Assad’s exploitation of catastrophic earthquake aided by US

Nadim Koteich
Nadim Koteich
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In his endeavor to exploit the catastrophic earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey for his own political advantage, Bashar al-Assad stumbled upon a propitious ally in President Joe Biden's administration. The US Treasury's decision to issue a Syria General License, allowing earthquake relief efforts “that would otherwise be restricted by sanctions regulations for 180 days”, lent much credibility to the Assad regime's narrative that sanctions are impeding aid efforts. That narrative is false.

Assad government's disinformation campaign has apparently managed to deceive many around the world into believing that lifting sanctions on the country is a precondition for the delivery of aid to those affected by the earthquake. The reality is that there is no correlation between the two. The Caesar Act, a set of sanctions imposed by the United States that aims to force the Assad regime to stop its ongoing war on its own people, clearly states the following: "The Caesar Act and other United States Syria sanctions do not target humanitarian assistance for Syrians or impede our stabilization efforts in northeast Syria."

The clear language of US law raises the question of why the Biden administration chose to ease sanctions and hand Assad a valuable political victory. Karam Shaar, a political economist focused on Syria, detailed in a Twitter thread what looks like a deal that has been struck between Western donor states and the Assad regime to deliver aid to those affected by the recent earthquake. In exchange for a Treasury freeze of some sanctions on Syria for 180 days, Shaar says the Assad regime agreed to provide a fair exchange rate for the money transferred to the UN and other humanitarian actors with respect to responding the earthquake, declare some governorates "disaster zones," which reportedly gives humanitarian actors more autonomy in administering the aid, and finally, agree on aid to opposition-held areas in northwest Syria.

If Shaar’s account proves to be accurate, the Biden administration will have made a fateful compromise with a tyrant, to the detriment of countless Syrian lives. Despite prior agreements with the United Nations to deliver aid to those residing in areas outside government control in northern Syria, the past three weeks have seen a lack of aid reaching the northwest region. It is foolhardy to trust promises made by a cruel tyrant who views the turmoil and destruction, especially in northwest Syria, as a chance to further advance his own political aims.

Syria's representative to the UN, Bassam al-Sabbagh, delivered a clear message at a news conference in New York: "We are ready to work with all who want to provide Syria, from inside Syria, so access from inside Syria is there. Anyone who'd like to help Syria can coordinate with the government and we will be ready to do so."

The Syrian regime’s message is unmistakable: Engage with us, or else risk leaving the people to suffer and die.

The exploitation of aid by the Assad regime is a well-established and documented phenomenon that has persisted since the start of Syria’s civil conflict in 2011. The allocation of aid has long been a weapon in the Assad regime's arsenal of manipulation and domination of internal Syrian politics. Supplies were regularly channeled to government-controlled territories, while those in opposition-held regions were left to endure. Humanitarian organizations are frequently compelled to pay bribes or make compromises to secure permission to distribute aid. In areas under siege, food is commonly used as leverage to coerce people into surrender or to penalize the opposition. Additionally, the Assad regime has faced accusations of leveraging aid deliveries to gather intelligence and observe the operations of humanitarian organizations and activists on the ground.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has stated since 2012 that the government was “imposing restrictions on the delivery of aid to opposition-held areas,” and that it was “using the delivery of assistance as a means of exerting political pressure.”

The Syria Campaign's report "War Crimes in Syria: The Role of the Syrian Red Crescent" brought to light a more disturbing reality in 2016. The report investigated the Syrian Arab Red Crescent's (SARC) role in the distribution of aid in Syria during the conflict. It concluded that the SARC was no longer a neutral organization, but rather an integral part of the Assad regime’s strategy to control and manipulate the delivery of aid in the country.

A clear example of the accuracy of the report’s conclusion came during a press conference in Damascus by Syrian Arab Red Crescent head Khaled Hboubati, who called for the European Union to “lift its sanctions on Syria” in light of the massive destruction caused by the earthquake. The sanctions exacerbate the “difficult humanitarian situation,” Hboubati said. “There is no fuel even to send (aid and rescue) convoys, and this is because of the blockade and sanctions,” he added. Yet Hboubati’s statement has no basis in the language or application of sanctions themselves: It was an attempt to use a natural disaster as a sanctions-busting tool.

The tragedy of the earthquake in Syria had been compounded by the nefarious actions of the Assad regime. The loss of thousands of innocent lives could have been partially prevented with a more decisive international response and leadership that refused to be swayed by Assad's manipulative tactics. It was not solely the quake that claimed these lives, but rather the malevolent deeds of the authoritarian regime and the lamentable indifference of the international community, particularly the Biden Administration.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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