The MED This Week newsletter provides expert analysis and informed insights on the MENA region’s most significant issues and trends, bringing together unique opinions on the topic and reliable foresight on possible future scenarios. Today, we place the spotlight on the February 6 earthquake and the politics of aid in Syria.
The earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on February the 6th has had catastrophic consequences, claiming the lives of more than 40,000 people. But while emergency aid and rescue teams flew almost unhindered into Turkey, Syria, and especially the rebel-held northwest part of the country, has been tragically neglected. In the days immediately after the earthquake, little aid and few rescuers managed to arrive in the rebel enclave, whose 4 million inhabitants were already almost entirely dependent on the UN humanitarian assistance. Virtually all this aid entered Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing (the last one to have remained open), which even before the seism was insufficient to meet the humanitarian needs of the northwest. On Monday, after insisting for days that all aid ought to be handled by Damascus, Bashar al-Assad agreed to temporarily open two additional border crossings. This can largely be seen as the regime’s attempt to reaffirm its control over long-lost areas of Syria, as well as to re-establish a dialogue with the international community. In fact, the earthquake might have given Assad the diplomatic opportunity that he was waiting for.
The experts of the ISPI MED network react to the dire consequences of the February 6 earthquake and the politics of aid in Syria.
Assad is determined to present himself as the only legitimate interlocutor in Syria
Assad has partially succeeded in exploiting the earthquake crisis to re-establish his status as the only legitimate interlocutor, with around 105 flights carrying aid from 25 countries landing in Syria. However, aid is not the only factor: Assad has initially pushed for all aid to pass through regime-held areas, and then imposed his conditions on the United Nations to open two new crossings in northwest Syria for 3 months. Furthermore, he was able to obtain a temporary exemption of US sanctions for 6 months. This precedent may put him in the advantageous position of imposing additional conditions on early recovery and reconstruction. It remains to be seen whether this precedent will mark the end of the cross-border aid authorisation in favour of crossline operations.
Suhail al-Ghazi, Syrian Researcher; and former Non-Resident Fellow, Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy (TIMEP)
Cross-line aid from Damascus won’t meet humanitarian needs in Idlib
Communities within northwest Syria perceive aid coming from Damascus to be more of a political football rather than a humanitarian modality. They are not wrong. Donors have agreed that the UN should support cross-line aid via Damascus, mainly as a political concession to Russia and in hope of retaining Moscow’s acquiescence to cross-border operations. But the fact remains that cross-line aid could at best only address a fraction of the humanitarian needs in Idlib, and that there is no existing credible alternative for cross border aid via Turkey. As such, all parties could continue to facilitate cross line assistance for political reasons, but it is important to not lose sight that cross-border assistance is by far the most effective and efficient way to address the needs of three million people living in this area.
Dareen Khalifa, Senior Analyst, International Crisis Group
Are we handing the Assad regime a diplomatic opportunity?
The international community enabled regime efforts to project control over northwest Syria and to cynically play with the lives of the Syrian population. When the UN said that it could access the area only through Bab al-Hawa, even in the direst of emergencies, and when Western states and INGOs also declined to cross outside of that mandate, they handed the regime an opportunity. On Monday, Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s Permanent Representative to the UN, claimed that the area is “an integral part of Syrian land” while announcing the regime’s approval of new border-crossings, before stating he didn’t know why nobody crossed to save lives in the vital week before the permission was granted, stating; “we don’t control those crossings.” In this way, the regime has obtained a diplomatic win, while projecting the blame for its cruelty elsewhere.
Emma Beals, Non-resident Fellow, Middle East Institute
Despite its flaws, we need more UN, not less
The UN deserves criticism for its inefficiency and for fumbling after the earthquake, but things need to be kept in proportion as well. The earthquake struck the exact area where the UN operation is based, affecting it deeply; and the skyrocketing needs in Turkey have sucked resources out of the system. Getting aid into rebel-held Syria—a warzone sandwiched between two countries, outside of the state order—will always be challenging. This narrative that UN officials actively seek to aid the regime, which has spread among rebel groups and even among some of the more unhinged U.S. and European analyst types, requires pushback—it may end up endangering aid workers. What’s needed is more UN involvement, not less.
Aron Lund, Fellow, The Century Foundation; and Researcher, Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI)
The limits of the European response
Ten days after the earthquake, little aid has reached the worst-hit areas of Syria. So far, the EU has done little to support the 4 million people living in the rebel-held northwest, who were already living in highly precarious conditions. In the week of the disaster, the EU and its member states limited themselves to mobilising €3.5 million in humanitarian assistance and announcing a donors’ conference for March. While rescuers in northwest Syria were still looking for people under the rubble, the only thing that the EU could do was therefore promise financial assistance in the mid-to-long term. An important decision, but probably not enough to make the people of Syria feel that the EU and the rest of the international community are by their side.
Mattia Serra, ISPI MENA Centre
This week’s MED This Week has been edited by Mattia Serra