Earthquake ignites debate over Syria sanctions and aid relief

Earthquake ignites debate over Syria sanctions and aid relief
Aid workers worked tirelessly to free people trapped under rubble, with a member of the Syrian civil defence telling TNA that it is "impossible to respond" to all the calls for help.
4 min read
Turkey - Istanbul
08 February, 2023
Algerian rescue teams use a dog as they take part in the search and rescue operations in Syria's northern city of Aleppo on 8 February 2023, two days after a deadly earthquake struck Syria and Turkey. [Getty]

The Syrian regime has demanded an end to western sanctions, claiming they are hampering relief efforts in the wake of a devastating earthquake which has left over 2,500 dead since Monday.

The Syrian Arab Red Cross appealed on Tuesday for western countries to lift sanctions, with its head saying "the time has come after the earthquake" for the EU to remove the punitive measures.

Western sanctions were first imposed due to the Syrian regime’s bloody crackdown on peaceful protesters in 2011.

"The regime will always want sanctions lifted, it doesn't matter what you ask, the answer will be: Lift the sanctions, it doesn't engage on this issue in good faith," Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, told The New Arab.

Still, Lund said that there should be "some form of conversation about the harm that sanctions do," noting that despite waivers issued by western powers, some types of sanctions do have a spillover effect.

"Some types of sanctions do hurt civilians and humanitarian efforts, including now after the earthquake. It's not just the regime saying so, it’s a longstanding complaint among NGOs," Lund said.

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Damascus has further said that international aid should be routed through its capital, where it would send some "cross-line" to opposition-held areas in the country's northeast and northwest. 

Experts have expressed reservations about the regime's calls for aid to flow through Damascus, saying cross-line deliveries are "infeasible."

"For logistical, political and administrative reasons, cross-line is not feasible. This aid is not coordinated with those actually saving lives on the ground in northwest Syria," Natasha Hall, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and Intelligence Studies (CSIS), told TNA.  

In the past, the regime has been accused by human rights organisations of "weaponising" aid to punish areas associated with the country's opposition.

So far, Jordan, the UAE, Russia and many other countries have sent relief aid to Syria.

Analysts have said that Damascus could be trying to use the exceptional circumstances to create a precedent where it exercises more control over the – often highly lucrative – aid process in Syria

"[If you] run operations through Damascus, it implicitly means the regime can influence them and stop them when it wants to. It also means it will benefit from local procurement contracts," Lund said.

The United States has said that it will not send aid directly to the Assad regime, instead, it would provide aid through existing humanitarian partners on the ground in Syria.

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Northwest Syria deprived of aid

Aid to opposition-held areas is typically done through NGOs and the UN via border crossings unaffiliated with the regime.

In the wake of the earthquake, however, the largest aid outlet to the country was closed due to damage to the border crossing in Gaziantep, Turkey.

The UN has not said when the crossing might re-open, but local media has said that two alternative border crossings from Turkey – al-Ra'i and al-Salameh – have been opened. The New Arab has not been able to confirm this and the UN spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

While a local aid organisation, Molham, told TNA that it would use these crossings to deliver aid to Syria, it is not clear if the UN would use these crossings.

The UN is only authorised to use the Gaziantep crossing to deliver aid into the country's northwest and the organisation's logistical infrastructure is also concentrated in the southern Turkish city.

If the closure of Bab al-Hawa continues, it is unclear if the body would use other border crossings due to the exceptional circumstances of Monday's earthquake.

Aid groups have desperately called for the crossing to be re-opened, with first responders unable to cope with the sheer amount of humanitarian needs in northwest Syria.

Aid workers worked tirelessly to free people trapped under rubble, with a member of the Syrian civil defence telling TNA that it is "impossible to respond" to all the calls for help.

Northwest Syria was already in dire humanitarian straits, with the majority of its 4.5 million residents displaced from other parts of Syria and heavily reliant on aid.

A cessation of that aid will have immediate repercussions on the aid-dependent population.

"During a crisis of this magnitude, aid must be unimpeded and well-coordinated with those delivering it. That includes still rescuing people from under the rubble," Hall said.