The human toll of the devastating earthquake that hit southwestern Turkiye and northwestern Syria last week continues to unfold. By Monday noon the death toll in both regions had reached a horrific 36,000 deaths with more than 100,000 injured. An unknown number of victims are still trapped under the rubble. The extraction period will take time and effort. Millions have been affected by the disaster and hundreds of thousands of survivors are now in desperate need of shelter, food and medicines. This is a humanitarian catastrophe whose full dimensions will take many years to understand as both countries move from salvaging operations to reconstruction.
While almost 100 countries stepped in to help Turkiye deal with the disaster, by sending search-and-rescue teams, medical supplies and sophisticated sensor equipment, less than 20 states, most of them Arab, responded to the calamity in Syria. The situation there remains uncertain, complicated by years of civil war, economic sanctions against the Syrian government and logistical hurdles. It took four to five days before aid convoys began trickling through the border crossing between southern Turkiye and the beleaguered rebel-held province of Idlib. No one knows how many lives were lost there because of delays resulting from cautious political calculations and internal squabbling.
Certainly many lives would have been saved if it wasn’t for Western-imposed sanctions against Damascus and the complex situation in rebel-held areas. On Saturday, Martin Griffiths, the under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs at the United Nations and emergency relief coordinator, tweeted after visiting the Turkiye-Syria border: “We have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
It took until Thursday for the US embassy in Damascus to announce that “Our sanctions programs do not target humanitarian assistance and permit activities in support of humanitarian assistance, including in regime-held areas. The US is committed to providing immediate, life-saving humanitarian assistance to help all affected communities recover.”
Still political squabbling has hindered the flow of aid convoys to rebel-held areas. The Syrian government is hesitant to allow aid to move from its territory to that of the opposition. Likewise, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which is in control of most of Idlib, said that allowing aid to come from the regime-held areas would be tantamount to recognition of its legitimacy. It would only accept aid moving through the border, but then that also raised objections from outside parties. Moscow and Damascus want aid from Turkiye to go through one recognized border point, while the US demanded that all border crossings between southern Turkiye and northern Syria be open for aid convoys. By late Monday, Griffiths announced that some of these objections had been resolved. The UN Security Council was to meet on Monday to discuss the situation in northwestern Syria, while EU officials were debating ways to override some of the sanctions in order to deliver humanitarian help to Damascus. The failure by the international community in delivering life-saving aid to the Syrian people has exposed the serious shortcomings of sanctions as an economic weapon deployed to achieve political goals. The debate has renewed over the efficacy of sanctions and whether they do deliver.
Sanctions almost never work in achieving their objectives, whether it is altering regime behavior or effecting regime change. They never worked in Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela and Iran. They never worked in Iraq, even though then US ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, told an interviewer in 1996 that “the price is worth it” when asked about the death of half a million Iraqi children as a result of her country’s sanctions. In the end the US invaded Iraq in 2003, after falsifying evidence, and toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Sanctions never hurt the leaders of the targeted country. But they do harm the civilian population and undermine the civilian infrastructure, as is the case of Syria, Iran and Afghanistan. The earthquake disaster has exposed how the government in Syria was ill-prepared to deal with the humanitarian crisis there. The US Caesar Act of 2019, ironically titled the Syria Civilian Protection Act, has failed the Syrian people and did nothing to advance a political process to end the civil war or rid the country of foreign intervention. Writing in Foreign Policy in January of last year, geopolitical expert, Anchal Vohra, said: “Western sanctions that banned reconstruction of any sort, including of power plants and pulverized cities, certainly exacerbated Syrians’ miseries and eliminated any chance of recovery.”
The catastrophic event that hit Syria’s population must present an opportunity to revisit sanctions as a blunt tool that hurts the very people it claims to support, while pushing state actors to revive efforts to kick-start a political process that would end the unpardonable suffering of millions of Syrians. The shameful response by the international community to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is a stain on humanity.