Syria Accused of Playing Politics with Aid in Aftermath of Earthquake

Boxes of rescue aid were delivered by an Iraqi air force plane at Damascus airport on Tuesday || Photo: AFP

Boxes of rescue aid were delivered by an Iraqi air force plane at Damascus airport on Tuesday || Photo: AFP

Syria was accused of playing politics with aid after the Syrian ambassador to the UN, Bassam Sabbagh, said his country should be responsible for the delivery of all aid into Syria, including those areas not under Syrian government control.

The dispute over the control of the aid – along with the weather, destroyed roads and closed crossing points – is hampering aid efforts into northern Syria, which is held by rebel groups.

The UN humanitarian agency OCHA said many roads were blocked as a result of damage and snow, adding that before the disaster as many as 4 million people were dependent on aid from across the border. Unicef, the UN children’s agency, said it feared thousands of children had been killed on both sides of the Syria-Turkey border by the earthquake.

The death toll in government-controlled areas in the regions of Aleppo, Latakia, Tartous and Hama rose to 769 deaths and 1,448 injured, most of which were in the cities of Aleppo and Latakia. More than 790 were reported dead in opposition-held areas.

Turkish vice-president, Fuat Oktay, said 3,294 searches and rescue personnel had reached Turkey from abroad, adding: “Over 70 countries have made requests, 14 of them are actually in the field.” The EU said it had mobilised 27 search and rescue and medical teams, more than 1,150 rescue workers and 70 search and rescue dogs from 19 European countries.

But in northern Syria, the death toll is likely to increase dramatically as there are hundreds of families under the rubble and many towns where no rescue teams have arrived.

Andrew Mitchell, the UK aid minister, acknowledged the problem of sending aid into northern Syria but said the UK would be working with the White Helmets civilian defence force as it has for many years in the region. But he said more crossing points from Turkey into northern Syria needed to be opened.

The government in Damascus allows aid to enter the region through only one border crossing. It has been resistant to opening up aid into northern areas because it regards the aid as undermining Syrian sovereignty and reducing its chances of winning back control of the region.

“The areas worst affected by the earthquake inside Syria look to be run by the Turkish-controlled opposition and not by the Syrian government,” said Mark Lowcock, the former head of UN humanitarian affairs. “It is going to require Turkish acquiescence to get aid into those areas. It is unlikely the Syrian government will do much to help.”

Sabbagh told reporters in New York that António Guterres, the UN secretary general, “assured us that the UN will do all it’s possible in helping Syria in this very difficult situation”.

Sabbagh was asked whether Syria would agree to allow the UN to deliver aid through other crossing points from Turkey if it was feasible. He did not respond directly, but said the government was ready to help and coordinate aid deliveries “to all Syrians in all territory of Syria”.

More than 1,400 people have died in Syria as a result of the earthquake, according to Damascus and authorities in the northwest part of the country controlled by anti-regime forces.

Ned Price, a spokesperson for the US secretary of state, ruled out delivering aid via the Syrian government, saying “it would be ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalised its people over the course of a dozen years now – gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured.

“Instead, we have humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes. These partners, who, unlike the Syrian regime, are there to help the people rather than brutalise them”.

He added: “The people of Syria need humanitarian access. NGO actors, these organisations, many of whom have been active in parts of Syria over the course of a dozen years now, need to have access to be able to go back and forth across the border, to deliver humanitarian assistance.”

Qutaiba Idlbi, Syria’s lead at the US Atlantic Council thinktank, said the insistence of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, on “cross-line aid [aid delivered from government-held areas into rebel-held areas] is not about how aid is routed into affected areas, but about who distributes the aid and controls the economy of the humanitarian operations in the north-west. Make no mistake, the Assad government has no capacity to implement any aid operation in north-west Syria.”

The flow of UN aid from Turkey to north-west Syria has been temporarily halted due to damage to roads and other logistical issues related to the earthquake that struck the two countries on Monday, a UN spokesperson said.

Madevi Sun-Suon, from the OCHA, said: “Some roads are broken, some are inaccessible. There are logistical issues that need to be worked through. We don’t have a clear picture of when it will resume.”

There is a wider concern that Turkey, facing the larger loss of life, is focused understandably on saving its own citizens and will not be able to prioritise help in areas of Syria where forces that it backs have been operating. The distribution of the aid effort, and a possible clash between the Russian- and western-backed aid efforts, are likely to prove problematic in the days ahead.

[This article was by Patrick Wintour and  first published in The Guardian]

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