'Disaster diplomacy': Earthquake emboldens Syria's Assad after years of isolation
Over two weeks since Syria was hit by a magnitude 7.8 earthquake, aid has poured into the hands of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, long isolated by a decade of international sanctions.
And accompanying the aid has been an outpouring of support for the Syrian president — followed by a chain of calls for his reintegration into the Arab fold.
“It has given Assad hope to re-engage with the international community,” Jordanian political analyst Amer Sabaileh told The New Arab.
On Sunday, nine senior Arab lawmakers met in Damascus for talks on bringing Assad back into the Arab League, which he was suspended from in 2011 due to his brutal crackdown on anti-regime protests.
"Assad is trying to instrumentalise and exploit the earthquake to reach political gains"
This was preceded by the Syrian president’s first visit to Oman in over a decade, where he met with Oman’s ruler Sultan Haitham bin Tariq, who said he looked forward to Syria’s ties with all Arab countries returning to normal.
Muscat has maintained careful diplomatic relations with Damascus throughout the Syrian crisis and since the current ruler of the Gulf state assumed power, has sought to strengthen relations with the regime.
A host of other countries in the region on track to revive their relations with Syria have jumped at the opportunity to bolster diplomatic ties under the pretext of a humanitarian cause.
Shortly after the quake, Tunisia’s president Kais Saied announced his intention to fully restore relations with Syria. In recent years, Tunisian-Syrian relations have been gradually thawing.
In 2017, the Mediterranean country reinstituted a limited diplomatic mission to Syria, which, in the post-quake meeting, Tunisia decided to expand.
Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi arrived last week in Damascus, his first official visit since the start of the war a decade ago. Despite Jordan’s heavy dependence on US foreign aid, the Kingdom has also been on the path to restoring relations with Syria. In 2021, Jordan’s King Abdullah II called the Syrian president for the first time, as well as fully opening its Syrian borders.
The humanitarian visit by Safadi, well-known for some of his anti-Assad stances, was the Jordanian minister’s chance to reconcile with Syria and demonstrate he can maintain an “open channel of dialogue”, according to Sabaileh.
Egypt’s president Sisi and Bahrain’s king were also among those who broke their years-long freeze with Assad in the quake’s aftermath, with both rulers calling their Syrian counterparts for the first time.
And on Monday – in the latest gesture of support – Egypt’s foreign minister followed the footsteps of his neighbours, also visiting Damascus for the first time in a decade.
“Assad is trying to instrumentalise and exploit the earthquake to reach political gains,” Joseph Daher, a Swiss-Syrian researcher, told TNA.
The regime is “trying to break its political isolation and advance its process of normalisation, which is partially succeeding, although at a very small path”, he added.
Assad takes 'driver's seat'
Human rights groups have decried the UN for its slow response in opposition-held northwest Syria, hit hard by the earthquake. The already war-ravaged region has witnessed over 4,500 deaths and 8,500 injuries.
Outside aid did not enter the region until days after the quake, leaving a handful of volunteers without proper equipment or supplies to rummage through the rubble.
The UN waited over a week for Assad’s authorisation to enter the besieged territory through additional border crossings from Turkey. The only authorised crossing, Bab al-Hawa, was disrupted for four days following the disaster.
When it comes to the border crossings, the UN has “put Bashar al-Assad in the driver’s seat”, Syrian political economist Karam Shaar told TNA.
"Assad will try to manipulate the aid, hold some of it, redirect it to some of his own supporters. Or allow it to flow but only if political concessions are provided"
In a closed meeting with Assad regime representatives and UN officials after the quake, the regime gave a three-month authorisation for aid to pass through two additional crossings, Bab al-Salam and al-Raii.
“This has given Bashar al-Assad renewed faith in his ability to influence aid on the ground and more leverage over people in northwest Syria,” Shaar said.
The UN said they could not deliver aid to the northwest without a UN security council vote, which Shaar said was a “narrow definition” of their humanitarian mandate.
In exceptional situations - such as when a country is preventing the entrance of lifesaving assistance - international organisations like the UN can conduct humanitarian operations, according to an Amnesty International statement commissioned by the UN and cited by Human Rights Watch (HRW).
By 2020, the Assad regime, in cooperation with its long-time ally Russia, had forced the UN to close three of the four border crossings into northern Syria, claiming that the aid crossings into opposition-held territories violate its sovereignty.
Humanitarian aid an 'instrument of power'
“One of the ways Assad has been trying to exploit this tragedy is by strengthening the centrality of the Syrian regime in the organisation and the distribution of humanitarian assistance,” Daher said.
The Syrian regime has long weaponised humanitarian aid and obstructed it from entering opposition-held territories as a source of control over the Syrian people.
There have been years where although nearly 90 percent of humanitarian deliveries were sent through Damascus, a mere one percent aid from the regime reached the rebel-controlled territories, which Assad has bombed for over a decade.
The aid is an “instrument of power within a region that is very much weakened”, Daher said.
Since the earthquake, 246 flights carrying almost 7,000 tonnes of aid have gone to the Assad regime, as of 26 February, in addition to billions of dollars in monetary assistance.
The UAE - one of the top donors and who has made bold strides to normalise relations with Syria - recently pledged an additional $50 million in aid for the regime’s humanitarian response, after sending 38 flights carrying tonnes of aid.
“Bashar al-Assad will try to manipulate the aid, hold some of it, redirect it to some of his own supporters. Or allow it to flow but only if political concessions are provided,” said Shaar.
“All of this has indeed happened in the past in besieged areas in the country,” he added.
Only menial amounts have so far been sent to the opposition-held areas in the northwest. Out of 19 countries that donated to the regime, just aid from a mere three donor countries was sent to the besieged region, according to data compiled by the Italian think tank, ISPI.
"One of the ways Assad has been trying to exploit this tragedy is by strengthening the centrality of the Syrian regime in the organisation and the distribution of humanitarian assistance"
When a small amount of aid was sent to Syria’s northwest, it was blocked by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a hardline opposition group formerly linked to al-Qaeda that controls portions of the region.
The control of aid is Assad’s mechanism “to control society. It’s a way to show strength. It’s a way to increase the dependence of the population on the Syrian regime”, Daher stated.
UAE pushes forward, but no major diplomatic change without the Saudis
The Emirates have paved the way for Assad to return to the regional fold, amping up their support for Syria in the aftermath of the quake. With the aim to insert themselves as a counterbalance to Iran in Syria, they have sought to warm up to the regime and have encouraged other Arab countries to follow in their footsteps.
Jordan has been one to follow the UAE, noted Sabaileh, pointing to the Kingdom’s “alignment” with Emirati policy - another impetus for the recent visit of the Jordanian FM to quake-hit Syria.
But, with the US and EU unlikely to change their stance on Syria and Saudi Arabia still hesitant to let Syria back into the fold, the diplomatic gains Assad achieved from the earthquake will be limited, said Sabaileh.
“There is no Arab decision without Saudi Arabia,” he added.
Despite a Saudi plane of aid that landed in Syria’s government-controlled areas for the first time, the Kingdom is still likely unwilling to change its stance on Syria due to Iran’s entrenchment in the country, Daher noted.
And amid the economic influence of the oil-rich Kingdom, Saudi-dependent countries will likely still stick with their investor.
Jordan depends on Saudi Arabia for economic and security cooperation, and the Saudis are Jordan's largest investors. And as Egypt has also become increasingly dependent on the Kingdom, Cairo last year changed its position regarding any return to the Arab League to be vocally against Syria’s re-entrance.
Bahrain, who also stepped forward to establish contact with Syria for the first time after the quake, is another recipient of the Saudis' economic largesse.
So, although Assad’s diplomatic gains from the earthquake are slowly “advancing”, said Daher, “the isolation of Damascus still remains”.
Hanna Davis is a freelance journalist reporting on politics, foreign policy, and humanitarian affairs.
Follow her on Twitter: @hannadavis341