Destroyed Habib-i Neccar mosque in the historic southern city of Antakya in Hatay | Photo: AFP
United States: The UN chief said Monday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed to open two more border crossings to allow in aid to help victims of the earthquake that has left more than 35,000 dead in the region.
Before the earthquake struck, almost all of the crucial humanitarian aid for the more than four million people living in rebel-controlled areas of northwestern Syria was being delivered from Turkey through one conduit -- the Bab al-Hawa crossing.
"Opening these crossing points -- along with facilitating humanitarian access, accelerating visa approvals and easing travel between hubs -- will allow more aid to go in, faster," said UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
He said Assad had agreed to open the two crossing points of Bab Al-Salam and Al Raee from Türkey to northwest Syria for an initial period of three months to allow for the timely delivery of humanitarian aid.
Guterres noted that with the toll from the earthquake still rising, and with survivors exposed to harsh winter conditions in war-torn Syria, "delivering food, health, nutrition, protection, shelter, winter supplies and other life-saving supplies to all the millions of people affected is of the utmost urgency."
The announcement came a day after World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus met Assad in Damascus to discuss the response to the devastating earthquake that hit Syria and Turkey last week.
The situation is particularly dire in the rebel-held area in the northwest of Syria, which cannot receive aid convoys from government-held parts of the country without Damascus's authorization.
The lone border crossing open to shuttle aid from Turkey also saw its operations disrupted by the quake.
Humanitarian aid in rebel-held areas usually arrives through Turkey via a cross-border mechanism created in 2014 by a UN Security Council resolution.
But it has long been contested by Damascus and its ally Moscow, who see it as a violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Under pressure from Russia and China, the number of crossing points has been reduced over time from four to one.
The WHO chief said Sunday after meeting Assad that "the compounding crises of conflict, Covid, cholera, economic decline and now the earthquake have taken an unbearable toll."
The United States said new border openings would be a positive for Syria if Assad is serious about the pledge to open them.
"If the regime is serious about this, and if the regime is willing to put those words into action, that would be a good thing for the Syrian people," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters.