A top EU official said on Thursday that the potential closure of the only remaining border crossing through which humanitarian aid can enter parts of Syria held by anti-government insurgents would have “catastrophic” consequences for millions of civilians.
Janez Lenarcic, EU commissioner for Crisis Management, urged the UN Security Council to vote to keep the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northern Syria operational and for other border crossings to be reopened.
He made the comments during a visit to Bab al-Hawa ahead of a crucial July 10 vote at the Security Council on whether to keep the crossing open.
The crossing is the main point from which international aid is brought into the northwest, home to over 4 million people, most of them displaced.
Syria’s government and its ally Russia, a member of the Security Council, want the aid to start coming through government-controlled parts of the war-torn country.
“This operation means life for millions of people on the other side of the border,” Lenarcic told reporters at the Turkish border province of Hatay.
“Non-renewal of this lifeline across Bab al-Hawa would have tremendous, dramatic humanitarian consequences for millions of people who depend on this lifeline.”
“I trust that the members of the UN Security Council will appreciate the importance of preserving … this lifeline,” he said. “The consequences for human lives would be catastrophic.”
Russia has come under intense pressure from the UN, US and others who warn of dire humanitarian repercussions for Syrians in rebel strongholds if the crossing is closed. Russia says aid should be delivered across front lines within Syria, reinforcing the Syrian government’s sovereignty over the entire country.
The Security Council had approved four border crossings when aid deliveries began in 2014, three years after the start of Syria’s conflict. But in January 2020, Russia used its veto threat in the council to limit deliveries to two border crossings, and in July 2020 its veto threat closed one more crossing.
Lenarcic said the EU would welcome any humanitarian assistance coming from Damascus, but added: “Not much, if any, humanitarian assistance is coming to northwest Syria … from the government-controlled areas.”
Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said the needs in the enclave are far greater than in 2014, when the Security Council first authorized the cross-border aid.
“We’ve got a million people displaced last year. There is a severe economic crisis in the country. There is COVID-19. So, the needs have gone up,” Cutts told The Associated Press. “This is a very vulnerable population. These are civilians trapped in a war zone.”
The UN children’s Agency, UNICEF, said half a million children suffer from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition. A dire economic crisis in Syria, rooted in corruption, years of conflict and increasing sanctions against the government in Damascus, has made living conditions even more desperate. In the past year alone, prices of food staples have increased by 200 percent.
The health sector and its infrastructure are particularly in shambles. More than half of the health workers have left the country. Hospitals and medical facilities in opposition areas had been targeted by government forces and its allies. Despite a cease-fire deal in 2020, military operations have not stopped.
Cutts said nothing can replace the current UN-led aid operation into the northwestern enclave. The UN directly provides 70 percent of all food aid; 100 percent of the COVID-19 vaccines and all relief assistance. Nearly 1,000 trucks cross in from Turkey a month bringing aid to the area that is still a scene to military operations.
A newly proposed UN resolution would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to northwest Syria through Bab al-Hawa for a year. An initial Security Council draft would have authorized sending aid through Bab al-Hawa and also reopen the Al-Yaroubiya crossing from Iraq to Syria’s northeast. But Russia called the resolution a “non-starter” last week and diplomats said China officially objected on Wednesday.
In Syria, the head of the White Helmets organization accused Russia of using humanitarian assistance as a “bargaining chip.”
“Donor countries who fund the humanitarian response in Syria should work with humanitarian workers on the ground to deliver aid based on the needs of people in Syria,” said Raed al-Saleh. “Ten years on from the start of the revolution, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is worse than ever – we urgently need the international community to overhaul the way aid is delivered in Syria.”
Dr Salem Abdan, the Idlib Health Director, said: “We already lack medicines and with COVID on the increase, any hesitation will cost lives. We need COVID vaccinations and urgent care to stop diseases spreading. Stop political bargaining with people’s lives.”
So far, the rebel enclave that includes parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, has only received 53,800 UN-secured vaccine jabs delivered through Turkey in April.
Inas Hamam, communication officer of the World Health Organization, said the UN is counting on the Bab al-Hawa crossing to deliver the next batch of vaccines — over 52,800 jabs, by mid-August. She told the AP that the WHO has pre-positioned health supplies, such as protective equipment and surgical kits, to respond to the next four to six months in case of a possible closure to mitigate short-term impact.
But these supplies could be depleted quickly in the case of a COVID outbreak or a military operation, she said.