On 6 February, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria. It was one of the deadliest incidents of this kind in a decade, with a death toll already surpassing 17,000. This figure could quickly climb into the tens of thousands. As many as 5,775 buildings have reportedly collapsed, including homes, hospitals, and schools, leaving hundreds of thousands homeless. But while emergency aid to Turkey is flowing relatively unhindered – and an international aid operation has quickly sprung into action – political dilemmas are significantly hampering its passage into Syria. Far too little is headed into non-government controlled areas and without a rapid humanitarian effort, the suffering and death toll will be far higher than they need to be. With the clock ticking away Europeans quickly need to create solutions, mobilising joint diplomatic efforts to find a pathway for aid to enter the region.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayipp Erdogan, has already announced a three-month state of emergency in the ten stricken Turkish provinces and the government says that up to 13.5 million people in Turkey have been affected by the earthquake. On both the Turkish and Syrian side, many of those who will be most affected are Syrian refugees and the internally displaced. These people already lived in an extremely dire state, struggling desperately with cold winter temperatures, as well as food and fuel shortages.
Those living in Syria urgently need humanitarian support, but three days after the earthquake minimal aid is trickling into the country, particularly into non-government controlled areas which find themselves completely isolated. So far only a few small convoys have managed to enter north-west Syria, which has been most affected by the earthquake. While Russia, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Iraq have sent some humanitarian support and rescue teams to government-held areas in Syria – where needs are also very real – no one is delivering meaningful amounts of aid to the north-west. Efforts here are almost entirely reliant on local NGOs, which lack the capacity, resources, and energy to manage in the face of this devastating crisis. They urgently need expertise, machinery, and fuel which they are simply not getting.
This speaks to the acute, debilitating politics that continue to hang over Syria, feeding deep international polarisation that has left an already desperate population helpless in the immediate hours and days after the earthquake when support is most urgent to try and save lives.
For Syrians, the earthquake is “a crisis on top of multiple crises”. People have been living in terrible conditions for years now, particularly in the north-west. Many have been displaced multiple times. Hosting around 3.3 million people in need, the area – Idlib province – is the last remaining holdout of the non-Kurdish Syrian opposition after almost 12 years of civil war. Currently controlled by Syrian rebels, including the armed group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is led by former members of Al-Qaeda and has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the United Nations, the territory is in ruins as a result of more than a decade of bombings and starvation. With a recent outbreak of cholera and previously the pandemic, the earthquake has further exposed the deeply dire state of healthcare facilities in the area, characterised by weak and insufficient services and infrastructure. People live in makeshift shelters which do not adequately withstand the cold. Even prior to the disaster, 90 per cent of people across Syria were reported to be in need of assistance and less than half of the humanitarian response was funded.
Getting European aid to these Syrians is racked with political dilemmas. At the heart of the problem is a Western unwillingness to channel increased aid via Damascus as the Syrian government is now demanding. On Wednesday the government requested European support through the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism. It has also called for Western sanctions to be eased. But while the West is already the largest aid donor in Syria and says it is willing to provide increased humanitarian support to address this crisis, Western leaders are unwilling to provide further assistance via Damascus due to fears that the regime will manipulate this aid for its purposes, rather than delivering it to the intended recipients. Critical supplies such as recovery machinery and fuel are therefore likely to continue to be under-supplied. Having continuously bombed the north-west for a decade now, there is little confidence that Damascus cares about the region’s population and that it won’t simply use increased aid flows to strengthen its own position. The US government has, for its part, already said it will channel aid via local NGOs instead of the government, but the capacity of these local actors is hugely insufficient.
Prior to the disaster, Europe and its allies were sending humanitarian aid into north-west Syria across the border from Turkey. Despite longstanding opposition from Damascus and Russia, one border crossing remains open under UN Security Council Resolution 2672: Bab al-Hawa. But this crossing has been closed for three days due to the damage caused by the earthquake. On Thursday it finally reopened to limited supplies, but some are calling for other border crossing points – such as Bab al-Salameh and Jarablus – to be urgently opened to aid flows. Still, wider damage to logistical and access infrastructure (such as local airports) across southern Turkey means sending any significant aid via Turkey will be immensely challenging for some time to come.
Opening new border crossing points also raises an acute legal issue as European governments would have to work around the current UN mandate. To secure a new agreement Russia would need to greenlight new crossing points in the UN Security Council. But Moscow may well block this approach given its conflict with the West over the Ukraine war – as well as its longstanding desire to use access to aid to strengthen the regime’s control. European governments would therefore need to work with Turkey around the UN system to establish and manage new access points and delivery mechanisms.
Amid the lack of alternative options, some international NGOs have argued that increased cross-line support – where aid is channeled via Damascus – is now necessary despite Western concerns. Unless some cross-line aid reaches north-west Syria soon, the local population will be completely out of options. NGOs argue that this is still viable with adequate monitoring and significant diplomatic investment from Western states. But while some European governments are calling on Russia to ensure Damascus relaxes some of the political restrictions on aid entering the north-west of the country, there is little optimism for progress here. Nor does there seem to be a real European push to open negotiations with Damascus on this issue. This demonstrates the extreme pessimism and sense of abandon that many Western actors now feel in addressing the various dimensions of the Syria crisis. After a decade of failure, negotiations with Moscow and Damascus increasingly appear to be ruled out as an option even worth trying.
But for Syrians on the ground this is not good enough. Without urgent aid many more who might still be saved will be left to die from the earthquake, to say nothing of the impact that the ensuing humanitarian crisis will have on local conditions. Despite the immense challenges, European states need to act quickly to seek out pathways to support Syrians on the ground. It will not be enough to simply provide support and funding for local NGOs when they do not have the capacity to respond to this crisis. This requires brave and creative leadership from European states. They should push to open up wider cross-border access – both through negotiations with Russia and, if necessary, without a UN mandate – and try to create space for increased support to enter the region via Damascus. Humanitarian imperatives need to trump longstanding political positions to ensure that key needs can be met. Similar scenarios have occurred in the past such as following earthquakes in Iran when aid and sanctions blockages were temporarily set aside. Europeans should also urge regional partners, such as the UAE, to use their renewed engagement with Damascus to make an intense push for aid access to the entire country. All of these options have downsides, but the alternative is a further depth of despair which Syrians do not deserve.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.