TANZANIA – The United Nations chief launched a $397 million appeal Tuesday to help nearly 5 million survivors of last week’s devastating earthquake in rebel-held northwest Syria who have received very little assistance because of deep divisions exacerbated by the country’s 12-year war.
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced the appeal a day after he welcomed an agreement between the U.N. and Syrian President Bashar Assad to open two new crossing points from Turkey for an initial period of three months. The U.N. has only been allowed to deliver aid to the northwest Idlib area through a single crossing at Bab Al-Hawa -- at Syrian ally Russia’s insistence. Since the quake, the U.N. says 84 trucks have gone through Bab Al-Hawa.
Guterres said the devastation from the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that ravaged southern Turkey and northwestern Syria on Feb. 6 “is one of the worst in recent memory,” and “we all know that lifesaving aid has not been getting in at the speed and scale needed.”
He said the $397 million will provide “desperately needed, life-saving relief for nearly 5 million Syrians — including shelter, health care, food and protection” for three months.
Guterres said the U.N. is in the final stages of preparing an emergency appeal for quake-ravaged southern Turkey. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the appeal will be launched “probably in the coming days.”
He urged the international community to provide the emergency funding without delay, saying: “The human suffering from this epic natural disaster should not be made even worse by manmade obstacles — access, funding, supplies.”
The secretary-general said aid to Syria must get through by all routes to all areas without restrictions.
A senior U.N. World Food Program official warned that food insecurity in afflicted parts of Syria had been rising drastically even before the earthquake struck.
“It was very bad before. Now it’s dramatic,” said Corinne Fleischer, the agency’s Middle East Director.
“Half of the population faces hunger. And that’s the worst that we’ve seen since the beginning of the crisis in Syria. Even at the height of the war, we didn’t have 12 million people food insecure,” she said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Guterres announced that an 11-truck convoy was on the move to go through one of the newly opened crossings at Bab Al-Salam, “with many more to come.” He said the second new crossing at Al Raée is also open, “and goods are flowing.”
Dujarric said the convoy went through the crossing without any obstacles and “we’re very optimistic that things will move quickly.” He noted that the two crossings have been used by relief organizations not affiliated with the U.N. and the roads are in better condition than those leading to Bab Al-Hawa.
The announcement of the two additional crossings from Turkey came as the U.N. Security Council was meeting for the first time Monday afternoon on the difficulties of getting aid to northwest Syria.
The U.N. has also been trying to send a convoy to the northwest across conflict lines within Syria, but it hasn’t gotten a green light from all parties. The convoy has reportedly been blocked by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group with ties to al-Qaida that controls part of the northwest.
France’s U.N. ambassador, Nicolas De Riviere, told reporters before Monday’s council meeting that there were two options — either the Syrian government grant additional access to the northwest or the council would try to adopt a resolution authorizing additional crossing points to the region.
After the meeting and the announcement of the two new crossings, De Riviere said there should be no “obstacles” to delivering aid through the three crossings. If there are, he said, the Security Council should look into adopting a resolution under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which means it can be enforced militarily, to authorize the crossings and get aid to the millions in need.
U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said the United States will be watching closely to see if aid is getting to Syrians in need and will push for a U.N. resolution if it isn’t. “It took seven days to get this decision to allow the borders to be open -- that decision should have been made on day one,” she said.
Secretary-General Guterres, asked about a possible meeting with president Assad, said what’s needed now is not high-level visits that divert resources but stepped-up relief efforts.
“I am following that very, very closely,” he said, “and whenever it would be useful and positive, I am ready to do whatever is needed.”
As for whether a Security Council resolution is needed, he reiterated that the two new crossings are open, “and we will see, of course, if the situation would change, we would adopt the necessary measures.”
Casert contributed from Brussels.