Opinion / Inequality

After the Earthquake in Syria, the World Has Abandoned Idlib


Tuesday, February 14, 2023
Refik Hodzic

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As the cries of thousands of Syrians trapped under the rubble echoed in towns and villages in northwestern Syria, local volunteers, White Helmets, and family members were digging through the concrete, often with their bare hands, to try to reach them. Desperate, they were screaming for help from the world on social media, pleading for heavy machinery, for rescue assistance, for tools to help them save as many lives as possible during the crucial 72-hour window following the catastrophic earthquake that hit on February 6. But the cries of the trapped slowly died down in the harsh cold of the Syrian night. The aid never arrived.

In the first four days, instrumental to any hope of finding survivors, 36 shipments of disaster relief aid were shipped to the Syrian regime in Damascus. None reached areas under opposition control in northwestern Syria. In the first three days, the only rescue team that crossed into the Idlib area was a small group of volunteers from Egypt. A team from Spain arrived on the fourth day. A U.N. convoy carrying not emergency aid, not heavy equipment or disaster relief, but humanitarian aid scheduled before the earthquake struck, consisting mostly of mattresses and diapers, came on the third day. The pleas of White Helmets and other Syrians desperate to save their loved ones echoed around the world went unheard and unheeded.

Why? How is it possible that Syrians trapped in Idlib were abandoned like this at their hour of greatest need, the hour in which the world has come together in solidarity with victims of this catastrophic disaster across the border in Turkey, or in the areas of Syria controlled by the Syrian regime? Rescue crews and disaster relief were dispatched in a matter of hours from places distant and diverse, from Israel to Venezuela, from Bosnia to Canada, from Oman to Iceland. Why were these people, already displaced and brutalized for almost 12 years, more than four million of them crammed in unlivable conditions even before the earthquake struck, left to their terrible fate with little more than promises of help which never arrived?

The explanation you are likely to hear from the decision makers at the United Nations, whose agencies were primarily charged with emergency assistance, refers to the “logistical issues” and damage inflicted upon the only border crossing open for cross-border aid delivery in Bab al-Hawa. Any sane person will ask themselves how it is possible for only one border crossing to serve the humanitarian needs of more than four million people, even in the best of times. Nominally, this is due to the Russian blackmail at the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) which over the years has, under the threat of the Russian veto, deauthorized all other border crossings for humanitarian aid deliveries.

This includes no less than eight such crossings between Turkey and Syria, to the knowledge of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which could have been used to deliver life-saving emergency aid to save Syrians trapped under the rubble, like in Bab Salama, which is close to some of the hardest hit areas in northern Syria, as well as crossings in Ain al-Arab and Jarablus. These crossings were and are being used for aid sent by other Syrians. And for the bodies of Syrians who died in Turkey being sent back for burial. But the U.N. did not use them to send the life-saving aid.

For years I have witnessed first-hand the increasing degree of dehumanization of displaced Syrians — in Europe, Lebanon, and Turkey, but nowhere more so than in Idlib. The four million people there have been written off by a large majority of the world that has accepted the Syrian regime and Russia’s narrative about the hotbed of “Islamic fanatics” and “terrorists”. Children who die in Idlib every day under Russian airstrikes and Assad’s artillery, or in cold tents most of them are forced to live in, do not make headlines. Not even footnotes anymore. It has not changed much after the earthquake.

Is it really about the lack of legal basis for aid delivery through alternative border crossings? Clearly not. Syrian organizations have been vocal for more than two years about the alternative legal basis which allows for deliveries to Idlib without UNSC approval. This position is rooted in international law and has recently been adopted by Human Rights Watch and a number of international legal experts. Germany’s foreign minister Ana Baerbock and the former U.S. envoy for Syria Joel Rayburn have called for opening of borders and the creation of a U.S.-E.U.-Turkey mechanism which will deliver aid directly, without the redundant UNSC approval. But the U.N. did not act. Why?

According to Steve Heydemann, a fellow at the Brookings Institute Center for Middle East Policy, “U.N. humanitarian operations on the ground in regime-held areas —which receive 90% of assistance flowing to Syria— remain cowed by the regime into complying with its heavy-handed insistence that it serve as the sole recipient and distributor of assistance coming into the country — a cynical gesture to force donors to acknowledge its sovereignty, while giving one of the most corrupt regimes in the world, with a track record of abuse and theft of humanitarian aid and a refusal to deliver aid across conflict lines into northern Syria, control over critical humanitarian resources.”

The rumors of a deal struck under the U.N. mediation, in which the US agreed to remove sanctions from the Syrian regime’s banking sector in return for border crossings to be opened only confirms Heydemann’s key point: the U.N. will allow the Syrian regime to weaponize aid for its benefit before it acts in accordance with its mandate to protect Syrian civilians.

The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity, a movement defending the rights of displaced Syrians, was clear about why Syrians in the north west were abandoned: “There is a clear legal basis to deliver aid to Idlib without UNSC approval. Insistence on it is, and has always been, nothing but appeasement of [the] Syrian regime which has now cost [the] lives of countless Syrians trapped under the rubble. We have addressed the U.N. and key states on this in July [of] last year. To no avail. We have addressed the U.N. and key states on this in 2021. To no avail. Please don’t use this smokescreen as an excuse for emergency aid not reaching northwest Syria. It is about our people being dehumanized and abandoned to their terrible fate. It is about the brutality of the Syrian regime and its allies. It is about appeasement. It is not about [the] legal basis.“

And this is where we come to the real reasons for the failure to deliver life-saving emergency aid to Syrians in Idlib. Dehumanization. Normalization of Assad’s murderous regime. Sarah Cobb, professor at George Mason University, holds that “dehumanized people are those that are left out of the speaking space, people whose stories simply don’t count.”

This is why children of Idlib do not count. This is why the pleas of Syrian organizations and scholars about alternative legal bases for aid delivery to Idlib have been ignored by the U.N. and key powers. This is why the cries of White Helmets for heavy equipment and rescue assistance have fallen on deaf ears. This is why the rubble in Jenderes, in Idlib, in Azmareen, in Aleppo, in Harem, in Males, and across north west Syria is falling silent.

*Refik Hodzic is a senior advisor on Syria at the European Institute of Peace.

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