Syria’s Silent Rubble Reproaches the UN’s Resounding Failure

Trapped under debris, persecuted by the Assad regime and forsaken by allies, the people of northwestern Syria pinned their hopes on the UN — and were betrayed

Syria’s Silent Rubble Reproaches the UN’s Resounding Failure
In the northwestern Syrian town of Sarmada, residents walk in front of the U.N. flag, painted upside down on a destroyed building, to condemn a lack of post-earthquake help from the organization. (Anas Alkharboutli/picture alliance via Getty Images)

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On a slab of concrete in the rubble of northwest Syria appears a new graffiti. “We are dead,” it reads, “Thanks for letting us down.” The graffiti speaks for the many who were trapped under fallen structures in the wake of last week’s earthquake, whose lives could have been saved, yet whose voices have since fallen silent.

Two days after the disaster struck, the United Nations’ Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths tweeted, “The first 72 hrs after a disaster are critical. We have coordinated the deployment of over 4,948 search & rescue experts and #UNDAC emergency response teams soon after the earthquake shook #Türkiye and #Syria.” A hundred and fifty hours later, not a single search and rescue expert had arrived in northwest Syria. The 22 trucks the U.N. sent after five days’ delay only carried hygiene kits, solar lamps, blankets, mattresses and tents.

Samantha Power, the head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), was quicker to respond. Within hours of the earthquake, she tweeted that USAID had “just deployed a Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART)” and that “The U.S. is in the process of deploying @USAID Urban Search and Rescue teams from Fairfax and Los Angeles County Fire Departments to work alongside them.” And yet, a week later, not a single search and rescue team had entered Syria.

Within hours of the earthquake, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had promised: “Europe’s support is already on the way and we stand ready to continue helping in any way we can.” Von der Leyen is known for her decisiveness. In early 2020, when a Russian and Syrian regime offensive drove nearly a million people from their homes in Idlib, some of whom started fleeing to the West, she rushed to Greece to give $780 million to its government to fortify its border against refugees. One week after the earthquake, no EU aid or emergency teams had arrived in northwestern Syria.

The earthquake has revealed a pattern of failure in the U.N.’s humanitarian response, which in turn encourages the international community’s inaction. This pattern is defined by the U.N.’s privileging of state authority over the needs of the affected. It has consistently let people down in disaster zones where the state has contributed to the misfortune and is reluctant to assist. The U.N.’s response in northwest Syria is the chronicle of a betrayal foretold.

The death toll from the earthquake has now surpassed 41,000. The U.N. expects this figure to exceed 50,000. It is already one of the deadliest earthquakes in history. Turkey has paid the highest price, with over 35,000 dead. More than 5,000 have also died in Syria. The number of Syrians who have died in Turkey remains unknown. (The earthquake’s epicenter was near Turkey’s Gaziantep, which is home to around half a million Syrian refugees.) Yet, unlike opposition-held Syria, Turkey has functioning institutions and modern infrastructure; it was able to quickly mobilize state resources for the rescue. It also benefited from global solidarity, with 90 countries sending 8,378 rescuers to support the effort.

Apart from a small team of Spanish doctors, northwest Syria did not see any such solidarity. The narrative from the U.N. — unquestioningly accepted by most Western states — was that, because of the Russian veto, they needed further authorization from the Security Council for cross-border aid. The regime, meanwhile, demanded that all aid be channeled through Damascus. The implicit acceptance by the U.N. of Russia’s and the regime’s position as an insuperable barrier gave cover to all those disinclined to send emergency support.

In a letter to the U.N., however, a group of distinguished jurists and eminent law professors noted that such barriers have no legal standing, because the International Court of Justice — the U.N.’s principal legal organ — has stipulated that “there can be no doubt that the provision of strictly humanitarian aid to persons or forces in another country, whatever their political affiliations or objectives, cannot be regarded as unlawful intervention, or as in any other way contrary to international law.” The presumed legal barrier exists only for those who lack the motivation to help.

The irrelevance of these barriers was practically demonstrated by Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, who rushed aid to Idlib, even as the West dithered. All the calls for urgent assistance from the Syria Civil Defense — also known as the White Helmets — went unheard. There are now pledges of humanitarian aid, generous allocations of funds, and an abundance of compassionate verbiage, which will no doubt be welcome to the hundreds of thousands who have been left homeless yet again, but all this belated concern comes enveloped in the putrid miasma of the indifference with which those trapped under the rubble were written off. There was no urgency or rush to deliver the excavators, cranes, struts, cutting tools and lifting equipment that were desperately needed for the rescue.

Aid to northwest Syria was impeded neither by sanctions, which include a humanitarian exemption, nor by the absence of a Security Council mandate, which was not necessary for purely humanitarian action. It was a failure of will —by the U.N. leadership, primarily, but also by the U.S. and EU.

This passive acquiescence to imaginary barriers cost the victims dearly. But it also gave a shot in the arm to the Assad regime, which was able to exploit global sympathy for victims to obscure its own role in their immiseration and present the sanctions as the cause of the inaction. The regime’s narrative was boosted on social media by its supporters using the hashtag #HelpSyria, which combined images of grief from Idlib with a demand for the lifting of sanctions on the regime. (In perhaps the most brazen act of cynicism, Assad’s overseas supporters were directing people who wanted to help to donate to SOS Chrétiens d’Orient, a far-right French organization that has been arming pro-Assad militias in Syria.)

So far, the U.N., the EU and 24 other states have sent aid to Damascus. The International Committee of the Red Cross is already in Aleppo; the World Food Program is active on the ground; and the World Health Organization’s chief personally visited “His Excellency President Assad.” Any doubts about what would happen to aid channeled through the regime were quickly laid to rest when videos emerged on social media of aid bearing the U.N. and Syrian Red Crescent logos being sold in Damascus, Latakia and Tartous. (At least one man who filmed these scenes has since been arrested.) Casting further doubt on the regime’s willingness to alleviate the disaster zone’s suffering was its decision to shell the affected towns within hours of the earthquake.

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury announced a 180-day exemption for “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts.” In his statement, Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo noted: “While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today Treasury is issuing a blanket general license to authorize earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.” Since then, the Syrian regime has received more aid from international NGOs as well as EU states like Italy (which sent 30 tons of humanitarian aid, including ambulances and medical equipment). No one in Idlib is holding their breath for any of this to reach them.

The people in northwestern Syria, who had already survived 12 years of war and been displaced multiple times; who lived in buildings with structures compromised by years of bombing; never stood a chance. Those who escaped the natural disaster still have an unrelenting manmade disaster to look forward to. They are caught between the callousness of a brutal regime and the faint sympathies of presumed allies. While the Russian veto at the U.N. became an alibi for inaction, a week after the disaster, diplomats revealed that no draft resolution had yet been circulated to authorize cross-border aid. In Turkey, people were being pulled alive from the rubble even six days after the earthquake. In Syria, hope had long since receded.

In the absence of international assistance, the only thing people in northwest Syria were able to rely on were the heroic efforts of the White Helmets. Equipped for the most part with little more than pickaxes and crowbars, they performed miracles. Other Syrian-led organizations such as Molham, MedGlobal, the Syrian American Medical Society and Syrian Relief & Development have also been where help was needed most.

The U.N.’s approach to humanitarian aid is a catastrophic failure. It needs serious reform. Until now, the U.N. and its various agencies have channeled their aid through Damascus, which has meant that little if any of it goes to the people most in need. In 2016, 73 aid groups suspended cooperation with the U.N. in Syria because, they said, it had allowed the regime to gain “significant and substantial” influence over relief efforts. Earlier, a Guardian investigation had revealed the U.N. had awarded contracts worth tens of millions to people closely affiliated with the Syrian dictator, including his wife and cousin. The scandals continued well into 2022, when it was revealed that the U.N. had paid over $100 million to sanctioned figures linked to the regime. In 2017, the public health expert Dr. Annie Sparrow accused the WHO of complicity in the Syrian regime’s war crimes.

What makes the U.N.’s failure so egregious is that it is systemic and predictable. “Overly cautious interpretations of international law should not risk the lives of millions who continue to rely on cross-border aid in the north and north-west.” This is what Goldstone et al. had written a month before the earthquake. They had warned: “Not doing so risks creating a historic, dangerous precedent for millions of people in Syria and in conflict areas around the world.” They had appealed to the U.N. “to apply International Humanitarian Law so that it enables, rather than prevents, life-saving assistance reaching those in need.” Going by the past week’s evidence, this has occasioned no introspection.

Many powerful images have come out of Syria and Turkey in the past week — of pain, grief, heroism and despair. But perhaps the most poignant was a picture of a convoy of Turkish ambulances carrying the bodies of Syrian refugees for burial back in Syria. Poignant, because these were the “lucky” ones who had escaped Syria, yet tragedy caught up with them regardless; poignant, also, because this convoy at least appeared impervious to the restrictions that so frightened the U.N. It seems the Russian veto has no purchase on the dead.

On Monday, the U.N. announced that the regime had agreed to allow aid to be delivered to northwest Syria through two more crossings, but only for a period of three months. A journalist asked Damascus’ ambassador to the U.N. why it had taken a week to allow such aid. “Why are you asking me?” he replied with a chuckle. “We don’t control these borders.” He was right. There was no reason the U.N. should have waited a week to secure this superfluous permission and present it as a triumph of diplomacy. It was akin to requesting Russian permission to deliver aid to Ukraine. In acquiescing to the regime’s arbitrary timeline, the U.N. is already giving it leverage for future obstruction.

During U.N. Relief Chief Martin Griffith’s recent visit to the disaster zone, the White Helmets’ founder Raed Al Saleh forced a rare apology from him. People in northwest Syria, however, are too jaded to care. In a visit to Srebrenica in 2012, then-U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had said, “I don’t want to see any of my successors after 20 years visiting Syria and apologizing for what we could have done now to protect civilians in Syria, which we are not doing.” To his credit, Griffiths didn’t wait 20 years. But such apologies are about as useful as the much–abused “Never again” slogan mouthed by Ban. It’s absolution on the cheap, a mere closing of old accounts to secure new credit for future failure.

A week after the earthquake, the battered cities of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa have sent more aid trucks to northwest Syria than the U.N. For all the praise the White Helmets have received, Raed Al Saleh revealed that, not only did they not receive any support from the U.N. during critical rescue operations, “even now we have no promise of assistance to restore our operational capacity and help the recovery and rehabilitation efforts.” The disappointment of grieving Syrians is now exhausted and has collapsed into mordant humor. On Monday, pictures circulated of people in Idlib collecting donations for the “disaster-stricken” U.N., since — as they’ve discovered from bitter experience — the organization is more in need of help than it is capable of helping.

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