The United Nations Humanitarian chief Martin Griffths has acknowledged an international failure to send aid to Syria. Why was it so difficult to get aid in?
“The head of the United Nations emergency relief operations Martin Griffths says the International Community has failed people of Northwest Syria where thousands have died in the earthquakes that struck.”BBC News
On Sunday the United Nations Humanitarian chief Martin Griffths acknowledged there had been an international failure to get aid to Syria.
It had been six days since twin earthquakes devastated parts of northern Syria and neighbouring Turkey.
The earthquakes have left an estimated 5.3 million people homeless in northwestern Syria, and as the death toll continues to rise, rescue teams have been racing against time searching for survivors in the rubble.
“In Turkey you get high-vis equipment, heavy-lift equipment, thermally… small cameras, you name it, at most of the sites it’s there for search and rescue which is still continuing. Totally different in Syria ravaged by 12 years of bitter warfare…”Channel 4 News
Unlike in Turkey, the rescue teams in Syria are less well-equipped.
“Many perished under the rubble because the rescue teams didn’t have enough heavy equipment and were at times working with their bare hands.”Channel 4 News
The areas hit in Syria are more isolated than the affected areas in Turkey owing to the Syrian civil war.
This means that the White Helmets have been one of the few aid organisations able to operate on the ground after the quakes, and led the rescue efforts.
They’re a group of volunteers accustomed to digging out survivors in Syria from airstrikes by the Assad regime.
“It’s [a] very difficult test for us, we need help, we need the international community to do something to help us, to support us.”White Helmets volunteer
Requests for aid were sent to the United Nations within an hour of the first quake…but it took more than a couple of days for the aid to reach them.
Syrian officials blamed Western sanctions imposed on the country because of the long civil war as the reason.
But the US government has called on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad to let more aid reach people in rebel-held areas of northwest Syria.
So, what’s really going on?
In March 2011, a peaceful uprising against President Bashar al-Assad turned into a full-scale civil war, leaving different armed groups in charge of different parts of the country.
For years, the Assad regime has targeted rebel-held northwest Syria with airstrikes and the shelling in cities like Aleppo left buildings severely damaged even before the earthquakes struck.
“Aleppo’s been in the eye of every storm here, of every crisis for the last 10 or 12 years. The conflict, the cholera outbreak, covid, economic decline, 90% of the population live below the poverty line, and now we have this massive earthquake and in Aleppo alone there are now 200,000 people acutely homeless and in Latakia, 142,000.”Rick Brennan, WHO’s Regional Emergency Director, BBC Radio 4 Today programme
Nearly 12 years on, more than 4.1 million of the northwest’s 4.5 million people are dependent on humanitarian aid.
Here’s United Nations Humanitarian chief Martin Griffths…
“The awful truth about Syria from a humanitarian perspective is that the humanitarian needs of the people of Syria grow each year, and each year despite generous funding, we fail to meet those needs, and each year, as a result, the people who live in absolute poverty in Syria grow.”Martin Griffths, United Nations Humanitarian Chief
It means camps for Syrians who have been displaced are already overstretched.
But when the Syrian government demanded all aid for the earthquake response be channelled through government authorities – even if the aid was intended for rebel-held areas – the West became wary.
That’s because President Bashar al-Assad has gained a reputation for diverting aid.
In 2020, the Central Bank of Syria pocketed half of international donations by making aid agencies use a lower exchange rate.
Which is why the West isn’t keen to send all aid through government authorities.
So, where have negotiations got to?
In the first week after the earthquake, only one of the four original border crossings into Syria was open for UN deliveries, slowing them down…
“The whole UN aid effort into Idlib province is reliant on one border crossing. Bab al-Hawa crossing, that is right in the middle of the zone that’s been badly damaged by the earthquake and that crossing itself is badly damaged, that route is not viable for large-scale aid efforts…”BBC News
Through its position on the UN Security Council, Russia had vetoed any other crossings with Turkey. That’s because Russia supports pro-Assad Syrian forces in the country’s civil war.
But on Monday there was a breakthrough.
After high-level talks with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, the UN announced another two crossings would be opened for an initial three months.
Here’s Martin Griffths again…
“These trucks are a lifeline. We’ve been resuming operations here for the last four or five days, we’re ramping up the scale of it so that we can begin to meet the needs of those people.”Martin Griffths, United Nations Humanitarian Chief
Finally more aid is beginning to trickle through. But sadly for thousands of Syrians, it’s too little, too late.
This episode was written and mixed by Imy Harper.