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.

 


Sudan protesters take to the barricades again

Updated 07 July 2022

Sudan protesters take to the barricades again

JEDDAH: Protesters in Sudan took to makeshift street barricades of rocks and tires for a seventh day on Wednesday as military leader Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan fired the last civilian members of the country’s ruling council.

Burhan, who seized power in a coup last October, has vowed to “make room” for civilian groups to form a new transitional government after he disbanded the ruling Sovereign Council, which he chairs. The council’s members said they had received no formal notification and were surprised to discover that their official vehicles had been taken away.

Protesters have demanded a restoration of the transition to civilian rule despite repeated crackdowns by the security forces, who have in recent days fired live bullets, launched barrages of tear gas canisters and deployed water cannons. At least 114 people have been killed in the crackdown since October.

The transitional government uprooted by Burhan last year had been forged between the military and civilian factions in 2019, following mass protests that prompted the army to oust dictator Omar Bashir.

Sudan’s main civilian alliance, the Forces for Freedom and Change, said Burhan’s latest move was a “giant ruse” and “tactical retreat.” They also called for “continued public pressure,” and protesters returned to the streets of Khartoum on Wednesday.

Democracy campaigners say the army chief has made such moves before. In November, a month after the coup, Burhan signed a deal with Abdalla Hamdok, the prime minister he had ousted in the power grab and put under house arrest, returning him to power.

But many people rejected that pact and took to the streets again, and Hamdok resigned in January warning that Sudan was “crossing a dangerous turning point that threatens its whole survival.”


United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

Updated 06 July 2022

United Arab Emirates cuts red tape to attract digital businesses

  • UAE aims to make it easier for digital companies to incorporate
  • Sets a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates is cutting red tape to make it easier and quicker for digital companies to incorporate, the latest economic policy announcement as the government seeks to further diversify the economy away from oil revenues.

Trade minister Thani Al Zeyoudi, flanked by executives from many state-linked entities, on Wednesday announced the changes that include better access to the financial and banking system.

“We want to show digitally enabled companies from Europe, Asia, the Americas, that the UAE is the world’s best place to live, work, invest and scale,” the minister told reporters, setting a target for 300 digital companies to incorporate within a year.

Those setting up in the UAE, home to financial center Dubai and oil-rich Abu Dhabi, would have visas issued sooner and be offered attractive commercial and residential leases, he said.

As other governments step up national efforts to increase renewable energy sources and move away from fossil fuels, the UAE is rolling out a series of initiatives to double the economy to $816 billion by 2030.

“We want to show that we are here to help; from commercial licenses and work visas, to opening bank accounts, finding office space and the perfect place to live,” Al Zeyoudi said.

United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Trade Thani Al Zeyoudi gestures during an interview with Reuters in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, June 30, 2022. (REUTERS)

Some company executives complain about the bureaucracy involved in setting up a business, including in hiring international staff in a country where citizens are a minority.

Still, the UAE’s Dubai has established itself as the region’s premier business hub and is already home to many multinational corporations and international businesses.

But regional competition has intensified as Saudi Arabia takes steps to re-mold itself as a leading financial and tourism center under the leadership of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“We’re moving from a regional hub to a global hub,” Al Zeyoudi said. “We’re competing with the big, big boys now.”


Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

Updated 06 July 2022

Sudan’s Burhan relieves civilian members of the sovereign council from duties

  • Army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition

CAIRO: Sudan’s military leader General Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan issued a decree relieving the five civilian members of the sovereign council from their duties, a statement on the council’s telegram account said on Wednesday.
Burhan said on Monday the army would not participate in internationally led dialogue efforts to break its stalemate with the civilian opposition, and urged political and revolutionary groups to start talks to form a transitional government.


Israeli forces kill Palestinian in West Bank arrest raid

Updated 07 July 2022

Israeli forces kill Palestinian in West Bank arrest raid

  • At least 50 Palestinians have been killed since late March, mostly in the West Bank

JERUSALEM/RAMALLAH: The Israeli military said it shot and killed a Palestinian man during an arrest raid near the city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday.
The army said that during one of a series of raids carried out across the Palestinian territory, its troops fired at a suspect who attempted to escape arrest in the village of Jaba.
“The force gave medical treatment to the suspect, but later pronounced him dead,” the army said. It said the incident was under investigation.
The Israeli military said its forces were conducting counter-terrorism operations across the West Bank and had arrested 24 suspects.
“I heard Israeli forces shouting at a man, asking him to stop before I heard eight shots fired,” said a Palestinian Jaba resident, who asked not to be identified.
The Palestinian Health Ministry issued a statement saying it received confirmation of the death of Rafiq Riyad Ghannam from the agency that coordinates affairs with Israel. Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, said the 20-year-old man was severely wounded during clashes in the village.
The Palestinian Foreign Ministry said that Israel was “preceding President Biden’s visit by more field executions and escalation of aggression against the Palestinian people.”
Biden is expected to meet separately with Israeli and Palestinian leaders before he heads to Saudi Arabia on his July 13-16 trip.
Ghannam was the second Palestinian from Jaba killed in recent days. On Sunday the Palestinian Foreign Ministry said 19-year-old Kamel Abdallah Alwaneh died a day after he was shot by Israeli troops. The army said soldiers came under attack “during routine security activity near the town of Jaba” and shot a man suspected of throwing a firebomb.
The Israeli military has carried out near-daily raids in Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank following a series of deadly attacks by Palestinians earlier this year that killed 19 Israelis, with several of the attackers coming from the Jenin area.
Dozens of Palestinians have been killed in these Israeli army raids. Most of the dead were alleged to have opened fire on Israeli forces or hurled stones or firebombs at them. The dead also include at least two apparent passersby.
Palestinians were also angered this week by the results of a US investigation into the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who had been shot during an Israeli raid in Jenin last month.
The US State Department said on Monday Abu Akleh was likely killed by Israeli gunfire which was probably unintentional. The Palestinian investigation concluded she was shot deliberately, an allegation that Israel denies.
Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 Mideast war and the Palestinians seek it as the heartland of a future state. Israel considers the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.
Almost half a million Israeli settlers live in dozens of West Bank settlements scattered across the territory, alongside around 3 million Palestinians who live under Israeli military rule.
The Palestinians and much of the international community consider Israel’s West Bank settlements a violation of international law and an obstacle to a peaceful resolution of the decades-long conflict.
(With AP and Reuters)


Palestinian president and Hamas chief hold rare meeting

Updated 07 July 2022

Palestinian president and Hamas chief hold rare meeting

ALGIERS: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh met publicly for the first time in over five years, on the sidelines of Algerian independence anniversary celebrations.
Algeria’s state broadcaster reported late Tuesday that representatives of the Palestinian Authority and the Islamist Hamas movement also attended this meeting, which it called “historic.”
The pair, who officially last met face-to-face in Doha in October 2016, were brought together in a meeting with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, whose country marked the 60th anniversary of independence from France.
Abbas’ secular Fatah party, which dominates the Palestinian Authority that rules the Israeli-occupied West Bank, has been at loggerheads with Hamas since elections in 2007, when the Islamists took control of Gaza.
Tebboune and Abbas also signed a document to name a street “Algeria” in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
As well as Abbas and Haniyeh, Tebboune on Tuesday hosted several foreign dignitaries, who watched a huge military parade to mark independence in 1962 when Algeria broke free from 132 years of French occupation.