The United Nations said on Sunday that disaster relief for quake-ravaged towns in Syria is being held up by a “hardline group” that refuses to allow aid convoys from government-controlled areas to enter its turf.
The group in question soon revealed itself to be Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the rebranded Nusra Front, which was itself an offshoot of al-Qaeda.
A source within HTS told Reuters on Sunday the group feared Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would use aid convoys for public-relations purposes.
“We won’t allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show they’re helping,” the source said.
The U.N. said there were “issues with approval” for aid shipments into northeastern Syria, where HTS controls much of the territory. HTS said it was prepared to allow aid convoys to enter the region through the lone border crossing from Turkey.
A similar situation has developed in northwestern Syria, where rebel groups backed by Turkey are refusing to allow aid convoys from the Kurdish-dominated northeast. Turkey regards the Syrian Kurds as a security threat and has invaded Syria three times so far to drive Kurdish forces away from the border.
The Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra was al-Qaeda’s franchise operation in the Syrian civil war. It was generally ranked as one of the largest and most effective fighting forces in the conflict. In July 2016, the Nusra Front announced it was “breaking” with al-Qaeda, supposedly because its ties to the infamous global terrorist organization gave the U.S. and other world powers an excuse to drop bombs on it.
Nusra made its debut as the supposedly independent Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or the “Organization for the Liberation of the Levant,” in January 2017, incorporating several smaller rebel groups along the way. The break with al-Qaeda supposedly enraged the larger organization’s leadership and loyalists, although many counterterrorism analysts believe al-Qaeda is still in communication with HTS or secretly controls it entirely. The U.S. government dismissed HTS as nothing more than a “vehicle” for al-Qaeda in Syria.
European Union envoy Dan Stonescu said on Sunday that all parties in Syria, including the Assad government, should “engage in good faith” with aid workers.
“It is important to allow unimpeded access for aid to arrive in all areas where it is needed. Entering a fake blame game is not constructive and does not help us deliver aid to those in so much need and distress in a more timely manner. On the contrary,” Stonescu said.
“We need all the access we can have, crossline, cross-border, and we need more resources,” agreed U.N. envoy Geir Pedersen.
Pedersen urged all parties to “put politics aside” and “unite behind a common effort to support the Syrian people.”
The Associated Press (AP) noted last week that roads from Turkey into Syria were heavily damaged in the quake, and Turkey has its own humanitarian disaster to deal with, so even if the U.N. can open more border crossings into Turkey, it will be difficult to provide effective relief without sending it through the government-held territory.
Furthermore, some rescue teams and humanitarian groups are nervous about entering territory controlled by vicious groups like HTS. Many of those groups are equally reluctant to deal with the brutal Russia-aligned regime of Bashar Assad, which remains under heavy sanctions from the Western world. The regime, in turn, does not recognize the legitimacy of American and European groups it regards as agents of hostile foreign governments.