Why are agencies struggling to get help to the hardest-hit parts of Syria? Syria’s border crossing explained

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The Syrian government only allows humanitarian aid through to rebel-held territories through one border, but that border has been badly damaged in the earthquakes.

A pair of deadly earthquakes has caused a crisis within a crisis for Syria, with aid agencies struggling to get supplies to the hardest-hit parts of the already war-torn nation.

More than 33,000 people have been killed, after Turkey and Syria were hit by two massive earthquakes last Monday (6 February). The US Geological Survey measured the first quake at magnitude 7.8, with a depth of 11 miles. Hours later, a magnitude 7.5 magnitude tremor, likely triggered by the first, struck more than 60 miles away.

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A week on, Syria’s White Helmets have wrapped up their search and rescue operation, shifting their focus to recovering bodies, as the chances of finding any survivors in the rubble of collapsed buildings dwindles.

Syria - where more than 3,300 people have been confirmed dead - faces unique difficulties in the aftermath of the earthquakes, with already limited services and supplies stretched even thinner by the crisis.

What parts of Syria have been affected by the earthquakes?

The first earthquake’s epicentre was near the southeast Turkish city of Gaziantep. Syria borders Turkey to the south, so its worst-affected areas were in the country’s north.

Rebel-held parts of northwest Syria have suffered some of the worst damage, as well as northern cities like Aleppo, which until 2021 was an active conflict zone.

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The White Helmets report of the 43 communities they carried out search and rescue operations in, the northern town of Jendires was the worst-affected, with the most deaths, injuries, and destroyed buildings of any community.

A United Nations aid convoy enters rebel-held northwestern Syria from Turkey through the Bab el-Hawa crossing on February 9, the first since a devastating earthquake that killed thousands (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images).A United Nations aid convoy enters rebel-held northwestern Syria from Turkey through the Bab el-Hawa crossing on February 9, the first since a devastating earthquake that killed thousands (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images).
A United Nations aid convoy enters rebel-held northwestern Syria from Turkey through the Bab el-Hawa crossing on February 9, the first since a devastating earthquake that killed thousands (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images). | AFP via Getty Images

Why are aid providers struggling to get supplies into these regions?

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than a decade now. A wave of anti-government protests were violently suppressed around 2012, and the situation developed into an armed rebellion. The rebels - backed by foreign powers in some areas - still control a number of provinces in northwest Syria.

Under a United Nations agreement, the Syrian government only allows aid to enter these areas through a single border crossing, and humanitarian organisations initially reported earthquake damage had blocked this border crossing, as well as many other roads between Turkey and Syria.

On Thursday, a small convoy was finally able to cross from Turkey into Syria, carrying desperately needed medicines, blankets, tents and UN shelter kits.

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The six trucks were the first aid to reach the enclave. The only other vehicles passing through the Bab al-Hawa crossing had been bringing bodies of earthquake victims - refugees who had fled conflict zones in Syria for Turkey - back to their families for burial.

The Syrian Government has been pushing for humanitarian aid to be brought in through the government-controlled capital Damascus rather than Turkey, but critics say the government has a history of blocking or misdirecting supplies intended for rebel-controlled areas.

White Helmets leader Raed Al Saleh met with UN representatives at the border crossing on Sunday, where he asked for the immediate opening of additional cross-border routes without waiting for UN Security Council approval.

“Waiting for UN Security Council authorization to reopen more border crossings into the northwest is completely misguided, this unnecessary stalling will only cost more lives. There can be no more delays,” he said.

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“We urgently need the UN to open more border crossings into northwest Syria so that cross-border humanitarian aid can flow in unhindered. Failing to escalate medical aid deliveries rapidly will leave the UN with more blood on its hands.”

Who is helping people affected by the earthquake in northwest Syria?

The UN says it is  “exploring all avenues” to get more supplies to rebel-held north-western Syria, where millions still live in extreme poverty and rely on humanitarian aid to survive.

The White Helmets had largely taken charge of rescuing survivors from the rubble, although they have now shifted their focus to recovering bodies, after finding no survivors since Thursday. Also known as Syria Civil Defence, this group of more than 2,900 volunteers from all walks of life first formed in the wake of the Syrian Civil War escalation in 2012.

A rescue worker stands amid the rubble of a building in the rebel-held town of Jindayris on February 10, 2023, days after an earthquake hit Turkey and Syria. - The 7.8-magnitude quake early on February 6 has killed more than 20,000 people in Turkey and war-ravaged Syria, according to officials and medics in the two countries, flattening entire neighbourhoods. (Photo by Rami al SAYED / AFP) (Photo by RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images)A rescue worker stands amid the rubble of a building in the rebel-held town of Jindayris on February 10, 2023, days after an earthquake hit Turkey and Syria. - The 7.8-magnitude quake early on February 6 has killed more than 20,000 people in Turkey and war-ravaged Syria, according to officials and medics in the two countries, flattening entire neighbourhoods. (Photo by Rami al SAYED / AFP) (Photo by RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images)
A rescue worker stands amid the rubble of a building in the rebel-held town of Jindayris on February 10, 2023, days after an earthquake hit Turkey and Syria. - The 7.8-magnitude quake early on February 6 has killed more than 20,000 people in Turkey and war-ravaged Syria, according to officials and medics in the two countries, flattening entire neighbourhoods. (Photo by Rami al SAYED / AFP) (Photo by RAMI AL SAYED/AFP via Getty Images)

The group is best known for organising search and rescue operations in communities impacted by bombing in the ongoing conflict, but members also carry out essential civil services like firefighting, maintaining electricity and sewerage, and rehabilitating neighbourhoods, after those services were withdrawn.

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Both international humanitarian groups and their local partners have also stepped up to help. Groups like the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association (SEMA) are working to bridge gaps in health services, while ActionAid is working to set up shelters for at-risk women and girls, and the Red Cross and Red Crescent are making sure people have essentials like food and water.

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