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Syria: UN relief chief appeals for renewal of lifesaving cross-border aid operation

Humanitarian Coordinator Mark Lowcock made the appeal on Tuesday during a virtual briefing to ambassadors in which he outlined the pressing need to keep the trucks rolling, amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The cross-border operation for northwest Syria, authorized by the Security Council, is a lifeline for millions of civilians whom the UN cannot reach by other means. It cannot be substituted. Its authorization must be renewed”, he said.

“An early decision by the Council will avoid disruption of this vital operation and help humanitarian organizations continue the scale-up that the current needs and the prospect of COVID-19 demand. A delay will increase suffering and will cost lives.”

Staggering rise in deliveries

The cross-border operation is the sole means for the UN to bring assistance to northwestern Syria, where the humanitarian situation has deteriorated since December following a government offensive to root out extremists.

Mr. Lowcock said deliveries continue at record levels, Last month, 1,365 trucks made the journey from Turkey: a more than 130 per cent increase over April 2019.

The scale-up was necessary, he added, not only because of the staggering humanitarian demands and the need to prepare for the pandemic’s impact, but also because the cross-border operation is set to expire in less than two months.

The UN Secretary-General has recommended that it be renewed for an additional 12 months, having submitted a review to the Council ahead of schedule to prevent the disruption of aid flows.

“This decision cannot be left to the last minute”, Mr. Lowcock told ambassadors. “Too many lives are at stake.”

Overland aid reaches northeast

Turning to northeast Syria, Mr. Lowcock reported that last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) delivered some 30 tonnes of medical supplies to Qamishli by road.

This marked the first overland aid delivery by the UN health agency in two years.  Mr. Lowcock said while another 23 tonnes of aid is expected in the coming days, more needs to be done.

“The findings of the Secretary-General’s review of cross-line and cross-border operations are also clear with regard to the northeast”, he stated.

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“A combination of more cross-border and cross-line access is required to sustain, and preferably increase, humanitarian assistance.”

UN boosts COVID-19 support

Meanwhile, the UN is supporting COVID-19 preparedness and response across Syria, where the authorities have so far confirmed 58 cases and three fatalities. While none have been in the northwest, the region remains at high risk of an outbreak.

The UN is also boosting efforts to expand testing capacity and case investigation, as well as infection prevention and control.

Although a UN humanitarian fund has already dispersed some $23 million for preventative measures, Mr. Lowcock said significant shortages in personal protective equipment and other medical items remain.

The UN Secretary-General recently called for the waiver of sanctions that could impede countries’ efforts to beat back the pandemic: a message echoed by his Special Envoy for Syria, who briefed the Council on Monday.

Mr. Lowcock has welcomed commitments to apply humanitarian exceptions to these measures.

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