The Tremors of War: Syria’s Aid Crisis

Photo Credit: Reuters/Mahmoud Hassano

By Kurt Johnston
Staff Writer

Author’s note: The GoFundMe set up by the Turkish Student Association at UC San Diego is linked here for readers who want to donate towards earthquake relief.

Even prior to the February 6th earthquake, northwestern Syria was ravaged by disease and razed by war. The Idlib province, bordering Turkey’s southern border, is the only major region in Syria still held by opposition forces. Much of the population in Idlib is made up of displaced Syrians, who have fled from Bashar al-Assad’s forces over the course of the twelve year civil war. However, support to the region is limited; the Syrian government alleges that aid— sent through the only official corridor to Idlib, Bab al-Hawa— violates its sovereignty. The earthquake’s destruction, in the wake of Syria’s perpetual political conflict, has exacerbated the dire humanitarian crisis in the Idlib province.

As of February 21st, the official death toll due to the earthquake has been estimated to be over 46,000 people, mostly in Turkey. In Idlib and other parts of Syria, the number of casualties has reached 5,500. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck at just past 4 in the morning and a 7.5 magnitude aftershock was felt later in the day; the horrifying destruction is alleged to be as costly as 84.1 billion dollars. An incoming cold spell complicates rescue efforts, as night-time temperatures are expected to be around 0 degrees Celsius. Extensive amounts of rubble are still being searched, however, rescue efforts are slowing as fewer and fewer survivors are being found.

The earthquake is yet another crisis Syria has had to face in recent decades. Syria’s civil war began in 2011 after Syrian troops fired on civilians protesting Bashar al-Assad’s regime. At the outset, the conflict consisted of rebel groups fighting against government forces; the later emergence of extremist groups (namely, the Islamic State) and Turkish operations against Kurdish groups in Syria have prolonged the war. The Syrian civil war is also a human rights calamity. Hundreds of thousands have died in a war that has included large-scale use of lethal chemical weapons. Members of both the Assad regime and the Islamic State have been convicted of crimes against humanity including rape and torture of prisoners, forced conversion, and mass murder. As a result, millions of Syrians have been forced to flee from violence. According to the UNHCR, 6.7 million Syrians are internally displaced and an additional 6.6 million Syrians have been granted refugee status. The prolonged conflict has also led to the destruction of clean water infrastructure, forcing many to drink contaminated water from the Euphrates River. In 2022, reports of a cholera outbreak in the Idlib province began to surface. Doctors Without Borders reported that, as of late November, there were over 12,000 suspected cases in Idlib. That number was updated to 77,500 cases in January, with experts warning that the recent earthquake could exacerbate the spread of the disease.

These issues have culminated in an aid problem: funneled into the sole border crossing at Bab al-Hawa, humanitarian groups have been unable to properly help northwestern Syria. The Idlib province was the hardest hit region in Syria by both the cholera outbreak and the earthquake; however, its leaders’ opposition to the Assad regime means that aid sent to Damascus (and therefore processed by the Syrian government) will not reach the province. Due to destruction of roads and infrastructure near Bab al-Hawa, the first U.N. convoy in response to the earthquake was only able to arrive on Thursday— a full 72 hours after the initial destruction. Additionally, the territory hit by the earthquake is divided and controlled by several opposing factions: Turkish-backed rebels, Kurdish forces, jihadist groups, and the Assad regime itself. This severely complicates distribution of aid to Idlib.

Just three years ago, humanitarian support was much more accessible. Rather than only having one channel of aid, northern Syria had 4 official crossings. However, in early 2020, a Russian veto on the U.N. Security Council shut down two humanitarian crossings, one on the southern border with Jordan and another on the northeast border with Iraq. The Yaroubia crossing from Iraq was northeastern Syria’s primary pipeline of medical supplies, leading to increased concerns about COVID-19 in the region. Months later, a third border crossing from Turkey, Bab al-Salam, was also shut down after another Moscow veto. In July 2022, it appeared as if Bab al-Hawa would also be shut down after a vote failed to extend the U.N.’s mission for an additional year. An alternative solution from the Kremlin, which would have kept the crossing open for six months while leaving all future aid channels to Damascus, was also struck down. However, a six month extension was eventually voted through and unanimously extended in January 2023. The Russians— motivated to close these crossings in the hopes of maintaining their political influence over Assad— have risked the lives of thousands of Syrian civilians. While the Security Council was able to negotiate the opening of Bab al-Hawa, it is difficult to overstate the damage done by closing three of four humanitarian crossings in a war-torn region. 

In response to the U.N. pressure, Assad agreed on February 13th to reopen the Bab al-Salam crossing as well as Al Raée, an additional crossing on the Turkish border. However, the aid flow is only temporary, and the briefly reopened crossings will close in three months. There are also serious doubts about the speed at which the Syrian government will act to open these crossings and implement aid. As the days pass, the chances of survival dwindle; an influx of aid may not come in time for those trapped under the rubble.

The catastrophic series of events that has recently struck Idlib is nothing new to its residents. Syrians in the northwest region have faced a brutal civil war, a lethal cholera outbreak in the midst of a global pandemic, and now a devastating earthquake. In normal circumstances, Syrian civilians would be supported by medical supplies and infrastructural aid. However, the overt politicization of humanitarian efforts— a triumph of hate over human life— has left the Idlib province to suffer on its own.

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