- Forced to flee Ghouta, some Syrians fear a new economic siege
- Russia wants UN aid in Idlib to go through Damascus, not Turkey
- Syrians must not become “pawns in the political game” – UN official
- Quarrel over aid seen as leverage for Russia – analyst
IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria, July 7 (Reuters) – After fleeing their home to escape the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, many Syrians who have fled to the rebel-held northwest fear their fate may be over again put in his hands.
Russia, Assad’s key ally, wants UN aid to the region to flow through the capital Damascus, not Turkey, raising concerns that the food they depend on will fall under the control of their oppressor .
A UN mandate to provide aid to Turkey, currently via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, expires on Saturday, and while Western members of the UN Security Council want to expand it and expand, the veto powers of Russia and China are reluctant to renew it.
Russia skipped negotiations on the issue on Tuesday. Read more
Hossam Kaheil, who fled to Idlib in 2018 when the rebellion in Ghouta, just outside Damascus, was defeated, does not trust the Syrian authorities to pass aid through if the supply lines are changed.
“In Idlib the situation is good, but if they close the crossings there will be a humanitarian catastrophe,” said the 36-year-old man, who remembers being so hungry in 2014, when the Syrian army besieged Ghouta, whom he had to eat animal feed.
He added that two of his siblings died due to medical shortages during the siege, described by UN investigators as the longest in modern history.
UN aid across the Turkish border has enabled millions of Syrians to stock up on food, medicine and water in the last part of Syria still held by anti-Assad insurgents.
Syria has said it is committed to facilitating the delivery of UN aid from within the country. The Syrian Information Ministry did not respond to questions emailed by Reuters for this article.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that the Red Cross and Red Crescent should be allowed to observe if there is any suspicion of theft, although he doesn’t believe it will happen.
The struggle marks a diplomatic front in a war that has been at a military stalemate for several years, with Moscow and Damascus seeking to reaffirm state sovereignty over a corner of Syria beyond their control.
Since he reconquered most of Syria with the help of Russia and Iran, Assad has struggled to move forward: Turkish forces are blocking his path in the northwest and American forces are on the land in the Kurdish-controlled east, where oil fields, farmland and roads to Iraq lie.
Syria, owned by the government, along with the rest of the country, is in economic crisis. Assad’s failed plans for reconstruction and economic recovery faced new headwinds with the imposition of new US sanctions last year.
“This is a moment of leverage for Russia – a feud over strategic advantage in which humanitarian issues are used as a fulcrum,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of ‘Oklahoma.
âUnfortunately, the Syrian people are the real loser in this battle between Russia and the United States.â
The United States wants the aid mandate renewed. The same goes for Turkey, which exerts its influence in the northwest through rebel support, aid and Turkish boots on the ground.
The United Nations has warned that failure to renew the aid operation would be devastating for millions of people.
“We don’t want to see these people become pawns in a political game,” said Mark Cutts, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syrian crisis.
“It is truly a shame that we are talking about reducing access at a time when we should step up the operation.”
The number of people dependent on aid in the northwest rose 20% to 3.4 million in one year, according to the UN.
Russia cites US sanctions as the reason for humanitarian problems. Washington, whose sanctions are aimed at cutting funds for Assad’s government, rejects this.
Agreed in 2014 while Assad was in retirement, the UN mandate initially allowed deliveries from four locations. The Russian and Chinese opposition reduced that figure to one last year. Russia says the operation is obsolete. Read more
Getting aid to the front lines proved difficult, if not impossible, throughout the war.
âWe have requested access for the cross convoys on several occasionsâ¦ because we would like as much access as possible from all sides, but the war is not over,â Cutts said.
“In this kind of environment, it is very difficult to get the agreement of the parties on both sides for the convoys to cross that front line.”
The insurgents in the northwest include groups banned as terrorists by the Security Council. UN surveillance has prevented aid from being diverted to armed groups, Cutts said, fearing the loss of such surveillance could deter donors.
Durmus Aydin, secretary general of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), which is part of the aid operation, told Reuters aid deliveries across the front lines did not appear possible at the moment. .
“One of the reasons this is not a realistic solution is people’s mistrust of the Syrian government and Russia.”
Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mike Collett-White
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