Syria announced on Thursday that it would give state approval for the United Nations to deliver humanitarian aid into rebel-held northern areas through a contentious border crossing with Turkey, effectively giving President Bashar al-Assad’s government control over all aid deliveries to the northern areas of the country.
Until two days ago, the U.N. and other international aid agencies had access to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing based on a 2014 mandate from the Security Council. Syria’s government abided by the resolution and was not involved in the aid deliveries, but attempts by the Council this week to extend the authorization failed.
In a letter submitted to the United Nations and the Security Council, Syria said it would allow the United Nations access to the crossing for six months “in full cooperation and coordination” with the Syrian government.
It is unclear whether U.N. convoys will now require permits from the Syrian government to cross Bab al-Hawa, if they will face inspections, and if they will be able to continue working with local partners. Aid agencies have said their convoys traveling inside the country between government-held territory and rebel-held areas face hurdles and slowed movement.
The United Nations said on Thursday it was studying Syria’s letter and the potential effects on its aid delivery operations.
“The coordination and cooperation with the U.N. has always been there and will be there,” Bassam al-Sabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters. He did not elaborate on requirements by his government, but said the U.N. should not work with “terrorists” in the north, an apparent reference to opposition groups that control the area.
Syria’s surprise move came two days after Russia, its ally, vetoed a Security Council resolution backed by the United States and its European allies to extend the authorization for the U.N. to use the crossing for nine months. A rival resolution by Russia for a six-month extension did not meet the quorum required to pass, and aid operations at the crossing came to a halt.
“Now President Assad has said he will open Bab Al-Hawa for six months. But without U.N. monitoring, control of this critical lifeline has been handed to the man responsible for the Syrian people’s suffering,” Barbara Woodward, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to the United Nations, who holds the monthly rotating presidency of the Council this month, said in a statement.
With the help of distributors and local partners, the U.N.’s humanitarian agency moves 85 percent of its aid to northern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, for deliveries of food, medicine and other lifesaving assistance.
After the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February, the Syrian government opened two other border crossings from Turkey for a period that ends in mid-August. But Bab al-Hawa remained the main lifeline, and more than 3,000 trucks of goods have passed through it since the earthquake, the U.N. said, compared to about 622 that crossed from the other two crossings.
Andrew Tabler, the National Security Council’s former Syria director, called Syria’s decision a “checkmate from Moscow” for the United States and its allies, and another blow to the West’s Syria policy.
Arab countries that are allies of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have recently restored ties with Mr. al-Assad after a decade of shunning him, and allowed Syria to re-enter the Arab League, to the dismay of Washington.
“The announcement essentially gives Assad and Putin a stranglehold on Syrian civilians who have suffered from 12 years of war and displacement,” said Mr. Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Russia’s mission to the United States did not comment on the new development, but its ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, told the Council on Tuesday that aid delivered through the U.N. would go to “terrorists” and that the previous cross-border mechanism was a “show” that undermined Syria’s sovereignty.