Background Media Brief / February 5, 2024

One year on, international failures cause deepening humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria say Syrian humanitarian and human rights groups

Background brief: Northwest Syria, one year after the earthquake

One year on, international failures cause deepening humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria say Syrian humanitarian and human rights groups

  • Regime bombs targeting civilians just weeks after the earthquake have been allowed to continue with impunity 

  • A massive funding shortfall and aid cuts trigger a deepening humanitarian crisis

  • Aid trucks into Northwest Syria at their lowest since 2018

One year on from the earthquake that struck Syria and Türkiye on 6 February 2023, Syrian humanitarian groups are warning that people in northwest Syria are enduring the worst crisis of the past 13 years. Intensified bombardment of quake-affected areas, a massive funding shortfall and reduced aid access have all combined to make the recovery efforts of heroic organizations on the ground close to impossible. 

The groups that were instrumental in responding to the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, only 12 months on, face funding shortfalls at a time when they need urgent support. Child protection network Hurras may have to end its education support to 15,000 students, while the White Helmets do not have enough funding to continue their earthquake recovery projects nor to keep their ambulances running throughout 2024.

Syrian humanitarians and human rights groups say the international community failed to respond immediately after the earthquake, and still one year on, it is failing the people of the northwest again. 

Organizations are calling for sustainable, flexible and direct funding in order to prevent an even greater disaster in northwest Syria. They’re demanding that aid delivery is taken out of the hands of Damascus where it is being used to punish and suppress a whole population.

They also reassert their call for an end to the bombing of schools, hospitals and homes.

Despite the catastrophe caused by the earthquake, the regime continued to target schools, hospitals, health centers, farmland and food production facilities throughout the year, with the first attack on civilians in the same month the earthquakes struck on 27 February. The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) reported 132 attacks in the two months following the earthquake and the White Helmets responded to 1,241 attacks by the Syrian regime, Russia and allied militias throughout 2023, an increase from 712 attacks in the previous year. 

Raed al-Saleh, head of Syria’s Civil Defence, the White Helmets, said:

“After the earthquake, White Helmets teams were left to rescue people from their homes without the tools we needed. Since then we have supported communities to recover by rehabilitating roads, schools and hospitals. But our communities are still under attack. In the months following the worst natural disaster of our lifetime, we have had to respond to the most aggressive military attacks in years. Our teams have had to constantly shift from tasks aimed towards recovery to emergency response to save the lives of civilians under attack, and to direct displaced civilians fleeing attacks to safety.”  

In the year since the earthquake hit, the World Food Programme has halted all general food assistance aid delivery across the whole of Syria as part of a global cut in food assistance following USAID cuts. It will continue some cash and nutrition support but 1.3 million people in the northwest have lost the food delivery they relied on when it ended in January 2024. 

The UN’s humanitarian response plan for the whole of Syria in 2023 was only 37.8% funded and the huge needs of people in the northwest far outstrip the direct funding to organizations responding.

Hurras Network, a child protection organization, faces an estimated 85% funding shortfall for education in 2024. It usually supports schools with operational expenses, staff salaries and essential training and coaching. But in 2024, it will need to cut funding to 70 schools, affecting 15,000 students, unless additional funding is secured. 

One year ago, the earthquakes damaged 434 schools in northwest Syria and left an additional 200,000 children without education, raising the number of school age children not attending school to 1 million. More than 30 schools were attacked in 2023, according to the White Helmets.

Abeer Khalil, a teacher at a Hurras-supported school in northwest Syria, said: 

“Some children have developed slurred speech, involuntary urination or endure nightmares. They now have learning difficulties because they are always on alert for any earthquake or bombing. Children are also living with injuries such as loss of hearing, sight, or movement. Children who lost their families have no one to get them to school anymore. The walls of the classrooms are cracked and many children dropped out of school as they don’t feel safe.”

“Despite everything we have lived through, we always remember that we and the children have a right to life. Our children have the right to learn in a safe environment without fear.”

Alaa Zaza, a founding member of Hurras Network, said:

“While we deeply appreciate the earthquake response support, now is not the time to look away from Syria. We are at the brink of leaving an entire generation behind. Children’s sectors are the lowest funded in Syria, and if funds continue to deteriorate, the consequences will be irreversibly catastrophic. We call for focusing on the underfunded sectors, mainly child protection and education, to prevent the undoing of years of progress in Syria. Sustaining the funding now will put the communities on the path of independent recovery and prevent the imminent collapse of the education system.”

In a year that required increased aid supplies, the regime weaponised the earthquake and took the opportunity to increase its control over cross border aid delivery, resulting in the average number of aid trucks entering Syria per month falling to just 400 in 2023, the lowest figure since 2018. 

Syrian groups say increasing cross-border aid delivery from neighboring countries is essential, without Syrian government or UN Security Council approval. 

The regime’s politicization of aid makes supporting Syrian organizations in the northwest all the more important. Women’s groups such as Women Now for Development are leading the way with their empowering model of support. They identified 15 grassroots initiatives already running in quake-affected camps, villages, and towns before providing training in areas such as safeguarding and finance to help them manage the project with autonomy. They supported women who were providing shelter, evacuation services, food, blankets, and modest financial assistance. 

Zeina Kanawati from Women Now for Development said:

“It’s essential to acknowledge the significant role these women-led initiatives have played in strengthening emergency response and community service during this severe crisis. This not only challenges the traditional view of women as mere recipients of aid but also showcases their ability to respond proactively, effectively, and dynamically.”

Ranim Ahmed, Communications Manager at The Syria Campaign, said: “The failed international response to the earthquake, which left Syrian groups on the ground alone to save lives in the critical days after the earthquake struck, has only been compounded by a year of neglect. The past year has seen no end to the suffering of civilians who are grieving the loss of thousands. Once again the regime proved its callous inhumanity by striking people already shaken to their core.

“World leaders have a moral responsibility to end their unbelievable indifference towards targeted attacks on civilians and to ensure adequate aid funding to avert the growing humanitarian crisis. At the end of a terrible year, the tireless work of Syrian civil society groups embedded in their communities is a ray of hope for Syrians, and sets an example for all of us. The world needs to come together to support their efforts.” 



An embargoed copy of a joint statement from Syrian civil society organizations is available upon request.

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  • The earthquakes caused almost 6000 deaths in Syria. In the northwest, more than 103,000 people were displaced and at least 10,500 buildings in Idlib and northern Aleppo collapsed.

  • According to the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), around 50,000 children between six and 59 months in northwest Syria are reportedly affected by moderate to severe malnutrition. The lack of food, warm clothing and insulation and heating also increases the risk of respiratory infections, hypothermia and preventable mortality among children and the elderly. There is also a heightened risk of cholera outbreaks due to poor living conditions, as 1.9 million people are living in overcrowded shelters without adequate sewage, drainage, electricity and water supply.

  • The UNFPA reports that the earthquakes resulted in the destruction of health facilities, leaving around 270,000 pregnant women without hospital access for childbirth. 

  • According to local organization, the Mazaya Centre for Women’s Empowerment, the breakdown of shelters and support centers has heightened the risks of violence and abuse against women.

The Syria Campaign is a human rights advocacy group supporting Syrian activists in the struggle for freedom and democracy