On February 11, the American Center for Levant Studies hosted a Twitter Space with Syrian experts to examine the disaster response in Northwest Syria and the implications of the failure of an international response to the disaster. The following is a summary of this important conversation:
Ahmad Hassan, a Syrian journalist in Istanbul, Turkiye, described the absence of a mechanism to coordinate assistance to Syria’s northwest, five days after the earthquake, as one of the leading reasons for the exponential increase in the number of deaths.
Mr. Hassan explained that the Syrian opposition failed to establish an emergency task force to coordinate assistance for the Syrians in Turkiye or Syria with the Turkish government and other countries. The absence of such a task force has prevented Syrians from being able to procure necessary equipment or to negotiate with Turkiye to end Turkiye’s cross-border closure. This failure led to the slow death of many people who waited for days under the rubble and might otherwise have been saved.
The failure of the last five days carries grave consequences. The absence of a proper coordination mechanism and disaster response has severely undermined confidence in the Turkish government and the UN, while giving Assad the opportunity to argue for normalization and for the regime to advertise itself as the only salvation for the Syrian people in the next stage. The failure of the UN, the opposition, and Turkiye to respond properly to the disaster could be the factor that destroys all stability operations in this dangerous area and increases the risks of the return of extremist organizations, and perhaps even a return to the previous conditions that led to the arrival of ISIS.
According to Hassan, these extremist groups thrive in an environment of lack of security and public anger, which the extremists exploit in order to intervene with acts of terror. And should the international community continue their apathetic approach or attempt to force the liberated areas to normalize with Assad, internal operations will begin causing more security risks for Turkiye or the countries that support the Syrian people. Ignoring these risks will significantly undermine the campaign to defeat ISIS.
In addition to these risks in Northwest Syria comes the risks in the communities of more than 1.5 million Syrians currently residing in southern Turkiye. Syrians are now subjected to hate crimes and harsh treatment instigated by the Turkish opposition parties, including denying Syrians basic humanitarian aid and shelter. The Turkish government, currently preoccupied with rescue and rebuilding operations, may be unable to protect these Syrians. Countries that support the Syrian people must consider the humanitarian vacuum for Syrians in these areas at a minimum and work towards departing from the previous UN OCHA mechanism, which was never enough to solve any problem for the Syrians in the region. Countries should, at a minimum, provide security assistance, humanitarian aid, and governance to those Syrians now in Turkiye. “These issues must be addressed during the next donor conference at the end of this month, among the many gravely needed commitments to Syria’s northwest,” Hassan said. Mr. Hassan concluded that, unfortunately, the Syrian opposition does not have specialists capable of providing solutions to these countries.
Dr. Tarek Chindeb, a Lebanese attorney who flew from Lebanon to Turkiye to assist the rescue missions, described what he saw in Antakya as an apocalyptic catastrophe. “The entire city is down, and I don’t know how many are dead, maybe more than 100,000 in Antakya only.” Dr. Tarek pleaded for aid in helping people find their missing loved ones, calling on specialized missions to assist the Turkish government and the Syrian people in the northwest.
Mr. Samer Al Saleh, an earthquake survivor who resides in Rehanlyi, Antakya, said the people of that region are still living in fear of the aftershocks, leading the entire population to remain outdoors in streets and parks. “The smell of dead bodies is in the air,” he said. The disaster is far beyond the Turkish government’s capacity to handle, as more than ten cities are flattened to the ground. As for Syria’s northwest, Mr. Al Saleh criticized the US-led international military Coalition for not providing assistance, given that the Coalition forces in Northeast Syria are the closest in distance and have the technical expertise and technological equipment that could have saved people’s lives, but chose not to lend a helping hand. “We expected the Coalition forces to be the first to arrive and to disregard all the political disagreements,” Saleh said. He explained that Syrians did not need food supplies but rather the heavy technical equipment that could’ve extracted victims from under the rubble. Mr. Saleh concluded that it should not have taken any entity more than 24 hours to send help, and the utter absence of such help has left the Syrian people feeling abandoned and disregarded.
Walid Al Mohamad, an Idlib citizen volunteer, said hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping under olive trees, and very few can buy tents now priced at $250-$300. Mr. Al Mohamad said none of the UN convoys that came to Syria had any emergency tents but instead brought house cleaning supplies for people who are now homeless. “Today, during our rescue mission in Izmarin, Idlib, we extracted more than 250 bodies,” which indicated the end of the ability to find anyone alive, Mohamad said. “Now, we will begin to move the rubble that covered streets in that town.” In Salqin, Idlib, Al Mohamad described heartbreaking scenes of families sleeping in buses, mosques, and shelter compounds. Al Mohamad concluded that the response to this catastrophe was meager and came only from local organizations with warehouses of food supplies inside Syria, but these organization was able to cover no more than two percent of the actual humanitarian need.
Mr. Raed Al Saleh, the director of the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets), described the last six desperate days as a hopeful sign that Syrians can come together in solidarity to help each other, expressing his appreciation to all the Syrians who have stepped forward to assist in the disaster.
“We sadly ended the rescue missions in search of people alive today [Saturday], knowing that we could have saved many more had we had the proper assistance,” Al Saleh said. The total number of White Helmet volunteers does not exceed 3000, and yet none of them has returned to their homes since the first day of the earthquake. Al Saleh said the White Helmets have now begun phases two of their operations, which entails extracting bodies and facilitating burials. The third phase, Al Saleh said, will be to rehabilitate infrastructure and build housing for people affected by the quake.
Al Saleh said that the White Helmets had been able to overcome the initial obstacle of fuel shortage and expressed his sincere gratitude to all those who donated to the White Helmets. He said that many Syrians inside Idlib and Aleppo had come forward to donate 200 trucks and other vehicles and pieces of heavy equipment to assist their operations, and these donations helped expedite rescue operations that saved 2950 lives.
Concerning international emergency aid to the rescue missions, Al Saleh stated that the United Nation had sent only three pre-scheduled convoys of food and hygiene products. He said UN coordinator Martin Griffiths, who is now in Kahrman, Turkiye initially adopted a negative and condescending attitude towards the Syrian organizations as he refused to go inside Syria and insisted on having them travel to meet him in Turkiye. Al Saleh said that his organization boycotted meeting with Griffiths and UN representatives outside Syria, and this stance encouraged all other Syrian organizations also to boycott meeting with him. As a result, Mr. Griffiths was forced to change his plans and announce that he would travel to the entry of Bab Al Hawa border crossing to meet them, though he would not come any further inside Syria. Saleh observed that Mr. Griffiths will, however, travel to regime-controlled areas such as Aleppo and Damascus, and Saleh warned Syrians not to be shocked by such hypocrisy. Griffiths only wanted to meet some Syrians in Kahrman, Marish, as if the people inside Northwest Syria do not exist or have any record in the United Nations, which also explains the delay in sending any aid, Al Saleh explained. “The United Nations is dubiously spreading misinformation about the aid it is providing to northern Syria, and this is certain,” he said. “And I now announce that I requested an official apology and investigation into the United Nations’ failure to respond to this humanitarian catastrophe.”
As for aid that has entered the northwest, Al Saleh said that Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Center, some Qatari organizations, and the Barzani Foundation were the only outside aid organizations to provide assistance alongside donations from Syrian and Turkish people living in Turkiye. He stressed that the monetary contributions that arrived to the White Helmets have significantly assisted the rescue missions and will go towards removing the rubble and unstable buildings. “We also received donations from the United States, Qatar, England, France, and Germany,” Al Saleh said, expressing his gratitude for the financial support the White Helmets received.
Raed Al Saleh concluded by saying, “We apologize to everyone we failed to rescue. We gave all our energy and did everything within our capability to reach all the people. Nevertheless, the state of the Syrian people’s solidarity is cause for optimism and shows that we will rise again to build the free Syria we aspire to have.”
Dr. Samir Al Taqi, an ACLS nonresident senior fellow, said that under no circumstances could the Assad regime be the mediator in delivering humanitarian aid. Giving the regime this role would serve no purpose but to achieve Russia’s attempts to impose the notion of the regime’s national sovereignty. Dr. Taqi explained that Western nations had rightly overcome this notion of national sovereignty during Kosovo’s humanitarian crisis, and that the Red Cross and other international humanitarian organizations should not surrender now to this notion of regime sovereignty played by the Russians. “It is truly a shame to keep the fate of the Syrian people under the blackmail of Russia, which I think is a big mistake from the Biden administration,” said Al Taqi.
Taqi also noted that the international community needed to require more from the foreign powers occupying specific areas of Syria. “Occupying forces should be accountable regarding the fate of civilians in the areas under their control,” he said, noting that this principle is clearly enshrined in international law.
Siba Madwar, a prominent news anchor from Syria, said she does not understand why the United States has “sacrificed Syrians at the altar of Putin’s puppet Bashar Al Assad.” She said the current situation reminded her of how the Obama administration allowed Assad to cross all redlines, letting him continue to kill Syrians daily. In her view, the position of the Biden administration is only words that make the United States look as if it is a weak state like Syria. Ms. Madwar argued that taking a strong position toward Assad would serve U.S. purposes in the war against Putin and called for pressure to implement a resolution at the UNSC allowing the immediate entry of aid.
Mohi al Deen Al Assad, a citizen volunteer from Binnish, Idlib, said it is now clear the United Nations is still sponsoring and supporting the criminal regime of Assad and, amidst one of the greatest disasters, attempting to lend Assad legitimacy. “The international community has fooled us for 12 years. The Russians, the Iranians, and the Assad militia bombed us. So is it reasonable that today the United States is lifting sanctions on the regime?” Al Assad asked, referring to the U.S. Treasury’s license on 9 February allowing financial transactions with Damascus. “We thank the United Nations for failing the Syrian people in the northwest, and today we ask ourselves who was responsible for all the horror Syrians endured, Assad or the international community. We ask you to stop sponsoring Assad as he is the source of all evil,” he concluded.
Mr. Deyaa Alrwishdi, Harvard Ph.D. international law candidate, said the US Treasury needs to explain the logic behind the suspension of sanctions on Assad’s central bank and how this will help the people of Syria. He also called upon the Department of State to abide by all the legal frameworks passed by Congress, whether under the Caesar Act or any other relevant law.