(Beirut) – The slow humanitarian response to the earthquakes that severely affected opposition-held northwest Syria highlights the inadequacy of the United Nations Security Council-mandated cross border aid mechanism in Syria and the urgent need for alternatives, Human Rights Watch said today. On February 13, 2023, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad issued a three-month authorization for UN aid deliveries to pass through two more border crossings to the besieged northwest from Turkey, but the decision came more than a week after the February 6 earthquakes.
Millions of people in areas of northwest Syria under the control of opposition groups have been largely without access to critical search-and-rescue reinforcements and lifesaving aid since the earthquakes struck southern Turkey and northern Syria. The earthquakes and aftershocks crippled critical roads and infrastructure, warehouses, and coordination systems needed to organize deliveries of aid through the only Security Council-approved UN aid corridor from Turkey into the affected areas.
“The Syrian government’s authorization of two more border crossings into northwest Syria for just three months is too little, too late,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The Syrian government’s history of obstructing aid combined with the failure of the Security Council-authorized cross border mechanism to meet the urgent needs of Syrians in the besieged northwest show that alternative aid systems are necessary.”
In the days following the earthquakes, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and the UN humanitarian chief, Martin Griffiths, both appealed for additional cross-border access to people in need, with Griffiths acknowledging on February 12, six days after the first earthquake struck, that the UN had failed the people of northwest Syria.
On February 8, Mohammed Chebli, spokesperson for the Syria Civil Defense, an opposition volunteer group, told Human Rights Watch that its 1,600 volunteers had been left to conduct search-and-rescue operations alone and that the situation was desperate. “Civilians and volunteers are digging with their own bare hands,” he said, calling for urgent assistance from the international community. “Every 15 seconds matter.”
Until late on February 13, eight days after the first earthquake, the Syrian government, with support from its long-time ally Russia, rejected the use of other border crossings from Turkey into northwest Syria, insisting instead that all aid to Syria must come via government-controlled areas. This long-held government position has proven over the course of Syria’s civil war to be severely inadequate to meet the needs of the besieged population. The Syrian government has for many years weaponized aid and obstructed it from crossing front lines from government-held parts of the country into nongovernment-controlled territory.
In July 2022, Amnesty International released a statement in which it noted expert guidance commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stating that in exceptional situations, such as when a country is unlawfully hindering life-saving assistance for part of its civilian population, international organizations may, without the consent of parties to a conflict, “conduct temporary humanitarian relief operations to bring life-saving supplies to a people in extreme need, when no alternatives exist … and when taking [such measures] would not seriously impair territorial integrity of the country.”
In 2014, in response to the Syrian government’s persistent refusal to give the UN and other aid agencies explicit permission to take aid to areas not under government control, the Security Council provided UN agencies with the political cover to take supplies from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan into Syria. But by 2020, Russia had forced the council to shut down three of the four previously authorized border crossings, leaving the Bab al-Hawa (Cilvegözü) border crossing point as the only UN-coordinated option for aid groups.
Russia’s role at the Security Council has shown how a Security Council-mandated cross border authorization for the delivery of critical humanitarian aid into nongovernment-controlled areas has ended up hampering the delivery of aid, not facilitating it as was originally intended, Human Rights Watch said.
While Turkey did reportedly authorize aid to go through the two additional border crossings on February 8, UN agencies were reluctant to use them without authorization by the Syrian government or the UN Security Council. As a result, earthquake survivors were largely left to rely on prepositioned, yet dwindling, stockpiles of aid delivered before the earthquake.
Weeks before the earthquake struck, 16 international jurists, including former judges of the International Court of Justice, signed a letter urging more cross-border access points to deliver aid to northwest Syria. The jurists said: “Overly cautious interpretations of international law should not risk the lives of millions who continue to rely on cross-border aid in the north and north-west, nor should they be allowed to change and politicize the landscape of international humanitarian law.”
By February 13, the death toll in northwest Syria was at least 4,400, with more than 7,600 injured, and at least 11,000 left homeless in near freezing temperatures, according to OCHA. The combined death toll for Syria and Turkey has surpassed 37,000. The UN agency said that as of February 11, 47,000 cases of cholera, which has been raging across Syria since August, have been reported in northwest Syria. It said that primary needs in the aftermath of the earthquake include medical supplies, heavy machines for rubble removal, food assistance, shelter and heating, emergency water, sanitation, and hygiene assistance. On February 14, the UN agency said that close to 9 million people across northern Syria, including in Aleppo, Hama, and Lattakia, governorates mostly under government control, have been affected by the devastating earthquakes. It estimated that UN agencies would need $397.6 million in funding to respond to the far-reaching humanitarian implications of the ensuing crisis.
As the UN struggled to meet the severe humanitarian needs in northwest Syria, parties to the conflict also obstructed the passage of aid into the region from crossline routes. The Syrian government, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an anti-government armed group that controls a portion of northwest Syria, and the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), which controls some territory across northern Syria, have all hampered humanitarian assistance from reaching heavily impacted areas of northwest Syria.
An international humanitarian worker based in northeast Syria, much of which is under the military control of the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), told Human Rights Watch that the Syrian government is preventing a local organization in the northeast from sending an aid convoy through government-held territory into certain pockets of Aleppo governorate that are also controlled by the SDF unless it hands over half of its supplies. The convoy, which has been stuck at the checkpoint between SDF-controlled and government-controlled areas in Aleppo for almost four days, is carrying tents, mattresses, blankets, medical supplies, and includes two ambulances, the aid worker said.
Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an anti-government armed group linked to al-Qaeda that controls a portion of northwest Syria that includes Idlib, has also at times over the past few years refused to allow Syrian government-affiliated local organizations from operating in areas under its control. For some days after the earthquakes struck, the group blocked a convoy sent from government-held areas and carrying UN aid from entering Idlib, causing it to turn back on February 12.
Some crossline aid organized by the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), which governs the SDF-controlled northeast to the northwest, is also being prevented from reaching Afrin, which is under the control of the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army. On February 9, an SDF spokesperson stated that Syrian National Army factions are blocking entry. Aid groups confirmed on February 13 that while some convoys organized by local communities in northeast Syria have since been allowed to pass through, the AANES convoy of more than 100 trucks carrying basic aid supplies was still being prevented from entering.
Even before the earthquakes, Syrians were facing one of the worst economic and humanitarian crises since the conflict began in 2011, battling a fuel crisis, cholera outbreak, and rising food insecurity. Most of northwest Syria’s population of about four million, including at least 2.6 million displaced people, relied on humanitarian aid. Civilians in these areas are effectively trapped, lacking resources to relocate, unable to cross into Turkey, and fearing persecution if they attempt to relocate to government-held areas.
“Syrians in the northwest have been crying out to the rest of the world to come to their rescue, yet only a trickle of aid has so far reached those most in need,” Coogle said. “All parties to the conflict should facilitate the rapid and unfettered passage of lifesaving aid to earthquake survivors in all affected parts of Syria.”