The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Syria’s Assad regime sees opportunity in earthquake aftermath

6 min

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On Monday, the Syrian government finally relented. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad granted the United Nations permission to send aid into rebel-held northwestern Syria across an expanded number of border crossings with Turkey. More than a week had gone by since devastating earthquakes shook a wide swath of northern Syria and southern Turkey, flattening homes, destroying infrastructure and casting millions of people out in the cold. Even as a global rescue effort flooded through Turkey, countless Syrians were left neglected and ignored, forced to dig for survivors with crude equipment and their bare hands.

The death toll in both countries has surpassed 41,000. While the majority of those killed were in Turkey, thousands in Syria still remain unaccounted for as whole towns waited days for any outside help. Mohammad Jassim, 21, who lost relatives in the leveled town of Jinderis, recounted to my colleagues how he clawed with his own hands at the wreckage of a family home. “Imagine still crying out after four days,” he told The Washington Post, referring to his trapped relatives. “It’s unimaginable. Everyone died.”

On Tuesday, a U.N. convoy of 17 trucks carrying vital supplies, including materials for shelters, rumbled across the Bab al-Salam checkpoint into rebel-held northwestern Syria. U.N. officials themselves recognized that this was just a drop in the bucket of the tremendous need in the region, which was already home to millions of people displaced by Syria’s 11-year-old civil war and victims of rounds of brutal regime bombing campaigns. The region’s entrenched opposition to the Assad regime, which has long manipulated the delivery of foreign aid, left the area all the more alone and vulnerable when disaster struck.

“Access to areas outside of government control has been weaponized throughout the conflict by Assad, who has imposed restrictions on the movement of humanitarian groups,” explained my colleague Louisa Loveluck, who is on the ground in northern Syria. “He has been helped by allies like Russia at the United Nations, and, at times, by neighbors like Turkey and Jordan, who have periodically obstructed the flow of aid. U.N. officials have rarely complained publicly, a move critics argue is designed to maintain access to Damascus at the expense of millions of civilians living outside of Assad’s control.”

‘I just want my mother’: Syria, Turkey struggle to care for orphans after quakes

In northwestern Syria, locals are furious at both the regime and the United Nations, which critics say has done too little to check Assad’s long-running politicization of aid access. “The U.N.’s failure to respond quickly to this catastrophe is shameful,” wrote Raed Al Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defense, the aid group unofficially known as the White Helmets and famed for their courageous relief work in rebel-held areas.

“Our hope of finding survivors has faded,” he added. “As we pull more dead bodies from the rubble, my heart breaks for every soul that could have been saved and was needlessly lost because we did not get the help we needed in time.”

Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s humanitarian chief, tweeted Sunday an unusual acknowledgment of failure. “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria,” he wrote. “They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived. My duty and our obligation is to correct this failure as fast as we can.”

She lost her husband in the quakes. No one knows how to tell her about her son.

As the focus falls justifiably on a staggering humanitarian crisis, the Assad regime appears to be pressing its advantage. It has cited the earthquake’s aftermath as reason for the West to drop its sanctions on Damascus, suggesting the measures were impeding humanitarian aid. The regime’s opponents dispute this claim, pointing to waivers for humanitarian purposes that have long been in place. After the earthquake, the Biden administration ensured that for 180 days all Syrian transactions on humanitarian grounds that may have fallen afoul of sanctions would not be impeded. (On the back of that news, the Syrian pound has strengthened.)

As much as Assad may have wanted to hail that U.S. decision as a “victory against sanctions,” noted Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute, it is “in fact more of a reiteration of existing U.S. policy — ensuring sanctions have no effect on aid flows — than anything new. The one caveat here is that the Biden administration will need to pay extremely close attention to the possibility that regime allies will seek to conceal sanctionable strategic investments into Syria within activities described as ‘earthquake relief.’”

Beyond what Assad may gain from expanding aid flows into the country — and there are growing concerns over portions of that support getting diverted from needy communities — there’s the broader reality that natural sympathy for the Syrian plight may lead to a regime once ostracized by much of the international community coming out of the cold.

“Assad is trying to exploit the earthquakes to get out of international isolation,” Lina Khatib, director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, told the Associated Press. “His regime’s call for the lifting of sanctions is an attempt at de facto normalization with the international community.”

A week after quakes, survivors in Turkey and Syria still wait for aid

That process was arguably already in motion, especially in Syria’s neighborhood. Countries like the United Arab Emirates, once significant backers of the Syrian opposition, have moved to mend fences with Assad and also promised significant aid in the wake of quake. Saudi Arabia sent its first direct plane flight to Syria in a decade — an aid shipment to regime-controlled Aleppo — last week. Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring that flared Syria’s own uprising, also recently reestablished formal ties with Assad.

The warmth of Arab neighbors may also help change opinions elsewhere. Assad is “trying to rehabilitate his image by showing a willingness to make concessions through negotiations with international actors,” Will Todman, a fellow at Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “These concessions are minor, but his hope is that they will be enough to build a belief in European capitals and elsewhere that engaging with the regime is a productive way to improve conditions for Syrians in need.”

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