Multiple Factors Hampering Delivery of Aid to Syria Quake Areas

A child carries a bag of bread at a school that shelters families impacted by a deadly earthquake, in Jableh, Syria, Feb. 16, 2023.

The death toll from last week’s earthquakes that hit parts of southern Turkey and northern Syria has reached more than 41,000, and aid groups say humanitarian assistance into affected areas of Syria has been slow.

With more than 5,800 deaths from the 7.5-magnitude quake in Syria alone, there are many factors impeding the delivery of aid to those in need there.

Northwest Syria, the region of the country affected the most by the earthquakes, is largely under the control of anti-government opposition forces. Throughout the country’s conflict, the Syrian government and its main backer Russia have limited access to that part of Syria to just one border crossing with Turkey.

After visiting quake-hit areas in Turkey and Syria, United Nations humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said over the weekend the international community has “so far failed the people in northwest Syria,” noting that, “they rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn't arrived.”

On Monday, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to temporarily open two additional border crossings that would allow aid to reach northwest Syria.

“Opening these crossing points – along with facilitating humanitarian access, accelerating visa approvals and easing travel between hubs – will allow more aid to go in, faster,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement on the same day.

Guterres launched a $397 million appeal Tuesday for the earthquake response in Syria.

Areas held by government accessible

In government-held areas of Syria, the U.N. and other international humanitarian organizations can operate freely, experts say.

“Earthquake relief funding and support can be provided through these vital channels,” said Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington. “The Assad-led government has freely engaged with U.N. agencies throughout the war in Syria, and there is no limit on the regime's ability to do so now.”

United Arab Emirates Urban Search and Rescue Team gifts rescue equipment to their Syrian counterparts in response to a deadly earthquake, in Jableh, Syria, Feb. 16, 2023.

Heras told VOA that Russian influence in the U.N. Security Council made it difficult for humanitarian assistance to enter non-regime held areas of Syria before the earthquake, and in the immediate aftermath of the temblors.

“That situation is partly relieved now due to international pressure to open more access points for earthquake relief assistance through non-regime held checkpoints, but there’s no guarantee those vital lines of support will remain indefinitely open,” he said.

US sanctions exemption

The United States Treasury Department last week issued an exemption authorizing all transactions related to earthquake relief in Syria for 180 days, which otherwise would be prohibited because of sanctions imposed on al-Assad’s government since 2011 for its crackdown on peaceful protesters and crimes committed against civilians.

“As international allies and humanitarian partners mobilize to help those affected, I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.

The Treasury statement underscored that U.S. sanctions on Syria do not target legitimate humanitarian assistance, including earthquake disaster relief efforts. It said the new exemption would expand previous general licenses issued by the U.S. government that permit most activities by the U.N., the U.S. government, or nongovernmental organizations in support of humanitarian assistance, including those in areas controlled by the Assad government.

The U.S. also announced an additional $85 million in urgent humanitarian assistance to support relief efforts in Turkey and Syria.

Aid groups operating on the ground in Syria say sanctions are having no effect on humanitarian aid.

“Sanctions target the war criminals of the Assad regime that are blocking the cross-border aid to the hardest hit areas of Syria,” said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force.

Moustafa, a Washington-based activist, is currently in the town of Jindires, one of the hardest-hit towns in northwest Syria. His group is one of several organizations that have been engaged in relief efforts in that region.

Experts say that pressure from sanctions has negatively impacted daily life in regime and in some non-regime areas — especially in northeast Syria — because of the depreciation of the Syrian currency.

“But humanitarian assistance has generally been spared from that pressure, and to the furthest extent possible, the regime has tried to use U.N.-provided assistance as a pressure point on non-regime areas before the earthquake struck,” said Heras of the Newlines Institute.