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Can Syria's Assad leverage earthquake to come in from the cold?

Aid for disaster recovery could provide an excuse for some countries in the region to resume normal relations with the Syrian regime.
Assad earthquake

When a pair of massive earthquakes struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of Feb. 6, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad scented an opportunity.

Might the catastrophe, which has claimed at least 20,000 lives so far, more than 3,500 in Syria, help break his diplomatic isolation and ease  international sanctions imposed on his regime?

By Tuesday, the first day following the quake, Assad had been buoyed by the number of phone calls from Arab leaders, most notably from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to air sympathy for devastation in government and rebel-held territory alike.

On Wednesday, a Lebanese delegation headed by Acting Foreign Minister Abdullah Bou Habib and including several top cabinet members met with Assad in Damascus, sparking fierce debate within Lebanon where memories of Syria’s deadly meddling in the country’s internal affairs remain fresh.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia are the most influential Arab countries to continue to keep the Syrian president at arm's length. Saudi reticence stems from Assad’s alliance with the kingdom’s archenemy, Iran. Egypt is taking its cues from Riyadh and Washington, whose largesse helps keep it afloat.

Analysts say Sisi’s call may well presage more of an acceleration of an existing trend rather than a shift.

Mona Yacoubian, a senior advisor at the US Institute for Peace, told Al-Monitor that trends towards normalization were already underway. But, she said, "It's also important not to conflate entirely efforts at providing humanitarian assistance in the face of an historic tragedy with normalization. There are clearly some distinctions.”

The UAE announced $50 million in assistance for Syria. At least four flights carrying humanitarian aid from the UAE have landed in Damascus so far, part of Abu Dhabi’s Operation Gallant Knight 2 for Turkey and Syria. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have ordered the establishment of so-called "air bridges" to deliver aid to both countries.

The sheer scale of the disaster may well serve as a fig leaf for countries which would like to restore full ties with Syria and bring it back to the Arab League fold. “The humanitarian crisis will be a pretext for speeding up normalization with the Assad regime,” said Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor at the University of Lyon II, who has written numerous books on Syria.

Above all, Turkey’s recent attempts, supported by Russia and the UAE, to restore full diplomatic ties with Syria have had a game-changing effect, Balanche told Al-Monitor. Turkey is the main sponsor of Sunni opposition rebels who sought to overthrow the Assad regime and who now help Ankara fight US-backed Kurdish militants in northeast Syria when they are not busy fighting among themselves.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he is now willing to meet with the Syrian leader he once sought to bloodily remove.

Assad insists Turkey must first withdraw its forces from the large swathes of northern Syria currently under its occupation. The earthquake damage has made them an even greater burden for Ankara as it grapples with the wreckage at home. Racist anger directed at Syrian refugees is growing even fiercer in the wake of the earthquakes. Ankara may well decide to pull out of Syria in exchange for Damascus’ cooperation against the Kurds, Balanche said. Fears that a new mass exodus of Syrians fleeing the earthquake zone must be weighing on Erdogan's mind. 

Turkey’s main opposition parties are even more enthusiastic about restoring ties with Damascus.

The real prize for Assad would be the easing of international sanctions which Damascus insists are costing Syrian lives. “The regime is trying to use the catastrophe to get rid of sanctions,” said Haid Haid, a consulting associate fellow of Chatham House’s Middle East and North Africa program.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, an expert on Syria at the Newlines Institute in Washington, told Al-Monitor, “The regime is definitely seeking to exploit this." Syrian state media is boasting about incoming aid, "to show they are legitimate and not pariahs,” she said. “At the same time they complain and falsely claim that the sanctions are affecting the provision of aid. Currently aid is reaching regime-held areas.” 

So far Washington and the EU are holding firm, saying any easing of sanctions is not on the table and that sanctions do not prevent aid to Syria. State Department Spokesman Ned Price said in a Feb. 6 briefing, “We have provided more humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria than any other country going forward. We are committed to doing what we can on both sides of the border, to helping our Turkish allies respond in the first instance with rescue and recovery efforts.” But, he added, “It would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now — gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured."

The bulk of US aid to Syria is channeled via UN agencies. CENTCOM, the State Department and USAID have separate programs for the Kurdish controlled northeast, which emerged largely unscathed from the disaster. 

A big concern for aid donors is corruption within the Syrian regime, with relief supplies typically ending up on the black market. France declared it would send 12 million euros ($12.89 million) worth of aid to Syria via the UN and various French and international NGOs rather than directly to the Syrian government.

The Syrian government insists that all aid should be distributed through its own networks. It has refused to allow airdrops to rebel-held areas in the northwest of the country which were severely damaged. Syrian Foreign Minister Feisal Mekdad said, “The Syrian state is ready to allow aid to enter into all regions, provided that it does not reach terrorist armed groups.” He was alluding to Turkish-backed Sunni rebels and Hayat Tahrir al Sham, the Al-Qaeda offshoot that controls most of Idlib province on the Turkish border. 

Nearly all 4.5 million of the area’s inhabitants were displaced multiple times and are already in need of aid. Yet the first convoys to the stricken region only began Thursday through the Bab al Hawa  border crossing in Turkey, the sole humanitarian corridor to the country.

Regime-held territories, including Assad’s Alawite stronghold Latakia, were also badly damaged during the earthquakes. Indeed, the breadth of the devastation is such that it exposes some of the holes in Washington’s narrative on sanctions.

“Sanctions may not be written as targeting humanitarian aid and human rights defenders, but that’s how sanctions are interpreted by lawyers trying to protect their institutions and especially by bankers who don’t want to face the stiff penalties of sanctions violations,” said Julia-Sakr Tierney, policy officer in the Open Democracy Foundation’s MENA program. The US Treasury’s Office for Foreign Asset Control and its defenders should not call these unintended consequences, she said, "when again and again the consequences of sanctions are so harmful."

The USIP’s Yacoubian acknowledged, “Even with humanitarian carve-outs, which are part and parcel of the sanctions, the line can be gray.” The United States and the European Union prohibit funding for reconstruction in government-held territory in Syria from the war. “It would presumably apply to reconstruction from earthquake damage,” Yacoubian noted. "That’s a point to reckon with and underscores the complexity of this conflict."

In a move thought to be aimed in part at staunching the criticism, the US Treasury announced Thursday that it was  temporarily exempting Syria from some of the sanctions "so that those providing assistance can focus on what's needed most: saving lives and rebuilding."

In any case, reconstruction “will happen not with Western money but with Arab money and with Turkish contracting companies,” argued Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Syria and a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe. “In the medium term, my guess is that the West is going to normalize with the Syrian regime in one way or the other as well.” 

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