When the earthquake struck, the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria immediately declared that they were ready to provide aid and assistance to all of Syria. But this humanitarian response was not shared by any other part of this war-torn and divided country. Thousands of people, whose homes have been destroyed or made uninhabitable, are struggling to survive without help, while trucks of aid are prevented from crossing from one area of control to another. Aid has been subject to blackmail, and has been diverted from its intended recipients.
In many parts of Syria, reliable news is hard to come by, but I will try and piece together an updated picture of the situation, 12 days after the earthquake struck.
The bit of Syria that has faced the worst destruction includes areas under the control of the Syrian government, and areas occupied or under the protection of Turkey. Turkish-occupied Afrîn and Jarabulus are controlled by a medley of violent Islamist groups that include many former members of ISIS. Heavily populated Idlib, which is already very dependent on international aid, is controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a descendent of Al Qaeda, but is also under Turkish protection and influence. HTS has recently exploited the conflicts between other Islamist groups to capture a large foothold in the occupied regions, too.
Also badly damaged, but little mentioned outside Kurdish circles, are the autonomous Aleppo neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashafrieh. These have large Kurdish populations and are part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, but are separated from other autonomous areas by government-held land. Six people were killed in Sheikh Maqsoud – a small number compared to other places – and a great many buildings were made unsafe in this already bomb-damaged area. Around 3,000 homeless families have left to seek shelter in Al Shahba, another isolated autonomous pocket that already provides a home to many of the people displaced by Turkey’s 2018 invasion of Afrîn.
Both these isolated areas – Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashafrieh, and Al Shahba – are struggling under blockades instigated by the Syrian regime, which wants to force them to give up their autonomy. These blockades, which impact essential supplies of food, fuel, and medicines, have been going on for years and are currently particularly severe. Despite the earthquake, Damascus has shown no sign of lifting them. Medical centres lack basic painkillers, and people have resorted to burning rubbish as cooking fuel. Last Sunday, it was reported that the Syrian Government had arrested employees of pharmaceutical companies for bringing medicines to Al Shahba, accusing them of terrorism.
Tel Rifaat, in Al Shahbha, is also one of the places that has been hit by Turkey’s bombardments, which, similarly, have not stopped. Thursday’s airstrike killed a 70-year-old Arab man, and Turkish drones constantly harass the region. An SDF fighter was also killed in a drone attack in the Kobanê countryside.
The main part of autonomous North and East Syria has sustained relatively little damage, though schools in the Euphrates region, and in Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashafrieh, and in Al Shahba remain closed. After offering to provide aid to all parts of Syria that needed it, regardless of political difference, the Autonomous Administration began to put words into action. Convoys of aid, including tankers of fuel, were brought together and dispatched to the border gates linking North and East Syria to other parts. Two convoys of aid, consisting of 100 tankers of fuel plus material for disaster relief, were dispatched to the al-Tayha crossing into government-held Syria, on the way to the autonomous regions of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashafrieh, and Al Shahba. Another convoy, consisting of 30 tankers of fuel and 20 trucks of aid, went to Umm al-Jaloud, the crossing into occupied Jarabulus.
After years of war, North and East Syria has no resources to spare, but putting together the aid convoys was the easy part. At the al-Tayha crossing, it is reported that the Syrian government told the convoy organisers to hand over 70% of their aid if they wanted the rest to be allowed through – and aid given to Damascus has little chance of reaching the Kurdish areas. An aid convoy from the Kurdish Red Crescent (Heyva Sor), also trying to go through the al-Tayha crossing, was told that they must hand over everything, including their ambulances, to the Syrian Red Crescent, which is closely linked to the Syrian regime. On Wednesday evening, after a seven-day wait, it was announced that the Autonomous Administration’s convoy was finally on its way and that 60 of the 100 tankers of fuel would go to government areas; but 17 hours later it had still not arrived, and the Kurdish Red Crescent convoy was still waiting at the border. There was no more news at the time of writing.
On Thursday, after waiting for more than seven days at Umm al-Jaloud to be allowed to cross the border into Jarabulus, the Autonomous Administration’s aid convoy for the occupied areas sadly turned around and withdrew. Turkey’s mercenaries, on Turkish orders, insist all aid must come via Turkey. However, on Monday morning, negotiators managed to get permission for an aid truck from Médecins sans Frontières to enter the occupied areas from North and East Syria, and, in the afternoon, two convoys of aid compiled by civic organisations from across North and East Syria, and totalling 119 trucks, passed through the Umm al-Jaloud border gate. By Wednesday, Hawar News Agency was reporting that the total number of trucks that had gone through carrying aid from the people of North and East Syria was around 146.
While this is still only a fraction of the aid needed, it further highlights the much-criticised failures of the United Nations, which, by Thursday, had only managed to deliver 143 trucks of aid to northwest Syria from the Turkish side.
Getting aid into the occupied areas is only the first hurdle. Reports from Jinderes in the Afrîn district, which was almost totally destroyed, describe claims that aid has only been given to Arabs, and not to Kurds, and that mercenary groups are dividing up damaged buildings as though they were the spoils of war.
In regime areas, there are reports of international aid being stored and not delivered, and accusations of officials selling aid on the black market. None of the aid sent by the Syrian government to Aleppo has reached Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashafrieh.
In the midst of all this, North and East Syria has to continue its battle against ISIS cells – alongside fears that the organisation will thrive on the surrounding chaos.
But the people of the region have also found time to emphasise their undying support for Abdullah Öcalan and the call for his freedom. The anniversary of his capture on 15 February 1999 was marked by mass demonstrations in the region’s cities, from Dêrik to Shahba.
Sarah Glynn is a writer and activist – check her website and follow her on Twitter