An entire week after the most severe earthquake in a century hit Turkey and Syria last week, thus far killing 4,000 Syrians inside the country and displacing hundreds of thousands of others, the UN has finally admitted that it has failed to come to the aid of the residents of northern Syria.
UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths, tweeted that the UN has “so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
“My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”
The UN’s admission of failure is too little too late for the Syrian opposition. Salem Al-Meslet, head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, strongly rejected the excuses intended to justify the UN’s failure to help the Syrian people in areas outside regime control.
“Since the early hours of the earthquake disaster, we asked the UN to quickly and immediately intervene by sending aid across the border,” Meslet said. “However, it stalled and procrastinated and then went to areas under the control of the regime, despite hundreds of reports showing that the regime keeps the aid and does not distribute it.”
“The UN wants to exonerate itself of its failure in the areas under opposition control and wants to give the regime legitimacy by delivering aid through it.”
The Syrian opposition has also accused the international community, not just the UN, of politicising the aid. It said that while only 500 victims of the earthquake were located in regime-controlled areas, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad has received all Arab and UN assistance. In areas under opposition control, nearly 4,000 victims were killed, and the areas received nothing.
Over five days 55 flights carrying humanitarian assistance have landed in areas under regime control, including Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia.
But in opposition areas some 45 per cent of the infrastructure was damaged, mostly schools, medical facilities, and other service facilities. More than 950 residential buildings were completely leveled and 2,900 partially collapsed. Over 900,000 people were impacted by the earthquake in rebel-controlled northwest Syria, while losses in regime-controlled areas were one fifth of this figure.
A spokesman for the aid group Doctors Without Borders stressed that humanitarian assistance to Syria had been slower and less effective than in other earthquake-affected areas. UN estimates say that 3.5 million Syrians have been made homeless as a result of the earthquake, he said.
In northwest Syria, residents in the stricken areas demonstrated in protest at the UN’s double standards in delivering aid. They criticised the fact that aid was sent to the regime, while areas under opposition control were ignored, even though they were also already suffering from the devastation of war.
The suffering in these areas has been compounded due to the catastrophic conditions. No equipment or rescue teams have arrived, let alone medical equipment or tents. Humanitarian aid is non-existent, and the efforts of civil defence teams such as the White Helmets are being exhausted.
They have been working around the clock to help victims trapped under the rubble, and no longer have fuel to operate clearance machines.
Haytham Rahmeh, Secretary-General of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said Corinne Fleischer, UN World Food Programme (WFP) Country Director in Syria, had been “disseminating false and misleading information” about the UN’s response to earthquake victims in Syria.
Rahmeh said that Fleischer had claimed aid was being distributed in northwest Syria, but the footage used was made in regime-controlled Aleppo.
“In addition to the UN’s obvious failure to help people in opposition areas, Fleischer is behaving unprofessionally and presenting misleading information on social media,” he said.
Meanwhile, the EU seems to understand the danger of the regime politicising the tragedy. Dan Stoenescu, the EU Envoy to Syria, called on the regime not to politicise the issue of humanitarian aid, anticipating that it will now ask to be exempt from sanctions.
The regime has taken advantage of the disaster to activate efforts at its international normalisation and to demand that US, European, and UN sanctions against it be lifted. It has claimed that the sanctions are blocking the arrival of aid, even though US, EU, and UN officials say that the sanctions do not obstruct the delivery of humanitarian relief.
The US Treasury is allowing transactions relating to earthquake relief for 180 days, these having been previously banned by the sanctions. It said that the US sanctions against Syria do not target legitimate humanitarian assistance, including in areas under regime control.
Most of the opposition believes that suspending US sanctions blocking financial transfers to Syria supports the regime, however. US House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul and Senator James Risch, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said that allowing direct transactions with the Al-Assad regime in the name of humanitarian relief is “a slap in the face of the Syrian people.”
On the sixth day after the earthquake, aid convoys finally began to arrive in areas controlled by the opposition. On 9 February, six trucks came, followed by 14 the following day. The two relief convoys delivered humanitarian equipment, tents and blankets but no food or other supplies.
British commentator David Hirst criticised the EU’s handling of the disaster, stating that it showed the EU to be “heartless”. He said it had lost an opportunity to show ethical and humanitarian leadership, adding that even at the level of self-interest the EU should support the Syrians in northwestern Syria and ensure Turkey’s ability to continue to resettle refugees in order to prevent another deluge of refugees from Syria to Europe.
Despite the calamity, there have thus far been no waves of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey, even among those rendered homeless or losing most of their families.
Meanwhile, the rescue operations continue amid overwhelming fears among Syrians in opposition areas that they will now be afflicted by an even stronger earthquake.
“The Syrian people have paid the highest price for this earthquake,” Ziyadeh said. “They still languish under the grip of the regime. They are paying the price for the failed state that Al-Assad has led to international isolation, a state that is entirely incapable of responding to natural disasters, especially an earthquake of this magnitude.”
The earthquake has thrust the Syrian issue to the forefront of world attention after it was almost forgotten by the international community. It has refocused attention on the tragedy of the Syrian people over the past 12 years and the need to find a comprehensive and just solution to the Syrian crisis before further disasters strike.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly