Negotiations to end “aid extortion” at Bab al-Hawa crossing

UNICEF aid sent to northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing - September 19, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)

UNICEF aid sent to northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing - September 19, 2023 (Enab Baladi/Anas al-Khouli)


Enab Baladi – Baraa Khattab

The Syrian regime’s president, Bashar al-Assad, agreed to extend the entry of humanitarian aid to northwest Syria before the expiration of the previous authorization’s term in the upcoming February.

The United Nations reached an agreement with the regime on January 12, to extend the entry of aid to the northwest of Syria, which is under the control of the Syrian opposition factions, through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey for another six months, ending on July 16.

On the day before the announcement of the extension, Reuters quoted Turkish sources familiar with the negotiations that the United Nations is discussing with the regime the possibility of extending the entry of aid indefinitely without a limited period of three or six months.

What’s the trade-off?

Regarding the Syrian regime’s potential consent to an unspecified duration for the entry of UN aid, Omran Center for Strategic Studies’ researcher and humanitarian affairs specialist Rahaf Laham clarified that the regime would not lose a leverage card over the international community without compensation.

Speaking to Enab Baladi, Laham said that the regime would most likely link the entry of aid without a specified duration to an increase in its regions’ share of UN aid and early recovery projects, and a gradual easing of the sanctions imposed on it as steps towards normalizing relations with it and starting reconstruction.

The researcher added that negotiating for an open-ended timeframe for aid entry is possible, which was previously a demand to prevent Russia from extorting the international community before the extension of each resolution.

She believes that the regime’s acceptance of aid entry without an “unspecified term” is contingent upon what it will be offered during the negotiation process.

Enab Baladi reached out via email to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) to inquire about the existence of negotiations between the United Nations and the Syrian government to introduce humanitarian aid for an unspecified time through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.

The response came quoting the UN Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, David Carden, “Communities in north-west Syria have endured crises on top of crises for nearly 13 years. We will continue to advocate for sustained humanitarian access through all channels to deliver life-saving assistance, as well as the funding needed to help millions in north-west Syria.”

The Bab al-Hawa crossing, which was the only operational one within the cross-border mechanism, is one of the most important aid transit points to northern Syria, and the “main commercial artery” in areas in northwest Syria, with 85% of the UN trucks entering through it, according to the United Nations.

By December 2023, 4,856 trucks loaded with UN aid crossed from Turkey to northwest Syria using three border crossings since the earthquakes occurred, making the monthly average for 2023 about 400 trucks, the lowest since 2018, according to data from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

A file “to pass conditions”

The first convoys of UN aid entered northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on September 19, 2023, following an “authorization” by the office for UN organizations to resume entry of humanitarian aid, according to correspondences between the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and the UN’s regional humanitarian affairs office for Syria on September 11 and 12, 2023.

In August 2023, the United Nations announced it had reached an “understanding” with the Syrian regime that allows the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing to deliver humanitarian aid to northwest Syria for six months.

The regime had handed a letter to the United Nations through its delegate at the United Nations, Bassam Sabbagh, on July 13, 2023, announcing it would allow UN agencies to introduce humanitarian aid to northwest Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing for six months, stipulating that aid be delivered “in full cooperation and coordination with the Syrian government.”

Before permission was granted, the Bab al-Hawa crossing ceased the introduction of UN aid on July 11, 2023, after the Security Council failed to extend the cross-border mechanism following Russia’s veto against the Brazilian-Swiss draft resolution, while the majority of members rejected the Russian draft resolution that proposed to extend the mechanism for only three months.

The regime also stipulated in its letter that the UN agencies not deal with “terrorist organizations,” referring to the authorities present in the area, and the supervision of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in the distribution of aid, which the United Nations rejected as “unacceptable.”

The Syrian doctor and humanitarian activist, a former aid and advocacy worker, Mohamad Katoub, told Enab Baladi that the regime would not change its behavior and would not give approval without conditions, compensation, or a timeframe.

Omran Center researcher Rahaf Laham said that when the file was referred to the regime, it naturally obtained political gains related to restoring sovereignty “even if morally,” by appearing as a decision maker imposing its conditions even on crossings located outside its control areas, in addition to the expected economic and subsequent political gains from resuming dealings with it.

She added to Enab Baladi that if the regime does not obtain conditions it deems satisfactory, it will keep the file open for negotiation every so often to gradually pass its conditions, according to the long-breath tactic followed by Russia in the Security Council to limit the mechanism bit by bit.

A week after the earthquake that hit northern Syria and southern Turkey on February 6, 2023, Bashar al-Assad agreed to temporarily open two additional crossings (Bab al-Salama and al-Rai) from Turkey to northwest Syria for three months, which ended in May 2023, and was extended until August 13 of the same year, before its renewal was announced again.

In November 2023, the United Nations announced that the Syrian regime allowed the renewal of UN aid delivery to opposition-controlled areas in northwest Syria through the Bab al-Salama and al-Rai crossings for an additional three months, ending in the upcoming February.

The regime does not control these two crossings, which are under the control of the Syrian opposition, which manages most of the crossings on the Syrian-Turkish border.

Decline in aid

The World Food Programme (WFP) announced the end of its general food aid program throughout Syria in the upcoming January, due to lack of funding, stating that it will continue to support families affected by emergencies and natural disasters through “smaller and more targeted emergency interventions” without specifying the nature of these interventions.

It stated that its program to assist children under the age of five and pregnant and lactating mothers through nutrition programs will continue, and it will also pursue its food program in schools and educational centers as part of the school meals program, according to a statement issued on December 4, 2023, of which Enab Baladi obtained a copy.

Among the programs the WFP will continue to support is the Livelihood Support program for agricultural families listed in the program, in addition to its interventions supporting local food systems, such as rehabilitating irrigation systems and bakeries.

The WFP acknowledged that food security in Syria is lower than ever, and despite the gradual reduction in the size of food rations and the value of electronic vouchers, the program is unable to continue providing food at the current level due to a “historic, stifling funding crisis that will have unspeakable consequences on millions of people,” according to the statement.

Around 90% of Syrians live below the poverty line, with more than 15 million people in need of humanitarian aid, according to a report published by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in June 2023.

In northern Syria, there are 4.5 million people, with 3.7 million of them experiencing food insecurity, according to United Nations data.


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