It was exactly 12 years ago Wednesday that peaceful demonstrations began in Syria, as people inspired by the Arab Spring movement in neighboring countries took to the streets to demand change after decades of rule under the dictator Bashar al-Assad. The protesters likely never dreamed that their peaceful demonstrations could descend into a civil war that would rage for more than a decade.
A U.K.-based monitoring group says it has documented more than 503,000 lives claimed in the conflict, including more than 162,000 civilians. More than 13 million people have been forced to flee their homes, and an estimated 15 million are now relying on humanitarian assistance.
The Syrians who survived the rise and fall of ISIS, ground battles, shelling, air raids and explosions of the complex war — in which Russia backs their government and the U.S. and its allies have supported rebel forces — then had to contend with the coronavirus pandemic.
The unending disasters kept many families moving from place to place in search of safety, especially in the war-torn north, where some cities have been reduced to rubble by their own government forces and Russia's.
Then, on February 6, survivors already exhausted and vulnerable from the war were dealt another blow when huge earthquakes rocked the region.
In the space of a single day, without any warning, thousands of Syrians once again found themselves homeless. Civilian aid groups say 250,000 people were newly displaced by the earthquakes, and they are still stuck in more than 1,800 makeshift camps and shelters in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo.
Northern Syria was already crippled from the war, and with much of the ground still held by rebel forces, search and rescue operations after the quakes fell solely on the White Helmets, a volunteer civil defense organization that operates across northern Syria.
"More than 40,000 families have lost their homes and need us to heal their wounds and give them support," White Helmets Director Raed Al-Saleh told CBS News.
Unequipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude, the group quickly turned to the international community for help, but its leaders say they were neglected by the world.
The United Nations has come under significant criticism over the response, and Al-Saleh said the global body should accept some of the blame "from rescue workers who lost their nails while trying to save those trapped under the rubble and from families of victims grieving for their children."
The U.N. has accepted that it took too long to get help into northern Syria. Those delays were due in large part to the ongoing war. It took U.N. officials and others a week to convince the Assad regime to open two additional border crossings into the rebel-held north. Only one had been in operation when the quakes struck. Opposition factions have also been accused of hindering the flow of aid, including by stealing it and then selling it on the black market.
In a report published Monday, an independent U.N.-backed commission acknowledged "a complete failure by the government and the international community including the United Nations to rapidly direct urgent lifesaving aid for northwest Syria" after the earthquakes, with one of the commissioners, Paul Pinheiro, noting that "many days were lost without any aid to survivors."
Pinheiro said northwest Syria had become an "epicenter of neglect."
The report from the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria called for a formal investigation into why it took so long to get the additional border crossings open — and for a "comprehensive cease-fire that is fully respected" to allow aid work to continue and civilians to live in safety.
Far from a cease-fire, however, the earthquakes may have prolonged the Syrian peoples' suffering on account of the war. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), a U.K.-based monitoring organization that's relied on a network of contacts inside the country to report on the war for years, claimed Tuesday that Iran's military had taken advantage of the post-quake chaos to smuggle advanced weapons into Syria.
The detailed SOHR report could not be independently verified by CBS News, but Iran backs some of the militias operating in northern Syria, close to the Turkish border, which have battled government forces and other rebel groups in recent years.
The earthquakes claimed some 50,000 lives in Turkey and at least 6,000 more in Syria. But in Syria the temblors compounded what was already a miserable existence for hundreds of thousands of people, many of them now stuck in the frigid displacement camps.
"Syria was not in ruins only because it was struck by a massive earthquake. Syria has been under the rubble for 12 years, since the world turned a blind eye to the Assad regime and Russia dropping barrel bombs, carrying out air strikes and dropping chemical weapons on residential neighborhoods," the White Helmets' Al-Saleh told CBS News.
After the slow start, aid has flowed into northern Syria, with the U.N. saying last week that more than 600 trucks carrying emergency humanitarian goods from eight of the global body's agencies had entered since the earthquakes struck.
The director of the White Helmets acknowledged "a noticeable improvement" in support from the U.N., but he stressed that humanitarian needs were still mounting fast due to quake-damaged infrastructure and the persistent lack of necessities in the makeshift camps.
Aid workers warned recently that the lack of basic hygiene and fresh water in the camps had allowed a cholera outbreak to spread, with at least 22 people confirmed dead from the disease since late last year.
Vaccination efforts have also ramped up, with health officials in Idlib province claiming to have administered more than half a million doses as of this week.
"This earthquake was the largest natural disaster that Syria has seen in decades," Al-Saleh told CBS News. "In the early days the focus was on those trapped under the rubble. But now, a month later, we have to deal with those who are still stuck — but on top of the rubble."
CBS News correspondent Pamela Falk at the United Nations contributed to this report.