Syrians decry looming end to cross-border aid from Turkey

People in northwest Syria fear ‘death by starvation’ as UN authorisation of aid deliveries is set to expire on Monday.

UN in Idlib
UN aid deliveries to opposition-held northwestern Syria have been flowing through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey since 2014 [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Idlib, Syria – With the United Nations’ authorisation for the transfer of aid to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey approaching its expiration date, concerns are rising once again about the consequences if it is not renewed for Syrians living in the opposition-controlled northwest.

On Monday, the most recent six-month extension approved by the UN Security Council will expire. In the past, Russia has threatened to use its veto to prevent any further renewals, leading local residents reliant on aid fearful every time an extension period nears its end.

The Bab al-Hawa border crossing is the sole gateway for UN humanitarian aid to enter northwestern Syria after repeated Russian objections that have reduced the number of crossings from four to just one.

Mohammed al-Fandi has been displaced from his home in Homs, a government-controlled city in western Syria, for 12 years. The 48-year-old father of 15 children currently resides in the Burj Talatah camp on the outskirts of Sarmada, a town near the Syrian-Turkish border.

UN in idlib
UN aid is insufficient, but its cut-off would lead to a real catastrophe, Syrians say [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“The food basket we receive every month from the World Food Programme only lasts us for a week, and its weight has been reduced to 20kg (44lb) from the previous 70kg [154lb],” al-Fandi told Al Jazeera, adding that he has long been unemployed due to a lack of job opportunities in Idlib province, forcing him to rely on aid.

“Closing the crossing to humanitarian aid means death by starvation for most camp residents,” al-Fandi said.

Since 2014, the UN has been using the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to deliver aid to millions of people in need in northern Syria without the need for approval from the Syrian government in Damascus.

The government violently put down a protest movement that began in 2011 and has fought the country’s armed opposition since the same year. The front lines are now largely frozen with the government in control of much of the country, thanks to Russian support, and the opposition, with some factions backed by Turkey, in control of areas in the northwest.

Russia, having turned the course of the war after militarily intervening in 2015 on the side of President Bashar al-Assad, often obstructs the renewal of the border aid authorisation, claiming that the cross-border mechanism violates Syria’s sovereignty.

“UN aid is insufficient, but its discontinuation leads to a real catastrophe, especially for those with chronic illnesses and war victims who are unable to secure their medication and daily sustenance,” said Khadija Afash, a displaced mother of five children and the director of a camp for Syrian refugees in Afrin.

“The cessation of aid means an increase in child labour and their inability to attend school, which will result in widespread illiteracy in the coming years,” Afash added.

UN delegation visits Idlib

On Tuesday, a UN delegation headed by David Carden, deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syrian crisis, visited displacement camps in Idlib to highlight the necessity of extending the Security Council’s border aid authorisation.

“There are 4.1 million people in need in northwest Syria, and 2.7 million people are helped with aid every month,” Carden said. He told Al Jazeera that 75 to 80 percent of the beneficiaries are in Idlib and they are best reached through Baba al-Hawa. Carden wants the cross-border permission period to be extended for a year rather than six months.

“Cross-border resolution renewal for 12 months is very important because it will provide more predictable access to humanitarian personnel, and it provides us more time to plan and implement our programmes,” Carden said.

UN in idlib
A UN delegation met with several Syrian families in northern Syria during its visit [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

The UN delegation met with several Syrian families residing in displacement camps near the Syrian-Turkish border, where the residents expressed their concerns that cross-border aid will not be reauthorised.

Many also appealed to the delegation to secure proper shelter for them instead of the tents they currently live in.

“In order to construct these shelters, we need to bring in the material from Turkey,” Carden said. “We also need to be sure that we have the infrastructure in place to support them, which means having an appropriate water network and also having an appropriate sewage network. For us to ensure these networks function correctly, we need to have the correct pipes, and again, these can be brought through cross-border from Turkey, and it takes time to implement these projects, so this is why we’re calling for a 12-month renewal of the cross-border resolution.”

The visit of the UN delegation in Idlib coincided with intense artillery shelling by Syrian government forces supported by Russia of villages in the opposition-controlled western countryside of neighbouring Aleppo province. It killed one man in the town of Kafr Nuran and injured four children, some of whom are in critical condition, in the city of Darat Izza, according to the Syrian Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets.

The shelling also struck the villages of Kafr Taal and Al-Qusur as well as the outskirts of Atarib city without causing casualties. In the past week, a Russian plane fired missiles at a popular farmers market near Jisr al-Shughur, west of Idlib city, killing 10 civilians and injuring more than 30.

Source: Al Jazeera