Earthquake disaster in Turkey and northern Syria

How can the West help without empowering the Assad regime?
Erdbebenkatastrophe in Syrien

What is the situation in Syria?

In the early morning of February 6, 2023, a devastating earthquake struck near Gaziantep, resulting in extensive destruction in both southern Turkey and northern Syria. Most of the rescue workers stopped their attempts to find survivors as the chances are dropping significantly two weeks after the earthquake. More than 40,000 people are now reported dead in Syria and Turkey, and many more are unfortunately expected to die. The shock is deep-seated, even in neighboring countries that experienced the earthquake and its subsequent aftershocks. In Beirut, some 500 kilometers away and home to the FNF office for Lebanon and Syria, the two most intense quakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 were felt. While the damage in Lebanon was limited, Turkey and northern Syria experienced severe destructions.

In Syria, the northwest was and is particularly hard hit, including Aleppo and Idlib, cities that were already severely damaged by the Syrian conflict. While the former is under the control of the Assad regime, Idlib is in the hands of rebel groups. The initial situation in Turkey is not good in terms of infrastructure and stability of buildings, but it is significantly better than in Syria, which has been in conflict since 2011. Hospitals were already in emergency operation, often supplied with electricity from generators. The diesel to supply generators was also in short supply. Shortages and poverty defined everyday life even before the earthquake in northern Syria, where large parts of the population were not only plundered by the Assad regime, but actively fought.

It is crucial that humanitarian aid now reaches the affected areas as quickly as possible. But it is important to remember that the routes and opportunities for aid are limited. This is due to  infrastructural limitations but also political ones: While the UN Security Council was still able to agree in its Resolution 2165 in 2014 to open the Bab al-Salam, Bab al-Hawa, Al Yarubiyah and Al-Ramtha border crossings to Turkey for humanitarian aid deliveries by the United Nations, Russia has blocked this possibility since 2020. Only through tough negotiations in the Security Council was it possible to get veto-wielding Russia to allow the Bab al-Hawa border crossing for aid deliveries. The discussion was reiterated at the turn of 2023; on Jan. 9, 2023, Russia again wrestled its way to a six-month extension of the resolution. Syria announced on Feb. 14 that it would open two more border crossings for three months, but this will only provide short-term relief. Moreover, it is especially important to note that the regime decided to open the border crossings only one week after the earthquake, when survivors were very unlikely to be found. Russia and the Assad regime continue to demand that the Damascus government distributes humanitarian aid in the country. Recently, various entities, including President Assad, but also a representative of the government-affiliated Red Crescent relief organization, demanded for sanctions to be lifted. While the U.S. has allowed remittances to Syria as part of emergency earthquake aid, far-reaching easing of the sanctions policy is rightfully not on the table for discussion. There are many reasons why Germany and the EU should not fall into the trap believing that easing sanctions would help the people on the ground.

There are four arguments against Germany and the EU easing their current sanctions:

First, Damascus and its allies, especially Russia and Iran, have plunged Syria into chaos. Until this day, violations of human rights are reported on a daily basis. The regime did not care about human, economic or material losses over the past eleven years. Most recently, in early February 2023, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held the Syrian government responsible for the use of chemical weapons in a third case. Therefore, the Assad dictatorship is clearly not interested in reducing human suffering.

Second, during the course of the Syrian conflict, the Damascus regime repeatedly demonstrated that it misused aid supplies, some of which never reached their destination. Assad also tries to profit from aid to the United Nations and other humanitarian NGOs by manipulating exchange rates. Very recently, after the earthquake, the Syrian government prevented two aid convoys from continuing their journey to Aleppo. One convoy was from the Kurdish self-government, and one from the Kurdish Red Crescent. It involved over 30 trucks and two ambulances. The regime set conditions for the onward journey: the handover of 50 percent of the relief supplies, including an ambulance. This again shows that the distribution of aid through Damascus would result in only a fraction of the supplies reaching those in need.

Third, delivering aid to the Assad regime could strengthen the government's position in the areas of its control. Assad is likely to present himself as a savior in need and send aid primarily there. He could reward loyal areas while punishing former opposition strongholds. This is exemplified by the halted aid convoys as well as the blockade of border openings for emergency aid before the earthquake. Tragically, the rebel areas are most affected by the quake. Anyone who believes that aid deliveries are not politicized must ask why Damascus wants to monopolize these deliveries.

Fourth, U.S. and EU sanctions do not prevent humanitarian aid deliveries, as stated in the Security Council Resolution 2664. The West is by far the largest donor to Syria. Germany alone has provided over eleven billion U.S. dollars since 2011. Lifting sanctions will not directly help the victims of the disaster, but only the Syrian elites. Believing that aid via Damascus will reach the victims of the earthquake would, therefore, be naïve.

Humanitarian aid: A political issue for Assad

Assad made his way to Aleppo on Friday, Feb. 10, 2023, and visited a hospital there - not without a side swipe at the West. In an interview in front of the ruins of Aleppo, he accused the West of politicizing emergency aid. The Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, which is close to Hezbollah and Assad, called Western states "cold monsters". It accused America, first and foremost, of keeping Syria alive in the short term through humanitarian delivery, but at the same time abandoning it to a slow death, since the sanctions mean that the state cannot obtain modern equipment to remove the rubble of the earthquake (which is in fact not sanctioned), nor fuel to run it. The destruction of Syria is attributed entirely to the Western coalition. Evidently, the West should not fall for this propaganda ploy. There is no reason to suggest that Assad would have created a reliable civil security system during years of conflict, had there not been any sanctions.

A look at the Syrian government's Twitter account in particular demonstrates the political sensitivities. In addition to the attacks against the West, one can also find  acknowledgements of condolences from various countries. Among them: Russian President Vladimir Putin, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, Egypt's President Abd al-Fattah as-Sisi, Belarusian strongman Lukashenko, the president of the United Arab Emirates, the president of Iran and, most absurdly, the "president" of the "Republic of Abkhazia," which broke away from Georgia and is recognized only by five UN members and is supported by Russia. The mixture of unquestioning loyalty to Moscow, Assad's pan-Arab interests and his geopolitical-religious connection to the regime in Tehran show: It is not about helping the victims of the earthquake disaster, but about Assad's retention of power and his goal of regaining control over all of Syria. While Assad thanks these states for their loyalty and sympathy, it is mainly Western states that are bringing effective aid to the affected areas.

It is consequent that the EU has so far not responded to these demands and that the German government has instead called for the border crossings with Turkey to be opened. The emergency financial aid (25 million euros) to UNOCHA (United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) and other international aid organizations such as Malteser (1 million euros) are also effective measures. It is important to further expand this aid. To avoid the misappropriation of funds, collaboration with trustworthy international associations and NGOs could be amplified. Last but not least, Germany should try to bring about a sustainable improvement in the situation in Syria through diplomatic channels with its allies. Normalizing with the Assad regime or partnering with Iran or Russia is certainly not a solution in this context.