UN-Syria agreement reopens vital border crossing for humanitarian aid to Idlib

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The agreement the United Nations reached with Syria to reopen the main border crossing from Turkey to its rebel-held northwest for six months “safeguards” the independence of UN operations and allows it to provide aid to all parties, the UN said Wednesday.

The agreement, which was announced Tuesday night, will reopen the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which had been used for 85 percent of deliveries to the northwest Idlib region, home to about 4.1 million people.

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UN deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said the UN is ready to resume operations through Bab al-Hawa as soon as possible but it will take some time to get trucks moving and “I don’t expect anything to happen in the next few days.”

The UN-Syria “understanding” on Bab al-Hawa, announced by Haq Tuesday evening, followed his announcement earlier in the day that Syria agreed to keep two other crossings to the northwest, Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai, open for three months until Nov. 13.

Haq said Wednesday that Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the understanding on Bab al-Hawa and Syria’s extension of authorization to use Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai for three months, and its consent to cross conflict lines at Sarmada and Saraqib, both in the Idlib region, to deliver aid for the next six months.

Bab al-Hawa was closed to UN humanitarian operations after the Security Council failed to adopt either of two rival resolutions on July 11 to authorize further deliveries through the crossing.

Many people in Idlib have been forced from their homes during Syria’s 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 of people in Idlib live in tent settlements and had relied on aid that came through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

Soon after the Security Council’s failure to act, the Syrian government said it would open Bab al-Hawa to the United Nations, but it set unacceptable conditions.

Syria had insisted aid deliveries must be done “in full cooperation and coordination with the government,” that the UN would not communicate with “terrorist organizations” and their affiliates, and that the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent would run aid operations.

The UN responded that the prohibition on communicating with groups considered “terrorist” by the Syrian government would prevent the UN and partner organizations from engaging with all parties during humanitarian operations. It said in a letter that stipulating aid deliveries must be overseen by the Red Cross or Red Crescent was “neither consistent with the independence of the United Nations nor practical,” since those organizations “are not present in northwest Syria.”

Haq said UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths had been engaging with the Syrian government and other parties “to reconcile differences” and ensure the UN’s independence and humanitarian engagement with all parties.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad opened the two additional crossing points from Turkey at Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai to increase the flow of assistance to victims of the devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake that ravaged northwestern Syria and southern Turkey on Feb. 6.

Assad extended their operation for three months in May until Aug. 13, and Haq said Tuesday the government informed Griffiths that it would allow the UN to continue using the two crossings until Nov. 13.

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