'Before the earthquake already 90% of the people were dependending on humanitarian aid'

What about humanitarian aid for northwest Syria? Five questions and answers

European Union / Begum Iman (CC BY-ND 2.0)


In the northwest of Syria the earthquake is just another humanitarian catastrophe after another. Necessary humanitarian aid can hardly reach the war torn region. Shaymaa Mosatafa, project coordinator for the Belgian ngo 11.11.11 in the Middle East, stresses the importance and urgency of international solidarity for Syrian civilians. ‘The clock is ticking. International solidarity can save lives in the coming days and weeks.’

? What was the situation like before the earthquake?

‘We’re speaking of a region plagued by years of compounding crises, one after another, with unimaginable loss and destruction. After more than a decade of war, the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo had become a last refuge for a lot of people. In northwest Syria alone 4.1 million people were already dependent on humanitarian aid. That’s more than 90% of the population. Most people, approximately 3 million, had to leave their homes behind and live in very precarious conditions.’

‘Take fuels for example. Even before the earthquake hit more than 92% of families in the region struggled to secure heating materials. They had to resort to olive pomace to make pellets for heating.’

‘Every day tragedies were already taking place with the international community mostly looking away.’

‘And let’s not forget the hostilities that keep on taking an immense toll, especially with the al-Assad-regime and their Russian allies pushing to gain control. Fighting in the northwest of Syria resulted in 145 civilian deaths in 2022 alone. 58 of them were children, most of whom had never even known peace in their lives.’

‘Every day tragedies were taking place with the international community mostly looking away. Despite desperate calls from local and international NGO’s such as 11.11.11 a funding gap of 48% persisted. That’s the state northwest Syria was in amidst winter and a severe cholera outbreak. And all of that was before the devastating earthquake took place.’

? How are the rescue efforts currently going?

‘Survivors are still being pulled from the rubble, however hope is dwindling as time passes. As we speak the death toll in Syria exceeds 2,500 deaths and 5,000 injuries have been reported in at least 56 areas. That number will climb as many people remain stuck in debris.’

‘The damages are also immense. With more than 2,000 buildings destroyed and 5,100 damaged, over 11,000 families are expected to be now homeless.’

‘Northwestern Syria is being forgotten. The White Helmets are the only organization doing search and rescue in northwest Syria. They’re currently conducting emergency operations in more than 40 locations. They’re doing their utmost best, but that’s less than 5% of the affected areas. They urgently need fuel, spare parts to repair vehicles and more machinery to support the response. People are looking for survivors and victims themselves and some are using bare hands to dig and look for their family members.’

‘People are looking for survivors and victims themselves and some are using bare hands to dig and look for their family members.’

‘This humanitarian disaster is far beyond the capacities of the on-ground local teams: thousands of people are currently still under the rubble, and the supply chain is severely compromised, as many highways and ports are damaged or inaccessible.’

‘Overwhelmed logistics and program management teams, who are direct victims of this tragedy, are working from their cars/shelters due to their offices and houses being damaged, if not destroyed. Yet, the international humanitarian response has so far globally excluded Syria.’

‘The temperature in northern Syria is below freezing, reaching as low as -5 degrees. The response teams on the ground are exhausted, bereaved, and without electricity or stable communications. All this in a context where most hospitals were already out of function due to the ongoing attacks by the Syrian regime, and there already was a huge gap in terms of doctors and medicines.’

? Why is there less aid in Syria than in Turkey? 

‘Due to Russian and Syrian opposition in the UN, nowadays there is only one border crossing through which UN aid convoys are allowed to enter northwest Syria, called Bab Al-Hawa. It however took the UN almost 4 days to use this crossing, as the first UN convoy only crossed Bab al Hawa on Wednesday.’

‘Other border crossings, such as Bab al Salaam and Al-Rai are also operational, but these crossings are unfortunately excluded from the UN’s cross-border system. That however doesn’t mean that non-UN aid convoys cannot use these crossings. And many people are also calling on the UN to either expand the Security Council’s cross-border mechanism to also include these two border crossings, or use them anyway.’

‘On 10 February, for example, a group of eminent international jurists and legal experts, including former judges at the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, publicly stated that UN Security Council authorization is not required for UN agencies to use any border crossing to deliver life-saving aid. Breaking away from this deadlock could save countless lives.’

‘But of course, for all crossings, enormous logistical issues persist, as many roads from Gaziantep to the border have been heavily affected by the earthquakes. All this means that so far, the brunt of the aid work inside northwest Syria is being done by local NGOs who were already on the ground, such as 11.11.11-partners Basmeh & Zeitooneh and Olive Branch.’

© Shaymaa Mostafa / 11.11.11

Shaymaa Mostafa: ‘The needs have exploded.’

? What can Belgium do?

‘International cooperation has response mechanisms to address such disasters; those should operate in Syria and every possible route should be used to rescue and channel aid to the affected population across the country. Belgian diplomats in New York should also work together with other countries to push the UN Security Council to authorize additional border crossings (Bab al Salaam and Al-Rai) into the UN’s cross-border mechanism, as well as engaging with the UN legal office.’

‘It’s positive that the emergency response team B-FAST has been deployed. However, more can be done. Earlier this week the federal government reaffirmed their €4 million contribution to the United Nations Syria Cross Border Fund. That budget was already foreseen in the budget and based on the enormous humanitarian needs that were already there before the earthquake. Applying the same budget when there is now a devastating earthquake on top of that is inadequate, according to 11.11.11.’

‘Syrian civilians do not need business as usual. Countries such as Belgium urgently need to shift up a gear on emergency funding.’

‘The needs have exploded, but Belgium hasn’t moved a lot. Syrian civilians do not need business as usual. Countries such as Belgium urgently need to shift up a gear on emergency funding. Belgium did allocate an extra 1 million euro to the Disaster Response Emergency Fund (DREF), a fund that supports local Red Cross associations following natural and climatic disasters. That funding goes to organizations operating in Turkey and territory controlled by the Syrian regime. Those are also important, of course, but people in northwest Syria are left out in the cold. So international aid in this area is pretty much not getting through.’

‘Meanwhile, the clock is ticking for rescue workers on the ground who have to work in a huge area with a severe shortage of manpower and equipment. New victims are falling every minute. International solidarity can save lives in the coming days and weeks.’

? What can I do myself?

‘Alleviating this humanitarian disaster requires significant resources: people who left their damaged houses need immediate shelter, food, water, heating, appropriate winter items, and other non-food items. Engineering teams are needed to evaluate whether people can return to their damaged houses or need alternative shelter immediately. All of these require funding.’

‘The need for donations right now is critical: the search and rescue missions are time sensitive and of high priority, with thousands of lives at stake. Your support is needed more than ever. 11.11.11 listed some sources that are active in the region and will deploy donations directly to the affected areas.’

‘But it is also crucial that you voice your concern, that you speak up. Keep on calling Belgian authorities and international communities to act. Help put the issue on the agenda and keep it there as a long-term effort will be needed. The people of northwest Syria are in dire need of international solidarity. It can save countless lives over the next couple of days, weeks, months and years.’

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Over de auteur

  • In deze reeks lichten de experts van 11.11.11, de koepelorganisatie van internationale solidariteit, actuele gebeurtenissen kort en bondig toe.

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