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Why is it so hard to help Syria’s earthquake victims?


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

Getting aid to Syria is deeply complicated by its 2011 civil war that has left the country divided into roughly three parts, the government-held areas, a part controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and an opposition-held pocket in the northwest where nearly two-thirds of its 4.5 million inhabitants have been displaced from elsewhere and a humanitarian crisis was already underway before the quake.

It was to the already impoverished Idlib province up against the border with Turkey that the Syrian government has been sending the fighters and civilians from the areas it reconquered until the land was swollen with the displaced. In addition to regular shelling by government forces, disease was already ravaging the area.

‘I saw death’: Rescuers in rebel-held Syria plead for help after quake

Areas of control as of July-September 2022


Areas of control as of July-September 2022


Areas of control as of July-September 2022


This corner of land heavily relies on aid — even before the earthquake, 4.1 million required humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. This assistance is hampered by restrictions imposed by the Syrian government, which also disallows some international organizations from accessing the area. Aid must also be approved by the Turkish government, as it flows to the rebel-held pocket only through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border.

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

Delivery of aid to the enclave has been dependent on a vote every six months by the U.N. Security Council, but in 2020 Russia forced all the aid border crossings to close except for Bab al-Hawa, describing the aid as a violation of the sovereignty of its ally, the Syrian government.

Fears mount every six months that Russia will veto the final crossing, what the United Nations deems the only viable route to deliver lifesaving aid including food, water, shelter, and medical assistance.

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

Now with the earthquake, the roads to Bab al-Hawa are severely damaged and the cross-border response has been disrupted, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing local sources. The road connecting the city of Gaziantep to the crossing is in one of the most damaged areas and is currently inaccessible.

International nongovernmental organizations have been providing assistance to Idlib and surrounding areas for years. But due to what United Nations officials have dubbed “Syria fatigue,” donations have dwindled and attention has turned elsewhere, especially following last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The past humanitarian efforts had been stopgap measures at best, leaving little to no room for emergency preparedness if a natural disaster took place.

“You are compounding an already extremely difficult situation where agencies were already up to their eyes trying to prevent famine, and child disease,” said Lowcock, adding that opposition-held areas appear to be the worst damaged in Syria. The government has a long “track record of resisting and trying to prevent people from going through,” he said.

Lowcock said solutions include donations to the White Helmets, a British and American-supported civil defense outfit whose members have worked tirelessly after the earthquake, digging out dead on their own. The United Nations also must expand aid mechanism from Turkey, and build international pressure on Syria so that the government removes 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 it can “fulfill the most urgent response needs.”

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

Syria’s northwest has long been suffering from regular bombardments — the latest raids were in January. Cholera has swept the area due to a lack of access to clean water. Now the earthquake wiped out internet and electricity, and destroyed already rickety shelters.

In a Turkish town shattered by the earthquake, death is everywhere

“For sure you 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 dying. It’s not a complicated equation to solve.”

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

The International Rescue Committee’s director of emergency preparedness and response said the border crossings available are “insufficient,” and the IRC had been demanding increased access — a difficult task compounded by the widespread damage to infrastructure, buildings and roads from the earthquake.

On the other side of the equation are areas held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, facing U.S. and European sanctions. Foreign governments and many international aid groups avoid routing aid directly through the government, which they have sanctioned for war crimes against its own people. The belief that aid would be pocketed by war profiteers and Syrian officials is widespread.

The U.S. set of sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, aims to force the government to stop its bombardment and halt widely documented human rights abuses. “The Caesar Act and other U.S. Syria sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people or hinder our stabilization activities in northeast Syria,” the act reads.

On Tuesday, the Syrian government challenged this claim: its Foreign Ministry placed blame squarely on these restrictions, saying Syrians were resorting to “digging sometimes through the rubble by hand, because tools for removing rubble are prohibited for them, and they’re using the simplest, old tools … because they are punished by the Americans, who are blocking them from the needed supplies and equipment.”

The Syrian government often places the responsibility of much of its woes on international sanctions in an attempt to divert Syrians’ anger to outside forces.

On Tuesday, the director of Syria’s Red Crescent, Khaled Hboubati, called for the removal of sanctions “to deal with the effects of the devastating earthquake.” He said Syria needs heavy machinery and ambulances and firetrucks to continue its search and rescue operations and clear rubble, “which requires removing sanctions on Syria as quickly as possible.” He said there were between 30 and 40 ambulances responding to the disaster.

“We are ready to send … a caravan of aid to Idlib,” Hboubati said, and asked the European Union and USAID to help.

Charles Lister, the director of the Syria program at the Middle East Institute, dismissed Syria’s calls to lift sanctions as another “opportunistic regime talking point,” adding that the sanctions have “no effect in the delivering of assistance.”

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

*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.