Turkey-Syria Earthquake Updates: Death Toll Passes 12,000 as Desperation Builds

The European Union will work with the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to get aid to both opposition- and government-controlled areas of Syria, an E.U. official said Wednesday, after Syria’s government lodged a formal request for aid with the bloc two days after a catastrophic earthquake.

The bloc, a major donor of humanitarian aid to Syria, said it was committed to helping Syrians despite the fact that it has placed the authoritarian president, Bashar al-Assad, and some sectors of the Syrian economy under strict sanctions.

“Sanctions do not prohibit the export of food, medicines or medical equipment to Syria,” said Balazs Ujvari, a spokesman for the European Commission, adding that E.U. sanctions were designed with exceptions for humanitarian aid in mind. “The E.U. is committed to avoid, and where unavoidable to mitigate, any negative unintended impact of sanctions,” Mr. Ujvari said. “The EU’s number one priority is to save lives” in both Syria and Turkey, he added.

The Turkish government requested European help almost immediately after the earthquake, and the first E.U. crews landed in Turkey on Monday afternoon. The Syrian government’s request, two days later, focused on in-kind aid.

The Syrian Red Crescent and Syrian officials have called for a lifting of Western sanctions, which they said were obstructing aid deliveries to Syria — a claim that the E.U. rejected.

“It’s the time after the earthquake to lift the sanctions,” Khaled Hboubati, the head of the Red Crescent in Syria, said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We want equipment. We need fire trucks. We don’t have heavy equipment for evacuation,” he added.

Monday’s earthquake affected a large swath of Syria’s northwest, including areas controlled by the Syrian government and opposition forces backed by Turkey.

Sanctions have been in place on Mr. al-Assad’s authoritarian government for years, imposed over its violent response to anti-government protests, and its subsequent actions, including the use of chemical weapons, in Syria’s civil war. Much of the international aid to Syria from the United Nations and other agencies flows through the capital, Damascus, which the government controls.

But when aid is sent via Damascus, the Syrian government is able to then limit what goes to opposition-held areas, because U.N. agencies must get permission to then deliver some of the aid across front lines, to opposition-held areas. Many U.N. requests for permission have been rejected by the Syrian government over the years.

“Given the record of oppression of Syrian people by the Assad regime, we would need sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that the aid provided through the E.U. civil-protection mechanism would reach the people in need,” Mr. Ujvari, the E.U. spokesman said.

In order to bypass these restrictions, the U.N. Security Council in 2014 approved a resolution to let U.N. agencies deliver aid to opposition-held areas across borders with neighboring countries, like Turkey.

Mr. al-Assad’s government and Russia, its close ally, have in the past opposed efforts to send aid directly to those areas from Turkey, contending that all aid should go through Damascus. Since the earthquake, they have reiterated that position.

The United Nations said it was hoping to send aid convoys to northwest Syria on Thursday through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey, which the U.N. had previously said was not functioning because of damage from the quake in the area.

“Our trucks are ready, we have trucks at the border, we have trucks being loaded. We are just waiting for the logistics to be ready,” said Muhannad Hadi, U.N.’s Syria regional coordinator.

Ms. Ujvari, the E.U. official, said that the crossing was set to open again, citing information from the U.N.

“Of course it would help to have as many border-crossings open as possible so as to assistance can reach the affected people in Syria,” he said.

The bulk of international aid to Syria comes via U.N. agencies, which sent $2.13 billion to Syria last year, according to their figures. Since the earthquake struck, some countries friendly with the Syrian government have sent aid to Damascus. Iran, for example, sent a plane on Monday night with 70 tons of food, tents and medicine.

But of the billions in humanitarian aid sent to Syria last year, some of the biggest donors were countries that have imposed sanctions on Mr. al-Assad’s government. Despite those sanctions, the United States gave $964 million; Germany gave $536 million; and the European Union as a body gave $119 million.

Even as Syrian officials have called for aid, they have warned about resources falling into the hands of extremist groups, a longstanding refrain of the government.

This week, a Syrian member of Parliament urged people not to donate money to organizations working in opposition-controlled areas, arguing that the money could end up with terrorist groups — a claim that raised alarm among aid workers.

Idlib Province, in northwestern Syria, is mostly controlled by the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former Al Qaeda affiliate that broke ties with the group years ago. But for over a decade, the government has commonly referred to all opposition — armed or peaceful — as terrorists.

Syria’s opposition-controlled northwest corner, which includes Idlib, is also home to some 4.2 million people, 2.7 million of them internally displaced from their homes in other parts of the country and many of them living in tent camps.

Syrian aid workers said they worried about the warnings of Syrian government officials.

“Instead of having a message of unity that this is a crisis that affects all Syrians, they are saying, ‘Be careful that no aid goes to those people, because they are terrorists,’” said Monzer al-Salal, the executive director of Stabilization Support Unit, an aid group that works in opposition-held areas.

“Calls for the lifting of sanctions is political,” he said. “It has nothing to do with the humanitarian situation.”

Farnaz Fassihi and Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.

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