How Syria’s Bab Al-Hawa aid corridor became hostage in a geopolitical game

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Years of conflict have plunged millions of Syrians into poverty. (AFP)
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Displaced Syrians protest against the regime and its ally Russia at a camp for displaced people in Kafr Lusin near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey on Sept. 7, 2018. (AFP)
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Years of conflict have plunged millions of Syrians into poverty. (AFP)
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Updated 19 June 2022

How Syria’s Bab Al-Hawa aid corridor became hostage in a geopolitical game

  • Delivering UN aid directly to opposition-held areas dependent on fragile cross-border mechanism
  • Closing Bab Al-Hawa would “condemn civilians in need to death and hunger,” warns UNSC president

NEW YORK CITY: The four million people in northwest Syria who rely on international aid to survive are unsure whether there will be bread on their tables after July 10. That is when an increasingly fragile UN cross-border mechanism for delivering aid to Syria is set to expire.

Its renewal is up for a vote at the UN Security Council next month amid fears that Russia will use its power of veto to close the last remaining UN-facilitated gateway for aid into Syria, Bab Al-Hawa on the border with Turkey.

Ferit Hoxha, Albania’s permanent representative to the UN and the president of the Security Council for the month of June, told Arab News during a press conference that the closure of the only border crossing would amount to “a condemnation to death, starvation and hunger to millions of people.”

He added: “I hope no one, not Russia nor any other country, would come to that decision: To condemn civilians in need to death and hunger.”

While the world’s media might have stopped counting the numbers of dead and injured in the Syrian conflict, the widespread destruction of civilian infrastructure and the largest number of internally displaced people in the world lay bare the fact that the war is far from over.




Ninety percent of Syria's population live below the poverty line, with many families left to scavenge to survive. (AFP file photo)

Syria continues to experience one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world, with 90 percent of the population living below poverty line. According to the World Food Program, 14.6 million people now need humanitarian assistance to survive, an increase of 1.2 million compared with last year.

The collapsing economy, coupled with a looming global food shortage as a consequence of the war in Ukraine, have added a new layer of complexity to the situation. Now, the WFP warns, the threat of famine is knocking on Syria’s door.




Ninety percent of Syria's population live below the poverty line, with many families left to scavenge to survive. (AFP file photo)

The cross-border mechanism was created in 2014 to allow the delivery of UN humanitarian aid directly to opposition-held areas of Syria. International humanitarian law requires that all aid deliveries should go through the host government.

However, Syrian President Bashar Assad’s tactic of treating humanitarian supplies as a weapon of war prompted the Security Council to resort to approving the use of four aid crossings along the Syrian border: one from Jordan, one from Iraq and two from Turkey.

Until December 2019, the members of the Security Council renewed the mandate for these crossings without much fuss. In January 2020, however, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one: Bab Al-Hawa.




A convoy transporting humanitarian aid crosses into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Jan. 18, 2022. (AFP)

If this last remaining crossing is closed — and the fear that this could happen is real — humanitarian agencies say they will be unable to feed more than about 10 percent of those in need. Moreover, finding any alternative to the UN aid operations is nearly impossible.

“The problem is that you have organizations and institutions that have been in emergency mode for 12 years,” said Jomana Qaddour, co-founder of Syria Relief & Development, a humanitarian organization active in northwestern Syria.

“The Syrian crisis has been so consuming and so overwhelming that planning for a massive humanitarian response now — under a totally different umbrella with all the buy-ins from the various different actors, from the local level to international donors — would be really quite a feat.”




A truck carrying aid packages from the World Food Program drives through the town of Hazano in the rebel-held northern countryside of Syria's Idlib province, on May 16, 2022. (Omar Haj Kadour / AFP)

The effects of the war on Ukraine on food security are “systematic, severe and speeding up,” according to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. He has said that the war, combined with other crises, threatens to unleash an unprecedented wave of hunger and destitution, leaving social and economic chaos in its wake.

Lamenting the skyrocketing prices of food and a near doubling of the cost of fertilizers, and the resultant shortages of corn, wheat, rice and other staple crops, Guterres warned that while this year’s food crisis is about lack of access, “next year’s could be about lack of food.”

INNUMBERS

90% of Syrian population lives below the poverty line.

14.6m Syrians are dependent on humanitarian assistance.

While the UN warns that no country will be untouched by looming food shortages, especially those that are already vulnerable, one can only imagine the devastating severity of its effects on a place such as Syria, which has been reeling under similar conditions for the past 12 years of conflict.

In the run-up to the Security Council vote in July, intensive negotiations for a new resolution to extend the cross-border mechanism are continuing behind closed doors, led by Ireland and Norway, according to sources at the Irish mission to the UN.




Civil society activists, aid, and medical and rescue services form a human chain rally on July 2, 2021 calling for the continued passage of humanitarian aid into Syria's rebel-held Idlib. (AFP file)

The two countries are the chief advocates at the UN for humanitarian issues in Syria. Last year at around this time, their ambassadors to the UN, Geraldine Byrne Nason and Mona Juul, were seen rushing back and forth from one UN chamber to another, trying to rally council members around a resolution they had drafted to reauthorize Bab Al-Hawa.

When Russia and the US agreed a compromise on the issue last year, American President Joe Biden hailed it as a diplomatic victory. The vote took place just days after he had held a summit with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, during which the cross-border issue was discussed.

After the successful adoption of Resolution 2585 by the council last year, both leaders commended “the joint work of their respective teams following the US-Russia summit that led to the unanimous renewal of cross-border humanitarian assistance to Syria today in the Security Council.”




An aerial picture shows camps for displaced Syrians in the village of Killi, near Bab al-Hawa by the border with Turkey, in Idlib province, on Jan.9, 2021. (AFP photo)

The US had long asserted that progress on the aid process would open the door to more meaningful engagement with Russia on some of the thornier diplomatic questions relating to Syria, such as the issue of detainees and the forcibly disappeared, the return of refugees, and the work of the constitutional committee.

This time around, however, diplomatic talks between the two major powers have all but ground to a halt following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine in February.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, has been investing her personal legacy in seeking an extension to the mandate for Bab Al-Hawa. She touched on the issue during several of the meetings she convened when her country held the presidency of the Security Council in May.




Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the UN, h

She also recently returned from an official trip to Turkey, her second this year, during which she visited the Syrian border to assess the potential consequences should the UN be forced in July to end its humanitarian deliveries to Idlib. She warned that without aid, “babies will die.”

“We have not forgotten Syria,” Thomas-Greenfield said as she vowed to do “everything possible” to ensure the UN mandate to deliver cross-border aid continues and is expanded to meet the growing needs on the ground. She said she would try to reopen discussions with Russian diplomats at the UN in an effort to keep the aid flowing.

The Russian mission at the UN did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but Dmitry Polyanskiy, Moscow’s deputy permanent representative to the UN, recently offered a pessimistic view of the prospects for a revival of diplomacy with Washington, citing the “current geopolitical circumstances.”




An aerial view shows a convoy transporting humanitarian aid parked at customs in Syria after crossing from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing on Jan. 18, 2022. ( AFP)

Russia argues that the cross-border mechanism violates the sovereignty of Syria. With China’s backing, Moscow has lobbied for all aid to be channeled through Assad’s government and blames the humanitarian crisis in the war-torn country on American and European sanctions against the Syrian regime.

Critics of Russia’s stance say Moscow’s priority is not cross-border assistance, and that it seeks to use its power of veto as leverage to gain support for its position on Syria. According to the critics, Russian diplomats at the UN have been linking the vote on the cross-border mechanism to unrelated issues such as sanctions relief, reconstruction efforts and counterterrorism.

While UN chief Guterres has repeatedly asserted that cross-border operations are among the most transparent and scrutinized mechanisms in the world, Russia claims that the aid that flows through them has been benefiting designated terrorist groups in and around Idlib, such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.

Washington declared a victory when the cross-border mechanism was renewed last year, but Qaddour, who in addition to her work with Syria Relief & Development is also a senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council, believes it is Russia that has gained the most from this situation.

She believes it is unlikely that the extension of the Bab Al-Hawa gateway will be vetoed, the reason being that this is a useful political card that has been played repeatedly, and will be played again in the future.




Jomana Qaddour. (Supplied)

In each round of renewals, according to Qaddour, Moscow has been able to extract a variety of concessions from Washington and its allies, such as a UN resolution endorsing certain early recovery projects that were previously contingent on a broader political settlement, as well as a qualified easing of sanctions on the Assad regime.

“This confusion over what the West is actually gaining from these negotiations places them, at a minimum, in a weak position,” Qaddour told Arab News. “And, at the maximum, it does hamper the ability of partners, such as aid organizations, to continue to rely on UN aid.”

The Syrian civil war has presented Putin with an opportunity to re-establish Russia as a powerful player in the region by protecting its ally and defeating what it considers a US-led regime-change campaign.

“Syria was the stage for Russian resurgence,” said Qaddour. “I can’t be optimistic to think that this is going to be a place that Russia abandons with ease. This is something they will continue to absolutely fight for and shape.




Displaced Syrians protest against the regime and its ally Russia at a camp for displaced people in Kafr Lusin near the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey on Sept. 7, 2018. (AFP)

Not that Syria is close to being uppermost on the agenda in Washington, said Qaddour.

“Am I under any illusion that the US or the West are recalculating and going back and putting Syria at the top of their priority list? No. I don’t think that anything indicates such a reprioritization in the US foreign policy circle. Ukraine now dominates everything,” she said.

Meanwhile, even if the aid corridor is not blocked, the northwest of Syria remains one of the most vulnerable areas in the country. Many agree that its ultimate fate lies thousands of miles away in New York, where calls for reforms to the Security Council have become louder since the start of the war in Ukraine — reforms that would allow humanitarian assistance to be delivered to the most vulnerable people without worrying whether it might be blocked by a veto from a permanent member of the council.

 


Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

Updated 13 August 2022

Vehicle accident in southern Egypt kills 9, injures 18

CAIRO: A vehicle accident involving an overturned microbus in southern Egypt killed at least nine people and injured eight, authorities said Saturday.
The crash took place Friday when the passenger vehicle overturned following a tire blowout on a highway in Minya province 273 kilometers (170 miles) south of the capital Cairo, provincial authorities said in a statement.
The microbus, a sort of mass transit minivan, was transporting people from Sohag province to Cairo, the statement said.
Ambulances rushed to the site and moved the injured to hospitals in Minya, the statement added.
Deadly traffic accidents claim thousands of lives every year in Egypt, which has a poor transportation safety record. The crashes and collisions are mostly caused by speeding, bad roads or poor enforcement of traffic laws.
Earlier this month, a microbus collided with a truck in Sohag, killing at least 17 people and injuring four others. In July, a passenger bus slammed into a parked trailer truck in Minya, leaving 23 dead and a least 30 wounded.

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Updated 12 August 2022

Tunisian government, unions agree to talks on IMF reform program

  • Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labour union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a "social contract" to tackle national challenges
  • The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page

TUNIS: Tunisia’s government and both its main labor and commerce unions agreed on Friday to start talks on Monday over economic reforms required by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a rescue program.
State news agency TAP reported that Prime Minister Najla Bouden, UGTT labor union chief Noureddine Taboubi and UTICA commerce union chief Samir Majoul had agreed a “social contract” to tackle national challenges, citing a government statement.
The UGTT reposted the statement on its Facebook page.
The labor union, which represents a vast syndicate of workers, has been a staunch critic of IMF economic reforms proposed by the government, including subsidy cuts, a public sector wage freeze and the restructuring of state-owned companies.
It previously said, such reforms would increase the suffering of Tunisians and lead to an imminent social implosion.
Tunisia is seeking $4 billion in IMF support amid the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic and the war in Ukraine, though diplomat sources told Reuters any IMF program approved would be unlikely to reach that level.
The IMF wants the UGTT, a powerful union that has a million members and has previously paralyzed parts of the economy in protest, to formally agree to government reforms.
Efforts to secure the IMF bailout have been complicated by Tunisia’s political upheavals since President Kais Saied seized most powers a year ago, shutting down parliament and moving to rule by decree.
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Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

Updated 12 August 2022

Hundreds linked to Daesh transferred from Syria to Iraq

  • It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border
  • The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday

BEIRUT: Syria’s autonomous Kurdish region transferred to the Iraqi government more than 600 relatives of Daesh group members who were detained at the notorious Al-Hol camp, a monitor said Friday.
It is the fourth operation of its kind this year from the camp, which lies less than 10 kilometers from the Iraqi border.
In the latest transfer, around “620 people, relatives of Daesh members, left Al-Hol,” coordinated between the camp administration and the Iraqi government, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement.
The men, women and children belonged to 150 families and left the camp on Thursday, an official in the Kurdish administration told AFP.
Thousands of foreign extremists joined Daesh as fighters, often bringing their wives and children to live in the “caliphate” declared by the group across swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014.
Kurdish-led forces backed by a US-led coalition dislodged the militants from their last scrap of territory in Syria in 2019.
Kurdish authorities have repeatedly called on countries to repatriate their citizens from crowded displaced camps, of which Al-Hol is Syria’s largest.
More than 100 people, including many women, were murdered in Al-Hol over an 18-month period, the UN said in June, calling for camp residents to be returned home.
But nations have mostly received them only sporadically, fearing security threats and a domestic political backlash.
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The SDF spearheaded the fight against Daesh in Syria with the support of the US-led coalition.
In early June, Iraq repatriated another 50 Iraqi Daesh fighters who were detained by Kurdish forces. They were among 3,500 Iraqis held in Syrian Kurdish prisons, a senior military official said at the time.
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Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

Updated 12 August 2022

Sadr followers hold mass prayer outside Iraqi parliament in show of force

  • Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July
  • Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday

BAGHDAD: Thousands of followers of Moqtada Al-Sadr held a mass prayer outside parliament in Baghdad on Friday in a show of support for the powerful Shiite cleric who has called for Iraq’s judiciary to dissolve parliament by the end of next week.
Supporters of the populist leader have occupied the Iraqi parliament since July after a 10-month political stalemate that followed elections last October. Sadr was the biggest winner but failed to form a government free of Iranian-backed parties.
He withdrew his lawmakers from parliament and is now preventing the chamber from electing a new government and is demanding early elections.
On Wednesday he said the judiciary must dissolve parliament by the end of next week. If not “the revolutionaries will take another stand,” he said without elaborating.
Outside parliament on Friday thousands of Sadr supporters gathered for prayer. Most were dressed in black to mark the Muslim month of Muharram and some wore white capes symbolizing burial shrouds and their willingness to die.
“You will not break Iraq as long as Sadr is here,” an imam told the crowd from a big red stage set up outside parliament. “There is no going back from this revolution ... and the people will not give up their demands.”
In the intense summer heat, men picked their way through the worshippers and sprayed them with cold water. Some carried portraits of Sadr and his father, also a prominent cleric, as well as Iraqi flags.
“We have revolted and there is no going back,” said Mohammed Elwan, 40, carrying a portrait of Sadr.
Hamid Hussain, a father of five, said: “I am here to call for an early election and make sure that all the corrupt faces are excluded from the upcoming elections...I became unemployed because of the corrupt parties.”
Sadr’s opponents also accuse him of corruption. They say his loyalists have run some of Iraq’s most corrupt and dysfunctional government departments.
Iran-aligned political groups were expected to hold their own demonstration later on Friday, the latest in a series of protest and counter-protest in recent days which have led to fears of unrest.
Sadr counts millions of Iraqis among his followers and has shown he can still stir up gatherings by hundreds of thousands of supporters, mostly working-class Shiite Muslims, if he needs to exert political pressure.
His father Mohammed Sadiq Al-Sadr was killed more than 20 years ago for his outspoken opposition Saddam Hussein. When Saddam was topped in a US-led invasion in 2003 Sadr began an insurgency against US troops.
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Updated 12 August 2022

Syria rebels call for protests over Turkey’s ‘reconciliation’ call

  • Comments sparked calls for protests in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces
  • Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria

SYRIA: Protests broke out in Syria’s rebel-held north on Friday over a call from Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu for reconciliation between the Syrian government and opposition.
“We have to somehow get the opposition and the regime to reconcile in Syria. Otherwise, there will be no lasting peace, we always say this,” Cavusoglu said Thursday, in remarks to diplomats.
The comments have sparked calls for protests after Friday weekly prayers in key cities that fall under the control of Turkish forces and their supporters, including in Al-Bab, Afrin and Jarablus.
Similar calls were made in Idlib, controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and other rebel groups, to gather at border crossings with Turkey.
Small protests already began overnight in some areas, including Al-Bab, where dozens gathered holding opposition slogans and chanting against Turkey.
Some demonstrators burned a Turkish flag, while others took down Turkey’s colors hung up around the city, an AFP photographer said.
Dozens of others gathered at the Bab Al-Salama crossing to Turkey, many shouting “death rather than indignity.”
Turkey’s top diplomat also revealed that he had held a short meeting in Belgrade in October with his Syrian counterpart Faisal Al-Meqdad, adding that communication had resumed between the two countries’ intelligence agencies.
But he denied direct talks between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad, despite long-standing calls from Russia for such dialogue.
Cavusoglu added that Turkey would continue its fight against “terrorism” in Syria, following warnings from Ankara since May that it could launch new strikes on Kurdish-held areas in north and northeast Syria.
Ankara has launched successive military offensives in Syria. Most have targeted Kurdish militants that Turkey links to a group waging a decades-long insurgency against it.
Cavusoglu’s comments have sparked widespread anger among the opposition, with renowned figure George Sabra writing on Facebook: “If Cavusoglu is concerned with reconciling with the Syrian regime, that is his business. As for the Syrians, they have a different cause for which they have paid and continue to pay the dearest price.”
About half a million people have died during Syria’s 11-year conflict, which has destroyed large swathes of the country and displaced millions of people.