US and major donors demand independent UN aid operation in Syria’s rebel-held northwest

Jul 24, 2023, 4:21 PM | Updated: 5:32 pm

FILE - Trucks loaded with United Nations humanitarian aid for Syria following a devastating earthqu...

FILE - Trucks loaded with United Nations humanitarian aid for Syria following a devastating earthquake are parked at Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, in Syria's Idlib province, on Feb. 10, 2023. On Tuesday, July 11, 2023, the U.N. Security Council failed to renew the Bab al-Hawa border crossing into opposition-held northwestern Syria from Turkey. (AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)

(AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed, File)

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States said Monday it has joined major donors in demanding that the United Nations be able to deliver aid through a key crossing from Turkey to Syria’s rebel-held northwest independently and to everyone in need. That’s a rejection of conditions set by Syria and backed by its ally Russia that Damascus control all aid and banning U.N. communications with rebels in the region.

U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the U.N. Security Council that the Syrian government’s offer earlier this month to allow aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa crossing showed the need for cross-border assistance, but she said Syria’s restrictions were unacceptable and “would hinder relief and put humanitarians, including U.N. personnel, at risk.”

After the latest six-month mandate expired on July 10, Russia vetoed a nine-month extension and the council rejected a Russian resolution for a six-month extension.

President Bashar Assad’s government then gave a green light for the United Nations to use the crossing, but on condition it cede control to Syria, not communicate with groups it calls terrorists and that aid deliveries by overseen by the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs rejected the offer. It said prohibiting communications with the rebels would prevent U.N. aid reaching all in need and having aid deliveries overseen by the Red Cross or Red Crescent would interfere with U.N. independence and wasn’t practical because they don’t operate in the northwest. It said the request that aid deliveries be carried out in “full cooperation and coordination” with Damascus required “review.”

Thomas-Greenfield said the United States has joined other major donors in making clear that any cross-border arrangement must include five key elements: U.N. operations must be independent and engage with all parties on the ground; the U.N. must operate throughout Syria including outside government-held areas; access should be long-term and not end in winter; assistance must adhere to humanitarian principles; and previous cross-border monitoring arrangements must be maintained.

“All five of these elements are critical,” the U.S. envoy said, stressing that they would improve trust among donor nations to Syria’s humanitarian operations, reaffirm that U.N. operations will be guided only by humanitarian principles, ensure proper funding and give humanitarian workers greater predictability.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator Ramesh Rajasingham told the Security Council that humanitarian officials are continuing to talk to the Syrian government about the terms of the aid operations.

Meanwhile, he said the U.N. has sent convoys through the two other less convenient crossings at Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai that Syria opened to increase the flow of assistance to victims after the devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake that ravaged its northwest and southern Turkey on Feb. 8. Assad extended their opening until Aug. 13, and the U.N. again urged him to keep the two crossings open.

Many people in northwest Idlib have been forced from their homes during the 12-year civil war, which has killed nearly a half million people and displaced half the country’s pre-war population of 23 million. Hundreds of thousands live in tent settlements and have relied on aid that comes through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

The main insurgent group in northwest Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al Sham, whose origins were in al-Qaida. The group and other militants are a mix of homegrown fighters and foreign jihadis who began coming to Syria in 2011 after an initially peaceful uprising against Assad turned into an armed insurgency.

Russia’s deputy U.N. ambassador Dmitry Polyansky made clear that delivery of aid through Bab al-Hawa must be carried out “with the consent and in close coordination with the internationally recognized government of the country.”

He said U.N. humanitarian personnel now have the opportunity to cooperate with legitimate Syrian authorities, prioritize the interests of those needing assistance, including in government-held territories, “and not internationally recognized terrorists and their Western sponsors who have entrenched themselves in Idlib.”

Syria’s U.N. Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh told the council Damascus is open to cooperating with the United Nations but must be in control. He stressed that Syria requires not only aid but early recovery projects and de-mining operations.

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US and major donors demand independent UN aid operation in Syria’s rebel-held northwest