Syria opposition say deal reached with Turkey to open aid routes after region cut off

It comes after an earthquake rocked Turkey and Syria, claiming more than 11,000 lives

This aerial view shows trucks from a United Nations aid convoy entering Syria through the Bab Al Hawa border crossing with Turkey, carrying basic vital necessities for the inhabitants of the northwestern rebel-held areas on the country, on July 28, 2022. File photo / AFP
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Follow the latest news on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

Syrian opposition groups reached a deal with Ankara on Wednesday to open alternative routes into Syria's rebel-held northwest for the first time in years — a bid to speed urgently needed aid to disaster zones following this week's devastating earthquake.

The Bab Al Salameh and Al Rai border crossings have been re-opened in addition to the existing Bab Al Hawa crossing — the only point authorised as an official aid route by the UN, and which remains impassable due to earthquake destruction.

"The opening of these two additional crossings means aid can begin passing through immediately. There's no more excuse for why assistance can't enter northwest Syria," Abdulmajid Barakat, a member of the Syrian Opposition Council's political committee, told The National.

Prior to Wednesday's deal, no emergency assistance had passed into the opposition-held northwest in the three days since the deadly earthquake which has so far claimed over 11,000 lives across Turkey and Syria.

The Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) is a coalition of Syrian opposition groups operating from Istanbul as a Syrian government in exile.

"This morning we began accepting relief teams" into northwest Syria, Mr Barakat told The National, "and they faced no difficulty with arriving today."

The deal will allow for independent groups to provide humanitarian aid independent of the UN's cross-border mechanism, Mr Barakat said.

Wednesday's deal to reopen the two additional crossings came despite UN vetos by Russia and China made in previous years to keep alternate routes open for the delivery of humanitarian aid through other crossings into northwest Syria. The Syrian government has insisted that aid must be distributed with Damascus’s oversight and in co-operation with the Syrian Red Crescent, although the regime does not operate in rebel-held areas.

While the deal was celebrated by opposition groups, it had not removed all the roadblocks to access.

Fabrizio Carboni, the ICRC's Near and Middle East regional director, told The National on Tuesday that his organisation had no access to northern Syria, where around four million people are displaced by conflict. His office confirmed after the reports the border crossing deal broke that this had not changed their situation.

It is not immediately clear how long the deal to reopen Bab Al Salameh and Bab Al Rai will remain in place — "until the disastrous situation calms down," said Mr Barakat of the SOC — while aid through Bab Al Hawa remains stunted.

Prior to Wednesday's deal, the Bab El Salameh border crossing in northern Syria had been closed since 2020, when Russia and China vetoed the renewal of UN cross-border aid operations, instead deciding to offer limited periods of aid transfers followed by border shutdowns.

The closures left millions of people in northern Syria with shortages of basic goods and in some cases, drinkable water. In Idlib, as many as one million people remain displaced by Syria's 12-year conflict.

Egyptian team the first to enter northwest Syria

An Egyptian relief team was the first to cross from Turkey into northwest Syria shortly following news of the border openings, the White Helmets Civil Defence and the SOC confirmed Wednesday afternoon.

It was not immediately clear which border crossing the Egyptian technical team used.

The Egyptian team of around 30 specialists will assist with technical search and rescue operations, while their doctors provide medical aid.

“The team is currently in the town of Jindiris" in the badly-hit Afrin province, said Mounir Al Mustafa, the Deputy Director of the White Helmets Civil Defense.

Mr Al Mustafa appealed to the international community to bring emergency aid to the battered opposition-held region. The White Helmets — the only search and rescue organisation in Syria's northwest — have worked around the clock since Monday, with limited resources and under freezing weather conditions, to free people from the rubble of destroyed buildings.

“There hasn’t been any strong initiative taken by the international community towards northwest Syria. Until now, no heavy machinery has entered the region,” he said.

The White Helmets lack the equipment and resources to conduct adequate rescue missions on such a large scale. In Jindiris, civil defence volunteers in some instances used their bare hands to dig for survivors in the rubble due to the shortage of equipment.

“The delayed assistance of the international community has ensured the death of those who still need rescuing,” Mr Al Mustafa said.

He warned that stocks – including fuel to power heavy machinery – would soon be depleted without the badly-needed emergency assistance.

Mr Barakat of the Syrian Opposition Coalition told The National that a Jordanian volunteer team had crossed into the region following the entry of the team of Egyptian volunteers. He added that the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia had also sent teams, but that the region remained heavily in need of heavy machinery to lift rubble.

Bab Al Hawa: 'Only corpses' passing through

Mazen Alloush, an official of the Bab Al Hawa crossing administration, told The National that three days after Monday’s earthquake no emergency assistance has been able to cross into rebel-held northwest Syria through the crossing, which is the only border entry point authorised by the United Nations Security Council for aid delivery.

“No humanitarian aid, not volunteer teams, not equipment or anything has entered northwest Syria through this crossing yet,” he said.

“Only the corpses of the Syrians who passed away in Turkey and who need to be buried in their villages in Syria” have been able to pass through the crossing, he said.

“But I have to ask… if the roads are so severely damaged how have dozens of cars been able to enter through Bab Al Hawa carrying the bodies of the dead into Syria and yet no aid has been able to make it in?”

United Nations hopeful of border access

The United Nations has said it is unable to send aid through Bab Al Hawa due to the severely damaged state of roads and infrastructure leading to the crossing.

“The road that is leading to the crossing has been damaged, and that's temporarily disrupted our ability to fully use it,” UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Tuesday.

UN-facilitated aid through the Bab Al Hawa crossing could be ready to go into northwest Syria by Thursday, senior UN aid officials said at a UN briefing on Tuesday.

“We are hearing that the roads are opening…. I think we have a glimpse of hope that we can reach the people, the UN agencies, and the NGOs” operating in northwest Syria, said Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Muhannad Hadi.

He added that numerous organisations stand ready to deploy humanitarian aid and indicated that Turkish authorities were working to clear roads leading to the Bab Al Hawa crossing. Over sixty hours have passed since the disaster struck.

Updated: February 08, 2023, 6:18 PM