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Explainer: Why Syria’s Assad opened two border crossings for earthquake aid

Aid has reached both Syrian government and rebel territory in response to the disaster, but the situation remains dire.
BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images

The United Nations announced late Monday that the government of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has agreed to temporarily open two more border crossings into Syria following this month’s devastating earthquake that left more than 35,000 dead in Syria and Turkey. 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said after meeting Assad that the Syrian president has agreed to open two border points from Turkey into northwest Syria. The crossings at Bab al-Salam and al-Rai will remain open for three months for humanitarian aid, according to a UN statement.

Bab al-Salam and al-Rai are both on Turkey’s border with northern Syria. 

The UN’s emergency relief coordinator said Tuesday that trucks carrying aid entered Syria via Bab al-Salam following the announcement.

Background: In 2014, the UN Security Council authorized four border crossings into Syria for humanitarian aid deliveries:

  • Al-Yarubiyah in northeast Syria on the Iraqi border, an area controlled by Kurdish-led forces
  • Al-Ramtha in southern Syria on the Jordanian border, an area that has since been recaptured by Syrian government forces
  • Bab al-Salam in rebel territory in northern Syria on the Turkish border
  • Bab al-Hawa, also rebel territory in northern Syria on the Turkish border

In 2019, Russia and China used their veto power on the UNSC to stop the renewal of al-Yarubiyah and al-Ramtha. Both countries support the Syrian government in the conflict and want aid to go through Damascus. Northeast Syrian officials are still calling for the al-Yarubiyah crossing to be reopened.

In 2020, Russia and China vetoed the renewal of authorization for Bab al-Salam, leaving Bab al-Hawa as the sole UN-approved aid crossing into rebel-held northern Syria. 

Last week, the Syrian government said it agreed to allow cross-border aid into areas outside its control. Griffiths and Assad then met Monday in Damascus to discuss the humanitarian situation. 

Why it matters: The earthquake hit both government- and rebel-held parts of northern Syria, killing thousands and destroying numerous structures. The situation is particularly troublesome in rebel-controlled areas. Rebel territory in northern Syria was already heavily damaged by the ongoing war and from hosting more than two million displaced Syrians from other parts of the country. 

The International Rescue Committee, which is among the nongovernmental organizations responding to the earthquake in northern Syria, said people in the region need “urgent” support. 

“We are concerned about critically low levels of medical supplies as well as damage to hospitals and health care facilities. Survivors also urgently need clean water, a roof over their heads and heating supplies to deal with the freezing temperatures,” a spokesperson for the group told Al-Monitor Tuesday. “We need to see life-saving humanitarian aid entering Syria at the scale and pace to meet the needs we are witnessing on the ground. This means the international community urgently ramping up their support and ensuring it reaches NGOs on the front lines.”

Even before the earthquake, humanitarian groups working in the region had warned that one border crossing at Bab al-Hawa is insufficient to deliver aid to northern Syria. The first UN aid delivery via Bab al-Hawa in response to the earthquake crossed on Feb. 9, three days after the disaster struck. 

Some Syria observers believe that the new authorization is still insufficient to help over 3 million affected Syrians. 

Know more: Aid to Syria is complicated by US sanctions, the ongoing civil war and a variety of logistical issues. The United States in particular opposes delivering aid through the Assad government. Last week, the US Treasury Department issued a six-month sanctions exemption for earthquake aid to Syria, though the United States has long maintained that its sanctions do not affect humanitarian aid. 

A significant amount of assistance is starting to flow to the Syrian government nonetheless. A Saudi jet carrying aid landed in Aleppo Tuesday, the official Saudi Press Agency reported. This was the first time a Saudi plane has landed in Syrian territory since 2012, according to Agence France-Presse. The kingdom had sent earlier planes to help the recovery efforts in Turkey and Syria, but the previous flights landed in Turkey. 

According to the Saudi Press Agency, Saudi Arabia also sent trucks carrying aid to Syria Saturday via a crossing that connects Turkey to rebel-held territory in northern Syria, known as the "Olive Branch" crossing. Turkey opened the crossing in 2019, according to the official Anadolu Agency. A map from the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs from this month listed the crossing as "sporadically open."

Like other Arab states, Saudi Arabia cut off relations with Syria and backed rebel forces in the early years of the Syrian civil war. However, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other countries in the region have pursued rapprochement with Syria in recent years. 

Other countries that sent assistance to Syria include Iran, the Palestinian Authority, Russia and Italy. Non-state actors have also dispatched aid, including the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah. 

A Romanian military plane landed in Lebanon Tuesday with aid destined for Syria, the Syrian state-run SANA reported. 

The death toll in Turkey and Syria from the earthquake has passed 35,000, though figures in Syria vary. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said last week that more than 5,000 people had died throughout the country.

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