Earthquake Response Policy Asks

U.S. Policy Priorities for NW Syria in the Aftermath of the Earthquakes

U.S. Policy Priorities for NW Syria in the Aftermath of the Earthquakes


In the early hours of February 6, 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake and its aftershocks rocked the southern border of Türkiye, inflicting massive destruction in Syrian refugee communities in Türkiye and the opposition-held areas of NW Syria in what the WHO is calling the worst European natural disaster in a century. The death toll has surpassed 40,000 casualties across both countries, as of Feb. 14, as the true extent of the disaster is still not yet known. On-the-ground partners estimate that 152,500 people remain in need of food, water, medical supplies, cash assistance, winter clothes, shelter and heating fuel in sub-freezing temperatures in NW Syria as a result of the disaster; 40% of those survivors came from the Syrian villages of Salqin, Jandairis, and Atma alone.

In the first days after the earthquakes, no humanitarian aid was entering NW Syria, only the bodies of Syrian victims. It wasn’t until day five that the first UN convoy with emergency disaster relief reached NW Syria, the hardest-hit region with a population and area comparable to that of Lebanon. Survivors of more than a decade of the Assad regime’s brutality, barrel bombs, chemical weapons,  Russian and Iranian intervention, and multiple displacements, once again found themselves with nowhere to go, abandoned by the world. The UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Martin Griffiths, admitted that the United Nations failed the people of NW Syria and apologized to the head of the White Helmets, Raed Saleh. The WHO’s Director of Incident Response warned that the second humanitarian catastrophe of earthquake survivors in sub-freezing temperatures without food, water, shelter, functioning social infrastructure or access to international aid could be more harmful than the initial earthquakes.

Eight days into this tragedy, none of the heavy equipment necessary for clearing rubble has entered NW Syria; “bureaucracy” cost countless lives in NW Syria as the U.S. had 161 search and rescue team members, 12 canines & 170K+ lbs of specialized equipment on the ground in Türkiye within 48 hours and the Assad regime received more than 55 cargo planes of international aid from more than 10 countries and several UN agencies. While the World Bank announced a $1.8 billion aid package for Türkiye’s recovery & reconstruction and the Assad regime successfully campaigned to suspend Western sanctions and re-establish diplomatic ties, we fear that the 4.6 million people in NW Syria will be left behind once again.

Policy Recommendations

Surge Emergency Assistance and Recovery Resources Equipment assistance into NW Syria. 

The UN still has not bridged the gap on its response in NW Syria and the region remains largely isolated from international aid. The U.S. should increase direct humanitarian assistance to those affected and encourage other countries and aid organizations to do so as well. Support to credible Syrian rescue, medical, and humanitarian assistance organizations with a presence in the NW should be a priority, including via direct funding.  

Search and rescue teams have suspended operations. However, groups such the White Helmets and local NGOs still need much support. The U.S. should focus on providing assistance in terms of shelters, heating fuel, food and water, and health care. At the same time the White Helmets are still in need of heavy equipment to clear the rubble. The U.S. should assist in meeting rehabilitating infrastructure needs, and cooperate with NGOs to help compensate victims who have lost everything for recovery purposes.  The U.S. can provide the logistical means to address this tragic situation and save lives.

Use US Assets in NE Syria as Part of Emergency Response

The US government should mobilize a contingent of its troops and other assets currently deployed to NE Syria as a part of the emergency humanitarian response. The logistical might of the U.S. armed forces have played a critical role in saving lives in emergency situations from Afghanistan to New Orleans and the Florida Straits.

Expand the Number of Border Crossings into Syria and Utilize All Viable Crossings 

The U.S. must take action to ensure that all viable crossings into Syria are utilized.  Regrettably, Russia and the Assad regime have whittled the UN-authorized border-crossings over the years down to a single crossing, Bab Al-Hawa, which had its main connecting roads greatly damaged, complicated by the level of devastation in the Hatay province on the Turkish side. Eight days after the earthquake, the Assad regime ‘declared’ two additional crossings, Bab al-Salamah and al-Rai, reauthorized for three months only. 

This cynical and calculated move is not a solution. The American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS) commissioned a study on cross-border aid and found multiple, strong legal arguments that UN cross-border aid does not require a Security Council resolution. Sixten eminent international jurists, the former judge of the International Court of Justice, and leading professors in the field including Judge Goldstone and Ambassador Stephen Rapp endorse this position.  The U.S. should publicly declare its support for this position and support it at the United Nations.

Reprioritize Northwestern Syria for Stabilization Funding 

The earthquakes have underscored that the U.S. policy of abandonment of northwest Syria, a region that is host to millions of the most vulnerable, is untenable. Over the past few years, ALL U.S. stabilization funding has gone exclusively to SDF-controlled areas, which has greatly stymied the response in NW Syria at a cost in the thousands of lives. This must change. U.S. stabilization funding must be expanded to include NW Syria, especially to housing, health, and educational sectors. Moreover, the U.S. should expand General License 22 that was issued in May 2022 to include all distressed areas in northern Syria. We cannot afford a generation of Syrian children missing school and becoming vulnerable to criminal and extremist groups.     

The American Coalition for Syria (ACS) is a diverse group of ten U.S.-based organizations that support a principled U.S.-Syria policy based on democratic reform, human rights, and accountability.

Information current as of Feb 15, 2023.

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