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The Caesar Act and the humanitarian response to the earthquakes 

February 15, 2023 at 9:17 am

Representatives of local non-governmental organisations operating in Idlib and Civil Defense (White Helmets) volunteers gather for a demonstration near Bab al-Hawa Border Crossingon February 13, 2023 [İzzeddin Kasim/Anadolu Agency]

Five days after the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes, the US Treasury announced that humanitarian relief efforts and aid will be allowed to reach Syria. The treasury said that it was a limited exception to the 2019 Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act — which covers sanctions on Syria — and noted that the decision will remain in effect for a period of six months, ending on 8 August.

The US decision was preceded just hours earlier by the EU decision with the same purpose related to humanitarian aid. The European and American reluctance to contribute towards the rescue operations and help the earthquake victims, specifically those in Syria, is due to what is, in effect, the collective punishment of the people of Syria through sanctions against the regime.

The politicisation of humanitarian relief efforts and aid for Syrians in the areas affected by the earthquakes, without regard to natural instinct and morality in times of natural disaster, reveals the extent to which moral standards have declined, in the West especially. It also suggests the fading of any sense of mutual humanity and the death of noble values. This is evidence of a lack of morality when humanity is tested. It is surely no coincidence that as advances in science, technology and industry are made, there is a corresponding regress in morality and human values. In order to hide this major contradiction, the issue is covered by fake displays of solidarity with, in this case, the weakened Syrian people.

The truth is that we cannot find the right framework in which to put our feelings about what is happening. We are inadequate when it comes to describing what we see on our television screens; none of the many solidarity slogans and proclamations of humanitarian necessities satisfy us. Such slogans and media-friendly humanitarianism ring hollow; they are cold and unsatisfactory.

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What does a slogan mean when a new-born baby survives under the rubble for days on end? We stand confused, between celebrating the baby’s survival and mourning the death of the mother it will never know in this life. What do slogans mean when a father survives but his whole family lies under the rubble? Would it have been better for him to die as well? What kind of life awaits him now?

The Syrians are used to living with death and destruction. The civil war is ongoing after twelve years and their towns and cities have been devastated by barrel bombs and missiles. The feelings of fear, sadness, loss and loneliness etched into their hearts are joined by the effects of the earthquakes. Their stories and conversations are filled with a deep and incurable pain. The scars will take a long time to heal, if they do at all. They have been killed, displaced and split up. The earthquakes have now come and taken what was left of many families, homes and dreams. They are a remnant of a people.

Syria’s refugee camps hit by massive earthquake - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

Syria’s refugee camps hit by massive earthquake – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/Middle East Monitor]

The Caesar Act was named after the Syrian officer who provided Germany with photographs taken inside Syria’s prisons, showing the reality of the Assad regime in all its cruelty and brutality. However, the subsequent sanctions on Syria have to be seen in the context of similar acts of collective punishment against, for example, the people of occupied Palestine, who are being punished for resisting the brutal military occupation of their land, even though such resistance is entirely legitimate under international law. The victims are being punished while the villains get away, literally, with murder.

The imposition of collective punishment on the Syrians and Palestinians is no less than racism. The Palestinians are targeted because they are not Jews, while the Western attitude towards the Syrians exposes the anti-Arab racism prevalent at all levels in Western society, which was seen in its ugliest form in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes. There is massive indifference to the lives and suffering of millions of people due to the international political agenda, hypocrisy and subservience to the US. The magnitude of the tragedy has not succeeded in awakening the collective conscience at the highest political levels. Hence the delay in allowing humanitarian aid to get through to Syria.

READ: Miracles continue as survivors rescued 9 days after quakes in southern Turkiye

The international decision-makers and political class have used the Caesar Act and similar legislation outside the US as an excuse, despite knowing that some of the places affected by the earthquakes, such as the areas around Aleppo and most of Idlib governorate, are not controlled by the Syrian regime. Multiple parties are involved, including Al-Nusra Front and Kurdish and Turkish groups, as well as the Syrian opposition; overall control is fluid and always changing.

The earthquake crisis has brought the Syrian issue back into the headlines. We must use the next six months without sanctions to see political solutions presented by the Arab countries. There has been a generally positive humanitarian response by many Arab governments which have sent aid to the earthquake-affected areas. This should be joined by a political agenda that eases the indescribable suffering of the people, an Arab agenda that responds to the bonds of Arabism and distances itself from US political dominance and control.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam On 12 February 2033

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.