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Workers carry boxes of humanitarian aid near Bab al-Hawa crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate

Top EU official says aid access to Syrians must stay open

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — A top EU official warned Thursday that the potential closure of the only remaining border crossing through which humanitarian aid can enter parts of Syria held by anti-government insurgents would have “dramatic” consequences for millions of civilians.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Janez Lenarcic, the EU commissioner for Crisis Management, urged the U.N. Security Council to vote to extend humanitarian access into Syria through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and northern Syria.

He made the comments following a visit to Bab al-Hawa ahead of a crucial vote at the Security Council on whether to keep the crossing open, before its mandate expires on July 10. The crossing is the main point from which international aid is brought into the northwest, home to over 4 million people, most of them displaced.

Syria’s government and its ally Russia, a member of the Security Council, want the aid to start coming through government-controlled parts of the war-torn country.

“We are still very much hoping that the cross-border resolution will be extended before its expiry on Saturday,” Lenarcic said in a Zoom interview from the Turkish border province of Hatay. “If it’s not extended, the consequences will for sure be dramatic for 3.5 million people in north northwest Syria who depend entirely on humanitarian aid.”

Russia has come under intense pressure from the U.N., U.S. and others who warn of dire humanitarian repercussions for Syrians in rebel strongholds if the crossing is closed. Russia says aid should be delivered across front lines within Syria, reinforcing the Syrian government’s sovereignty over the entire country.

Lenarcic said the EU would support humanitarian assistance coming from government-controlled parts of Syria but insisted there are “no viable alternatives” to Bab al-Hawa.

“This certainly would not be able to replace entirely the huge operation that is now taking place across borders from Turkey to north northwest Syria,” he said. “This is a huge operation. There are roughly 1,000 trucks sent (across the) border every month.”

The Security Council had approved four border crossings when aid deliveries began in 2014, three years after the start of Syria’s conflict. But in January 2020, Russia used its veto threat in the council to limit deliveries to two border crossings, and in July 2020 its veto threat closed one more crossing.

Mark Cutts, the U.N.’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said the needs in the enclave are far greater than in 2014, when the Security Council first authorized the cross-border aid.

“We’ve got a million people displaced last year. There is a severe economic crisis in the country. There is COVID-19. So, the needs have gone up,” Cutts told The Associated Press. “This is a very vulnerable population. These are civilians trapped in a war zone.”

The U.N. children’s Agency, UNICEF, said half a million children suffer from stunting as a result of chronic malnutrition. A dire economic crisis in Syria, rooted in corruption, years of conflict and increasing sanctions against the government in Damascus, has made living conditions even more desperate. In the past year alone, prices of food staples have increased by 200 percent.

The health sector and its infrastructure are particularly in shambles. More than half of the health workers have left the country. Hospitals and medical facilities in opposition areas had been targeted by government forces and its allies. Despite a cease-fire deal in 2020, military operations have not stopped.

Cutts said nothing can replace the current U.N-led aid operation into the northwestern enclave. The U.N. directly provides 70% of all food aid; 100 percent of the COVID-19 vaccines and all relief assistance. Nearly 1,000 trucks cross in from Turkey a month bringing aid to the area that is still a scene to military operations.

A newly proposed U.N. resolution would allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to northwest Syria through Bab al-Hawa for a year. An initial Security Council draft would have authorized sending aid through Bab al-Hawa and also reopen the Al-Yaroubiya crossing from Iraq to Syria’s northeast. But Russia called the resolution a “non-starter” last week and diplomats said China officially objected Wednesday.

In Syria, the head of the White Helmets organization accused Russia of using humanitarian assistance as a “bargaining chip.”

“Donor countries who fund the humanitarian response in Syria should work with humanitarian workers on the ground to deliver aid based on the needs of people in Syria,” said Raed al-Saleh. “Ten years on from the start of the revolution, the humanitarian crisis in Syria is worse than ever – we urgently need the international community to overhaul the way aid is delivered in Syria.”

Dr Salem Abdan, the Idlib Health Director, said: “We already lack medicines and with COVID on the increase, any hesitation will cost lives. We need COVID vaccinations and urgent care to stop diseases spreading. Stop political bargaining with people’s lives.”

So far, the rebel enclave that includes parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, has only received 53,800 UN-secured vaccine jabs delivered through Turkey in April.

Inas Hamam, communication officer of the World Health Organization, said the UN is counting on the Bab al-Hawa crossing to deliver the next batch of vaccines — over 52,800 jabs, by mid-August. She told the AP that the WHO has pre-positioned health supplies, such as protective equipment and surgical kits, to respond to the next four to six months in case of a possible closure to mitigate short-term impact.

But these supplies could be depleted quickly in the case of a COVID outbreak or a military operation, she said.

Ayse Wieting in Istanbul contributed.