February 6, 2023, is a date that is seared into our memories. The world woke up to witness an unprecedented catastrophe unfolding at the Turkish-Syrian border: a devastating earthquake that has swiped away the lives of thousands (16,000 so far) and destroyed entire cities both in Turkey and Syria. The earthquake has hit the northwest provinces of Aleppo and Idlib particularly hard, an area auspiciously not under the control of the Syrian regime. Besides these areas being geographically close to the epicenter – located in Gaziantep, Turkey, about 150 miles from the Syrian border – there certainly are other reasons for the unfathomable destruction caused by the earthquake such as buildings that had been previously damaged by the regime and Russian bombs, and areas heavily populated by internally displaced refugees coming from all other parts of Syria. In the small town of Jendires alone, 22 buildings collapsed completely, erasing entire families.
Bashar Assad, the looter of looters, has seen in the earthquake an unmissable chance to gain points over his “adversaries”
Whereas in the first 24 hours, Syrians seemed to be united in the common tragedy involving them all, in a way or another, during the second and third days, and not surprisingly, old patterns have reappeared. Natural catastrophes have nothing political about them, but they can certainly be used and exploited politically. And as usual, Bashar Assad, the looter of looters, has seen in the earthquake an unmissable chance to gain points over his “adversaries”, that is the people in the liberated North West. First of all, he has immediately called for the lifting of sanctions on Syria. Secondly, he has demanded the international community the faculty to control all the humanitarian aids passing on Syrian soil, with the specific clause that no aid should enter “terrorist” areas. The Syrian minister of foreign affairs has declared: “The Syrian state is ready to let aids enter all areas, provided they do not get to the terrorists in the North.“ On her Instagram, Zayn, Bashar Assad’s daughter, has warned people to donate carefully so that aids could reach Damascus and Latakia and not “terrorist areas.” One of her brothers has made similar statements. In addition to this, we have the repeated maneuvers carried out by the regime and by the organizations connected to it: the use of pictures and videos shot in the North claiming they were for people and buildings in the areas under the control of the regime to collect donations and confuse donors. This tactic is the most revolting and despicable.
despite the UN Security Council’s renewal in January of a resolution that allows humanitarian aid to be delivered to millions of Syrians without his permission, we should expect Assad to continue his strong opposition to the entry of aid through these crossingsFrancesca Scalinci
As I am writing, aid has reached the northwest mainly as pecuniary (monetary) donations. The Bab al Hawa crossing, the only one that has remained open between Turkey and Syria in the past few years, hasn’t been active in the last few days as the roads leading to it had been damaged by the earthquake. Under the pressure of the Syrian Opposition Coalition and part of the international community, this morning Turkey allowed the reopening of the Bab al Salamah and Bab al Rai crossings. So far, as the White Helmets (Syria Civil Defense) and the SOC have confirmed, an Egyptian relief team of 30 experts who will help with the technical search and rescue has been the first to cross from Turkey into northwest Syria. Nevertheless, and despite the UN Security Council’s renewal in January of a resolution that allows humanitarian aid to be delivered to millions of Syrians without his permission, we should expect Assad to continue his strong opposition to the entry of aid through these crossings.
Humanitarian aid as well as food are and have always been veritable weapons for Bashar Assad. In 2014, John Ging, the UN director of operations for the Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, accused the Syrian government of using humanitarian aid as a tactical weapon of war. He said that U.N. aid agencies were having difficulty helping 3.5 million people living in hard-to-reach areas. He was particularly concerned about more than 240,000 civilians living in besieged areas and underlined how medical supplies were being removed from convoys in a strategically abominable way. He also pointed out how only one-fourth of the aid distributed by the UN had actually reached the people who really needed it.
“Denying humanitarian access,” Ging claimed, “is a tactic in this conflict,” and that starvation increases the misery of those in places that are besieged. “In terms of who is taking the medical supplies out of the convoys, it is the government of Syria,” he added.
In several occasions, scholars Mark Ward and Robert Ford have also emphasized how, especially in Syria, humanitarian aid has never been neutral and has always been used to push people opposing the government to surrender. In an article written in 2018, Ward and Ford highlighted how in 2016, 99 UN-led convoys had been allowed to deliver aid to opposition-controlled areas; in 2017, only 55 convoys had been allowed, with medical supplies removed from most of them. Even worse, East Ghouta hadn’t seen a UN truck for more than two months, despite repeated requests from the UN.
the strategy of the Syrian regime has always been the same: controlling humanitarian aid, in particular food and medical supplies, as a way to bring adversaries to their kneesFrancesca Scalinci
This was and is of course in total contradiction with the mission of UN agencies, which are governed by international humanitarian law and are supposed to be neutral, i.e., addressed to all people in need on all sides of a conflict. Yet, in all these years, the strategy of the Syrian regime has always been the same: controlling humanitarian aid, in particular food and medical supplies, as a way to bring adversaries to their knees. How can we forget Rukban Camp and the Syrian regime hindering the UN’s attempts to deliver aid to a group of people languishing in the desert? It was because of the weaponization of humanitarian aid in Rukban that thousands chose to go back to regime areas where they have been arrested and tortured. And how can we forget Russia and China, Assad’s long-time allies, opposing the Bab al Hawa crossing being kept open so aid could be delivered to civilians in northern Syria? As a matter of fact, the list is endless.
Assad regime will exploit this catastrophe in an effort to conquer more ground and finalize its rehabilitation in front of the international communityFrancesca Scalinci
What we now know, in all certainty, is that the Assad regime will exploit this catastrophe in an effort to conquer more ground and finalize its rehabilitation in front of the international community. However, with almost 16,000 dead and search efforts far from being over, as well as hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians whose lives have become infinitely more difficult than they already were, it is vital for us to spread correct information so that aid donors can choose wisely and not allow their donations to be used as weapons against those who have repeatedly been through the most extreme and traumatizing experiences a human being can live through.