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


BEIRUT — Monday’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria brought to the fore an issue Syria has struggled with for years: access to foreign aid.

Accessing aid to Syria has been complicated by its 2011 civil war, which has roughly divided the country into three parts: government-held areas, part controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces, and the northwest. Pockets held by the opposition. Two-thirds of its 4.5 million inhabitants have been displaced elsewhere and a humanitarian crisis was already underway before the earthquake.

It was in the already impoverished Idlib province along the border with Turkey that the Syrian government was sending fighters and civilians from areas it had recaptured until the land swelled with the displaced. In addition to regular shelling by government forces, disease was already ravaging the area.

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

Control Areas from July to September 2022

Samuel Granados/The Washington Post

Control Areas from July to September 2022

Samuel Granados/The Washington Post

Control Areas from July to September 2022

Samuel Granados/The Washington Post

This corner of the world relies heavily on aid – even before the earthquake, 4.1 million people needed humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. This aid is hampered by sanctions imposed by the Syrian government, which also prevent some international organizations from accessing the area. The aid must also be approved by the Turkish government, as it only reaches rebel-held pockets on the Turkish border through the Bab al-Hawa crossing.

Mark Lukacs, the former UN humanitarian chief, said: “But Turkey is now so completely overwhelmed with dealing with and helping its own people that we can’t really expect to focus on providing aid to Syrians. “

Aid to the enclave depends on a vote by the UN Security Council every six months, but in 2020 Russia forced the closure of all aid crossings except Bab al-Hawa, cutting aid to the country. Declared a violation of sovereignty. Its allied Syrian government.

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

How to help earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria?

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported, citing local sources, that the earthquake has now severely damaged roads in Bab al-Hawa and disrupted the cross-border response. The road connecting Gaziantep city to the crossing is one of the most damaged areas and is currently inaccessible.

International non-governmental organizations have been providing aid to Idlib and surrounding areas for many years. But due to what U.N. officials have dubbed “Syria fatigue,” donations have dwindled and attention has shifted elsewhere, particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

Past humanitarian efforts were at best stopgap measures, leaving no room for emergency preparedness in the event of a natural disaster.

“You’re exacerbating an already very difficult situation where agencies were already trying to prevent famine and child disease,” Lowcock said, adding that all opposition-held areas in Syria were More damage than He said the government has a long track record of resisting and trying to stop people from crossing.

Lowcock said the solution included donations from the White Helmets, a British and American-backed civil defense organization whose members worked tirelessly after the earthquake, digging out the dead themselves. He added that the United Nations should also increase aid mechanisms to Turkey and put international pressure on Syria to lift the sanctions.

The White Helmets have since announced that the UK will release an additional $967,000 to support them and that USAID is in contact about how it can “meet the most immediate response needs.”

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

Syria’s northwest has long been subject to regular bombing – the latest attacks were carried out in January. Due to the lack of clean water, cholera has gripped the area. Now the earthquake has wiped out the internet and electricity, and destroyed the shelters that were already there.

A town in Turkey is devastated by an earthquake, death is everywhere.

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

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

The International Rescue Committee’s emergency preparedness and response director said available border crossings were “inadequate” and the IRC was calling for increased access – a difficult task given the extensive damage to infrastructure, buildings and roads from the earthquake. .

On the other side of the equation are the territories held by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which face US and European sanctions. Foreign governments and many international aid groups refrain from channeling aid directly through governments they have sanctioned for war crimes against their own people. The idea that aid will go into the pockets of war profiteers and the Syrian authorities.

The set of U.S. sanctions, known as the Caesars Act, is intended to force the government to halt its bombing and halt widely documented human rights abuses. “The Caesars Act and other U.S. Syrian sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people or impede our stabilization activities in northeastern Syria,” the act reads.

On Tuesday, the Syrian government challenged that claim: its foreign ministry strongly blamed the sanctions, saying Syrians “are sometimes resorting to hand-digging the debris, because the tools to remove the debris are in their hands.” are forbidden to, and they are using. the simplest, old tools … because they are punished by the Americans, who are depriving them of necessary supplies and equipment.

The Syrian government often blames much of its woes on international sanctions to divert Syrian anger towards outside powers.

On Tuesday, the director of the Syrian Red Crescent, Khaled al-Hubabati, called for the sanctions to be lifted “to deal with the effects of the devastating earthquake”. He said Syria needed heavy machinery and ambulances and fire trucks to continue its search and rescue operations and clear the debris, which required the lifting of sanctions on Syria as soon as possible. Between 30 and 40 ambulances were responding to the disaster, he said.

“We are ready to send an aid convoy to Idlib,” Habubati said, and asked for help from the European Union and USAID.

Charles Lister, director of the Syria program at the Middle East Institute, dismissed calls for Syria to lift sanctions as another “talking point of an opportunistic regime” and added that the sanctions would “deliver aid I will have no effect.”

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

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