Middle East

Assad is playing politics while people in Idlib suffer

This week’s 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Turkiye has decimated northwest Syria, leaving the international community scrambling to provide humanitarian assistance. With the region in need of urgent help, Bashar al-Assad’s regime needs to show some rare humanity instead of playing politics with people’s lives.

The earthquake has so far killed 1,932 people in Syria. This number is expected to rise over the coming days as rescue efforts continue.

In response to the earthquake, the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations, Bassam Sabbagh, announced the government would accept aid from any country, but demanded the Assad regime be responsible for the delivery of all aid into Syria. This includes into opposition held Idlib province.

However, the regimes seriousness about assisting opposition held areas was immediately thrown into doubt with reports that the Syrian military shelled earthquake effected areas in the region.

British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, described the attack as “completely unacceptable”.

Idlib, in Syria’s northwest, has been among the worst affected. Buildings have collapsed and people buried and killed, with insufficient resources and freezing temperatures preventing a rapid response. 

This has exacerbated an already dire situation in Idlib. The province is Syria’s last rebel-held enclave and hosts millions of internally displaced Syrians. Most of Idlib is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group with ties to Al Qaeda, with the Free Syrian Army holding on to small areas.

The region has borne the brunt of the Assad regimes brutality, bombed by Syrian government and Russian aircraft, killing civilians and destroying infrastructure, such as roads and buildings. The UN estimates 40,986 Syrians have been killed in Idlib since the civil war began in 2011.

This led to a humanitarian crisis, even before the earthquake.

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 4.1 out of 4.6 million people in northwest Syria require humanitarian assistance. This includes 3.3 million who are food insecure and 2.9 million internally displaced people. These conditions led to an outbreak of cholera, killing 100 people.

These conditions have made Idlib the most at need of assistance but the hardest for humanitarian aid to reach.

This hasn’t been helped by the Assad regime.

With the support of Russia, Assad has long used aid a political tool, tightly controlling what is allowed into Idlib and from where. Additionally, with most foreign aid entering Syria through Damascus, the regime has been notorious for assisting regions it controls while ignoring the ones it doesn’t.

For this reason, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkiye is the only crossing approved by the UN and has been supplying the province for 9 years. The crossing has become a vital lifeline for the region, with 7,566 trucks crossing the border to supply UN aid in 2022, reaching an estimated 2.7 million people per month.

On 9 January, the UN Security Council agreed to extend UN cross-border assistance through this crossing under resolution 2672 for another six months.

The World Food Programme revealed this week that while the crossing is still intact, it is not in use because roads have been damaged. This has cut off Idlib from its one lifeline.

Therefore, the regimes insistence that aid be channelled through them, with no hope of reaching Idlib, is despicable.

But this leaves the international community in a difficult position.

Atrocities committed by the regime, such as the use of chemical weapons and barrel bombs, has made it a global pariah.

For this reason, the international community is understandably reluctant to cooperate with a regime that has no intention of helping opposition-held areas.

Relying on one border crossing, particularly in bad weather, is also not an option.

While the UN has done admirable work in providing aid to Idlib up until now, it is wholly inadequate in dealing with the destruction seen this week.

The region requires not only humanitarian aid but also international rescue crews, machinery and medical professionals and equipment. 

So then, how can this wicked problem be solved?

The simple, if unlikely, solution is for Assad show an ounce of humanity and allow aid to ether Idlib province.

With Assad controlling what aid enters the region, allowing UN agencies and NGOs to enter Idlib from several entry points will allow aid to reach the province more quickly and to greater effect.

The regime should therefore open all border crossings on an emergency basis.

If this cannot be achieved, the international community needs to convince the Turkish government to channel aid through the borders it shares with Turkish-backed opposition groups.

With several countries offering assistance, including the United States and the European Union, the hope is this generosity in a time of need will sway President Erdogan into allowing aid to flow into northern Syria.

While the civil war has receded from memory for many, it remains a daily reality for Syrians trapped is Idlib. This week’s earthquake has made their situation even worse, making this their greatest hour of need.

The Assad regime therefore needs to act quickly and humanely to help all Syrians, regardless of their politics.

Chris Fitzgerald

I am a correspondent, freelance writer and commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. I write articles, reports and op-eds on important global political and humanitarian issues, including human rights abuses, international law, conflict and displacement. My work is published through online publications, media outlets, not-for-profits and academic websites.

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