Just as dawn broke on Feb. 6, 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, triggering one of the deadliest natural disasters in the 21st century. The earthquake and its aftershocks razed entire cities and towns to the ground. Over 22,000 people have been killed, tens of thousands injured, and more than 200,000 left homeless — all numbers that will dramatically increase in the coming weeks. Already, a looming “secondary disaster” threatens the region, as freezing temperatures and supply shortages slow rescue efforts and lessen chances of survival.
In Syria, the results were catastrophic, striking a country already devastated by an ongoing 12-year humanitarian crisis and war. War-torn infrastructure in cities across Syria quickly collapsed following the quake, ravaging regions that had only just emerged from past destruction. Aleppo, already destroyed by the war, was one of the hardest hit cities in the earthquake. But nowhere was the impact more pronounced than in opposition-held northwest Syria, a tiny region of over 4.6 million people, half of whom are internally displaced, that remains under siege by the Syrian regime. Even before the earthquake, the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria was acute: over 3.3 million of the 4.6 million population were food-insecure, 1.8 million lived in camps lacking permanent shelter, and almost all needed life-saving humanitarian assistance.
DIFFICULTIES OF RELIEF EFFORTS
Immediately at the onset of the quake, search and rescue missions were undertaken by local nongovernmental organizations, civil society, and government efforts. International relief, still woefully inadequate to the extent of the crisis, began to pour in from individual nations, the EU, and the UN. Whereas in Syria the lack of a functioning state and a kleptocratic regime mires coordination, in northwest Syria, where the situation is especially dire, relief efforts are undertaken entirely in the absence of a state. Local nongovernmental organizations and grassroots civil defense groups, known as the White Helmets, are forced to shoulder the massive burden alone. The latest disaster only exacerbates the severe isolation and frailty of the region, landlocked on either side by Syrian regime forces and the Turkish border, and subject to continuous aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime and Russia.
As an impending humanitarian catastrophe looms, the real call by advocacy organizations and individuals must be unequivocal: Lift the siege on northwest Syria and allow cross-border aid to come through.
As the rush for rescue efforts began, local Syrian nongovernmental organizations set up emergency response campaigns pleading for international assistance. The campaigns, alongside links to Turkish nongovernmental organizations and international relief organizations, were widely circulated on social media, collecting millions of dollars toward search and rescue equipment, medical aid, and basic humanitarian aid.
The disparities between grassroots relief efforts, and the role of donor states and international institutions reignited debates on humanitarian aid in Syria. Disinformation campaigns were similarly rampant, among them attacking local Syrian nongovernmental organizations for working “only in the northwest” — seamlessly ignoring the physical realities of a siege — or pivoting the blame solely to the role of Western-imposed sanctions on the Syrian regime. The latter claim is especially heralded by the Syrian Assad regime in its efforts to absolve itself of culpability and rehabilitate its international image.
SANCTIONS AREN’T THE PROBLEM
Discussions and debates on humanitarian aid are especially critical in Syria, where humanitarian aid has long been used as a weapon of war. Over the course of the 12-year conflict, the Syrian regime systematically withheld aid provided by UN agencies as part of its “siege, starve, surrender” campaigns against areas held by opposition groups, killing tens of thousands of Syrians, displacing hundreds of thousands more, and constituting crimes against humanity. Even after the areas fell under regime rule, the Syrian regime co-opted reconstruction efforts to profit off of humanitarian aid contracts and politicized aid distribution based on regime loyalty.
Targeted sanctions imposed by the United States and EU against the Syrian regime have been subject to much debate, with some heralding the need for accountability and others noting that the regime is insulated from their impact, which indirectly falls on the civilian population. The discussion on global sanctions regimes is legitimate and needed; sanctions are inherently political as they are arbitrary, and rarely employed for their stated purposes of combatting human rights abuses and corruption. Still, it is categorically false to claim that sanctions are the primary barrier to aid entering Syria. Already, the Syrian regime has received multiple international shipments of aid from foreign donors, as well as promises from the UN and the EU to provide more. Additional humanitarian exemptions to US sanctions on the Syrian regimes have been announced.
In contrast, it was over 72 hours after the quake and the critical period in the search for survivors passed, that the northwest region — the epicenter of the earthquake’s devastation in Syria — received its first cross-border UN aid convoy. Among the six trucks were the bodies of Syrian refugees in Turkey, sent to be buried in Syria.
LIFT THE SIEGE TO ALLOW CROSS-BORDER AID
Any indictment of Western forces and the global political system that allowed for the scale of destruction we see today, far exceeding a solely “natural” disaster, must include an indictment of the UN Security Council and the archaic state system that determines the distribution of aid. Under the humanitarian model employed by the UN, aid distribution is coordinated exclusively by the permission of the sovereign state. Yet, this model falls apart once the sovereign state becomes the primary perpetrator of violence against its own civilians.
In Syria, the model fell disastrously apart. The distribution of humanitarian aid to opposition-held areas besieged by the Syrian regime could only be done in one of two ways: cross-line deliveries of aid from Damascus, which required state approval that the regime consistently withheld, and cross-border deliveries through other countries, primarily Turkey, directly into the besieged regions. To allow for cross-border deliveries without the Syrian state’s approval, the UN was required to get approval from the UN Security Council. Yet, the reliance on UN Security Council approval and vetoes by Russia and China have forced the closure of all but one border crossing, which became a lifeline to more than 4.6 million Syrians besieged in northwest Syria.
It is a failure by the international community and the UN system, one that takes on cataclysmic consequences in a situation such as this. Years of advocacy by Syrian nongovernmental organizations and international human rights groups take on greater urgency in the current moment. There has already been a successful push not only to increase cross-border aid but to radically challenge the necessity of UN Security Council approval for cross-border aid deliveries under international law. It is a challenge not just within the Syrian context but also against the state-centric paradigm underpinning the international humanitarian system.
As an impending humanitarian catastrophe looms — the situation before was already a “crisis” — the real call by advocacy organizations and individuals must be unequivocal: Lift the siege on northwest Syria and allow cross-border aid to come through.
Ayah Kutmah is a Syrian-American writer and analyst working on cases related to the 9/11 litigation and the Middle East. She is a former Visiting Research Fellow at the Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights at Birzeit University and previously worked with Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, based in the occupied West Bank.