There are few tragedies in the world for which the responsibility can be deflected away from politics and human fault. This week’s earthquake in Turkiye and Syria was one of those, and has resulted in a flurry of devastation – over 20,000 deaths so far, destroyed homes, huge infrastructure damage and newly displaced people.
The same cannot be said of the aftermath of such an incident; for the response and reaction is then wholly in the court of human responsibility.
When it comes to Turkiye, the response has been hopeful and enormous, with widespread mobilisation nationally and from globally. Nations and organisations have rushed to the assistance of Turkiye by transporting aid and emergency teams to alleviate the country’s struggle, ensuring that as many lives are saved and as many people as possible are pulled out from beneath the rubble.
It has not been so coordinated for Syria, however, which remains territorially and authoritatively split, primarily between the areas under Bashar Al-Assad’s regime and those held by the opposition.
Only four days after the quakes did six truckloads of aid finally enter the north-western province of Idlib, with even that consisting of the usual – although still much-needed – products like blankets, clothes and food items rather than those necessary for directly assisting victims of the earthquake and able to assist in the lifting of rubble.
Even more importantly, there have been no rescue groups, organisations, or teams from other nations to help the affected victims in north-west and northern Syria, leaving the local population to deal with operations on their own.
READ: Turkiye-Syria earthquake: ‘It’s as though someone dropped a nuclear bomb’
One local in north-west Syria, Saleh Androun, told Middle East Monitor: “We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Between the regime’s militias, and Turkiye’s own emergency, and internal political rivalry which makes it even harder to pass aid through.”
Another local activist, Abbas, told MEMO that if a more developed country like Turkiye is “in need for all hands on deck and all the international help that is offered…what will be the case for the people of Idlib and northern liberated Syria which is now running its revolution onto the twelfth year?”
Despite the people of Idlib being more used to disaster management and responsiveness than most due to their experiences, he said, “we are [still] in need of resources like finance, aid and specialists in the disaster management field, as well as heavy equipment to cut through the metal and dig through the rubble. Medical personnel and medical aid are crucial at a time like this.”
Divided Syria, divided aid
It is only the White Helmets, otherwise officially known as Syrian Civil Defence, that is using its experience in rescue operations gained throughout the ongoing Syrian civil war to lead the earthquake rescue operations, as well as locally-based NGOs and charities such as Molham Team which are providing relief and aid to victims and their families.
Meanwhile, a number of friendly states like Russia, Pakistan, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Iran, and China have offered to assist areas under Syrian regime control, but that aid is being provided to opposition-held areas. That reality has given birth to a myriad of misinformation by the Assad regime and its supporters, giving them ample material to justify an international normalisation of ties with Damascus.
The widespread and usual explanation behind the lack of aid to opposition-held territories is that Western sanctions are preventing the Syrian government from receiving international aid and distributing it to these areas. That is easily debunked by the fact that aid is not officially subject to sanctions, seen in the international aid so far provided to regime-controlled territories by the aforementioned countries.
Even more essentially, there is a real and widespread lack of trust in the Assad regime’s ability – or willingness – to properly and equally distribute aid to all areas, with many warning that it will not be sent to opposition-held areas. That was the case over the past decade of conflict in the country, which is a primary reason separate cross-border aid corridors were established, and is unlikely to be different this time.
As Androun told me, “everyone has already seen where UNHCR aid goes, only to Assad’s army”, referring to the regime’s rampant corruption in diverting international aid and its siphoning off of funds.
Moreover, the regime continued to bomb the north-western civilian areas a day after the earthquake struck, giving no consideration for the catastrophe and loss of life. How can such a player be trusted as the arbiter of international assistance and aid?
Already, social media users are reporting of the regime and its forces’ refusal to allow aid to flow north to the opposition-held areas, with one Twitter user stating that “an experimental attempt to bring 50 blankets from northern Hama to the countryside of Idlib was prevented by the Syrian army.”
READ:A solution for Syria is complicated and needs serious commitment
Another user reported how the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) – the supposedly impartial charity directly under the influence of the regime – dropped off a significant amount of food, water and blankets in a government-held area, “only for the regime to load it up into trucks and take it away after a photo-op. Residents later received 4 eggs and a loaf of bread per family.”
Still other footage and clips show SARC purportedly stealing the aid and refusing to distribute it, with other pictures and screenshots apparently showing items diverted from aid now being sold in shops.
“I have seen with my own eyes during the liberation of parts of Idlib the regime soldiers had stockpiled UN aid as their military stocks,” Abbas told me. “Imagine sacks of rice with UN logo, for the displaced, being used for their [Syrian] military. So I do not trust Damascus to be truthful in delivering any aid” to opposition-held areas.
He stressed his stance that sanctions against the Assad regime must be kept in place. “For these sanctions are put on the regime and criminal individuals who had betrayed our country. These sanctions had no direct economical [impact on] the people of Syria. Lifting sanctions means these criminals’ aggression against people will intensify.”
Citing the continued regime attacks against the northern territories, one of which reportedly took place yesterday, he said: “If there is an ounce of humanitarian feeling, they would cease these attacks while its people are dealing with natural disaster.” Abbas was not surprised at Damascus and its supporters’ calls for lifting the sanctions, saying it “tries to utilise every opportunity to make an excuse to lift” them.
UN betrayal or stupidity?
One of the clearest solutions many are now urging for, and which would hardly need any significant brainstorming to enact, is the reopening of the other border crossings previously used for transporting aid into opposition-held Syria before vetoes by UN Security Council member Russia shut them down a few years ago. This, however, only took place three days after the tragedy that struck the region.
Ineptitude by the UN is, to many, a key factor in this crisis, and it is unclear whether that is intentional or not. As Ammar Al-Samo, a White Helmets member and volunteer, told Middle East Monitor: “The UN response to Syria was delayed and not only insufficient, but there was no response. It seems that the UN is trying to delay aid and to work under bureaucracy, and to put pressure on the international community to deliver aid to the Syrian regime.” He clarified that “We don’t know if that was the intent, but that is the message.”
Al-Samo emphasised that the Syrian people and his group blames the UN “for not providing any support to the Syrian people. We are left alone under these circumstances, as if we are in the Middle Ages.”
While “taking the Syrian people hostage”, he said, the Assad regime is making use of the ongoing situation by “exploiting the global sympathy and solidarity to manage the aid, to skip towards normalisation, to bypass justice and accountability.”
Citing the government’s blatant use of a picture showing rescue operations in northwest Syria to display a false narrative of its own response, Al-Samo stated that its “intent is clear: to use this catastrophe to get political benefit.”
Four days after the earthquake struck Turkiye and Syria, only one of them has received the attention it so needed. The other is left isolated, neglected and abandoned – much like its 12-year-long revolution – by its dictator and his regime on one side and by the international community presided over by the UN on the other side.
Northwest Syria, the thousands of human lives affected there, and the many buried under rubble in a new humanitarian crisis, require a coordinated response and rescue teams just like Turkiye is getting. The fact that it is not is testament to an inept and devalued United Nations, continued corruption by the Assad regime, and perhaps simply a world that no longer cares.
“I keep running my finger down the list of countries that has sent help and rescue workers to Turkiye, checking and rechecking if there is a country that will be willing to come towards us, at least after helping Turkiye,” Abbas lamented.
Disclaimer: Between a dictator and a failed UN, post-earthquake Syria resembles its revolution: isolated and abandoned - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view