Concerns mount over Syrian government’s proposed control on aid to rebel-held areas

The Syrian government’s decision to allow aid into rebel-held areas following the expiration of a United Nations mechanism has raised concerns among humanitarian groups. These groups fear for the welfare of residents in the last remaining rebel strongholds in the north and northwest of Syria after the Security Council failed to extend the mechanism.

Under a 2014 agreement, aid had been flowing through the Bab al-Hawa crossing with Turkey without Damascus’ authorization. However, with the UN mechanism expiring and Syria changing its stance on aid delivery, the humanitarian community has raised questions and expressed worries about the situation.

Damascus stated that it made a “sovereign decision” to allow aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing for a period of six months, starting last Thursday. This crossing serves as the primary entry point for aid to rebel-held areas, although some aid also occasionally comes from areas under the control of the Syrian government.

Earlier, after an earthquake struck northwest Syria and southern Turkey on February 6, Syrian authorities temporarily opened two other border crossings with Turkey until August. However, Russia vetoed a proposal on Tuesday to extend the UN mechanism at Bab al-Hawa for nine months and subsequently failed to gather sufficient votes for an alternate proposal to extend it for six months.

According to a document reviewed by AFP on Friday, the UN expressed concerns about two “unacceptable conditions” set by Damascus for aid to flow through the crossing. One condition was that the United Nations should not communicate with entities designated as “terrorist” by Damascus. The second condition 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 northwest Syria.

A significant portion of Idlib province and neighboring areas are under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is considered a terrorist group by Damascus, the United States, and the UN. Approximately three million people, mostly displaced individuals, reside in areas controlled by HTS, while 1.1 million are in zones controlled by Turkey-backed groups.

The prolonged conflict in these rebel-held areas has left them in dire need of aid, with widespread poverty and disease. The UN described Damascus’s conditions for reopening the Bab al-Hawa crossing as “unacceptable.” The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) called for a review and clarification of parts of Damascus’s letter, emphasizing that aid deliveries must maintain impartiality, neutrality, and independence.

International organizations fear that granting Damascus control over aid distribution in rebel-held areas could result in restricted access to those most in need. The International Rescue Committee, a major aid organization operating in Idlib, stressed the Security Council’s responsibility to protect Syrians and ensure their lives are not put at risk. MedGlobal, which provides medical services in the region, warned that transferring control of Bab al-Hawa to the Syrian regime could lead to more suffering and trigger another refugee crisis.

Approximately half of the residents in rebel-held areas are displaced individuals affected by Syria’s 12-year-long conflict, which has claimed the lives of over half a million people. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly expressed his determination to regain control over these areas. Analysts suggest that Damascus is becoming more confident in its ability to contain and eventually reduce the rebel-held territories in northwest Syria.

As concerns mount, Security Council members and other organizations are pushing for a return to negotiations. The Swiss ambassador to the UN stated that diplomats would immediately work towards finding a solution. Hiba Zayadin, a senior researcher on Syria at Human Rights Watch, urged Security Council members to prioritize the rights of Syrians and reach a consensus through negotiations. She cautioned against allowing Syria to dictate the flow of aid to areas beyond government control, as it would endanger the lives, rights, and dignity of millions of Syrians.

In Idlib, activist Abdel Wahab Elewi voiced his rejection of Damascus’s control over the crossing, even if it meant a cutoff of aid. He emphasized that handing over this responsibility to Assad’s regime would signify the beginning of the end and a move towards recognizing his government.

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