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Will the EU earthquake support donor conference help Syria?

Priyanka Shankar in Brussels
March 19, 2023

Humanitarian aid deliveries to Syria became more difficult after February's earthquake. Several weeks on, the European Union is hosting a donor conference to help with relief efforts to recover.

Children seen looking at debris in northern Syria after an earthquake struck the region
Millions in northwest Syria are in need of humanitarian aidImage: Rami Alsayed/dpa/picture alliance

It has been over a month since a pair of massive earthquakes shook Turkey and northern Syria, killing more than 50,000 people and leaving millions homeless.

Since then, nations around the world have been quick to express their solidarity and offer aid to support people in both countries.

The European Commission is set to host a donor's conference on Monday in Brussels to further support the people affected by the earthquakes.

The EU has allocated €5.5 million ($5.85 million) in humanitarian aid to Turkey and mobilized €10 million to offer rapid relief to earthquake victims in Syria.

The support for Syria was slow, however, compared with the aid sent to Turkey.

NGOs, rights groups and humanitarian aid researchers who focus on Syria have questioned whether donor conferences will ensure that there are no barriers to humanitarian aid deliveries in the future.

'Aid didn't come'

When the February 6 earthquakes hit, more than 4 million people living in northern Syria — mostly Syrians displaced from other parts of the country during the long civil war — were already dependent on humanitarian aid.

But the region is controlled by groups that oppose Syria's government, and getting any aid to help people in this part of the country is a challenge with President Bashar Assad insisting that all humanitarian aid should be channeled through Damascus.

In mid-2014, the UN Security Council signed a mandate stating that UN humanitarian agencies and their partners could use four border crossings — two through Turkey and one each through Jordan and Iraq — to deliver aid throughout the country.

But, with Russia's increased support for Assad's government, this UN mandate has become a political issue, and every six months a vote his held in the UNSC to decide whether the border crossings should be opened. 

Following the earthquake, this diplomatic feud over the cross-border aid deliveries came into play, delaying international support, Suhail al-Ghazi, an independent researcher on Syria, told DW.

"When the earthquake struck southern Turkey, roads reaching the  Bab-al-Hawa crossing were damaged and it was difficult to reach northwest Syria immediately," al-Ghazi said. "But the crossing never closed, and the Turkish government fixed the damaged roads quickly. Yet, aid didn't come through." 

He added that while another border crossing was open, the fact that it wasn't included in the UN's resolution meant that it could not be used for aid deliveries.  

"Earthquake relief finally came almost four to six days after the quake struck. But it wasn't sufficient to support the people in need in northwest Syria. The EU, US and UK should have made more of an effort to send aid independently instead of pushing the blame on the UN mandate," he said. 

EU aid to quake survivors arrives in Syria

According to an EU official, the bloc began helping those affected by the earthquake in Syria from the day the earthquake struck, through its existing humanitarian partners who were operational on the ground a few hours after the disaster.

"We immediately mobilized some €10 million for humanitarian assistance to cover the most urgent needs. EU humanitarian assistance is always based on needs, not on political, religious or any other affiliations," the official told DW. 

Under the bloc's Humanitarian Response Capacity, the official highlighted that 225 tons of assistance in total was split, with 125 tons going to the opposition-controlled areas and 100 tons to government-controlled areas. Six flights delivered the aid, four of them to opposition-controlled areas via Turkey, the other two to government-controlled areas.

"Through our hub in Gaziantep, tons of aid (tents, generators, heaters, and food) were handed over to our partner, the International Organization for Migration, who delivered the assistance to the northwest where it is distributed to the people in need. The assistance delivered via Beirut is handed over to the World Food Program and the Red Cross and Red Crescent movement who then distribute the assistance directly to the people in need in government-controlled areas," the official said. 

"None of the EU assistance is given to the Syrian government."

But al-Ghazi slammed this response as laziness.

"All this aid is great, but most of it came through flights landing in Damascus. Over 300 flights came from European countries to Damascus. But this was not needed because the vulnerable situation was in the northwest of the country. So flights could have landed in Turkey's Hatay province and reached the northwest faster. Going through Damascus has meant that more aid ended up in the hands of the Syrian regime," he said.

Aid is seen arriving in Damascus
Criticism looms over belated humanitarian aid deliveries to SyriaImage: Syrian Arab Red Crescent/Handout/REUTERS

NGOs on the ground scaled up their help by mobilizing existing resources.

"In the early days of the earthquake, NGOs needed search and rescue equipment, and this was not provided. This was crucial in order to save lives," Samah Hadid, head of advocacy for the Middle East at the Norwegian Refugee Council, told DW.

She added that the the delay in providing financial support to those in need is nothing new.

"We sense a lot of fatigue around the Syria crisis, and, while governments do focus on delivering humanitarian aid, there isn't enough long term recovery and rehabilitation funding. For NGOs to continue delivering assistance on ground, we need more funds," Hadid said.

Though the conference is likely to encourage more big-money pledges and more messages of solidarity, Hadid fears that funding for earthquake relief will come at the expense of other humanitarian appeals.

"What we need to see from donors at the moment is additional and new funding and to maintain support for other humanitarian needs. Otherwise, we will see these multiple crises continuing to grow in Syria," she said.

Al-Ghazi said international institutions should make more of an effort to work on a mechanism to deliver aid in the northwest and not just accept vetoes by Russia and China on the UN Security Council every six months.

"Introducing an aid monitoring mechanism to ensure that aid delivery by the UN, foreign countries and international NGOs takes place in an impartial manner and  doesn't go into the hands of the regime or other human rights violators would be beneficial," he said.

A European Commission official told DW that, so far, there are reporting requirements for humanitarian partners that implement EU-funded projects and these projects are inspected by members of the commission at least once.

Earthquake survivors face lasting trauma

With the civil war entering its 13th year, al-Ghazi said conversations and conferences on Syria should extend beyond aid and focus more on policies and actions.

"Europe and the West are unified when it comes to countering Russia in Ukraine. But, when it is Russia and China in northwest Syria, the West seems to be backing down and not doing anything. They're getting weaker in taking a stance and don't seem to have a unified policy which is wrong," he said.

"It is time for the EU to talk about political solutions to help Syria. That is what will start solving the issue when it comes to helping the country, instead of hiding behind Turkey and Russia to make these big policy decisions," al-Ghazi said.

Edited by: Milan Gagnon/Rob Mudge