Bab al-Hawa crossing: Last humanitarian lifeline in northwestern Syria at risk of closure

A volunteer distributing cross-border aid coming through the Bab al-Hawa crossing (Anas al-Khouli / edited by Enab Baladi)

Bab al-Hawa crossing: Last humanitarian lifeline in northwestern Syria at risk of closure

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Zeinab Masri – Hussam al-Mahmoud – Diana Rahima

“What would we do if aid was cut off? Should we steal? I cannot do that! No aid means no food or work.” With these words, Mohammed al-Ahmed, a displaced living in a camp for internally displaced people (IDPs) in northwestern Syria, pointed out to Enab Baladi the sole option left for him in case cross-border food and humanitarian aid was cut off, if the Bab al-Hawa crossing, on the Syrian-Turkish border, closes. Al-Ahmed confirmed that he would never resort to such an option despite necessity.    

Al-Ahmed, the al-Mahmoud camp manager in Idlib countryside, is married to two women and has ten children, who rely entirely on relief aid. His children can sometimes earn a couple of Turkish liras to buy daily bread whenever they find temporary work; however, this family’s living will be at great risk if the crossing was closed to relief assistance.

Al-Ahmed and many Syrians in northwestern Syria have placed their hopes on the United Nations (UN) Security Council session to be held on 10 July to discuss the fate of the Bab al-Hawa crossing, the last border crossing point from which UN food and other relief assistance are delivered to Syrians in the northwestern region.

These hopes might be brought down by a Russian or Chinese veto or a veto from both countries, thus stopping the entry of cross-border assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, in a scenario similar to what Russia did before when it succeeded in closing other humanitarian crossings.

In this extensive article, Enab Baladi highlights alternative scenarios and solutions in case the Bab al-Hawa crossing closes and the potential ramifications of the crossing’s closure on millions of Syrians in northwestern Syria amid their continued need for humanitarian aid.

Bab al-Hawa border crossing: Sole source of food assistance to northwestern Syria’s displaced 

As unemployed, al-Ahmed struggles to fend for his family that needs an amount of 20 Turkish liras (TL= 2.30 USD) every day just for bread. The family receives its allocations of relief aid every four or five months, al-Ahmed told Enab Baladi.

“If humanitarian aid gets suspended, people will die of hunger,” al-Ahmed said, noting that many families, particularly women and children living without a breadwinner, rely primarily on cross-border relief assistance.

Hayat al-Ahmed, a displaced woman from Aleppo’s southern countryside, living in a makeshift camp in Idlib countryside for almost a year, is the sole provider to her family of 15 persons, who depend on assistance due to lack of income and job opportunities.

“We are living because we are not dead, I’m not joking. My children sleep most of their nights without dinner,” Hayat al-Ahmed said. 

She told Enab Baladi that two months had passed since the last time she received a food basket, wondering about the fate awaiting her children if aid got completely cut off.

According to UN estimates, over 10 billion USD is needed to support Syrians in need. This includes at least 4.2 billion USD for the response inside Syria and another 5.8 billion USD to support refugees and host communities in the region.

On 30 May, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) published on its Twitter account that 4.8 million Syrians depend on food assistance from the WFP to survive and that a staggering 84 percent of families in Syria say they have no savings left after a decade of conflict.

On 3 June, the Syria Response Coordination Group (SRCG) operating in northern Syria released a statement warning against the consequences of the closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing and the humanitarian and economic impacts that could result.

The statement mentioned that more than 1.8 million persons are denied food aid, while over 2.3 million people do not have access to clean or potable water in northwestern Syria. The statement also referred to the disruption of bread subsidies in hundreds of IDPs camps and the daily deprivation of more than one million people from bread.

In terms of the health sector, the SRCG statement noted the possibility of reducing the number of hospitals and active medical points at the present time to less than half in the first phase and that more than 80 percent will be closed in the second phase.

According to the statement, the number of cases infected with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has increased to record levels due to the deprivation of medical centers from providing their medical services. 

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib - 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib – 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

Russia’s veto threatens to close cross-border aid last lifeline 

In response to an increasingly dire humanitarian situation in Syria, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) approved Resolution 2165 of 2014 authorizing the delivery of cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria through four land border crossing points, the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings along the Syrian border with Turkey, the al-Yaarubiyah crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi border, and the al-Ramtha crossing on the border with Jordan.

The resolution remained in force for six years, during which it was renewed more than once, until it expired in July 2020, when Russia and China cast two vetoes in a week to block humanitarian aid through border crossings not controlled by the Syrian regime.

In January 2020, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2504, reducing the number of crossings in the cross-border mechanism by closing the al-Yaarubiyah and the al-Ramtha crossings and renewing the authorization of humanitarian assistance delivery to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings for another six months.  

In July 2020, Russia and China vetoed the importation of cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria without the regime’s approval, and then used the veto right again to oppose a Belgian-German draft resolution, provides for extending the authorization of cross-border assistance through the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam crossings for a year, and exceptionally through the al-Yaarubiyah crossing for six months.

The UNSC draft resolution said that “more than 11 million Syrians need humanitarian assistance, and the cross-border mechanism remains an urgent and temporary solution to address the humanitarian needs of the population.”

China and Russia vetoed the draft resolution before Russia proposed a draft resolution providing for the introduction of cross-border assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing only, and for six months, which was then rejected by seven members of the UNSC.

For millions of Syrians, the Bab al-Hawa crossing remains a crucial lifeline and the last gate allowing the delivery of humanitarian aid to northwestern Syria. The Bab al-Hawa crossing is some 33 kilometers far from Idlib, and it is the Syrian side of the Turkish Cilvegözü crossing.

The regime’s aim behind closing border crossings to UN assistance is to control the humanitarian aid file and to channel aid delivery to the northwest to internal crossings within Syria to make it under the control of the Syrian government. This raised fears that the regime would use assistance as a means of retaliation, starvation, and siege against northwestern Syrians, or for commercial purposes, given the fragile economic situation in the regime areas.

Relief work in northwestern Syria threatened by suspension or relocation of aid deliveries

The possibility of shutting down the Bab al-Hawa crossing to humanitarian aid is met with rising concern from civilians in northwestern Syria, where the Syrian opposition factions are in control. Relief and humanitarian organizations have warned of a humanitarian crisis if the crossing was forced to close to cross-border assistance and the aid delivery management was shifted to the Syrian regime, which Moscow is endeavoring to achieve.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher on Syrian affairs, Sarah Kayali, said to Enab Baladi that despite efforts by the international community, civil society organizations, and human rights organizations to emphasize the need to keep border crossings open, Russia did not provide any indications against vetoing future resolutions in the UNSC upcoming session. Therefore, the possibility of closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing to humanitarian aid remains open.

Kayali pointed out that 85 percent of aid transported to northwestern Syria enters through crossings used by the United Nations, including relief services, wages, and funding for local humanitarian organizations. The closure of the crossings means the collapse of the entire UN humanitarian system to northwestern Syria in terms of financial support, control and monitoring, and cross-border aid.

Hisham Derani, the executive director of Violet Organization in northern Syria, told Enab Baladi that the northwestern Syrian region is home to over four million Syrians, 1.8 million of whom live in IDPs camps and areas unfit for human habitation.

Cross-border humanitarian aid is a lifeline to the entire region, Derani added.

According to Derani, the disruption of cross-border assistance would impede and suspend relief activity and put aid distribution in the regime’s hands, meaning the regime would besiege the population of northwestern Syria by monopolizing aid.

When asked about the possibility of the regime becoming responsible for aid distribution to all Syrian territories, including the northwestern region, Derani responded that the regime’s history makes it impossible to accept the placement of aid distribution under the regime’s management because it would use it as a weapon of war against civilians, who would be left with no alternative solutions. 

Derani stressed that the cut-off of UN assistance would leave a gap in humanitarian and relief work in northwestern Syria and would stop most relief operations. He also noted the absence of any alternative solution in case the Bab al-Hawa crossing closes.

During the revolution years, the regime sought to control and politicize humanitarian aid through rejecting and disrupting many relief operations supervised by UN agencies and interfering in the work of relief convoys, their shipments, delivery schedules, and targeted locations. The regime’s siege and starvation of cities and neighborhoods during the revolution is clear evidence of its intentions, according to Derani.

He added the medical and health sector received the bulk of humanitarian assistance during the current year, owing to increased interest in the overall health situation in conjunction with the global spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. 

According to Derani, more than 1.9 million people in northwestern Syria have benefited from health and medical aid delivered through hospitals and clinics. He said 97 percent of this region’s population cannot secure minimum food requirements, while 63 percent do not have access to clean or potable water.

Civil society campaigns to pressure and influence decision-makers

Within the civil society’s efforts to prevent the closure of border crossings to humanitarian aid, a campaign has recently launched entitled “Lifeline” calling to keep the Bab al-Hawa crossing open given that it is the last lifeline to areas outside the control of the Syrian regime.

The campaign’s manager, Yasmina al-Banshi, said that the campaign is addressing western society, including human rights and civil society activists, who can influence their governments to reach a decision to stop the closure of the crossings.

Al-Banshi pointed out that the campaign also aims to pressure international organizations to influence decision-makers, noting that the shutting down of the Bab al-Hawa crossing would enable the regime to control aid entry and provided assistance, and to have access to information about aid recipients and relief workers, particularly those whose families are living in regime-held areas.

Al-Banshi mentioned that the campaign carried out social media activities in some type of an online advocacy campaign, while activists used every event and protest stand to hold up signs and paint murals in the name of the campaign.

She added that work is underway to hold a civil protest stand in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva, in conjunction with the UNSC July session, to determine the fate of the crossings.

The campaign’s manager warned of a possible medical crisis if the Bab al-Hawa crossing was shut down. The closure of Bab al-Hawa would help increase the outbreak of COVID-19 and hamper the arrival of needed medicine. It would also damage the educational process and other life aspects, which in turn would result in expected displacement and migration cases.

Economic researcher, Dr. Rateb Shabo, warned in a previous talk with Enab Baladi of extreme poverty and starvation not only in regime areas but also in the northwestern region if the route of humanitarian aid was channeled to the regime and aid was distributed through official crossings controlled by the Syrian government. Shabo noted that the provided assistance does not cover the needs of Syrian families, and it can barely help them survive.  

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib - 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib – 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

What solutions are there if aid routes were changed to Damascus?

As the UNSC session to discuss the extension of authorization of cross-border aid delivery through the Bab al-Hawa crossing is approaching, the population of northwestern Syria will face one of three different scenarios as to what will happen to the crossing. Either the crossing gets closed, and the aid route gets channeled to Damascus, or the Bab al-Hawa crossing will continue to be a delivery point in addition to new gates that would also distribute assistance, or the situation will remain the same.

In view of these scenarios, alternative solutions are being sought to mitigate the ramifications of the humanitarian catastrophe caused by the possible closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Violet Organization’s Administrative Director, Malek al-Zeer,  discussed possible solutions to the closure of the crossing, including buying goods from Turkey and distributing them in Syria through merchants.

The solutions also include directing relief organizations and actors towards empowerment projects, such as infrastructure investments, vocational training, and multiple and small grant projects. Other solutions include relying on local communities’ resources, funding youth empowerment programs, and increasing emergency stockpiles.

Other alternatives include increasing and strengthening coordination among relief organizations to avoid delivering similar services in one location, relying on commercial routes to bring in humanitarian assistance, buying goods from the local market, and expanding cash assistance grants (cash-for-work, one-time-emergency-cash, cash-for-education).

According to al-Zeer, these alternative solutions can only mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe that would result from closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing but cannot solve the real problem. 

Would non-official border entry points substitute crossings in case of closure? 

Syrian researcher Obada al-Abdullah explained to Enab Baladi the difference between internationally recognized border crossings and border entry points used as gates to bring in humanitarian assistance if the official Bab al-Hawa crossing gets closed.

Al-Abdullah defined an international border crossing as a specific official post on the border linking two countries that agree on the crossing’s working mechanism and regulatory procedures. A crossing’s working mechanism is regulated by a formal treaty between the two countries, setting conditions and mechanisms for the movement of travelers, goods, and other materials between the two States. An official border crossing is a self-regulatory body with administrative, organizational, and security recognition.

An unofficial entry point is a specific place on the border between two countries without any formal agreement, used as a gate by one of the two countries or by both authorities on either side of the entry point.

According to al-Abdullah, unofficial entry points are often used for emergency cases and are spatially or administratively unstable. Their emergency regulatory procedures do not necessarily cover all the standards of international border crossings.

Non-official entry points need authorization from the UNSC to work, and in the Syrian context, this is complicated because the humanitarian aid access mechanism requires three parties (both sides of the border entry point and the provider of assistance).

UN agencies are currently unable to carry out their relief activity through unofficial entry points and have no choice but to extend the operating mechanism of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

Russia has been pushing to the non-extension of the cross-border humanitarian assistance operations through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. This, if achieved, will affect the work of UN agencies and local organizations that operate fully under the cover or with the funding of UN agencies.

Political researcher Anas al-Shawakh told Enab Baladi that border entry points could be designated for humanitarian aid delivery just like the Semalka (Fish Khabur) and al-Walid border crossings in al-Hasakah governorate, linking northeast Syria with Iraq; however, outside the UNSC resolution or the coordination with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

According to al-Shawakh, many international organizations are operating without coordinating with OCHA, as in the areas of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES). Organizations and official entities, such as the Global Coalition’s Trust Fund, announce tenders in Jordan and Iraq and then import aid to Syria through the Semalka crossing.

International law on the use of non-official crossing points

Director of the Syrians for Truth and Justice Organization, Bassam al-Ahmed, told Enab Baladi that if the UNSC unanimously reaches a resolution extending cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria, unofficial border entry points are likely to be designated for assistance delivery. 

Al-Ahmed said the majority of the UNSC Member States seek to authorize cross-border aid delivery to Syria independently from the Syrian government through official or unofficial border crossing points. 

He added, there are no guarantees whatsoever that civilians in Syria would receive UN assistance if aid routes were changed to the internal crossings with the regime. The Syrian government would politicize the issue and provide assistance to loyalist neighborhoods only, which is typical behavior of all totalitarian powers that exploit dire humanitarian conditions to increase their influence and control relief organizations’ work.

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib - 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

The entry of the final cross-border humanitarian aid convoy through the Bab al-Hawa crossing in Idlib – 2 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Walid Othman)

US efforts in the cross-border aid issue

With Russia insisting on limiting aid deliveries through the Syrian regime’s controlled areas, the United States (US) made efforts to counter Russian endeavors by proposing the reopening of previously closed crossings and calling for the continuation of the Bab al-Hawa crossing as a cross-border aid delivery point. These calls were met with rejection by the regime, which viewed them as a violation of its sovereignty.

On 30 March, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the reopening of the Bab al-Salam crossing with Turkey, which was used to deliver aid to nearly 4 million Syrians, and the al-Yaarubiyah crossing with Iraq controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that helped bring in assistance to 1.3 million persons in northeast Syria.

On 4 June, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited the Syrian-Turkish border and the Bab al-Hawa crossing. She warned of the cruelty of closing the final humanitarian border crossing into Syria, which she described as “incalculable” as many Syrians would die.

Greenfield reiterated the call for the UNSC to renew the authorization to deliver humanitarian assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and announced that her country intends to provide 240 million USD in additional humanitarian funding for the people of Syria and the communities that host them.

For his part, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Bassam Sabbagh, said that the US and its allies are engaged in political and humanitarian blackmail against Syrians through the mechanism of cross-border aid delivery to Syria.

Sabbagh added that Syria’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations is working on explaining its position to its “friends” in the UNSC and making clear that the mechanism for cross-border aid delivery to Syria does not respect the sovereignty or independence of Syrian territories, which should be at the forefront of all UNSC resolutions on Syria.

Sabbagh confirmed Damascus’ objection to the renewal of cross-border authorization through border crossings, calling for Damascus to be the delivery point of UN humanitarian assistance. 

Last March, Russia proposed the opening of three crossings between the regime’s areas and the opposition’s controlled areas in northwestern Syria. The Russian proposal to the UNSC came after they targeted the perimeter of the Bab al- Hawa crossing, Watad Petroleum in Idlib, and a hospital in Aleppo’s western countryside, following the targeting of oil markets in rural Aleppo.

Russian Sputnik news agency reported that the Russian proposal called for opening crossings in Saraqeb and Miznar areas east of Idlib and the Abu al-Zendin crossing north of Aleppo. It also included “the regulation of humanitarian aid entry and refugees’ exiting,” as of 25 March.

Russia and the regime sought to open crossings with opposition-held areas after the Moscow Agreement on 5 March 2020, but their endeavors were thwarted by locals in opposition-controlled areas.

Cross-border humanitarian aid on Biden and Putin’s meeting’s agenda

Recently, Syrians’ attention was turned to the anticipated meeting between the leaders of the world’s top powers influencing the conflict in Syria, the US President Joe Biden, and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on 16 June in the Swiss capital of Geneva. Syrians hoped this summit would help stop the humanitarian calamity if Syria’s last cross-border crossing closes. 

At a press conference following the summit, Biden said that he had emphasized to Putin the urgent need to preserve and reopen humanitarian corridors in Syria, to bring in” food — just simple food and basic necessities to people who are starving to death.” 

Nevertheless, Biden did not secure a commitment from Putin during their meeting regarding the renewal of the cross-border aid operation into Syria, a senior US administration official informed Reuters.

The US official said after the meeting between Biden and Putin in Geneva, “There was no commitment, but we made clear that this was of great importance for us if there was going to be any further cooperation on Syria,” describing the upcoming renewal as a test of whether the US and Russia could work together.

Putin: “What does Assad have to do with it?”

On 14 June, two days before the meeting with Biden in Geneva, Putin made an interview with US channel NBC, during which he addressed the Syrian border crossing issue, saying that humanitarian assistance should be given through the central government. It shouldn’t be discriminated against, according to the NBC transcript of the interview. 

In reference to US and European officials who said that they would not give help to Bashar al-Assad in terms of humanitarian aid file, Putin said, “What does Assad have to do with it? Help out people who need that assistance.” 

Putin also said, “if there are grounds to believe that the central government of Syria will plunder something, well, set up observers on the part of the International— Red Cross and— Red Crescent to oversee everything,” according to the NBC transcript of the interview.

Biden and Putin’s meeting was seen as an attempt by the US and Russia to set ground rules to ease tensions following US sanctions on Moscow for the latter’s alleged interference in the 2020 US presidential elections and reciprocal diplomats expulsion.

At their summit, Putin and Biden agreed on a first practical step to send their ambassadors back to Washington and Moscow after calling them for consultation earlier this year.

Biden confuses Syria with Libya three times at the G7 press conference

During the G7 summit press conference on 13 June, Biden confused Syria with Libya three times while discussing the issue of humanitarian aid access to both countries.

When discussing the possibility of the US working with Russia to provide “vital assistance” to Syria, Biden mixed up between Syria and Libya and added that the Syrian people “are in real trouble.”

Biden’s aides ignored the obvious slip, saying he meant Syria when he said Libya, but the matter was widely ridiculed on social media.

Commenting on criticism against Biden, Putin said, “The image of President Biden, which is portrayed by our, and even the American press, has nothing to do with reality.”

He added that despite Biden’s long overseas flight and possible jetlag, he was cheerful, and they talked face-to-face for two hours or maybe more.

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