TANZANIA – Syria’s president agreed to open two new crossing points from Turkey to the country’s rebel-held northwest to deliver desperately needed aid and equipment to help millions of earthquake victims, the United Nations announced Monday.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed the agreement by Syrian leader Bashar Assad to open crossing points at Bab Al-Salam and Al Raée for an initial period of three months. Currently, the U.N. has only been allowed to deliver aid to the northwest Idlib area through a single crossing at Bab Al-Hawa, at Syrian ally Russia’s insistence.
The announcement followed a meeting in Damascus earlier Monday between Assad and U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, who spent the weekend viewing the devastation caused by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that ravaged southern Turkey and northwestern Syria.
Guterres’ official announcement came during a closed meeting of the U.N. Security Council where diplomats said Griffiths announced Assad’s agreement to open the two new crossings during a virtual briefing.
Syria’s U.N. ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, told reporters while the meeting was taking place that Assad held a “positive and constructive meeting” with Griffiths and “confirmed the need for urgent aid to enter all regions in Syria, including those under occupation and under control of the armed terrorist groups.”
“Based on that, Syria supports the entry of humanitarian aid into the region through all possible cross points whatever — from inside Syria, or across the borders — for the period of three months to ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid to our people in ... northwestern Syria," Sabbagh said.
Brazil and Switzerland, which oversee Syria cross-border issues in the council, asked for “quick implementation" of the agreement to open the two new crossings.
“We certainly hope Assad is serious about this," U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said. It would be “a good thing for the Syrian people," he said, noting the Syrian regime's previous opposition to additional humanitarian crossings.
The United Nations has been under intense pressure to get more aid and heavy equipment into Syria’s rebel-held northwest since the earthquake struck a week ago, with survivors lacking the means to dig for other survivors and the death toll mounting.
The toll in the northwestern rebel-held region has reached 2,166, according to the rescue group the White Helmets, while 1,414 people have died in government-held areas, according to the Syrian Health Ministry in Damascus. The overall death toll in Syria stands at 3,580.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric cited difficulties of operating during Syria’s 12-year war.
To criticism that the U.N. hadn’t responded quickly enough to the quake, he said some aid is getting into the northwest, pointing to 58 trucks that arrived with aid through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing.
But he stressed that the United Nations doesn’t have heavy equipment or search and rescue teams, “so the international community as a whole needs to step up to get that aid where it is needed.”
Guterres said in a statement that with the rising death toll “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.”
“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 U.N. chief said.
In 2014, the Security Council authorized four border crossings to deliver aid to northwest Syria — two from Turkey, one from Jordan and one from Iraq. In January 2020, Syria’s close ally Russia used its veto threat to reduce the number of crossing to the two from Turkey. The following July, China and Russia used their veto power to reduce the number to just a single crossing.
France’s U.N. ambassador, Nicolas De Riviere, told reporters before Monday’s council meeting that the earthquake is “a humanitarian tragedy that should not be politicized.”
He said there were two options — either the Syrian government grant additional access to the northwest or the Security Council would try to adopt a resolution authorizing additional crossing points to the region.
Syria’s Sabbagh said no council resolution was needed, telling reporters that “it’s a decision made by our leadership, and it’s an agreement between Syria and the United Nations.”
De Riviere told reporters after the meeting that U.N. humanitarian officials said they were ready to send convoys through the three crossings.
If the two new crossings work it will be fine, he said, but “if it doesn't work I think the Security Council should get back to work" and look into a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter that would be enforcible militarily to ensure aid gets through to the northwest.
Asked why it took a week to get this agreement, when time to get to victims is critical, Sabbagh retorted: “Why are you asking me? We are not the ones controlling these borders.”
He reiterated that Syria said from day one that it was ready to assist humanitarian workers to reach all Syrians “without any discrimination.”
Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, told reporters Monday that the U.N. has been trying to send a convoy to the northwest across conflict lines within Syria, but is still trying to get a green light from all parties. The convoy reportedly was blocked by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group with ties to al-Qaida that controls part of the northwest.
Associated Press writers Abby Sewell in Cairo and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.