The earthquakes that have devastated northwest Syria are highly unlikely to reinvigorate the stalled Syrian peace process. Rather, they have already amplified existing political fault lines.
The natural disaster has highlighted deepening divides between the Syrian regime of Bashar Al Assad and its allies on one side and the Syrian opposition and its international backers on the other side, as well as the impotence of the UN.
Damascus is trying to use the humanitarian catastrophe to get out of international isolation. Shortly after the earthquakes, the regime’s public reaction was not to express condolences for all Syrian people affected by the tragedy but to use its key figures to try to achieve de facto legitimacy on the international stage for Assad.
Bassam Sabbagh, Syrian ambassador to the United Nations (UN), told UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that any foreign assistance must be delivered through co-ordination with the Syrian government and sent through Syria not Turkey. Government adviser Bouthaina Shaaban later claimed international sanctions imposed on the regime by the US and Europe are hampering aid delivery.
Suspension of sanctions a key US move
The US was fast to respond with public statements confirming that existing sanctions have always had a humanitarian exemption. Despite this, the US Department of the Treasury proceeded on 9 February to announce a 180-day suspension of sanctions on transactions related to earthquake relief.
This step by the US will facilitate the transfer of remittances to Syria which will help earthquake survivors. It is also a way of holding the regime to account. If assistance for non-regime-controlled areas can be sent directly to Damascus, will the regime allow it to reach its intended recipients?
There have been allegations by activist groups, including the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, that some food packages sent by Arab countries to regime-held areas are being sold on the black market instead of being delivered to earthquake victims.
And despite the Syrian government’s agreement on 9 February to allow crossline aid, there has been no significant delivery of such aid to opposition-held areas to date.
The Department of the Treasury’s announcement has caused a sharp division among US policymakers, with two senior members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee criticizing it as allowing the regime to pilfer aid and pave the way for normalization.
Such disagreements within US policy circles can be only welcomed by Damascus as well as Moscow, as the lack of US policy consensus weakens the position of the US in its support of the UN-led peace process and the Syrian opposition, as well as vis-a-vis Russia.
Russia for its part is, unsurprisingly, repeating the same narrative as the Assad government, seeing in the earthquakes a political opportunity for normalization.
It has rejected calls for increasing the number of border crossings open between Turkey and Syria, saying that the sole open crossing – Bab Al Hawa, whose mandate was renewed until July in the latest UN Security Council Resolution – is enough, and that other aid should be delivered solely through Damascus.
Until his visit to Aleppo on 10 February, Assad had kept silent about the earthquakes except for public posts by the office of the presidency showing him leading an emergency meeting to respond to the crisis, then listing the messages he received or phone calls he had with foreign leaders – of Russia, the UAE, Oman, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, China, Iran, Belarus, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt, Armenia, Lebanon and the Vatican as well as Abkhazia – who expressed condolences or offered humanitarian aid.
Presentation of political legitimacy
The prioritization of highlighting engagement by international and regional leaders is an indication of Assad’s view of the aftermath of the earthquakes as an opportunity to present himself internationally and nationally as the legitimate leader of Syria.
The Syrian opposition have in turn also publicly highlighted their leaders’ engagement with international policymakers, including from the US, France and the UK, in the aftermath of the earthquakes, but they have framed this engagement as aiming to request aid for northwest Syria.