The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria last week has compounded the devastating effects of twelve years of civil war in Syria, particularly in the northwest. Primarily controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an alliance of armed groups formerly linked to al-Qaeda, Syrians in the northwest are under siege by the Syrian state, adding to more than a decade of misery.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has effectively blockaded the region, which includes the city and governorate of Idlib, preventing humanitarian aid passing through Damascus from reaching the already besieged area. Instead, basic necessities such as fuel and medicine must come to the region through Turkey.
The official death toll from the earthquake in both Turkey and Syria has reached more than 33,000, although the true number is undoubtedly much higher. In northwest Syria, the raging civil war, internal displacement caused by that war and ISIS’s reign of terror, Russian bombing, government blockades, ongoing clashes and now a massive earthquake have brought untold suffering to the area.
“It’s a perfect storm that I’ve been worried about for a long time,” Natasha Hall, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Vox in an interview. “You have [a large portion of] 5 million people who have been dependent on emergency assistance for years now. About two-thirds of them are displaced from other parts of Syria; About 80 percent have been displaced six to 25 times.
Some search and rescue operations have reportedly been suspended for a week, as groups such as the White Helmets doubt there are any survivors. Experts told Vox that without a massive influx of foreign aid, the ability to care for survivors is limited. “Civil society is active in the sense that whether they are receiving support externally, from Europe or the United States, and from Turkey that is coming through Bab al-Hawa – it is only a limited entry point,” said Sahr Muhammadli, an expert in international humanitarian law and conflict. Protecting civilians, Vox said in an interview.
Confusion and fear about sanctions against the Assad regime, as well as a misunderstanding of the political situation, prevented financial aid and other aid from reaching some people affected by the earthquake.
“For example [Assad’s] The governments of the main international backers, Iran and Russia, have tried hard to shift the blame for Syria’s economic woes from Assad’s role to sanctions to destroy the country,” said Wael Alzayat, president of MGAZ, a national Muslim voter organizing and advocacy group. organization and a former State Department expert on Middle East policy, wrote in The Washington Post on Friday. “While the sanctions have certainly contributed to government spending and the devaluation of the Syrian lira, they have had no significant impact on the delivery of humanitarian aid,” since the sanctions have a humanitarian carve-out that allows aid to Damascus.
The government blockade is making the crisis worse.
The Assad regime has regained about 70 percent of Syria’s territory after losing its grip on the country — first to the revolution that began in 2011, then to ISIS. Some of the remaining areas, namely the northeast, are controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces, made up mainly of Syrian Kurds. The northwest is controlled by HTS as well as some Turkish-backed groups; HTS has controlled at least parts of the region since officially splitting with al-Qaeda in 2017. The US government designated HTS a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in 2018, adding to the designation of the group’s predecessor, the Al-Nusra Front. .
Regardless of the group’s actual affiliation with al-Qaeda, they carry out violent activities in the region. Still, the regime’s siege — “a tactic of starvation or surrender,” Muhammadli said — has led to brutal, humiliating conditions in Idlib. “This area is an open prison that’s cut off from everywhere else,” Zaher Sahloul, president of the aid organization MedGlobal, told Vox in an interview. MedGlobal has teams on the ground in the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep near the Syrian border, which is home to 462,000 Syrian refugees, as well as in northwest Syria.
The armed groups in charge of the region “maintain limited civil and public functions, such as maintaining the repair of the water system, but they rely on humanitarian agencies to provide services,” Muhammadli said. “They don’t have the resources to fulfill the role that government should play in providing essential services.”
Furthermore, Russian and regime forces have attacked civilian targets, including hospitals, sanitation facilities — fueling an ongoing cholera outbreak that began in the northeast — doctors, and civil defense organizations such as the White Helmets, undermining health care infrastructure. The government has also cut off electricity to the region and stopped paying government workers, so search and rescue operations and medical services are dependent on generators, which run on diesel fuel.
Groups like MedGlobal have built hospitals and clinics in more resilient locations — in the mountains and underground — as well as provided medical care and fuel for search and rescue operations, but the level of need is incredibly high and will increase over time, Sahloul said.
The question remains whether the rest of the world will step in to provide ongoing support. “It is a failure of the international community to focus only on emergency aid,” Muhammadali said. “Donor government aid agencies need to look at this tragedy and say, ‘What needs to be done?’ Right now it’s emergency support and response, but it needs to go into a support form to make communities more resilient.”
We must stop the politicization of humanitarian aid
Because the region is so conflicted, it has led to confusion and politicization both by the Assad regime and by confusion over HTS and how sanctions against the regime apply to humanitarian aid. This means that a region that is almost entirely dependent on outside aid is seeing only a trickle in – and what has come in so far is not even disaster aid, but what was already bound for northwest Syria before the earthquake.
“Reliance on emergency aid becomes dangerous as funding dwindles and if it is only approved for one reason [UN] A Security Council resolution, then vetoed in the Security Council can cut it,” Muhammadli said. For example, if Russia vetoes a future resolution to allow cross-border aid from Turkey to northwest Syria — which could happen in July 2022 — it will be more difficult to get critical aid to the region.
Some observers have called for an end to sanctions against Syria so they can help people in need, but experts say that’s an incredibly misguided view.
“UN agencies operate out of Damascus — all of them,” Hall said. “They get billions of dollars in funding, as they do [international nongovernmental organizations] European governments, through the UK and the US, and it’s been going on for the last 12 years and beyond. So the sanctions are not linked to humanitarian aid, there are waivers for humanitarian aid, but the problem is more, banks and other countries are afraid to operate in Syria because of the sanctions and because they are worried about the legal risks.”
The United States on Friday issued an order extending the General Licensing Agreement for Humanitarian Aid for six months. “It’s very broad and pervasive, and largely in response to claims that Europeans and sanctions are prohibiting a proper response,” Hall said.
Lifting sanctions against the regime, then, will make no difference to the people of northwestern Syria, although clarifying the ability of banks and businesses to contribute to the earthquake response is a positive step. Nevertheless, the disinformation campaign aimed at removing the pressure on the Assad regime continues, despite the fact that “they are responsible for the horrors that have happened over the last 12 years, and there is always a way to get sanctions. actors of the regime,” Muhammadali said.
This situation requires thinking creatively about options to deal with the enormous politicization of humanitarian aid, Sahloul told Vox. “Why not airlift medical supplies? We have American military bases in northeastern Syria, which US forces have used in counter-terrorism operations. “If there is a political will to help people, don’t blame barriers or border crossings, do it yourself!”
But that’s exactly the problem, Sahloul said — a lack of political will to get aid to the millions of people in northwest Syria who have already been deeply affected by more than a decade of conflict, displacement and terrorism.