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The Takeaway: Syria's neglected northwest pleads for earthquake aid

Plus, a roundup of Al-Monitor's on-the-ground coverage of the devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey.
Turkey earthquake

WASHINGTON — Earthquake survivors who gathered at the Syrian-Turkish border on Wednesday to protest a lack of international support watched as body bags arrived, but no aid. 

“The only thing coming from Turkey are the bodies of martyrs,” Syrian journalist Mustafa Dahnon said in a video filmed from the crossing.  

Behind him were the bodies of dozens of Syrians, including refugees who fled the country’s civil war only to die in the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that rocked Turkey and Syria early Monday. As of publication, the combined death toll had climbed past the 12,000 mark.  

The bodies, many of which were covered in bright blue tarp, were repatriated through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. The United Nations and its partners use that same corridor to send humanitarian assistance each month to some 2.6 million Syrians living in the country's impoverished northwest. 

The UN says it was forced to suspend operations at Bab al-Hawa this week because of damage to the roads leading to the UN’s supply hub in the Turkish province of Hatay. Many UN staff are themselves victims of the earthquake, and Turkish authorities are stretched thin, further hampering relief operations.  

In a glimmer of hope Wednesday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance announced it had identified alternative roads to reach the Hatay hub and that plans were underway to deliver aid through Bab al-Hawa as soon as Thursday. 

But experts say far more could be done to keep humanitarian aid flowing. 

“There are several routes to get into Syria,” said Dareen al-Khalifa, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group focused on Syria.

“They should just bypass the UN mechanism at this point,” she said. “This is a crisis situation, and aid should be coming in from any and every possible direction.”

Originally, the cross-border aid mechanism that began in 2014 set up four border crossings — two in Turkey, one in Jordan and one in Iraq. In recent years, Syria's allies Russia and China have used their Security Council vetoes to reduce the number of authorized delivery routes, leaving only the Bab al-Hawa crossing operational by 2020.  

Asked if the UN was exploring other routes for aid delivery, OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke told Al-Monitor, “We adhere to the mandate provided by the Security Council.”

That mandate allows for the UN and its partners to deliver supplies without getting permission from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government, which tightly restricts humanitarian access and has a history of obstructing deliveries to opposition-held parts of the country.  

Syria and Russia say the cross-border operation is a violation of Syrian sovereignty and argue aid should be delivered via Damascus. Despite the overwhelming needs across the earthquake-ravaged north, the country's UN ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, insisted on Monday that relief should be channeled from inside Syria.  

As rescue workers beg the world for help, Richard Gowan, the UN director at the International Crisis Group, said there are “stirrings in the Security Council about the potential need to call for urgent measures to get aid through to Idlib.”

But members are unlikely to push for a mandate to open up additional crossings unless UN aid chief Martin Griffiths says it's essential, Gowan said, adding, "It has to look like an apolitical humanitarian decision."

The current disruption to aid deliveries compounds the suffering in Idlib, home to one of the world’s most vulnerable populations even before the earthquake. Over the years, Syrian and Russian airstrikes on the densely populated rebel enclave have leveled entire neighborhoods, destroyed hospitals and created a new wave of displaced people.

Abdulkafi Alhamdo, an activist from northwest Syria, isn’t optimistic that Idlib will see more than the bare minimum from the international community. “Trust between us and the United Nations is zero,” he told Al-Monitor via WhatsApp on Wednesday. 

“I heard many people crying, screaming, pleading from under the rubble, and I didn't have anything to help them,” Alhamdo recalled of the earthquake. “It’s been three days without any kind of help.”

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More coverage from our reporters in Washington and across the region 

As Jared Szuba reports, the Pentagon has ordered a US aircraft carrier operating in the Mediterranean Sea to prepare to support rescue efforts in Turkey should the government in Ankara request it. Earlier on Wednesday, US Air Force cargo planes arrived at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey's earthquake-ravaged southeast carrying two USAID urban search-and-rescue teams and 170,000 pounds of emergency equipment. 

Reporting from Idlib, Ahmad Fallaha describes in haunting detail the ongoing search for survivors amid the rubble. As one resident of Idlib’s southern countryside described the scene, “houses are stacked on top of each other, and people are trying with all their might to get those trapped under the rubble out.”

Amberin Zaman has this deep dive on the earthquake’s possible impact on Turkish politics, including whether the May 14 elections will be held as scheduled. Zaman points out that the prior government’s poor handling of the 1999 earthquake was widely seen as a key factor in the rise of the ruling AKP. The current government, by contrast, has quickly mobilized rescue teams and welcomed Western aid. 

Our Israel editor, Rina Bassist, reports that the earthquake has devastated what remained of Antakya’s tiny Jewish community, which was established some 2,500 years ago by Jews from Aleppo in Syria. As of Wednesday morning, the president of Antakya’s Jewish community and his wife were still missing.

The Turkish government’s restrictions on Twitter access drew widespread outrage in Turkey on Wednesday. As Ezgi Akin points out, “the social media platform has been one of the most useful tools in coordinating rescue efforts.” Some victims trapped under the debris used the app to reach authorities, while others used Twitter to say goodbye to loved ones. 

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