As WFP says it accelerates aid to quake-torn Syria, observers blame 'UN incompetence' and Russian spite for sluggish response

A United Nations aid convoy enters rebel-held northwestern Syria from Turkey through the Bab el-Hawa crossing on Feb. 9

 ROME – The UN World Food Programme claims it is accelerating its humanitarian response to help earthquake victims in northern Syria but observers say “UN incompetence” and Russian spitefulness are to blame for only two UN aid convoys reaching the area so far.

In a dispatch from northern Syria, the Times of London’s respected Middle East correspondent Richard Spencer wrote Friday that “the border crossings from nearby Turkey, which should be packed with lorries bringing food and fuel, stand idle, blocked by Russian spite and United Nations incompetence. The world cared enough to bomb them, but not to save them.”

“There is no logistical reason for aid not to arrive, only practical and political ones,” Spencer added, “the practical one is that the country best placed to help — Turkey — is grappling with an unimaginable crisis of its own.”

“The Turks are ready to allow through international aid convoys, but there aren’t any. The UN has sent just two, the second arriving yesterday — too late, even by the admission of the UN envoy, Geir Pedersen.”

“The main political difficulty is getting the UN to deliver aid to rebel-held areas. Russia, which has a veto on the UN security council, three years ago enforced a ban on the UN delivering any aid through the Bab al-Salama crossing, ten miles from Sawran. It wants it delivered by its ally, President Assad.”

“The only crossing left is at Bab al-Hawa, far to the west, controlled a jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Aid groups do use it, but with reluctance.”

Such difficulties and failings were glossed over in a WFP press statement released Friday entitled “WFP accelerates earthquake response in Syria and Turkey.”

“The World Food Programme (WFP) has delivered urgently needed food assistance to 115,000 people in Syria and Türkiye in the first four days since deadly earthquakes struck the region,” the WFP statement said.

“We’re providing mainly hot meals, ready-to-eat food rations and family food packages -- things that require no cooking facilities and can be consumed immediately,” said WFP Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Corinne Fleischer. “For the thousands of people affected by the earthquakes, food is one of the top needs right now and our priority is to get it to the people who need it fast.”

WFP is appealing for dlrs 77 million to provide assistance through food rations and hot meals for a total of 874,000 quake-affected people in Türkiye and Syria. This includes 284,000 newly displaced people in Syria and 590,000 people in Türkiye, which includes 45,000 refugees and 545,000 internally displaced people.

WFP said it “has reached a total of 43,000 people in Syria with hot meals and ready-to-eat rations. Thanks to prepositioned food inside the country, WFP has enough ready-to-eat rations for 100,000 people and enough stock of family rations to cover the needs of 1.4 million people for one month – the latter require cooking facilities and are ready for distribution. “

“In Northwest Syria, around 23,850 affected people received through WFP partners ready-to-eat food rations that last for one week. In Aleppo, 5,000 affected people received ready-to-eat food rations through partners, 6,000 people received hot meals for the fourth day running and 4,000 children received sandwiches at temporary shelters over the past 48 hours.”

 In Tartous and Lattakia governorates, coastal Syria, 1,500 affected people received ready-to-eat rations and 1,650 people at temporary shelters received sandwiches.

  While supplies have flowed into heavily damaged regions of neighboring Turkey, in Syria the areas hit are mainly controlled by anti-government forces that Syrian President Bashar al Assad has been battling since 2011.

 That has raised tensions over aid provision that have embroiled Turkey, Russia and the US and Europe amid longstanding international sanctions on Assad and his government for atrocities committed since the start of the conflict, leaving quake victims as pawns in the wider struggle over the Middle East state, Al Arabiya reported,

U S and European representatives clashed with their Russian counterpart over the sanctions at the closed-door talks in Geneva, according to a Middle East-based senior European diplomat who received the meeting’s minutes. A spokesperson for Pedersen’s office declined to comment.

 The US and its allies should immediately lift sanctions because their “politicized approach hinders the provision of aid to earthquake victims,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing Friday in Moscow. “We emphasize the need for urgent international assistance to Damascus in close coordination with the Syrian government.”

 Al Arabiya said that “The risk is Syria and Russia seek to spin the crisis in their favor as part of a disinformation campaign that’s distracting from the rescue efforts. Syrian government channels are spreading the message that US and European sanctions are impeding relief work, claims echoed in media outlets in Iran and Russia which both backed Assad in the conflict.”

 For thousands of Syrians whose lives have been shattered by the disaster and who urgently need assistance, the political maneuvering seems very distant from their concerns.

 “People are dying slowly,” said Ikram Habboush, a physician in Idlib, one of the worst hit areas. “We need help now however you bring it to us.”