One of the largest relief operations in the world is taking place in southern Turkey. Almost 10,000 trucks loaded with food, medicine and other relief supplies rolled through the Bab al Hawa border crossing into north-west Syria last year. That’s an average of one truck per hour.
But the border gate may close soon as the UN permit to use the crossing for shipments from abroad expires this Sunday. The UN veto power Russia wants to stop deliveries via Bab al Hawa. Helpers fear a catastrophe.
According to the UN, after more than eleven years of civil war, around 13.4 million people in Syria are dependent on aid, two million more than two years ago. The population in the dominions of President Bashar al-Assad is supplied via Damascus, while four million Syrians in the last opposition bastion – the north-west Syrian province of Idlib on the border with Turkey – receive aid via Bab al-Hawa.
In the first years of the civil war there were four border corridors for international aid. But at the urging of Russia, Assad’s most important partner, three of them have been closed. Today, Bab al Hawa is the only bottleneck for foreign aid. If the UN Security Council does not extend the approval for Bab al Hawa by Sunday, this access will also be blocked.
According to the UN and aid organizations, Bab al Hawa is indispensable. Mohammad Alabbas from the aid organization Hihfad fears that if the permit is not extended, this will have catastrophic consequences for north-west Syria. Bab al Hawa is a “lifeline,” says Alabbas.
More than 140 projects run by Syrian aid organizations would come to an end without the border crossing. Clinics for the medical care of the people in Idlib, where millions of refugees from other parts of Syria live, are out of medicine. Schools would have to be closed. The construction of weatherproof shelters and the distribution of food and drinking water would also be at risk.
Without the border crossing, there would be more hunger and more disease, said UN emergency aid coordinator Martin Griffiths at a Security Council meeting in June. Syria and Russia are still demanding an end to cross-border aid.
The deputy Russian ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyansky, blamed Western sanctions for the suffering of the Syrians in the Security Council. Syria’s Ambassador Bassam al Sabbagh said Bab al Hawa secures influence in north-west Syria for Turkey, a declared enemy of the Syrian government.
Damascus and Moscow also accuse the West of obstructing aid deliveries to Idlib via Syrian government territory. In all of last year, only five convoys crossed the front between government troops and rebels. Western politicians and aid organizations fear that if Bab al-Hawa is closed, Assad could try to starve the population in the rebel area.
Alabbas has no understanding for the Russian-Syrian demand for an increase in aid supplies from government to rebel areas. When the eastern Syrian al Jarubiyah crossing point on the border with Iraq was closed to international aid deliveries under Russian pressure in early 2020, this had fatal consequences for humanitarian aid in this part of Syria.
Russia is not impressed by such objections and wants to close Bab al Hawa. According to media reports from the UN headquarters in New York, Moscow is at most willing to keep the crossing open for another six months. Middle East expert Joe Macaron says the Russian government is more motivated than ever to use Bab al-Hawa as a means of exerting pressure because Russia is now itself subject to Western sanctions because of the Ukraine war.