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Rescuers pour into Turkey, but aid slow to arrive in earthquake-hit Syria

The disaster response in northern Syria is stymied by supply chain issues, logistical hurdles and diplomatic disputes over accessing the country's rebel-held territory.
Residents and rescuers search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings.

WASHINGTON — Rescue workers from around the world are streaming into Turkey but aid is arriving at a much slower pace in Syria, where more than a decade of conflict has created major hurdles for aid workers trying to reach survivors of Monday's powerful earthquake

Among the areas worst hit was the northwest Syrian province of Idlib, much of which had already been reduced to rubble during years of government airstrikes that destroyed basic infrastructure, wreaked havoc on the local economy and sent a flood of displaced people to tented camps on Turkey’s doorstep.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck early Monday, which was followed hours later by a second powerful shock along the same fault line, has compounded what was an already dire humanitarian situation in Syria’s opposition-controlled northwest. 

The pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday at least 1,621 people in Syria have died as a result of the earthquake, which also left thousands dead in Turkey. The death toll in both countries, however, is expected to rise significantly as emergency responders pull more bodies from the rubble. 

Charles Lister, a senior fellow and Syria program director at the Middle East Institute, says Syria is almost an afterthought in the statements of support issued by foreign governments. 

"I think that sort of speaks volumes at this point," Lister said. "I don't know how the international community is going to try to respond in northwestern Syria if indeed they truly want to and are driven to do so."

The United States promised swift aid to the Turkish and Syrian victims of the earthquake and on Monday announced that two urban search-and-rescue teams from Virginia and California would deploy to Turkey.

But no such teams are en route to Syria, a country with whom the United States lacks formal diplomatic relations and parts of which are controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other armed groups. 

The Biden administration is instead providing support through its existing humanitarian partners on the ground, as are other European governments. Just a handful of countries, including Russia and Algeria, have said they would dispatch their own search-and-rescue crews to Syria. 

“Syrian NGOs who are delivering on the ground as we speak will bear the brunt of this response,” said Emma Beals, a Syria analyst and adviser at the European Institute of Peace. 

Ensuring they can access funds and supplies will be critical, Beals said. Rescue workers’ immediate needs in northern Syria include ambulances and medicine, heavy machinery for removing debris, emergency food assistance and fuel for hospitals. But those supplies could be slow to materialize. 

Russian pressure at the UN Security Council has left the United Nations and its partner agencies with just one route through which they can deliver food and other supplies to the country's northwest. 

The main roads leading to that sole border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, were heavily damaged by the earthquake. Operations that rely on the critical humanitarian corridor are currently suspended, said Jens Laerke, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA).

In a letter sent to hundreds of foreign diplomats on Monday, the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity urged the international community to reopen the country's other border crossings. 

The regime has long argued that international aid should be routed through Damascus rather than across Syria’s borders. The Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bassam Sabbagh, said Monday disaster relief should be shipped "from inside Syria." 

"If anyone would like to help Syria, they can coordinate with the government," Sabbagh said.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said Washington would not coordinate aid delivery with the Syrian government, which has a long history of obstructing aid deliveries. 

“It would be ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people,” Price said.

“We’re going to continue doing what has proven effective over the course of the past dozen years or so: providing significant amounts of humanitarian assistance to partners on the ground,” he said, adding that relief actors “need to have access to be able to go back and forth across the border.” 

The scenes of widespread devastation are shocking even for Idlib province, where civilians have become accustomed to airstrikes and artillery flattening buildings and forcing families from their homes.

Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, described northwest Syria as a “tremendous logistical challenge" that is already suffering from dwindling aid resources.

“Getting supplies out of Turkey will also be challenging since Turkey needs these supplies too,” Hall said, noting that Syria faced similar challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic when countries down the supply chain were reluctant to part with supplies they needed themselves. 

The heavily impoverished northwest region, which is home to some 4.6 million Syrians, is experiencing record levels of poverty and grappling with a deadly cholera outbreak in the dead of winter. Even before the earthquake, more than 90% of the region’s population required humanitarian aid to survive.  

Aid workers and UN staff who coordinate the delivery of international aid to northern Syria are themselves impacted by the earthquake. Many are based in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep, near the epicenter of the earthquake. Some are living in their cars or sheltering outdoors to avoid aftershocks. 

Iyad Agha, the coordinator of the Northwest Syria NGO Forum, spent Monday night in an informal shelter in Gaziantep with no heating or running water. 

“It’s been an eye-opening experience,” Agha told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp Tuesday. "Having to spend a lot of time and effort to get basics such as water and meals. … This experience has helped me better understand the people that we’re serving.” 

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