The Syrian government recently announced it would allow aid to flow into rebel-held areas after a UN mechanism expired, sparking concern among aid groups.
They are worried about the fate of the inhabitants of the last Syrian rebel strongholds, in the north and north-west, after the failure on Wednesday of the Security Council to extend the mechanism.
Under a 2014 deal, aid had largely passed through the Bab al-Hawa crossing point with Turkey without permission from Damascus.
But the expiration of the UN mechanism, along with Syria’s decision to change course on delivering aid to these areas, has raised fears and questions within the humanitarian community.
– What does Damascus offer? –
Syria said it had taken a “sovereign decision” to allow aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing for six months from last Thursday.
The crossing point is the main entry point for aid to rebel-held areas, although it also occasionally arrives from areas under Damascus control.
Following the February 6 earthquake that hit both northwest Syria and southern Turkey, Syrian authorities have agreed to temporarily open two more border crossing points with Turkey until August .
Russia on Tuesday vetoed a proposal to extend the UN mechanism at Bab al-Hawa by nine months, then failed to muster enough votes for another proposal to extend it by six months. .
The UN has expressed concern about two “unacceptable conditions” set by Damascus to allow aid to flow through the crossing, according to a document reviewed by AFP on Friday.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) expressed concern that Damascus had “stressed that the United Nations should not communicate with entities labeled as ‘terrorists'”.
The second condition he held to was that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) should “supervise and facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid” in the north- western Syria.
About half of Idlib province and parts of neighboring provinces are controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), considered a terrorist group by Damascus, as well as the United States and the UN.
About three million people, mostly displaced, live in areas controlled by HTS, while another 1.1 million are in areas under the control of Turkish-backed groups.
Years of conflict have left much of the rebel-held areas – home to overcrowded camps for the displaced – in desperate need of aid as poverty and disease rage.
– What are the concerns? –
The UN has described Damascus’ conditions for reopening the Bab al-Hawa crossing as “unacceptable”.
The OCHA document seen by AFP calls for the need to “review” and “clarify” parts of Damascus’ letter, saying the deliveries “must not undermine impartiality… neutrality and independence of United Nations humanitarian operations”.
Several international organizations fear that allowing Damascus to control the flow of aid to rebel-held areas could limit access to those who need it most.
The International Rescue Committee, one of the main humanitarian organizations working in Idlib, said it continued to “emphasize the responsibilities of the Security Council to protect Syrians…and ensure that lives are not lost.” in danger”.
MedGlobal, which runs clinics and vaccination campaigns in Idlib, warned that transferring control of Bab-Al-Hawa “from a neutral party (the UN) to a regime that massacred its people and displaced half of its population will lead to more death and suffering among innocent civilians and trigger a new refugee crisis”.
About half of the residents of rebel-held areas are people displaced by Syria’s 12-year conflict that has killed more than half a million people.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly stated that he is determined to regain control of these areas.
Nick Heras, a researcher at the New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy, told AFP that Damascus “shows increased confidence in its ability to contain and, over time, reduce rebel-held areas in northwestern Syria”.
Syria, which regained its seat in the Arab League in May, wants to “monitor crossing points” to rebel-held areas, Heras said, warning that soon “Assad and his allies will force the issue militarily.”
– Are there alternatives? –
Members of the Security Council and other organizations are betting on a return to negotiations.
The Swiss ambassador to the world body said diplomats would “get back to work immediately to find a solution”.
Human Rights Watch senior Syria researcher Hiba Zayadin urged Security Council members to “return to the negotiating table and reach a consensus that puts the rights of Syrians first.”
“Allowing Syria to dictate the flow of aid to areas beyond government control puts the lives, rights and dignity of millions of Syrians in grave danger,” she said.
In Idlib, 46-year-old activist Abdel Wahab Elewi expressed his rejection of Damascus’ control over the crossing, “even if they cut off aid to us”.
“Handing this issue over to Assad means the beginning of the end and moving towards recognition of his regime,” he said.