Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor for Politico Europe.
Idris Nasan, a Kurdish official living in Raqqa, woke up to his apartment shaking during the “treacherous night” of the deadly earthquake that shook northern Syria.
“My body was shaking, the sound filled the place; The building turned into a swing, leaning left and right,” he said.
With his wife and mother in tow, Nasan descended three flights of stairs, joining the neighbors, who “like birds fleeing like snakes to prey” made their chaotic exit. The staircase echoed with the cries and screams of terrified children.
The scenes outside were “beyond endurance,” Nasan said — coming from a man who witnessed the siege of Kobani and the fierce battle there between Kurds and Islamic State militants. But, he added, the pain of the earthquake “was deepened by the failure to help others.”
Of all the places tested by the grinding of tectonic plates, this is one that just doesn’t need to suffer much pain and suffering.
Syrians in Idlib and northern Aleppo, displaced from elsewhere in the war-torn country, have endured more than a decade of brutal conflict, a terrifying descent into hell. They suffered barrel bombs; Their hospitals and markets are targeted; They have been hungry; And they have been hunted by al Qaeda and Islamic State jihadists. Idlib was turned into a large “killing zone” by Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, as rebels and their families were herded into the area like cattle awaiting slaughter.
Adding insult to injury, since 2018, Turkish authorities have been preventing Syrian asylum seekers from crossing the border and refusing to register them. Turkey has also imposed illegal deportations and forced some to return to northern Syria, while the European Union – fearing another migration surge – has raised some objections to this violation of the Geneva Conventions.
Along with pressure in northern Syria, the widespread complaint of Arabs and Kurds is that since the defeat of the Islamic State, they have been abandoned by the international community. That sense of abandonment is now compounded as they dig mass graves and contend with the effects of a devastating earthquake.
Since the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake leveled cities, destroyed homes and crushed thousands of lives on February 6, the world’s focus has been mainly on Turkey – where Western media and international rescue crews, aid and equipment are rushing in.
But across the border, little help has been provided.
Sent to rebel-held Idlib, a member of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, said, “What sticks in my mind is that some people were standing on top of the rubble a few meters away listening to the voices of their families and relatives, but because of the lack of equipment and the absence of an international response to help. They could not do anything to save them.”
Predictably, Moscow and Beijing are not holding back in their efforts to try to spin events in Syria. “The sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies are hampering relief and rescue operations. . . Such a humanitarian catastrophe is not enough to melt the cold-blooded heart of the United States,” gushed the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.
Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova accused the “collective West” of ignoring what was happening in northern Syria, blaming economic sanctions against the Assad regime for prolonging the suffering.
Of course, this is crocodile crying coming from a Chinese communist government that has imprisoned a million Uyghurs since 2015. It is also highly impolite for Russia to claim sympathy for the North in Syria, where it has evaded the laws of war and rehearsed the bombing and horror tactics it is now using in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, one does not have to be a Russian or Chinese propagandist to question the West’s laziness in predicting the scale of the unfolding humanitarian crisis in northern Syria or creating an action plan to alleviate suffering in Idlib and northern Aleppo.
Last week, EU officials condemned allegations of neglect coming from northern Syria. “I categorically reject allegations that the EU sanctions could have any impact on humanitarian aid. These sanctions were imposed since 2011 in response to the Syrian government’s violent crackdown against its own civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcich said. told reporters. “There is nothing that will hinder the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation that Syrians find themselves in after this terrible earthquake,” he added.
The EU said it would provide additional emergency aid and €6.5 million worth of emergency humanitarian aid to both Turkey and Syria. But officials say the bloc will also need safeguards so aid can effectively reach those in need and not be misused by the Assad regime – which has plagued humanitarian aid in the past.
Indeed, funneling aid into northern Syria is fraught with logistical and political nightmares. Idlib is controlled by a variety of rebel groups, a large part of which is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and similar to the Assad regime. Alleged manipulation of international aid.
Additionally, of the five border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria, only one has been approved by Turkish authorities to conduct humanitarian aid – although Ankara now says it is considering reopening more crossings to allow aid into both rebel-held and Assad-controlled areas. .
But the essence of time, and the scale of the crisis unfolding require a significant step change.
Mercy Corps reports that there are not enough structural engineers to inspect buildings in northern Syria and that even small aftershocks risk further collapse. There is little coordination on the ground, with very limited information available about shelter options for survivors.
Fuel for heating and cooking is also becoming a major challenge. “There is limited availability and what is available is of poor quality and very expensive. People are burning trash to stay warm, and aid distribution will depend on continued access to fuel for trucks,” Mercy Corps said. Meanwhile, with food difficult to procure, prices skyrocketing, and access to clean drinking water becoming a serious problem, assessment teams worry about the leaching of pollutants into water sources.
The United Nations warned on Friday that more than half a million Syrians could be left homeless after the earthquake. “This is a huge number and comes to a population that is already massively displaced,” said Shivanka Dhanpala, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees’ Syria representative.
Thankfully, in the past few days, 20 UN aid trucks have entered rebel-held territory, but most were carrying pre-arranged provisions that were delayed by the earthquake. And on Friday, the United Nations announced it was releasing an additional $25 million in emergency funding for Syria, bringing the total to $50 million so far.
However, NGO assessment workers say this is far less than necessary – and they argue that Western powers need to rethink the sanctions regime.
While humanitarian aid is not hampered by Western sanctions, northern Syria is in dire need of many other items that are critical to rescue efforts, including fuel and construction equipment, to support and rebuild destroyed buildings, so the displaced are not left to shelter in tents.
The United States has moved faster than the European Union in acknowledging that the sanctions could hamper earthquake aid, issuing a six-month moratorium on all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.
Navigating the political dilemmas all of this will bring — forcing Assad to exploit the looming earthquake to normalize relations, aligning Turkey with the Kurds of northern Syria, and dealing with HTS and other rebel groups — is undoubtedly going to be difficult. Be a tall order.
Aside from the compulsion to empathize, a slow and inadequate Western response will also feed the perception in African and Middle Eastern countries — fueled by Moscow and Beijing — that Western powers only pay attention to them when they want or need something.
And if these challenges are not addressed, the immediate humanitarian crisis risks turning into a disaster.