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Three months on from quakes, let’s keep the spotlight on northwest Syria

‘What I saw was a crisis on top of a crisis.’

A man is standing on a pile of rubble. He is bent at the waist looking through the rubble. Khalil Ashawi/Reuters
A resident of of the northwest Syrian town of Salqin stands on the rubble of his home, which collapsed in the February 2023 earthquakes.

More than three months have passed since catastrophic earthquakes struck Türkiye and Syria. Headlines may have moved on, but it’s as urgent as ever to keep attention — and critical funding — on the disaster, and on the millions of people already living in a crisis whose lives were thrown deeper into chaos in a matter of seconds. 


When news of the quakes broke on 6 February, I was far away, working for the UN in Yangon. But with more than 56,000 people killed between the two countries, it was impossible to miss the harrowing coverage of one of the region’s worst natural disasters in 100 years, no matter where you were in the world. 


It was in the midst of the post-quake turmoil that I arrived on 11 February in Gaziantep to take up a new role, first in an interim capacity, as Deputy Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria crisis. 


From this southern Turkish city, the UN and its partners coordinate the cross-border aid response into northwest Syria – a part of the country that is outside of government control and home to 4.5 million people, the vast majority of whom rely on some sort of humanitarian assistance. 


The early days after my arrival felt like months. The province of Gaziantep was not only the epicentre of the first quake, but it is also home to a large community of Turkish, Syrian, and international aid workers. Many had to sleep for weeks in their offices or other temporary shelters because their homes were damaged.


One UN colleague, who fled from Syria to the Turkish city of Antakya in 2013, told me that he lost 35 relatives and his home in the earthquakes. 


In my 30 years as an aid worker, I have never seen a natural disaster of this scale in such a politicised context. At the same time, I was impressed by the brave efforts of local communities and responders who were already reeling from 12 years of conflict.  


In my first two weeks, I crossed into northwest Syria five times, and was shocked by the scale of destruction in places like Jindires, Salqin, and Harim. Given its proximity to the epicentre, northwest Syria was hit particularly hard, making up three quarters of the country’s reported deaths.


What I saw was a crisis on top of a crisis. And yet, a reality marked by simultaneous crises is not exactly new to the 4.5 million people who live in northwest Syria. This is a region where 90% of the population relies on aid to meet their most basic needs. 


“As the earthquake response shifts from emergency to early recovery, I hope that the world continues to shine a light on the Syria crisis.”


While the UN’s cross-border aid operation has provided some of this support since 2014, the scale of humanitarian needs has consistently outweighed our capacity to help. People have been forced to endure desperate living conditions, deprived for years on end of any sustainable means to meet even their most basic needs, such as food, safety and medical care. Heartbreakingly, a whole generation of Syrian children is now growing up with the mental wounds of war and displacement. 


The earthquakes have, without a doubt, worsened this situation. But it also took a disaster of this scale to broaden the horizon of possibilities for the UN aid response from Türkiye into northwest Syria. What had seemed unthinkable for years became possible in a matter of days. For the first time since 2020, Bab al-Hawa, the border crossing that is a direct route from Türkiye into Idlib province, is no longer the sole authorised entrypoint for the UN to deliver aid into the region. 


Using the Bab al-Salameh and al-Rai crossings, we are now able to reach northern Aleppo province via the most direct routes. And for the first time since the start of the Syria crisis, UN personnel, myself included, can regularly cross into the northwest.


We’ve tried to make the most of the new opportunities offered by aid and personnel movement. Over the past few months, the UN has completed more than 80 cross-border missions from Türkiye to northwest Syria. 


The challenges of remote management have been lifted: UN personnel are now able to sit down with local NGOs and communities, hearing their stories and concerns first-hand, not just through video meetings and proxy channels. I heard their calls for food assistance, dignified shelters, and livelihood opportunities above all. I have spoken with families who stressed to me the importance of education for their children. One mother in a camp in Idlib told a colleague that she had used cash aid from the UN to buy internet access so their child could continue with online learning. 


The UN and its local partners have long navigated uncertainty in northwest Syria. As in other humanitarian operations around the world, we conduct regular contingency planning, but no one could have foreseen a disaster of this scale, even in the worst-case scenario. At the same time, there is no excuse for any loss of opportunities to deliver aid when lives are at stake, over the past three months or in the last 12 years.


As the earthquake response shifts from emergency to early recovery, I hope that the world continues to shine a light on the Syria crisis.


Since it was launched in late March, the Earthquake Flash Appeal, covering three months of the emergency response, has been fully funded through the generous support of donors. But the same cannot be said of the 2023 Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria. This UN-coordinated plan, which aims to help 13 million people in a country dealing with mass displacement and rising hunger, has so far received just 7% of what is required for this year, constraining the overall response, including the cross-border aid operation to northwest Syria.


Sudden onset disasters command global attention, due to the urgency of needs. But even when they do not make the news, protracted crises like Syria are too critical, and impact too many lives, to be left as afterthoughts. It should not take a once-in-a-century disaster to ignite change even in the most complex of crises, but it did. Now our job is to make the most of it, to best serve the people of Syria.


Edited by Annie Slemrod.

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