In the wake of the devastating Feb. 6 earthquake that has killed some 15,000 in Turkey and Syria, the contested political situation in the latter country is raising particular dilemmas. Aid agencies warn of “catastrophic” implications for Syria’s rebel-controlled northwest, where millions of displaced and vulnerable people were already in precarious straits and relying on humanitarian support before the quake. At least half of the estimated 2,000 dead in Syria are in the rebel-controlled area. (Al Bawaba, SOHR, CNN) Due to Russian influence at the UN on behalf of the Bashar Assad regime, humanitarian access is already limited to one border crossing—Bab al-Hawa. And Moscow and Damascus have been pressuring to close that one as well.
The International Rescue Committee’s Syria country director Tanya Evans says in a statement:
With the response in its infancy the need for humanitarian aid is stark… Even before the earthquake, humanitarian access was constrained in northwest Syria, with most aid coming in via one crossing-point with Türkiye [Turkey]. In this time of increased need it is critical that the levels of aid crossing also increase at pace too.
The New Humanitarian website is more explicit:
Due largely to pressure from Moscow, the UN Security Council has reduced the UN’s access to the northwest from Türkiye to one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, which itself appears to have suffered heavy earthquake damage.
It can use this crossing without permission from al-Assad, but only for aid into Idlib and its surrounding provinces. Moving aid across front lines in Syria has proved problematic at best, and almost impossible at worst.
”The impact is massive,” Dr Ghanem Tayara, president of the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM), which works in northwest Syria, told The New Humanitarian.
“The movement of aid through the border will be disrupted due to the damage caused by the earthquake,” Tayara said. “The situation is very unsettling due to high casualties and uncertainty in the north of Syria, as well as on the Turkish/Syrian borders.”
The Syria Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR) is echoing demands of those in the rebel-controlled north for “international authorities to interfere immediately and provide support in this humanitarian disaster.”
Inevitably, the Assad regime, which is complicit in exacerbating the disaster in Syria’s northwest (even serially bombing hospitals), is assailing the international sanctions on the regime as having “exacerbated the tragedy and catastrophe” of the earthquake, and is attempting to parlay the disaster into getting the sanctions lifted. (Middle East Monitor)
In fairness, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) is also demanding that the sanctions be immediately lifted. SARC president Khaled Hboubati told a press conference in Damascus that his organization needs equipment, ambulances and heavy machinery, “and the main obstacle is the sanctions imposed on Syria.” He also emphasized that the SARC does not differentiate between people living in regime-controlled or rebel-held areas, expressing readiness to send an aid convoy to Idlib, the long-besieged province in the northwest. (Xinhua)
However, this demand is likewise being echoed by Iranian state media such as Press TV, and regime-sympathetic “leftist” (sic) websites in the West such as AntiWar.com and Peoples Dispatch—which have obvious ulterior agendas. It should also be noted that the SARC has to operate within regime-controlled Syria, which places obvious political constraints on the organization.
We await word from the International Rescue Committee and UOSSM on the question of whether the sanctions should be eased or lifted to facilitate aid to regime-held Syria. But we are extremely wary of any efforts to exploit the disaster in the service of the current effort by Assad and his foreign sponsors like Russia and Iran for normalization of his genocidal regime.
And certainly any voices calling for the lifting of sanctions on the regime but not increased international humanitarian access to Syria’s northwest (and immediate cessation of regime and Russian bombardment of the zone) can be readily dismissed as opportunistic and hypocritical.