The United Nations is set to resume aid deliveries into rebel-held northwestern Syria via a crossing that has been a lifeline for the region after aid workers said Damascus appeared to loosen terms that had led to a weeks-long pause.
The aid deliveries from Turkey via the Bab al-Hawa crossing stopped in July when Western powers and the Syrian government's main ally Russia failed to agree on extending a UN Security Council mandate for the operation. Syria then gave unilateral approval - but on terms that the UN rejected as unacceptable.
After weeks of diplomacy, a Syrian government letter sent to the United Nations this week and seen by Reuters did not mention the rejected conditions. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed an "understanding" with Damascus on using the Bab al-Hawa crossing for six months, his Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq said on Tuesday.
The northwest is the last major bastion of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad in the 12-year-long Syrian war, and millions of people there depend on UN aid.
NGOs and individual states have long organized unilateral aid convoys into the northwest. But UN agencies will not cross the border without government or Security Council approval.
The UN had been using Bab al-Hawa since 2014 with Security Council authorization. Syria rejected the operation as a violation of sovereignty.
The terms set by Damascus in July included barring the UN from engaging with what it calls "terrorist organizations" in the rebel-held region. They also limited who could carry out deliveries to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
"When we read these letters, we don't see the detail – and as we know the devil is always in the details,"Sherine Ibrahim, Turkey director at CARE International
An Aug. 5 letter sent by UN emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths to Syria's U.N. Ambassador Bassam Sabbagh and seen by Reuters said the UN "may need to engage with different actors in north-west Syria" as it carried out aid operations.
It also said the ICRC and SARC did not have enough of a presence in Syria's northwest to allow them to take over such humanitarian work.
In an Aug. 6 letter, Sabbagh thanked Griffiths "for the clarifications on some of the essential operational modalities" and said Syria "looks forward to the involvement" of the ICRC and SARC "when circumstances permit," without mentioning the earlier conditions.
The Syrian government did not immediately respond to questions on whether it had loosened the preconditions and why.
'DEVIL IN THE DETAIL'
The spokesperson for the UN's Guterres said late on Tuesday that Syria had reaffirmed its "consent" in recent days to the crossing's use and that the agreement would allow the UN and partners to provide cross-border aid "in a principled manner that allows engagement with all parties."
A spokesperson for the UN's humanitarian operations agency OCHA did not have details on when deliveries through Bab al-Hawa would resume.
Sherine Ibrahim, Turkey director at CARE International, said the letters "did not mention the previous conditions related to ICRC/SARC or not working with de facto authorities."
But that hadn't fully allayed concerns.
"When we read these letters, we don't see the detail – and as we know the devil is always in the details," she said.
A Damascus-based aid worker told Reuters that Syria's letter indicated it "accepts UN principles" and that aid could now resume through Bab al-Hawa without the "new conditions."
The announcement came as Syria extended unilateral permission for two other border crossings from Turkey to be used to bring in aid, which it had initially granted in the wake of the Feb. 6 earthquake.
Tanya Evans, country director at the International Rescue Committee, noted the approval agreed for the use of Bab al-Hawa expires in February, at the height of winter, raising concerns about the ability to scale up the aid response.
Evans said the IRC preferred the security and stability of a long-term Security Council resolution over the Syrian government's unilateral and short-term approval.