Disaster upon disaster in Syria

Bassel Oudat , Tuesday 21 Feb 2023

The aftermath of the earthquake that struck northwestern Syria earlier this month has added to the suffering already caused by the country’s long-running civil war, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Disaster upon disaster in Syria


Search and rescue operations for the survivors of the earthquake that struck northwestern Syria and southern Turkey on 6 February have now ended. The earthquake killed more than 6,000 people in Syria alone, the majority of whom were in Syria’s northwestern regions that are under opposition control.

Operations have now moved into a relief phase, with aid being given to the survivors and the displaced whose homes have been destroyed, without any promises being made of building replacement homes. The focus of relief deliveries has been to provide enough tents for the tens of thousands of people who no longer have a roof over their heads.

One week after the earthquake struck, the international community also attempted to rectify its failures towards the Syrian people, especially in areas controlled by the opposition. Some countries sent some aid, but nowhere near in sufficient quantities, and this was unevenly distributed between opposition-controlled and regime-controlled areas, according to the Syrian opposition.

The Syria Response Coordinators Group, a rescue organisation, said the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad had grabbed 64 per cent of the aid, while the opposition areas had only received 36 per cent. It said that the humanitarian aid reaching northern Syria only covered eight per cent of the needs of the victims.

Figures published by the Response Coordinators revealed that the areas under regime control had received 166 cargo planes from 22 countries carrying more than 8,500 tons of aid and more than 324 shipments of humanitarian aid via land and sea loaded with the same amount.

Meanwhile, the UN aid had been half this amount. In northwestern Syria, the worst struck region by the earthquake, foreign aid amounted to 6,500 tons and 5,300 tons in local aid. This is less than half of what regime areas received.

Many opposition figures have talked about corruption in the distribution of aid by the regime, and relief organisations affiliated with it have accused it of stealing a large part of the donated humanitarian aid. They claim that the regime gave some of the aid to its affiliated militias and is selling the rest to stricken survivors.

These accusations parallel similar ones made by US Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said that the Syrian regime had not been an honest broker or could be trusted to receive aid sent to the Syrian people.

Menendez said there was a need to maintain independent routes for humanitarian aid to reach the Syrian people away from the hands of the regime.

Not only has there been a lack of aid and assistance for northwestern Syria, the displacement of about 170,000 people from their homes, and the loss of hope that new homes will be built for the victims, but other problems are also facing people in the devastated region in southern Turkey.

In the Hatay Province alone, which the Turkish government has classified as the worst stricken by the earthquake, some 430,000 Syrians have made it their home for the past six to nine years. After the earthquake, they were displaced again and lost their alternative home.

Some of them have decided to go to other provinces to look for work, while some 16,000 Syrians have headed back to northern Syria, now that the Turkish government is permitting Syrians in southern Turkey to go to northern Syria for three to six months and then return.

Politically, the Syrian regime has taken advantage of the natural disaster to make gains on the political stage and attempt to end its international isolation. It is focusing on nurturing diplomatic moves by some countries, especially some Arab states, to restore relations, and the regime will keep these open, even if only on the humanitarian level.

The regime has agreed to the UN demand to open more border crossings to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered to areas under opposition control, and it has also agreed to receive aid from Saudi Arabia at Aleppo International Airport.

“The regime is hoping to accrue the greatest possible benefit from this disaster on the political level to accelerate normalising relations with the Arab countries,” said Saeed Moqbel, an opposition analyst. “It may even partially succeed. It is trying to disclaim some crimes and attribute some of the destruction caused by the Civil War to the earthquake.”

The regime is also taking advantage of calamity on the economic level, where international and Arab aid is a lifeline to support and improve economic conditions in the country. It is trying to put pressure on international and UN agencies to send all material and financial aid through it and is insisting that it receives aid through Syrian organisations under its control.

It is also forcing international agencies to exchange dollars at the Central Bank of Syria at a lower rate than the market price.

Fawaz Hadad, an opposition commentator, said that such actions had “confirmed people’s lack of confidence in the regime.” He added that people feared there could be retaliatory measures in the absence of international support.

“Al-Assad views himself as the sole representative of Syria at the UN,” said Radwan Ziyadeh, an opposition researcher. “Therefore, funds should be dispersed to him, and he personally receives condolences on behalf of those killed in the earthquake.”

In the meantime, the tragedy of the Syrian people continues, as the aftermath of the earthquake compounds the repercussions of the conflict in the country. Humanitarian conditions are worsening, and there are no signs of a political solution to the crisis in the country that is approved by the international community and the UN.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 23 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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