The Cable

Exclusive: Syria's U.N. Aid Jam

Brushing aside vague threats from the United Nations Security Council, the Syrian government continued over the past month to lay siege to more than 220,000 of its own civilians, block the delivery of life-saving medicines to opposition areas, and maintain bureaucratic restrictions making it extremely difficult for U.N. relief workers to reach hundreds of thousands of needy Syrians, according to an unpublished March 22 report by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The impediments to the international relief effort come one month after the Security Council adopted its first-ever resolution demanding that Syria's combatants provide immediate access to relief workers or face the threat of "further steps." The resolution called on the U.N. chief to report to the 15-nation council on progress every 30 days.

Ban's report, a copy of which was obtained by Foreign Policy, will present the United States and its European allies with one of the first major tests of their ability to work cooperatively with Russia on a major international crisis since Moscow's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula sent relations into a nosedive.

Russia, which has vetoed three resolutions on Syria, grudgingly agreed to support the council's resolution on humanitarian access on the eve of the Sochi Winter Olympics closing ceremony, avoiding a potentially embarrassing diplomatic collision. But Russia's U.N. envoy, Vitaly I. Churkin, made clear even before the international crisis over Ukraine that Moscow had no intention of rushing to impose penalties on Syria, its closest Middle East ally. Churkin, echoing the line taken by Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, said the Syrian government was battling Islamist militants with ties to al Qaeda.

In his report to the Security Council, Ban expressed "regret" that stalled U.S., Russian and U.N. diplomatic efforts in Geneva have "produced such poor results" in reducing Syria's bloodshed and called on the Syrian parties, and their foreign backers, to "refocus" their efforts on revitalizing the talks. "Syria is now the biggest humanitarian and peace and security crisis facing the world," he wrote. "It requires an immediate end to violence and a negotiated political solution to the conflict."

The report credits the Syrian government with providing some additional access to previously inaccessible areas, and allowing goods to enter the country through Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and a rare-cross border delivery of humanitarian assistance across the Turkish border. (However, Syrian authorities on Friday blocked the first aid delivery from Turkey to Syria, Reuters reported.) Damascus has long considered aid deliveries from Turkey a "red line" given the prospect that extremist groups could smuggle weapons into the country in aid convoys.

The report also accuses armed opposition groups, particularly those affiliated with al Qaeda, of impeding the delivery of assistance. In Aleppo, for instance, armed opposition groups have refused to lift a siege on 45,000 people in two Alawite towns, Zahra and Nubl, unless the Syrian government lifts its siege of civilians in the town of Eastern Ghouta, where 160,000 people have been besieged by pro-government forces since late 2012.

A surge of intra-rebel fighting between armed factions the moderate Free Syrian Army and the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), Ban says, has also cut of vital aid routes in northern Syria. "As the conflict intensifies and fighting between armed groups increases, more people are slipping out of the reach of humanitarian organization," Ban writes. "Around 3.5 million people are now estimated to be in need of assistance in hard to reach areas, an increase of 1 million since the beginning of 2014."

But the report sharply criticizes the Syrian government for refusing to lift its bureaucratic vice on the aid effort.

Early this month, the Syrian government established a "working group" to discuss ways to improve aid delivery. Since then, "there has been no progress in streamlining and speeding up procedures to facilitate inter-agency convoys during the reporting period and the process for approval remains extremely complex and time consuming."

For instance, the U.N. still must notify the Syrian Foreign Ministry 72 hours in advance of plans to send out an aid convoy. If the request is approved, the U.N. must acquire "facilitation" letters from the Syrian Red Crescent and from the Ministry of Social Affairs. If the convoy is delivering medicine the Health Ministry needs to sign off, too.

None of this assures that aid can actually get delivered.

"Significant challenges to the delivery of assistance remain including: the need for multiple requests for approval of inter-agency convoys, which often go unanswered," according to the report. "Since the adoption of the resolution, medicines and medical supplies have been removed by government officials from inter-agency convoys to al Houla (Homs), Adra (rural Damascus) and Madamiyet Elsham (rural Damascus) which would have assisted around 201,000 people."

The end result, the report said, was that there have been "several instances in which aid convoys either could not proceed or were prevented from carrying essential items, such as medicines."

Violence has returned to Homs since the United Nations oversaw the evacuation of 1,366 people in early February, which had been a rare glimmer of hope that a break in the year-and-a-half long siege marked a turning point, according to the report. While the U.N. has evacuated an additional 200 people since mid-March, "shelling and bombing returned to pre-ceasefire levels." About 150 male evacuees continue to be held at a government "screening facility," which was hit by a mortar early this month, forcing the U.N. to suspend its monitoring of the site to ensure the detainees human rights are being observed.

Other besieged areas remained primarily beyond the reach of U.N. aid efforts. In Eastern Ghouta, where more than 160,000 people have been cut off by the Syrian government from international assistance since 2012, only a trickle of aid has made it into the area, including a large one-off vaccination program for 40,000 children. "On 27 February, three separate Notes Verbales [diplomatic appeals] were submitted to the government that were not answered." When the U.N. issued a fourth appeal, Damascus responded that the U.N. should first work on lifting the siege on rebel-controlled villages of Nubl and Zahra. Ultimately, the Syrian government agreed to approve a convoy delivering limited supplies, including 600 food rations, to the town of Douma.

The humanitarian aid crisis is playing out against a backdrop of increasing violence in Syria, with more than 500,000 fleeing Aleppo since January, and more than 200 people, including civilians, dying each day in Syria, according to the report.

"During the reporting period, indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks, including aerial bombings, shelling, mortars and car bombs in populated areas, caused mass civilian death and injuries and forced displacement," the report stated. "There were continued reports of artillery shelling and air strikes, including the use of barrel bombs, by government forces. Car bombing and suicide attacks, including against civilian objects resulted in civilian deaths and injury during the reporting period. Many of these attacks were claimed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis) and Jabhat al-Nusra."

AFP/ Getty Images

The Cable

U.S. Freezes Assets of Russian Businessmen and Bank Close to Putin

The United States increased the economic pressure on Moscow in response to its invasion and annexation of Crimea, freezing the assets of a Russian bank with billions of dollars in holdings and several prominent businessmen with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In retaliation, Moscow banned nine American officials from traveling to Russia. It was mostly a symbolic move -- one that was embraced as a badge of honor by several of the Americans on the list -- but it could also signal the beginning of reciprocal reprisals between the two countries that could quickly escalate into a damaging economic battle.

The U.S. added 20 new names to its blacklist Thursday as well as Bank Rossiya, which senior administration officials said has $10 billion in assets. Americans and American businesses will now have to sever all ties with the bank and stop doing business with all of the newly named officials and businessmen. Any assets in the U.S. owned by individuals on the list will be frozen and inaccessible. The administration, on Monday, targeted seven Russian officials, many of whom scoffed at the move as ineffectual because they don't have assets in the U.S. or Europe.

Going after Russian executives close to Putin is a significant escalation of the earlier sanctions because they are far more likely to have assets abroad. Gennady Timchenko, founder of commodity trading company Gunvor, was added to the list Thursday because of Putin's alleged investment in the company, according to the Treasury Department.

Gunvor rejected the claim that the Russian president has a stake in the company and called the accusations "misinformed and outrageous."

"President Putin has not and never has had any ownership, beneficial or otherwise in Gunvor. He is not a beneficiary of Gunvor or its activities," the company said in the statement, issued through a Washington-based public relations firm.

Also newly blacklisted are the brothers Arkady Rotenberg and Boris Rotenberg, who the Treasury Department says have amassed vast wealth - including $2.5 billion over the last two years -- through their relationship with Putin. The Rotenbergs received about $7 billion in government contracts related to the Sochi Olympics, according to Treasury.

The most prominent name on the list is Yuri Kovalchuk, a man who has been frequently described in press reports as Putin's banker. While reports that Kovalchuk handles Putin's personal wealth are little more than rumors, the veteran banker occupies a central role in the world of Russia's lucrative energy sector.

As a key player and chairman at Bank Rossiya, Kovalchuk has steered what used to be an obscure St. Petersburg bank onto the center-stage of Russia's energy sector. Through a series of controversial deals, Bank Rossiya - and Kovalchuk - have gained control of several Gazprom subsidiaries, including its pension fund and insurance arm. Investors allege that through these acquisitions -- funded by capital the source of which remains unclear -- Bank Rossiya was able to leech value from Gazprom and enrich the oligarchs behind the bank to the tune of billions of dollars. 

In a White House press conference, President Obama said the U.S. sanctions were in response to what Russia has already done in Crimea, but threatened harsher measures if Russia moved further into Ukraine.

"The world is watching with grave concern as Russia has positioned its military in a way that could lead to further incursions into southern and eastern Ukraine," Obama said.

Obama outlined further steps the U.S. could take in an executive order that would allow the U.S. to target sectors of the Russian economy, including banking, energy and defense. But he emphasized that he hoped those measures wouldn't have to be taken.

"These sanctions would not only have a significant impact on the Russian economy, but could also be disruptive to the global economy," Obama said.

Going after Russia's energy sector could deal a powerful blow to the Russian government, which relies on oil and gas exports for about half its funding.  But it would also be a very costly move for Europe, which gets about 30% of its natural gas from Russia with no ready alternative supply.

If the Obama administration decided to go ahead with isolating the Russian energy sector, it could then decide to blacklist energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft. German newspaper Bild reported last week that the chief executives of both firms, are on the long list of possible European sanctions targets. Because of the huge costs to Europe, most observers don't expect the West to take that road unless Russia starts muscling into eastern Ukraine.

By targeting Gunvor, the White House has struck the Russian energy sector while leaving the truly big fish -- Gazprom, Rosneft, and their executives -- as potential targets for a later round. Following Putin's reassertion of state control over the country's energy industry, Gunvor emerged as a key beneficiary of the president's dismantling of Yukos, the energy company belonging to the tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. According to traders at the energy company, which was essentially dismantled by the state under the guise of tax evasion charges, large parts of the company's contracts were transferred to Gunvor, fueling its rise and vastly enriching Timchenko, whose net worth is now estimated at $15.3 billion.

"They took over all our barrels," one former Yukos trader told the Financial Times in 2008. Timchenko has denied his company has benefited from connections to Putin.

The U.S. could also decide to ramp up sanctions if Russia exerts further economic pressure on Ukraine.

"We're deeply concerned today that the Russians have appeared to close the border to Ukrainian goods entering Russia, effectively having imposed a trade embargo," said a senior administration official on a background call for reporters.

As the new government in Kiev moves to deepen political and economic ties with the rest of Europe, there is concern that Moscow could again try to pressure Ukraine to back away from those negotiations. Russia threatened Ukraine with a trade embargo last fall, when former President Viktor Yanukovych was considering signing an association agreement with the European Union.

Russia's blacklist includes many top U.S. lawmakers and officials in the Obama administration. A spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington confirmed to Foreign Policy that the list includes a mix of influential political players, including White House aides Ben Rhodes, Dan Pfeiffer and Caroline Atkinson and top Congressional leaders including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez and Arizona Senator John McCain.

Contrary to an earlier report, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin does not appear on the list. Other names banned from travel in Russia include Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and Indiana Senator Dan Coats.

After hearing about his placement on Moscow's list, Menendez welcomed the punitive action.

"If standing up for the Ukrainian people, their freedom, their hard earned democracy, and sovereignty means I'm sanctioned by Putin, so be it," he said in a statement.

Shane Harris contributed to this report.

Win McNamee/ Getty