Syria: Vital earthquake aid blocked or diverted in Aleppo’s desperate hour of need

The Syrian government and Türkiye-backed armed opposition groups should stop obstructing and diverting humanitarian aid aimed at alleviating the suffering of tens of thousands of civilians in conflict-torn Aleppo, said Amnesty International, a month today since the governorate was devastated by 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 Aleppo city. During the same period, Türkiye-backed armed opposition groups, which are part of an armed coalition called the Syrian National Army (SNA), also blocked at least 30 aid trucks from entering Afrin, a city in northern Aleppo occupied by Türkiye. In both instances, the aid was sent by Kurdish authorities, with whom both the Syrian government and Türkiye-backed armed groups have fought for control over territory in northern Syria.

“The earthquakes have pushed tens of thousands of people in Aleppo who were already struggling due to a decade-long armed conflict into further destitution. Yet even in this moment of desperation, the Syrian government and armed opposition groups have pandered to political considerations and taken advantage of people’s misery to advance their own agendas,” said Aya Majzoub, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“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 Türkiye-backed armed groups, should be prioritizing the needs of civilians whose lives have been upended in this catastrophic natural disaster and ensuring that they have unfettered access to aid.”

It has been one month since the 6 February earthquakes that hit south-eastern Türkiye and northern Syria with a magnitude of 7.7 and 7.6, respectively. The UN estimates that at least 6,000 people in Syria have been killed and over 8 million people are in urgent need of assistance, including 4.1 million people in opposition-held areas in northern Syria and 4 million people in government-held areas.

Amnesty International interviewed 12 people, including survivors and humanitarian workers in northern and north-east Syria, a member of a Syrian human rights organization and a representative of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).

Aid obstruction

Since 9 February, the AANES, local and international humanitarian organizations, individuals and tribes have been sending humanitarian assistance— including food, clothes, medical supplies and fuel— from north-east Syria to Aleppo city, which is under the control of the government and to northern Aleppo, which is under the control of Türkiye-backed armed groups.

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

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

Aya Majzoub, Amnetsy International

A humanitarian worker operating in north-east Syria told Amnesty International: “The obstruction of aid is purely political. Türkiye and the Syrian National Army found that politicizing 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 International 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 International’s Crisis Evidence Lab verified details of a video filmed after the earthquake, likely in Jinderes, showing people believed to be SNA military police shooting in the air to disperse a crowd of people trying to pull aid boxes from the truck of a humanitarian organization.

The Syrian government also obstructed aid from reaching survivors deemed to be perceived as opposition. Interviewees in north-east Syria told Amnesty International that between 9 February and 22 February, the Syrian government had blocked 100 trucks of fuel, tents, food and medical supplies and equipment provided by the AANES and a local organization from entering the Kurdish neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh in Aleppo city.

Since August 2022, the Syrian government has imposed a brutal blockade on these two neighbourhoods, blocking fuel, food, medical supplies and other essential aid from reaching the tens of thousands of civilians who live there. Even before the earthquake, these neighbourhoods had all but exhausted their medical supplies, rendering them ill-equipped to deal with the casualties resulting from the earthquake.   

A member of the local council for Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafieh told Amnesty International that six people died and 100 were injured in the earthquakes amid a lack of access to medication and supplies. The council member added that, after the earthquakes they did not receive any fuel or humanitarian aid until 18 February.

Syrians for Truth and Justice, a local human rights organization, published a report documenting additional aid obstructions to northern Aleppo and Aleppo city by Türkiye-backed armed groups and the Syrian government, respectively, which they said led to preventable deaths, demonstrating the prevalent nature of these violations. The report also documents an incident of aid obstruction by Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of armed opposition groups, in north-west Syria.

Aid diversion

Survivors in both Aleppo city and Afrin described to Amnesty International how the delays or lack of aid they received since the earthquakes have exacerbated the already dire situation, forcing some to leave for other areas.

A humanitarian worker and local representative in north-east Syria told Amnesty International that it took seven days of negotiations for the Syrian government to allow 100 trucks carrying fuel and humanitarian aid sent by AANES 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 neighbourhoods.  

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 had hoped would arrive from AANES-controlled areas.

A displaced woman living in Sheikh Maqsoud since 2018 decided to leave with her three daughters to northern Syria after losing her home and belongings in the earthquakes. She told Amnesty International: “We knew if we stayed in Sheikh Masoud we wouldn’t receive any aid or shelter [due to the blockade] so I and many others left, but the men stayed behind out of fear of arrest by the government…”

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 criticizing the Syrian government’s aid distribution efforts and accusing the government of siphoning off aid were arrested.

In Afrin, five interviewees, including four survivors, told Amnesty International that they were aware of at least six instances 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 earthquake told Amnesty International that one needs 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 organization, 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 International that his uncle, mother and sister had to buy a tent for US$150 because they didn’t receive one through humanitarian organizations. He said: “An organization 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 organizations?” Local media stated 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 Türkiye and armed groups occupied the area. Now, our situation is worse. We are not receiving aid and, for 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 organization that interviewed members of the SNA further confirmed these accounts and told Amnesty International that armed groups pressured search and rescue teams to prioritize 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 to passing into areas under their control.

“Türkiye is the occupying power in Afrin, and therefore is responsible for the welfare of the civilian population and maintaining law and order. It has a legal obligation to ensure civilians in need receive essential humanitarian aid. And it must prevent armed groups from blocking aid or discriminating in its distribution,” said Aya Majzoub.