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Earthquake aid has been slow to reach Syria and enormous challenges remain

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

We just heard from Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He was describing last week's earthquake in Turkey and Syria as a once-in-generations event, warning that the situation could only get worse. For people in northern Syria who have already suffered through more than a decade of war, this is another major humanitarian crisis. The earthquake has left thousands dead. Tens of thousands are now homeless and in dire need of basic supplies. Aid has been slow to reach the region, and enormous challenges remain. Joining us now is Joel Rayburn. He's the former U.S. special envoy for Syria and the director of the American Center for Levant Studies. Good morning, sir.

JOEL RAYBURN: Good morning.

KHALID: So based on what you know, Joel, can you give us a sense of what this disaster looks like in northern Syria in the absence of international aid?

RAYBURN: Yes. You have large cities essentially rubbled to the ground. The extent of the damage is very similar to what has hit Antakya, Turkey, where a massive city that's just razed to the ground. The infrastructure has collapsed. People are - hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have lost their homes. They're sleeping out in streets or in buses or mosques with no shelter and so on. And all of the aid infrastructure that did exist there, the NGOs, has been damaged. A lot of their infrastructure has been wiped out. A lot of NGO workers have been killed or their families have been killed or wounded. So it's just an apocalyptic disaster.

KHALID: You know, international aid to Syria following this quake has been really slow. And the U.N., in fact, has admitted that it failed people in northern Syria. What's been the primary challenge in delivering aid?

RAYBURN: Well, the main obstacle to aid into northwest Syria, which is opposition-held territory for more than 10 years, has been the Assad regime itself. The Assad regime has basically besieged that area. They've been waging war even on the civilian populations of that area. So there's been no possibility for an aid infrastructure to come from within other parts of Syria itself. On top of that, the international aid has flowed largely through the U.N., and that was a decision that the United States and the EU and Turkey made over years was to essentially rely solely on the U.N. to deliver aid across the border from Turkey. The Russians have been able to use their Security Council veto to block the use for the U.N. agencies of all but one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa. And Bab al-Hawa, as Secretary Blinken said, was damaged.

KHALID: But we did get word right this morning that Syria, it seems, has apparently agreed to allow U.N. aid deliveries through two other border crossings from Turkey. Is that right?

RAYBURN: Yes. Now, that's a very curious situation because those are two border crossings that Assad doesn't hold. So his approval was not needed in order for Turkey and the rest of the international community to use those. So this looks to me - this has Russian fingerprints on it, that it was a demand that the Russians made to Secretary-General Guterres to publicly ask Assad for access to those border crossings as sort of a nod to Assad's national legitimacy. Meanwhile, the U.S. is seeking a Security Council resolution that would allow the U.N. agencies to use those crossings for an extended period of time, which they used to do. It was the Russians who blocked their usage in the first place.

KHALID: And our understanding is that these border crossings would be temporarily opened for at least three months. So what difference will that make in terms of allowing additional aid through?

RAYBURN: Well, it's huge because the main aid hub for international assistance going to northwest Syria is in the city of Gaziantep, a large Turkish city which was damaged in the earthquake but not as badly as Antakya. And the two border crossings that are closest to Gaziantep, they're within an hour's drive. Bab al-Salama and al-Rai are the two that the Russians have blocked the U.N. agencies from using for more than 2 1/2 years. So to open those back up mean aid can flow straight from Gaziantep down into the worst afflicted areas of northwest Syria. So it has to be done. It's just 90 days is not going to be enough. So it's right for the U.S. and our allies to seek a new Security Council authorization for them.

KHALID: All right. Joel Rayburn, thank you very much for taking the time. We appreciate it.

RAYBURN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.