Unnatural disaster in Syria’s northwest

Idlib displaced

In the wake of the devastating Feb. 6 earthquake that has killed some 15,000 in Turkey and Syria, the contested political situation in the latter country is raising particular dilemmas. Aid agencies warn of “catastrophic” implications for Syria’s rebel-controlled northwest, where millions of displaced and vulnerable people were already in precarious straits and relying on humanitarian support before the quake. At least half of the estimated 2,000 dead in Syria are in the rebel-controlled area. (Al Bawaba,¬†SOHR,¬†CNN) Due to Russian influence at the UN on behalf of the Bashar Assad regime, humanitarian access is already limited to one border crossing‚ÄĒBab al-Hawa. And Moscow and Damascus have been pressuring to close that one as well.

The International Rescue Committee’s Syria country director Tanya Evans says in a¬†statement:

With the response in its infancy the need for humanitarian aid is stark… Even before the earthquake, humanitarian access was constrained in northwest Syria, with most aid coming in via one crossing-point with T√ľrkiye [Turkey]. In this time of increased need it is critical that the levels of aid crossing also increase at pace too.

The New Humanitarian website is more explicit:

Due largely to¬†pressure from Moscow, the UN Security Council has reduced the UN’s access to the northwest from T√ľrkiye to¬†one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, which itself appears to have suffered heavy earthquake damage.

It can use this crossing without permission from al-Assad, but only for aid into Idlib and its surrounding provinces. Moving aid across front lines in Syria has proved problematic at best, and almost impossible at worst.

‚Äč‚Äč”The impact is massive,”¬†Dr Ghanem Tayara, president of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which works in northwest Syria, told The New Humanitarian.

“The movement of aid through the border will be disrupted due to the damage caused by the earthquake,”¬†Tayara said. “The situation is very unsettling due to high casualties and uncertainty in the north of Syria, as well as on the Turkish/Syrian borders.”

The Syria Observatory of Human Rights¬†(SOHR) is echoing demands of those in the rebel-controlled north for “international authorities to interfere immediately and provide support in this humanitarian disaster.”

Inevitably, the Assad regime, which is complicit in exacerbating the disaster in Syria’s northwest (even serially¬†bombing hospitals), is assailing the international sanctions on the regime as having “exacerbated the tragedy and catastrophe” of the earthquake, and is attempting to parlay the disaster into getting the sanctions lifted. (Middle East Monitor)

In fairness, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is also demanding that the sanctions be immediately lifted. SARC president Khaled Hboubati told a press conference in Damascus that his organization needs equipment, ambulances and heavy machinery, “and the main obstacle is the sanctions imposed on Syria.” He also emphasized that the SARC does not differentiate between people living in regime-controlled or rebel-held areas, expressing readiness to send an aid convoy to¬†Idlib, the long-besieged province in the northwest. (Xinhua)

However, this demand is likewise being echoed by Iranian state media such as Press TV, and regime-sympathetic “leftist” (sic) websites in the West such as¬†AntiWar.com¬†and¬†Peoples Dispatch‚ÄĒwhich have obvious ulterior agendas. It should also be noted that the SARC has to operate within regime-controlled Syria, which places obvious political constraints on the organization.

We await word from the International Rescue Committee and UOSSM on the question of whether the sanctions should be eased or lifted to facilitate aid to regime-held Syria. But we are extremely wary of any efforts to exploit the disaster in the service of the current effort by Assad and his foreign sponsors like Russia and Iran for normalization of his genocidal regime.

And certainly any voices calling for the lifting of sanctions on the regime but not increased international humanitarian access to Syria’s northwest (and immediate cessation of regime and Russian bombardment¬†of the zone) can be readily dismissed as opportunistic¬†and hypocritical.

Photo: UNHCR
  1. Is earthquake aid reaching northwest Syria?

    With aid workers warning of a “second disaster” due to cold and disease, the first aid shipment from Turkish territory is reported to reach¬†northwest Syria. (PRI,¬†PBS) But the White Helmets citizen rescue organization in the enclave¬†tweets: “The UN aid that is being talked about entering northwestern #Syria is the reuglar [sic] and periodic assistance that has been occurring since before the #earthquake. It stopped during the first days of the earthquake, and has now resumed.”

    David Miliband, president of the International Rescue Committee, also emphasizes that humanitarian aid is not covered by the sanctions‚ÄĒand that the greatest need is now in the rebel-held territories. He calls demands for the lifting of sanctions “a bit of a red herring.” (PRI)

  2. WHO chief tours quake devastation in rebel-held Syria

    WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus¬†visited¬†rebel-held northwest Syria on March 1, highlighting the dire humanitarian situation in the region almost a month after it was rocked by devastating earthquakes. The death toll across southern Turkey and northern Syria has now topped¬†51,000. In northwest Syria, tens of thousands have been made newly homeless in a region where 1.8 million people displaced by Syria’s nearly 12-year civil war were already living in camps. Cholera cases are¬†surging¬†as living conditions have worsened in the camps since the earthquakes. There is little prospect of aid organizations or local authorities¬†being able to provide¬†many more sanitary, longer-term housing solutions any time soon. The UN has¬†negotiated¬†with the Syrian government to open two more border crossings to allow aid to enter rebel-held areas of northern Syria. Aid access to the region has long been a politically fraught issue, especially as critics say President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is¬†using¬†the earthquakes to attempt to break out of more than a decade of global isolation. (TNH)

  3. Syria: attacks on hospitals impact sexual, reproductive health

    Twelve years into Syria’s war, a new report from Physicians for Human Rights documentshow attacks on hospitals and health workers in the rebel-held northwest have put up increasing barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive healthcare, “resulting in far-reaching tolls on the health and well-being of women, girls, and healthcare professionals.” (TNH)