The delivery of humanitarian aid in Syria, after the earthquakes that occurred on Monday, is coming up against many logistical, political and geopolitical obstacles, between the difficulties of accessing the disaster areas and the embarrassment of dealing with the regime of Bashar al- Asad.
“It is imperative that everyone sees this situation for what it is: a humanitarian crisis in which lives are at stake. Please do not politicize it”, launched Tuesday February 7 the spokesperson of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jens Laerke. Hours after the earthquakes hit southern Turkey and northern Syria, emergency aid was on its way to Turkey.
Four days later, however, she is still struggling to arrive in Syria. Because in this country at war for twelve years, fragmented between areas held by Bashar al-Assad’s regime and territories in the hands of opposition groups, coming to the aid of the affected population involves coming up against logistical obstacles, political and diplomatic.
“Faced with a disaster of this magnitude, we would have imagined a mobilized world and a kind of general and temporary truce to help the victims. Alas, in this torn region, at the center of multiple tensions, this is totally illusory”, laments Fabrice Balanche, lecturer in geography at the University Lumière Lyon 2.
The delivery of this humanitarian aid is however crucial, hammer in concert the NGOs, in particular in the rebel zones where the situation was already dramatic. Even before the earthquakes, the north-west of Syria was home, according to the UN, to 2.9 million displaced persons and 4 million inhabitants in need of winter assistance.
“There are thousands of people to be sheltered, thousands of others who are waiting for health care or surgical operations”, insists Jean-François Corty, associate researcher at Iris and member of the board of administration of Doctors of the World. “Not to mention that the earthquakes will make it even more difficult to access water and hygiene in this territory where cholera has been resurfacing for several months.”
“Erdogan is playing his re-election”
Usually, almost all the humanitarian aid in these rebel areas is sent from Turkey via the Bab al-Hawa corridor, the only crossing point on the border, guaranteed by a resolution of the United Nations Security Council. However, it was affected by the earthquakes, the UN said on Tuesday. The precariousness of access to these territories was thus highlighted: the north-west of Syria found itself totally isolated for several days.
A first convoy was finally able to be organized on Thursday. Composed of six trucks transporting blankets, mattresses, tents, emergency equipment and solar lamps, it should cover the needs of around 5,000 people, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
“Initially, three other passages existed but they were deleted under pressure from Russia and China,” laments Jean-François Corty. “It is essential to reopen them to facilitate the establishment of humanitarian corridors to Turkey”.
A request relayed Thursday by the Secretary General of the UN, Antonio Guterres: “I would obviously be very happy if the Security Council could find a consensus to authorize more crossing points”, he hoped, while Ankara said it is working to open two other border crossings.
According to Fabrice Balanche, this Turkish ambition could however be quickly overtaken by political logic. “We must not forget that we are three months away from legislative and presidential elections. However, with this tragedy, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is playing his re-election”, he believes. “While criticism is already pouring in against him, denouncing his response as ‘too slow’, it’s a safe bet that he will prefer to give priority to his population benefiting from the humanitarian aid sent to his territory – before sending him to its Syrian neighbour.”
A region torn apart by civil war
“And even if the aid manages to get through, its distribution could pose a problem”, laments the geographer. “The region affected by the earthquake can be divided into four areas, each controlled by a different group. On the one hand, the city of Aleppo and its surroundings which are in the hands of the government of Bashar al-Assad. on the other hand, the rebel areas with the Idleb region, controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS heir to the Al-Qaeda group), those along the Turkish border with pro-Turkish rebels and those in the east, held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). And these four areas are sometimes themselves divided by different factions and militias”.
“Each group will try to pull the blanket towards them and take advantage of this situation,” he denounces. “Everyone, from a clientelist perspective, will try to instrumentalize humanitarian aid.”
“For example, in the region of Afrin, which is controlled by pro-Turkish rebels, more than half of the Kurdish population was expelled in 2018. It seems impossible to me that suddenly they would agree to share humanitarian aid international cooperation with the Syrian Democratic Forces.”
For NGOs and states, the other solution would be to send aid directly from Syrian territory controlled by Damascus. A request that the government of Bashar al-Assad also explicitly formulated on Tuesday, urging the international community to come to its aid and promising that this would benefit “all Syrians throughout the territory”.
Fabrice Balanche does not believe it: “As for the rebel groups, Bashar al-Assad’s long-term objective remains to regain control of the whole country. And for that, what better than to let them ‘weaken ?”. A hypothesis shared by the great reporter Samuel Forey on France 24.
The international community in trouble
If today, 95 countries responded to Turkey’s request for help, Syria, for its part, could first count only on its Russian ally, then in a second time on the United Arab Emirates. , Iran and Egypt.
Faced with the urgency of the situation, the European Union and the United States, which have severed all diplomatic relations with Damascus, seem to be looking for half-hearted solutions. On Thursday, France announced emergency aid to all Syrian regions, while insisting that this did not change the “political approach” of Paris vis-à-vis the Damascus regime. The same goes for the United States: “We are determined to bring aid to the Syrian people as we have done for years as the first provider of international aid,” said Secretary of State Antony Blinken Wednesday. “But the funds will go to the Syrian people and not to the government in Damascus.”
For their part, some Arab countries have resumed contact and sent aid to President Bashar al-Assad as he was ostracized since his exclusion from the Arab League at the end of 2011. The United Arab Emirates, the first Gulf country to have restored its relations with Damascus, have already promised aid of at least 50 million dollars and sent planes loaded with humanitarian aid. Saudi Arabia, which severed ties with Damascus in 2012 and backed the opposition early in the conflict, has also pledged aid, including to government-held areas. Qatar, accused of having financed the armed opposition to Bashar al-Assad and which has not yet normalized its relations, has also promised its help.
According to Nick Heras, a researcher at the New Lines Institute, interviewed by AFP, these earthquakes could thus be an opportunity for Bashar al-Assad “to try to advance the process of normalization of his regime with the rest of the world. Arab.” Enough to help the country gradually emerge from its isolation and transform a disaster into a political opportunity for the Syrian president.
Source: France 24