Syria: government forces and Turkey-backed armed groups have diverted earthquake aid

A camp for people displaced by the 6 February earthquakes in northwest Syria © BAKR ALKASEM/AFP via Getty Images

New testimonies show Assad’s forces and Turkey-backed Syrian National Army have used aid ‘politically’

Armed groups pressured search-and- rescue teams into prioritising operations at the homes of their families and relatives 

‘We are afraid to complain or even ask why we are not receiving aid out of fear of arrest’ - Kurdish resident in Afrin

The Syrian government and Turkey-backed armed opposition groups have obstructed and diverted humanitarian earthquake aid in conflict-torn Aleppo, Amnesty International said, one month on since the devastating earthquakes. 

Between 9 February and 22 February, the Syrian government blocked at least 100 trucks carrying essential aid such as food, medical supplies and tents from entering Kurdish-majority neighbourhoods in the city of Aleppo. 

During the same period, Turkey-backed armed opposition groups - which are part of the Syrian National Army armed coalition - also blocked at least 30 aid trucks from entering Afrin, a city in northern Aleppo occupied by Turkey. In both instances, the aid was sent by Kurdish authorities, with whom both the Syrian government and Turkey-backed armed groups have fought for control over territory in northern Syria.

Amnesty interviewed 12 people, including survivors and humanitarian workers in northern and north-east Syria, a member of a Syrian human rights organisation and a representative of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Since 9 February, the autonomous administration and humanitarian organisations, individuals and tribes have been sending aid supplies from north-east Syria to the city of Aleppo, which is under the control of the government and to northern Aleppo, which is under the control of Turkey-backed armed groups.

Four people interviewed by Amnesty confirmed that the Syrian National Army refused to allow at least 30 fuel trucks and other vehicles carrying humanitarian aid to enter areas under its control. Vehicles waited at the border crossing between north-east Syria and northern Aleppo for seven days before they were sent back

A humanitarian worker operating in north-east Syria told Amnesty: 

“The obstruction of aid is purely political. Turkey and the Syrian National Army found that politicising aid is more important than fuel reaching the White Helmets and others who were desperate to expedite their search-and-rescue efforts.” 

Three interviewees told Amnesty that they are aware of multiple occasions where armed groups shot in the air to disperse crowds of people trying to obtain assistance from aid trucks. Amnesty’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified details of a video filmed after the earthquake, likely in Jinderes in northern Syria, showing people believed to be Syrian National Army military police shooting in the air to disperse a crowd of people trying to pull boxes from an aid lorry. 

The Syrian government has also obstructed aid from reaching survivors deemed to be perceived as opposition supporters. Interviewees in north-east Syria told Amnesty that between 9 February and 22 February, the Syrian government blocked 100 trucks of fuel, tents, food and medical supplies provided by the autonomous administration and a local organisation from entering the Kurdish districts of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh in Aleppo. Local human rights organisation Syrians for Truth and Justice has also documented aid obstruction in northern Aleppo and Aleppo city by Turkey-backed armed groups and the Syrian government, respectively, which they say led to preventable deaths. 

Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director, said:

“These politically-motivated obstructions of critical aid have had tragic ramifications, especially for search-and-recovery teams who need fuel to operate machinery. 

“All parties to the conflict - including the Syrian government and Turkey-backed armed groups - should be prioritising the needs of civilians whose lives have been upended in this catastrophic natural disaster, and ensuring that they have unfettered access to aid.”

Aid - delay and diversion

Survivors in both Aleppo and Afrin have described to Amnesty how the delays or lack of aid since the earthquakes have exacerbated an already dire situation, forcing some to leave for other areas. A humanitarian worker and local representative in north-east Syria told Amnesty that it took seven days of negotiations for the Syrian government to allow 100 trucks carrying fuel and humanitarian aid sent by the autonomous administration to enter Sheikh Maksoud and Ashrafieh on 16 February, and on condition that they divert more than half of the aid to the government which would be solely responsible for the distribution of aid within these areas. The local council member in Sheikh Maksoud and Ashrafieh added that only 21 trucks entered the neighbourhoods in two batches on 18 February and 19 February - a fraction of what they’d hoped would arrive. 

Syrian government accused of aid theft and arrests

Independent and local media sources reported that Syrian government-affiliated forces have allegedly stolen aid sent to earthquake survivors. There have also been reports that those criticising the Syrian government’s aid efforts and accusing the government of siphoning off aid were arrested. In Afrin, five interviewees, including four survivors, told Amnesty they were aware of at least six cases in which armed groups diverted aid to their own families and relatives. 

A Kurdish man whose home in a village in Afrin was destroyed in the earthquakes told Amnesty that people need wasta [connections] with armed groups to obtain any assistance. He said: 

“No one came to check the damages or provide us with assistance. When I asked for assistance at a local organisation, they told me that there wasn’t any. But then, I saw our neighbour, who has a relative in an armed group, getting 17 small boxes of aid. They are a family of five … Us [Kurds] and some poor Arab families displaced in Afrin are in the same difficult situation because we have no wasta.”

In Jinderes a Kurdish man told Amnesty that his uncle, mother and sister had to buy a tent for £125 because they didn’t receive one through humanitarian organisations. He said: 

“An organisation came and distributed aid … My family didn’t receive anything. How are there tents for sale when all the tents arriving to the area are through donations and organisations?” 

Local media have reported that a leader of an armed opposition group confiscated 29 tents and other aid that was directed to people affected in Jinderes. 

A resident impacted by the earthquake in Afrin added: 

“We [Kurdish people] have been living in fear since Turkey and armed groups occupied the area. Now, our situation is worse. We are not receiving aid and, those who did, it was barely enough. But we are afraid to complain or even ask why we are not receiving aid out of fear of arrest.”

A Syrian human rights organisation which interviewed members of the Syrian National Army also confirmed these accounts and told Amnesty that armed groups pressured search-and-rescue teams into prioritising operations at the homes of their families and relatives, and forced convoys which crossed through the north-east, under the control of the Kurds, to give up 40% of the humanitarian aid as a condition for passing into areas under its control. 

Syrian government blockade

The UN estimates that at least 6,000 people in Syria have been killed and more than eight million are in urgent need of assistance as a result of last month’s earthquakes, including 4.1 million people in opposition-held areas in northern Syria. Since last August, the Syrian government has imposed a brutal blockade on the Kurdish districts of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh in Aleppo, blocking fuel, food, medical supplies and other essential aid from reaching tens of thousands of civilians. Even before the earthquakes, these areas had all but exhausted their medical supplies.

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