Despite the urgent need for an emergency response after devastating earthquakes struck southern Turkey and northern Syria over a week ago, international aid to opposition-held areas in Northwest Syria has been minimal and highly politicised, causing outrage.
Opposition-held areas in Northwest Syria have received far less aid than regime-held areas, despite being much more impacted by the earthquake, while the Syrian regime has issued politically charged approvals to open two new border crossings to territories controlled by opposition authorities in Northwest and Northeast Syria.
Challenges to aid deliveries in Northwest Syria
Following the earthquakes, the Bab Al-Hawa crossing, the only authorised entry point for aid into opposition-held areas for the last few years, was closed for three days before reopening on February 09. Due to the lack of aid entering opposition-held parts of the region, humanitarian organisations in Northwest Syria have been forced to dip into their emergency stocks, which have significantly dwindled.
The vast bulk of aid received through formal government channels has been funnelled to areas under regime control. While some 79 planes and 12 truck convoys carrying earthquake relief aid have entered regime-held areas in Syria, as of February 13, Northwest Syria has only received five convoys thus far, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. On February 11, Al-Arabiya reported that trucks carrying Saudi aid also entered Northwest Syria.
The urgent need for disaster relief and the UN’s reluctance to open new border crossings into opposition-held areas gave the Syrian regime a political opportunity to emphasise its de jure political authority over all parts of Syria, including those outside its control.
On February 13, without a United Nations Security Council vote, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced that Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad agreed to allow the United Nations to use two more border crossings (Bab Al-Salameh and Al-Rai) to enter aid into Northwest Syria from Turkey. Many analysts believe the move represents one more attempt by the regime at regaining political legitimacy after a decade-long isolation. The two crossings are located in areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government.
That day, the UN Secretary-General issued a statement welcoming the president’s decision. However, humanitarian organisations on the ground have slammed the UN for waiting for the Syrian regime’s approval to open crossings.
On February 10, four days after the earthquake struck the region, Raed Al-Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the main first responders in Northwest Syria, said that “There is no coordination with the United Nations to understand the reality and assess what are the basic issues that we face. The United Nations does not have any plan even for a response, and this is a clear bias in humanitarian work and something unacceptable.”
Meanwhile, in early 2023, weeks before the earthquake, eminent international jurists and former judges of the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court and leading professors and specialists published a letter stating that there is no legal barrier to UN cross-border operations in Syria without a UN Security Council mandate. The letter, published on a website called Cross Border Aid into Syria is Legal, is part of a larger campaign to prove that international law permits cross-border aid without the approval of the Syrian regime.
The letter warned that “Overly cautious interpretations of international law should not risk the lives of millions who continue to rely on cross-border aid in the north and north-west, nor should they be allowed to change and politicise the landscape of international humanitarian law.” A similar letter signed by 35 eminent professors, judges and international lawyers was published in 2014, even prior to the first UNSC resolution authorising cross-border aid
Despite the delayed approvals, minimal aid has reached Northwest Syria and absence of the time-sensitive emergency response that was required after the earthquake has made the situation catastrophic.
On February 14, however, OCHA reported that the first UN convoy comprised of 11 trucks had crossed through the Bab Al-Salameh crossing.
Meanwhile, on February 10, state-owned media outlet SANA reported that the Syrian government approved cross-line humanitarian aid to areas outside government control for three months in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Syrian Red Crescent, and the United Nations. The approval comes after the U.S. Department of Treasury issued a general licence expanding the scope of already existing humanitarian exemptions to facilitate earthquake relief efforts in Syria for six months. No cross-line aid deliveries have been reported thus far.
Despite the approval, cross-line aid delivery, which has been posed as an alternative to the cross-border aid mechanism, has been impeded by political hostilities and territorial divisions. Cross-line aid deliveries occur across the various territories within Syria that are controlled by different conflict actors.
On February 10, Reuters reported that an aid convoy carrying fuel and other aid from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces was refused entry into areas controlled by the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government. Eventually, the convoy managed to enter on February 13.
Meanwhile, on February 12, a UN spokesperson reported cross-line aid from regime areas to areas controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), the Islamist group controlling most of the Idlib governorate, was held up by “approval issues” with the HTS. A source in the HTS told Reuters, “We won’t allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show they are helping,” although cross-line shipments have occurred in the past.
In an interview with the Associated Press, Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Centre for Strategic and International Relations’ Middle East Program, said that “it is extremely logistically and administratively difficult to get the approvals” to send aid to the Northwest via Damascus, as “the government of Syria doesn’t recognise the non-governmental organisations working in northwest Syria.”
The Syrian regime has used the earthquake as an opportunity to reengage with the international community and call for the permanent lifting of sanctions.
Sami Hamdi, managing director of International Interest, a London-based global risk and intelligence company, told German media outlet Deutsche Welle that “the earthquake offers an opportunity to strongarm the international community into official recognition by insisting that either all efforts are coordinated with Damascus on the basis that it is the sole authority of all Syrian territory, or [by insisting for four days that] no aid will be permitted to reach north-west Syria via Assad-controlled territories.”
Although the U.S. government emphasised that it would not coordinate with the Syrian government to facilitate humanitarian aid deliveries, the European Commission approved the Syrian government’s humanitarian aid request to activate the European Civil Protection Mechanism on February 08. The move signals that the European Union may be ready to work with the government in implementing disaster relief in one way or another.
The mechanism is a joint approach between the EU countries and eight other states (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, and Turkey) on civil protection to coordinate disaster preparedness and prevention activities of national authorities.
Meanwhile, some analysts have speculated that the crisis has already led to increasing support from Arab countries, including some that had cut ties with Damascus.
On February 07, Ahmed Fahmy, spokesperson for the Egyptian presidency, announced that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi offered “sincere condolences” to Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad, marking the first official exchange between the leaders of the two countries since the beginning of the uprising in March 2011. The Egyptian government later confirmed that it was planning to coordinate aid deliveries with the Syrian government. The Syrian president said the support reflected “the fraternal relations” between the two countries, according to state-owned media outlet SANA.
That day, the Tunisian presidency reported that Tunisian President Kais Saeed decided to raise the level of Tunisian diplomatic representation in Damascus. After cutting off diplomatic ties with the regime nearly a decade ago, Tunisia sent a limited diplomatic mission to Syria in 2017, in part to help track more than 3,000 Tunisian militants fighting in Syria.