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Sanctions or Assad: What is blocking aid from entering northern Syria?

February 22, 2023 at 1:08 pm

As the death toll from the earthquakes which rocked Turkiye and Syria continues to rise, many are questioning whether sanctions on Syria are preventing aid from reaching the war-torn country.

After 12 years of civil war, most of Syria is once again under the control of the Assad regime, but a small enclave in the north is the last remaining territory held by Syrian opposition groups. Surrounded by Assad forces on three sides, the northern border with Turkiye was the only lifeline for the opposition-held territory to bring in aid and supplies.

In 2020, Bashar Al-Assad’s ally Russia used its veto power at the UN to force the closure of all crossings into Syria from Turkiye except the Bab Al-Hawa crossing. Moscow claimed the aid corridors into the opposition-held territory undermined the sovereignty of the Assad regime. The UN Security Council now also needed to vote every six months on whether to keep this one crossing open.

The closure of aid corridors resulted in a lack of essential items, building materials and specialist equipment making it impossible to rebuild the region which was devastated by war and bombed by Syrian and Russian forces.

However, damage from the 6 February 2023 earthquakes left the Bab Al-Hawa crossing impassable. For days Syria became impenetrable, but then two new crossings were opened with Al-Assad’s approval and aid began to trickle in once again.

The US, EU and UK placed sanctions on the Assad regime in 2011 and have tightened the noose around it since as a result of its systematic war crimes and human rights abuses over the course of the war.

The sanctions mostly blocked banking transactions, investments, flights and the import of oil, military equipment and technology. Many of these sanctions targeted individuals within the Syrian regime including President Bashar Al-Assad and his relatives.

Feeling the squeeze, the Assad regime has been benefitting from aid. A 2022 report has found ‘systemic’ corruption in humanitarian aid going into Syria through the United Nations with UN agencies giving procurement contracts to individuals with links to the Assad regime and tied to human rights violations.

READ: Syria’s long history of sanctions hurts the people much more than the regime

Between 2019 and 2020 an estimated $63 million in UN funds was awarded to individuals sanctioned by the US and European states including close family members of President Bashar Al-Assad.

While aid has also started to enter northern Syria through the newly opened crossings, in the wake of the earthquakes, most are set to be administered by the Syrian regime. Damascus received aid from a number of countries including Iran, Iraq and Algeria, and is set to receive aid from the UN. The US has now also eased sanctions for six months to allow aid deliveries.

Trucks coming into northern Syria have mostly brought in food and tents but civil groups say they require specialist equipment to continue search and rescue efforts as well as construction materials to rebuild the homes that were destroyed in the tremors.

While the regime doesn’t patrol the crossing into northern Syria it can force its closure and stop aid being delivered to those in need. Syrians in the opposition-held territories – most of whom were displayed internally by Assad’s forces – find themselves once again at the mercy of their former leader.

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