4 min read
In the Wake of the 6 February Earthquake in Syria, a Broken Aid Regime is to Blame

In the Wake of the 6 February Earthquake in Syria, a Broken Aid Regime is to Blame

As the dust settles from the devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria on 6 February, failings of the international emergency response and subsequent relief efforts are coming into focus. More than 40,000 people are dead, with little infrastructure able to effectively provide medical care, food, and housing to millions of survivors who were already dependent on aid and are now displaced again in freezing temperatures. The key reason for the scale of destruction and deprivation is increasingly clear: the broken international humanitarian aid regime in Syria, which implicates all major parties to the conflict as well as regional and donor states and UN agencies. Sanctions, while problematic, are not the primary culprit.

The policies of the Syrian government and its backers have posed the most significant obstacles to an equitable rescue and relief effort. Medical infrastructures in northwest Syria were already under severe strain due to the systematic targeting of hospitals and clinics in Syrian and Russian bombing campaigns. The campaigns are reported to have continued even during the initial tremors of the earthquake. A day after the earthquake, foreign minister Faisal Mekdad said explicitly that no aid delivery could occur in opposition-held areas without guarantees that such aid would not end up in the hands of “terrorists.” The government has long used references to so-called terrorist rebel groups to distract from the discriminatory distribution and outright diversion of humanitarian aid it has undertaken systematically over the course of the Syrian conflict.

It took the Syrian government five days to approve “cross-line” delivery of international humanitarian aid into opposition-held areas, and there is little indication that such aid has actually reached most of the intended beneficiaries. And while UN-facilitated talks have led to the reopening of two cross-border corridors for humanitarian relief, that this development comes more than a week after the earthquake suggests political point-scoring – rather than rapid relief for survivors – may be the order of the day. Mobilization of UN relief has been sluggish across the northwest while, in areas under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, it appears that the UN aid which was successfully bound for Idlib has been blocked by local authorities. Despite belated calls for unimpeded humanitarian access and an unequivocal expression of solidarity with victims, the UN’s decision to condition the supply of humanitarian relief on government approval has not only squandered precious time in relief efforts, but also presented the Assad government with an unmistakable opportunity to strengthen its political hand through control of the international aid process.

Rescue equipment and relief aid might have entered into opposition-held areas from Turkey more easily and rapidly had it not been for the gradual erosion of the system of humanitarian border crossings that the UN implemented early on in the Syrian conflict. While roads around the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Idlib were certainly difficult to access immediately after the earthquake, it was the failure to maintain other border crossings into opposition-held Syria that exacerbated this problem. Russia led efforts to close official UN border crossings like Bab al-Salam, ostensibly in the name of Syrian sovereignty but in fact to channel as much aid as possible into the hands of its clients in Damascus. Meanwhile, a lethargic response at the Security Council has ensured slow progress towards the reopening of alternative cross-border channels.

Aid might also enter through new humanitarian crossings elsewhere along the northern border, yet Turkey has already failed to guarantee the availability of basic goods in areas of the border it occupies. There has been some discussion about the possibility of new crossings, but as the domestic humanitarian and political fallout from the earthquake expands it is unclear whether the Turkish government is willing and able to abide by its responsibilities as an occupying power in Syria.  Widespread reports of Turkish-backed armed groups delaying the flow of aid from Kurdish-controlled regions have been coupled with a sharp uptick in anti-Syrian sentiment within Turkey over the last several years which will militate against investing resources to meet the needs of displaced Syrians. This is despite the fact that many victims of the earthquake in southern Turkey itself were from the Syrian refugee community, which is often compelled to live in cheaper and more unstable buildings and faces restrictions on movement within the country.

In this context, sanctions are of secondary importance in understanding the failed emergency response and subsequent relief efforts. This is not to deny the significant strategic and practical deficiencies in the sanctions regime that has been assembled ad hoc over the course of the Syrian conflict: overcompliance, especially in the banking sector, has hindered the rapid movement of relief funds into Syria; and likewise bans on shipping fuel have contributed to fuel shortages in Syria, which in turn threaten the provision of medical care and winter heating. Yet these and other examples illustrate that the sanctions worsen pre-existing problems rather than serve as their fundamental cause. The general exemption that the US government issued after the earthquake further eases restrictions on aid-related transactions otherwise prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations (SySR). In doing so, it complements previous humanitarian carve-outs in the sanctions regime and further undermines attempts by Syrian government officials to use US sanctions to distract from their failed response to the earthquake and the broader humanitarian crisis in the country for which their policies are most responsible.

Conditions in Syria were already dire before the earthquake, which has briefly refocused attention on the country and an international aid regime that broke down as the conflict froze over the last several years and normalization with the Syrian government accelerated. Hence there is now a small window of opportunity to fix this system. At the upcoming Brussels VII conference, international policymakers must restore relief funding which donor states steadily allowed to lapse and create new streams that reflect post-earthquake needs. They should likewise push for more humanitarian border crossings between Turkey and Syria on top of those that the UN reopened in the second week after the earthquake. Finally, if and when stabilization efforts can commence, policymakers should strategically reassess the sanctions regime along the lines that SJAC and other Syrian civil society organizations have previously recommended such that efforts toward reconstruction and post-conflict reform proceed simultaneously.


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