Cilvegözü (Turkey) (AFP) – Trucks loaded with humanitarian aid stand bumper to bumper among the olive groves on the Turkish-Syrian border, waiting to be let into war-torn Syria.
Inside are baby diapers and blankets, but also 15-kilo sacks of flour, bulgur, sugar, chickpeas and peanut paste for malnourished children.
Every month, the United Nations sends about 800 trucks through the Cilvegozu border crossing to deliver aid to millions in need in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold.
The border post, called Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian side, is the only permitted passage point for UN aid supplies to reach the stronghold of Idlib.
But many fear the crossing will be closed to UN trucks from July 10, cutting off much of Idlib’s population from much-needed aid.
Russia, an ally of the Damascus regime, has threatened to use its veto on a UN Security Council vote and block efforts to renew the permit for cross-border shipments.
Observers say Russia is using it as a bargaining chip in the face of punishing sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think it will be catastrophic if the resolution is not renewed,” said Mark Cutts, a senior UN humanitarian official, last week while visiting a UN terminal near the border.
Eleven years after the beginning of the Syrian civil war, three million people live in the bastion of Idlib on the Turkish border under the rule of jihadists and allied rebels.
Half of them have been displaced from their homes in other parts of the country and are heavily dependent on international aid.
Also visiting on Thursday, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US envoy to the United Nations, said she feared what would happen if supplies could no longer get through Bab al-Hawa.
“It will add to the suffering,” she said.
Russia has argued that aid can instead be channeled across the lines of conflict via Damascus-controlled parts of the country.
However, critics have argued that this would mean far less aid to rebel-held areas.
In Turkey‘s Hatay province, Syrian rescue worker Ammar al-Selmo described conditions in Idlib to the visiting US envoy and said failure to renew the cross-border permit would be catastrophic.
“There is no alternative for this mandate. Cross-line aid is not an option,” said the member of the White Helmets, a group best known for rescuing civilians after Russian airstrikes on opposition-held areas.
Rebel backer Turkey is particularly keen to keep the flow of aid going to Syria, as it does not want to add to the 3.7 million refugees already on its soil.
Ankara has already said it plans to return a million Syrians to a strip of land it took from Syrian Kurds further east along the border, a project that has angered Damascus.
As the trucks in Cilvego were scanned one by one, Turkish official Orhan Akturk tried to calm them down.
“In any case, our local non-governmental organizations will continue to provide assistance,” said the deputy governor of the surrounding province of Hatay.
“Would be a disaster”
A humanitarian worker, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to the press, said the Turkish Red Crescent offered to carry all humanitarian aid on behalf of the United Nations.
Kerem Kinik, head of the Turkish Red Crescent, whose organization sends an average of 500 trucks across the border each month, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch, was skeptical.
There are very few “practicable alternatives to the UN’s cross-border operation,” she told the AFP news agency.
It would be difficult for Turkish charities and other international non-governmental organizations to match the scale of the UN operation or even donor confidence in it, she said.
At a camp for displaced families in Idlib, Mohammad Harmoush, 39, said he, his wife and six children were in need of help from abroad.
“The aid shipments are of crucial importance to us. If they were interrupted, it would be a disaster,” he told AFP.
Across the border, in Hatay, former engineer Mohammad said he was concerned for his nephews who stayed behind in Idlib.
The man, who appeared to be in his 60s and did not give his last name, said he couldn’t help them himself.
Without humanitarian aid, “they are dead,” he said.
© 2022 AFP