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The US and major donors are demanding an independent UN relief operation in rebel-held northwestern Syria

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The United States said on Monday it has joined major donors in demanding that the United Nations be able to provide aid through a key crossing from Turkey to rebel-held northwestern Syria, independently and to anyone in need. That is a rejection of Syria’s conditions and backed by its ally Russia that Damascus controls all aid and bans UN communications with rebels in the region.

US Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the UN Security Council that the Syrian government’s offer earlier this month to allow aid deliveries through the Bab al-Hawa crossing demonstrated the need for cross-border aid, but she said Syria’s restrictions were unacceptable and “would hamper relief efforts and endanger humanitarian workers, including UN personnel.”

After the last six-month mandate expired on July 10, Russia vetoed a nine-month extension and the council rejected a Russian resolution for a six-month extension.

President Bashar Assad’s government then gave the green light for the United Nations to use the border crossing, but on the condition that it cede control to Syria, not communicate with groups it calls terrorists, and that aid be delivered under the supervision of the Red Cross or Red Crescent.

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The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs rejected the offer. It said banning communications with the rebels would prevent UN aid from reaching anyone in need and that aid deliveries overseen by the Red Cross or Red Crescent would interfere with UN independence and was impractical as they do not operate in the northwest. It said the request for aid deliveries to be made in “full cooperation and coordination” with Damascus required “revision”.

Thomas-Greenfield said the United States has joined other major donors in making it clear that any cross-border settlement must include five key elements: UN operations must be independent and involve all parties on the ground; the UN must operate throughout Syria, including outside government-held areas; access should be long and not end in winter; aid must be in line with humanitarian principles; and previous arrangements for cross-border supervision should be maintained.

“All of these five elements are critical,” said the US envoy, emphasizing that they would increase donor countries’ confidence in Syria’s humanitarian operations, reaffirm that UN operations will be guided only by humanitarian principles, ensure proper funding and give humanitarian workers more predictability.

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UN Humanitarian Aid Coordinator Ramesh Rajasingham told the Security Council that humanitarian officials continue to talk with the Syrian government about the terms of the relief operations.

Meanwhile, he said the UN has been sending convoys through the other two border crossings at Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai.

Many people in northwest Idlib have been driven from their homes during the 12-year civil war, which has killed nearly half a million people and displaced half of its pre-war population of 23 million. Hundreds of thousands live in tent camps and depend on aid coming through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing.

The main insurgent group in northwestern Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al Sham, whose origins lay with al-Qaeda. The group and other militants are a mix of homegrown fighters and foreign jihadists who began coming to Syria in 2011 after an initially peaceful uprising against Assad grew into an armed uprising.

Russia’s deputy UN ambassador Dmitry Polyansky made it clear that the delivery of aid through Bab al-Hawa must be carried out “with the consent and in close cooperation with the country’s internationally recognized government.”

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He said UN humanitarian personnel now have the opportunity to cooperate with legitimate Syrian authorities, prioritizing the interests of those in need of assistance, including in government-controlled areas, “and not internationally recognized terrorists and their Western sponsors holed up in Idlib.”

Syrian UN ambassador Bassam Sabbagh told the council that Damascus is open to cooperation with the United Nations, but needs to be in control. He stressed that Syria needs not only aid, but also rapid recovery projects and demining operations.

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