When a series of earthquakes rocked southern Türkiye and northwest Syria six months ago, it took days for aid to reach victims in Syria’s opposition-held northwest. In that critically important window of time, Syrian lives were lost. People are still debating why.
While much of the criticism has focused on the UN’s supposed failings, others argue that the larger problem was that the corner of Syria hit hardest by the quakes is mostly outside the international state system and reliant on a makeshift (and now possibly defunct) arrangement for delivering aid across the Türkiye-Syria border.
Adding to the complexity of getting help quickly to a pocket of the world run in part by a group many countries have designated a terrorist organisation, northwest Syria was also grappling with intense humanitarian needs even before the quakes hit on 6 February.
A marginal border area before Syria’s war began in 2011, the region – comprising parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces – now hosts an estimated 4.6 million people. That includes 2.9 million forced to flee their homes at least once, many from violence in areas controlled by the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Even before the earthquakes,1.9 million people were living in camps, which offered little protection when the disaster struck. Others were staying in war-battered buildings that collapsed with ease. Hospitals already needed constant resupplying and help from outside the country, and nearly 90% of the area’s residents now need (but don’t necessarily get) some sort of aid.
The earthquakes and their aftershocks ended up killing an estimated 50,000 people in Türkiye and a further 6,000 in Syria, mostly in areas controlled by the Syrian opposition along the Turkish border.
The disaster raised many new questions, but also made this much clear: The UN’s cross-border aid system, which may have been dealt a final blow by a Russian veto last month, was not built for this type of disaster. And the international system that traditionally handles search and rescue, which is organised around national sovereignty, was also not equipped to help in a place like northwest Syria.
This analysis retraces the days and weeks after the quakes, re-examining what happened and didn’t in the UN aid response, seeking to dispel false narratives so that lessons can be learnt for future disasters.
The immediate aftermath
The principal problem for the UN-coordinated response was that the main hub for aid to northwest Syria – the Turkish city and province of Gaziantep – was the epicentre of the earthquakes, and aftershocks were still coming regularly in the first days of the disaster.
The province of Hatay, which is the UN’s headquarters for moving goods into the northwest and the location of a key border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, is just southwest of Gaziantep and also suffered serious damage.
In short, the aid operation took what one Western diplomat called a “direct hit.” Staff from UN agencies, international aid groups, and local NGOs were killed, and many of those who survived lost family members. Aid workers spent the days after 6 February living and working out of their offices and cars, and much of the early response was neighbours mobilising to help neighbours however they could.
The earthquake scrambled the logistics for delivering assistance to northwest Syria, including aid operations, trucking, and customs. This was a problem not just for the UN and its partners, but for various NGOs that work outside the UN umbrella but often rely on its coordination of operations through Bab al-Hawa.
“The earthquake took out the entire back end of the cross-border operation,” one Western aid official told The New Humanitarian. Like most other international officials interviewed for this article, the official spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorised to speak publicly.
Bab al-Hawa, the only border crossing the Security Council had authorised the UN to use without the permission of al-Assad, closed on the day of the quakes. While it had officially reopened, at least from the Syrian side, by 7 February, the damage to roads and other critical infrastructure in Hatay province disrupted access from neighbouring Gaziantep and made Bab al-Hawa effectively unusable. Customs officials were themselves impacted by the earthquake and couldn’t come to work.
“The main challenge was that when we’ve had such a humanitarian crisis [in northwest Syria] previously, because of a huge displacement or military attacks, usually the other side of the border was the place that responded,” explained Bahjat Hajjar, executive director of the Local Administration Councils Unit (LACU), a Syrian NGO that works on local governance. “But this time, Gaziantep and southern Türkiye were victims as well – they were affected badly, maybe worse than how it was in the northwest.”
Poor weather made roads even more difficult to navigate, as the bitter winter also threatened earthquake survivors. Without cross-border access, UN agencies and other aid groups could only distribute assistance from the stocks they had already pre-positioned in the northwest.
By 8 February, the UN said it had identified alternative routes from Gaziantep to Hatay, which is the access point to Bab al-Hawa. The crossing reopened for humanitarian use on 9 February, and the UN sent its first convoy to the northwest that day. Yet some in the northwest were frustrated by the limited contents of this first aid delivery – a regular shipment planned before the disaster of only six trucks carrying shelter materials.
The UN increased cross-border aid shipments in the coming days and weeks, but it did not deliver the type of heavy machinery or other emergency assistance that residents in the northwest were calling for, including search-and-rescue teams and fuel for rescue equipment.
Supply chain issues came into play, too. While areas of Türkiye that needed help could be supplied from elsewhere inside the country, this was not the case for northwest Syria. “All the supply chains rely on this neighbouring country,” added the Western aid official. “It made the aid operation very fragile.”
Even after Bab al-Hawa reopened, local groups, as well as some humanitarians and officials from countries that donate to the UN-coordinated response in the northwest, continued to advocate for expanded access to northwest Syria, including the use of additional border crossings.
This did happen later, with al-Assad giving the UN permission to use two new border crossings – Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai – on 13 February, although the UN still says Bab al-Hawa makes up most of its traffic.
Other options did not bear fruit: The Syrian government announced it would facilitate assistance to the northwest via Damascus, but Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Islamist militant group that controls Idlib, refused to cooperate with “cross-line” aid delivery – the term for shipments between parts of the country controlled by different groups – because of concerns over al-Assad’s involvement. The group said it was preoccupied mounting its own earthquake response and that aid organisations could just deliver assistance from Türkiye once Bab al-Hawa re-opened. Armed groups in northern Aleppo also blocked assistance from Kurdish-led groups in Syria’s northeast, and no cross-line aid made it to opposition territory until June, months after the quakes.
The UN’s thorny cross-border aid position
In the aftermath of the earthquake, residents of northwest Syria felt isolated and forgotten. They saw first hand how little vital assistance like food, water, medical supplies, and shelter reached them, even as seemingly large amounts of international help arrived in Türkiye and parts of Syria under government control.
Amid mounting criticism, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths visited the Turkish-Syrian border on 12 February. “We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria,” Griffiths tweeted that day. “They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”
The next day, Griffiths visited Damascus and met with al-Assad. He left having secured temporary approval for UN use of the two additional border crossings, but this further aggravated some Syrian activists, who reproached the UN for seeking al-Assad’s approval at all.
“People died,” Farouq Habib, deputy general manager of the internationally supported Syrian rescue organisation Syria Civil Defense, better known as the White Helmets, told The New Humanitarian. “We heard the screams under the rubble. But UN staff were [waiting] on the Turkish side of the border, until Martin Griffiths could go to Damascus.”
That sense of abandonment has fed into a narrative for some that the UN was largely to blame for the lack of international assistance to northwest Syria in the days after the earthquake.
Until last month, the UN delivered aid from Türkiye into northwest Syria without the permission of al-Assad’s government in a “cross-border” operation only allowed due to a series of Security Council resolutions. The Security Council first passed such a resolution in 2014, as the international community sought to respond to persistent obstruction of aid delivery by the Syrian authorities to areas outside their control.
The resolution has since been changed and renewed repeatedly, although, under pressure from Russia – a key al-Assad ally – subsequent resolutions have reduced the original four border crossings that can be used without the permission of Syrian government authorities to one: Bab al-Hawa (Cilvegözü in Turkish).
After the quake disaster struck, media reports and commentators attacked the UN for unduly deferring to Damascus and not immediately overstepping the bounds of the Security Council’s cross-border mandate to use crossings, later allowed by al-Assad, that were less impacted by the earthquake.
The legalities of such unilateral humanitarian action have been the subject of debate for years: International legal experts have argued that the UN can and should work cross-border without a Security Council mandate or the Syrian government’s consent.
Yet a senior UN official told The New Humanitarian that the UN’s Office of Legal Affairs has reviewed this issue repeatedly and has always arrived at the same conclusion: It is not legal for it to bring aid across the border without state permission or a resolution.
Given the earthquake’s initial destabilising impact on the UN operation in Türkiye, some question whether new border crossings would have made much of a difference in the immediate aftermath of the disaster anyway.
The UN’s ability to react and adapt was likely hampered further by its lack of a real presence inside northwest Syria.
Prior to the earthquakes, UN agencies worked in the northwest remotely through local and international partner NGOs. According to the same UN official, this was down to a combination of factors: the UN’s interpretation of the Security Council’s cross-border authorisation, its awareness of Syrian government sensitivities, and security concerns related to the ongoing conflict and non-state armed groups active in the area.
Without a major presence inside northwest Syria (a policy it has since changed, to some extent), the UN couldn’t cross the border and surge staff quickly to any existing operations on the ground when disaster struck.
Search and rescue
At the same time as the outcry about the UN’s sluggish movement of physical supplies and people, there was also severe criticism of its failure to mobilise and deploy search-and-rescue teams to northwest Syria and provide rescue equipment there.
Groups like the White Helmets were publicly calling for help as they did their best to pull survivors from the rubble of collapsed buildings.
But the UN doesn’t actually do search-and-rescue itself, nor does it supply the equipment to do so.
The United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination (UNDAC), a UN body designed to respond in sudden-onset emergency, is tasked with coordinating the efforts of incoming national search-and-rescue teams, contributed by national governments, while the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG) is a network of countries and organisations that helps to mobilise urban search-and-rescue efforts. INSARAG alerts members globally to emergency response needs, but it’s the members that then decide whether they’re available to respond.
Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, the senior official at the UN’s emergency aid coordination body (OCHA) who heads up both UNDAC and INSARAG, told The New Humanitarian that northwest Syria’s non-state authorities couldn’t use either system because both are grounded in the UN charter and the principle of national sovereignty. They are set up to support disaster-stricken member states, when those states request it.
Neither Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – the latest incarnation of Syria’s former al-Qaeda affiliate, designated a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council and various national authorities – nor any other group with power in northwest Syria has any political representation at the UN. The White Helmets declared a “state of emergency” requesting support from the “international community”, but Rhodes Stampa explained that INSARAG has no clear way to respond to such requests from non-state actors.
In the weeks following the earthquake, Raed al-Saleh, the chief of the White Helmets, called the UN’s failure to respond quickly with relief items or help with search and rescue “shameful”.
“When I asked the UN why help had failed to arrive in time, the answer I received was bureaucracy,” al-Saleh wrote. “In the face of one of the deadliest catastrophes to strike the world in years, it seems the UN’s hands were tied by red tape.”
But at the end of the day, no matter what INSARAG or UNDAC do, the choice of whether or not to send national search-and-rescue teams rests with governments themselves, and those decisions are subject to political and security considerations.
In the case of Türkiye, many countries stepped up. Rhodes Stampa said 49 of INSARAG’s 57 member countries initially deployed there. Eventually, over 200 search-and-rescue teams from more than 80 countries went to Türkiye. And a large UNDAC team quickly deployed there at the request of the country’s disaster management agency. Syria, on the other hand, has very limited international relations, (although it was readmitted to the Arab League in May).
After more than 12 years of war, Syria is also generally considered unsafe. Qualified teams are prepared to respond to sudden-onset emergencies in peacetime, explained Rhodes Stampa, but not in warzones like Syria. “The job is already dangerous enough,” he said.
Only a few teams went to Syria: Countries friendly to Damascus, including Russia, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates, went to government-run areas.
An UNDAC team did deploy on 10 February to government-controlled Aleppo, where it helped coordinate international search-and-rescue teams and carry out assessments of parts of the country under al-Assad’s control. A handful of foreign teams came to Syria’s opposition-held northwest, but almost all on an unofficial basis, and without key equipment. For the UN, there was very little inside the northwest to coordinate.
No man’s land
In large part, both the UN and individual countries failed to help northwest Syria’s residents at pace because of the ongoing conflict and the region’s non-state, in-between status.
While al-Assad controls most of the country, and a ceasefire with rebels in the northwest has mostly held since early 2020, there is still no peace deal. Attacks by both government forces and militant groups continue to kill people in and around Idlib.
For years, many in the international community have regarded these opposition-held areas of northwest Syria as a sort of extension of Türkiye, supported with aid provided by the UN, its partners, and Turkish and Syrian NGOs. The earthquakes made clear that these areas are not Türkiye – they are more of a no man’s land.
After the earthquakes, Turkish authorities were busy trying to manage the response inside their own country. International and donor country aid officials told The New Humanitarian Türkiye did help coordinate some international assistance to northwest Syria, but it didn’t work more directly to coordinate local authorities and aid groups in the region.
Some Turkish organisations delivered some assistance to Syria, but the Turkish military also reportedly pulled some of its troops and heavy machinery out of Syria to join the disaster response back on home soil.
Meanwhile, other foreign governments could not or would not work with the authorities in northwest Syria.
After the quake, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its linked “Salvation Government” established a committee to coordinate the emergency response. But most major donors to international aid efforts will not deal with terrorist-designated groups.
The problem in northern Aleppo province, meanwhile, was more one of fragmented control. The LACU’s Hajjar explained that as the earthquake response got underway, there was simply no overarching political authority to coordinate the area’s various organisations and governing bodies.
One Western diplomat told The New Humanitarian that donor governments found they didn’t have their own contacts or ways of working in the region. Until the earthquake, most supported northwest Syria indirectly through the UN-led response – both because of security concerns and worries about lending “material support” to terrorist-designated groups. “There’s a wariness about providing anything beyond emergency humanitarian aid,” said one aid official.
These governments proved unwilling to make risky, unprecedented moves, including sending search-and-rescue teams or heavy equipment of the sort that would have helped save lives in the early days.
Instead of northwest Syria’s de facto authorities, donor governments’ principal local interlocutor was the White Helmets, a group that many had funded and equipped before the earthquake.
Rather than sending rescue teams themselves, these governments directed additional financial support to the group. As the earthquake response was underway, new contributions from donor countries and small private donations helped the White Helmets purchase fuel, rent vehicles, and cover other related expenses. Ultimately, however, the White Helmets said it wasn’t enough to make the difference they needed, especially as the group lacked some of the heavy machinery required for effective search and rescue.
February’s earthquakes and their aftermath raise real questions about the future of the humanitarian response in northwest Syria, where millions of vulnerable Syrians remain in a sort of non-state limbo. But more fundamentally, they challenge international emergency responders to be better prepared the next time a disaster strikes a part of the world that doesn’t fit neatly into the international state system.
OCHA’s Rhodes Stampa said the UN is looking at what other seismically active areas are controlled by non-state actors, and how the international emergency response system can be adapted to be better ready to act.
Rhodes Stampa and Habib also confirmed that UN officials have met with the White Helmets to discuss how to respond if another disaster strikes northwest Syria, so that these contacts and systems can be in place before the next disaster, not after. “We need the UN to be more pro-people, not pro-regime,” said the White Helmets’ Habib.
The way the UN delivers cross-border aid to northwest Syria has changed too, possibly for good. The Security Council ended the cross-border mandate last month, leaving the UN to bring aid and personnel across the two additional border crossings that al-Assad authorised after the earthquake. On 9 August, the UN said it would be resuming aid through Bab al-Hawa, based on an “understanding” with al-Assad’s government. Few details of this agreement have yet emerged, but it has already raised the ire of Syrian aid groups in the northwest, given the government’s history of blocking aid to parts of the country where people oppose or actively fight it.
These missions mean UN staff can actually meet the communities they are supposed to help, carry out assessments of needs, and monitor what is being done. There has even been discussion of opening UN offices inside the northwest, although area residents remain wary of any presence that could enhance government influence over the area.
The most pertinent question of all, of course, is what will happen to the millions of people who live in the region. February’s earthquakes compounded what was – for the area’s residents – already an ongoing disaster. Now, their needs are only more intense.
*Between 2013 and 2014, the author of this piece worked for a private company that supported the White Helmets.
This project was funded by the H2H Network’s H2H Fund, which is supported by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) and the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
Edited by Annie Slemrod.