- The delay in aid to those affected by the earthquake in Syria is due to the late reaction of the authorities in Damascus to the request to activate the EC Civil Protection Mechanism.
- The first humanitarian aid package from the EU to Syria was sent immediately after the activation of the Mechanism.
- The destroyed infrastructure and the multiple groups that control the areas affected by the earthquakes make the access of international humanitarian organization to the victims very difficult.
- The sanctions of the EU, the US and other allies against the regime of Bashar Assad provide exceptions specifically related to the provision of humanitarian aid and cannot be cited as a reason for the delay.
The devastating earthquake of February 6 with a magnitude of 7.8 on the Richter scale and the subsequent aftershocks caused great material and non-material damage to the territories of both Turkey and Syria.
Meanwhile, publications spreading online stated that humanitarian aid to Syria is being delayed due to the sanctions imposed by the US, the European Union (EU) and other countries on the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Many posts on social media claimed that, apart from several Arab countries, only Russia, Iran, Pakistan, China and North Korea had provided immediate aid to the earthquake-affected areas of Syria, while the West ignored the severe situation.
The first days after the earthquake
Aid to Turkey from around the world started arriving in the first hours after the disaster. One of the reasons for this is that Ankara activated the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism as early as February 6. Thus, already in the first day after the strong earthquakes, 19 countries from the European Union plus Albania and Montenegro mobilized 1185 rescuers to provide help in the affected areas.
The Civil Protection Mechanism has existed since October 2001 and unites EU member states and 8 other countries. It can be activated by any country in the world in the event of a natural disaster or emergency.
On February 7, the EU reported that they were in contact with humanitarian organizations on the ground in Syria and were looking for ways to provide additional assistance.
Syria activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism two days later, on 8 February. The requested aid from Syria is for rescue teams, medical supplies and medicines, as well as temporary shelter. On the same day, the European Commission (EC) announced an initial package of emergency humanitarian aid of €3.5 million for Syria to respond to the requested assistance.
In the meantime, the EU is in contact with its partner humanitarian organizations on the ground in Syria. Together with the representations of specialized UN agencies on the ground, the EU is trying to help those affected by the disaster.
On February 9, the Dutch government announced that it would provide an additional €10 million in aid to Syria. Of this, 7 million will go to UN funds for the purchase of tents, blankets, food and water, and the remaining 3 million will be distributed to Dutch humanitarian organizations that can provide aid on the ground.
According to the Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation of the Netherlands, Liesje Schreinemacher, the lack of diplomatic relations between the EU countries and the regime in Damascus should not hinder the delivery of aid to the suffering Syrians.
The German government has also provided additional aid of €1 million to the international humanitarian organization Malteser International, which operates on the ground in Syria.
The World Food Programme is also working on the ground in Syria. Until February 8 the organization managed to provide hot food to 38,000 people.
At noon on February 9, the UN confirmed that the first trucks with humanitarian aid had arrived in the territory of North-West Syria.
Are sanctions slowing the humanitarian aid to Syria
The sanctions against Bashar Assad’s regime are motivated by the systematic violation of human rights in the country and the repression against Syrian citizens.
The civil war in Syria has been going on for almost 12 years now. Since then, a number of sanctions have been imposed on the country, some of them on individuals, including President Bashar Assad. Restrictions against the regime in Damascus have been imposed by the EU, the US, Canada, Switzerland and the countries of the Arab League.
Most of them affect banking transactions, investments, flights, export and import of oil, precious stones, luxury goods, telecommunication technology, weapons, military equipment, cultural assets.
In the restrictive measures of both the US and the EU, exceptions are provided that specifically include the provision of humanitarian aid and assistance to the civilian population in Syria. Moreover, Syria is not subject to a general embargo of any kind. Food, essential goods, medical and health products are not included in the EU sanctions packages. So, in theory, the sanctions should not prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid to the Syrian population. In practice, however, the process is blocked by various factors, including logistical ones.
As a result of the strong earthquake on February 6 and subsequent aftershocks, there is extensive damage to the road infrastructure that connects Turkey and Syria. The destruction of Hatay airport and the road to the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which has been used for providing aid until now, along with the late requested aid, are among the main reasons for the delay. Damage to a Turkish highway as a result of the tremors can also be seen in footage distributed by the British newspaper The Sun.
The information on the accessibility of Bab al-Hawa is conflicting. Some Syrian sources claimed that the road to the checkpoint was not destroyed, while the UN pointed out this as the main reason why humanitarian aid could not reach the affected Syrian areas earlier.
Any aid that passes through Bab al-Hawa also needs Ankara’s approval. Aid deliveries to this northern enclave depend on a UN Security Council vote that takes place every six months. This is because in 2020, Russia forced the closure of all border crossings between Syria and Turkey for aid delivery except Bab al-Hawa. At the time, Russia argued that the aid constituted a violation of the Syrian government’s sovereignty.
The US, the EU and other allied countries do not want to send humanitarian and other aid through the government in Damascus, whose regime they oppose. Therefore, aid is usually carried out through the mediation of non-governmental organizations and UN organizations on the ground.
While most of Syria’s territory is under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the northern regions of the country that have been affected by the earthquake are held by different groups. One part of northwestern Syria is de facto controlled by Turkey, and another by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group linked to the terrorist organization Al-Qaeda. Syria’s northeastern territories are largely controlled by US-backed Kurdish groups.
Map legend: Red – government and pro-government groups; Green – radical groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham; Black – Islamic State; Yellow – Kurdish groups; Blue – Israel; Gray – Free Syrian Army and Turkey
The earlier arrival of Russian rescue teams in Syria is explained by the fact that Moscow supports the regime of Bashar Assad and had the opportunity to use airports in regime-controlled territory.
The earthquake-affected areas of Syria relied heavily on humanitarian aid even before the natural disaster. According to the World Food Programme, 4.1 million people in North-West Syria (90% of the region’s population) already rely on humanitarian aid. The civil war in the country has caused the internal migration of about 3 million people, who have been forced to leave their homes and live in constant insecurity.
For the first 10 years of the war in Syria, the EU has provided humanitarian aid to the country worth over 24 billion euros.
It is not true that the EU has delayed aid to those in need in Syria because of the sanctions against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Syria activated the EU Civil Protection Mechanism only two days after the earthquake, and the first humanitarian aid package worth €3.5 million was immediately prepared. On February 9, the first six trucks of UN humanitarian aid arrived in northwestern Syria.
Translated by Vanessa Nikolova