View from Aleppo: ‘Syrians are angry with the West’ over lack of earthquake aid

With international aid still struggling to reach Syria two weeks after the devastating February 6 earthquakes, calls are mounting for Western countries to lift diplomatic sanctions on the Syrian regime and facilitate the flow of aid. A local doctor helping the humanitarian efforts in Aleppo, in northwestern Syria, tells FRANCE 24 that people feel abandoned by the West.

Two weeks after the successive earthquakes that killed more than 46,000 people in southern Turkey and neighbouring Syria, international humanitarian aid is struggling to reach stricken areas in Syria. After 12 years of war, the February 6 quakes have brought a country already in the grip of a humanitarian, economic and security crisis to its knees.

Under international sanctions since 2011, Syria is still divided into areas under President Bashar al-Assad’s control and those held by rebel groups. Despite calls for an urgent increase in humanitarian aid, trucks are struggling to cross the Turkish border, including through UN-mandated border crossings.

In Damascus, only planes bearing humanitarian aid from Arab countries such as Algeria, Tunisia, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon land regularly. Western aid remains mostly absent as the US, France and a number of European countries refuse to provide direct assistance to the Syrian government after years of broken diplomatic relations.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 from Aleppo, Doctor Nabil Antaki, a gastroenterologist who helps lead the volunteer efforts of Catholic humanitarian group Les Maristes Bleus (the Blue Marists), describes the lack of aid from Western countries as “scandalous”, and calls for international sanctions to be lifted on a country that has been bled dry.

FRANCE 24: What is the situation in Aleppo?

Dr Nabil Antaki: The Turkish cities of Maras [officially Kahramanmaras], Antakya and Gaziantep were much more severely affected than Aleppo. In Aleppo, a total of 60 buildings have been destroyed, 200 have to be demolished because they are no longer inhabitable, and thousands of damaged buildings need to be restored. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless.

On the night of the earthquake, at 4:17am, everyone rushed to the streets in their pyjamas, in spite of the rain and freezing cold. Everyone was very scared. People took refuge in churches, mosques, convents and schools. At the Blue Marists, we opened our doors half an hour after the earthquake hit. Within a few hours, 1,000 people had sought refuge inside our walls. Then, little by little, people started returning to their homes when they saw that their houses had not been too badly damaged.

But on Monday evening, the new earthquake was felt very strongly and everyone went out into the street. A thousand people are staying with the Blue Marists once again. We don’t have enough space. Everyone is very afraid.

Two weeks after the earthquakes, what do the people of Aleppo need?  

There are only 80 seriously injured people left in Aleppo. From a medical point of view, we have enough basic supplies. The Syrian pharmaceutical industry is quite efficient despite the war, as 90 percent of products are still in circulation. However, we are lacking modern equipment, which we cannot import because of the sanctions. That being said, medical equipment is officially exempt [from the sanctions].

We need fuel. Our fuel resources are being rationed. We are only allowed 20 litres every 25 days. In December, the government had to close schools, universities and administrative offices for a week because there were no means of transport. We have no heating oil. Electricity is being rationed, we only have two hours of it per day. We are terribly cold this winter.

Many are calling for international aid to be released. What is actually happening on the ground?

The issue of international aid is truly scandalous. We have received aid from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq, but Western countries have not sent anything, claiming that they cannot help a country governed by Assad. It is as if the Syrians here are not suffering just as much as the people on the rebel side or in Turkey. Politics must be separated from humanitarian issues, which Western governments have refused to do. It is scandalous.

The French foreign ministry has supposedly released 12 million euros, half of which was meant to be channelled through international organisations and the other half through NGOs working on the ground. We have seen nothing for the moment. The United States has said that it has eased sanctions to allow humanitarian aid for six months. But in principle, humanitarian aid and medical equipment are exempt from sanctions. It’s hypocritical. Why ease them if they are exempt?

How do Syrians feel?

Syrians are angry with the West. On the other hand, Syrians have been extremely generous with one another, especially throughout the diaspora. At the Blue Marists shelter, we have received mattresses, food and blankets sent by Syrian NGOs from Damascus and Homs. We received many calls from Syrians abroad who wanted to send funds and equipment. This unmatched solidarity strongly contrasts with the lack of humanity and generosity demonstrated by the West.

What are living conditions like for Syrians after 12 years of war?  

The whole country has to be rebuilt. It had already been destroyed by the war, but the economy, which was already stagnating, has been at a standstill ever since the earthquakes hit. Inflation is terrible: the euro, which was at 60 Syrian pounds, rose to 7,000 Syrian pounds at the height of the conflict [it stood at over 2,600 on February 20]. According to UN figures, 90 percent of people live below the poverty line and 60 percent are food insecure; people cannot make ends meet.

Since the war, 80 percent of people are only able to survive thanks to the generosity of NGOs which, like us, provide monthly food baskets, medical aid and schooling. Barely 5 percent of the population can pay for their own food and housing. The country has become impoverished. We need the sanctions to be lifted so that foreign investments can be made to enable reconstruction. All financial transactions are forbidden.

What state of mind are Syrians in today?  

Syrians are suffering, they are at the end of their tether. Twelve years of war, then the Covid and cholera pandemics, and now the earthquakes… People can’t take it anymore. People want to leave the country, which has already been abandoned by its elite. They tell us that they lived better during the war than they do now. It is time to stop this suffering by lifting the sanctions to allow investment.

Sanctions serve absolutely no purpose. Even though they were imposed on Cuba for 60 years, the regime didn’t change. They were put in place in North Korea, but the regime there didn’t change either. They are ineffective and result in the people suffering. These countries’ leaders are not affected, as it is the people who pay the price for these sanctions. They don’t encourage peace negotiations, respect for human rights, nor help in the fight against corruption. It is time for more humane and realistic policies.

This article is a translation of the original in French.

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