Syria extends permit allowing UN to deliver aid from Turkey

Russia thought to be instrumental in largely symbolic move

The Bab Al Salam crossing into Syria, near the Turkish city of Killis. AFP
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Damascus has renewed a permit that allows UN aid to be transported from Turkey to areas in the country's north-west held by forces opposing President Bashar Al Assad.

Millions of people live in rebel-held areas of north-western Syria and rely on aid to survive after the economy was devastated by the civil war.

But the move to allow UN aid into these areas will have limited effect, as Turkey has replaced the United Nations as the main humanitarian provider in the region, a UN humanitarian official and a member of an NGO working in Syria told The National.

The extension was announced by Syria's UN ambassador Koussay Aldahhak after his government relayed it to the UN on Saturday.

"The Syrian government has decided to renew the permission" for three months, he said on X, previously Twitter.

UN aid deliveries can continue through the Bab Al Salam and Al Raee crossings, Mr Aldahhak said.

The crossings are near the Turkish cities of Killis and Gaziantep. The Syrian side of the border is controlled by the Syrian National Army, a Turkish proxy.

The SNA gained control of parts of the north of Aleppo province near the border after Turkey launched an offensive to dislodge Kurdish fighters in 2016, before expanding its control with Turkish support to the neighbouring Afrin area of the province in 2018.

Turkey has since consolidated its control and influence over the area through building schools, hospitals and other infrastructure, including an industrial zone. The Turkish government wants Syrian refugees on its side of the border to return to their homeland and has been pressuring them to move to SNA-controlled areas.

Some of the aid that comes through the Turkish border crossings will be transported by UN-approved local organisations to the neighbouring Idlib province, the owner of a fleet of lorries in the north-west told The National. Idlib is controlled largely by rebel groups aligned with Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, a coalition of anti-regime militant groups.

There are an estimated 4.4 million people living in these two rebel-held areas. Many of them face widespread poverty and are dependent on aid and remittance from relatives living abroad.

The delivery of aid has been influenced by the various parties in the struggle for control of Syria.

Alongside Turkey, the US, Iran and Russia have all carved out zones of influence or control in Syria since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011.

In July last year, disagreements between the US and Russia ended a UN Security Council arrangement under which aid was delivered to the north-west without any input from the government in Damascus.

Moscow, which alongside Tehran backed Mr Al Assad in the war, blocked the arrangement in support of its ally. As a result, Damascus gained the final decision on whether to allow the cross-border aid shipments.

But the region is now less dependent on UN aid due to the agency cutting the amount, mainly for budgetary reasons, as well as increased aid and trade flows from Turkey, said the humanitarian sources and residents who spoke to The National.

Instead, the move is seen largely as symbolic and driven by Moscow.

One UN aid official, who did not want to be named, told The National Russia has told Mr Al Assad not to prevent aid deliveries from Turkey and to preserve Moscow’s relations with Ankara.

“If it was up to Assad he would have stopped the aid last year,” the official said.

Turkey and Russia, which form the core of the so-called Astana process on Syria, almost came to war in north-western Syria in early 2020.

The two countries have since reached an equilibrium that kept Turkey’s militia allies in control of the area but limited their scope for territorial gains at the expense of the regime.

Updated: February 12, 2024, 3:23 PM