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West Asian earthquake exposes skewed face of compassion

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Picture: Bakr Alkasem / AFP – It is recovering from external aggression that has damaged a lot of its infrastructure; it is winter and the temperatures are below zero; and the economy is very weak due to crippling sanctions. In 2004, the US barred its companies from trading with Syria, the writer says.

By Reneva Fourie

In the early hours of Monday, February 6, an earthquake measuring 7.8 in magnitude on the Richter scale rocked Türkiye, Syria and parts of Lebanon, Cyprus and Egypt. Windows rattled, chandeliers shook, pictures on walls, and glassware broke as the tremors of the earthquake reverberated throughout Damascus.

Many Damascenes were forced to leave their homes and stand in the icy outdoors fearing that the tremors would cause their buildings to collapse. However, the earthquake’s impact on Damascus was minuscule compared to the devastation experienced in its areas of origin. Soon after the earthquake, social media was flooded with horrific clippings of buildings collapsing and bodies being removed from the rubble.

Stories were being shared of lost family members and lost homes. In the Syrian governorates of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, Tartous and the countryside of Idlib, more than a thousand died, thousands more were injured and hundreds of thousands were displaced. Maintaining a dry eye in the wake of such horror was impossible. It was very unfortunate that the earthquake occurred at a time when the Syrian people are already experiencing many hardships.

It is recovering from external aggression that has damaged a lot of its infrastructure; it is winter and the temperatures are below zero; and the economy is very weak due to crippling sanctions. In 2004, the US barred its companies from trading with Syria. In June 2020, however, it extended sanctions through the Civilian Protection Act of 2019 or the Caesar Act and barred all foreign firms or countries from dealing with Syria.

Consequently, banking transactions with the outside world, even for diplomats, became impossible and international trade was effectively killed. Before the war, the Syrian pound (SYP) traded at 47 to the US dollar. As at the end of June 2020, when the Caesar Act was implemented, it was SYP 2,500 to the dollar. Now the rate is SYP 6,650 to the dollar. As a result, the cost of living has increased significantly, and only some can afford anything beyond the rations provided by the Syrian government.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Unilateral Coercive Measures, Alena Douhan, released a preliminary report after a visit to Syria in November last year that demonstrates how the West is suffocating the Syrian people. In it, she details the multi-faceted negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures. In 2009, less than 7.5 percent of the population experienced multidimensional poverty. Now, due to sanctions, 90 percent of the population is living in poverty.

Then, the country had food and fuel in abundance. Now, according to Douhan, there is “limited access to food, water, electricity, shelter, cooking and heating fuel, transportation and healthcare”. Furthermore, she reports serious shortages of medicine and specialised equipment, and an inability to repair critical infrastructure like water distribution networks. The Syrian people did not need the additional trauma of an earthquake.

The indifference of some in the world to the quake, however, has amplified the anguish of their ordeal. While the media reported a global expression of compassion, reflected by a substantive provision of humanitarian aid, the people of Syria were bypassed. The assistance was going to Türkiye and the parts of Syria which either Türkiye or the US are illegally occupying.

Syrians were painfully reminded that compassion is confined to those who are allies of the West as they watched some media outlets spewing feeble, politicised justifications for why their suffering is irrelevant. According to newspaper reports, Ned Price, a spokesperson for the US secretary of state, ruled out delivering aid via the Syrian government. It is for this reason that the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (Sarc) has urged for the immediate lifting of sanctions on Syria. Sanctions have prevented the Sarc from accessing the much-needed equipment, ambulances and heavy machinery required to assist the injured and those still languishing in the snow-covered rubble.

Likewise, the Middle East Council of Churches has called for sanctions on Syria to be lifted. The broader World Council of Churches has endorsed this call. It is heart-warming to witness Algeria, Armenia, Lebanon, Palestine, and Venezuela, among others, who have problems of their own, making an effort to provide assistance despite the sanctions.

The UN should manage global politics better. It should compel the lifting of sanctions. Furthermore, the Syrian government believes that it should be allowed to provide humanitarian aid to all within its borders. Türkiye and the US are refusing. It is a global practice that humanitarian work in a given country is conducted in consultation with the government of such a country. The UN should enforce this practice. The UN Security Council also has to compel all parties to adhere to the 2020 ceasefire agreement.

The Sarc has been excellent at co-ordinating humanitarian aid in Syria. However, the aid pales in comparison to the magnitude of assistance to Türkiye. It is most unfortunate that the past decade-and-a-half of anti-Syrian government sentiment has not only been swallowed wholly by people in the West, but also by many others on the rest of the globe, including South Africa.

Beyond a general statement by South Africa’s Presidency, no telephone calls were made to the President of Syria nor the Foreign Minister, as is usually the case in such instances. In Thursday’s State of the Nation address, President Cyril Ramaphosa only extended condolences to the government of Türkiye and its people. The silence on the Syrian catastrophe was deafening. The embracing of a particular political narrative had rendered many cold-hearted and inhumane in the wake of tremendous suffering. Trauma knows no boundaries. Compassion should not either.

Reneva Fourie – A policy analyst specialising in governance, development and security and who currently resides in Damascus, Syria