Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, has agreed to the opening of two additional border crossings from Turkey into opposition-held territory in northwest Syria to allow the United Nations to deliver humanitarian relief to millions of earthquake victims, U.N. and Syrian officials said on Monday.
The decision, which would let aid to flow for three months, was the first time that Mr. al-Assad had cooperated in opening opposition-held territory to such assistance since Syria’s civil war began in 2011.
António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, said in a statement that he welcomed Mr. al-Assad’s decision: “Opening these crossing points — along with facilitating humanitarian access, accelerating visa approvals and easing travel between hubs — will allow more aid to go in, faster.”
Bassam al-Sabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, confirmed the agreement on Monday and said, “Syria supports the entry of humanitarian aid into the region through all possible cross points, from inside Syria or across the borders for a period of three months.”
Just one U.N.-sanctioned aid crossing operates between Turkey and the opposition-held area of Syria, at Bab al-Hawa, and it has done so for years at the direction of the U.N. Security Council and over Mr. al-Assad’s objections. While humanitarian aid has flowed into quake-hit Turkey, such assistance has only trickled into opposition-held areas in Syria because of political divisions after years of civil war.
The crossing at Bab al-Hawa has been a lifeline for opposition-held territory, but U.N. officials had warned for the past week that it was insufficient for the vast amount of quake aid needed there. Opening more crossings without Syria’s approval would have required new Security Council action, but the prospects for it were uncertain, because Russia, Mr. al-Assad’s ally, holds veto power on the Council.
Aid agencies say that last week’s 7.8-magnitude quake, and its hundreds of aftershocks, left millions of people in Syria and Turkey without shelter cut off from food and fuel supplies. The reported death toll in the two countries has surpassed 35,000.
The United Nations said Mr. al-Assad agreed to the easing of border controls during a meeting on Monday with the world body’s humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Mr. Griffiths was in Syria to assess the scope of the quake damage and to negotiate for more cross-border access.
“The trauma of the people we spoke to was visible, and this is a trauma which the world needs to heal,” Mr. Griffiths told reporters in Syria after his visit to Aleppo, according to a U.N. transcript.
SANA, the state-controlled media in Syria, also reported, “President al-Assad affirmed the need for bringing in the urgent aid to all areas in Syria, including those that are subjected to occupation and the dominance of the armed terrorist groups.”
At a news briefing in Washington, a State Department spokesman, Ned Price, said, “If the regime is serious about this, and if the regime is willing to put those words into action, that would be a good thing.”
The Security Council met on Monday behind closed doors, with the crisis in Syria on the agenda, but Mr. al-Assad’s decision apparently sets aside the need for the Council to authorize additional border crossings as thousands of Syrians were left homeless and shivering in the cold.
The aid to be allowed across the additional crossing points from Turkey — Bab al-Salam and Al Ra’ee — would be limited to humanitarian convoys, the U.N. statement said.
More than four million Syrians in northwest Syria had relied on the United Nations for food, clean water and basic survival even before the earthquake, the agency has said.
After the earthquake, Mr. al-Assad, whose brutal crackdown against dissent led to years of a bloody civil war that displaced half of the country’s population and divided territorial control, visited Aleppo last week with his wife, making the rounds to hospitals and shelters.
Critics say politics and U.N. bureaucracy had contributed to the Council’s delayed response on aid for Syrians. The Council did not meet earlier because it was waiting for an on-the-ground briefing from Mr. Griffiths, Vanessa Frazier, Malta’s ambassador to the United Nations, who holds the rotating presidency of the Council, said on Monday.
Mr. Griffiths said in a Twitter post on Monday: “We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
In addition to the stalled aid to Syria, there have been discrepancies between the search-and-rescue teams deployed to Turkey and Syria. The United Nations noted that there were more than 130 international teams in Turkey, with search dogs, and only eight in Syria. Among the most needed items in Syria, according to the agency, were heavy machinery, fuel, and mechanical parts for ambulances and trucks.
In the Security Council meetings planned for this week, diplomats had not expected Syria to agree to additional border crossings and had prepared a resolution, to be put to a vote, authorizing the crossings, said Nicolas de Rivière, France’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“Either the two additional points work, and work in a sustainable and transparent way, or if it doesn’t work the Security Council should get back to work,” he said after the meeting on Monday.
Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.