Editor’s Note: Raed Al Saleh is head of The White Helmets, a group of nearly 3,000 volunteers working to save lives and strengthen communities in Syria. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.
It’s been an entire week since the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria — seven days of horror and heartache on a scale we did not experience even in the darkest hours of the Syrian conflict.
Our team of White Helmets volunteer rescue workers in northwest Syria have been working around the clock night and day, pulling survivors from the rubble and searching for signs of life — with virtually no help from the outside world.
Our hope of finding survivors has faded. As we pull more dead bodies from the rubble, my heart breaks for every soul that could have been saved and was needlessly lost because we did not get the help we needed in time.
We are the only organization here with the equipment and training to undertake heavy search and rescue. The volunteers have been doing the impossible, and I am humbled by their selflessness and dedication.
While Martin Griffiths, the UN undersecretary for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, hailed the search and rescue efforts after the earthquake as “unparalleled in history,” in northwest Syria we were left to do what we could with limited existing equipment and manpower. Let me be clear: The White Helmets received no support from the United Nations during the most critical moments of the rescue operations, and even now we have no promise of assistance to restore our operational capacity and help the recovery and rehabilitation efforts.
On Sunday, I met with Griffiths, who acknowledged that the UN had let down people in northwest Syria by failing to act promptly. “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived,” Griffiths said on Twitter on Sunday.
After the earthquake struck, it was four days before any international aid started to trickle into northwest Syria via the single border crossing authorized for UN aid deliveries at Bab al-Hawa. The first delivery of aid carrying tents, shelter materials and basic relief items had been scheduled before the earthquake. There was nothing to help with our rescue efforts.
The UN’s failure to respond quickly to this catastrophe is shameful. When I asked the UN why help had failed to arrive in time, the answer I received was bureaucracy. In the face of one of the deadliest catastrophes to strike the world in years, it seems the UN’s hands were tied by red tape.
Griffiths told Sky News over the weekend that the UN was asking the Security Council to authorize aid access through two additional border crossings, a misguided approach that wasted precious time. Legal analysts and scholars have argued against it, and humanitarian organizations say the need is too high for aid entry to be politicized.
The United Nations needs to do better. Something is clearly broken if the very system that was set up to protect and save human lives during an emergency leaves children to die under the rubble as precious minutes and hours pass.
The UN announced on Monday that the Bashar al-Assad regime had agreed to open two more crossing points into northwest Syria for three months for humanitarian aid. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said opening these crossing points “will allow more aid to go in, faster.”
Assad’s intervention is a cynical move that has come far too late. The UN’s insistence on waiting for the Syrian regime’s permission — the very regime that has bombed, gassed, starved, forcibly displaced and imprisoned millions of Syrians — is unforgivable. It is no secret that the Syrian regime is not a credible partner in addressing the suffering of all Syrians in a neutral and impartial manner.
For years the Assad regime with the help of its ally Russia has weaponized humanitarian aid and sought to tighten access to humanitarian aid for civilians in the northwest despite the fact that even before the earthquake, roughly 4.5 million people were facing a desperate humanitarian crisis.
Time and again Russia has used its veto at the Security Council to shut border crossings, reducing the routes for delivery of cross-border aid via Turkey to a single entry. Opening additional crossings on a temporary basis is not enough — more cross-border routes were already sorely needed.
We cannot forgive the United Nations for once again turning its back on Syrian civilians in their hour of need.
As we searched through the rubble of thousands of buildings, it was the local affected communities that helped us most: lending their cars and heavy vehicles to the response, helping to dig, and donating fuel they could have used to keep themselves warm.
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They are struggling to deal with the new challenges this earthquake has brought. Syrians need and deserve more support. Our local organizations and local response deserve recognition and funding.
There is no more time to waste. The UN secretary-general must have the vision and leadership to put himself on the right side of history. The Security Council and the regime should not be used to restrict humanitarian aid access in the future. Guterres should immediately ensure that the United Nations and international aid agencies have unhindered humanitarian access to ensure more lives are not lost.