The earthquakes that pulverized southern Turkiye and northern Syria on Feb. 6 are, for the uninitiated, just plain natural disasters. Yet, especially within Syria, mankind had prepared the ground to magnify every element of the horror. In the aftermath, emergency aid has only trickled into northern Syria. It remains too late, too little.
Syria had become the forgotten country. The needs there have been growing while the aid was decreasing. More Syrians were in need of aid in December than at any point since the war began. Most of the reported fatalities from within Syria were in the opposition-controlled areas of northwest Syria. Here, out of a population of 4.6 million, 4.1 million were in need of aid prior to the earthquakes. Just under a quarter of Syria’s population is crammed into 4 percent of its territory. Overall, all the aid appeals remain grossly underfunded. In total, 15.3 million people in Syria were in need of aid prior to the earthquakes.
These are not just numbers, statistics used to decorate routine UN reports. Every single one of these 15 million people has a complex and telling story. Now, millions have an additional chapter to this never-ending story of loss and suffering. The TV cameras will leave, as they always do, and attention will leave with them. Haiti, for example, is still recovering from the 2010 disaster that killed more than 300,000 people, but few notice.
But is there an opportunity, a mini window to create a silverish lining to all this horror? If we are to give any meaning to the grandiose statements of the good and the great of standing in solidarity with the Syrian people, the international community has to make a major step change, rustling up hitherto unseen courage.
Firstly, we must stop dealing with Syria as if it was in permanent emergency relief mode. You cannot persist with an approach of a short-term emergency response to a long-term disaster. One Syrian told me: “It’s as if we have been treated like an earthquake zone for the last 12 years.” People need to rebuild their lives and their homes, not just exist precariously on aid handouts. Schools and hospitals must be rebuilt; doctors, nurses and teachers trained.
Yes, there are legitimate fears that the Syrian regime will abuse any aid to Syria, but this has been happening for years. Along with the trade in Captagon, international aid provides the regime with its richest revenue stream of hard currency. The existing system is benefiting the regime and its cronies. Let us stop pretending this is being tough on Bashar Assad. Secondly, end the farce over cross-border aid. One border crossing at Bab Al-Hawa is insufficient. The UN Security Council debates the cross-border mechanism every six months. The next due date is in July.
Aid requires access but access has been a political question, abused by varying parties. This has to end. Millions of Syrians are totally dependent on the Bab Al-Hawa crossing. The beneficiaries of aid are meant to be the Syrian people, even though Russian diplomats at the UN keep arguing that the cross-border aid should be for the benefit of the Syrian government in Damascus. A temporary agreement with reluctant consent from Damascus a whole week after the earthquakes has permitted two additional border crossings to be opened for three months only. One wonders why the Syrian regime will not agree to all five border crossings with Turkiye being opened, and for longer.
The reality is that UN Security Council approval is not an absolute requirement for cross-border aid. Assistance can be provided based on international law. The International Court of Justice has ruled that “there can be no doubt that the provision of strictly humanitarian aid to persons or forces in another country, whatever their political affiliations or objectives, cannot be regarded as unlawful intervention, or as in any other way contrary to international law.”Rather than use the UN, individual governments, including the US and European states, could provide aid directly. They could do this without the restrictions the UN faces and far more rapidly. The UN has been cumbersome and held back by the regime and its allies, which have shown no interest in the well-being of Syrians.
Thirdly, proper governance is required in the northwest of Syria, as it also is for the rest of Syria. No sovereign authority exists in northwest Syria. No single body can officially request international aid. In any rebuilding program, who will make sure that proper standards are upheld? Many of the pancaked structures collapsed because of wildcat building with no regulations. As much as anything, local residents should be empowered. They should be given the tools and means to rebuild using locally available materials. However, a local authority has to ensure this meets the requisite standards. Local councils used to exist in opposition areas, but donors withdrew support.
Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a group that has publicly, if dubiously, claimed to have ended its links with Al-Qaeda, is the dominant power in Idlib. It has been accused of blocking aid. It is repressive and not part of the solution. Those actors that continue to allow it to flourish have to be pressured to end that support. Turkiye has to stop all support for Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. Turkish officials deny any collusion, but Ankara could do so much more to weaken the extremist group if it wanted to. A strategy to defeat or at least diminish its power is essential.
Fourthly, sanctions reform has to be engaged. This is for the US and the EU, the main sanctioning parties. Adapting sanctions does not automatically equal helping the regime. In fact, if responsibly and carefully handled, empowering Syrians locally will take power away from Damascus. Conversely, an enfeebled population scrounging for bread is easier to control. Prolonged sanctions help the regime, as they have done in Iraq, Iran, Cuba, North Korea, Libya and elsewhere.
Finally, for the fractured, dismembered remnants of Syria to have any future, a political solution is vital. The state has to function properly for effective reconstruction and rehabilitation. This will not be easy, but it should not be ducked. A policy of inertia because a brutal regime in Damascus survives only prolongs that regime and the people’s suffering. The international community should revert to a political process they have long since abandoned.