The Syrian government has yet to accept offers of help from the European Union, four days after the earthquake that has killed more than 18,000 in neighbouring Turkey and at least 3,300 in Syria, an EU representative told The National.
Syrian authorities on Wednesday activated the EU’s humanitarian disaster response programme, called the civil protection mechanism. Its request included search and rescue teams, shelter and medicine.
This was followed a day later by a similar request filed by the World Food Programme, a UN agency.
Since the two requests were lodged, four countries — Austria, Finland, Italy and Romania — have put forward in-kind assistance, including shelter, medical and various non-food items.
By Friday afternoon neither Damascus nor the WFP had formally accepted their offers, meaning the aid remains on standby despite urgent need and freezing temperatures in the earthquake zone.
Ultimate approval must come from local authorities.
“To send assistance and rescue teams into any country, you need the permission of the affected country,” said Balazs Ujvari, EU Commission spokesman for humanitarian aid and crisis management.
“Until today, the EU civil protection mechanism did not have such a request,” he told The National.
For EU countries, shipping aid via the WFP is meant to alleviate concerns of misappropriation and ensure it is distributed in both government and non-government-controlled areas.
They would still have the option, however, to send aid directly to the Syrian government led by Bashar Al Assad, since it has also made a request for help.
Janez Lenarcic, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, told a press conference in Turkey on Thursday that the EU wants assistance to be distributed in a “fair and accountable manner”.
Mr Ujvari, his spokesman, said: “Given the record of oppression of Syrian people by the Assad regime, we of course need sufficient safeguards in place to ensure that the aid provided via UCPM [the EU's civil protection mechanism] would reach the people in need.”
UN and EU officials have repeatedly said helping Syrians is more difficult than supporting Turkey because of the civil war that has lasted for more than a decade.
Large parts of the country remain outside of government control, including the rebel-held north-west, an active war zone near the earthquake’s epicentre in Turkey.
Complicating matters, the UN Security Council has authorised only one border crossing for humanitarian assistance between Turkey and north-western Syria.
“It would be much easier to provide our assistance if all available border crossing points were authorised,” said Mr Lenarcic.
He rejected accusations made by Syrian officials that western sanctions had blocked aid from reaching earthquake victims.
“Nothing in our sanctions regime prohibits or in any other way hampers the delivery of humanitarian assistance,” he said.
Unlike Syria, which waited three days to make a request for the EU to trigger its civil protection mechanism, Turkey activated it immediately after the earthquake. Brussels has sent more than 1,600 rescue and medical personnel from 25 countries.
The National understands that the Syrian activation request was addressed by the Syrian embassy in Beirut to the local EU delegation.
So far, only EU aid which was already inside Syria and could be diverted from already existing stockpiles with local partners, including the UN, has reached those affected by the earthquake in the country.
"As an immediate response, our humanitarian partner organisations on the ground reprioritised their activities and contributed to the search and rescue efforts and also provided a range of essential services such as water and sanitation support, shelter and hygienic items," said Mr Ujvari.
The EU is the foremost humanitarian donor for Syria with an annual budget of around €150 million ($160.5 million). On top of this, the bloc announced an extra €3.5 million ($3.7 million) specifically to Syria to help its partners on the ground after the earthquake.
"We are working on channelling in additional humanitarian assistance through our humanitarian partners in every possible way," added Mr Ujvari.
Aid from the UN started trickling into north-western Syria on Thursday after extensive damage to roads was reportedly repaired by Turkish authorities, yet it did not include the rescue teams and diggers for which many had been asking.
Many survivors have been digging out their dead alone, sometimes by hand, with no international support.
The White Helmets, the only emergency response organisation operating in the north-west of Syria, told The National its volunteers were overstretched and desperately needed help.
UN officials say the possibility of finding survivors alive under the rubble decreases significantly one week after an earthquake.