When a unanimous UN Security Council vote in July opened the door to “early recovery” assistance in Syria, it wasn’t just a matter of humanitarian aid—it was also political. Great-power horse-trading enabled the council’s endorsement of early recovery. But those politics don’t change the fact that early recovery aid is what makes sense now, to help Syria’s beleaguered people. Supporting it was overdue.

Before this summer’s vote, early recovery assistance had been largely off limits for the United States and other like-minded donors. Early recovery assistance is a type of humanitarian aid meant to allow beneficiaries to support themselves more sustainably; it often involves the restoration of basic services. The United States and others had previously seen “early recovery” as too close to reconstruction. Even now, these countries insist that international support for Syria’s reconstruction be conditioned on a political resolution to the country’s decade-long conflict, lest it reward the intransigence and brutality of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The Security Council endorsed early recovery as part of a larger compromise on aid to Syria. Now, donor countries and humanitarian aid workers have to decide what early recovery in Syria will actually look like, and how to navigate the still-divisive politics of aid to the war-torn country. Some officials and observers continue to worry that early recovery might provide cover for reconstruction, or that U.S. support for it is a concession to Damascus and its allies.

Yet international backing for early recovery assistance hardly seems like much of a concession—the United States and other donors should have been supporting it anyway. As Syria’s conflict enters its second decade, early recovery assistance is a more cost-effective, sustainable response to the country’s humanitarian crisis. Now that these countries have endorsed it, they need to follow through and deliver the aid Syrians need.

The Security Council Endorses Early Recovery

Over the past several years, humanitarian conditions across Syria have become particularly dire. Roughly 90 percent of Syrians now live below the poverty line. More than 60 percent of Syrians are “food insecure,” or unsure how they will get their next meal.

In this context, the UN Security Council voted unanimously for Resolution 2585 on July 9. The resolution renewed the UN mandate to provide cross-border humanitarian assistance in Syria without the Syrian government’s approval. It also endorsed a broadening of international humanitarian aid to Syria to include early recovery assistance.

“Cross-border” aid is assistance delivered from Syria’s neighbors to areas of the country outside state control—in contrast to aid delivered via Damascus, in coordination with the central government. The UN cross-border mandate dates back to 2014, when the Security Council voted to allow UN agencies to supply aid via four border crossings—with Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey—without Damascus’s permission. Starting in 2017, however, Russia began to voice objections to the cross-border aid regime. In two renewal votes in 2020, Russia and fellow Security Council member China forced the closure of three of the original four crossings.

Ahead of the vote to renew in July 2021, Western officials worried that Russia might strike the UN’s authorization to use the sole remaining crossing, between Syria’s opposition-held northwest and Turkey. The humanitarian stakes of renewal were grave: aid officials insisted there was no viable alternative to cross-border aid for millions of vulnerable Syrians in the country’s northwest.

The cross-border mandate, fortunately, survived the July vote. The council’s members endorsed a compromise resolution, negotiated mostly bilaterally between Washington and Moscow, that effectively renewed the cross-border authorization for twelve months.

In exchange for cross-border renewal, Resolution 2585 included two apparent trades. First, it encouraged delivery of humanitarian aid “cross-line”—from areas of Syrian government control to rebel-held territory—and obliged the UN secretary general to report on progress on cross-line access. Second, the resolution affirmed that humanitarian aid should go beyond emergency assistance and include support to “essential services” through early recovery projects. The resolution said that the Security Council “welcomes all efforts and initiatives to broaden the humanitarian activities in Syria, including water, sanitation, health, education, and shelter early recovery projects, undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organizations, and calls upon other international humanitarian agencies and relevant parties to support them.”

Since July, the Syrian government and the de facto authorities in rebel-held areas have deadlocked on how to distribute aid.

Since July, progress on cross-line aid has been underwhelming. UN agencies have delivered assistance from areas of state control to warehouses in the rebel-held northwest, but the Syrian government and the area’s de facto authorities have so far deadlocked on how to distribute that aid.

There has been more evident follow-through on early recovery assistance, however. The United States, in particular, has attempted to encourage donor support for early recovery aid. To facilitate that, Washington has issued a number of clarifications to U.S. sanctions on Syria evidently intended to mitigate sanctions’ “chilling effect” on permitted, non-sanctionable activities. These clarifications have included affirmations that early recovery assistance is allowed and examples of permissible early recovery programming. The U.S. Treasury has also broadened its “general license” for aid NGOs working in Syria to allow “new investment” in Syria in furtherance of humanitarian programs, something likely to be important for more involved early recovery assistance.

The Donor Debate over Early Recovery

Before the July vote, the United States and some other donors had resisted early recovery assistance to Syria.

Humanitarian early recovery aid, also known as “resilience” assistance, is, broadly speaking, aid meant to enable beneficiaries to support themselves, thus laying the groundwork for postconflict development. Typical examples of early recovery assistance include the rehabilitation of water systems, or support for local agriculture and farmers’ livelihoods.

Early recovery assistance can look similar in practice to “development” or “stabilization” assistance. Both of those types of assistance, however, have political ends and are considered non-humanitarian. By contrast, early recovery aid is supposed to be guided by a needs-based humanitarian logic. It is not meant to capacitate local authorities or further a national government’s development aims.

For years, early recovery aid has featured in the annual Humanitarian Response Plan prepared by the UN, which provides an organizing framework for the international aid response in Syria. Yet the plan’s early recovery component—its third “strategic objective” or “pillar”—has typically been undersubscribed. Key donors have shied away from early recovery aid that is seen as too close to reconstruction. Instead, they have directed their support to emergency life-saving assistance.

In the wake of July’s Security Council compromise, a number of commentators portrayed Resolution 2585’s endorsement of early recovery assistance as a significant U.S. concession. They argued that support of Joe Biden’s administration for early recovery had weakened the position of Washington and like-minded countries on international support for Syria’s reconstruction.

Yet the United States and other donors really ought to have been supporting early recovery anyway. If it took endorsing early recovery to secure the renewal of the cross-border mandate—well, that seems like a win-win deal.

International donor funds for humanitarian assistance, more than a decade into Syria’s open-ended conflict, are in decline. Proponents of early recovery assistance have argued that this type of aid is a more cost-effective and sustainable use of the shrinking pot of donor money. In my Century International report on Syria’s hunger crisis in May, I sided with those early recovery advocates. There is still a need for life-saving emergency assistance in Syria. Better, though, to use limited aid funds as effectively as possible, and to support both emergency and early recovery aid in order to reduce Syria’s humanitarian need.

Before the Security Council’s July vote, donors had been split on early recovery. The United Kingdom had begun advocating donor support for early recovery assistance, and Germany, the second largest bilateral donor to the Syria humanitarian response, had contributed substantially to early recovery. The United States and France, on the other hand, had been the Western donors most resistant to early recovery aid.

The July compromise on early recovery, then, marked a shift in the U.S. position, part of a larger reorientation by the Biden administration on Syria. The administration of Donald Trump waged a campaign of political and economic pressure on Damascus, in pursuit of maximalist political aims. Biden’s administration has since assessed that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign did not yield useful concessions and, moreover, aggravated Syria’s humanitarian crisis. Accordingly, the Biden White House has prioritized alleviating humanitarian suffering across Syria over enforcing Damascus’s international isolation.

U.S. and Western support for early recovery will not necessitate diplomatic normalization with Damascus. It does, however, mean the partial relaxation of Trump-era pressure, which harmed Syrians and served no identifiable political end.

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Substantial Aid to the Syrian People

After July’s Security Council vote, the yes-or-no debate over early recovery aid seems settled. Council members unanimously endorsed Resolution 2585; every major donor is, at least in theory, supportive of early recovery. That support now opens up new possibilities for aid to Syrians.

Water and sanitation assistance may present the clearest opportunity for effective new early recovery aid in Syria. The country’s water and sanitation infrastructure was relatively good before the war, but it has since deteriorated. Increasingly, Syrians have had to resort to alternative water sources that can be unsafe or costly, such as water vendors, tanker trucking, and shallow wells.

Aid organizations have responded with light rehabilitation of existing water systems, as well as support for water networks’ continued operation and maintenance. Yet these more limited interventions can only do so much.

“It’s like an old car,” one Damascus-based humanitarian told me about ad hoc, small-scale efforts to keep service infrastructure working. “You can take it to the mechanic every day, or every week, and make little fixes here and there. But at some point, it needs major repairs; little fixes only go so far.” New international support for early recovery may allow more substantial work—engine repair, instead of another temporary patch-up.

The most ambitious new early recovery initiative is likely ICRC’s “too big to fail” infrastructure agenda.

The most ambitious new early recovery initiative is likely an ICRC proposal to rehabilitate water infrastructure that the organization says is “too big to fail.” Unusually, Resolution 2585 referenced, by name, the role of ICRC role in early recovery. (Security Council resolutions do not typically mention individual organizations so specifically. The ICRC, meanwhile, generally prefers to avoid being included in this sort of political context.) ICRC works in Syria both directly and in cooperation with its national society, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. The aid organization has warned publicly of the deterioration of Syria’s water systems and advocated further action to preserve critical infrastructure. Privately, the organization has appealed for donor support to stabilize seven key water facilities serving Syria’s major urban areas, and thus prevent the collapse of “too big to fail” critical infrastructure. The breakdown of these water treatment facilities, pumping stations, and related infrastructure would disrupt the supply of water for millions of Syrians. Even water trucking, which depends on functioning water networks, would be affected.

A project on this scale will likely exceed the capabilities of ICRC alone. These water facilities are part of much more extensive infrastructure systems, including piping networks. UNICEF also has a leading role in water and sanitation aid in Syria, and could play a part in a larger coordinated effort.

Early recovery aid is not limited to just water and sanitation, though, and not all early recovery needs to be as ambitious as ICRC’s proposal. International backing for early recovery allows for a host of new aid projects delivered on a needs-based humanitarian basis, across the whole of Syria. And with luck, donors’ support for early recovery will loosen some of the parameters for aid programming that those donors have previously dictated to humanitarian organizations. Ideally, organizations will now be permitted to repair structurally damaged schools, for example, instead of being limited to just fixing school buildings’ toilets, doors, and windows.

Translating Early Recovery into Action

Despite donors’ professed commitment to early recovery aid, it remains unclear how that commitment will translate to action, and what early recovery will mean in practice.

Donors are now deliberating over the definition of “early recovery,” and what type of early recovery aid they are comfortable supporting. Some donor countries—France, in particular—still have doubts about early recovery assistance and worry that “early recovery” might be interpreted as a license for non-humanitarian development and reconstruction. Donor countries generally concur that Syria’s reconstruction is off limits. Yet they have had a harder time agreeing on a “reconstruction” threshold below which work to restore Syria’s service infrastructure is permissible.

The United States and other major donors attempted to mitigate these concerns by agreeing to a common definition of “early recovery,” but without success. In the absence of a shared definition, the U.S. Treasury moved forward in November with a clarification of American sanctions that listed examples of permitted early recovery assistance, including, among other things, the restoration of health facilities and the training of health workers; and the refurbishment of mills, silos, and bakeries. U.S. officials have since shared a document with humanitarians that provides Washington’s definition of early recovery, as well as key objectives and considerations for early recovery aid.

Another issue is where the money for additional early recovery assistance will come from. It is one thing for donors to voice support for early recovery; it is another to actually fund it, particularly as aid budgets for Syria are decreasing and emergency humanitarian assistance remains necessary. UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths reported in September that early recovery amounts to roughly 10 percent of overall Humanitarian Response Plan funds in Syria. Griffiths has since said that pooled funds have increased support for early recovery programming, but that more is needed.

Even with sufficient funds, it will take time for more early recovery aid to materialize. Resolution 2585 has given new impetus for aid actors to incorporate early recovery into their programming. Actual new projects, though, depend on forward motion by numerous slow-moving bureaucracies, including donor governments and the UN apparatus.

Worth the Investment

With all those caveats in mind: this new international push for early recovery is a real opportunity to improve the circumstances of ordinary Syrians.

The United States and other donors ought to invest in early recovery, including ICRC’s “too big to fail” agenda and other, smaller-scale initiatives. The Biden administration is now playing a positive role encouraging early recovery assistance from others. Yet it should also devote more U.S. funds to early recovery, and contribute alongside friends like the United Kingdom, Germany, and Norway. Regional countries—including ones that have lately normalized ties with Damascus, such as the United Arab Emirates—can also bring substantial resources to bear. Washington and its allies should encourage those regional actors to support early recovery projects that will broadly benefit the Syrian public.

For the United States and other like-minded donors, there may also be a political argument for supporting early recovery aid. New early recovery programming can help reinforce the Security Council compromise that extended the UN’s cross-border humanitarian mandate in July. It may also contribute to a constructive dynamic in continuing U.S.–Russian discussions on Syria.

The needs-based humanitarian rationale for early recovery assistance remains paramount, however. Now July’s breakthrough at the Security Council stands to introduce some new dynamism into the international aid response for Syria. There is no end in sight for the country’s war. Still, early recovery can help make Syria more livable for Syrians.

header image: Displaced Syrian children stand in front of tents at an informal displaced persons (IDP) camp on the outskirts of Idlib, on November 26, 2021 in Sarmada district, Idlib governorate, Syria. Amid the pandemic and looming threat of violence, humanitarian organizations and local authorities have struggled to meet these communities’ overwhelming needs. Early recovery aid seems unlikely to directly benefit IDPs like those pictured, but could lessen the overall pressure on an aid response that is unable to meet Syria’s tremendous humanitarian need. Source: Chris McGrath/Getty Images