Turkey helps lifeline to war-torn Syria hanging by a thread

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Cilvegözü (Turkey) (AFP) – Trucks loaded with humanitarian aid line up bumper to bumper amid olive groves on the Turkish-Syrian border, waiting to be allowed to cross into war-torn Syria.

Inside are diapers and baby blankets, as well as 15-kilo bags of flour, bulgur, sugar, chickpeas and peanut-based pasta for malnourished children.

Every month, the United Nations sends some 800 trucks through the Cilvegozu crossing to bring aid to millions of people in need in Syria’s last major rebel stronghold.

The border post, called Bab al-Hawa on the Syrian side, is the only authorized crossing point for UN relief to reach the stronghold of Idlib.

But many fear the crossing will be closed to UN trucks from July 10, cutting off large swaths of Idlib’s population from desperately needed assistance.

Russia, an ally of the Damascus regime, has threatened to use its veto power in a UN Security Council vote and block efforts to renew the permit for cross-border deliveries.

Observers say Russia is using it as a bargaining chip in the face of punitive sanctions over Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

“I think it’s going to be a disaster if the resolution isn’t renewed,” senior UN humanitarian official Mark Cutts said last week as he visited a UN transshipment center near of the border.

Eleven years after the start of the civil war in Syria, three million people live under the rule of jihadists and allied rebels in the stronghold of Idlib on the Turkish border.

Half of them have been uprooted from their homes in other parts of the country and are heavily dependent on international aid.

‘No alternative’

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 pass through Bab al-Hawa.

“It will increase the suffering,” she said.

Russia has argued that aid could instead flow through Damascus-controlled parts of the country across conflict lines.

But critics argued that this would mean far less aid to rebel-held areas.

In Turkey’s Hatay province, Syrian relief worker Ammar al-Selmo described conditions inside Idlib to the visiting US envoy, and said failure to renew the cross-border permit would be disastrous.

“There is no alternative to this mandate. Aid across the lines is no alternative,” said member of the White Helmets, a group best known for rescuing civilians after airstrikes forces in areas held by the opposition.

Turkey, supporting the rebels, is particularly keen to maintain the flow of aid to Syria because it does not want to add to the 3.7 million refugees already on its soil.

Ankara has already announced plans to return a million Syrians to a strip of land it seized from Syrian Kurds further east along the border, a plan that has angered Damascus.

As the trucks were scanned one by one in Cilvegozu, Turkish official Orhan Akturk wanted to be reassuring.

“Our local non-governmental organizations will continue to provide assistance no matter what,” said the deputy governor of the surrounding province of Hatay.

“It would be a disaster”

An aid worker, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said the Turkish Red Crescent had offered to transport all humanitarian aid on behalf of the UN.

Turkish Red Crescent chief Kerem Kinik, 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 dubious.

There are very few “viable alternatives to the UN’s cross-border operation”, she told AFP.

It would be difficult for Turkish charities and other international non-governmental organizations to match the reach of the UN operation or even the confidence of donors in it, she said.

At a camp for internally displaced families in Idlib, Mohammad Harmoush, 39, said he, his wife and six children depended on help from abroad.

“Aid deliveries are essential for us. If they were interrupted, it would be a disaster,” he told AFP.

Across the border, in Hatay, former engineer Mohammad said he was worried about his nephews back in Idlib.

The man, who appeared to be in his 60s and did not give his last name, said he had no way of helping them himself.

Without humanitarian aid, “they died”, he said.

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