Idlib Nightmare: How Syria's Lingering Civil War Is Blocking Earthquake Aid
Across the border from the epicenter in Turkey, the Syrian region of Idlib is home to millions of people displaced by the 12-year-long civil war. The victims there risk not getting assistance because of the interests of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, reminding the world of one of the great unresolved conflicts of our times.
Faced with a disaster of the magnitude of the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria, one imagines a world mobilized to bring relief to the victims, where all barriers and borders disappear. Unfortunately, this is only an illusion in such a complex and scarred corner of the world.
Yes, there's been an instant international outpouring of countries offering assistance and rescue teams converging on the disaster zones affected by the earthquakes. It is a race against time to save lives.
But even in such dramatic circumstances, conflict, hatred and competing interests do not somehow vanish by magic.
Sometimes, victims of natural disasters face a double price. This is the case for the 4.5 million inhabitants of Idlib, a region located in northwestern Syria, which was directly hit by the earthquake. So far, the toll there has reached at least 900 people killed, thousands injured and countless others left homeless in the harsh winter.
The inhabitants of Idlib, two-thirds of whom are displaced from other regions of Syria, live in an area that is still beyond the control of Bashar al-Assad, and they've been 90% dependent on international aid... which has not been arriving.
To put maximum pressure on these millions of people, the Syrian government and its Russian ally have gradually restricted the ability to get humanitarian aid to them.
There used to be four border crossings between Turkey and this region of Syria; now there is only one, Bab al-Hawa. Every year, this border crossing is subject to renewal at the UN Security Council: last year, Moscow threatened to veto, before renewing it for a year. It's a standing blackmail, as all are well aware that a closure of the border would condemn to death those millions of people.
Russian President Vladimir Putin during a bilateral meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2021
Terrifying for millions
However, the chaos and destruction caused by the earthquake, with its epicenter right across the border in southern Turkey, means that international aid is no longer getting through to Bab al-Hawa. And this is the moment that the population needs it most.
"This situation is terrifying," a Syrian doctor told Dr. Raphael Pitti, a French humanitarian worker in the region.
Millions of people are therefore deprived of aid in the midst of this disaster: 4.5 million to be exact, including many displaced people living in total poverty, suddenly made dramatically worse by the earthquake.
We are witnessing a geopolitical nightmare. Syria has been in the midst of a civil war for 12 years, ever since the population first tried peacefully to overthrow a dictatorship.
Assad is now insisting on the centralization of all international aid.
Since then, the country has been ravaged by war, and the Assad regime, assisted by Russia and Iran, has regained control of most of Syrian territory. And it is now insisting on the centralization of all international aid.
But there remains the area of Idlib, towards which survivors of the besieged cities were directed, and the northeast in the hands of the Kurds, allied with the United States and France. This Syrian jigsaw puzzle, seen in the midst of the earthquake disaster, is a reminder that this conflict is far from over.
The urgency of the matter requires that all humanitarian aid can reach the victims, wherever they are, without delay or questions. But looking to the future, let's not forget how far away we are from any kind of political solution in Syria that would allow millions of refugees to return home.
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