This joint report documents a wide range of human rights violations that accompanied and followed the humanitarian response to the catastrophic earthquake that shook Syria on 6 February 2023.
These violations and abuses included discriminatory search-and-rescue orders from some parties to the conflict, prevention or impediment of life-saving aid entry, discrimination in aid distribution, confiscation of all or parts of aid provisions, trading in and profiteering from others, and/or the diversion of their destination. Additionally, several violations of housing, land, and property (HLP) rights were recorded as have occurred in tandem with aid-related breaches.
The various parties to the Syrian conflict were involved in these violations. Türkiye shut down its border crossings with Syria for the first 48 hours after the tremors. The Government of Syria (GOS) waited an entire week before it consented to life-saving cross-border aid access. The GOS and the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) both impeded cross-line aid to affected communities, while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) rejected cross-line aid to northwestern Syria, which the United Nations (UN) attempted to facilitate.
At the same time, the slow response to the earthquake revealed the shortcomings of the cross-border aid delivery mechanism mandated by the UN Security Council in Syria and revealed the urgent need for alternatives. Nearly a week after the quake, the UN admitted it had “failed” to deliver adequate aid to Syria.
Notably, the military and administrative control in Syrian provinces worst affected by the quake is mapped as follows:
- Western Syria: The provinces of Latakia and Hama are entirely controlled by the GOS and its forces.
- Northern Syria: The province of Aleppo comprises of several enclaves:
- The Turkish-backed SNA maintains military control over the northern and northwestern parts of the province—including the Afrin region, Jarabulus, al-Bab, and A’zaz, leaving their civil administration to the Syrian Interim Government (SIG).
- The GOS and its forces maintain control over the southern parts of the province.
- The Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) maintains a presence in the al-Shahbaa area, which includes several camps for internally displaced people (IDPs).
- Northwestern Syria: The HTS controls greater Idlib militarily, leaving the civil administration to its affiliated Salvation Government (SG).
On 15 March 2023, the World Bank published a statistical assessment of the quake’s impact. The report demonstrates that “6.6 million Syrians, approximately 31 percent of the country’s population, live in locations where the earthquake intensity reached level VI (strong shaking) or higher . . . Governorates most affected, both in terms of population and intensity, are Idlib and Aleppo. In Idlib, 2.2 million individuals live in areas affected by strong earthquake intensity and 571,000 in areas of very strong/severe intensity. Corresponding figures in Aleppo are 3.5 million (strong intensity) and 200,000 (very strong/severe). Focusing on very strong and severe intensity areas only, the most affected districts are Afrin (Aleppo governorate), Harem and Idlib (Idlib governorate).”
Fatality figures in the hit areas either show discrepancies or are under-reported. In northern Syria, casualty statistics remain conflicted. The Syria Civil Defense (White Helmets) recorded 2,247 deaths, while the Response Coordination Group (RCG) recorded 3,467 deaths and the SIG 4,525 deaths. In the GOS-held areas, the health minister provided a provisional count on 14 February 2023, announcing 1,414 deaths and 2,357 injuries.
In the above-cited assessment report , the World Bank also records the level of decimation in the housing sector in hit areas. The bank documents the partial damage or destruction of 49,778 housing units in GOS-held areas and 23,579 units in opposition-held areas, including 17,302 units in Idlib province and 64,724 units in Aleppo province. The bank stresses that the cities of Jindires, A’zaz, and Harim were the most impacted in terms of housing unit loss.
|In its approach, the report builds on the testimonies of direct and indirect victims of the quake and the violations perpetrated by the different parties in the conflict during and after the response in the three sectors mapped out. Additionally, the report corroborates the victim testimonies with the accounts of a diverse group of sources, among them civilian volunteer rescuers, relief workers, and militants from the opposition’s armed groups, who controlled the response operations almost entirely in the areas where they are stationed.|
Notably, the report pays special attention to northwestern Syria, given its unique demographic, military, and administrative context. The region has a demographically mixed population, especially in the former Kurdish-majority region of Afrin, including Jindires city. Afrin struggles to preserve its local communities despite the massive waves of forced displacement these communities witnessed in the aftermath of the Turkish-led Operation Olive Branch in 2018. Additionally, Afrin is home to a large number of IDPs displaced from elsewhere in Syria, particularly areas across Rif Dimashq (Damascus’ Countryside). These IDPs fled their homes, also escaping military hostilities.
Militarily, Türkiye exercises effective control over the region as an “occupying power” through its proxies of the SNA-affiliated factions, leaving the region’s administrative affairs to the SIG and its local councils, which operate only nominally.
Türkiye’s military control of the region affected the dynamics of the earthquake response and severely hindered life-saving operations. Türkiye assigned the response management to the SNA factions—which have perpetrated countless documented violations over the past years. Additionally, several of the report’s sources stressed that SIG-affiliated local councils in the region were inactive and incapable of responding to the catastrophe for their lack of autonomy and subordination to Turkish government institutions, including the Disaster and Emergency Management (AFAD).
On 18 March 2023, Syria Direct published an investigation probing into this relation of subordination. The lengthy report reveals that local councils in the Afrin region are administratively bound to the Turkish provinces of Gaziantep, Urfa, and Kilis, not the SIG. Additionally, the report demonstrates that AFAD forces those wishing to assist camps in Aleppo’s countryside to coordinate with it. Several anonymous sources told the outlet that “there is an AFAD administration that includes two or three Turks, and nobody can live in or leave the camp without their consent.” The report highlights that AFAD’s consent is vital for work in Turkish-held areas, uncovering that “[it] was absent from the scene in the first 20 days after the earthquake . . . [which] caused poor coordination between local organizations working on the ground in the area since AFAD is the one that directs their teams’ work.”
In addition to dysfunctional response mechanisms under Türkiye’s influence, Turkish soldiers fired shots in the air to disperse and expel civilians, who sought the Turkish military outpost in Tal Slour village, on the outskirts of Jindires city in Afrin’s countryside, to request that the military uses the machinery on site in rescue operations, according to several of the report’s direct testimonies.
Within this perspective, the partner organizations recommend that the concerned entities conduct an independent and transparent investigation into delayed or blocked humanitarian aid designated to northern and northwestern Syria in particular, whether by UN institutions or as a consequence of the impediments by parties to the conflict, including the GOS, the opposition SNA, and the HTS. Additionally, concerned entities must take effective measures to hold those responsible, individuals or groups, accountable and to ensure the non-recurrence of this situation.
Additionally, the partners demand that concerned entities establish an effective monitoring mechanism to ensure non-discrimination and non-partiality during aid distribution in Syria, to prevent the confiscation of shares of aid provisions by the parties to the conflict, to stop the politicization of aid distribution, and to guarantee that all Syrians have equal access to aid.
Moreover, the partners demand that concerned entities allocate special attention to HLP rights in quake-hit areas and ensure that humanitarian aid allocations and donations, donors are to pledge during the 2023 Brussels conference, will not contribute to effecting additional demographic changes or perpetuate those underway.
 World Bank. Syria Earthquake 2023: Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment (English). Washington, D.C.: World Bank. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/099093003162314369/P1721710e2b4a60b40a5940f0793f8a0d24
 IBID, World Bank. Syria Earthquake 2023.