US officials visit Syria's pro-Turkish rebel area

AFP , Monday 28 Aug 2023

Three members of the United States Congress made a rare visit Sunday to rebel-held territory in northern Syria controlled by pro-Turkish factions, an AFP journalist at the scene said.

US Congressman French Hill (2-L), speaks with a doctor during his visit to a hospital near Syria s border town of Azaz, in the rebel-held north of Aleppo province, on August 27, 2023. AFP


The Republican delegation comprising French Hill, Ben Cline and Scott Fitzgerald entered Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Salama border crossing, where they were welcomed by a banner reading "Welcome to Free Syria" and revolutionary flags.

The delegation visited a hospital north of the city of Azaz in Aleppo province and met orphans of the Syrian civil war, which has killed more than 500,000 people since it erupted in 2011.

The visit's "purpose is to see the reality of the liberated areas", Yasser el-Hajji, spokesperson for the Turkey-backed interim government, told AFP.

However, the delegation's visit had to be curtailed for security reasons, a member of their escort told AFP.

The jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls much of Syria's last pockets of armed opposition, which includes a significant part of Idlib province as well as bordering territories of Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia provinces.

Other rebel factions, supported by Turkey to varying degrees, also control parts of northern Syria.

"To avoid sparking controversy in the United States, they ultimately did not proceed towards Jindayris in the territories controlled by HTS," said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

HTS, which is led by Al-Qaeda's former affiliate in Syria, is classified as a terrorist group by Washington.

"The members of Congress wanted to assess the work of the interim government to study the possibility of delivering humanitarian aid via Bab al-Salama instead of Bab al-Hawa," which is controlled by HTS, added the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources on the ground in Syria for its reports.

 'Inspired the world' 

Under a 2014 agreement, most international aid including food, water and medicine entered from Turkey via the Bab al-Hawa crossing without the authorisation of Damascus.

The United Nations last month failed to reach consensus on extending the mechanism through the Security Council, but subsequently announced that aid deliveries would resume through Bab al-Hawa for six months under a new deal with Syrian authorities.

The Congress members also met with Raed Saleh, the director of the White Helmets rescue group that operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, the group said on Sunday.

The meeting stressed "the importance of continuing cross-border aid in light of the growing humanitarian needs after the devastating earthquake" that struck Turkey and Syria in February, killing tens of thousands, the group said in a statement.

They also discussed protests that have been rocking government-held parts of southern Syria since last week, "the importance of countering efforts to bolster" President Bashar al-Assad's rule and the need for justice and accountability, the group said.

The protests in the south erupted late last week after the government ended fuel subsidies, dealing a heavy blow to Syrians already reeling from years of war and economic crisis.

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