Governmental resistance combined with the limited flow of foreign aid into Syria have greatly slowed recovery and reconstruction efforts to a war-stricken and impoverished nation. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake followed by a series of additional aftershocks that devastated Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6 exacerbated the already high humanitarian needs in Syria.
The earthquakes killed and estimated 6,000 Syrians, destroyed 1,900 buildings causing $5.1 billion dollars in direct physical damages. More than 30,000 people were displaced in the north-west between Feb. 6 and 8.
Three days after the earthquakes, The World Bank announced disaster funding of $1.78 billion USD to aid relief and recovery initiatives. Millions of dollars in aid has flooded into Turkey. However, due to the Syrian civil war that began in 2011, efforts to deliver aid into Syria — especially, the affected, rebel-controlled northwest parts— has proven complicated.
The civil war has broadly divided Syria into three sectors: the Kurdish sector, which is backed by the U.S., the opposition, led by islamic fundamentalist militias and Bashar al-Assad’s government. However, the U.S. originally supported the opposition during the civil war in hopes of driving al-Assad out of power.
“The Syrian opposition that we were supporting evolved into these very radical, fundamentalist Islamic militias. America began to think they shouldn't be supporting them and got spooked by their own allies,” expert on Middle East studies Professor Joshua Landis said. “Assad has traditionally been a client of Russia. America allowed Russia to come into Damascus. The U.S. didn't give the opposition advanced weaponry because they were frightened that the Syrian army would collapse and Islamist groups would take over.”
In lieu of direct military support, the U.S. imposed stringent sanctions on Syria which prohibited the West from directly or indirectly aiding the Syrian government. Due to the humanitarian crisis after the earthquake, the U.S. has officially lifted these sanctions for the next six months, but to many, the guidelines remain insufficiently vague as to deter many would-be donors.
The U.S. stopped all SWIFT code from entering Syria, meaning that banks cannot be used to wire money to the country. Furthermore, online sites like GoFundMe that fundraise money have been disabled in Syria.
“The U.S. government has lifted sanctions for relief aid, but not for reconstruction. When you've got a bunch of buildings that are all falling, what is relief aid versus reconstruction? It's very unclear,” Landis said. “It’s much easier for companies to not do any business with Syria because if they break sanctions, they could pay millions of dollars in fines.”
Hence, the U.S. is mostly providing aid through non-governmental organizations which have limited resources.
“The U.S. should display caution when providing economic assistance to Syria due to the country being run by a corrupt leader and dictator. The Afghanistan situation, while tragic, displayed the U.S.’s shortcomings when providing vast amounts of economic assistance as it all got wiped away in basically one month by the Taliban,” Tej Patel, sophomore at North Hollywood High School said. “Instead of contributing direct aid, it would be more beneficial for Syria and the US to work with the UN and other non-profit agencies.”
The Syrian government has demanded that foreign aid must be sent through the official channels.
The Bab al-Hawa crossing is the only border that the U.N. and other international organizations have access to. The U.N. has worked directly with Assad’s government for years delivering food to almost a third of Syrians every month. Assad is known to only send the provided humanitarian aid to those living under his control and has long neglected the opposition held pockets.
This complicated political landscape has made giving foreign aid to Syria earthquake victims nearly impossible. Humanitarian organizations and earthquake victims are imploring nations and Assad’s government to put aside long standing political conflicts in a common effort to aid relief efforts.