Natural disasters are part of life on earth. Many can be predicted relatively accurately, so theoretically their impact should be able to be managed. These disasters become humanitarian catastrophes, however, due to systemic political failures such as those which afflict the people of Syria.
After 12 years of conflict – 12 years in which the Assad regime in Damascus has used almost every weapon in its arsenal against the Syrian people – the latter have a magnitude 7.8 earthquake to deal with. And whilst this earthquake (and another which followed in quick succession) in the early hours of 6 February also affected Turkiye, the effect it has had on Syrians has been even more profound than across the border. As of Monday 13 February, more than 35,000 people have been confirmed dead in total in both countries, with relief coordinators and humanitarian experts expecting the number to double in the coming days. Those missing are counted in the thousands, and the lack of state infrastructure in north-west Syria means that the casualty statistics are inevitably conservative estimates.
The people there are amongst the most vulnerable in the world. The region is home to more than 4.5 million civilians, three million of whom are internally displaced persons (IDPs). And although the territory is so heavily populated, it only represents four per cent of Syria’s landmass, making it highly dense and crowded. Furthermore, 65 per cent of the territory’s basic infrastructure has been destroyed, whilst 90 per cent of its population is dependent on humanitarian aid which enters via just one border crossing through Turkiye, Bab Al-Hawa. Even this cross-border aid initiative is a herculean effort with constant coordination and struggles through the UN. In the past, there were three crossings for cross-border aid delivery into northern Syria, but by using its veto at the UN, Russia has forced two of them to shut. More recently, there have been threats to close Bab Al-Hawa. With no aid being allowed in, this would result in the area becoming a massive graveyard. This was the situation prior to the earthquakes.Now the situation has taken a sudden turn for the worse. The first cross-border aid deliveries were permitted into north-west Syria on 9 February, in freezing temperatures four days after the earthquakes hit.
The way that the UN acted is unacceptable and has contributed to a higher number of deaths than necessary. Even UN relief chief Martin Griffiths admitted that failure and apologised to Syrians. This apology is too little, too late. How can anyone expect the Syrians to trust the UN and its agencies (including the World Health Organisation) any more after a catalogue of failures over the 12 years of the Syrian crisis?
The Syrian people have been abandoned. Access to areas outside of regime control has been used by Assad for political ends and the restrictions imposed on humanitarian groups has meant that very little aid can enter north-west Syria. All aid in Syria has to be approved by Damascus, and this has led to corruption within the Assad regime, with government figures taking the funds and leaving the crumbs for pro-regime groups, ignoring whole swathes of the desperate population in the process. The regime has also siphoned off millions of dollars of foreign aid by forcing UN agencies to use a lower exchange rate.
How can the international community still trust the Syrian regime and wait for its approval to open border crossings while Assad’s forces kept bombing areas where Syrian refugees live in north-west Syria immediately after the earthquakes? This was a war crime which made a catastrophic situation even worse.
The international community should press harder to support the local people, Syrian NGOs and the White Helmets who are working on the ground to rescue and help the victims. Whilst billions of dollars have been sent to help the Ukrainians in their struggle against the same evil regime which bombed the Syrian people, very little has been given to help the latter. It is a disgrace to the international community that local people in the deprived region of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria managed to send more aid trucks than what the UN has offered.
There is now a real fear that the earthquakes will help rehabilitate Assad within the same international community. This line of thinking must be resisted. In recent days, he has said that he would agree to international demands and allow aid into north-west Syria as long as there is cooperation with his regime. Some states in the Arab world have been clear about wanting to restore ties with Damascus, such as Iraq, the UAE and Bahrain. Even Turkey has been pushing for rapprochement in recent weeks, prior to the earthquakes.
The Assad regime senses an opportunity that the West will be seen to be “punishing” a state through sanctions even after earthquakes have devastated parts of the country, although it is clear that one has nothing to do with the other. It is equally clear that the reason for Syria’s dire situation before or after the earthquakes was never the sanctions, it was the mismanagement of the state for decades resulting in Syria becoming a narco-economy. By 2021, the drug trade in Syria was worth nine times the state budget.
There is credible evidence that Bashar Al-Assad is a war criminal and has committed crimes against humanity against his own people. He should remain an international pariah. Rehabilitation is not an option, and humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable Syrians must not be politicised to advance such an agenda.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.