The death toll from the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria is now at least 19,738, according to authorities.
In Turkey, the death toll has risen to at least 16,546, with 66,132 others reported injured, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday.
The total number of deaths in Syria climbed to at least 3,192 — including 1,930 in rebel-held areas in the northwest, according to the White Helmets civil defense group — and 1,262 deaths in government-controlled parts of Syria, according to Syrian state media.
The total number of injured people in Syria across all affected territories rose to 5,158, with 2,258 in government-controlled and 2,900 in the rebel-held areas.
At least 71,290 people have been injured in Syria and Turkey, according to figures from the Turkish government, the White Helmets and Syrian state media.
The first United Nations convoy carrying emergency aid to a rebel-held area of Syria stricken three days ago by a deadly earthquake crossed from Turkey on Thursday, Reuters reported.
The trucks, with materials from jerrycans to blankets, went via the Bab Al Hawa crossing to Idlib city in an area of northwest Syria where 4 million people, many uprooted by civil war, had relied on aid even before Monday’s quake.
“We need life-saving aid,” U.N. envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen told reporters in Geneva.
“It’s desperately needed by civilians wherever they are, irrespective of borders and boundaries. We need it urgently through the fastest, most direct and most effective routes. They need more of absolutely everything.”
With frustration rising at the slow delivery of aid, Turkish officials said they would open other crossing points into Syria in two days if security was sound.
‘Secondary disaster’ looms
Survivors of Monday’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria could face “a secondary disaster” as cold and snow lead to “worsening and horrific conditions,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) said Thursday.
Speaking at a press conference in Geneva, WHO incident response manager Robert Holden warned there were “a lot of people” surviving “out in the open, in worsening and horrific conditions.”
“We’ve got major disruptions to basic water supplies, we’ve got major disruption to fuel, electricity supplies, communication supplies, the basics of life,” Holden said.
“We are in real danger of seeing a secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster if we don’t move with the same pace and intensity as we are doing on the search and rescue side,” Holden added.
Syria requests EU support for the first time after earthquake
In a gear switch, Syria has, for the first time, asked for assistance from the European Union, two days after a devastating earthquake killed more than 11,000 people there. In neighbouring Turkey, the European Commission said on Wednesday.
The EU said it would provide additional support to both countries and humanitarian assistance worth 6.5 million euros ($7 million) in one of the largest ever search and rescue operations through its Civil Protection Mechanism.
“We have received a request from the government of Syria for assistance through the civil protection mechanism,” European Commissioner for crisis management Janez Lenarcic said.
Lenarcic told reporters that EU member states were being encouraged to contribute with assistance as requested.
An EU official said the 27-member bloc would need enough safeguards to ensure that the aid provided effectively reached those in need and that the provision of any future EU assistance would not go un-monitored.
Earthquake in Syria offers leverage to isolated Assad
President Bashar al-Assad is seeking political advantage from an earthquake that has devastated large parts of Syria and Turkey, pressing for foreign aid to be delivered through his territory as he aims to chip away at his international isolation, analysts say.
Amid an outpouring of sympathy for the Syrians hit by the earthquake, Damascus has seized the moment to reiterate its long-standing demand for aid to be coordinated with his government, shunned by the West since Syria’s war began in 2011.
Western powers have shown no sign they are ready to meet that demand or re-engage with Assad, but his hand has been strengthened by difficulties facing cross-border aid flows into Syria’s rebel-held northwest from Turkey.
The aid flows, critical to 4 million people in the area, have been temporarily halted since the earthquake, although a U.N. official expressed hope they could resume on Thursday. Damascus has long said aid to the rebel enclave in the north should go via Syria not across the Turkish border.
“Clearly, there is some kind of opportunity in this crisis for Assad, for him to show ‘you need to work with me or through me’,” said Aron Lund, a Syria expert at the Century Foundation.
“If he is smart, he would facilitate aid to areas outside his control and get a chance to look like a responsible actor, but the regime is very stubborn.”
The West has long shunned Assad, citing his government’s brutality during more than 11 years of civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, uprooted more than half the population, and forced millions abroad as refugees.
But the frontlines have been frozen for years, and Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, controls the biggest part of the fractured country.
The U.S. State Department has shot down the suggestion that the earthquake could be an opportunity for Washington to reach out to Damascus, saying it will still provide aid to Syrians in government-held areas via NGOs on the ground, not the government.
“It would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now – gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told a briefing this week.
Still, the leaders of some U.S.-aligned Arab states have been in touch with Assad since the disaster, including Jordan’s king and the presidents of the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.
On the government front
Damascus is renewing its campaign to end the sanctions due to the earthquake.
The People’s Assembly called on the international community to immediately and urgently lift the unjust siege and unilateral coercive measures imposed on the Syrian people and to provide a hand to limit the effects of the devastating earthquake that hit the country.
In a statement issued on Thursday, the Assembly called on all UN member states, and all regional and international federations and parliamentary bodies and international and regional organizations concerned with human rights to assume their moral and humanitarian responsibilities and adhere to the charters and principles of the UN and the Human Rights Charter.
“The devastating earthquake left behind hundreds of victims and thousands of injured, in addition to the displacement of a large number of families from their areas of residence, in addition to demolition and cracking of thousands of buildings and houses, and severe damage to vital facilities and infrastructure”, the statement noted.
President Assad received more cables of support from leaders around the world.
The list includes the President of the Republic of Armenia, Vahagn Khachaturyan and the President of the Republic of Turkmenistan, Serdar Berdimuhamedow, the President of Bangladesh, Mohammed Abdul Hamid; and the President of the Republic of Senegal, Macky Sall.
Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Dubai Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum offered President Assad his sincere condolences and sympathy, asking God Almighty to bless the victims with mercy and give their families patience.
Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, Chairperson of the Sovereign Council and Commander-in-Chief of the Sudanese Armed Forces affirmed his country’s solidarity with Syria and its readiness to assist to counter the effects of the earthquake.
Assad also received a phone call from Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, in which he expressed his condolences and his country’s solidarity with Syria for what it suffered due to the earthquake.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani also offered his sincere condolences during a telephone conversation with President al-Assad, indicating Iraq’s readiness to continue providing assistance to support the Syrian government’s efforts in rescue and relief operations for the people of the affected areas.
Later, President al-Assad also received a phone call from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, during which he offered sincere condolences to President al-Assad, the Syrian people and the victims’ families, wishing quick recovery for the injured.
President Abbas affirmed that the Palestinian leadership and the people of Palestine stand by their Syrian brothers and are ready to assist.