‘A crisis on top of multiple crises’: The politics behind humanitarian aid in Syria

As we pass the three-week threshold since devastating earthquakes rocked southern Turkey and northwestern Syria, the social and infrastructural damage wrought by the natural disaster is palpable. With a death toll exceeding 50,000 and a demographic displacement figure of over two million, it is clear that we are witnessing one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. The emergency housing of hundreds of thousands of people in tents – lacking basic provisions – poses troubling questions about the ‘long tail’ of the disaster.


Emotive media reports have chronicled the evolution of this tragedy; from images of children being pulled from rubble to videos charting families’ intense mourning, its events have touched a nerve amongst the international community. This impassioned response has taken on a new meaning as efforts tragically shifted from rescue to retrieval.


But some commentators have been quick to underscore the discrepancy between humanitarian aid efforts in Turkey and Syria. Special advisor to Syrian President Dr Bouthaina Shaaban has questioned the complications with Syrian aid caused by Western sanctions against Syria, suggesting that it reflects the prioritisation of ‘politics’ over ‘humanity’. Similarly, volunteer Al-Saleh bemoans the ‘politically biased’ nature of UN aid work due to the privileging of sovereignty over human lives.


While highlighting the very real need for greater intervention in northwestern Syria, these critiques lack an appreciation of the complex political realities behind the aid divergence. Indeed, the international community’s relative failure in Syria attests to a complicated matrix of conflict, power, and sovereignty.


For Syria, the earthquakes constituted ‘a crisis on top of multiple crises’. Ravaged by civil war since 2011, the country has been the recipient of aid for over a decade to deal with human displacement, disease, and limited access to basic needs. Turkey’s relative stability and infrastructural strength prior to the earthquakes meant that it was better equipped to respond immediately and expansively.


Perhaps most critically, logistical problems of access marred attempts to deliver immediate aid to the victims of the earthquakes. Not only were some affected areas controlled by insurgent forces, but authorities also restricted cross-border efforts through the limitations on access points. While the UN established four border crossings in 2014 for the delivery of aid, the government subsequently closed three of them. Since this singular route was seriously damaged by the tremors, some regions had to cope with no external aid for four days before UN forces and NGOs arrived


While two supplementary access points have been negotiated for a three-month period with President Bashar al-Assad, this resistance has severely impeded rescue and retrieval missions. This meant that lives were needlessly lost, and people garnered a feeling of being ‘left behind’. Affected by both government opposition and the workings of Russia in the Security Council, this reflects the severe consequences of political concerns for the maintenance of sovereignty for the civilian population.


These issues were mirrored in the contestation of aid supply: Syrian UN ambassador Bassam Sabbagh claimed his country should be fully responsible for the delivery of aid into Syria. This neglects the fact that humanitarian partners, detached from the government, are better equipped to supply aid to the people.


Concerning the differential aid responses to Syria, there is a paucity of supply to northwestern regions – even if Russia, Iran, the UAE, Algeria, and Iraq have sent support to government-controlled areas. While this partly depends on the greater magnitude of destruction caused in Turkey in comparison to Syria, it also relates to deeper political concerns.


But the question of whether Syria has been ‘abandoned’, irrespective of these complex political dynamics, remains. Donor fatigue and a failure to intervene in the civil war-related Syrian humanitarian crisis predated the earthquakes; less than half of the $328 million goal set by the UN Children’s Fund’s annual appeal for Syria had been met by early February.


Secretary-General Guterres has pushed hard to ensure the UN is doing more to help Syria, launching a $397 million flash appeal on 14 February to cover three months of aid. Yet these urgings are not enough to grapple with the dire conditions evident in regions affected by the earthquakes, reflected in the 200 Syrian organisations demanding the establishment of an emergency response plan to avert the loss of more lives (as well as an investigation into initial aid delays). This controversy raises broader questions about the efficiency and health of the United Nations as an agent of change, restricted by member-states’ generosity and adherence to international norms.


Another critical charge is that Western sanctions have had a detrimental impact on aid mobilisation and delivery. In opposition to the Assad regime, sanctions have weakened the Syrian state since the war’s inception in the name of instituting ‘democracy’ – indicative of Western states’ long-standing problematic relationship with the Middle East. However, the US and EU have announced a suspension of sanctions for six months to facilitate humanitarian assistance.


While these developments suggest a prioritisation of human security over politics, their effect is estimated to be limited; for some, the real concern lies with Assad’s internal restrictions which inhibit the delivery of aid. This appreciates that while the Syrian people have been unfairly victimised by the sanctions, they are also ‘hostages to [the] regime’.


As reportage on the Syria-Turkey earthquakes lessens, the apparent abandonment of Syria becomes a graver concern. It seems that while critiques of failure regarding humanitarian aid are not unfounded, we must grapple with the nuanced political, military, and diplomatic issues which undergird these issues. Resolving them necessitates a multi-faceted strategy of cooperation and pragmatism – one which the militant Assad regime seems unlikely to provide.


Featured image: Mahmoud Sulaiman on Unsplash

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