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Politization of the Earthquake

Part two: International and regional aid to affected areas in Syria

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1. Introduction

On February 20, Syria and Türkiye were hit by another two earthquakes on a scale of 6.3 and 5.8. Only two weeks after the 7.8 earthquakes, the tremble again led to deaths and major destruction of infrastructure. In the midst of this disaster, aid has been quick to reach Türkiye. It has been a challenge, however, to get aid to the affected areas in north and west Syria, especially those that are not under government control, like Sheikh Maqsoud, and al ashrafia.


Tevin is currently publishing a series of papers on the aftermath of the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria. Part one of this series described the main reasons for the delay or non-arrival of external aid to earthquake-affected areas in Syria, in addition to the damage to logistical and access infrastructure. It found these to be the politization of aid, miscoordination, corruption, and discrimination.


This paper will look at these elements from an international perspective, focusing on external aid to the affected areas in Syria. It will focus specifically on aid provided by Iraq and the UN as examples of regional and international aid and reflect on how this is affected by or affects the politicization of aid to north and west Syria.


The series of papers are based on witness accounts inside the affected areas as well as direct information from officials and aid workers, and focus on the social, economic, and political implications of the disaster. For this paper, Tevin spoke to around seven contacts from inside Syria and Iraq, and from the UN.


2. The current context

The total number of flights that arrived at the airports of Damascus, Aleppo, and Lattakia, from where aid was distributed to those affected by the earthquake, has reached 256 aircrafts so far according to the Director General of Civil Aviation in Syria, Bassem Mansour. Only 127 Emirates aircrafts have arrived. The total amount of aid that reached Syria is 7,200 tons.


The number of aid trucks that entered north and west Syria from Turkey by the UN from the moment of the earthquake until February 28 has reached 423 trucks. in addition to the aid trucks provided by international organizations and the Syrian community abroad, according to the data of the Syrian interim government and the border crossings with Turkey, the number of trucks that entered Syria was 1143 trucks.


All these efforts have so far not been able to bridge even a small part of the needs, given the size of the disaster that in Syria alone has, according to the latest statistics, led to 5.951 deaths. This while the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency (AFAD) counted 44,374 deaths, raising the death toll of the two countries to 50,325 people. This in addition to more than 115,000 wounded, the UN estimated the number of those affected at around 23 million and that those who have become homeless in the two countries are estimated to amount to 5.3 million.


As Tevin’s previous paper pointed out, political considerations have formed an obstacle to aid arriving to the earthquake-affected areas, whether this is due to the direct politicization of aid for political gains, miscoordination between differing parties, or discrimination based on political interests. Aid has, for example, been prevented from entering both SDF-controlled areas and areas controlled by Turkish-allied factions. In addition, much of the aid that gets through is kept by factions and distributed based on partiality. The previous paper also pointed out that almost all affected regions were dependent on local initiatives and individual efforts, rather than external aid.


3. Regional and international aid: breaking Assad´s isolation

Despite these obstacles, external aid has reached certain affected areas inside north and west Syria. 30 countries have sent aid to the Syrian government, which amounted to thousands of tons of aid.


A distinction should be made here between aid arriving through bilateral initiatives, meaning from countries directly to the Syrian government, and aid channeled through multilateral institutions, such as the UN. According to Tevin’s contact person, there is a lack of clarity on all the different initiatives on the ground (private, local, international, and bilateral aid), and how the different types of aid are dealt with by the Syrian government. This includes a lack of monitoring systems and risk-management structures for the different kinds of aid.


From a regional perspective, the Syrian government, which was completely isolated from the outside world, except for its Russian, Iranian, China, and Belarusian allies, found itself in front of a historic opportunity to break its isolation. The earthquake led to the opening of diplomatic channels with the government in Syria. After a break that lasted more than a decade, Bashar al-Assad received phone calls from the Jordanian and Bahraini monarch and the Egyptian president. And for the first time since 2011, the UAE Foreign Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Jordan, Ayman Al -Safadi, visited Damascus to meet Assad, the first of its kind since the outbreak of the dispute between the two neighbors. Other official delegations also traveled to Damascus from Kuwait and Lebanon on unprecedented visits. Official Syrian media focused on the aid from Arab countries and diplomatic moves towards the government and Assad.


Damascus insisted on working only through the Syrian government in getting aid to the affected areas, and the government announced its approval to facilitate the delivery of aid to all areas, including those that are outside its control. All aircrafts that transported relief aid and trucks carrying aid to the airport were exempted from fees, in addition to securing six presidential chambers to receive official delegations, according to the director of Damascus International Airport, Bashar Ghaffra. Despite this, the Syrian government is an obstacle for the arrival of aid from the self -administration to both the Sheikh Maksoud and Al -Shuhaifa neighborhood in Aleppo.


Indicators of Assad’s breaking isolation were not limited to humanitarian aid. The delegation of the Arab Parliamentary Union visiting Damascus, on February 26, was also an indication of improving relations. The delegation included the heads of the House of Representatives in Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Libya, Egypt, and the UAE, in addition to deputies from the Sultanate of Oman and Lebanon.


Some governments have used the earthquake as an opportunity to restore relations. For example, Turkey has recently made moves to reform its relations with Syria. The joint disaster can provide the pretext necessary to accelerate this process, and first steps were taken to open two border crossings between the countries, which was considered an urgent measure for the introduction of aid.


4. Regional aid: the example of Iraq

Iraq was quick to mobilize humanitarian efforts to both Türkiye and Syria. Both the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) and a team from the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs were among the first to send aid and rescue teams through Iraqi Air Force planes to Gaziantep and Diyarbakir in Türkiye, and Damascus and Aleppo in Syria. Aid was also provided through trucks that crossed into Syria from Iraq through the Al-Qaim border crossing.


Aid is provided in coordination with the Syrian Red Cross, which distributes it to other parts of Syria. The Iraqi Kurdistan region also sent a number of trucks to the Afrin region in Syria through Türkiye’s Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which was open following a resolution issued by the UN Security Council (2672), into Opposition-controlled areas.


In addition to aid sent by the Iraqi government, non-government actors have also set up aid initiatives. The Barzani Charity Foundation, for example, managed to get aid to Afrin. The Kurdistan region Government also send aid to Baghdad to send to Syrian government-controlled areas.


Iraqi civil society actors are also contributing to aid distribution in Türkiye and Syria. One person from civil society who Tevin spoke to, described setting up initiatives such as collecting supplies, providing financial support, and cooperating with local organizations inside Syria. This latter, they described, is the primary means to provide aid to non-government-controlled areas as they are otherwise difficult to reach. Cooperation with local civil society inside Syria was described to be done through international NGO networks, and Tevin’s contact person mentioned cooperation between Iraqi and Syrian civil society through NEAR.


When it comes to official government channels, Tevin’s contact person mentioned that bilateral coordination with Türkiye is easier than with Syria, because the latter is divided when it comes to controlling on the ground and is diplomatically sensitive.


5. International aid: the example of the UN

When it comes to the international community, there is a hesitance to coordinate aid efforts with a government that is not recognized as legitimate and fear that any aid that will be provided through Damascus will be used for its own political interests. Many countries, therefore, opt to provide aid through multilateral institutions such as the UN.


Reports mentioned that UN aid has passed aid through Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam and Al-Ra’ee after the Syrian government authorized to open these two borders for a three-month period. Tevin’s contact person also mentioned that on February 9, the first UN aid convoy passed through the Bab al-Hawa crossing into Idlib. This shipment, however, was due before the earthquake, and as such does not contain the needed supplies for the reach and rescue teams within Syria.


A major challenge to UN aid to Syria, according to Tevin’s contact person, is the lack of capacity by the Syrian government to absorb the aid due to a lack of awareness on response systems. The Syrian government, they said, was unprepared to receive both bilateral and multilateral aid. For example, it could not immediately deploy the rescue teams that arrived in the direct aftermath of the earthquakes due to a lack of coordination and it does not have a structure to coordinate aid distribution. Furthermore, as the Tevin’s contact person emphasized, the UN support that has arrived in Syria has been proportionately less than the support Türkiye received.


When providing aid to Syria, the UN has implemented its structures of monitoring aid distribution and risk management. It was also able to establish a number of operation rooms with the Syrian government for better coordination with authorities. The UN also works with well-established local partners such as the Syrian Red Crescent that have good implementing and monitoring capacities.


However, the bilateral aid that arrived through other governments directly to the Syrian government cannot be tracked, and it is not possible to confirm the aid delivery mechanisms that the Damascus government has in place. There have been many reports of the theft of this aid.


In addition to the challenge of coordination and monitoring the distribution of aid, it is also important, according to Tevin’s contact person, to make sure assistance is provided through proper mechanisms to those in need irrespective of the political position of the government.

6. Conclusion

Affected regions outside of government control are still mainly dependent on aid from local organizations and efforts by Syrians inside and outside of Syria at an individual level. As such, the most vulnerable remain without the necessary equipment and support to help their friends and family members.


Challenges to external aid arriving in the affected areas in north and west Syria are formed by both the damage to logistical and access infrastructure, the politicization of aid by actors inside Syria, and the lack of capacities to coordinate aid by the Syrian government. Both aid from regional governments and non-governmental organizations as well as from the international community is hampered and geographically limited.


The Syrian government is demanding that all aid flows go through their official channels. The engagement of regional actors with the Syrian government, as well as international aid flowing to government-controlled areas through official channels, has increased the Syrian government’s political legitimacy. Some have expressed the need to cooperate with the Syrian government, despite the political implications, given the dire situation inside Syria. An alternative to channeling aid through official channels in Syria is to go through local NGOs. Yet, the support that can be provided to these local actors is limited, as entering the material and financial aid is difficult.


7. Recommendations

1. Aid intensification:

  • Emergency assistance: People inside Syria continue to need emergency assistance.

  • Long-term assistance: Including psychological support, but also support for reform mechanisms to hold aid distribution accountable.

2. Separating the humanitarian track from the political track:

  • Use of open crossings: Political pressure from regional and international actors to use more border crossings.

  • Liaison areas within Syria: The need for better coordination within the different affected areas in Syria.

  • Support framework: Create support rooms in the context of already existing international frameworks, such as the UN Office of the Special Envoy for Syria, that focus on strengthening local civil society's post-earthquake capacity.

3. All local, regional, and international parties must take the earthquake as an example in order to end the conflict in Syria, and they must work urgently to implement Security Council Resolution 2254 for a lasting peace in Syria.

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