Syria struggles to get aid to earthquake survivors as death toll passes 40,000

a couple look on at the rubble after an earthquake in Syria
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Rescue teams have begun winding down the search for survivors as the focus switched to tackling a dire humanitarian disaster caused by the earthquake that has left more than 40,000 people dead in Turkey and Syria.

Syria, already wracked by 12 years of civil war, is of particular concern. The United Nations (UN) held an emergency meeting on Monday 13 February on how to boost aid to rebel-held areas. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, isolated and subject to Western sanctions, called for international assistance to help rebuild infrastructure in the country. The UN estimates that more than five million people have been made homeless.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Assad has agreed to open two more border crossings for aid. One is in Bab Al-Salam and another in Al Raee, both between Türkey to northwest Syria. More than four million people live in these rebel-controlled areas of northwestern Syria. But before the earthquake struck, almost all of the crucial humanitarian aid for the region was delivered through a single conduit – the Bab al-Hawa crossing. Guterres said:

Opening these crossing points – along with facilitating humanitarian access, accelerating visa approvals and easing travel between hubs – will allow more aid to go in, faster.

Are sanctions to blame?

However, the situation is very complex. The United States and the UK have led the way in sanctioning Syria after concerns that the state was a “sponsor of terrorism”. But sanctions aren’t the only barrier to aid being delivered to survivors.

In the face of a steadily rising death toll, both the US and UK have announced a temporary easing of sanctions. While these exemptions may ease the pressure, as the Guardian reported:

analysts say the demands of the Assad government and the effects of the war are the main factors complicating aid deliveries into the already tense north-west, and the US move is more about reassuring banks and other institutions that they will not be punished for rendering assistance.

Read on...

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Assad’s government has demanded that it be able to control aid coming into the country. When asked if Syria would let the UN deliver aid from crossing points not accessed via Turkey, Syrian ambassador to the UN Bassam Sabbagh avoided answering directly. Instead, he said that the government would aid deliveries:

to all Syrians in all territory of Syria.

The director of the Middle East Institute’s Syria programme pointed a finger at Assad’s government. Charles Lister said Assad’s insistence on controlling deliveries across Syria hampered aid efforts, and this insistence:

appears to have virtually crippled the United Nations’ willingness, not ability, but willingness to essentially act forthright and in a bold way, and just provide earthquake recovery anyway, across the border.

Lister contended that whilst sanctions may impact aid entering the borders of Syria, the distribution of aid within Syria is a broader issue:

Sanctions is a complete side point, virtually irrelevant in terms of the flow of humanitarian assistance.

Desperation for aid grows

Of course, anger has grown over the sluggish international response to aid. Sanctions are still likely to be an ongoing problem for aid routes, as Declassified explained:

Al-Jazeera showed how “anger and desperation” is growing, particularly in northern Syria:

Abdelmajid Al Shawi, an earthquake survivor, said:

We want our voice to reach the whole world but where is the aid?…Find us a solution. Where is this aid coming from? Let’s see. Aid is never going to come here.

Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets Rescue Force, said:

It has never happened before that there was an earthquake and the international community and the UN don’t help – this has never happened before anywhere in the world. The United Nations failed drastically, this shouldn’t have happened this way. There must be an investigation into these shortcomings.

And Clare Daly, member of the European Parliament, warned that many thousands more may die in the aftermath of the earthquake:

Meanwhile, Byline Times journalist Richard Medhurst pointed out that of the few countries sending aid to Syria, many of them were themselves under sanctions:

International obligations

UN humanitarian affairs chief Martin Griffiths was to give a presentation to the UN Security Council on the situation in Syria after visiting the region over the weekend. He said on Twitter:

We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria.

They rightly feel abandoned.

He added that it was the international community’s obligation “to correct this failure as fast as we can.”

The people of Syria have been forced to contend with the effects of civil war for many years. Aid’s entanglement with diplomacy has compounded the earthquake’s devastation, leading to international reticence. As Noor Noman, a journalist for MSNBC, said:

There is no doubt that Assad has committed egregious human rights’ violations, but the story is never that simple. We are being myopic and simplistic if we convince ourselves that we can reduce what’s happening in Syria to a hero-villain or righteous-immoral narrative (and there is the question of the extent to which America has moral high ground to stand on).

We must avoid the urge to cast heroes and villains. Such binary narratives forget the people of Syria, who must not be abandoned. Noman continued:

Sanctions are not resulting in the atomization of the Assad regime, they are only hurting and killing ordinary civilians. The only humane response the West can offer right now is to do everything in its power to allow, support and enable the flow of resources to the Syrian people.

Time is of the essence, and we must all do what we can to urge efficient and swift aid directly to people in Syria. Otherwise, this tragedy could yet become another example of the lack of international support and solidarity for communities in the Global South.

Featured image via YouTube screenshot/BBC News

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

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  • Show Comments
    1. “Are sanctions to blame?”

      Seriously ? Did you think they might not be ?

      They’re applied by the very same states that the author of the above article cheerleads for when they apply sanctions against Iran.

      For the record, not everyone is restrained by the sanctions. The Director of Civil Aviation in Syria, Basem Mansour, said the total number of planes that arrived at Syrian airports as of 10 am on Wednesday 15th Feb amounted to 112 planes.

      The aid planes were distributed as follows: 34 from the UAE, 11 from Iraq, 10 from Libya, 7 from Algeria, 7 from Iran, 5 from the Sultanate of Oman, 4 from Kazakhstan, 3 from Egypt, Belarus, China, Russia, Jordan, Tunisia, and Armenia, 2 from Saudi Arabia, India, Pakistan, and the World Health Organization, and one plane from Bangladesh, Sudan, Chechnya, and Venezuela each.

      Also, maybe not a great idea to take too much on trust from the White Helmets, given that they are funded by the very same nations that are enforcing the sanctions, not to mention their reputation for, for example, staging faked chemical attacks in Syria, in order to provoke a reaction against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (now who would that benefit ? Three guesses….).

      “Amar al-Mustafa Ibn Mohammad from Aleppo saw with his own eyes how they simulated a chemical attack. They brought children, laid them down, put civilians away and filmed children as if they died in the chemical attack,”

      1. I have to agree with the sentiment of the first comment. While distribution of aid will have multiple internal factors helping or hampering it, the deliverance of sufficient support into a country being crushed for years by UK, US and EU sanctions is also a key issue.

        A proper understanding of the nature of sanctions is lacking here. Don’t forget, The Guardian has backed the overthrow while whitewashing the reactionary sunni chauvinist death squads for years. As have most other Western press.

        Turkey’s continued illegal occupation and ethnic cleansing and airstrikes obviously is a key factor.

        Also, Lister long supported the armed opposition to SARG while largely whitewashing their deeply reactionary nature. Likewise, the White Helmets are a foreign funded and created propaganda operation which only operated out of areas controlled by Turkey or reactionary theocrats, as The Canary itself has reported. See older pieces about the White Helmets and Syria war more broadly from 2018,2019,2020.

    2. And now, presumably acting on the assumption that as Uncle Sam’s main henchman in the region they can do what they like, Israel yesterday (19 Feb) launched airstrikes on Syria,.

      Just past midnight, the Syrian air defenses engaged Israeli air-to-surface missiles in the skies of Damascus. The Israeli attack targeted the Kafr Sousa area in Damascus, and the Tal al Masih area near the city of Shahba, north of As-Suwayda, according to Al Mayadeen correspondent. Syrian media reported 5 deaths and 10 injured.

      Syria has called on the Secretary General of the UN and the Security Council to denounce the Israeli aerial attacks against Syria and to take initiative to deter and prevent them.

      I suppose that if I condemned Israel for what looks to me like pure evil, targetting a country already reeling from the earthquake and the problems imposed by Western sanctions, I’d be considered anti-semetic ?

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