UN says Syria cross-border aid conditions ‘unacceptable’

UN raises concerns with Damascus’s terms for aid deliveries via the Bab al-Hawa crossing to rebel-held areas in northwest Syria.

Trucks carrying aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), following a deadly earthquake, are parked at Bab al-Hawa crossing, Syria, February 20, 2023.
Trucks carrying aid from the UN World Food Programme (WFP), following a deadly earthquake, are parked at Bab al-Hawa crossing, Syria [File: Mahmoud Hassano/Reuters]

The United Nations has described conditions placed by the Syrian government on aid deliveries to the country’s northwestern areas from Turkey as “unacceptable”.

Syria conditioned life-saving support on the “full cooperation and coordination with the government”, the UN not communicating with “terrorist organisations” and their affiliates, and on the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent running aid operations.

In a note sent to the UN Security Council on Friday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the Syrian proposal called those conditions “unacceptable” for carrying out “principled humanitarian operations”, news agencies reported.

Stipulating that aid deliveries must be overseen by the Red Cross or Red Crescent is “neither consistent with the independence of the United Nations nor practical”, since those organisations “are not present in northwest Syria”, OCHA said.

The agency responsible for overseeing humanitarian aid also noted that the Syrian government’s request that deliveries be carried out in coordination with Damascus requires “review” and that the mechanism for aid delivery should not “infringe on the impartiality …, neutrality, and independence of the United Nations’ humanitarian operations in Syria.”

However, OCHA said that the “Syrian Government’s permission can be a basis for the United Nations to lawfully conduct cross-border humanitarian operations via the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for the specified duration.”

The UN has not used the Bab al-Hawa crossing since the Security Council authorisation expired on Monday. Council authorisation was needed because the Syrian government did not previously agree to the UN operation, which has been delivering aid to millions in northwest Syria since 2014.

The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and its ally, Russia, which is a member of the Security Council, want all aid deliveries to be run through Damascus.

Syrians who fled al-Assad’s rule fear he may soon be able to choke off badly needed aid as Damascus acts to establish sway over UN assistance into the rebel-held northwest, the last major bastion of the Syrian opposition.

“The attempts by the Syrian government to control cross-border aid deliveries is alarming many, including the UN Security Council, rights activists, and medical workers,” said Al Jazeera’s Nour Qormosh, reporting from Idlib.

“Bab al-Hawa is a crucial lifeline for opposition-held areas in the northwest, [which] have suffered years of civil war and need the border to remain open so humanitarian supplies continue to arrive,” he added.

The 15-member Security Council failed to reach an agreement on Tuesday to renew the mandate for the operation after Russia vetoed a proposed nine-month extension. Russia then failed in its own bid for the council to adopt a six-month renewal.

The Security Council initially authorised aid deliveries in 2014 from Turkey, Iraq and Jordan through four crossing points into opposition-held areas in Syria. But over the years, Russia, backed by China, had pushed the council to reduce the authorised crossings to only one – Bab al-Hawa – and the mandates from a year to six months.

After a deadly magnitude 7.8 earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey in February, al-Assad opened two additional crossing points from Turkey, at Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai, to increase the flow of assistance to victims, and later extended their opening until August 13. However, in practice, most aid has continued to cross via Bab al-Hawa.

A limited amount of UN aid has entered the opposition-held northwest by crossing battle lines from government-held areas.

After February’s earthquake, aid convoys were blocked from entering the province of Idlib from government-held areas by the armed group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, originally an offshoot of al-Qaeda, which dominates the area. The group accused al-Assad of trying “to benefit from the aid intended for victims of the earthquake”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies