The challenges earthquake aid faces in Syria

Summary: as the death toll from the 6 February earthquakes that hit Türkiye and Syria rises past 35,000 the situation of getting humanitarian aid to Syrian survivors is deeply compromised by internal and external rivalries created by Syria’s 12 year civil war.

We thank Neil Partrick for today’s newsletter which is an edited version of his blog. You can find the full article here. Neil is a freelance analyst of the Arabian Peninsula and wider Middle East. He is currently working on a book entitled State Functionality in the Middle East and North Africa.

The US Treasury’s 9 February waiving of sanctions that affect sending humanitarian aid into Syria via NGOs and International Organisations is both good news and bad. It makes it easier for third party non-governmental bodies to act in Syria without fearing that they’ll be in contravention of US sanctions. However, with the Damascus government still demanding that any aid, earthquake related or not, enter Syria via airports or border crossings that it controls, and be processed under Syrian state auspices then any increased aid flow due to the latest US announcement will be confined to the one currently working and internationally-approved land crossing.

Bab Al-Hawa straddles Türkiye’s de facto security zone inside Syria’s north-west where Ankara’s Syrian Islamist allies mostly have local authority. That border was shut for the first four days of the earthquake until the Turkish government allowed prearranged aid lorries to cross via a partly destroyed road. The US would in theory be happy for the Turkish or Iraqi crossings into the Syrian Kurdish-led Syrian north-east to be fully opened too. However this remains vetoed by Russia and China at the UN Security Council, and, in practise, by Türkiye on the ground. Ankara still wishes the PKK-linked Syrian Kurdish self-declared autonomous zone to be squeezed. (Other that is, of course, than the managed Syrian (Kurdish) oil trade with its Iraqi Kurdish brethren. Under Iraqi Kurdish (KDP) auspices, and via well-connected Turkish middlemen, this sees most of Syria’s oil exports arriving in Turkey without any revenue for the Damascus government.)

None of this is good news for ordinary Syrians. Their humanitarian plight, especially those who were already, pre-earthquake, unaffected by what came in or out of Bab Al-Hawa, was in any case precarious at best and clearly the situation is made worse by the unresolved 12 year civil war. However actions and inactions on the Turkish side are compounding Syrian suffering, whether it’s those displaced Syrians resident in earthquake affected Turkish territory or Syrians resident inside Syria. The Turkish politics behind tightly managed Turkish-Syrian border crossing points, and the ineptness of AFAD (the Turkish state body nominally responsible for disaster management) in its own country, are a double whammy for Syrians at this terrible time.

Message to the world from Syria
Graffitti after the earthquake in Northern Syria: “We Died…Thank you for your betrayal.” [photo credit: @Balaayekhudaa]
There are other aspects to Syria’s particular problem in dealing with the earthquake inside its official borders too. Crossing points between Syrian government-controlled territory and those parts of Iraq under the ostensible control of the Iraqi state, but in practise of the mostly Iranian-friendly Iraqi militia groups organised as Hashed Al-Shaabi (PMU), could in theory be proffering a lot more aid for Syria. That’s as opposed to their more typical border trade in men and materiel heading west in support of the Damascus leadership’s ongoing civil war with other parts of nominal Syrian state territory.

If for example Iraq’s western border crossing at Qaim, Anbar, which meets the Euphrates-based Syrian town of Al-Bu Kamal, was used by an Iraqi or an Iranian development/aid/humanitarian ‘NGO’ to funnel aid directly to ordinary Syrian victims of the earthquake in territory under Syrian Government control, this would seemingly not contravene the otherwise all-powerful US sanctions on Syria. Indeed the latest US Treasury ruling on sanctions and aid to Syrian earthquake victims says that the US sanctions regime on Syria already allowed for humanitarian aid to territory inside Syria – including that under Syrian Government control – as long as it is provided via ‘third parties’ i.e. presumably aid-orientated NGO/INGO bodies.

If Iranian ‘NGOs’ were talking about providing aid to Syria by this route, this could fall victim to Iraqi government sensibilities about US sanctions on the Iranian state/state-related bodies and their senior apparatchiks. However there are plenty such Iraqi aid bodies and charities that cannot easily be judged to be state-related i.e. ‘GONGOS’. Furthermore, the proven capability of various Hashed Al-Shaabi militia to exercise for themselves what otherwise would be judged Iraqi sovereign state decisions, surely means that Iraqi, even Iranian aid, for Syria could indeed, should it be so willed, be funnelled via the large swathes of the Iraqi border with Syria that the Hashed Al-Shaabi controls.

In other words there is a lot more to the Syrian humanitarian crisis – massively compounded by the earthquake in its and Türkiye’s territory – than apparent US-sanctioned cruelty. That said, the Al-Tanf crossing from Iraq into Syria, where the latter’s southern border also runs close to Jordan, is essentially a US military area with a US camp that, should the American political will be there, could be the forward base for funnelling a massive supply of aid into Syria, regardless of who the Syrian ‘partner’ was. Likewise aid could come via Jordan whose border crossing points into Syria have long been part of western and some other Arab states’ isolation of the Damascus leadership. Aid could in theory come too via the buffeted but still relevant US military presence inside the Syrian Kurdish-run north-east that otherwise secures Syria’s oil for the benefit of the Syrian Kurds. The Russian naval base at the Mediterranean port of Tartus, and Russian aircraft operating in support of the Syrian regime, could obviously do the same without worrying about US sanctions.

Tackling the political and practical problem of aid to Syria necessitates dealing with the fact that it is not so much a state, as series of mini-states where authority is either relatively fixed but still fluid, or just fluid. There is the 70% of Syria in territorial terms that the Damascus leadership controls whether through official or sub-state or Russian and Iranian allies; the aforementioned autonomous Syrian (Kurdish-led) north and north-east whose battle lines with the Syrian state ‘proper’ are often in flux; the Turkish-backed northern and north-western Syrian enclaves where largely the writ of Sunni Islamists runs including Al-Qaida descendants Haya Tahrir Al-Sham, as well as that of what is these days effectively a Syrian mercenary force, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (aka the Syrian National Army of the Syrian National Council); and the constant movement in authority throughout great swathes of the Syrian south where Syrian Islamist rebels, Syrian government-related forces, Shia Islamist militia groups dominated by Hashed Al-Shaabi, and a diminished Russian and, as mentioned, US presence are all part of the mix. The south of Syria is still essentially stateless as opposed to the competing state/would-be state forces in the rest of the country.

Any meaningful initiative to tackle the short and longer term humanitarian needs of the Syrian people has to somehow negotiate its way through this complex of competing state, sub-state and anti—state forces, whether Syrian or foreign. Russia and Iran – active military players in the Syrian conflict and the Syrian state’s security –  plainly have to be as much part of any solution as Turkey or the USA.

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