Millions in Idlib depend on aid coming through a northern border crossing. On 10 July, the UN Security Council votes whether to keep it open. The decision may hinge not only on Syria, but also on the Ukraine war.

Syria and Ukraine
Humanitarian aid is Russia's political football

Millions in Idlib depend on aid coming through a northern border crossing. On 10 July, the UN Security Council votes whether to keep it open. The decision may hinge not only on Syria, but also on the Ukraine war. Diana Hodali reports

The crossing at Bab al-Hawa in north-western Syria is no ordinary border. It is a lifeline. Every month, 600 to 800 trucks sent by international organisations drive from Turkey into the Idlib region in Syria. They supply millions of people there with food, medicine and much more.

"If Bab al-Hawa is closed, it could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe," says Huda Khayti, head of the Idlib women's centre. "The people in the refugee camps in this region are particularly dependent on aid." Together with the organisation Medico International, Khayti supports the internally displaced people in the area with educational services.

Even a brief glance at the numbers shows just how important Bab al-Hawa is for the Syrians in the north-west of their country. It is estimated that about 4 million people live in Idlib, almost 2 million of them in camps. Many have already fled their homes several times and almost all are dependent on humanitarian aid. In the Atmeh camp alone, 10 kilometres north of the border crossing, there are around a million people living in makeshift huts and tents. There is no running water or enough power and thanks to the difficulty of maintaining good hygiene, disease is rampant.

Bab al-Hawa – a lifeline for the IDPs

For all these reasons, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing is often described as a lifeline. However, it's a lifeline that may be cut on 10 July. On that date, the UN Security Council in New York is slated to re-negotiate the extension of the mandate that allows for aid deliveries into Idlib via Bab al-Hawa. In 2014, the UN Security Council agreed that four border crossings be held open here, allowing access into north-western Syria.

Huda Khayti (r.) runs the women's centre in Idlib (photo: private)
Syrian IDPs are dependent on aid: "If Bab al-Hawa is closed, it could lead to a humanitarian catastrophe," says Huda Khayti, head of the Idlib women's centre. Together with the organisation Medico International, Khayti supports the internally displaced people in the area with educational services. Nobody knows whether Russia and Turkey have been discussing the Bab al-Hawa crossing behind closed doors. "What I do know is that we in Idlib are always a football for those with political interests here, and especially when Russia wants to achieve some political goal," adds Khayti

The aim was to provide basic necessities to the people living in the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria. The area is controlled by a staunch Islamist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. However this mandate is not permanent. It needs to be renewed annually by the UN Security Council.

The authoritarian leader of Syria, Bashar Assad, has protested the renewals, as he would prefer to extend his influence into these last remaining rebel-held parts of the country. Russia is one of Assad's greatest allies and was instrumental in helping the Syrian leader fight revolutionary forces. Russia is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and has the power to veto any decisions on the border crossing mandate. It has used that all-important veto to its own advantage several times already. For example, in 2020, a compromise decision to keep Bab al-Hawa open was only reached with great difficulty.

Khayti says that every year, she gets anxious about this pivotal date in July. "Seriously ill people are also sent to Turkish hospitals over Bab al-Hawa," she explained. "Where will they be treated in the future? There are no chemotherapy drugs here."

Weaponising UN vote

Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa section at Germany's Heinrich Boll Foundation, firmly believes it is a problem that these decisions about cross-border aid are being made by the UN Security Council. "Russia can use its veto as another weapon against the Syrian population," she says.

Russia, which often sides with and protects Syria at the UN, has been pushing for all humanitarian aid to be channelled through the Syrian capital, Damascus. But critics argue that then the Syrian regime will likely only provide aid to people loyal to Assad. Closing the Bab al-Hawa crossing gives the Assad regime another lever with which to exert pressure on the population of Idlib. It would also only strengthen the Assad regime's claim that it is the only legitimate power in Syria, with whom all outsiders should deal with.

Truck at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Keeping Bab al-HAwa open is essential: it is estimated that about 4 million people live in Idlib, almost 2 million of them in camps. Many have already fled their homes several times and almost all are dependent on humanitarian aid. In the Atmeh camp alone, 10 kilometres north of the border crossing, there are around a million people living in makeshift huts and tents. There is no running water or enough power and thanks to the difficulty of maintaining good hygiene, disease is rampant

"Assad is instrumentalising humanitarian aid for political purposes," noted Anita Starosta, of aid group Medico International, whose work focuses on northern Syria.

Revenge for sanctions?

And now, it's quite possible that Russia will have another use for its UN Security Council veto on the Bab al-Hawa crossing. It may become a bargaining chip in its war on Ukraine.

Experts suspect that Russia may use the July 10 vote to extract concessions on its own behalf after the U.S. and EU imposed sanctions following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in late February.

Scheller expects that Russia might in fact forbid further aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, a form of revenge for sanctions on it. On the other hand, Scheller said, "perhaps it will decide to keep hold of this leverage".

Right now, it's impossible to know what Russia will do. In a May interview with the New York Times, Russia's deputy UN ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said his country had not yet decided how to vote. "I do not deny that it [the aid] goes to refugees as well, but the terrorist groups – they benefit from this," he told reporters.

The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, militia that dominates the area also controls the border crossing and they collect customs duties on goods coming in.

"By claiming at every opportunity that there are only terrorists in Idlib, Russia wants to scare off donors," Scheller explained. "HTS controls Idlib and is extremist," she agreed. But millions of other people also live in the province and more than 95 percent of them are civilians, including "many, many children."

People gather inside a tent at a amp for internally displaced persons in Idlib, Syria (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
A useful bargaining chip? Russia may well forbid further aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, as a form of revenge for the sanctions imposed on it over Ukraine. Then again, perhaps it will decide to keep hold of this leverage. "By claiming at every opportunity that there are only terrorists in Idlib, Russia wants to scare off donors," Bente Scheller, head of the Middle East and North Africa section at Germany's Heinrich Boll Foundation, explained. "HTS controls Idlib and is extremist," she agreed. But millions of other people also live in the province and more than 95 percent of them are civilians, including "many, many children"

Russia, Iran and Turkey pulling the strings

In general, the humanitarian situation in Syria remains disastrous after 11 years of war and has only been worsened by a severe economic crisis, including falls in value of the Syrian and Turkish currencies. Idlib was once considered Syria's granary. But not much is left of that, as many farmers have been driven out or fled, fields have been hit by missiles strikes or people are camping in their fields.

Even before the Ukraine war, Syria was grappling with a wheat shortage. "The global supply crisis is currently making the situation worse," Medico International's Starosta admitted. Bread, flour, sugar and fuel are all in short supply.

On the other hand, the security situation has actually improved a little. There is officially a ceasefire, with HTS and its ally, Turkey, on one side and Syria's Assad and his Russian allies on the other. The ceasefire has meant less fighting in Idlib over the past two years, even though there are still airstrikes.

The EU and U.S. claim that Syria remains high on their political agenda, but mostly they provide humanitarian aid. In May, a little over €6 million ($6.3 million) was collected for Syria at a donor conference in Brussels. However within Syria itself, only three countries are really calling the shots: Russia and Iran on Assad's side, and Turkey in Idlib and north-eastern Syria.

Turkish ambitions

It's not only Assad and Russia that might benefit from an end to the UN mandate on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Turkey could also profit. This is because it is not only UN-supplied aid that goes into Idlib at Bab al-Hawa. Turkish aid organisations also operate here and, should the UN mandate end, Turkey could still decide how much aid other organisations get to send into this part of Syria.

Should Turkey allow aid deliveries, one of the major motivations for it would be to prevent displaced Syrians from fleeing into its territory, something the Turkish do not consider in their interest.

At the same the residents of Idlib also remain worried about what Turkey has been doing in the north-east of Syria. For weeks, the Turkish have been shelling villages there and sending drones out to surveil inhabitants. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said it is because he wants to drive Kurdish forces close to the outlawed Kurdish Workers' Party, or PKK, out of the border region. The PKK has been involved in a 38-year insurgency against the Turkish government and is designated a terrorist organisation by the U.S. and the EU.

However Erdogan's critics believe the Turkish leader's real goal is to secure more Syrian territory, in order to send refugees there, even if they come from other, non-Kurdish parts of Syria. Should Turkey achieve those aims, then Khayti, who is based in Idlib, said, people worry they might be displaced again.

Nobody knows whether Russia and Turkey have been discussing the Bab al-Hawa crossing behind closed doors. "But what I do know is that we in Idlib are always a football for those with political interests here, and especially when Russia wants to achieve some political goal," Khayti argued.

Whatever happens next, Medico International's Starosta has just one last plea to make: she simply asks that all aid organisations join forces to fight against the instrumentalisation of humanitarian aid.

Diana Hodali

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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