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Politicization of the earthquake

Part one: Obstacles of aid to affect areas in Syria

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Aid to affected areas in Syria, both in and outside of the Syrian governments-controlled regions, has been delayed or has not arrived at all. Tevin spoke to people in Jendires, Sheikh Maqsood, Idlib, and the Syrian coast (Tartus and Latakia), in addition to NGOs and members of the local government structures in northern Syria and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) to get a clearer picture of the developments in Syria in the direct aftermath of the earthquake. It also spoke to aid workers to gain information on the coordination and movement of aid following the initial shocks.


TEVIN spoke to almost 8 people in total. Interviews were conducted through the phone in Arabic by Tevin´s team members. It found that almost all affected regions were dependent on local initiatives and individual efforts. Tevin determined five main reasons for the delay or non-arrival of external aid to earthquake-affected areas in Syria: politicization of aid, miscoordination, corruption, and discrimination.


This paper is part of a series of advocacy papers that Tevin is publishing on the aftermath of the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria. These papers are based on witness accounts in the affected areas, and focus on the social, economic, and political implications of the disaster


Views from the ground

This section of the paper describes the situation in several Syrian regions as recounted to Tevin by people on the ground.

  • Jendires

Jendires, in the Afrin area, was one of the worst-hit cities, with over 250 buildings destroyed. Yet humanitarian aid was late to arrive. On the first day, aid was seen to arrive by the Syrian Civil Defense and by members of some factions such as Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), but it was obstructed by factions such as Sham Legion and the Eastern Army. Witnesses also motioned the different factions in Jendires looting from the houses of those who fled to the streets. Aid to Jendires was in the first instance mainly provided by local actors, such individuals, and tribes.


Later that day, volunteers arrived from the Syrian Civil Defense. According to Tevin´s contact person, the aid to citizens was delayed because factions in Jendires wanted to keep it for themselves and did not want other factions from outside the region to provide help in what they consider to be their territory.


Internet reports said that on the first day of the earthquakes, heavy equipment was moved from Afrin to Türkiye by the Syria National Army. And although the witnesses on the ground who spoke to Tevin did see heavy equipment being moved, they could not confirm that it indeed left for Türkiye.


On the second day of the earthquake, a number of displaced people arrived in the villages and set up tents around Jendires and the affected areas in coordination with the factions. When aid arrived, it was first distributed to these people who then passed it on to the factions. The factions know that aid distribution mechanisms are monitored, and all eyes are on the affected areas. Therefore, they resort to these kinds of tricks while Kurdish citizens are deprived of aid in a clear and discriminatory manner.

  • Sheikh Maqsood

Sheikh Maqsood, a SFD-controlled Kurdish neighborhood in Aleppo, has not received any aid since the earthquakes took place. People in Sheikh Maqsood live in fear, especially since the infrastructure in the neighborhood has been destroyed by war and the living conditions are extremely harsh due to the years-long siege imposed by the Syrian government.


Aid to Sheikh Maqsood has been hampered by the government forces and the neighborhood is currently going through a bread and fuel crisis. Depending on the relationship between SDF and the Syrian government, at times goods and fuel are allowed into the neighborhood. At times traders can bring in vegetables through bribery. The border crossings exist, but after the earthquake, nothing is allowed in.


Before the earthquake, the fuel allocated to each family was 200 liters in the winter, but after the earthquake and due to the siege on Sheikh Maqsood, only 50 liters were allocated to each family, and the rest was allocated for moving heavy equipment, and operating ovens. Sources described discriminatory practices when it came to the distribution of aid, where the influential took advantage of the crisis to obtain advantages.


Humanitarian aid before the earthquake came from the Syrian Red Cross, but their aid has now diminished to one box per 8 months that includes 5 sunflower oil, 2 kilos of sugar, 4-kilo hummus, 5 kilo rice for a family of 5 people. The shortage of goods has in the meantime led to extreme inflation. Tevin´s contact person described that should the option and the means exist to flee to outside Syria, most people would choose to do so.

  • Syria´s coastal area

The cities of Jableh and Latakia were the most affected in the Syrian coastal area. The earthquake caused dozens of houses to collapse, and hundreds lost their lives. Before the earthquake, the Syrian government took measures facing the storm and low temperatures in region, but there was no response during the direct aftermath of the earthquake, and it did not provide any support for the affected areas. Like the rest of the Syrian cities, the population relied on local capabilities and initiatives. Many local initiatives were launched to respond to the effects of the earthquake. The Syrian Red Crescent and the Cuba Organization, affiliated with churches, for example, responded very quickly.


Aid from some countries in the region who were quick to respond, such as Iraq, which established an air bridge with Damascus and Aleppo, arrived to the cities, albeit with a delay. This delay was caused by local bureaucracy, especially the security bureaucracy. Widespread corruption in the Syrian government institutions also contributed significantly to weakening the response to the earthquake. However, the main reason for the delay remains the Damascus government's politicization of the earthquake to lift economic sanctions and end its international isolation.

  • Idlib

As was the case in the examples above, Idlib too was heavily damaged by war before the additional destruction of the earthquake. Tevin´s contact person in Idlib described that the Idlib Health Directorate in the direct aftermath of the earthquake set up a Crisis Management Team, opened a hotline, and set up a team to evaluate the damage and the needs of affected cities and villages who redistributed existing supplies among the affected areas.


After this first response, Tevin´s contact persons described that aid coming into the city was delayed due to political factors. Idlib, located in the north of Syria and under control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, falls between Türkiye and the Syrian government-controlled region. While Türkiye was focused on its own damage, the Syrian government tried to use the situation to its own advantage to gain international recognition by forcing aid to only arrive in the affected areas through official channels.


In the communication Tevin´s contact person had with international institutions such as UNICEF and WHO, the inflow of health supplies was said to be obstructed first by bureaucratic reasons, then by damaged roads, and finally, the border closure was given as a reason for a delay in aid.

Help was offered by the Turkish IHH humanitarian organization, but the supplies never arrived up until this sixth day following the earthquake. Some local factions also wanted to provide aid but couldn’t because the final decision is in the hands of Türkiye. Citizens in Idlib were thus dependent on local efforts and supplies that were already in the city.

  • Northeastern Syria

The regions of northeastern Syria were subjected to strong tremors, but it did not result in great destruction, as was the case with many other Syrian cities. Nevertheless, the earthquake caused panic among the residents who stayed in the streets at night. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) hastened to offer aid to the affected areas. An aid convoy consisting of fuel tanks and trucks loaded with relief and medical aid arrived at the Umm Jaloud crossing, which separates its areas from those of the Syrian National Army, yet the aid was not allowed to cross.


According to the people that Tevin spoke to, AANES officials initially communicated with the Syrian Interim Government, represented by its president, Abdulrahman Mustafa, who said at the beginning that he was unable to make a decision about accepting the aid because it is a political decision and that the contact person had to communicate with the Coalition (al-Itilaf). The contact person communicated with the head of the Coalition Salem Al-Muslat, who said he had to console the political board to be able to make a decision. After that, the contact person contacted the Syrian Civil Defense, which was also unable to let the aid enter because it is not within its jurisdiction, he tried to persuade some military commanders at the checkpoint to allow the passage of the convoy on their personal responsibility, which was not possible as they feared Türkiye's reaction.


Reasons for delay or absence of aid

Based on accounts from the ground, Tevin found four main reasons for the delay or non-arrival of aid to areas in Syria that were affected by the earthquake: politicization, miscoordination, bureaucracy, corruption, and discrimination.


1. Politicization

Geopolitical interests sometimes coincide without coordination, and this is what happened in Syria and Türkiye following the devastating earthquake. The Syrian government found in the earthquake an opportunity to break with its international isolation and removal the economic sanctions lifted off its shoulders. Taking advantage of Türkiye closing its borders to Syrians, it tightened its siege on northern Syria, especially the regions of Al-Sheikh Maqsood in Aleppo and Ashrafieh and obstructed the delivery of the AANES's aid to the north Syrian. The interviews above made clear that Türkiye's allies in the Syrian National Army also played their role in closing the borders for aid, as did Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham.


Concerning the sanctions, the Syrian government has two contradictory narratives. The first is used to delude its supporters that the sanctions did not have any affect and that they won their battle against the Western powers, and the second is to convince the Syrians in the areas under its control that the cause of misery and famine are in fact economic sanctions. It seems that the Syrian government´s strategy has succeeded, at least temporarily, in achieving its goal, as aid arrived from Arab capitals and others to Damascus after years of isolation, was accompanied by high-level coordination between the parties, in addition to the US government freezing some sanctions for a period of 180 days.


The Syrian Interim Government could not set aside its political differences with the AANES when this latter offered aid to its region. It refused to let aid offered by the AANES enter, although there was almost unanimity among the residents of northern Syria and its organizations that the aid was very much needed. The position of the government was expressed by its president, Abdulrahman Mustafa, through several tweets on his Twitter account, where he wrote:

The delay of some countries in sending aid through the open crossings with Turkey is understood by the Syrians as pressure to force them to accept receiving it from the areas controlled by SDF militia, which cannot be accepted.

2. Miscoordination

Even In the twelve years of the Syrian conflict, we have faced all kinds of violence and fear. But this earthquake was the most terrifying. It was as if it was the end of the world¨. This statement was heard from many of those who lived through the earthquake in the war-torn country where infrastructure was already destroyed, geographical connections severed, and military forces share different areas of control. In such conditions, poor coordination was bound to happen and are worsened by the power and internet outage that the affected areas experiences in the initial aftermath of the disaster.


3. Corruption and Bureaucracy

Even in death, there is a conflict of interests¨. This quote is from a survivor who lost 10 of his family members. The behavior of the factions, the Syrian National Army, especially the Eastern Army and the Sham Legion, was the same as during their occupation of, among others, Afrin. They saw in the earthquake an opportunity to seize and steal the little aid provided and fought over the shares of aid that arrived in Afrin. The Al-Amshat militia seized four out of 14 relief trucks from the Barzani Charitable Foundation, after surrounding its convoy with DShkms before allowing it to move on.


The same applies to the Syrian government army, where several witnesses reported the seizure and theft of aid that reached government-controlled areas, in addition to the requirement to obtain 50% of what cross its checkpoints, for example from the AANES region, bribes, and imposing customs for the passage of any aid through its checkpoints.


4. Discrimination

Religious, tribal, and national affiliations, in addition to civil society, show to play an important role in the emergency and rapid response to the earthquake, much more so than the political and military governance structures. But polarization and the security and military chaos allowed for discrimination to take place between those affected by the earthquake, especially in the Afrin region, where crimes of discrimination against Kurdish citizens by the different factions escalated. This also applies to the Syrian army, which has tightened its grip on Al-Sheikh Maqsood and northern Syria, preventing any aid from entering the area.


Recommendations

The eyewitnesses suggested several recommendations to the international community and international aid agencies:

  1. Financial support: In all regions affected by the earthquake, inflation has heavily diminished the purchasing power of those in the affected areas. Financial aid would enable them to be able to still provide their daily needs.

  2. Support local actors: Most aid is provided by local actors and individual efforts. These should be supported. And avoid handing them over to military or government structures.

  3. Need for assessment teams: Aid needs to be provided to those who need it rather than those linked to specific political, tribal, or religious affiliations. Therefore, assessments teams should be created that are able to effectively distribute aid based on the needs of people in the affected areas.

  4. Pressure from EU and other international actors: the EU and other international actors should pressure Türkiye to open its borders to Syria and to make the flow of aid into areas in Syria controlled by allies of Türkiye easier

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