Foreign Affairs: How Assad Weaponized a Disaster

This op-ed was originally published in Foreign Affairs.

The pair of massive earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria in early February killed tens of thousands and displaced many more. They have also aggravated a humanitarian catastrophe in northwest Syria in ways that could end up fundamentally reorienting the balance of power in Syria’s long-running conflict. Assad’s regime has long sought to punish civilian populations as a means of advancing its war effort—a strategy now greatly helped by the earthquakes. Without a massive recovery effort, the extensive damage in Syria’s opposition-held northwest could not only leave the people there unable to rebuild their lives but also tilt the balance of the conflict in Assad’s favor. International donors to the Syrian recovery efforts should make a renewed push for humanitarian access to the region—and signal clearly that they will not be complicit in Assad’s attempts to manipulate the recovery effort to his own advantage.

Assad has long wielded the flow of humanitarian aid in Syria as a weapon of war, using siege tactics to force the opposition into submission. Although he has often struggled to achieve definitive victories on the battlefield, he has successfully ground down civilian resistance across the country by deploying a long-term strategy known as “kneel-or-starve”—bombarding communities while simultaneously blocking their access to basic necessities until they surrender. He piloted this strategy in the early stages of the country’s civil war, cordoning off towns and neighborhoods held by the opposition and bombing them from afar while choking off supplies of food, medicine, and other aid until they surrendered. These draconian siege tactics crushed the civilian population at a low cost to the regime’s war effort, and many of these areas eventually fell to Assad’s forces.

For the past several years, as the Syrian opposition has consolidated in the northwest of the country, Assad has applied this brutal strategy on a larger scale, laying siege to the region in both military and diplomatic terms. Before the earthquakes, UN agencies relied on authorization from the Security Council (UNSC) to move aid across that border through a single approved crossing. Assad and Russia—the Syrian regime’s chief ally, which holds veto power at the Security Council—would routinely use the arduous process of renewing the UNSC authorization as leverage to punish the Syrian opposition, and to advance Assad’s agenda of normalizing his regime in the international arena. Assad does not directly control the border crossings between Turkey and northwest Syria, which constitute critical humanitarian aid routes, but given Russia’s willingness to engage in diplomatic obstruction on his behalf, he can manipulate the aid effort all the same. Together, Russia and Assad have held the flow of international assistance to the area hostage in order to make life unbearable and unpredictable for rebels and civilians alike.

The earthquakes have now allowed Assad and his Russian allies to squeeze the enclave even further, with dire implications for the millions who still reside there. Syrian communities deserve far more international help—but donors must act carefully to ensure that the recovery process does not end up bolstering Assad’s regime.

Too Little Too Late

The quake relief effort to date has played largely into Assad’s hands—and, by extension, those of Russia. Although relief aid flooded into Turkey in the wake of the earthquakes, only scant amounts reached northwest Syria, and even that aid was badly delayed both by the scale of damage and by Assad’s maneuvering. The single border crossing left available to the UN by Russia’s long-standing obstruction at the Security Council was badly damaged by the quake, hampering the UN’s ability to promptly deliver aid into Syria. As a result of these delays, little aid flowed to the country during the critical initial search-and-rescue phase. The UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths acknowledged as much upon his visit to the Syrian-Turkish border days after the quakes, tweeting, “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”

At first, the regime insisted that any aid to opposition areas would need to be funneled through Damascus. But faced with mounting global pressure, and perhaps sensing an opportunity to rehabilitate its international position, the regime eventually authorized the temporary use of two additional aid crossing points from Turkey following extensive negotiations at the UN. Notably, these additional routes were authorized only after the immediate rescue phase had passed. The belated opening of these routes also does not change the fact that Syria’s northwest remains an active conflict zone, and neither the regime nor the rebels have offered to pause hostilities to allow a large-scale rescue effort to proceed safely.

These obstacles prevented the kind of immediate global rescue effort that would normally follow a massive natural disaster. Countless Syrian lives that could have been saved in the initial aftermath of the earthquakes were instead lost. Within hours and days of the earthquake, hundreds of search-and-rescue teams deployed to southeastern Turkey, but no such support ever reached northwest Syria. The White Helmets and other local Syrian volunteers worked valiantly to save those they could but lacked the kind of resources and equipment deployed just across the border. As the international community weighs how to assist the Syrian recovery effort, it must work to overcome the hurdles that prevented it from providing crucial aid in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes—or leave millions in the throes of a spiraling catastrophe.

Assad’s Boon

In one fell swoop, the earthquakes have dealt vastly more damage to northwest Syria than the regime and Russia could possibly have achieved via conventional military tactics—and done so without implicating the regime in a fresh pattern of war crimes. The disaster has aggravated a long-standing humanitarian crisis in the region; millions were already displaced and living in temporary camps, heavily reliant on assistance. The quakes have newly displaced another 100,000 Syrians and threatens to worsen an existing cholera outbreak, as well as destroying health facilities and other important civilian infrastructure. This new post-quake status quo serves the regime’s interests, and Assad’s blocking of aid meant to repair the damage will yield functionally the same outcome as his own bombing of hospitals or targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Anything short of full and open aid access to hard-hit opposition-held areas ultimately boosts the regime’s war effort. Nonetheless, despite the long-term implications of the disaster, the UNSC has been slow to act, and the crisis is already fading from global headlines. Assad’s grudging concession in February of the two additional aid routes from Turkey has not been formalized in a new UNSC resolution and seems to have dampened the impetus for urgent UN action.

The wider political backdrop is deeply challenging. Twelve years into the war, the United States and other major donor countries have largely given up on pursuing a mediated settlement or a transition of power that would require Assad’s removal, but they also have not wanted to concede a definitive victory to Assad. Turkey and its Syrian proxies still occupy stretches of northern Syria, the United States conducts operations in the northeast, and donors have kept modest amounts of aid flowing to nongovernmental organizations in the remaining opposition-held pockets. The practical result has been a semifrozen conflict in which Assad faces little prospect of losing power—so long as he retains Chinese, Iranian, and Russian support—but also lacks the means to retake the areas of the country still outside his control. This is an ungainly and unpalatable status quo, especially given the litany of war crimes perpetrated by Assad’s regime, but the further consolidation of power under Assad would still be worse for the people living in Syria’s northwest.

A Complicated Backdrop

The stakes of the coming recovery phase are therefore enormous, both for the well-being of people in northwest Syria and for the longer-term trajectory of the conflict. But the reconstruction effort faces huge hurdles. A major post-disaster reconstruction effort typically relies on close partnerships between governing authorities and global aid providers. In this case, however, the Syrian government has little interest in rebuilding the country’s northwest, except perhaps as a short-term tradeoff for obtaining international reconstruction assistance for areas of value that the regime decimated during the war, such as the major city of Aleppo. Such tradeoffs were likely a part of Assad’s calculus for opening the additional cross-border aid routes, which coincided with a temporary loosening of sanctions to enable earthquake relief and recovery in regime-held areas.

This implicit quid pro quo is already helping Assad: aid from the United Arab Emirates is flowing to the regime to support the humanitarian response in areas of the country it rules. Major aid donors also face a conundrum in the northwest, as many of them do not wish to enable or legitimize de facto governing authorities in the region, particularly designated terrorist groups such as the al Qaeda–linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Although these groups have reached a modus vivendi with Syrian civil society in allowing aid operations to continue with minimum disruptions, donors will be keen to make sure these actors do not derive material advantage from the arrival of more aid.

The reconstruction challenge is therefore a microcosm of the larger quandaries of international engagement in Syria’s revolution over the past decade: no major power wants to help extremist opposition elements prevail, but neither does the West want to hand Assad a clear victory.

The Art of the Possible

Against this complicated backdrop, a full reconstruction effort for the northwest with unfettered international access and adequate provision for security looks out of reach. Instead, the best-case scenario for reconstruction may simply be helping Syrian civil society groups lead the effort, deploying knowledge and skills developed over more than a decade of navigating the pre-quake, war-torn status quo. The UN cross-border aid operation should move aggressively to ramp up relief and reconstruction support to these groups and, in particular, to make full use of the additional border crossings that have opened. Over the past decade of conflict, much of the region’s aid operation has been built on the capacities of Syrian civil society organizations, with the tacit consent of the armed groups that control the region. With the support of the UN and international nongovernmental organizations, these local and diaspora Syrian organizations have established hospitals, built internally displaced–person camps, maintained infrastructure, and provided a host of other basic service functions. Much of this infrastructure and capacity has now been destroyed—but the know-how and practical experience after 12 years of war remain.

Several measures could help build a viable, if deeply imperfect, Syrian-led reconstruction operation. First, the UN Security Council should move swiftly to pass a new resolution mandating enhanced humanitarian access to northwest Syria through all accessible channels. At a minimum, it should formalize the additional crossings that the Assad regime has offered. But UNSC members should press for more, up to and including a temporary cease-fire in northwest Syria to enable a larger-scale recovery. It should also reaffirm that no actors, especially the Syrian regime, may interfere in the relief and recovery effort and should underscore the centrality of unfettered humanitarian access. And the resolution should be enduring—valid for at least one year rather than coming up for renewal every six months as recent resolutions have.   

If Russia refuses to cooperate in passing such a resolution, the UN should use the urgency of the current moment to reexamine the legal regime regarding cross-border aid. As others have argued in Foreign Affairs, some legal scholars believe that a Security Council resolution is not strictly required to enable the delivery of cross-border aid in northwest Syria. The Assad regime’s behavior post-earthquake only reinforces the argument that cross-border humanitarian assistance should be legal even in the absence of a resolution.

Second, donors must do their part. The United States, the European Union, Gulf donors, and others must commit to a major recovery package for northwest Syria. Following the EU-hosted donor conference in Brussels on March 20, the international community is well on its way, with relief pledges totaling $7.5 billion for Turkey and Syria, of which $1 billion is reserved for Syria. This pledge will demonstrate a political commitment as well as a financial one, showing solidarity with the civilians of Syria as a whole by committing to bankroll a substantial humanitarian response and early recovery effort. However, the key test is how much of committed aid for Syria will flow to the northwest and how much will go through Assad’s regime.

Donors can navigate these tricky waters by including provisions in their aid commitments. International aid does afford donors a degree of leverage, and any form of financial assistance funding reconstruction in regime-held areas should be tied to strict conditions regarding Assad’s behavior. These conditions should include the release of political prisoners, regime consent for cross-border aid operations, and expanded access and freedom of movement for humanitarian personnel. Donors should also stipulate that any new aid can be distributed only in ways that do not end up funding other regime projects.

Third, donors and the UN must redouble their efforts to directly support Syrian aid groups and invest in their institutional capacity. The Syrian groups that deliver the bulk of aid in the northwest—and that led the immediate rescue effort despite paltry international support—deserve better from aid donors. They should not continue to be relegated as subcontractors to big international aid groups that work remotely from bases in Turkey. Syrian groups have now been leading this work for over a decade, and the UN and other aid leaders must do more to recognize and adapt to that reality. Syrian civil society organizations have built the communities in which the displaced of Syria live, and these groups are now tasked with rebuilding them. These organizations remain the best way to maintain basic services and social cohesion in the devastated regions; they should be treated as such by donors.

All of this must now happen at lightning speed. It has been nearly two months since the quakes. The crucial recovery phase is just beginning. If the international community fails to act or to invest in the country’s recovery, millions of people will suffer—and Assad will only stand to gain.

Cover Photo: A view from an Ataa Refugee Camp before the earthquake, where civilians are displaced by the attacks of Bashar Assad regime as they struggle with harsh winter conditions in Idlib, Syria on December 25, 2022. Photo by Izzeddin Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.