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‘The real response’: Earthquake highlights role of Syrian-led relief organizations amid UN paralysis

The slow international response to the crisis in northwestern Syria after the February 6 earthquake highlights the central role of aid workers in both Turkey and Syria, whose staff raced to respond while being themselves impacted.

14 February 2023

PARIS — From two white tents in a parking lot in Gaziantep, southern Turkey, 15 aid workers coordinate relief efforts in northwestern Syria. Inside, they work elbow-to-elbow, two or three laptops to a desk. Surge protectors dangle precariously from the sides of the tent, a tangle of cords running electricity to computers and monitors. 

On February 6, the Gaziantep office of Sened—an independent organization that has supported Syrians with disabilities in both countries since 2013—as well as the homes of all its staff was damaged by the region’s strongest earthquake in more than a century. Some fled the city, while others slept in wedding halls, mosques, the streets and now in tents. 

One member of Sened’s board, Eyad Khattab, was killed in the city of Antakya with his wife, children and parents when their home collapsed. Those on the ground in Syria–around 50 staff—survived the earthquake, but “there was displacement, additional displacement,” said Saeed Nahhas, the board’s chairman. Many had been displaced before.

In the days since the disaster, staff in Turkey who chose to remain in Gaziantep have pivoted, like many of their colleagues there and in Syria, to emergency support: providing basic necessities to those impacted by the disaster and logistical support for rescue efforts. 

“As a humanitarian organization, it’s our job to help people in difficult circumstances,” Nahhas told Syria Direct. “Syrians have been subjected to the unbearable over the past 12 years, and can’t take any more. And now comes the earthquake.” 

Since 2013, southern Turkey has been the base for cross-border humanitarian response efforts in northwestern Syria. From offices in Gaziantep and Antakya—among the areas worst-affected by last week’s earthquake, an ecosystem of NGOs and United Nations agencies have supported and planned work in opposition-held northwestern Syria. Since 2017, most of these NGOs have been Syrian-led humanitarian organizations, after Ankara shut down the offices of most American and European aid organizations. 

If the body of cross-border operations is in northwestern Syria, the head is in southern Turkey. Staff in Turkey coordinate logistics and procurement, working with colleagues inside Syria to bring supplies over the border or buy goods locally to distribute on the ground. Hospitals in Turkey receive Syria’s wounded and sick, easing the pressure on hospitals in Idlib and Aleppo, which face severe shortages of staff, supplies and equipment linked to dwindling international funding

Last week’s earthquake not only brought down buildings and killed more than 30,000 people, but threw the entire aid system on both sides of the border into disarray. Staff in both Turkey and Syria were killed, injured, displaced and went missing. Offices were damaged and evacuated, while some of those that remained intact became makeshift shelters for those left homeless by the disaster. 

For more than a week, Syria-focused aid workers based in Turkey—alongside their peers in Syria—have raced to respond to the disaster while dealing with its impact themselves: mass displacement, the loss of colleagues, friends and family members, and new layers of trauma calling back memories of bombardment inside Syria.

While working around the clock, they have shared in the helpless rage of watching as rescue equipment and aid failed to cross the border into Syria in the crucial, early days after the earthquake, while precious time ticked away for thousands buried in the rubble. And, in recent days, Syrian organizations both in Turkey and Syria have also played a major role both in condemning the UN’s sluggish response and pressuring it to act by any means possible.  

‘We are exhausted’

Bousla, another Syrian-led organization based in Turkey, worked out of Gaziantep and Antakya before last Monday’s earthquake. It is one of five programs in the Syrian Forum, a consortium of relief and civil society organizations. On February 6, they “lost communication with more than 80 percent” of the forum’s 780 staff members in both countries, said Hassan Jenedie, Bousla’s executive director. Many of their staff are still not reachable. In Turkey, 50 percent were displaced, alongside 40 percent in Syria. 

It, like other NGOs, is now working out of another city in Turkey. The day after the earthquake, operations resumed in Syria—with 60 percent of Bousla’s usual staff. “Our main priority is saving lives—we are exhausted and our warehouses are becoming empty,” Jenedie said a few days after the disaster.

Mohammed Jandali, the founder and former executive director of the International Humanitarian and Relief Organization (IYD), said all its staff in Turkey survived the earthquake. Three in Syria died, while 10 lost family members. “One of our staff, during the emergency response, helping others without sleep, putting all his efforts to help damaged people, found out that four of his relatives are under one of the damaged buildings. There are a lot of other stories,” he said. 

Jandali was in Gaziantep when the earthquake hit, and stayed there for days before relocating to Istanbul with his family on Thursday. That night, he got his first sleep since the disaster—six hours. But the trauma of the event did not stay behind. 

He and his relatives fled their homes empty-handed, so after reaching Istanbul on Thursday night, they went to a mall to buy some clothes. He was in an elevator with his daughter and daughter-in-law when “it suddenly stopped,” he recalled. “They lost their minds, hysterically screaming in the elevator. They thought it was falling, or that there was an earthquake in Istanbul. So you can imagine how they’re doing mentally, even though we’re more than 1,000 kilometers away.” 

After the earthquake, Abdulrahman Arour, an advocacy and communications officer for the Syrian NGO Alliance—an umbrella of more than 22 organizations based in Gaziantep—spent three days sleeping in his car due to a shortage of emergency shelters in the city, before driving to Ankara. Some of the alliance’s organizations have opened their offices to be used as shelters for those left homeless by the earthquake. 

“We don’t know if we’re living in a dream or reality,” Arour said. “The situation is very terrible, whether it’s in Turkey or Syria.”

With staff working out of their cars and tents in Gaziantep or from other Turkish cities, many Syria-focused cross-border organizations were operational within 24 to 48 hours of the earthquake, driven by “the duty we have,” Jandali said. “We can’t let our family, our friends, the people of our country down in the state they’re in now.”

Destruction in the southern Turkish city of Antakya, where many cross-border NGOs had their offices, 7/2/23 (Bousla)

‘Weak’ response

Even before last week’s earthquake, the humanitarian situation in northwestern Syria was already dire. Needs were at record levels, especially after recent funding cuts. In 2022, support for the health sector alone dropped by more than 40 percent, leading to the closure of many hospitals. 

According to a 2022 UN assessment, around 3.4 million people in northwest Syria, including 2.8 million internally displaced people, need “regular humanitarian aid to meet their basic needs,” with 97 percent of the population living below the poverty line. 

Making matters worse, after February 6 supply chains for northwestern Syria were “basically disabled,” and increased pressure made cash transfers increasingly difficult, said Mohamed Katoub, a humanitarian response and relief advocacy expert. Katoub previously worked for the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), one of the biggest humanitarian actors in northwestern Syria, in Gaziantep.

Some relief organizations had extra supplies stockpiled inside Syria at the end of 2022, Jandali said, amid fears that the UN Security Council resolution authorizing aid deliveries from Turkey to Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing would not be renewed. When it was, “new supplies weren’t sent” and the stockpile dwindled, he added.

According to the UN, cross-border access through Bab al-Hawa—located between the Turkish city of Iskenderun and the Syrian city of Idlib—was itself cut off for days in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake due to damaged or closed roads on both sides of the border. 

At the same time, early on the second day after the earthquake, officials on the Syrian side of the crossing announced it was “open for aid and humanitarian movement for whomever wants to help our afflicted people.” The bodies of hundreds of Syrian earthquake victims also entered the crossing from Turkey before the first UN aid arrived. 

In northwestern Syria, only five percent of search and rescue needs were being met 48 hours after the earthquake, according to the Syrian Civil Defense (White Helmets), due to shortages of personnel and machinery. Without cross-border rescue teams, heavy machinery, or specialized equipment, the White Helmets scrambled to rescue survivors with whatever tools they had available, such as shovels and sledgehammers.

When UN aid finally came—six trucks on February 9, three days after the earthquake—it entered after the “golden period” for saving survivors beneath the rubble, and did not include desperately needed search and rescue teams and equipment first responders were calling for. The shipment was scheduled before the earthquake, local sources said, not a response to the disaster on the ground. 

“There is huge blame on the UN organizations, on the international community,” Nahhas, of Sened, said. In the early days when it mattered most, “the international response was very, very weak.”

Syria Direct reached out to a UN spokesperson for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

A blood-soaked United Nations flag painted on rubble at a demonstration in Sarmada, Idlib, 11/2/2023 (IYD)

Aid and politics

On February 9, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths set off for Turkey to meet with affected communities on both sides of the border. However, Syrian relief organizations initially refused to meet with him in protest of the UN’s response, sources familiar with the discussions told Syria Direct

Eight Syrian organizations eventually agreed to meet with Griffiths in Gaziantep on February 12. During the closed meeting, Syrian relief organizations demanded the UN Secretary-General “revert back to the established IHL [International Humanitarian Law] provisions applicable to the facts of the Syrian conflict in which the Cross-Border Humanitarian Assistance is provided under the mandate of the UN Secretariat,” according to the organizations’ talking points, that were obtained by Syria Direct

Some international legal experts have argued for years that UN cross-border access should not be determined by the Security Council, and that “there is no legal barrier to the UN directly undertaking cross-border humanitarian operations and supporting NGOs to undertake them as well,” as stated in a 2014 joint legal statement.

Multiple cross-border NGOs, and advocates like Katoub, say that the UN could have used any and all operational border crossings to allow for a large influx of life-saving equipment and supplies within 24 hours of the earthquake. They argue the UN could legally have used border crossings that were less damaged than Bab al-Hawa and remained open to commercial traffic.

After the February 12 meeting with Syrian relief organizations, Griffiths tweeted: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.” He added, “My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”

On February 14, the UN did begin to use additional crossings—the Bab al-Salama and al-Rai crossings with opposition-held parts of Aleppo province—one day after receiving authorization to do so for three months from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who does not control the territory surrounding either.

Speaking to the press after a Security Council meeting on Monday night, the Permanent Representative of France to the UN, Nicolas de Rivière, called for aid to pass through the additional crossings without any “obstacles at all.” If not, he said the Security Council “should look into Chapter 7 measures.” Chapter 7 allows for the body to take measures “to maintain or restore international peace and security” including “action by air, sea, or land,” according to Article 42 of the UN Charter. 

Katoub said “such a statement is too late, mean[s] nothing and didn’t save lives,” following “eight days of the earthquake without medical equipment, 12 years of war, 200 chemical attack[s], and thousands tortured to death.” 

Cross-line assistance provokes controversy 

In recent years, as the number of border crossings authorized by the Security Council for international aid has dwindled from four to one, the UN has increasingly sought to supplement cross-border deliveries with cross-line assistance coming from regime-controlled areas.

Since the February 6 earthquake, the US Department of State has also expressed its support for humanitarian access “through all modalities” including cross-line, while acknowledging that “cross-line convoys from regime-held areas to northwest Syria were irregular due to logistical and security impediments even prior to the earthquake,” a spokesperson told the Syrian media organization Enab Baladi.

Cross-line assistance is highly controversial, given the regime has over the past decade repeatedly manipulated UN aid for political ends and blocked humanitarian access, including to besieged and hard-to-reach opposition-controlled areas–of which northwest Syria remains the last. Moreover, the regime has reportedly been unable to adequately respond to the needs of affected areas under its control, such as Latakia.

At demonstrations in Sarmada during the weekend, residents held up posters protesting the UN inaction and rejecting cross-line humanitarian assistance from regime areas. One poster read, “We don’t accept that our lifeline passes through our killers.”

So far, UN efforts to conduct cross-line shipments from Damascus to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-controlled Sarmada, in Idlib, have been rejected by Turkey—the guarantor for opposition-controlled areas of northwest Syria—a UN spokesperson told VOA News on Sunday.

“We won’t allow the regime to take advantage of the situation to show they are helping,” an HTS source told VOA, maintaining the group would only accept humanitarian shipments through Turkey. 

Demonstrators in Sarmada, Idlib hold posters directed at the UN, 13/2/2023 (IYD)

For its part, the Syrian regime has stalled multiple cross-line aid convoys from northeast Syria into its own areas from territory controlled by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), demanding a portion of the aid in exchange for allowing them to cross. 

Turkish-backed opposition authorities in northwest Syria also initially rejected cross-line shipments from northeastern Syria. But on February 12, after days of negotiations, the Syrian Interim Government (SIG) issued an official statement welcoming the delivery of aid from “the people and clans  in the eastern regions of Syria,” hinting that cross-line convoys would only be allowed through if they did not come as official aid from SDF-backed administration in those territories. The next day, convoys began to enter SIG-held territories through the Um Jaloud crossing.

While cross-line shipments have been emphasized in the wake of the earthquake, cross-border deliveries should remain the focus, Lynn Hector, a spokesperson for Mercy Corps—-one of the biggest NGOs operating in northwestern Syria—told Syria Direct. “This historically is the fastest way to get aid to those who need it most,” she said. 

“We call on all parties to prioritize the needs of Syrian civilians above politics and all else at this time and ensure unfettered access for aid,” she added. 

‘The real response’

At the February 12 meeting in Gaziantep with Griffiths, the Syrian NGOs whose representatives attended called on the UN to “significantly increase the allocated funds to Syrian NGOs and its duration,” according to talking points obtained by Syria Direct. They advocated to “accelerate the localization agenda” by funneling aid through Syrian humanitarian actors, rather than international aid organizations.

Localization has been a growing trend in recent years, with aid organizations, such as Mercy Corps, increasingly shifting almost exclusively to working through local partners—12 in total, according to Hector. 

One 2016 study on localization argued that Syrian organizations have greater “potential for more appropriate, sustainable and effective humanitarian action” than international aid actors. “Local actors are the first to respond and continue to provide support in the long term.”

This dynamic was clear over the week following the devastating earthquakes in Syria and Turkey, Bousla director Jenedie said. Syrian organizations in both countries mobilized and responded rapidly to community needs, even as international actors seemed paralyzed. “The role of localization must be emphasized, and this must be fixed in any upcoming resolution of the Security Council,” he said.  

Jenedie underlined the absence of UN agencies and many international NGOs in the earthquake response in northwest Syria. He also added that they add several layers of overhead and other indirect costs, while the remaining funds trickle down to local Syrian organizations. 

Ultimately, “localization is very important to build the capacities for local NGOs and those staff who will continue [to respond] after any crisis,” he said. And building the capacities of local NGOs can help strengthen civil society as a buffer against any eventual interference and aid diversion by the Assad regime and associated relief organizations—in the eventuality that the UN increases, or transitions exclusively, to cross-line assistance in northwest Syria.

It has become “clear during the response to the earthquake,” Jenedie added, “that the real response comes from the local organizations operating in the field.” 

*Correction 2/15/2022: The original version of this report incorrectly stated that the Bousla organization has 780 staff members in Turkey and Syria. The Syrian Forum, which Bousla is part of, has 780 staff members across its five organizations. Syria Direct regrets the error. 

This report was produced with financial support from the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). Its contents are the sole responsibility of Syria Direct.

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