NEW YORK: UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday welcomed the decision by Syria’s president to open the two crossing points of Bab Al-Salam and Al Ra’ee from Turkiye to rebel-held northwest Syria following intensive international calls to do so to allow desperately needed humanitarian aid to reach millions of earthquake victims.
Bashar Assad agreed to open the two crossings for an initial period of three months, the UN said.
Assad’s decision came a week after a devastating 7.8 earthquake struck Turkiye and north Syria, causing more than 33,000 deaths and injuring tens of thousands across both countries. In Syria alone, 4,300 people died and more than 7,600 were injured. Those numbers are likely to rise as people remain trapped under the rubble.
The announcement followed a meeting in Damascus on Monday between Assad and UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths, who later virtually briefed a closed meeting of the Security Council on the earthquake’s effects on the humanitarian operations.
The UN has said that more than 11 million people in Syria have been affected by the earthquake in the northwestern governorates of Hama, Latakia, Idlib, Aleppo and Tartus, while relief efforts are obstructed by damaged infrastructure and limited access to the ravaged areas. The UN has so far only been allowed to deliver aid to the northwest Idlib area through a single crossing at Bab Al-Hawa. Only 5 percent of the sites in the northwest struck by the earthquake have received aid.
Griffiths has urged the international community to address the pressing humanitarian needs, saying that it has failed the people in northwest Syria who “are looking for international help that has not arrived.”
As the toll of the Feb. 6 earthquake continues to mount, Guterres said that “delivering food, health, nutrition, protection, shelter, winter supplies and other life-saving supplies to all the millions of people affected is of the utmost urgency.”
He added: “Opening these crossing points, along with facilitating humanitarian access, accelerating visa approvals and easing travel between hubs, will allow more aid to go in, faster.”
The Security Council’s meeting was convened by Switzerland and Brazil, who are responsible for Syria’s humanitarian file at the council.
Switzerland’s permanent representative to the UN, Pascale Baeriswyl, called the Syrian government’s move to open two border crossings “encouraging” and asked for a “quick implementation.”
UN Special Envoy for Syria Geir O. Pedersen had underscored the importance of removing any impediments to the delivery of life-saving support to Syria, adding that the EU and the US have committed to removing obstacles to the provision of aid.
On Friday, the US Treasury Department issued a six-month license to allow earthquake-related relief that would otherwise be prohibited by sanctions on Syria.
The cross-border mechanism was created in 2014 to allow the delivery of UN aid directly to opposition-held areas in Syria.
International humanitarian law requires all aid deliveries to a country to go through the host government. However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s tactic of using deliveries of humanitarian aid as a weapon of war prompted the Security Council to approve the use of four border crossings for the direct delivery of aid — one from Jordan, one from Iraq, and two from Turkiye. Only the one at Bab Al-Hawa remains open.