Half a million people left homeless by earthquakes in Turkey and Syria
Fox News senior foreign affairs correspondent Greg Palkot describes the criticism facing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his response to the Turkey-Syria earthquakes disaster on "Special Report."
Syria is once again in desperate need of international attention and humanitarian assistance after the 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked it and neighboring Turkey, so far killing more than 36,000 people and leaving thousands more injured.
Delivering aid as quickly as possible means getting aid straight across the Syrian border through Turkey but also cross-line aid, which is aid transferred within Syria across conflict lines.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced the opening of two additional border crossings at Bab Al-Salam and Al Ra’ee from Turkey to northwest Syria to allow for the distribution of humanitarian aid. Russia had reduced the amount of border crossings in the northwest of Syria to a single crossing at Bab al-Hawa, hampering the initial response to the disaster.
Assad hashed out the deal with U.N. Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Martin Griffiths and avoided having to bring a contentious vote before the U.N. Security Council.
“We are focused on getting as much aid in as quickly as possible through the means that are open to us through cross-border and cross-line mechanisms. The cross-line mechanism is always challenging because it demands us coordinating between the Syrian government and those who control rebel held territory,” Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, told Fox News Digital.
In reaction to criticism, he added that “The U.N. cannot barge through a checkpoint, and can only operate within clear international law parameters, such as the U.N. charter,” Dujarric added.
This is the first time Assad has allowed cross-line aid to rebel-held territory since the civil war began.
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“Those in desperate need of assistance will finally get some relief because of Assad’s long-delayed decision. It’s crucial that the actors on the ground facilitate rather than interfere with the efforts by U.N. agencies and their international partners to save lives,” Louis Charbonneau, U.N. director at Human Rights Watch, told Fox News.
“This crisis highlights the inadequacy of the cross-border aid mechanism and the need for fundamental changes so such deadly delays aren’t repeated in northwest Syria or elsewhere.” Charbonneau added.
People remove furniture and household appliances out of a collapsed building after a devastating earthquake rocked Syria and Turkey in the town of Jinderis, Syria, Feb. 7, 2023.
The U.N. claims that Security Council approval is needed for more cross-border aid, but Charbonneau said this is not a legal prerequisite for delivering aid and the U.N. cross-border mechanism is woefully inadequate for the scale of the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria.
“I think our point is that long, drawn-out discussions in the Security Council or Russia’s alliance with the Syrian government and its use of its veto over and over again, those were never meant to be things that were decisive factors for the delivery of humanitarian aid. Humanitarian aid is supposed to be delivered on the basis of need,” Charbonneau said.
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If more delays occur, many human rights and international law observers think that the U.N. must find alternatives to the current method of providing aid to those in need.
Fox News reached out to the U.N. for comment but did not immediately hear back.
So far, the U.S. is working with the U.N. and other humanitarian allies and partners on the ground in Syria to deliver resources to the Syrian people.
The State Department made clear that U.S. aid will be delivered to people in need without directly engaging with the Assad regime. U.S. government officials expect Assad to immediately allow international aid to flow through all border crossings and allow humanitarian personnel access to those who are in need.
Rescue workers look for survivors in Gaziantep, Turkey. (Greg Palkot/Fox News)
Although the U.S. and the international community provide aid under U.N. auspices, the aid that flows into government territory is at risk of being compromised by the Assad regime.
Assad is already using the disaster to his advantage and is calling for an end to sanctions. The Syrian government, with support from Moscow, insist that all aid must flow through the Assad government, but this is problematic given Assad’s past manipulation of aid.
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“The Syrian government has perfected the politicization and weaponization of humanitarian aid throughout the civil war – in some cases it’s far more effective than a military offensive,” Natasha Hall, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Fox News Digital.
Hall noted one case in 2016 when the Syrian government attacked a Syrian Arab Red Crescent convoy it had authorized to deliver aid to Aleppo.
Aid agencies and human rights groups have called for the U.N. to prevent Assad from using humanitarian aid to bolster his political standing. Throughout the course of the Syrian civil war, Assad siphoned off humanitarian aid to reward loyal cronies in pro-government territory and punish those disloyal in rebel-held territory. U.S. and Western leaders are concerned that earthquake assistance could be weaponized by Assad for his own political purposes.
What initially began as peaceful protests against the rule of Bashar al-Assad turned into a decades-long civil war. (AP / Hassan Ammar / File)
Complicating matters further, northern Syria is one of the last parts of Syria to remain outside government control. Northwest Syria, comprising Idlib Governorate, is mostly controlled by the Jihadist group Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a U.S.- and U.N.-designated terrorist group formally affiliated with al Qaeda. Other competing groups operate in the region, creating a confusing and sometimes dangerous scenario for aid workers. The Kurdish-led and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) dominate northeast Syria while other parts of northern Syria are controlled by Turkish-backed rebels. These groups have been less than cooperative in helping deliver aid.
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“I think what’s important to understand is the fault lines of this conflict have been very much exposed by this earthquake and efforts to get assistance to civilians in different parts of the country,” Mona Yacoubian, senior Adviser on Syria at the United States Institute of Peace, told Fox News Digital.
The Treasury Department announced that all U.S. sanctions on Syria would not stand in the way of providing humanitarian relief. The U.S. tightened sanctions on Syria under the Obama administration in 2011 after Assad’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests during the Arab Spring uprisings. The 2011 sanctions provided for a humanitarian aid carve-out, while the latest exemption for disaster relief will last for six months.
Russia’s air campaign in Syria helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, left, regain control of his country during the Syrian civil war. At right is Russian President Vladimir Putin. (AP / Alexei Druzhinin / RIA-Novosti / Kremlin Pool / File)
Observers say U.S. and European governments having to accept Assad’s position as the sovereign government in Syria is a bitter diplomatic pill to swallow. Much of the international community still considers Assad a pariah.
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But a catastrophic earthquake highlights the difficulty between calling for Assad’s ouster over a decade ago and the political realities that Assad regained almost full control of his country.
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President Barack Obama famously called for Assad to “step aside” in 2011 during the height of the civil war. Despite all the clamoring from the international community for him to go, Assad tightened his grip on power and continued to repress his way to remaining president to this day.