Syrian earthquake victims in desperate plight as Assad regime blocks aid from Turkey

Already displaced and vulnerable after the decade-long civil war, the earthquake victims of Syria’s rebel-held north-west areas find themselves in a particularly desperate situation.

Syria’s north-west is home to roughly 4.5 million people — 90 per cent of whom rely on humanitarian assistance to survive, according to the United Nations. Medical care is scarce, as is solid infrastructure following years of bombardment by government forces and their Russian allies. The quake has blocked their only source of aid.

Even before Monday’s natural disaster, UN secretary general, António Guterres, had warned that hundreds of thousands in north-west Syria might not survive a harsh winter.

The earthquakes have added catastrophe to what was already a disaster zone.

The only crossing into the area from Turkey approved by the UN for transporting international aid has been rendered unusable, according to NGOs.

Damascus is making things worse by hampering efforts to get supplies into rebel-held strongholds by refusing to open more crossings from Turkey. The Syrian regime impedes the flow of Turkish aid into the region fearing this would impede its ability to eventually win back control there.

Turkey backed armed opposition to the regime of Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad, during the civil war.

Experts, including Qutaiba Idlbi, Syria’s lead at the Atlantic Council think-tank, say there is little chance of the Syrian government supplying aid to the rebel-held areas.

Syria’s UN Ambassador, Bassam Sabbagh, met with Mr Guterres on Monday and said he had asked for UN help. But he added that any assistance would have to be co-ordinated with his government and delivered from within Syria, not across the Turkish border.

Many Syrians sheltering in the north-west fear this would put their fate once again in the hand of Assad’s brutal regime.

The US has already ruled out delivering aid to the north-west via Damascus.

Ned Rice, the US State Department’s spokesperson, told The Guardian: “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.”

Germany’s foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, on Tuesday called on Russia to pressure the Assad regime, which it props up, into allowing more humanitarian aid into the country via Turkey.

Meanwhile, on the ground, and battling the odds, the Syria Civil Defence aka the White Helmets said that with limited numbers and equipment, they were facing a “Herculean task” in rescuing those trapped in the rubble.

At least 900 people were killed in the opposition-held north-west and 2,300 injured with the toll expected to “rise dramatically,” the White Helmets rescue team said. Hundreds or thousands remained trapped in collapsed buildings.

A member of the White Helmets in a village near Jisr al-Shughur, in the Idlib governorate, told France 24: “A huge catastrophe has hit civilians in north-western Syria. These buildings were already weakened by the strikes [carried out by the Syrian regime]. The earthquake destroyed what was left of these houses. There were six-storey buildings here. There are still civilians under the rubble,” he said.

Aid groups say that displaced people who survived the earthquake are now at risk from the harsh winter conditions.

Tanya Evans, Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee, said: “Many in north-west Syria have been displaced up to 20 times and with health facilities strained beyond capacity, even before this tragedy many did not have access to the health care they critically need.”

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