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Northwest Syria holds breath for decision on cross-border aid

Syrians in Idlib fear aid cuts as much as new battles as their living conditions worsen.
Turkish soldiers stand guard during a joint Russian-Turkish patrol along the M4 highway, which links the northern Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Latakia, near Ariha in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, on June 10, 2020. (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR / AFP) (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Syria’s northwestern areas have been suffering a humanitarian crisis since April 2019. Though a cease-fire was struck in March in light of the pandemic, waves of displacement have increased the difficulties of everyday life.

“Six months ago, we were displaced from Maarat al-Numan to Zardana village in Idlib, and four months ago we reached Salqin,” said Saeed, who asked that only his first name be used. His home in southern Idlib was under constant bombardment until regime forces took control of it in late January.

Saeed has yet to find a job in Zardana to support his wife and five daughters and the family relies on modest financial and food aid from humanitarian organizations supporting displaced people in the area.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 1.4 million people had been displaced from northwestern Syria as of April 2019. Humanitarian workers are anxiously awaiting the UN Security Council to meet on July 10 and vote on extending the cross-border delivery of humanitarian aid, allowing help in without the Syrian regime’s approval.

The aid delivery mechanism for Syria was established by the 2014 Security Council Resolution 2165. The measure enabled the provision of assistance to Syrians in need through four border crossings: Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salama on the Turkish border, al-Ramtha on the Jordanian border and al-Yarubia with the Iraqi border.

Mohammed Katoub, director of advocacy at the Syrian Center for Media and Free Expression, told Al-Monitor, “Life in northwestern Syria mostly depends on humanitarian aid, a large part of which is through the resolution on cross-border aid.”

Katoub added, “The last version of the extension was subject to negotiations and discussion in the Security Council and several drafts were written in order to reach the current version. Al-Yarubiya and al-Ramtha crossings were closed and the extension settled for two crossings, regardless of which party controlled the areas, while other areas started needing aid as well.”

The decision was renewed annually, but in the last vote in December 2019, it was extended for only six months, threatening the living conditions of about four million people gathered in northwestern Syria.

Katoub noted, “If the decision is not renewed, the situation will depend on Turkey's ability to allow the passage of goods without the Syrian government’s approval, which would put it under pressure and make humanitarian aid more vulnerable to politicization, negotiation and pressure by the countries involved in the conflict.”

The deteriorating situation prompted Human Rights Watch to call on the Security Council June 18 to act quickly to allow the entry of humanitarian relief materials into Syria through the four crossings once again.

Meanwhile, fear prevails of a military escalation or decision that blocks the flow of aid. Bread has reached prices the people in these areas cannot afford.

Saeed said, “We get a box of detergent and a box of biscuits for children, which we do not really care for. I have not been able to find work since we were displaced and I need to support my girls. We lost our homes and our land, but thank God anyway.”

The devaluation of the Syrian currency has also hurt the residents and displaced people in northwestern Syria. Belal Bayoush, a journalist residing in the Idlib countryside, told Al-Monitor, “We are currently experiencing the most difficult living conditions, especially in light of the devaluation of the Syrian currency and severe poverty cases as a result of the lack of job opportunities and the recent waves of displacement.”

During the escalation that started in late April 2019, the regime forces and their allies took control of the northern Hama countryside and large parts of southern Idlib. Before then, the opposition-controlled areas were linked to the regime-held areas through the Murak and Qalaat al-Madiq crossings in the northern Hama countryside, Abu al-Duhur in the southern Idlib countryside, al-Rashideen in the western countryside of Aleppo, al-Eiss in the southern countryside of Aleppo, Al-Bab in the northern countryside of Aleppo and Aoun al-Dadat in the northwestern countryside of Aleppo.

These crossings were the economic arteries of the opposition areas in northwestern Syria, but when areas in the northern Hama countryside and southern Idlib fell under the regime’s control, the crossings were closed. New attacks could have the same result, especially as the regime reacts to the Caesar Act that entered into force on June 17.

Katoub noted, “Military escalation has always been the regime’s go-to option. The area thus remains volatile as long as the factors of conflict and the parties involved in it exist and there is no clear political solution based on justice and sustainable peace. Will the Caesar Act increase or decrease escalation? We cannot predict how the regime will respond to it; the act targets not only the regime but its allies as well, so one way or another, it will affect the living conditions of Syrians and others.”

Bayoush explained, “People are waiting for the end of the Russian-Turkish joint patrols on the M4 highway connecting Aleppo to Latakia to know their fate. All people talk about is an expected military action by the regime on Jabal al-Zawiya and Jisr al-Shughour, which means death and destruction will return along with targeting infrastructure and hospitals.”

Katoub said that disagreements and negotiations continue over opening the crossings between the regime-controlled areas and opposition areas that have been closed for many months. He explained the closures have made life even more difficult for citizens in all areas since commercial exchange has stopped and aid is no longer passing through.

In the event of a siege, disaster would hit the area within days.

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