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Aid groups are struggling to help areas under the control of the regime in Syrian

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Turning overseas, there is an extra challenge in getting earthquake aid to hard-hit Syria. It's caused by the strained relations between international donors and a regime still at war with some of its own people. Aid groups are having a tough time navigating the geopolitics to get help to areas controlled by opponents of the regime. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The U.N. has struggled for years to aid Syrians in the midst of the civil war, and the needs are skyrocketing in the wake of a devastating earthquake.

EL-MOSTAFA BENLAMLIH: We need generators. We need to replace and repair water pumps. We need to make sure that there is security.

KELEMEN: That's El-Mostafa Benlamlih, a U.N. official based in Syria's capital, who's trying to get help to areas in the north affected by the earthquake.

BENLAMLIH: Just this morning, even here in Damascus, we had snow. There, they have snow. They have freezing cold weather. And they're living in terrible situation.

KELEMEN: That includes areas controlled by the government and the opposition. The Syrian government has a track record of blocking aid to rebel-controlled areas and has always insisted that the aid comes through Damascus. The U.N. is only allowed to use one aid route from Turkey to reach an opposition-held area. And the U.N.'s regional humanitarian coordinator, Muhannad Hadi, is trying to make do.

MUHANNAD HADI: We are in the business of saving lives, so we ask for what we want, and we do with what we get. If they give us one crossing point, we will do our best to save lives with that. But we would like to have more flexibility to do more.

KELEMEN: The road used by U.N. aid workers from Turkey into northern Syria was damaged by the earthquake, though Hadi says some trucks are now poised to move in Thursday. Millions of Syrians uprooted by the war live just across the border and are dependent on outside aid, says Ammar al-Salmo, a volunteer with the Syrian White Helmets, a rescue group that operates in opposition areas.

AMMAR AL-SALMO: We did not expect help from the regime because the regime was the starving people before. So people did not expect to receive any help from the regime.

KELEMEN: Throughout the 12-year-long civil war in Syria, the government has besieged opposition-held cities, bombarded them and even used chemical weapons, as a recent U.N. report confirmed. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins addressed a Security Council meeting on that this week.

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BONNIE JENKINS: It is not lost on us that many of the Syrian first responders now pulling civilians from the rubble were just a few years ago helping civilians who had been burned or suffocated by the Assad regime's chemical weapons.

KELEMEN: Syria says it is U.S. sanctions that are hampering aid efforts. And Syria's ambassador to the U.N., Bassem Sabbagh, says his country is ready to aid all parts of the country.

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BASSAM SABBAGH: Any countries who wanted to provide the shelters, the food supply, the medications to the Syrians anywhere in Syria, we can help. We can support. We can work with.

KELEMEN: But he repeatedly brushed off questions about whether Syria would agree to open any other border crossings, calling that a matter of Syrian sovereignty.

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SABBAGH: Anything under our control is ready, and we are going to help on that.

KELEMEN: U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price says the U.S. will continue to work with its partners in Syria, and that does not include the government.

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NED PRICE: These partners who, unlike the Syrian regime, are there to help the people rather than brutalize them.

KELEMEN: U.N. officials are calling on everyone to put politics aside and think about the Syrian people first. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the State Department. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.