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Humanitarian access in the 2023 earthquake response in Syria

On the 6th of February 2023, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the areas surrounding the Turkish-Syrian border. The impacts of the earthquake compounded the existing humanitarian crisis in Syria, with over 4.1 million people already relying on humanitarian aid in northwest Syria. The death toll is estimated at 50,000 although it is likely significantly higher, and over 1,700 buildings were destroyed.

The potential for humanitarian aid, and access, to become a bargaining chip for decreasing or removing sanctions imposed by Western governments on the Syrian regime was evident in the following months. How have humanitarian actors approached seeking to meet the needs of affected populations when their resources and presence have been highly politicised?

Sanctions in Syria

The earthquake happened on top of ongoing crisis in Syria because of the civil war – already affecting 6.8million people to date, that began in 2011.

Sanctions were imposed as part of the international response to the conflict. These sanctions included embargoes on trade, including on oil, arms, and financial agreements, and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets. For example the US government imposed both primary and secondary sanctions, which included an embargo on almost all trade and financial ties with US based companies, and the EU has an embargo on oil and arms in place, as well as restrictions on trade and financial agreements with EU corporations and investors, and a freeze on Syrian central bank assets held by the EU.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, the Syrian government called for these sanctions to be removed in order to improve humanitarian access:

‘How these sanctions hinder humanitarian access, I’ll tell you. Very simple. Lots of the cargo airplanes refuse to land on Syrian airports because of the American and European sanctions. So, even those countries who want to send humanitarian assistance cannot use airplane cargo because of the sanctions,’

Bassam al-Sabbagh, the Syrian Ambassador to the UN, said during a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart on 7th February.

This was widely criticised by the US, UK, and EU alike, as a means to leverage the conditional provision of access and aid on removal of sanctions. Key US and EU representatives claim that the Syria government was using the humanitarian crisis as a means to free themselves from sanctions.

Humanitarians amidst sanctions

Amidst these political tensions, and debates, humanitarian organisations advocated for sanctions to be lifted in order to facilitate the delivery of aid to affected populations. The humanitarian community expressed this widely, through press releases and reports, calling on the US and the EU to suspend sanctions until the right provisions could be put in place to assist victims of the earthquake.

For example, the Red Cross and Crescent Society released a statement calling for the suspension of sanctions, outlining that there must be humanitarian exemptions carved into sanctions regimes in order to properly support those harmed by the earthquake. The Carter Center, a US humanitarian NGO, also released a statement saying that sanctions affect humanitarian operations by making it difficult to access essential materials, restrict travel and movement, and increase bureaucratic hurdles.

Soon after these statements were issued, the US and the EU lifted sanctions imposed on the Syria government, and emphasised the needs of humanitarian workers while doing so.

‘While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today the Treasury is issuing a blanket General License to authorise earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding,’ said Wally Adeymo, the deputy secretary of the treasury.

Similarly, the EU began its report on lifting sanctions by saying that EU sanctions ‘include provisions to mitigate sanctions impacts on humanitarian assistance’. The report then goes on to say that the EU would nevertheless waive “the requirement for humanitarian operators to seek prior permission to make transfers or provide goods and services intended for humanitarian purposes to listed persons and entities for six months’. They specifically cited this change as a result of ‘numerous humanitarian organisations reports’ that said that the ‘sanctions on Syria have altered their programmes and way of working to some extent’.

Humanitarians at a crossroad

This is not the first time that humanitarian organisations are at a crossroad amidst geopolitical tensions. In this context in particular, advocacy by humanitarian actors and others contributed to strengthening exemptions and inclusion of provisions to enable greater humanitarian access and provision of aid. This demonstrates how humanitarian organisations can advocate to, and place pressure on actors like the EU and US who have a stake in their perceptions of legitimacy and moral identities as actors that support humanitarian aid in the international system.

But humanitarians are also seeing the limits of such position particularly in non-responsive states or in areas where parties are not responsive to their demands to let the aid go to the people who are in need. The question, then, arises: how should humanitarians be humanitarians when states aren’t worried about how they come across in the global system?