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Syria: the earthquake reopens the question of sanctions against Damascus and the sending of aid to rebel areas

Following the ongoing civil war since 2011, the country is substantially divided into three parts: the areas controlled by the government; a part controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces; an opposition-controlled pocket in the northwest

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The two earthquakes of magnitude 7.8 and 7.6 with epicenter in the Turkish province of Kahramanmaras which devastated southern Turkey and the north-western and northern part of Syria have brought to light the problem of access to international aid by the Syrian population in the areas managed by armed groups opposing the government of Bashar al Assad and Western sanctions against the regime in Damascus. Following the ongoing civil war since 2011, the country is essentially divided into three parts: the areas controlled by the government, which correspond to the southern and central parts of Syria; a part controlled by US-backed Kurdish forces in the northeastern part of the country; an opposition-controlled pocket in the northwest, corresponding to the province of Idlib, where nearly two-thirds of its 4,5 million inhabitants are displaced from other provinces.

Idlib province, among the most affected by the double earthquake, is controlled by Hay'at Tahrir al Sham, an extremist formation born in 2017 from a merger of various jihadist groups, including exponents of the former al Nusra Front, and is managed at an administrative level by the Government of Salvation, an unrecognized executive of the Syrian opposition, formed at the beginning of November 2017. Even before the earthquake, according to UN estimates, around 4,1 million people in the province depended on humanitarian aid, whose entry from Syria is regulated by the government of President Bashar al Assad which prevents some international organizations from accessing the area. The only operational external crossing point is that of Bab al Hawa which connects the province with Turkey, but even here aid, even before the earthquake, had to receive the approval of the Turkish authorities. In an interview with the US newspaper "The Washington Post", Mark Lowcock, former head of humanitarian affairs at the United Nations said that "Turkey is now completely focused on supporting and helping its own people that we cannot realistically expect it to give priority given to the delivery of aid to the Syrians”. Sending aid to Idlib province is conditional on a six-monthly vote by the United Nations Security Council, but in 2020 Russia forced the closure of all border crossings except Bab al Hawa, describing the sending of convoys loaded with basic necessities and humanitarian material as a violation of the sovereignty of Syria governed by the Assad regime.

Because of the earthquake, roads leading to the Bab al Hawa crossing point are severely damaged and the cross-border response has been halted, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The road that connects the city of Gaziantep to the crossing point is in one of the most damaged areas and is currently inaccessible. According to Lowcock, at the moment the only way to get aid is through the so-called "White Helmets", a civil protection group supported by the United Kingdom and the United States which is currently in charge of all rescue operations in the controlled areas by the rebels. Northwest Syria has long been subject to regular bombings - the latest raids took place last January - despite a ceasefire in the area reached in March 2020 and guaranteed by Turkey and Russia.

Regarding the management of aid in the rest of Syria, the Damascus government blamed Western sanctions for the difficulties in bringing support to the earthquake-stricken provinces under its control. Yesterday, the director of the Syrian Red Crescent, Khaled Hboubati, called for the lifting of sanctions "to deal with the effects of the devastating earthquake", saying that Syria needs heavy machinery, ambulances and fire trucks to continue its search and rescue and clean up the rubble. "We are ready to send an aid convoy to Idlib," Hboubati said, asking for help from the European Union and the US agency Usaid. The United States has rejected the argument that sanctions are behind the delays in relief efforts and the shortage of supplies. Yesterday the US State Department on its Arabic-language Twitter profile said that the sanctions do not in any way concern humanitarian aid, medical equipment and basic necessities: "In response to some inaccurate press reports on US sanctions, we would like to clarify that US sanctions include exceptions that do not prevent the delivery of humanitarian, medical, food and other aid to the Syrian people, and we will not prevent any country from providing such aid. For our part, we will continue to provide assistance to the Syrian people."

Sanctions against Syria hinder the delivery of aid to the populations affected by the earthquake of 6 February. This was stated by the United Nations envoy in Syria, Geir Pedersen, in statements taken up by the pan-Arab broadcaster "Al Arabiya". The envoy highlighted how Syrians in all areas affected by the earthquake need urgent support and, therefore, it is necessary to overcome all political differences to ensure the delivery of aid especially in the north-west of the country, a mostly controlled area by opposition groups to Syrian President Bashar al Assad. “The devastation wrought by the earthquake is unimaginable,” Pedersen said, adding: “The means necessary for relief operations in Syria are insufficient. We are waiting for the Syrian government to act after the aid is sent, as it has promised to facilitate its entry.” “We are working with all Syrian governorates to deliver aid,” Pedersen said, hoping to start delivering aid to northwestern Syria across the border with Turkey as early as tomorrow. Much of the humanitarian aid destined for northwestern Syria is transported from Turkey through the Bab al Hawa crossing, which is the only way in which the United Nations is able to reach civilians without crossing the areas under the control of the Syrian government forces. However, in recent years the United Nations has repeatedly stressed that the transfer of aid across the front lines, which requires the approval of the Damascus government, is not sufficient to meet the needs of the population in northwestern Syria.

At the moment, the government of President Bashar al Assad it is receiving aid from Arab countries and its closest partners in particular Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Armenia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, Jordan, India, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Pakistan, Russia and Tunisia. However, as European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarcic told reporters today, the Damascus government has forwarded a request for assistance through the Civil Protection Mechanism. “This morning, we received a request from the Syrian government for assistance through the civil protection mechanism,” Lenarcic said. The EU said it would provide additional emergency support to Turkey and Syria and emergency humanitarian assistance worth €6,5 million in one of the largest ever search and rescue operations in the bloc through the Mechanism. Lenarcic said member states were being encouraged to contribute the assistance requested.

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