Syria longs for international aid amid earthquake devastation | News about earthquakes

The scale of the devastation after Monday’s earthquake struck parts of Turkey and Syria was unprecedented, even for residents of the war-torn country.

On the Syrian side, the area hit by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks is split between government-held territory and the last opposition-held pocket of the country, surrounded by Russian-backed government forces.

The sound of airstrikes is a regular occurrence for the 4.5 million or so residents in the besieged enclave, but the rumble of multiple buildings collapsing to the ground in unison was another disaster.

Ismail Alabdullah, a White Helmets volunteer in Idlib province, said at least five residential buildings had collapsed in the village of Sarmada, where his team had been trying to find survivors for more than 30 hours.

Each apartment in the multi-storey apartment blocks “had a family living in it”, Alabdullah told Al Jazeera. “It will take us days, if not weeks, to get to the last person.”

At least 790 people have been killed in Syria’s opposition-held northwest and 2,200 injured, with the number expected to rise, according to data collected by the White Helmets.

A rescue group operating in opposition-held parts of Syria, also known as the Syrian Civil Defense, is moving its few available excavators from one city to another to respond to countless pleas for help.

But resources are scarce and volunteers often resort to digging with their bare hands. “Hundreds of people are still under the rubble, but we don’t have enough equipment to pull them out,” Alabdullah said.

Attempts to reach survivors were hampered by rain, sub-zero temperatures and nearly 200 aftershocks that threatened to further collapse buildings that had already collapsed, as well as existing buildings destroyed in the war.

Survivors camped on the streets or joined tent camps where resources were already exhausted before the earthquake, the volunteer added.

Aid organizations said the earthquake had added to the suffering of the population in northwestern Syria, where some 4.1 million people are in need of aid.

“People are traumatized, they feel helpless,” Adnan Hazem, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) for Syria, told Al Jazeera.

The region was already battling its first cholera outbreak in a decade and was battling snowstorms amid fuel shortages when the quake struck.

The needs now are “enormous,” Hazem said.

Delivery of aid to northwestern Syria

Countries around the world have sent teams to help rescue efforts in Turkey, and the country’s disaster management agency said more than 24,400 emergency personnel were already on the ground.

But the delivery of aid to the last pocket of Syria still beyond the control of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has remained problematic after more than a decade of war.

“No one has contacted us to offer help,” said Alabdullah of the White Helmets.

Northwestern Syria has become one of the most difficult places to access, with only one crossing available to transport aid from Turkey into opposition-held areas. The quake’s epicenter in the nearby Turkish city of Gaziantep, an important hub for United Nations aid for northern Syria, was among the cities hit.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the earthquake had interrupted the vital flow of cross-border aid.

“We are facing a temporary disruption due to the roads, especially the road between Gaziantep and Reyhanli,” OCHA spokesman Madevi Sun-Suon told Al Jazeera.

Not being able to get to Reyhanli, the main transshipment hub where the UN agency conducts monitoring and verification operations before aid trucks enter Syria, “has been a key challenge,” Sun-Suon said.

The aid delivery mechanism across the Turkish border at the Bab al-Hawa crossing established in 2014 is the only way UN aid can reach civilians without navigating through areas controlled by Syrian government forces.

It provided more than 80 percent of the needs of people living in rebel-held areas.

Al-Assad’s government has systematically denied humanitarian aid to large numbers of its population since a popular uprising in 2011, demanding the surrender of opposition-held areas. Russia, one of al-Assad’s closest backers, argued that the humanitarian mission violated Syria’s sovereignty.

Amnesty International on Monday called on the international community to mobilize resources and the Syrian government to “allow aid to reach all areas affected by the earthquake without restrictions”.

Opposition media reports of overnight shelling in the town of Marea could also complicate rescue efforts. Syrian civil rights associations called on the international community to pressure al-Assad and his allies to stop bombing the quake-hit areas.

areas of the Syrian regime

State news agency SANA reported on Tuesday that at least 812 people were killed in the government-held areas of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, Idlib and Tartous, bringing the country’s total to at least 1,602.

The United Arab Emirates pledged around $13.6 million in humanitarian aid to Syria, state media reported, while Algeria announced participation in rescue operations with a specialized civil protection team.

The Syrian government denied it had asked for Israel’s help after Tel Aviv said it had received a call for help and was ready to comply, in what would be a rare moment of cooperation between the neighboring countries.

Syria and Israel are technically at war, and Israel is believed to conduct regular airstrikes targeting pro-Iranian military sites in the country.

Western governments are expected to channel aid to Syria through non-governmental organizations to avoid contact with al-Assad’s government, which they do not recognize as legitimate.

The United States said it was “committed” to helping residents “on both sides” of the Turkish-Syrian border, but ruled out direct contact with the Syrian government.

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said providing aid to Syria was “complicated” and added that the UK was “working through our UN partners on the ground”.

But UN-backed humanitarian programs in northwest Syria have been underfunded for years and lack natural disaster planning.

The Syria Humanitarian Response Plan (2022-2023) received less than 50 percent of the required $4 billion, and the earthquake only widened the gap between funds and needs on the ground.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the UN is counting on the international community to help the many thousands affected by the disaster, “many of whom are already in dire need of humanitarian assistance in areas where access is a challenge”.

The UN refugee agency in Syria said it was “actively coordinating the response with UN agencies and other humanitarian actors to provide assistance and support to those in need in Syria.”

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