France sends medical aid to Assad's Syria after deal with Russia

The aid comes after an agreement between President Emmanuel Macron and Russian leader Vladimir Putin following talks since May.

A member of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group, led by Syria's former Al-Qaeda affiliate, watches as a convoy of buses gets ready to enter the towns of al-Foua and Kefraya to evacuate their residents on 18 July 2018. Picture: AFP.

PARIS – France sent 50 tonnes of medical aid to government-controlled eastern Ghouta in Syria on Friday after Russia agreed to facilitate its delivery, raising hopes for future aid efforts, French officials said.

The aid, which will arrive on a Russian plane to a Russian military base in north-western Syria from France on Saturday, comes after an agreement between President Emmanuel Macron and Russian leader Vladimir Putin following talks since May.

“This operation is very significant because it shows a willingness from the Russians to work with us on a matter of priority,” said the French diplomatic source. “This area is crying out for help.”

A joint Franco-Russian statement confirmed the accord.

Pro-government forces retook the eastern Ghouta region from rebels in April after besieging the region for several years and launching a final brutal bombing campaign with their Russian allies.

Little aid has entered eastern Ghouta, where about 500,000 people live, since April, although United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) was able to deliver food and nutritional aid for some 25,000 people in early July.

Once in Syria the cargo will be distributed by OCHA in co-ordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

France has received assurances from Russia that all necessary approvals from Assad’s government had been given for the convoy to make the journey from the north to eastern Ghouta and Paris does not expect the cargo to be used by Syrian authorities for political means, the officials said.

It would be first time a Western country has delivered aid to government-controlled areas with the help of Russia, the source said.

France cut off diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2011.

Macron has for several months attempted to nurture a dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria to break the deadlock on humanitarian aid. He considers it a first step to forging a wider political discussion with Russia that would ultimately bring together key regional and international players to end the seven-year civil war.

The French aid aims to help 500 seriously wounded people and another 15,000 with minor ailments. No French officials travelled with the cargo.

If the convoy is delivered smoothly, it could facilitate future UN aid efforts, which have often faced difficulties gaining approval or been held up by Syrian government forces, the officials said.

The aid worth about €400,000 ($469,000) is part of a €50 million commitment by Paris that has so far predominantly been used in the Raqqa region of north-eastern Syria, where France has a military presence along with the United States.