February 13, 2023

IntelBrief: Politics in Syria and Turkiye Complicate Earthquake Relief

AP Photo/Hussein Malla

Bottom Line up Front

  • The February 6 earthquake that has killed more than 20,000 people in southeastern Turkiye and northwestern Syria struck a region already reeling from harsh economic conditions and displacements stemming primarily from Syria’s civil war.
  • The efficiency of the relief effort might affect the prospects for the re-election of Turkiye’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who faces a tough battle in May.
  • The regime of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is attempting to use the urgent need for earthquake relief to end his regional and global isolation but still reportedly attacking affected areas.
  • U.S. policy toward Syria, including sanctions on the government, complicates but does not technically hinder the provision of U.S. or U.S.-allied aid to Syrians affected by the earthquake.

The earthquake that struck large parts of southeastern Turkiye and northwestern Syria impacted millions of people already affected by more than a decade of civil war in Syria and the brutality of the Assad regime before that. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an estimated 6.8 million have fled Syria and another 6.9 million have been internally displaced within the country. Many of those displaced live in tent camps and other makeshift shelters in Idlib Province in northwest Syria – the opposition-controlled area of Syria that was also the most affected by the earthquake. Relief agency access to help displaced persons and other victims in Idlib has been limited by Russia’s collusion with the Assad regime to restrict the United Nation’s cross-border aid program from Turkiye to northern Syria to only one outlet – the Baba al-Hawa crossing. The route was damaged in the earthquake, although U.N. vehicles have been able to deliver some aid to northern Syria via the crossing as of February 8, though some critics have voiced concern that aid is only reaching government-controlled areas.

The governments of both Turkiye and Syria have welcomed the large volumes of relief aid pledged by many governments in and outside the region. Yet, the earthquake has become a major factor in the political calculations of both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, as well as their respective backers. For Erdogan, facing a difficult battle for re-election in May, the earthquake poses significant risks. Many would argue that only a near-flawless Turkish relief execution will add to his level of political support, whereas any perception of disorganization, mistakes, or unnecessary deaths is sure to detract from Erdogan’s vote totals in the May poll. Still, Erdogan has a large advantage over the Assad government because Erdogan is an elected, accepted leader - even if sometimes problematic to U.S. and allied officials - whose relationships with the United States, European Union, and Asian powers are not hindered by policy limitations or economic sanctions. The United States and its European partners can easily access delivery routes in Turkiye from the Incirlik airbase, which U.S. forces use by virtue of Turkiye’s membership in NATO and long-standing bilateral U.S.-Turkiye agreements. As a result, the global aid agencies and teams flooding into the region have gone to Turkiye far more than to Syria, although whether the relief effort in Turkiye helps or hurts Erdogan politically might not be clear for several weeks.

To reduce his regime’s diplomatic and economic isolation, Assad is seeking to take political advantage of the international urgency to help Syrian victims of the earthquake. The earthquake appears, at least initially, to have given several Arab states that have been shunning or limiting contact with Assad’s regime, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, Oman, and Lebanon, a relatively risk-free excuse to send delegations or initiate sympathetic phone contact with Assad. These and other Arab states see value in rebuilding links to Damascus to try to weaken Iranian influence in Syria, but have been wary of offending the United States and other major powers by normalizing relations with Syria. Over the past two years, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), a close ally of Saudi Arabia, has had mixed success trying to spearhead broad Arab normalization with Assad, but the Syrian government anticipates that the earthquake will instill new momentum into the UAE’s effort. However, there are also accusations that Assad has continued to bomb areas like the northwestern town of Marea, British MP Alicia Kearns said in a statement on Tuesday.

Assad’s regime also seeks to use the earthquake to undermine U.S. and global sanctions and isolation of his regime - measures imposed in response to crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated against civilians by the regime. Syrian officials have stunned U.N. and other international relief organizations by insisting that earthquake aid continue to flow from Turkiye only through the one allowed Baba al-Hawa crossing and not use other Turkiye-Syria crossings that are available. The insistence - reportedly backed by military threats against any attempted use of other crossings - is widely viewed as a ploy to force the U.N. Security Council to end the cross-border program entirely and channel all aid to Syria through regime-controlled territory, thereby indirectly being forced to acquiesce to the legitimacy of the regime.

Syrian officials particularly want to escape the significant restrictions and isolation imposed by U.S. sanctions, including the Caesar Civilian Protection Act that prohibits U.S. transactions with the Syrian government or government-controlled entities. Assad regime officials argue that all U.S. sanctions should be lifted to facilitate the flow of U.S. aid and products critical to earthquake relief operations, such as earth-moving equipment and ambulances. A top aide to Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, said on February 8: “All we want from Europe and the U.S. is to lift sanctions - if they lift sanctions the Syrian people will be able to take care of their country.” Yet, the complaints of the Syrian government are largely disingenuous: U.S. and European sanctions are specifically structured to permit humanitarian aid, particularly disaster relief - even to territories controlled by factions designated as terrorist groups or other rogue actors. This was underscored by a milestone agreement by the UN Security Council in December 2022 to introduce a humanitarian “carveout” in all UN sanctions regimes, including counterterrorism sanctions, and echoed subsequently in related U.S. regimes.

The United States government has pledged aid to earthquake relief, although most of the amounts are likely for use in Turkiye. Further, as is typical in the case of a disaster as significant as the earthquake, U.S. officials issued a “general license,” authorizing U.S. companies for 180 days to export a wide range of needed products and services related to earthquake relief efforts that would otherwise be prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations. Still, there are no indications from U.S. officials that the earthquake will prompt an overall review of U.S. policy, which remains intended to keep the Assad regime isolated until it cedes at least some of its authority to its political opponents. On February 7th, U.S Central Command (CENTCOM), which deploys approximately 900 U.S military personnel in Syria to combat Islamic State remnants, issued a statement that it is in “close coordination with the Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and our Syrian Democratic Forces [SDF, largely Kurdish militia helping fight ISIS] partners” on earthquake relief operations – pointedly omitting any reference to potential cooperation with the Assad regime.

A further complication of relief to northwest Syria is that a large part of the Syrian areas affected by the earthquake is controlled by Hay’at Tahrir Al- Sham (HTS), a former Al Qaeda affiliate (previously named Nusra Front) that is still considered by the United States and other governments as a terrorist organization. As is their adversary, the Assad regime, HTS leaders will seek to take advantage of the earthquake to earn the legitimacy that comes with cooperating with international aid deliveries and helping with rescue operations. At the same time, some global aid relief works might hesitate to become involved in relief operations in Idlib because of the perceived potential for violence by radical elements within HTS or by ISIS. Such attacks are unlikely as they would damage the interests of both Islamist organizations by providing the Assad government the opportunity to portray its opponents as radicals with whom the global community cannot work.