Reuters exclusively reported that President Bashar al-Assad ceded to calls for more aid access to Syria’s northwest with prodding from the United Arab Emirates, sources say, a diplomatic win for the Gulf state, which has rebuilt ties with Damascus despite U.S. disapproval.
Assad’s decision to approve wider aid access for U.N. convoys into the northwest from Turkey marked a shift from his long-standing opposition to cross-border aid flows into the area, which is controlled by his insurgent enemies and where 4 million people were already dependent on aid.
His approval came a week after an earthquake devastated southern Turkey and northwest Syria, killing more than 49,000 people.
The UAE’s role in persuading Assad, described by four sources in the region, suggests it has started to carve out a degree of sway in Damascus, even if Russia and Shi’ite Iran remain the dominant foreign players there.
The UAE once backed rebels fighting to overthrow Syria’s president. But Abu Dhabi has rebuilt ties in recent years, one of several Sunni-led Arab countries that see re-engagement with Assad as a way to counter Iran’s influence, among other considerations.
UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan raised the issue of the crossings with Assad in Damascus on Feb. 12, the day before Assad’s approval was announced – according to a senior source familiar with Syrian government thinking and a senior diplomatic source.
Sheikh Abdullah asked Assad to offer a goodwill gesture to the international community, describing it as a critical moment, a source familiar with Syrian government thinking said.
The senior diplomatic source said: “One of the key points that he raised was the urgent need to allow humanitarian access from whichever way it needed to come in.”
Assad’s decision was announced by the United Nations hours after Griffiths met the president in Damascus.
The senior source familiar with the Syrian government’s thinking said that the UAE’s role in persuading Assad should not be underestimated.
A Syrian source close to the Gulf said the UAE had used its “soft power” on Assad, and a Turkish official also said the UAE had played a part in persuading him.
Medical teams work flat out to ‘save who can be saved in northwest Syria
Nearly two weeks since the earthquake, and days after the search for survivors under the rubble ceased, doctors, nurses, technicians and administrative staff in hospitals across Idlib, Aleppo and the surrounding countryside have continued receiving thousands of injured. They dress wounds, administer first-aid and carry out surgical operations, without expecting payment for their work.
Hala Abdulsalam, a nurse, rushed panicking into the street with her family the moment the earthquake struck, alongside many others, The New Arab reported.
However, only 40 minutes had passed before she left her daughter in the care of relatives and headed for the hospital emergency department, where she found dozens of injured.
“When a father asked me to give first-aid to his son, who was on the brink of death, all my fatigue vanished. You have to forget yourself – you need a break, for sleep – as you might be able to help keep someone alive.”
Hala focussed on the pregnant women who had come in and said she and her colleagues tried to soothe the injured, ease the psychological trauma they were clearly suffering, and administer urgent first-aid.
She mentioned a woman “who came in with a serious wound in her thigh, but she became completely oblivious to it and started asking about her children – I told her they were fine, to try and console her. But so many saw their children, or relatives, either dead or critically injured, which compounds their psychological shock and trauma.”
‘Not the right time to cry’
One of Hala’s colleagues broke down in tears after seeing the heart-breaking scenes unfolding at the hospital, overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims and casualties. Hala told her colleague it was not “the time to cry”, as first, they needed to work to lessen the scope of the catastrophe as much as they could.
The Director of Atmah Hospital, Dr Mouheb Kaddour, anticipated the scale of the disaster as soon as the quake hit. His long experience handling the casualties of war over the last decade, during which many sites across the region have been targeted and bombed by the regime and Russia, led him to prepare his medical staff for readiness in any emergency situation.
“Ten minutes after the earthquake, I checked on my family, then rushed to the hospital. When I arrived the casualties were streaming in. It looked like doomsday, a smaller doomsday, and we lost sense of time as we were just working round the clock to save who could be saved.
Turkey’s main opposition leader sends condolence letter to Syria’s Assad
The head of Turkey’s main opposition party on Thursday sent a condolence letter to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose country was also devastated by the Feb. 6 earthquake, saying he felt the pain of the Syrian lives lost.
The rare communication from Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who may emerge as Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in the country’s upcoming election, came after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey and northern Syria, killing more than 49,000 people and leaving millions homeless.
“I take this opportunity to express my condolences to you and your people and hope that we will not share our sorrows but our hopes in the future.”
UN Humanitarian Delegation Visits Quake-Affected NW Syria
A UN delegation visited areas affected by the Feb. 6 earthquake that struck northwest Syria, following the flow of aid relief into the region.
UN aid continues to reach the earthquake-affected opposition-held northwest Syria through three border crossings: Bab al-Hawa and two newly-opened crossings, Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai.
According to North Press, Stéphane Dujarric, a UN spokesperson, said on Wednesday that in the past two weeks, “282 United Nations trucks” laden with aid for earthquake victims have accessed the region through the three border crossings.
The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, the World Food Program (WFP), and the World Health Organization (WHO) all are participating in providing relief aid. Their representatives have visited affected areas.
During one of the visits to Idleb, the UN humanitarian delegation met with civil society representatives and distributed medical supplies to three hospitals there.
Speaking of the damage inflicted to health facilities across Syria, Dujarric noted that it “has been particularly hard-hit in the earthquakes, with 47 health facilities having been reported as damaged in the northwest of Syria alone; twelve health facilities have suspended operations, and 18 are only partially functional.”
47 UN aid trucks entered into Idlib region
Meanwhile, a local official at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing told Zaman al-Wasl that 47 trucks loaded with UN aid of 47 entered Thursday from Turkey into northwestern Syria on Thursday.
Mazen Alloush, director of media relations, said the convoy contained flour, food baskets, and tent supplies intended for those affected by the earthquake.
He added that the number of UN trucks that entered through the “Bab Al-Hawa” crossing into northern Syria has reached 273 trucks through 14 convoys, since the fourth day of the devastating earthquake until today, Thursday.
In turn, the “Syria Response Coordinators” team confirmed in a statement today, Thursday, that the northwestern regions of Syria need 20,000 tents to accommodate the current wave of displacement due to the earthquake.
Shelter materials were also provided to 25,743 families as a first stage, and food baskets were provided to more than 28,743 families, in addition to securing ready-to-eat emergency kits urgently for more than 60,000 families to ensure food stability.
The response team indicated that the value of economic losses has reached so far; Initial public damages (private sector, public sector, other facilities) in the region are more than $511 million.
On the government side
Government officials continue showing their excitement at the international contact with the government and semir-official organizations.
On Thursday, SANA reported that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Organization (SARC) signed on Thursday a cooperation agreement with the Italian Agency for the Development of Cooperation (AICS) in the presence of the head of the SARC Organization and Chargé d’Affairs of the Italian Embassy in Syria Massimiliano Dantono.
It was signed on Thursday by SARC president Eng. Khaled Hboubati, and the director of the (AICS), Alessandra Piermattei.
In a statement to reporters, Hboubati stressed the importance of the Italian aid, as it paved the way for other aid coming from the European Union.
Dantono noted that it is the first time that the agency has signed a memorandum of cooperation with the (SARC) to help Syria in facing this difficult situation.
He pointed out that the cooperation will be to carry out and improve the response to medical activities.
Dantono stressed that this aid comes within the framework of the friendship between both countries.