Despite sharing a catastrophe, the earthquake aftermath and response in Syria and Turkey could not be further apart.
Turkey has received an outpouring of support and aid from dozens of countries and tens of thousands of search-and-rescue personnel, including international teams, have been deployed to Turkey’s east.
In contrast, only five per cent of the impacted sites and towns in northwest Syria are being covered by the overstretched Syria Civil Defence – known as the White Helmets – search-and-rescue operations, according to the United Nations (UN).
The level of relief aid which has entered northwest Syria has also been limited so far, with bureaucracy, manipulation of aid, and a lack of political will among the main factors hindering efforts to help the most impacted region in Syria.
Following the earthquake, UN aid routine deliveries from Turkey to northwest Syria were temporarily suspended due to damage caused by the disaster which left the Bab al-Hawa border crossing inaccessible.
UN Security Council vetoes prevent help from arriving
Since 2014, UN cross-border aid operations to Syria have been crucial in providing aid to this non-regime pocket of northwest Syria. More than 4.5 million civilians live there, with almost three million of them displaced. But the continuous vetoes at the UN Security Council by Russia against cross border aid operation over recent years have successfully limited the flow of humanitarian aid from four crossings to just one, Bab al-Hawa.
These logistical difficulties delayed the UN humanitarian aid for three days after the earthquakes, which could have made a huge difference to rescuers racing against time.
Theoretically, the UN could have used any of the other three border crossings there which were open and operational – Bab al-Salameh, Jarablus, and al-Raie. But without authorization from the security council, the agencies did not take such measures despite the size of the catastrophe,
UN bureaucracy has also hindered its ability to come up with other creative solutions. UN agencies could have made an executive decision to use smaller vehicles instead of big trucks, to better navigate roads and deliver aid without delays.
Even when deliveries were resumed, UN agencies sent the same aid supplies planned before the earthquake, such as food and hygiene kits, instead of sending emergency lifesaving equipment and medical supplies to help rescuers.
Western governments, including the US, the UK, and the European Union (EU), could also have done more to help. It took the US ambassador to the UN a whole week to call for the United Nations Security Council to vote immediately to authorize more aid access from Turkey to rebel-held northwest Syria.
With the help of Turkey, those like-minded countries could have used other border crossings to deliver aid to northwest Syria much earlier, as they do not need UN authorization to do so. They chose not to due to a lack of political will.
Syria regime continues to decide who receives aid
Throughout the Syrian conflict, the Assad regime has actively prevented the delivery of aid to non-regime areas, to control what was being delivered and to where. That approach has continued despite the devastating impact of the earthquakes.
Syria’s ambassador to the UN stated in a press conference the day after the disaster that any outside assistance for earthquake victims ‘must be done in coordination with Damascus and delivered from within Syria, not across the Turkish border’.
Although aid delivery across domestic frontlines from Syrian government areas into the opposition-held region in northwest Syria is possible in principle, international governments are reluctant to channel aid through Damascus due to the regime’s well-documented efforts to control and manipulate aid and use it as a tool to punish its opponents.
Notably, more than 62 Arab and Asian countries have so far delivered relief aid to the Syrian regime, but no humanitarian convoys have been able to cross from government territories to northwest Syria. The government also did not take any measures to encourage or allow local communities in Syria to help each other.