Home Editor's Picks Syria/Türkiye Earthquake: Widespread and Recurrent Violations During and After the Humanitarian Response

Syria/Türkiye Earthquake: Widespread and Recurrent Violations During and After the Humanitarian Response

The community of the 2023 Brussels International Donors’ Conference must take measures to guarantee humanitarian aid is not politicized and implicated in HLP violations or demographic changes underway in northwestern Syria

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Executive Summary

This joint report documents a wide range of human rights violations that accompanied and followed the humanitarian response to the catastrophic earthquake that shook Syria on 6 February 2023.

These violations and abuses included discriminatory search-and-rescue orders from some parties to the conflict, prevention or impediment of life-saving aid entry, discrimination in aid distribution, confiscation of all or parts of aid provisions, trading in and profiteering from others, and/or the diversion of their destination. Additionally, several violations of housing, land, and property (HLP) rights were recorded as have occurred in tandem with aid-related breaches.

The various parties to the Syrian conflict were involved in these violations. Türkiye shut down its border crossings with Syria for the first 48 hours after the tremors. The Government of Syria (GOS) waited an entire week before it consented to life-saving cross-border aid access. The GOS and the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) both impeded cross-line aid to affected communities, while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) rejected cross-line aid to northwestern Syria, which the United Nations (UN) attempted to facilitate.

At the same time, the slow response to the earthquake revealed the shortcomings of the cross-border aid delivery mechanism mandated by the UN Security Council in Syria and revealed the urgent need for alternatives. Nearly a week after the quake, the UN admitted it had “failed” to deliver adequate aid to Syria.

Notably, the military and administrative control in Syrian provinces worst affected by the quake is mapped as follows:

  • Western Syria: The provinces of Latakia and Hama are entirely controlled by the GOS and its forces.
  • Northern Syria: The province of Aleppo comprises of several enclaves: The Turkish-backed SNA maintains military control over the northern and northwestern parts of the province—including the Afrin region, Jarabulus, al-Bab, and A’zaz, leaving their civil administration to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG). The GOS and its forces maintain control over the southern parts of the province. The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) maintains a presence in the al-Shahbaa area, which includes several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).
  • Northwestern Syria: The HTS controls greater Idlib militarily, leaving the civil administration to its affiliated Salvation Government (SG).

On 15 March 2023, the World Bank published a statistical assessment of the quake’s impact. The report demonstrates that “6.6 million Syrians, approximately 31 percent of the country’s population, live in locations where the earthquake intensity reached level VI (strong shaking) or higher . . . Governorates most affected, both in terms of population and intensity, are Idlib and Aleppo. In Idlib, 2.2 million individuals live in areas affected by strong earthquake intensity and 571,000 in areas of very strong/severe intensity. Corresponding figures in Aleppo are 3.5 million (strong intensity) and 200,000 (very strong/severe). Focusing on very strong and severe intensity areas only, the most affected districts are Afrin (Aleppo governorate), Harem and Idlib (Idlib governorate).”[1]

Fatality figures in the hit areas either show discrepancies or are under-reported. In northern Syria, casualty statistics remain conflicted. The Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets) recorded 2,247 deaths, while the Response Coordination Group (RCG) recorded 3,467 deaths and the SIG 4,525 deaths. In the GOS-held areas, the health minister provided a provisional count on 14 February 2023, announcing 1,414 deaths and 2,357 injuries.[2]

In the above-cited assessment report , the World Bank also records the level of decimation in the housing sector in hit areas. The bank documents the partial damage or destruction of 49,778 housing units in GOS-held areas and 23,579 units in opposition-held areas, including 17,302 units in Idlib province and 64,724 units in Aleppo province. The bank stresses that the cities of Jindires, A’zaz, and Harim were the most impacted in terms of housing unit loss.[3]

In its approach, the report builds on the testimonies of direct and indirect victims of the quake and the violations perpetrated by the different parties in the conflict during and after the response in the three sectors mapped out. Additionally, the report corroborates the victim testimonies with the accounts of a diverse group of sources, among them civilian volunteer rescuers, relief workers, and militants from the opposition’s armed groups, who controlled the response operations almost entirely in the areas where they are stationed.

Notably, the report pays special attention to northwestern Syria, given its unique demographic, military, and administrative context. The region has a demographically mixed population, especially in the former Kurdish-majority region of Afrin, including Jindires city. Afrin struggles to preserve its local communities despite the massive waves of forced displacement these communities witnessed in the aftermath of the Turkish-led Operation Olive Branch in 2018. Additionally, Afrin is home to a large number of IDPs displaced from elsewhere in Syria, particularly areas across Rif Dimashq (Damascus’ Countryside). These IDPs fled their homes, also escaping military hostilities.

Militarily, Türkiye exercises effective control over the region as an “occupying power” through its proxies of the SNA-affiliated factions, leaving the region’s administrative affairs to the SIG and its local councils, which operate only nominally.

Türkiye’s military control of the region affected the dynamics of the earthquake response and severely hindered life-saving operations. Türkiye assigned the response management to the SNA factions—which have perpetrated countless documented violations over the past years. Additionally, several of the report’s sources stressed that SIG-affiliated local councils in the region were inactive and incapable of responding to the catastrophe for their lack of autonomy and subordination to Turkish government institutions, including the Disaster and Emergency Management (AFAD).

On 18 March 2023, Syria Direct published an investigation probing into this relation of subordination. The lengthy report reveals that local councils in the Afrin region are administratively bound to the Turkish provinces of Gaziantep, Urfa, and Kilis, not the SIG. Additionally, the report demonstrates that AFAD forces those wishing to assist camps in Aleppo’s countryside to coordinate with it. Several anonymous sources told the outlet that “there is an AFAD administration that includes two or three Turks, and nobody can live in or leave the camp without their consent.” The report highlights that AFAD’s consent is vital for work in Turkish-held areas, uncovering that “[it] was absent from the scene in the first 20 days after the earthquake . . . [which] caused poor coordination between local organizations working on the ground in the area since AFAD is the one that directs their teams’ work.”

In addition to dysfunctional response mechanisms under Türkiye’s influence, Turkish soldiers fired shots in the air to disperse and expel civilians, who sought the Turkish military outpost in Tal Slour village, on the outskirts of Jindires city in Afrin’s countryside, to request that the military uses the machinery on site in rescue operations, according to several of the report’s direct testimonies.

Within this perspective, the partner organizations recommend that the concerned entities conduct an independent and transparent investigation into delayed or blocked humanitarian aid designated to northern and northwestern Syria in particular, whether by UN institutions or as a consequence of the impediments by parties to the conflict, including the GOS, the opposition SNA, and the HTS.  Additionally, concerned entities must take effective measures to hold those responsible, individuals or groups, accountable and to ensure the non-recurrence of this situation.

Additionally, the partners demand that concerned entities establish an effective monitoring mechanism to ensure non-discrimination and non-partiality during aid distribution in Syria, to prevent the confiscation of shares of aid provisions by the parties to the conflict, to stop the politicization of aid distribution, and to guarantee that all Syrians have equal access to aid.

Moreover, the partners demand that concerned entities allocate special attention to HLP rights in quake-hit areas and ensure that humanitarian aid allocations and donations, donors are to pledge during the 2023 Brussels conference, will not contribute to effecting additional demographic changes or perpetuate those underway.

 

Introduction

The devastating earthquake that hit Türkiye and Syria at dawn on 6 February 2023 brought to light the multilayered suffering Syrians continue to grapple with, especially communities in the country’s northwestern parts, including locals and IDPs who sought refuge in the region from other areas.

The tremors—classified as the strongest to shake the region in decades—aggravated the woes of a country consumed by conflict for over 12 years. Syria has 6.8 million IDPs, hitting the highest number in the world. These figures also correspond to the largest registered need for life-saving assistance since the beginning of the conflict.

The early hours after the quake brought to the surface the effects of years of war and non-compliance with international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and the principles of humanitarian action. These effects had clear manifestations in the acts of the parties in the conflict and de facto authorities and even in the practices of humanitarian entities and organizations, all of which responded to the catastrophe in a selective, sometimes discriminatory manner, as several of the report’s direct testimonies demonstrate.

The quake forced local communities throughout the hit areas to face the acute ramifications of the conflict all at once, especially those with an immediate impact on their daily lives. These communities had to battle with repercussions stemming from various issues, including the opening or closure of some border crossings, the unilateral sanctions imposed on Syria,[4] the politicization of humanitarian aid and/or the obstruction of its entry, seizure of aid allocations, or diverting their destination.[5] These communities also continue to experience the turmoil of external involvement in the Syrian affair, foreign occupation, the different areas of influence and control, the rivalries and enmities between the military forces dominating on the ground, and even the political tensions within the UN itself and also between governments and UN agencies.

These repercussions, in tandem, have played into depriving affected communities in devastated areas, especially in the northwestern parts of the country, of a quick and effective response, which could have saved dozens of lives. Instead, the hit areas only saw a detrimentally poor response, open obstruction of aid, and unprecedented discrimination against some communities.

The sluggish reaction to the earthquake, which began with the problem of border crossings, exposed the flaws in the system of cross-border relief delivery that the UN Security Council had mandated for Syria and emphasized the urgent need for alternatives.[6] Bab al-Hawa was given the brunt of the burden while numerous other crucial crossings, such as al-Yaarubiyah/Til Koçer in northeastern Syria and Bab al-Salama in the north, were still closed.[7] For the first 48 hours following the earthquake, Türkiye blocked the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. Additionally, the GOS delayed approving the temporary opening of two more crossings for a full week,[8] while the GOS and the SNA obstructed cross-line aid to afflicted areas. In turn, the HTS (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra/al-Nusra Front) refused to permit the cross-line aid the UN tried to facilitate into northwest Syria.

Notably, the Turkish-backed SNA factions did not only impede cross-line aid designated to northern Syria, which they occupy. Worse yet, these armed groups restricted aid distribution in the make-shift housing centers and areas they control. The groups guided aid shipments passing through their checkpoints, confiscated parts of the allocations, and rerouted them.

In addition to delayed international aid, the GOS and the AANES’s impediment or block of assistance through their control areas indicates that the focus was on “political point-scoring rather than rapid relief for survivors.”[9] This situation was exacerbated by the UN’s slow response across northwestern Syria.[10]

Despite the fact that the earthquake’s destructive effects were not limited to a particular Syrian region, the recent statistics on the number of fatalities and structural damages revealed that the districts directly under Turkish control were more affected than others. Türkiye-held territories had an unprecedentedly inadequate reaction, due to the majority of local governance systems being subordinated to Turkish authorities, who were unable to respond adequately.[11]

In a March 2023 statement, Amnesty International demanded that “The Syrian government and Türkiye-backed armed opposition groups . . . stop obstructing and diverting humanitarian aid aimed at alleviating the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians in conflict-torn Aleppo.”[12]

Furthermore, in a May report, STJ stressed that an international determination is necessary to assess the impact of sanctions on a regular and accurate basis, in order to limit their impact on human rights in Syria. STJ demonstrated that Sanctions on Syria may not directly prevent the delivery of humanitarian aid. However, practically, they restrict the work of international institutes, relief agencies, banks, shipping companies, etc. because the latter stop all their work with Syria to avoid any unintended mistake that might expose them to accountability. Over-compliance is a form of excessive avoidance of risk because it involves blocking all activities with a sanctioned country, entity, or individual even when some activities are authorized by humanitarian exemptions or fall outside of the sanctions’ scope.[13]

 

Methodology

This report is brought by four organizations: Syrians for Truth and Justice (STJ), PÊL – Civil WavesSynergy Associations for Victims, and Lêlûn Association for Victims in Afrin.

For this report, the partner organizations carried out 44 interviews. The field researchers with the organizations reached out to the interviewees online or in person over the months that followed the quake.

The interviewed eyewitnesses and sources included survivors, affected individuals, and relatives of victims. Additionally, the field researchers reached out to relief workers, humanitarian organizations’ employees, rescuers, media activists, SNA members, and high-ranking officers.

In addition to the direct accounts from sources and witnesses, the report builds on dozens of relevant publications issued by local and international organizations and open-source visual and written material on the Syria quake and its impact, especially in the northwestern parts of the country. The partner organizations verified the contents of the consulted open sources and cited several.

Moreover, the partner organizations consulted satellite footage of quake-hit areas to identify and document the damages they suffered and incorporated several exclusive live images into the report, which they obtained from field researchers or interviewed sources.

Notably, the partner organizations opted for pseudonyms for several eyewitnesses and sources they interviewed, protecting them from potential security threats they might face due to the sensitive nature of their testimonies.

 

You may read and download the full version of this report (54 pages) in PDF format by clicking here.

 

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[1] World Bank. Syria Earthquake 2023: Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/099093003162314369/P1721710e2b4a60b40a5940f0793f8a0d24

[2] “Minister of Health: 1414 deaths and 2357 injuries, the death toll from the earthquake so far” (in Arabic), SANA, 14 February 2023. (Last visited: 16 May 2023). https://www.sana.sy/?p=1840593

[3] IBID, World Bank. Syria Earthquake 2023.

[4] In an input for the Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, STJ reiterated the call for an independent and impartial assessment mechanism for the impact of the unilateral coercive measures on human rights in Syria, to ensure transparent, objective, and non-exploited findings that do not exclude the SG’s obligations towards the population. This call has already been recommended by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

“Input for the Special Rapporteur on the Negative Impact of Unilateral Coercive Measures on the Enjoyment of Human Rights, STJ, 12 December 2022 (Last visited: 2 April 2023).

https://stj-sy.org/en/input-for-the-special-rapporteur-on-the-negative-impact-of-unilateral-coercive-measures-on-the-enjoyment-of-human-rights/

[5] STJ sent a complaint to seven UN Special Rapporteurs on the deviation of humanitarian aid toward building illegal settlements altering the demographics of Afrin. In the submission, STJ urged the Mandate Holders to issue a statement or public opinion addressing the settlement projects in general considering its continuous occurrence as a widespread or systematic policy.

 “Syria: A Complaint Addressed to Seven UN Special Rapporteurs on the Deviation of Humanitarian Aid toward Building Illegal Settlements Altering the Demographics of Afrin”, STJ, 22 September 2022 (Last visited: 2 April 2023). https://stj-sy.org/en/syria-a-complaint-addressed-to-seven-un-special-rapporteurs-on-the-deviation-of-humanitarian-aid-toward-building-illegal-settlements-altering-the-demographics-of-afrin/

[6] “Northwest Syria: Aid Delays Deadly for Quake Survivors”, HRW, 15 February 2023 (2 April 2023).

https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/02/15/northwest-syria-aid-delays-deadly-quake-survivors

[7] Millions of people in northeastern and northwestern Syria, many of them IDPs, depend on the cross-border flow of food, medicine, and other necessary assistance. In 2020, Russia used its veto to force the UN Security Council to close three of the four authorized border crossings into northern Syria, which led to the cutting off of international cross-border aid to northeast Syria and made it more difficult to distribute aid in the northwest. Currently, northern Syria relies exclusively on the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Türkiye, becoming the northwest’s only access point to UN-designated humanitarian aid and medical supplies. On 12 July 2022, after Russia vetoed a 12-month extension of the Bab al-Hawa crossing mandate, the Security Council decided to extend it for six months instead, setting another vote for mid-winter, which complicated UN aid agencies’ preparations. Notably, food insecurity has reached record-high levels in northern Syria, with food prices continuing to rise sharply, basic services remaining very limited, and some three million being IDPs, 1.8 million of whom live in camps or informal settlements.

[8] The Security Council’s authorization of the Bab al-Hawa crossing expires in July 2023. After the February 2023 earthquake, the GOS consented to open two more crossings (Bab al-Salama and al-Rai) with Türkiye. On 15 May 2023, the GOS agreed to extend the use of these two crossings for another three months, according to a tweet by Bassam Sabbagh, the Permanent Representative of Syria to the United Nations.

[9] “In the Wake of the 6 February Earthquake in Syria, a Broken Aid Regime is to Blame”, SJAC, 15 February 2023 (Last visited: 2 April 2023).

https://syriaaccountability.org/in-the-wake-of-the-6-february-earthquake-in-syria-a-broken-aid-regime-is-to-blame/

[10] In a statement to Reuters, a United Nations spokesperson said earthquake aid from government-held parts of Syria into opposition-controlled territory has been held up by “approval issues”. STJ covered these aid restrictions and blocks in a special report.

[11] AL-HILU, Khayrallah, Afrin under Turkish control: political, economic and social transformations, Middle East Directions (MED), Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria, 2019/10 – https://hdl.handle.net/1814/63745

Retrieved from Cadmus, EUI Research Repository

[12] “Syria: Vital earthquake aid blocked or diverted in Aleppo’s desperate hour of need”, AI, 6 March 2023 (Last visited: 24 March 2023).

https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2023/03/syria-vital-earthquake-aid-blocked-or-diverted-in-aleppos-desperate-hour-of-need/

[13] “Syria: Non-targeted Sanctions Violate the Principles of Justice and the Human Rights”, STJ, 4 May 2023 (Last visited: 16 May 2023).

https://stj-sy.org/en/syria-non-targeted-sanctions-violate-the-principles-of-justice-and-the-human-rights/

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