The cynical power play for aid after the earthquake

While an international alliance is helping the people in Turkey, the situation in neighboring Syria is very different. Here the parties to the conflict have different interests - they use the suffering of the people for their own purposes. Russia also plays a role.

This article was originally published in German by WELT on 7 February 2023. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger WELT correspondent for war and crisis areas

Images of dead men, women, and children being rescued by aid workers from beneath the rubble have been a frightening part of daily life in Syria in recent years. They were victims of mostly Russian fighter jet bombardments of residential areas, hospitals, and schools during a civil war that still continues. On Monday, a natural disaster shook the already devastated country.

The northwest was hardest hit. There, the 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused many buildings to collapse. In some parts of the region, entire villages no longer exist. Initially, relief organizations spoke of 1,000 dead. Since then, the number has been rising by the hour. Currently, the death toll in Syria stands at 1,600 and in neighboring Turkey at 3,500. For the inhabitants, the earthquake is one of many disasters.

Source: Infografik WELT

Syria’s northwest hosts the majority of the 7.6 million refugees internally displaced by the country’s war over the past decade. They suffer from constant bombing, poor medical care and malnutrition. On top of that, a devastating economic crisis has driven prices to unprecedented heights.

And now the earthquake, has destroyed their modest shelters and badly damaged the infrastructure. In Syria, as everywhere else, relief and recovery efforts are in full swing. However, disaster management lacks the necessary resources.

Moreover, Syria is a divided country, making nationally coordinated action impossible. International aid deliveries and relief efforts are difficult and recovery teams coming in from other countries almost unthinkable.

In Syrian government territory

The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad controls about two-thirds of the country. The earthquake hit the coastal areas of Latakia and Tartus hard, but also Hama and especially Aleppo. At least 20 houses are said to have collapsed in the industrial city. A famous, historic citadel was also badly damaged.

The Syrian Health Ministry spoke Monday of 870 dead and more than 1,200 injured. “Secretary General António Guterres has assured us of all possible assistance from the United Nations,” said Syria’s UN Ambassador Bassam al-Sabbagh, while stressing that “the government is ready to coordinate assistance to all Syrians throughout all of Syria’s territory.”

However, this will be unproductive and of little help. The regime in Damascus has so far only allowed aid deliveries via one single border crossing with neighboring Turkey. Under normal circumstances, far more entry points would be needed to supply the population in Syria. Now, after the earthquake disaster, even more so. But the Assad government wants to retain control over aid and is using it as a weapon against areas under the control of opposition groups.

For those in acute need, the regime’s attitude amounts to a disaster. Especially since Damascus is logistically incapable of supplying the entire country and is primarily looting the aid supplies for itself. On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock called for the opening of all border crossings to enable rapid humanitarian aid for Syria. “Therefore, all international actors – including Russia – must use their influence on the Syrian regime to ensure that humanitarian aid can reach the victims,” Baerbock stressed.

No additional obstacles must be put in place, she added, because every minute counts. Russia is an important ally of the Assad regime and has in the past always used its veto power in the UN Security Council to prevent additional border openings.

In the territory of the radical Islamists

In the northwestern province of Idlib, the radical Islamist militia Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its “Salvation Government” rule. In Idlib, the earthquake has razed entire villages to the ground. Refugee camps, on the other hand, escaped relatively unscathed. “Most are made up of tents, and they were the safest place of all to be during the quakes,” one of the residents told WELT. “But places like Atareb are a mess.”

There, many buildings were already damaged by Russian bombing anyway and they have now collapsed, reported the young man, who wished to remain anonymous. It is not yet known how many people have died in Idlib. The Red Crescent assumes at least 820 dead.

Syria recovery teams: they hardly have heavy equipment. Source: AFP

Rescue work is progressing only slowly and is being led by the controversial rescue workers of the “White Helmets”. According to their own information, they are searching for survivors with 3,000 volunteers and are recovering the dead from the collapsed houses.

To work efficiently, however, the White Helmets lack heavy equipment. International aid organizations have already pledged their support. They can use Bab al-Hawa, the only open border crossing between Syria and Turkey.

In the Turkish occupation zone

Since 2016, Turkey has carried out a total of three invasions of Syria and occupied large swathes of land of its neighbor. Ankara has relied on Syrian rebels to fight as mercenaries. Many of them were former members of the Islamic State and other comparable extremist groups. They have taken over the administration of the Afrin region, which was particularly hard hit by the earthquake.

In Jindires alone, more than 60 houses are said to have collapsed. Complete families are said to be buried under the rubble. But there is hardly any help from the outside. The residents are left on their own, but they cannot get far without professional help. They make desperate calls for rescue workers, but so far, these have not come.

In the other areas occupied by Turkey, there is also heavy damage, but it is not nearly as devastating. Moreover, these occupied zones along the northern border are much smaller than Afrin and the mercenaries there are better organized.

Self-Government of North and East Syria

The largest region of Syrian opposition is under an autonomous Self-Administration of Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, and Assyrian Christians. It is an area that stretches from the Euphrates River to the Iraqi border and encompasses about one-third of Syria. Troops from the Syrian government, Russia, and the Americans are stationed in northeastern Syria. U.S. troops defeated Islamic State there together with the Kurdish YPG militia.

Northeastern Syria got off lightly compared to the rest of Syria. According to the Kurdish Red Crescent, six people died and 62 were injured by the earthquake. The region’s military general command offered to send rescue teams and relief supplies to all territories in Syria. But no one is likely to accept that offer.

Enmity between the different actors is very high in Syria after 10 years of bloody civil war. One more thing to mention: prisoners in one of the prisons that holds Islamic State fighters, the latter took advantage of the confusion after the earthquake to stage a mutiny. 20 of them managed to escape.

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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