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Shutting Syria aid crossing would spell 'catastrophe': UN

A human chain calling the continued passage of aid into Syria's rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, seen here in this photograph from July 2, 2021
— Beirut (AFP)

A closure of the last aid corridor from Turkey into northwest Syria's rebel-held areas would spell "catastrophe" for millions of people, a UN aid official has warned.

"This is one of the most vulnerable populations anywhere in the world," said Mark Cutts, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis. "It is absolutely essential that we keep this lifeline going."

Cutts spoke ahead of a UN Security Council vote expected Thursday to renew the world body's authorisation to deliver assistance through the Bab al-Hawa crossing before its mandate expires on July 10.

More than 4,600 aid trucks, carrying mostly food, have crossed it so far this year, helping some 2.4 million people, says the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

"We know things this year are even more politicised than in previous years," Cutts told AFP. "The tensions are very high with the war in Ukraine."

Russia, an ally of Damascus, has proposed a draft extending the authorisation for six months, diplomatic sources in New York said, while Ireland and Norway had proposed a one-year period.

Russia has already forced a reduction in the number of crossings in recent years, arguing that the access violates Syria's sovereignty.

If Russia's proposal, which would limit longer-term visibility for the UN and NGOs, is not supported, Moscow could use its veto power and block the extension entirely.

- 'Catastrophe' -

Cutts warned that a "failure to renew this resolution will be a catastrophe. There is no alternative currently available that can replace the scale or scope of what the UN is currently doing."

Syria's humanitarian needs have reached their highest levels since the 2011 onset of a bloody conflict that has killed nearly half a million people and forced more than half of the country's pre-war population from their homes.

About 13.4 million people across Syria were in need of assistance last year, up from 11.1 million in 2020, OCHA says.

Senior United Nations humanitarian official Mark Cutts

The UN resolution permitting aid deliveries across the Syrian-Turkish border at Bab al-Hawa has been in effect since 2014.

Syria's rebel-held northwest is home to more than four million people, most of whom are displaced and live in poverty.

Aid groups are considering alternatives in the event of a Russian veto, relief officials told AFP on condition of anonymity.

They include stepping up deliveries via Damascus and continuing cross-border deliveries through a consortium of international aid groups.

- 'Hard to guarantee' -

Cutts declined to speak about the UN's contingency plans, but said that they could not substitute the cross-border operation that is heavily involved in risk mitigation, monitoring and reporting.

"Our focus is always on ensuring that the aid reaches the people who need it, and that it is not diverted to armed group," Cutts said.

"Without the UN role there will be less accountability and less transparency in the overall response... It's hard to guarantee what the situation will be."

Russia argues that aid can reach needy populations through government-held areas within Syria, but Cutts said the UN has only managed to arrange for five such deliveries so far.

"We are trying to have as much access as possible from different routes," Cutts said. "But it remains a war zone and the cross-line access is always dependent on cooperation between parties to the conflict."

Amnesty International on Tuesday accused the Syrian government of deliberately leaving displaced Syrians in areas outside of its control entirely dependent on international aid.

"Since losing control of the northwest part of the country, the Syrian government has cut off electricity and water supplies, obstructed aid and attacked camps, medical facilities and schools, putting the onus on humanitarian organisations to provide services," the rights group said in a statement.

"There is no effective solution for providing adequate humanitarian aid in northwest Syria except by renewing the existing cross-border mechanism."

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