Syrian White Helmet civil defense workers carries a woman pulled out from the debris of a collapsed building in Northwest Syria on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.
( Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over the last few weeks, we've seen the news focus on the devastation and response to the earthquake in Turkey. But in Syria, coverage has been more complicated because when the quake hit, the country was and is engaged in a long, drawn out civil war.
CBC 12 years of war have already wrought destruction, killed more than half a million. And now this.
MIDEAST EYE Frankly, the earthquake has brought attention back. But those millions of people in Syria have been struggling now for years and it's become a forgotten crisis.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in the disastrous quake, Syrians still felt unseen more than a week after the earthquake. Some areas are still struggling for international support.
WHITE HELMET From the very beginning, we said we need help. We need your support. No one helped us. No one cared about those civilians. Unfortunately, the time passes and we're running out of time and no one responded to our calls.
BROOKE GLADSTONE International organizations like the U.N. have said that this is in part because in Syria, the hardest hit areas are located both in regions controlled by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and in the northwest, where rebel groups hold power. Even in the aftermath, the rebel held areas have struggled most for support. For the first few crucial days, it was only small groups of local volunteers performing rescues or trying to from the rubble.
BBC Salvations for some. These sisters were pulled from the rubble of their house in Guinea by local rescuers. As the hours pass, exhausted search teams are digging more with hope and expectation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Natasha Hall is a senior fellow at the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and has worked as an aid worker on the ground in Syria. She says that access to the northwest was definitely an issue, but politics colluded with Mother Nature to make it so.
NATASHA HALL The U.N. agencies that deliver and implement humanitarian aid are only allowed to do so through one border crossing from Turkey into northwest Syria. And this is because it relies on a mandate at the U.N. Security Council. And unfortunately, one of the Assad government's stalwart allies, Russia, is a permanent member on the Security Council. So every few months or so, there is a vote to renew this mandate or allowance for U.N. agencies to use this border crossing. So it has become extremely contentious.
BROOKE GLADSTONE As you mentioned, it took a while for U.N. aid to reach northwest Syria. Some Syrians are even flying the U.N. flag upside down.
NATASHA HALL Yes, we saw dozens of search and rescue teams from all around the world flying into government-controlled parts of Syria, flying into Turkey. And we saw two small teams within the first five days of the earthquake going into northwest Syria with no equipment. And just to give you a sense of the lack of urgency, I was speaking with a U.N. official the other day and they said, well, the needs haven't really changed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE That the earthquake didn't change things.
NATASHA HALL Which is ridiculous, of course. Finally, I think it was something like 28 trucks have come through, but that was five days after the initial earthquake and that was the typical aid received food kits and hygiene kits for this population. It was not earthquake related assistance or support. It's mostly been NGOs picking themselves up by their bootstraps and bringing in medical personnel.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Which brings to mind the Syrian volunteer civil defense group, the White Helmets.
NATASHA HALL The White Helmets emerged sort of out of necessity because, again, you had these areas heavily bombarded by Syrian regime aircraft and later Russian regime aircraft as well. And so people were buried under the rubble. There was a need for some kind of emergency force. They were initially trained by the Turkish civil defense because the Turkish civil defense had a lot of experience with earthquakes. The experience was translatable to wartime Syria.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Syrian and Russian governments have long perpetuated misinformation against groups operating within the rebel-controlled areas, such as the White Helmets. They've been responsible for most of the rescue efforts in the northwest after the earthquake and you have yourself worked with them on the ground. Can you tell me about the misinformation?
NATASHA HALL What the Syrian regime and Russia aim to do was to flip the script on the entire conflict itself. That this was a Western plot to overthrow the government, that the White Helmets are Mossad agents, terrorists, throwing anything at them to see if anything will stick. We've seen a lot of footage from the White Helmets and others of children being rescued from under the rubble. Immediately the bots came out and started posting pictures of children who were buried under rubble in opposition controlled areas. The text essentially claiming that. This was Syrian and Russian civil defense rescuing children. And we even saw in BBC just a few days ago Ahmad al-Selmerwho was a long-serving white helmet, speak for about 2 minutes, only to be followed by Guthina Shabet,who's a Syrian regime spokesperson for about ten or 15 minutes, calling the White Helmets terrorists multiple times. We've seen that narrative move to mainstream networks.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You say that Assad and his regime have been absolutely amazing in PR, that this has been another moment for Assad to normalize himself back into world politics with photo shoots, with world leaders and so on.
NATASHA HALL Absolutely. I mean, I think that this is an inflection point in a four year–five-year trend. But most certainly the government was ready for this. They had set the table for it, creating websites devoted to spreading misinformation on Syria. And so this is their moment to say how cruel the world is for not allowing humanitarian aid during this moment of crisis – which is misinformation in and of itself. Because actually even sanctioning countries like the United States and European countries have sent billions of dollars of aid into government-controlled parts of Syria for the entirety of the conflict. But I would argue that the governments that are taking the bait are not just taking the bait because they don't understand. I think that there is this feeling amongst regional countries, but even beyond the region, that the best way to move on from the gaping wound that is Syria is to normalize with the Assad regime.
BROOKE GLADSTONE You did a yearlong report before the earthquake focused on aid efforts to Syria in the 12 years since the start of the war. In that case and in the case of the earthquake, you found that a lot of that aid is not making it to civilians.
NATASHA HALL What we've seen since the beginning of this conflict, which the international community essentially decided to deal with through humanitarian aid, is a lot of compromises made by humanitarian workers on the ground, by U.N. officials, such as allowing government affiliated organizations to take U.N. aid out of sight to beneficiaries like allowing state military escorts to accompany those aid convoys. And what we saw is, is aid being delayed, impeded, ransacked, looted throughout the conflict as a result of that, and at least according to career U.N. officials that I talked to for that report, these are unprecedented compromises. And the problem is that it is very, very difficult to turn back once you have made those compromises. And so fast forward to this earthquake. I foresee a lot of compromises being made that will be difficult to turn back.
BROOKE GLADSTONE In Syria, the buildings themselves have been deteriorating for at least 12 years. Was there anything the international community could have done to make the earthquake's impact less catastrophic there?
NATASHA HALL That's a good question. This is a big issue for northwest Syria, as you mentioned. You know, this is an area with governance, but not really structured or standardized governance. Certainly not internationally recognized governments. And so you saw entire towns just leveled because you just don't have building codes. You don't have regulations. So the destruction and the casualties were far higher. Now, the larger question for all of Syria is how will you reconstruct in the aftermath of the earthquake? Because the European Union's stance, the U.K. stance and the United States stance has long been there will be no reconstruction unless there is movement towards U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which essentially asks for a you know, a just political transition. In the aftermath of this earthquake, there are questions of whether you build back better, but there's also a question of whether you build back at all.
BROOKE GLADSTONE They are sending billions to Syria. So doesn't that suggest they have decided in favor of rebuilding, even though Assad's still there?
NATASHA HALL The question is whether or not that will happen for northwest Syria at this point. This will be a long-standing impact. I lived in Armenia for two years and there are people that are still devastated and traumatized by an earthquake that happened 30 years ago. There are still people that are living in the containers that aid came in. What I'm seeing right now for the Northwest is not only is there an acute response, but it is completely unclear what the long term recovery will look like. There was one story that a friend of mine just told me his colleague was killed in the earthquake, but he had a 14 year old daughter who was trapped under the rubble. Rescue workers could not pull her out because her leg was trapped and they didn't have the equipment to lift it up. And so they had to amputate her leg. This is a 14 year old girl who has seen nothing but this war in spite of that. Just moments after that earthquake, after she got pulled out from under the rubble and lost her leg and her father, there was another tremor and she immediately turned to her cousin who sitting next to her and said, run, save yourself. I mean, this is a population that has endured so much and I just don't know how much you can push people. But I think this is the brink unless the international community comes together and really thinks about what recovery will look like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Natasha, thank you very much.
NATASHA HALL Thank you for having me, Brooke.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Natasha Hall is a senior fellow at the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Coming up, the perilous combo of chicken and mink. This is On the Media.
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