By Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS, Feb 13 2023 (IPS)
As the toll in last week’s earthquakes in Turkey and Syria exceeds a staggering 28,000 people dead and more than 78,000 injured–and counting– the United Nations is in an emergency-footing struggling to provide humanitarian aid, along with several international humanitarian organizations.
The devastated cities in both countries—by an earthquake described as one of the world’s top 10 deadliest in history at a magnitude of 7.8— are urgently in need of food, water, medicine, clothes and shelter—even as after-shocks have triggered the collapse of additional buildings with a new search for more survivors in a doomed scenario.
But the flow of aid is being hindered by several factors, including power politics, sanctions and limited border crossings in a 12-year long civil war in conflict-ridden Syria.
Asked about these limitations, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told reporters last week: “This is the moment of unity, not to politicize or to divide, but it is obvious that we need massive support, and so I would be of course very happy if the Security Council could reach a consensus to allow for more crossings to be used, as we need also to increase our capacity to deliver on crossline operations into Idlib from Damascus.”
Over the years, Russia and China, two veto-wielding permanent members of the Security Council, have remained supportive of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while the remaining three permanent members, the US, UK and France, have been critical of Assad’s authoritarian regime accused of war crimes and use of chemical weapons.
But the humanitarian crisis in Syria is not likely to change the power politics in a divided Security Council.
Louis Charbonneau, United Nations Director at Human Rights Watch, told IPS: “We hope the UN Security Council moves quickly and Russia won’t block expansion of cross-border aid, as the secretary-general has requested.”
But Security Council approval, he pointed out, is not a legal prerequisite to conduct cross-border aid operations into Syria. Cooperation from de facto authorities on both sides of any border, in line with humanitarian law obligations, is.
“If the Security Council is deadlocked, and the UN determines it’s feasible and safe, the UN should push ahead to address the crisis and help victims,” he declared.
The White Helmets, a civil society organization which has been operating in opposition-held areas in Syria, was critical of the slow movement of aid.
“Had international rescue teams come into Syria in the first hours, or even the second day, there was a big hope that these people who were under the ruins could have been brought out alive”, Mohamed al—Shibli of the White helmets was quoted as saying.
At his press briefing, Guterres said: the first United Nations convoy crossed into northern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, and it included 6 trucks carrying shelter and other desperately needed relief supplies. “More help is on the way, but much more, much more is needed.”
But the New York Times ran a hard-hitting story February 10 under the headline: “UN Aid Trickles into Syria, but Residents say it is too Little, too Late”.
Still, the UN and its agencies have responded with all the means at their disposal, including assistance from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the World Food Programme (WFP), the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), among others, and a task force led by the Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths.
After his arrival in the Syrian capital February 12, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria
Geir O. Pedersen told reporters the earthquake was “one of the biggest humanitarian or natural disasters that we have seen recently”.
While expressing his condolences, he said: “And I think, you know, when we see the images, the heartbreaking images, we really feel the suffering. But we’re also seeing a lot of heroism, you see, you know, individuals, civilians, humanitarians trying to save lives, and it is this effort that we need to support.”
He assured that “the UN humanitarian family will do whatever they can to reach out to everyone that needs support. So, we are trying to mobilize whatever support there is. We are reaching out to countries, we are mobilizing funding, and we’re trying to tell everyone to put politics aside because this is a time to unite behind a common effort to support the Syrian people”.
Still, Pendersen said: “We need all the access we can have, crossline, cross-border and we need more resources. So, I’m in close touch with the UN humanitarian family, we’re working together to try to mobilize this support and that of course is my key message during this visit to Syria.
The issue of access was also raised by the US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield who said last week that she spoke with Presidents of InterAction and the International Rescue Committee, who both underscored the dire situation on the ground as humanitarian workers and first responders attempt to save lives while also facing personal tragedy.
She also spoke with representatives of Save the Children, CARE, and the White Helmets, who described the urgent need for shelter, clean water, and cash assistance, as well as increased access into Syria to allow local NGOs to deliver life-saving aid.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield voiced U.S. support for additional cross-border access points from Türkiye into northwest Syria to facilitate deliveries of earthquake-specific aid. She commended the search and rescue efforts by the White Helmets, which have saved thousands of people from collapsed buildings in northern Syria.
So far, the UN has released about $50 million from its emergency fund. But it is making a “Flash Appeal” for more funds from the international community.
Asked how much was needed, UN Spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said February 9: “We are trying to figure out how much. We’re still doing the needs assessment and I would also encourage – the public can also give through on the OCHA (Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) website, the UN Foundation websites. There are ways for people, for the public to give to the appeal,” he said.
Meanwhile, the crisis in Turkey has also been tainted with domestic politics. The slow or belated response has been blamed on the Turkish government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, up for re-election on May 14.
Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the opposition party and a potential presidential candidate, was quoted as saying: “It is the ruling party that has not prepared the country for an earthquake for 20 years”.
IPS UN Bureau Report