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EXCLUSIVE: UN discussing plans to open aid offices in rebel-held northwest Syria

‘What’s not clear, when you open an office, is what that means in the long run.’

A man is pictured on the back of a truck wearing a mask and off-loading bags that contain aid. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
A worker unloads bags and boxes of aid in Syria’s rebel-held province of Idlib, in June 2021.

The UN is exploring the possibility of opening up offices to help manage humanitarian aid operations in rebel-held northwest Syria, according to several informed sources, although a UN spokesperson denied there were any immediate plans to do so.


Kirsten Mildren, director of strategic communications in Türkiye for OCHA, the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, told The New Humanitarian by email that “the UN has no current plans to open up an office in NW Syria at the moment,” adding that it had increased its presence on the ground through daily missions.


“The UN is exploring all options, including having a presence closer to the border on the Turkish side as there are daily missions now and this would help cut down on travel time,” Mildren added. 


Four separate sources told The New Humanitarian they had been part of – or were familiar with – discussions in the past few weeks about opening two offices, or at least a more permanent presence of some sort in the northwest, although they said the final locations had not been determined.


Several of the sources expressed concern with the lack of clarity over any plans, and worried that such a development could damage their ability to bring aid across Syria’s borders with Türkiye, noting how thorny the politics over aid are with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 


Northwest Syria is home to more than four million people, and the UN estimates that 2.9 million of them have been forcibly displaced at least once. The region is controlled by rebel groups, including Türkiye-backed rebels and the terrorist-designated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. It is also extremely dependent on outside aid – even more so following the February earthquakes that hit the region hard. 


The UN has been criticised by some for a slow response to the disasters, and UN relief chief Martin Griffiths said on Twitter a week after the quakes: “We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can. That’s my focus now.”


Most UN-coordinated assistance to the northwest comes across the border with Türkiye, using what is known as “cross-border aid”, with planning and coordination done from a hub in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep.


Before the earthquakes, a UN Security Council resolution only allowed this aid to cross at one place, Bab al-Hawa. Because of this resolution, which Russia has previously threatened to veto, the UN only has to notify – but not request permission from al-Assad, a key Russian ally. The resolution is up for renewal again in July.


After the quakes, al-Assad agreed to allow aid into the northwest for three months through two additional border crossings, including one that was previously allowed as part of the resolution. At the same time, the UN began ramping up visits of its staff across the border, which previously had been rare.


Fadi al-Dairi, country director for the NGO Hand in Hand For Aid and Development, told The New Humanitarian the UN had raised the idea of opening up offices in the region – as well as possibly new warehouses or a monitoring mission.


Such moves could be positive for aid operations in the northwest, he said, pointing out that many NGOs had long called for “[UN] protection by presence”. However, he and other NGO officials also had a list of questions that remained unanswered.


“What’s not clear, when you open an office, is what that means in the long run,” said al-Dairi, who is a steering committee member of the NGO Forum – a group of Syrian and international NGOs working in the northwest.


Al-Dairi was concerned that if the presence remained past July, and the Security Council did not renew its resolution, what would happen next? Who would the offices report to?


“Cross-line” aid from government-controlled to rebel-run territory has been offered as a substitute for cross-border aid by Damascus and its allies, but opponents point to the fact that this has never worked on a large-scale in the past, especially to besieged areas


Al-Dairi said the UN had not told NGOs if any new offices would work on cross-border or cross-line aid or both, and if they would report to Gaziantep, Damascus, or elsewhere. 


Many people in and around Idlib province have been displaced due to conflict in parts of the country that rebelled against al-Assad, and were forced to go to the region when their areas were taken back by the president’s forces. Any data-sharing with Damascus would therefore be a major concern – if not a red line – for both aid workers and affected communities. 


One UN source, who asked for anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak to the media, said that conversations about the offices had been with the Gaziantep hub, and that this is where any operation or office would report to. While admitting that the situation was “complicated and sensitive”, they said they believed opening offices would enhance the cross-border operation and hopefully facilitate the discussion about future renewals of the Security Council resolution “in a positive way”.


Mohannad Othman, CEO of both the al-Sham Humanitarian Foundation, which works in the northwest, and Genel Müdür Yardımcısı, an organisation that works for Syrian refugees in Türkiye, told The New Humanitarian that opening offices in northwest Syria has “been discussed many times with the UN leadership here in Gaziantep”.


His concerns were similar to al-Dairi’s, wondering where potential employees would report to, “if it would undermine the cross-border aid efforts, and if it would have any negative effects on the population.” Mostly, he said, he wanted to be able to consider a risk assessment to see if it made sense.


Othman also mentioned the “protection by presence” argument, but said it was something NGOs had been seeking years ago. “We wanted the UN to be present on the ground to protect us, but that was when the government and Russians” were bombing Idlib and other rebel-held regions.


“We welcome the presence of the UN [in general]. But at the same time we have a lot of concerns,” he said. “We asked for a risk matrix assessment to be conducted… [to find out] if it is a negative or positive?”


Asked by The New Humanitarian to comment on cross-border, cross-line aid issues and how they might be affected by the UN opening offices in northwest Syria, Mildren refused to give specifics on what she described as a “hypothetical” situation.


Edited by Andrew Gully.

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