WASHINGTON, DC - The global community has extended aid to Turkey and Syria following the devastating earthquakes that hit the region last Monday, resulting in tens of thousands of fatalities. While many countries have come forward to offer assistance, the United States has declined to provide any support to Syria. The State Department says that reaching out to the Syrian government would be counterproductive at this time.
The U.S. Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken, conveyed his condolences for the loss of life and directed his team to stay in touch with Turkish allies and humanitarian partners to assess the region's needs. Washington has assigned its humanitarian partners on the ground to assist in Syria in the aftermath of the earthquake. The U.S. claims to have provided more humanitarian aid to Syria in recent years than any other country, though no details were provided.
On Monday, a week since the quake, the death toll rose above 35,000, according to Turkey's Disaster and Emergency Management Agency, the White Helmets, also known as the Syria Civil Defense, and the Syrian government news agency SANA.
Turkey and Syria have received aid from various countries. Russia has sent over 100 emergency response specialists to the affected areas. However, the rescue efforts in Syria have been hampered by the damage inflicted on its infrastructure during the civil war and the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. The head of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has called for the lifting of these sanctions as they are obstructing relief efforts.
The U.S. cut ties with Damascus in 2011 as the nationwide protests escalated into a civil war, and since then, Washington has supported rebel factions in Syria, including jihadist groups. The U.S. and its allies control roughly one-third of Syrian territory, including oil-rich and fertile lands.
On social media, there have been calls for the lifting of sanctions against Syria and for the provision of humanitarian aid by countries that have held off providing support. A message posted on the U.S. State Department Facebook page by a Syrian late Tuesday called for the UN, its humanitarian agencies, the World Health Organization, and the governments of the EU and the U.S. to offer necessary aid and assistance to save the victims of the earthquake. The message warned that any delay could result in an increase in casualties and turn the situation into a catastrophe.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said at a press briefing on Monday, "it would be "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."
Price said the U.S. has "humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes."
Following is the full unedited transcript of questions relating to the earthquake in Turkey and Syria at Monday's press conference hosted by U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price:
QUESTION: It's just too devastating. I mean, I know you mentioned condolences and offers of help and so on, and you you just said that you stand in solidarity with our allies in Turkey and Syria. So you only stand in Syria with your with the Kurds, for instance? You don't stand with the rest of the Syrian people? Those are your allies.
MR PRICE: No, Said, that is not what I said. I said we stand in solidarity with Turkish allies. Of course, Turkey is an important NATO Ally.
QUESTION: Okay. I understand. Where you do stand in Syria?
MR PRICE: The United States is a partner to the people of Syria. We have provided more humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria than any other country going forward. We are committed to doing what we can on both sides of the border, to helping our Turkish allies respond in the first instance with rescue and recovery efforts. That effort will be underway soon with U.S. assistance, but also with funding for recovery and broader response efforts.
The same is true on the other side of the border, Said. We are determined to do what we can to address the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people. We've done that over the course of the 12-year civil war to the tune of billions of dollars. We do that through a different process. In Turkey, we have a partner in the government; in Syria, we have a partner in the form of NGOs on the ground who are providing humanitarian support.
QUESTION: Well, let me just follow up on this because the Syrian Government, as far as I know, it's a government that you still recognize. You have never unrecognized the Syrian Government. So why not reach out to the Syrian Government? They are in power. They're the ones that run these rescue operations or aid operations and so on. It would be a great gesture. Another gesture would be to sort of the lift the sanctions that have basically suffocated Syria.
MR PRICE: Said, I'm going to resist the temptation to go into your advocacy rather than questioning. But I will make the point that 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.
Instead, we have humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes, but these humanitarian partners who have been active on the ground since the earliest days of the civil war. This is a regime, Said, that has never shown any inclination to put the welfare, the well-being, the interests of its people first. Now that its people are suffering even more, we're going to continue doing what has proven effective over the course of the past dozen years or so: providing significant amounts of humanitarian assistance to partners on the ground. These partners, who unlike the Syrian regime, are there to help the people rather than brutalize them.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on that?
QUESTION: Listen, and I apologize for missing the top, how exactly would it be ironic?
MR PRICE: To use this as an opportunity to reach out to a regime that has brutalized its people when its people are in an even more dire situation.
QUESTION: Okay. Well, all right. Maybe I'm not maybe my understanding of the word irony is a little bit different. Anyway, did you guys begin with this or with China?
MR PRICE: It's a long story, but -
QUESTION: I tried to.
QUESTION: It's a long story?
QUESTION: On unofficial initial assistance, we also heard Kirby say that the two rescue teams are going to Turkey. Have they left the country? When are they going to be there? And do you know how the process is going to go forward, where they will leave from?
MR PRICE: So I don't have specific details on where they will deploy from, but my colleague at the White House did make reference to two teams, two rescue and recovery teams that will be traveling to Turkey in the coming days, two teams of 78 individuals. That's one element of our response.
There is a broader element of our response. We're looking at additional funding resources that we have available, again, for both sides of the border. Secretary Blinken did think it was important of course to speak to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu as soon as he could today. They've just got off the phone a few minutes ago. The Secretary offered his profound condolences on the loss of life, the destruction throughout large swaths of Turkey. The imagery that we've all seen is just searing; it's harrowing. And unfortunately the death toll, we can all expect, will only climb in the coming days.
So we are going to remain committed to do what we can to support our Turkish allies just as we're going to remain committed to do what we can to support the people of Syria who have also been affected by this.
QUESTION: I'd also like to thank, just like Humeyra did, for the great response in the first hours of the disaster because it's really grim, looking grim out there. And we heard from Kirby, just like my colleague pointed out, that two 79-person rescue teams are being dispatched to Turkey at the moment. And the Secretary's message was that in the coming days, weeks, and months we're determined to do any and everything that we can, so what's on the table if you could elaborate on that a little bit? You said that perhaps as well as the humanitarian assistance, likely what could be on the table? What was discussed? Because obviously we know that the United States has massive resources and experience in dealing with such natural disasters.
MR PRICE: Absolutely. So I think you have to look at this is discrete phases. In the first phase that will unfold in the coming days is a phase of rescue and recovery. And that's why, as you heard from the White House, we are dispatching two teams of individuals who will work with our Turkish allies on that rescue and recovery effort. It is our fervent hope that the rescue and recovery effort is able to save as many lives, to pull people from the rubble, to focus on that near-term priority to stabilize buildings, to pull people, and to again potentially save as many lives as possible.
Over the longer term in the coming days, weeks, and months, as the Secretary's statement alluded to, there is going to be a massive rebuilding and reconstruction effort that is that will need to be underway across Turkey. The Secretary in the senior staff meeting this morning directed his team to look across various accounts to see what funding we might have available, what other resources we might have available, to help our Turkish allies, to help through NGO partners on the ground the people of Syria.
This is very early hours, but we are going to be focused on this. We are also going to remain in touch with our Turkish counterparts. It was so important for the Secretary to speak to his foreign minister counterpart, Foreign Minister Cavusoglu, in the first instance to offer condolences and to make clear to Foreign Minister Cavusoglu that anything Turkey needed that we could provide, they should pick up the phone and let us know. We stand ready as an ally should to help our ally in a time of need. Similarly, when it comes to the people of Syria, we stand ready as a partner and oftentimes the leading funding partner to the NGOs that are on the ground inside of Syria to be a partner to them and their efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people.
QUESTION: May I follow up on Turkey, please?
MR PRICE: Sure.
QUESTION: There are reports about communication outages, blackouts in particularly in the south in parts like Hatay and other areas. Is there anything the U.S. Government can do at this point to mitigate communication problems?
And secondly, any report, any information about the U.S. citizens being damaged, being affected by the latest -
MR PRICE: Any reports of?
QUESTION: U.S. citizens being affected. I don't know if maybe you can add up a little bit about the embassy's efforts like that.
MR PRICE: Sure. So a couple things on that. Of course we are focused on the safety and security of Americans who may be in Turkey. We did an accountability exercise for our team, our staff on the ground. We have full accountability of our team members. Of course we're also going to have to do structural assessments of our facilities that are in regions that have been hit by this.
I should also add as a form of our assistance and this gets back to your first question, Alex our facility in Adana is going to be in a position to host others who are coming to facilitate and to help the rescue efforts. So we're going to open our doors. We are going to open our collective wallet, as it were, to help Turkey in any way that we can, to help the people of Syria in any appropriate way that we can.
When it comes to the specifics of this, it's again very early hours. We've talked about what we're prepared to do when it comes to rescue and recovery. But this will be a comprehensive effort that goes well beyond rescue and recovery, to include rebuilding, to include addressing the significant challenges, including the communication challenges, the infrastructure challenges that our allies are likely to find going forward.
QUESTION: When you say -
QUESTION: When you say your mission in Adana is going to open the doors to others, like, U.S. rescue teams or any -
MR PRICE: To other countries who are prepared to assist in this effort.
QUESTION: And when you say it's full accountability, do you mean they're all safe?
MR PRICE: That's correct. Now, the -
QUESTION: Okay, because full accountability can also mean -
MR PRICE: Oh, yes no, of course. They our -
QUESTION: - that their deaths -
MR PRICE: Our staff on the ground after our accountability exercise was deemed to be safe. Now, the tragic reality is that the death toll of this earthquake is likely to continue to climb in the coming days. Our consular team, consular officials on the ground, they've been in touch with the American citizen community. As of earlier today, we had not yet confirmed the deaths of Americans, but I think we're all realistic, we're all very sober about the implications of this and the fact that many countries, many nationalities are likely to be implicated, just given the massive toll and destruction that this earthquake has caused.
QUESTION: So can we go to China, or back to China, as it were?
MR PRICE: Anything else on Turkey?
QUESTION: Can you get into some more detail on how U.S. is scaling up support for NGO partners in Syria? Groups like the White Helmets have the equipment but say they're running out of diesel. Is the U.S., for example, going to attempt to send partners diesel across Bab al-Hawa, which the road into which has reportedly been damaged? Can you speak to any of those logistical challenges?
MR PRICE: Well, again, we're in the very early phases of this so I don't want to get too far ahead of where we are, what we may be in a position to do. But I will expect that we'll have additional details on that going forward. What is important and this was true even before the earthquakes of the past hours but is certainly true now is that humanitarian crossings need to remain open. The people of Syria need humanitarian access. NGO actors, these organizations, many of whom have been active in parts of Syria over the course of a dozen years now, need to have access to be able to go back and forth across the border, to deliver the humanitarian assistance that the United States was providing before this earthquake and the humanitarian assistance that we'll be in a position to provide after the earthquake as well.
QUESTION: (Off-mike.) You mentioned that the Secretary called his Turkish counterpart as soon as he could. Is there any reason why it took this long? He just got off the phone why not last night? Why not this morning?
MR PRICE: Alex, these are scheduling issues on both sides. We put in a call request very early. We wanted to make clear to our Turkish allies that the Secretary was ready, willing, and available to be on the phone, and they were able to connect just a little while ago.
QUESTION: I'm sorry if you more on Turkey?
QUESTION: No, I was going to ask about China.
QUESTION: Okay, so go ahead.