Every moment counts in the immediate hours after a major earthquake. But for Syrians in the north-west, held by opposition forces in the country’s long civil war, four days passed after two devastating earthquakes struck the region before any international aid or rescue support entered. While international search and rescue teams poured into Turkey, alongside material assistance and money, civilians in Idlib and the surrounding countryside are digging through the rubble to find their family members themselves.
For years Russia has held the international community hostage when it comes to delivering aid for the humanitarian crisis that is north-west Syria. Now Syrian civilians – caught between a natural disaster and geopolitical conflict – are again paying for delays with their lives. The population of 4.5 million is being served only by the 3,000-strong team of White Helmet volunteers, who have been the subject of huge Russian disinformation campaigns throughout the civil war. In 12 years of conflict, that team has become accustomed to search and rescue missions, though usually under buildings that have been flattened by airstrikes by the Assad regime and its Russian allies.
They say they have never seen anything on the scale of the post-earthquake destruction. “We cannot do this alone,” one message I received from a civil defence volunteer read. “There is too much death. Please help us.” Another, from a doctor: “Why is the world turning its back on us again? Do we deserve this relentless death?”
Even before the earthquake, civilians in Idlib were living with devastating poverty and most infrastructure ruined or weakened by the war. And Russia, the main backer of Bashar al-Assad’s brutal government in Damascus, has been using its veto power at the United Nations Security Council to hold aid for those in rebel-held areas hostage. The Kremlin, alongside the Assad regime, views any aid that circumvents the government and supports people that live outside of its control as a violation of Syria’s sovereignty. In 2020 they used this justification to shut down all but one of the aid routes across the border with Turkey.
Russia has even shortened the mandate to mean that a vote has to take place on keeping the remaining crossing open every six months, leaving a constant threat that all aid will be cut off to the rebel enclave.
In the past Assad’s cronies have benefited from aid instead of those in need. This, coupled with sanctions against the Assad regime for war crimes against Syrians, means that Western governments avoid routing aid through Damascus directly. Now with the road to Bab al-Hawa, the only open crossing at the border, damaged, the tip-toeing that the world has to do around Russia to stop it from using its veto power has been forced into the spotlight: the UN appears unable to authorise any passage in for aid.
The UN must authorise another crossing into the northwest of Syria if the roads to Bab al-Hawa are not accessible: the West cannot again forget about Syrian civilians as it negotiates a delicate and complicated geopolitical dilemma.
While UN officials have said that routes available to them remain inaccessible due to the damage that the earthquake caused, flat-bed trucks have managed to transport the bodies of Syrian refugees living in the south-east of Turkey back to their homeland. The only things that crossed the border in the four days after one of the biggest “strike-slip” earthquakes to hit the planet, then, were body bags. No fuel, no rescue dogs, no technology, no manpower.
The area, predominantly controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – a former al-Qaeda offshoot – as well as a handful of Turkish militias, has a swollen population of over four million with little to no basic services. More than half of the people, who predominantly live in rickety shelters and tents, have already been displaced several times throughout the war. The population has been exaggerated by Assad’s policy of routinely sending the civilians and fighters from areas that he has regained control of to the rebel-held areas.
In the midst of one of the worst fuel crises since the war began, there are severe shortages across all areas of Syria that are hampering the response: from little more than an hour or two of electricity a day, to a lack of petrol for ambulances and machinery and back-up generators for hospitals. For more than a decade Syrians have endured rolling tragedies – endless death, torture and loss. Now Western governments must face the shame of standing by while Syrians die as they, yet again, fail to put political pressure on those holding civilians hostage.