Uncertainty grows in north-west Syria as world powers tussle over aid

Dispute at UN over renewal of aid deliveries to rebel north-west threatens livelihoods of many

Aid trucks at Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey, in Syria's Idlib province, on February 10, 2023.  AP
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The row between Russia and western powers over aid deliveries from Turkey to north-west Syria has underlined the vulnerability of millions of refugees in the rebel-held area amid an international tug-of-war.

UN convoys that had been bringing aid to the Idlib region through the Bab Al Hawa crossing for the past nine years were halted on Tuesday, residents said, even as their needs have become more acute after the February earthquake caused widespread devastation.

The UN authorisation needed for the aid deliveries expired on Monday after the Security Council failed to agree on an extension.

About 4.5 million people live in the Idlib and Aleppo governorates, most of them refugees who fled other parts of Syria after a peaceful uprising against President Bashar Al Assad turned into an armed rebellion in 2011.

“Lack of aid will make more people in the north think of leaving this hell,” said Syrian independent activist Rami Al Sayyed, referring to illegal migration to Europe.

A statement from several aid organisations, including the International Rescue Committee and Care International, said 90 per cent of the population of the north-west Syria “are struggling to feed their families” and described the failure to promptly renew the UN aid agreement as “unacceptable”.

UN data shows that almost 3,100 aid lorries passed through Bab Al Hawa since the earthquake.

After the earthquake, Mr Al Assad agreed to open two additional crossings linking rebel-held and regime areas for UN aid deliveries, but these have not been sufficient.

The UN is also carrying out substantial aid and quake recovery operations in areas controlled by Mr Al Assad, despite objections by human rights organisations over a regime veto over staff there and complaints about funds going to the President’s associates.

The aid deliveries to the north-west, which is part of the Turkish sphere of influence in Syria, is a point of contention between western powers and Russia, Mr Al Assad's main backer.

Over the past several years, Russia has tried to secure concessions to the advantage of Mr Al Assad through the UN Security Council, while western countries have resisted his bid to control aid and refused to support his rebuilding efforts.

Mr Al Sayyed said people in the area have become more concerned about their daily subsistence after Turkey, which backs Syrian rebel groups, began seeking normalisation with Mr Al Assad and after Syria was readmitted to the Arab League after being suspended over its crackdown on the 2011 uprising.

“The north-west has become a pawn in a regional game and people feel that they could be sold off,” Mr Al Sayyed said, speaking by phone from Idlib.

Idlib and parts of Aleppo are controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, an armed group opposed to Mr Al Assad that was originally affiliated with Al Qaeda. The group has a proxy administration called the Salvation Government that operates near Bab Al Hawa.

The group has sought to shed its militant image in recent years and maintain open channels with Ankara, despite Turkey's moves to improve ties with Mr Al Assad.

Mr Al Sayyed noted that there were stockpiles of food and medicine in Idlib, as Turkish and other organisations continued to send in aid on their own.

Othman Abdulqader, a former teacher in the Sahl Al Rouge region of Idlib who is involved in aid distribution, said that western donors had also started channelling money directly to humanitarian organisations in Idlib in recent months.

“They have been testing a new mechanism exactly in case of the scenario that we saw at the UN,” Mr Abdulqader said.

Updated: July 11, 2023, 5:31 PM