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Turkey-Syria earthquake: Growing calls to open border crossing for aid to reach Syria

Some are calling for sanctions relief following the devastating earthquakes, but many argue the problem isn't sanctions
Rescuers search the rubble of buildings for casualties and survivors in the village of Besnaya in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province at the border with Turkey, on 7 February 2023 (AFP)

The only international aid corridor from Turkey into Syria has been disrupted because of earthquake damage, compounding an already dire humanitarian situation and laying the groundwork for potential wrangling between the Syrian government and the international community. 

“It’s chaos. We are not able to rely on anything cross border right now,” Amany Qaddour, regional director of Syria Relief and Development, a US-based non-profit, told Middle East Eye. 

Two earthquakes with an epicentre in Turkey have so far killed more than 7,200 people and left a trail of destruction across a wide area of southern Turkey and neighbouring Syria.

Tens of thousands have been injured or left homeless in cities in Turkey and northern Syria. The overall number of people affected by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria could be 23 million or higher, according to preliminary assessments by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

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The Bab al-Hawa border crossing is the sole lifeline for millions of people in Syria's northwest, as they live in areas the Syrian government does not control. Normally, more than 1,000 truckloads of aid pass through the crossing each month. 

The Bab al-Hawa crossing itself is "actually intact", according to the spokesperson for UN secretary general Stephane Dujarric. "However, the road that is leading to the crossing has been damaged, and that’s temporarily disrupted our ability to fully use it," he said in a press conference.

Besides the disruption of Bab al-Hawa, other logistical issues are complicating aid efforts, according to Natasha Hall, a senior fellow at the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). 

“The Gaziantep airport needs to be reopened for cargo. NGOs should be able to bring supplies from existing warehouses where they can,” Hall said. 

Aid workers on the ground have also been hit by the quakes.

“Our teams that normally respond in what was deemed a safe hub from Gaziantep are all affected… They are displaced and disoriented,” said Qaddour, adding that many workers are scrambling to find loved ones themselves, many of whom died in the blast.

“Our teams in Turkey are incapacitated right now."

The role of sanctions

The quakes underscore the fragility of getting aid into Syria and have already led to some calls for the US and European Union to ease stringent sanctions that have been imposed since the outbreak of war in 2011. 

But are sanctions the main obstacle?

Syria and its Russian backers have gradually managed to shut down border crossings - which the UN established to ensure aid reached civilians across all lines of the conflict - in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey 

Russia and Damascus claim the Syrian government is capable of distributing all international aid and that crossings in rebel-held territories are a violation of its sovereignty. Several UN agencies operate within Syrian government-held areas. Recently, the Assad government was accused of reaping millions from UN procurement contracts.

The US and European Union imposed stringent sanctions on Syria following a civil war that started in 2011 but have also carved out substantial humanitarian exemptions.

“The sanctions aren’t hindering our efforts,” Qaddour said, emphasising that getting aid into the northwest was a logistical and capacity-based challenge, given the damage from the earthquakes.

But according to Ebrahim Moosa, a professor in Islamic thought and Muslim societies at the University of Notre Dame, aid should supersede international relations, regardless.

“This kind of emergency aid should be exempt from sanctions. This affects the human dignity of the victims. By continuing their suffering by abiding by sanctions, we also undermine our own human dignity by becoming party to such violations by our silence.”

On Monday, a group of Christian churches in the Middle East issued a statement calling for the lifting of sanctions against Syria. 

"We urge the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria and allowing access to all materials, so sanctions may not turn into a crime against humanity,” the Middle East Council of Churches, a Beirut-based group representing Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Christians in the region, said. 

The Damascus-based Syrian Arab Red Crescent has also called for sanctions to be removed.

'The border can’t stay closed. Supplies need to be moved in this week otherwise it will be a catastrophe'

- Amany Qaddour, Syria Relief and Development 

Madevi Sun-Suon, spokesperson for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA), told Reuters that they are suffering from the same logistical issues other organisations are.

"Some roads are broken, some are inaccessible. There are logistical issues that need to be worked through," she said.

On Monday, Syria's UN ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, said the current situation called for international donors to work to coordinate efforts with the Syrian government, redirecting aid that moves cross-border via Turkey. 

But the US has ruled out changing course. Ned Price, the US State Department spokesman, said in a briefing on Monday that Washington was sending aid to Syria through “a different process” than it was to Turkey, a Nato ally. 

In Turkey "we have a partner in the government; in Syria, we have a partner in the form of NGOs on the ground who are providing humanitarian support,” he said. 

A State Department spokesperson told MEE that US sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance and that no US-funded humanitarian aid for the earthquake response is being provided through the Syrian government. 

“Our partners in regime-controlled areas directly deliver assistance to beneficiaries without control or direction from the Assad regime. This is to ensure that our assistance is not diverted by malign actors or the Assad regime and reaches the intended beneficiaries,” a spokesperson said. 

Qaddour, from Syria Relief and Development, said that the international community was being “extremely flexible” in the way aid was being delivered, given the scale and damage of the earthquakes’ impact, but she added that Bab al-Hawa needed to be reopened immediately. 

“The border can’t stay closed. Supplies need to be moved in this week otherwise it will be a catastrophe.” 

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