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Western sanctions stymie global aid response to Syria

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Picture: AFP – Syrians, displaced by the deadly earthquake that hit Türkiye and Syria on Monday, sit in the back of a truck on the outskirts of the rebel-held town of Jindayris on Wednesday. Rebel-held areas near Türkiye’s border – hard hit by the massive quake – cannot receive aid from government-held parts of Syria without Damascus’s authorisation. The conflict, political crisis and foreign sanctions are issues complicating the response to the humanitarian crisis in Syria, say the writers.

By Sarah Dadouch and Paulina Villegas

The earthquake that struck Türkiye and Syria on Monday brought to the forefront an issue Syria has battled with for years: access to foreign aid.

Getting aid to Syria is deeply complicated by its 2011 civil war that has left the country divided into roughly three parts: the government-held areas; a part controlled by the US-backed Kurdish forces; and an opposition-held pocket in the northwest, where nearly two-thirds of its 4.5 million inhabitants have been displaced from elsewhere and a humanitarian crisis was already under way before the quake.

The Syrian government has been sending the fighters and civilians from the areas it reconquered to the already impoverished Idlib province, up against the border with Türkiye, and the region is now swollen with the displaced. In addition to regular shelling by government forces, disease was already ravaging the area.

Restricted access

This corner of land heavily relies on aid – even before the earthquake, 4.1 million required humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. This assistance is hampered by restrictions imposed by the Syrian government, which also prevents some international organisations from accessing the area.

Aid must also be approved by the Turkish government, as it flows to the rebel-held pocket only through the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border. “But Türkiye is now completely overwhelmed with dealing and helping its own people that we cannot realistically expect to prioritise focusing on facilitating aid to the Syrians,” said Mark Lowcock, former head of UN humanitarian affairs.

Delivery of aid to the enclave has been dependent on a vote every six months by the UN Security Council, but in 2020, Russia forced all the aid border crossings to close except for Bab al-Hawa, describing the aid as a violation of the sovereignty of its ally, the Syrian government.

Fears mount every six months that Russia will veto the final crossing, which the UN deems the only viable route to deliver lifesaving aid, including food, water, shelter, and medical assistance. Now, with the earthquake, the roads to Bab al-Hawa are severely damaged, and the cross-border response has been disrupted, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, citing local sources. The road connecting the city of Gaziantep to the crossing is in one of the most damaged areas and is inaccessible.

Donor fatigue

International non-governmental organisations have been aiding Idlib and surrounding areas for years. But due to what UN officials have dubbed “Syria fatigue”, donations have dwindled, and attention has turned elsewhere, especially following last year’s Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The past humanitarian efforts had been stop-gap measures at best, leaving little to no room for emergency preparedness if a natural disaster took place. “You are compounding an already extremely difficult situation where agencies were already up to their eyes trying to prevent famine, and child disease,” said Lowcock, adding that opposition-held areas appear to be the worst damaged in Syria.

“The government has a long track record of resisting and trying to prevent people from going through,” he said. Lowcock said solutions include donations to the White Helmets, a British and American-supported civil defence outfit whose members have worked tirelessly since the earthquake, digging out dead on their own.

The UN also must expand aid mechanisms from Türkiye and build international pressure on Syria so that the government removes restrictions, he added. The White Helmets have since announced that Britain will release an additional $967,000 (about R17million) to support them and that the US Agency for International Development has been in touch about how it can “fulfil the most urgent response needs”.

Lowcock was not optimistic that the Syrian government would facilitate access for international organisations, however, given its track record of “not wanting people to be in places they do not control”. Syria’s northwest has long been suffering from regular bombardments – the latest raids were in January. Cholera has swept the area due to a lack of access to clean water.

Now the earthquake has wiped out the internet and electricity and destroyed already rickety shelters. “For sure, you don’t have the international support (you have) with teams deployed in Türkiye,” said Fabrizio Carboni, the regional director for the Near and Middle East at the International Committee of the Red Cross. “That means most people dying. It’s not a complicated equation to solve.”

Humanitarian access “is politicised” – especially in north-west Syria. “We don’t have access to the area of Idlib,” said Carboni. The International Rescue Committee’s director of emergency preparedness and response said the border crossings available are “insufficient,” and the IRC had been demanding increased access – the difficulty of the task compounded by the widespread damage to infrastructure, buildings and roads from the earthquake.

Foreign sanctions

On the other side of the equation are areas held by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, facing US and European sanctions. Foreign governments and many international aid groups avoid routing aid directly through the government, which they have sanctioned for war crimes against its own people. The belief that aid would be pocketed by war profiteers and Syrian officials is widespread.

The US set of sanctions, known as the Caesar Act, aims to force the government to stop its bombardment and halt widely documented human rights abuses. “The Caesar Act and other US Syria sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance for the Syrian people or hinder our stabilisation activities in northeast Syria,” the act reads.

On Tuesday, the Syrian government challenged this claim. Its foreign ministry placed blame squarely on these restrictions, saying Syrians were resorting to “digging sometimes through the rubble by hand because tools for removing rubble are prohibited for them, and they’re using the simplest, old tools because they are punished by the Americans, who are blocking them from the needed supplies and equipment”.

The Syrian government often places the responsibility for much of its woes on international sanctions to divert Syrians’ anger to outside forces. On Tuesday, the director of Syria’s Red Crescent, Khaled Hboubati, called for the removal of sanctions “to deal with the effects of the devastating earthquake”.

He said Syria needed heavy machinery, and ambulances and fire trucks to continue its search and rescue operations and clear rubble, “which requires removing sanctions on Syria as quickly as possible”.

He said there were between 30 and 40 ambulances responding to the disaster. “We are ready to send a caravan of aid to Idlib,” Hboubati said and asked the EU and USAID to help. Charles Lister, the director of the Syria programme at the DC-based Middle East Institute, dismissed Syria’s calls to lift sanctions as another “opportunistic regime talking point,” adding that the sanctions have “no effect in the delivering of assistance”.

This article was first published in The Washington Post