrian quake victims: trapped by geopolitics; helped by diplomacy


We hope you are well.

Aid is finally flowing into Syria, after a breakthrough agreement was sealed in Damascus on Monday (February 13), between the UN and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Finally; for it will have taken more than a week for aid to reach the country unfettered, hellishly long days for the survivors, prompting Martin Griffiths—the UN relief czar and broker of the deal—to admit in a February 12 tweet that “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”

So, today in The Geneva Observer, we take a look back at why it took so long. The answer, to put it simply, is “geopolitics”—or, more specifically in this case, obstructionist power play at the UN from Syria (and its patron Russia).

As you will read below in 'Syrianquake victims: trapped by geopolitics; helped by diplomacy' —Jamil Chade and Stephanie Fillion’s inside story about last Monday’s (February 13) meeting of the UN Security Council—just one day after the quake hit, in total disregard for the suffering of the populations affected, Damascus and Moscow had no qualms about using a press conference to change the focus of the attention and attack the West. ‘Politics and borders matter, even in a humanitarian catastrophe,’ writes G|O contributor Daniel Warner, for his part, in an op-ed.

This is the extremely fraught political and diplomatic context that Brazil and Switzerland navigated as co-penholders of the Syria humanitarian file at the UN Security Council (UNSC). Co-penholders are responsible for steering the passage of resolutions, acting as consensus builders, a role that requires negotiating with all sides and exploring spaces for compromise.

According to POLITICO, however, Switzerland’s actions prompted criticism at the UN. Under the title ‘Swiss Concerns,’ POLITICO reported yesterday that “before the breakthrough, there was some frustration at UN headquarters directed toward Switzerland. Along with Brazil, Switzerland is coordinating the file. But at least two UN delegations expressed frustration that Bern was too reticent in pushing for Syria (and its backer Russia) to green-light more crossings.”

“The Swiss and other diplomats [we] spoke to,” added POLITICO, “denied this, pointing out that the job of those on the humanitarian file is securing consensus. But the row is a reminder of the deadly hold Russia has over the UN’s policy on Syria.”

Asked by The G|O for its reaction, the Swiss Foreign Ministry told us by email that “Switzerland and Brazil as co-penholders emphasized that should it be necessary, they remain ready to facilitate a decision in the Security Council. Switzerland is in close contact with humanitarian actors on the ground as well as with the coordinating UN agency OCHA and other UN agencies. In its approach as co-penholder, it is guided by the assessments of these humanitarian actors. The focus is placed on the humanitarian needs of the affected civilian population.”

Syrian quake victims: trapped by geopolitics; helped by diplomacy

At 3 p.m. on Monday (February 13), eight long days after a tectonic shift projected the Anatolian plateau westward by several meters, bringing complete devastation to a large swath of Türkiye and Syria, the UN Security Council met behind closed doors, acting on the initiative of Switzerland and Brazil, current co-penholders of the Council’s Syria humanitarian file. As they gathered, the Council members received information from Martin Griffiths—the UN humanitarian czar, in Damascus to meet Bashar al-Assad—that the Syrian president was finally willing to accept a deal.

The Security Council meeting had a single item on its agenda: the earthquake, and how to ensure that the UN and humanitarians could reach northwest Syria, save lives, and provide humanitarian assistance to more than 10 million people in an area of the country controlled by forces opposed to the Syrian regime. One week after the quake, only 5% of affected sites in Syria—in Hama, Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo, and Tartous—had received aid.

In today’s extraordinarily tense international context, delivering a massive amount of aid to Syria required the cooperation of the Syrian regime—and that of its patron Russia—without, however, giving Assad a free pass or risking Russia’s veto on any possible resolution. For many diplomats, it was also imperative that the delivery of emergency humanitarian aid in response to a natural disaster not be decided by a Security Council resolution. Co-pen holders of files before the Council do more than defend their countries’ positions; Brazil and Switzerland acted as consensus builders among Council members, negotiating with all sides.

And so, Monday’s meeting and the eventual breakthrough announcement of the opening of aid corridors capped a week of frantic global diplomacy at the UN, ever since the news of the quake broke on February 6.

That day, Antonio Guterres issued a first statement offering his condolences to the families of the victims. “We count on the international community,” the UN chief said, “to help the thousands of families hit by this disaster.” Guterres’ words were primarily a message of sympathy, but the S-G’s appeal to the international community was also clearly political: a few hours later, his spokesperson zeroed in on what would prove the biggest challenge to delivering humanitarian aid to the region. “We are in touch with the Syrian government, we always hope to be able to deliver aid through cross-line [across internal frontlines of conflict],” Stéphane Dujarric said, adding that delivering aid “through cross-line was slightly more challenging […] than through the cross-border mechanism, authorized by the UN Security Council.”

The cross-border mechanism was created in 2014 by the UNSC to provide UN-funded humanitarian aid directly to opposition-held regions of Syria. Supported by Moscow, the Assad regime has always denounced the mechanism, demanding instead that aid be delivered cross-line from Damascus. Now, with the roads around Bab al-Hawa—the only UN-authorized border crossing—in part damaged by the quake, and given the need to deliver a massive amount of aid, would Damascus and Moscow change their position and open more roads to the aid convoys? And if not, could they be compelled to do so?

Damascus has always maintained that the cross-border mechanism was a violation of its sovereignty. Publicly, Assad’s ambassador to the UN insisted, as he did on February 6 after a meeting with Antonio Guterres, that “we are ready to help and to coordinate and to provide assistance to all Syrians on the entire Syrian territory.” Could he be trusted? In spite of the Syrian ambassador’s assurances, diplomats knowledgeable about the discussions told The G|O that privately, Syria and Russia were showing no intention of abandoning their hard line.

On February 7, one day after the quake, while international rescuers were going through the rubble to try to find survivors as quickly as they could, the focus of Syria’s ambassador to the UN was somewhere else. That morning, the Security Council met to discuss the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) file, and found that there are reasonable grounds to believe that the Syrian Arab Republic was indeed responsible for the 2018 chemical attack in Douma, which killed 43 men, women and children, and affected dozens more.

One day after the quake, the Syrian ambassador, alongside his Russian partner, called for a press briefing in the afternoon. The topic? Not an appeal to get more humanitarian aid into Syria, but another attempt to discredit the work of the OPCW, and an obvious digression from the emergency at hand.

The Syrian ambassador took the opportunity to denounce the European and US sanctions imposed on the country, arguing that they were hindering the delivery of aid. “It’s very simple,” the diplomat said, “lots of cargo airplanes refused to land [at] Syrian airports because of the sanctions.”

During successive rounds of consultations between Council members, Russia, for its part, kept insisting that there was no reason to open new corridors and that blaming Syria was unjustified, as the Assad government was willing to accept aid. Iran, Iraq, and Russia itself had already successfully delivered aid through Damascus, its representatives argued.

In July of last year, Moscow vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would extend cross-border aid to Syria by one year, before an agreement was finally reached on January 9, 2023, extending the authorization for the cross-border mechanism for six months.

Despite the magnitude of the quake and the rising death toll, hoping for the creation of another cross-border corridor in the current climate was considered highly improbable. “We can only use a second cross-border [route] if there is a Security Council resolution. And obviously, there are a lot of legal issues, and it’s a delicate issue,” Guterres’ spokesperson admitted to the press on February 9.

That same day, Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced that the US would put forward a resolution asking for the opening of additional border crossing points. And in a coordinated move, Brussels and Washington informed the UN that they were ready to suspend economic sanctions which could impede the delivery of humanitarian aid. This would also mean that companies in charge of the delivery would get compensated.

Meanwhile, Martin Griffiths, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, had gone to the region to assess the situation on the ground and to meet with Bashar al-Assad before reporting to the Security Council. On Friday (February 10), concerned about the fact that things weren’t moving fast enough, Brazil and Switzerland went before the press to call for a meeting of the Security Council. Griffiths’ trip, they hoped, would provide important information about the situation on the ground to the Council members and help them determine the best way to move forward. Other countries were also floating the idea of having the Council adopt a resolution.

A few moments before the Security Council finally convened on Monday (February 13), Nicolas de Rivière, the French ambassador to the UN in New York, summarized the stakes: “This is a humanitarian tragedy that should not be politicized […] We need to help the UN, the UN agencies, and the NGOs to provide humanitarian relief. […] There are two options: either the government of Syria grants access itself, and that’s one option, or if [it] doesn’t do it, it is for the Security Council to decide on a resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter.”

When the meeting finally got underway in New York, the pressure on Syria and Russia was at its highest. Participants in the closed-door Security Council session told The G|O that the tension in the Chamber was palpable. The diplomats’ margin of maneuver was narrow, with the recent history of the humanitarian file before the Council on everybody’s mind: back in 2014, the Security Council had approved four crossings; one from Jordan, one from Iraq, and two from Turkey, including Bab–al Hawa. But since 2019, Moscow had been dragging its feet and threatening to veto their extension, at times even threatening to close Bab al-Hawa, the last of the four still remaining open.

The meeting lasted a couple of hours, even after the Council members heard from Martin Griffiths that he had been able to broker a deal with the Syrian President. Why did Syria finally relent? Our sources tell us that, in the end, Assad had concluded that he was in a corner: not accepting the opening of new corridors now might impede the delivery of aid to government-controlled regions in the future. He also understood that Syria was under pressure from the Security Council, the UN agencies, and the humanitarians. He was, diplomats analyze, also worried about losing control of regions under his own administration: The country’s economy is in shambles, with Russian and Iranian economic support dwindling, sources tell us; Russia has its own war to finance, and Iran is facing massive and continuous social unrest.

The deal sealed in Damascus by Martin Griffiths was announced publicly on Monday, immediately after the news had been shared with the Security Council—which, in the end, didn’t need to act. The agreement, which came almost ten days after the quake hit, could have been sealed on the day of the catastrophe. It didn’t need to wait. Thousands of lives could have been saved. “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can,” Martin Griffiths tweeted on the eve of the Security Council meeting.

The quake victims were trapped by geopolitics and belatedly helped by massive pressure from the international community and the negotiating skills of a UN envoy.

-JC & SF

*Stephanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights and a United Nations correspondent.


The Munich Security Conference (MSC) opens today. It has rightly built itself a reputation as the world’s leading forum for debating international security policy. It is a forum for diplomatic initiatives to address the world’s most pressing security concerns.

Despite the widely shared perception that the international order is at a turning point, no one yet knows what it is turning toward, or which fault lines and strategic visions will most decisively shape it in the future. -MSC

A few days short of the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, this year’s conference will undoubtedly serve as a barometer of the state of the world and the international (dis)order. But under the leadership of Christoph Heusgen, former German Ambassador to the UN in New York, the MSC also intends to ask some hard questions about how best to defend our liberal values.

“As the atrocities and costs stemming from Russia’s war show, the international order certainly does not need revisionism. However, it does urgently need a ‘re-envisioning’ of key institutions, processes, and frameworks so that it can better uphold the liberal principles upon which it was founded,” write two of the MSC’s senior members in a guest essay in today’s G|O. Re:Vision, the full 2023 MSC report, a must-read, is here.


Mission impossible?

Nature reports that the World Health Organization (WHO) has quietly shelved the second phase of its much-anticipated scientific investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, citing ongoing challenges around attempts to conduct crucial studies in China.

“Researchers,” writes the magazine, “say they are disappointed that the investigation isn’t going ahead, because understanding how the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 first infected people is important for preventing future outbreaks. But without access to China, there is little that the WHO can do to advance the studies, says Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Canada. ‘Their hands are really tied.’”

On Wednesday, however, WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove, despite being quoted by Nature confirming that “[t]here is no Phase two,” vehemently contradicted the report. Van Kerkhove said during a press briefing that “I think we need to be perfectly clear that WHO has not abandoned studying the origins of Covid 19. We have not, and we will not.”

Bye bye Gavi!

Seth Berkeley, a familiar face in International Geneva, is leaving Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, after more than twelve years at the helm of the organization. Gavi’s board announced this week that it had appointed former Nigerian Health Minister Dr. Muhammad Ali Pate as its new CEO.


In response to a follow-up question on a recent story on Qatar and FIFA, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) tells us that discussions on the content of a Memorandum of Understanding between the two organizations are “ongoing.”

Asked if Qatargate has had any impact on the organization’s program with the country and whether it might have led to a reassessment of its cooperation with the country, the ILO told us that the Belgian investigation had no effect. The ILO is currently in the second phase of its program, which started in July 2021 and will conclude in December 2023. Qatar, an ILO spokesperson told us by email, will not be on the agenda of the March meeting of the organization’s Governing Body.

Finally, a bit of housekeeping again. We hope that the switch to our new website and email platform went smoothly and that you didn’t experience any problems receiving our last Briefing in your inbox. We put it out on Thursday evenings and resend it on Friday mornings for added convenience. All Briefings are now also available on our website. Some articles require you to be logged in and registered—it’s a very simple procedure, and registration is free. And the beauty is that it unlocks the comment box at the bottom of our stories!

That’s it for us today. We will be back in your inbox next Thursday. Thank you for reading us. All the best.

Today's Briefing: Philippe Mottaz - Jamil Chade - Daniel Warner - Stéphanie Fillion

Guest contributors: Tobias Bunde and Sophie Eisentraut

Edited by: Dan Wheeler