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"They rightly feel abandoned": One week after earthquake, northwest Syria still awaits international aid

After the devastating earthquake, rebel-controlled areas in northwestern Syria are still struggling to receive aid from the international community. While southeastern Turkey is rightly receiving aid from around the world, NPR journalists reported that the border with Syria is "empty and quiet". Meanwhile, the tyrannical regime of Bashar Al-Assad continues to consider unauthorised aid to the region a violation of Syrian sovereignty.

Turkey and Syria: a world of difference

When an exceptionally powerful earthquake - measuring 7.8 on the instant magnitude scale - struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria last week, the world was rocked by the horrific images of complete devastation and a rapidly rising death toll. At the time of writing state the death toll at a whopping 36,000. Moreover, the UN has an alarming warning given that the death toll could easily exceed 50,000.

Rightly - and quickly - a major humanitarian aid mission was launched by dozens of countries, with rescue teams, food, medicine and financial support. Soon the roads in Turkey's impact zone were "blocked" by trucks carrying rescue workers and tools.

In Syria, however, the reality is very different. While in Turkey humanitarian aid arrived from the first day of the disaster, the first three days strike only the bodies of Syrian refugees crossed the Turkish-Syrian border. A devastating blow to the region, which was already largely dependent on humanitarian aid before the earthquake. Without rescue teams and modern equipment, survivors in the Syrian impact zone could not reach the many voices crying for help. Almost all of those voices are now stunned.

The politicisation of humanitarian aid

A major reason for the lack of humanitarian aid in Syria is the bloody war that has been going on in the country for more than 10 years. Syria's hardest-hit region is currently under the control of the rebel group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). This radical Islamist group is targeted by the UN and US classified as a terrorist organisation.

Aid entering Syria is complicated by the fact that President Assad does not allow humanitarian aid shipments to cross regime-controlled territory without permission. Moreover, an anonymous HTS member has published that "[the HTS] will not allow the regime to take advantage of the situation by showing that they are helping."

As a result, humanitarian aid has so far had to enter Syria through one point on the Turkish-Syrian border, at Bab al-Hawa. To make matters worse, Turkish roads to Bab al-Hawa were both damaged and overloaded by the earthquake.

On 14 February, however, Assad took a step in the right direction by, after talks with WHO chief Ghebreyesus and UN officials two more border crossings to the Syrian disaster area to be opened.

The UN's willingness to negotiate with the Syrian regime is not immune from criticism. "Many believe that this cooperation from the Syrian president is part of a campaign to exploit the situation so that he can regain his political legitimacy and the world engages with him," said Al Jazeera correspondent Zeina Khodr. Furthermore, it is distressing to note that Assad only let humanitarian aid through after four days, when most of the people under the rubble can no longer be saved. Finally, there is former on previous similar promises by Assad that have not been kept.

Call to action

"We have let the people of north-west Syria down so far", tweeted UN aid chief Martin Griffiths Sunday. "They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international aid that has not arrived. It is my duty and our duty to correct this failure as soon as possible."

Griffiths is part of a growing number of senior international policymakers to address the Syrian situation. Others - such as US UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield - have told the UN Security Council called to vote for allowing more entry points into Syria along the Turkish border. "We must not let them down - we must immediately vote on a resolution to heed the UN's call to allow additional border crossings for the delivery of humanitarian aid," Thomas-Greenfield said.

A few have called for a lifting of sanctions against the Assad regime to help north-west Syria, as sanctions would hinder humanitarian aid from Damascus. However, these calls have been criticised by experts as misplaced because sanctions do not affect humanitarian organisations.

At an interview with Vox, Zaher Sahloul - president of MedGlobal, an organisation that has helped build medical posts in northwestern Syria - suggested that humanitarian aid supplies should be airlifted to the affected area. "We have US military bases not far from there, in north-eastern Syria," Sahloul said.

It is clear that the politicisation of humanitarian aid to Syria must stop immediately. Humanitarian aid must be allowed to enter the country unrestricted. "The world has left us to our own devices in the face of the criminal Bashar al-Assad. But this is a natural disaster," told Ibrahim Bakkour, a councillor in the devastated town of Jinderis to NPR reporters. "This is not a political discussion; it is a humanitarian situation and we need help."


Author: David Groenen