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Why is it so difficult to help the victims of the earthquake in Syria?


BEIRUT — The earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday brought to the fore an issue Syria has struggled with for years: access to foreign aid.

Getting aid to Syria has been made very difficult by the 2011 civil war, which divided the country into roughly three parts: the government areas, a part controlled by the US-backed Kurdish forces, and an opposition area in the northwest where almost two-thirds of the 4.5 million inhabitants have been displaced from elsewhere and a humanitarian crisis was already underway before the earthquake.

It was to the already impoverished province of Idlib on the border with Turkey that the Syrian government sent the fighters and civilians from the recaptured areas until the country swelled with the displaced. In addition to regular shelling by government forces, the area was already ravaged by disease.

‘I saw death’: Rescue workers in rebel-held Syria plead for help after earthquake

Control areas from July-September 2022


Control areas from July-September 2022


Control areas from July-September 2022


This corner of the country relies heavily on aid — even before the earthquake, 4.1 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. This aid is hampered by restrictions imposed by the Syrian government, which also denies access to the area to some international organisations. Aid must also be approved by the Turkish government, as it only flows into the rebel-held pocket through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border.

“But Turkey is now completely overwhelmed in dealing with and helping their own people, who we cannot realistically expect to prioritize facilitating aid to the Syrians,” said Mark Lowcock, former chief of humanitarian affairs at the United Nations.

The delivery of aid to the enclave was conditional on a six-monthly vote by the UN Security Council, but in 2020 Russia forced all aid border crossings except Bab al-Hawa to close, describing the aid as a violation of the sovereignty of its ally, the Syrian government.

Every six months, fears mount that Russia will veto the final crossing, which the United Nations says is the only viable route to deliver life-saving aid, including food, water, shelter and medical assistance.

How to help people affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

The earthquake severely damaged roads to Bab al-Hawa and disrupted the cross-border response, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing local sources. The road connecting the city of Gaziantep to the intersection is in one of the most damaged areas and is currently inaccessible.

International non-governmental organizations have been providing aid to Idlib and surrounding areas for years. But due to what UN officials have dubbed “Syria fatigue,” donations have dwindled and attention has turned elsewhere, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

Past humanitarian efforts have been emergency measures at best, leaving little to no scope for emergency preparedness should a natural disaster strike.

“You’re exacerbating an already extremely difficult situation where agencies were already scrambling to prevent famine and teething problems,” Lowcock said, adding that the opposition-held areas appear to be the hardest hit in the country. Syria. The government has a long track record of resisting and trying to prevent people from moving on, he said.

Lowcock said solutions include donations to the White Helmets, a British- and American-backed civil defense organization whose members worked tirelessly after the quake and single-handedly excavated dead bodies. The United Nations should also expand the aid mechanism from Turkey and apply international pressure on Syria so that the government lifts restrictions, he added.

The White Helmets have since announced that Britain will release an additional $967,000 to support them and USAID has been in touch about how to “meet the most urgent response needs”.

Lowcock was not optimistic, however, given Syria’s track record of “not wanting people to be in places they can’t control”.

Northwestern Syria has long suffered from regular bombing – the last raids were in January. Cholera has engulfed the area due to lack of access to clean water. Now the earthquake has wiped out internet and electricity, destroying already ramshackle shelters.

Death is everywhere in an earthquake-ravaged Turkish city

“You certainly don’t have the international support with teams deployed in Turkey,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “That means most people die. It’s not a complicated equation to solve.”

Humanitarian access “is politicized” – especially in northwestern Syria. “We don’t have access to the Idlib area,” said Carboni.

The International Rescue Committee’s Director of Emergency Preparedness and Response said available border crossings are “insufficient” and the IRC demanded more access – a difficult task compounded by the earthquake’s widespread damage to infrastructure, buildings and roads.

On the other side of the equation are the areas held by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, which face US and European sanctions. Foreign governments and many international aid groups avoid channeling aid directly through the government they have empowered for war crimes against its own people. The belief that aid would be reaped by war profiteers and Syrian officials is widespread.

The US series of sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, aims to force the government to halt its bombings and halt widespread human rights violations. “The Caesar Act and other US sanctions against Syria do not target humanitarian aid to the Syrian people or hinder our stabilization activities in northeastern Syria,” the law reads.

On Tuesday, the Syrian government disputed this claim: the foreign ministry laid the blame entirely on these restrictions, saying Syrians resorted to “sometimes digging through the rubble by hand, because tools for removing debris are forbidden to them, and they use the simplest, old tools…because they are punished by the Americans, who deny them necessary supplies and equipment.”

The Syrian government often blames much of its misery on international sanctions in an effort to divert the anger of Syrians onto outside forces.

On Tuesday, Red Crescent Syria director Khaled Hboubati called for sanctions to be lifted “to deal with the impact of the devastating earthquake”. He said Syria needs heavy machinery and ambulances and fire trucks to continue its search and rescue operations and clear the debris, “which requires sanctions against Syria to be lifted as soon as possible.” He said there were between 30 and 40 ambulances responding to the disaster.

“We are ready to… send an aid caravan to Idlib,” Hboubati said, asking the European Union and USAID for help.

Charles Lister, the director of the Syria program at the Middle East Institute, dismissed Syria’s calls for the sanctions to be lifted as another “opportunistic regime talking point”, adding that the sanctions “have no effect on granting of help”.

Villegas reported from Washington. Louisa Loveluck in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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