Local Authorities Across Syria Seek to Respond to Earthquake Crisis
Since the catastrophic earthquakes devastated parts of northern Syria one week ago, killing 5,800 people, injuring thousands, leaving 5.30 million homeless, and destroying infrastructure and residential buildings, the regime, opposition authorities, and local organisations began carrying out disaster relief efforts in affected areas.
Response in opposition-controlled areas
On February 06, the day of the earthquake, the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the political arm of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), held an emergency meeting and formed a special emergency response committee to address the crisis.
The SSG’s emergency response was divided into two phases:
- The first phase included forming the committee; organising search and rescue operations; installing more than 40 shelters for those left homeless after the quake; and evacuating damaged buildings. The SSG reported that 20,000 public sector employees across all government ministries and entities participated in the first phase of its response.
- The SSG announced the second phase of its plan on February 11 during a meeting chaired by Abu Mohammad Al-Jolani, head of the HTS. It allocated a budget of TRY 20 million (around USD 1.60 million) to support rescue efforts and medical teams entering its areas through the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing; continue evacuation efforts; transport rubble; assess buildings, schools, and universities for cracks and partial damages; and provide alternative residential housing for the homeless. The second phase also includes disbursing TRY 1,000 per family and in-kind assistance to those affected by the earthquake.
The SSG is not recognised by the international community and cannot request aid through diplomatic channels. However, the SSG reported that several convoys carrying food and fuel entered its areas through the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, which was the only operating crossing until February 13, when Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad authorised UN agencies and humanitarian organisations to use the Bab Al-Salameh and Al-Rai crossings. These crossings lead to areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government.
On February 13, SSG-affiliated media reported about several protests against humanitarian relief from regime-held areas. Until now, no aid deliveries from regime-controlled areas have reached territories controlled by the HTS and the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government.
According to the North Press Agency, a media outlet focused on the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, the HTS seized several shelters installed by NGOs as an attempt to control incoming aid, such as blankets and other items, destined for these shelters. The Syria Report can not independently confirm this information.
Local organisations, mainly the Syria Civil Defence (SCD), a volunteer organisation better known as the White Helmets, have spearheaded search and rescue efforts.
On February 10, the SCD announced that search and rescue efforts in opposition-controlled areas in North and Northwest Syria ended after 108 hours of searching. The organisation said it believes that no one trapped under the rubble is still alive.
It added that the number of victims from the earthquake stood at 2,166 deaths and 2,950 injuries across more than 40 cities, towns, and villages in the region. The death toll is believed to be much higher due to the lack of proper equipment and operational capacity for rescue operations. Meanwhile, 479 residential buildings were entirely destroyed, and more than 1,481 buildings partially destroyed.
The organisation, which is leading rescue efforts, blamed the lukewarm response of the United Nations and international community for not swiftly delivering fuel, equipment, and aid during the first days of the crisis, which are the most vital.
Between February 07 and 09, the United Kingdom donated GBP 3.80 million to the SCD to enhance the organisation’s operational capacity and support search and rescue efforts, emergency relief operations, and recovery projects, including assessing building safety, reopening roads and reconnecting utilities, according to an official statement by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Development.
During a press conference on February 10, Raed Al-Saleh, head of the SCD, said that only a small Egyptian search and rescue team based in Turkey and another small Spanish one were able to enter Northwest Syria to assist in the rescue efforts. However, they did not have tools or machinery.
Meanwhile, local residents volunteered 200 vehicles and machinery to aid the organisation.
Response in regime-controlled areas
On February 10, the Syrian Cabinet classified the damaged areas in Lattakia, Aleppo, Hama, and Idlib as disaster areas and established a fund to rehabilitate and finance an emergency response. On February 11, President Bashar Al-Assad and First Lady Asma Al-Assad visited Aleppo and Lattakia to meet residents who were affected by the earthquake. During the visit, Mr Assad told local media that sanctions and western countries were hampering the rescue efforts.
The Cabinet also approved a decision to allow United Nations convoys to cross into Northwest Syria from regime-held areas. However, on February 12 and 14, the semi-official Al-Watan Newspaper reported that 14 humanitarian convoys had been waiting at the Saraqeb-Tronba crossing to enter opposition areas.
According to Idlib Governor Thaer Salheb and the United Nations office in Aleppo, HTS is to blame for the delays, although, since 2020, the Islamist group has authorised several UN convoys to enter its areas via the Saraqeb-Tronba crossing in line with UN cross-border and cross-line aid resolution.
Meanwhile, on February 09, days after the earthquake devastated Syria and Turkey, the Central Bank of Syria allowed humanitarian organisations, UN agencies, and other actors working in earthquake-related disaster relief to receive donations and funding via local banks using a newly issued rate that is closer to the black market rate.
The CBS’ decision may be attributed to the large amounts of funding and remittances expected to flow into Syria to finance humanitarian relief efforts in the country, especially after the U.S. government’s most recent sanctions exemption.
Syrian governorates have also provided cash and in-kind donations towards humanitarian efforts and sent convoys full of food and humanitarian aid to areas controlled by the regime.
For instance, the Deir-ez-Zor governorate said that locals collected SYP 500 million for humanitarian operations and sent several convoys of in-kind aid. Meanwhile, the Suweida province, which has witnessed protests since December, collected a total of SYP 3 billion in cash and in-kind donations.
According to Suweida 24, an opposition media, Suweida’s Governor Bassam Barsik oversaw the donation campaign in the governorate, marking his first public appearance since protests began three months ago.
The private sector in regime-held areas has also been involved in fundraising efforts. Companies and individuals have donated billions of Syrian pounds since the earthquake, though there is no official data on the total amounts donated.
Response in AANES and SIG Areas
For areas affected in Northeast Syria, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) assessed and evacuated several buildings that sustained sizable cracks from the earthquake. However, damage in the northeastern part of the country remains minimal.
According to the AANES, several dams collapsed, leaving 50,000 people without water. One of the dams, located in the city of Kobani (Ayn Al-Arab), feeds 16 villages in the city of Kobani. The AANES announced that it is working to find alternatives so that affected communities can access water.
The AANES has also been involved in relief efforts outside areas under its control. The Administration published a statement on its Facebook page saying that it sent three humanitarian convoys via Aleppo to Northwest Syria, including 100 fuel trucks. In addition, the Kurdish Red Crescent and Syrian tribal families in Manbij and Raqqa also organised additional convoys.
On February 13, AANES convoys entered the Um Jaloud crossing, which links AANES-controlled Manbij with Turkish-controlled Jarablus, after they were delayed for days.
Meanwhile, the role of the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG) during the crisis appears very marginal. On February 06, it designated certain areas in northern Syria as disaster zones and called on entities and organisations to participate in relief efforts.
On its Facebook page, the opposition government praised the White Helmets, officially known as Syria Civil Defence, and the Syria Recovery Trust Fund for their search and rescue efforts. It also issued several statements about the delivery of Turkish humanitarian aid to areas under its control but made no mention of AANES support. The U.S. Agency for International Development is also believed to be conducting rescue operations in Afrin.
More aid is expected to be delivered to affected communities through SIG-held territories after the Syrian government authorised the use of the Bab Al-Salameh and Al-Rai border crossings, which are under the control of the SIG, on February 13.