The head of a Syrian opposition-run rescue group has denounced a United Nations decision to seek authorisation from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for the delivery of aid to earthquake-stricken northwestern Syria through additional border crossings with Turkey, saying it allowed him to score a “political gain”.
“This is shocking and we are at loss at how the UN is behaving,” Raed al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday.
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The comment comes after UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday said al-Assad had agreed to allow UN aid deliveries to opposition-held territories through two more crossings on the border with Turkey for an initial period of three months.
The agreement to open the Bab al-Salam and Bab al-Raee crossings to UN aid followed a meeting in Damascus between al-Assad and UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths, who spent Saturday and Sunday visiting affected areas in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said 58 trucks had already been sent to deliver aid. “What this crossing point agreement will do is up the volume of supplies that we will be able to introduce into northwest Syria,” Griffiths told Al Jazeera.
The White Helmets repeatedly beseeched the world for help in the hours following the first pre-dawn magnitude 7.8 earthquake on February 6, asking for heavy machinery, rescue teams and equipment to help them save as many lives as possible during a crucial 72-hour window.
The group, also known as Syria Civil Defence, denounced what they said was a “failure” on the part of the international community to bring timely aid into northwest Syria.
UN officials have acknowledged aid was slow initially but said they were stepping up deliveries, including getting supplies from Turkey.
In the first three days, at least two dozen shipments of disaster relief aid were sent to the Syrian regime in Damascus. None reached areas under opposition control in northwest Syria.
The UN was previously restricted to using just one border crossing in Bab al-Hawa, which was approved unanimously by the Security Council in January for aid delivery for an additional six months.
UN aid convoys into northwest Syria through the crossing resumed on Thursday after the earthquake temporarily obstructed roads to the UN transhipment hub in Hatay.
Al-Saleh said large deliveries of aid from Saudi Arabia and Qatar arrived in the opposition-held territory ahead of UN deliveries.
“They will make a big difference because they are entering directly,” he said.
Search operations for more survivors beneath the rubble were drawing to a close on Tuesday, eight days on. “The indications we have are that there are not any [survivors] but we are trying to do our final checks on all sites,” al-Saleh said.
In an interview with Al Jazeera, he added that the past week had been the “most difficult seven days of my life”.
“We’ve been forgotten for years and the world didn’t hear us. If the world had heard our voice, we wouldn’t have lost these souls,” he said.
Brazil and Switzerland, which oversee Syria cross-border issues in the council, asked for “quick implementation” of the agreement.
“We certainly hope Assad is serious about this,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said. It would be “a good thing for the Syrian people,” he said, noting the Syrian regime’s previous opposition to additional humanitarian crossings.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from the Turkish border town of Kilis, said the decision to use more border crossings will provide a lifeline to Syrians desperate for much-needed assistance.
“There are at least two million people in the opposition-controlled region who live in tents and makeshift shelters. And that’s why the earthquake is just compounding their misery, because you have tens of thousands of more people who now need makeshift shelters,” Khodr said.
“The area is still under opposition control, but the signs of war are everywhere.”
As 90 percent of people in the northwest depend on humanitarian assistance, some UN agencies have also argued that aid delivery must be stepped up from government-controlled areas into opposition territory.
“We need all parties to do the right thing now,” Corinne Fleischer, regional director for the World Food Programme (WFP) said in a statement.