Dark days ahead for Syria's earthquake-hit northwest
Now 13 years into the Syria conflict, northwest Syria is in ruins. Over a month since the devastating earthquake ravaged the region of 4.5 million, the humanitarian response remains a failure. Today, dark days are ahead as the war-torn region struggles to rebuild from one of the worst natural disasters in modern history.
At least 15,000 buildings are reported destroyed or damaged, leaving at least 11,000 families homeless throughout the northwest. In the numerous scattered tent settlements — and elsewhere in the region where water and sewage infrastructure is in shambles — cholera has spread, with at least two deaths reported since the quake.
Meanwhile, the capacity of the humanitarian response is extremely limited. Over 90% of humanitarian assistance to Syria moves through the hands of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, leaving most of the opposition-held territories dry of the much-needed aid, according to Steven Heydemann, a political scientist specialised in Syria.
“There is absolutely no question about the scale of the imbalance in the volume of support that is moving through the regime’s hands compared to in opposition areas,” Heydemann told The New Arab.
"Over 90% of humanitarian assistance to Syria moves through the hands of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, leaving most of the opposition-held territories dry of the much-needed aid"
Large portions of the northwest are under the control of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group previously affiliated with al-Qaeda. The group is under sanction by the UN, which has presented immense obstacles to humanitarian work and rebuilding in the besieged region.
Other parts of the northwest are controlled by opposition groups under the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA), who, unlike the Syrian government, cannot make official requests for assistance or build anything permanent in the contested territory.
Although the US announced the lifting of sanctions for earthquake-related aid to Syria’s regime-held areas, sanctions are still in place over the designated terrorist groups in the northwest. “It’s not a context that’s easy for humanitarians to navigate,” Heydemann explained.
Even in the earthquake’s aftermath, Assad has continued to carry out attacks on the opposition-held region, bombing Idlib already over 84 times since the quake.
“The continued violence creates an atmosphere of uncertainty and vulnerability and makes it difficult to move towards a stable context where reconstruction can happen,” said Heydemann.
UN 'key issue' in aid response
The UN has driven the humanitarian response for Syria since the Syrian uprising 12 years ago. “The key issue for northwest Syria is the focus on the UN as the main facilitator of humanitarian work,” said Syrian political economist Karam Shaar.
“We’re at the point now where more of the aid needs to go directly to Syrian organisations,” Shaar told The New Arab.
The UN has been slammed for its slow provision of earthquake aid to the northwest. The first aid convoy into the opposition-held areas of Idlib and Aleppo — the hardest hit by the earthquake — did not arrive until four days after the quake.
The UN had waited for Assad’s permission to use two more border crossings from Turkey into the region, hesitant to upset the regime’s staunch ally Russia, who holds a seat at the UN Security Council.
Through UN security council vetoes, Russia, in cooperation with China, has whittled away the UN’s cross-border access to the northwest region. Assad and his allies insist aid should come through the regime-held areas, claiming that the aid from Turkey into opposition territories violates Syria’s sovereignty.
“All humanitarian actors are stuck in short term cycles of renewals of cross-border aid,” said Shaar, referencing the UN Security Council vote held twice a year to decide if aid can cross into northwest Syria. This has detracted from humanitarian groups’ ability to make longer-term response plans, impeding on rebuilding and reconstruction efforts in the region.
“No long-term planning is possible when you know you’re always under the mercy of the Russians,” Shaar stated.
Syria’s authorisation to use additional border crossings into the territory will expire in May and the next vote on if the UN can use Bab al-Hawa — the only crossing ‘legally’ open prior to the quake — is scheduled for July.
Although some international actors are pushing for aid to continue into northwest Syria even if the crossing is not approved, for now, access remains at the disposal of a vote by Assad’s confidants.
"Funds can barely support livelihoods, much less go towards any form of longer-term reconstruction"
Humanitarian capacity no match for destruction
The handful of small-scale humanitarian organisations and voluntary efforts in northwest Syria are no match for the breadth of destruction the region faces.
The organisations on-the-ground “don’t have the capacity to manage reconstruction operations on the scale that now exists in northwest Syria”, Heydemann said. “They’re a drop in the bucket compared to the volumes of aid that flow through the UN,” he added.
The sanctions against armed opposition groups in the region have constricted the banking sector, which has hindered humanitarian work. For instance, organisations and NGOs based in and outside Syria have faced delays or refusals to transfer finances, as well as the closure of bank accounts, which has had consequences for their projects and staff payments, Joseph Daher, a Syrian-Swiss researcher, told The New Arab.
Meanwhile, after 12 years of ongoing conflict, the region’s economy is in shambles. Money into the region mostly comes through remittances, Daher said. The funds can barely support livelihoods, much less go towards any form of longer-term reconstruction, he added.
Due to sanctions, swaths of people have been prevented from opening bank accounts and blocked access to online resources, such as Google Chrome, Oracle, Java, and Zoom.
But Western donors are hesitant to move forward with any longer-term plans for reconstruction or development due to a “fear that reconstruction will empower the de facto authorities in various parts of the country, which is true,” said Shaar.
However, he added that although funnelling more aid to Syrian organisations on-the-ground would incur greater monitoring costs, considering the UN inefficiencies and the region's deteriorating state, “it is definitely worth the effort”.
Region under threat as 'appetite' for support wanes
After more than a decade, attention and support for Syria’s opposition-held region is waning. “I don’t think there’s enough appetite from various actors to keep backing NW Syria to remain independent from the regime,” said Shaar.
Assad’s earthquake diplomacy has brought him closer to his Arab neighbours, with the trend of normalisation threatening all opposition-held areas in Syria, noted Daher. Saudi Arabia announced last week it would reopen its embassy in Syria, a significant development in Assad’s step into the Arab fold.
This could be a “game changer”, Daher said, if it comes with meaningful political advances, such as the reintegration of Damascus into the Arab League.
It will deepen the normalisation of the Syrian regime on a regional and international level, with pressure on the rebel-held territories likely to increase as the entire region sides with Assad, he added.
"Assad’s earthquake diplomacy has brought him closer to his Arab neighbours, with the trend of normalisation threatening all opposition-held areas in Syria"
A Turkish normalisation with the Syrian regime would also pose a significant threat to the status of Syria’s northwest region. Now Turkey heavily backs the SNA; Ankara has encouraged NGOs to increase investment in the SNA-controlled areas, connected to its willingness to stimulate the return of Syrian refugees to these areas, Daher said.
Although Assad has openly refused a rapprochement with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the results of Turkey’s upcoming elections in May could change the game.
The main opposition party in Turkey, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), has announced it would move more dramatically to normalise ties with the Assad regime, noted Heydemann. An election victory of the CHP could bring a Turkey-Syria rapprochement.
More Syrian normalisation could open space for increased military escalations — either an operation by Turkey on Kurdish actors in the northeast or continued military escalation by Assad across conflict lines in the northwest — which “would be disastrous”, said Heydemann.
It would topple the already eroded livelihoods of the region’s millions of residents and cause a massive outpouring of internally displaced persons, triggering another massive humanitarian disaster, he added.
“The next couple of years should be seen as an opportunity for international actors, like the US and the EU, to create conditions on the ground in NW Syria that establish the region’s viability as an alternative to the Assad regime,” said Heydemman.
Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.
Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341