On February 6, yet another catastrophe hit northwest Syria. The series of earthquakes with an epicentre in southern Turkey devastated the region, home to four million Syrians, displaced and traumatised by a decade of war. Thousands of buildings collapsed, burying thousands of people. The White Helmets, a local rescue organisation, along with local volunteers and family members, started digging through the rubble immediately, often with their bare hands, to try to get to the survivors.
They pleaded to the world for help, asking for heavy machinery, rescue teams, and equipment to help them save as many lives as possible during the crucial 72-hour window following the earthquake. But the cries of the trapped slowly died down in the harsh cold winter nights, as no assistance arrived.
In the first three days, at least two dozen shipments of disaster relief aid were sent to the Syrian regime in Damascus. None reached areas under the opposition control in northwest Syria. The only rescue teams that crossed into the Idlib area were a small group of volunteers from Egypt and a team from Spain. A prescheduled United Nations convoy carrying not emergency aid, not heavy equipment or disaster relief, but blankets and basic supplies, came on the fourth day. The pleas of White Helmets and other Syrians desperate to save the lives of their loved ones echoed around the world without response, unheard and unheeded.
Why? Why were Syrians trapped in opposition-controlled areas abandoned like this at a time of great need, at a time when the world came together in solidarity with victims of this disaster in Turkey and regime-controlled Syria; when rescue crews and disaster relief was dispatched in a matter of hours from places as distant as Venezuela, Canada, and Iceland? Why were these people, already displaced and brutalised for almost 12 years, suffering in unliveable conditions even before the earthquake struck, left to their terrible fate with little more than promises of help that never arrived?
The explanation you are likely to hear from the United Nations is that there were “logistical issues” and damage inflicted by the earthquake on the infrastructure at Bab al-Hawa, the only border crossing used for aid delivery. And the reason why there is only one border crossing serving the humanitarian needs of more than four million people is Russian blackmail at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). For years now, Moscow has de-authorised all other border crossings for humanitarian aid deliveries through the UN at the threat of vetoing them altogether.
There are several border crossings between Turkey and Syria that are close to the areas affected by the earthquake and that are already used to bring in humanitarian aid by state and non-state actors. Saudi Arabia, for example, sent a humanitarian convoy through Al-Hamam crossing near Jindires, while the Kurdistan Region of Iraq used Bab al-Salama crossing to send its aid to Afrin. Can the UN use these crossings? Yes, it can. Syrian organisations, such as the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), the Free Syrian Lawyers Association and others, have been vocal for more than two years about the legal basis that allows for the delivery of aid to Idlib without UNSC approval. Their position is based on international law and has been adopted by Amnesty International and a number of international legal experts.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has called for opening all border crossings to aid, while former US envoy to Syria Joel Rayburn has argued that a new US-Turkey-European Union mechanism should be created to deliver aid directly to the region without the redundant UNSC approval. The UN has not acted. Why? As the SACD has pointed out, the UNSC decision has been used as a “smokescreen” to cover up the real reason why emergency aid is not reaching northwest Syria: “It is about the brutality of the Syrian regime and its allies. It is about appeasement.”
Steven Heydemann, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, has explained further: “UN humanitarian operations on the ground in regime-held areas – which receive 90% of assistance flowing to Syria – remain cowed by the regime into complying with its heavy-handed insistence that it serve as the sole recipient and distributor of assistance coming into the country – a cynical gesture to force donors to acknowledge its sovereignty, while giving one of the most corrupt regimes in the world, with a track record of abuse and theft of humanitarian aid and a refusal to deliver aid across conflict lines into northern Syria, control over critical humanitarian resources.” In other words, the UN allows the Syrian regime to weaponise aid for its benefit instead of acting in accordance with its mandate to protect Syrian civilians. And this is where we come to the real reasons for the failure to deliver life-saving emergency aid to Syrians in Idlib: the normalisation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutality and the dehumanisation of Syrians.
For years I have witnessed first hand how displaced Syrians in Europe, Lebanon, Turkey, and especially in northwest Syria have been dehumanised. The four million people living there have been written off by a large majority of the world in line with the Syrian regime and Russia’s narrative that the region is a hotbed of “Islamic fanatics” and “terrorists”. Children who die in Idlib province under regime bombardment or from the cold or lack of medical care do not make headlines. They are not even footnotes anymore. Their stories no longer seem to count.
This is why the calls of Syrian organisations to accept the alternative legal basis for aid delivery to northwest Syria have been ignored by the UN and key powers. This is why the pleas of the White Helmets and Syrian activists for heavy equipment and rescue assistance have fallen on deaf ears. This is why the cries for help from under the rubble across northwest Syria – in Jindires, Idlib, Azmarin and Harem – were not answered.