Along with the more than 35,000 people killed in Turkey, nearly 3,700 deaths were confirmed across the border in war-torn Syria, where the quakes multiplied the suffering of residents who had endured 12 years of civil war.
The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Mirjana Spoljaric, said in a statement after visiting to Syria that “communities already devastated by the years of conflict are now being pushed beyond their limits.” She emphasized an immediate need for clean water.
While rescue teams from around the world went to help in Turkey, aid relief for Syria was slowed by demolished roads and by the tensions between rebel-held areas of the country and those controlled by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The United Nations launched a $397 million appeal Tuesday to provide aid for nearly 5 million Syrians for the coming three months. That was a day after the global body announced a deal with Damascus to deliver U.N. aid through two more border crossings from Turkey to rebel-held areas of northwest Syria.
Assad wants to be rewarded
By allowing aid to enter rebel-held northwest Syria through more border crossings from Turkey, President Bashar al-Assad has given way to the demands of his foreign adversaries. The question now, analysts tell Reuters, is what he may want in return.
Assad’s decision should widen U.N. aid access to Syrians hit by a devastating earthquake that has killed more than 5,700 people in the country, marking a shift for Damascus, which has long opposed cross-border aid deliveries to the rebel enclave.
It represents one of several ways the earthquake response is playing out in diplomacy surrounding Syria and its 12-year-long conflict, with Assad appearing to have benefited politically and hoping to capitalize further.
Shunned by the West, Assad has been basking in an outpouring of support from Arab states that have normalized ties with him in recent years, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE). He also had his first reported phone call with Egypt’s President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi – a step he aims to build on, two Arab officials who met Assad said.
The United States, while ruling out re-engagement with Assad, has authorized for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would otherwise have been blocked by its sanctions on Syria.
The Syrian pound has strengthened since the decision.
Announced by the United Nations, Assad’s decision permitting aid to move across two more border crossings for three months came after calls for more access and as the United States was calling for a Security Council resolution authorizing such crossings.
A deal behind the scenes
U.N. aid is currently being delivered through one crossing authorized by a Security Council resolution. Though Assad lost control of most of the Turkish border years ago, his approval means U.N. agencies do not need another such resolution to enter from the two additional locations, diplomats say.
“This seems unambiguously positive, and that’s not something you get to say about Syria often these days,” said Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International.
“Either there has been a deal behind the scenes, where Assad gets something in return, or he has decided that it’s time for a goodwill gesture,” he said.
“Opening these crossings for a temporary period does not cost Assad anything, but it lets him escape criticism and highlights his ability to turn border access on and off at will.”
Responding to a question about the decision during a press briefing on Monday, U.S State Department spokesperson Ned Price expressed hope Assad was serious.
Assad hopes quake can help free him from global isolation
Since the quake struck, CNN reports, the government has mobilized its officials and diplomats to make the argument that Western sanctions against it are hindering the aid effort. Still, activists and sanctioning states aren’t buying that.
Syrian activists have warned that the Assad government is exploiting the earthquake to rehabilitate itself by calling on international donors to direct aid through Damascus, its capital, and remove the sanctions. Assad, they say, stands to benefit from the earthquake.
“The earthquake gave the regime an advantage to survive politically,” said Omar Alshogre, a Washington, DC-based Syrian activist who says he was detained and tortured by Assad’s regime. “Because the Syrian regime will use the earthquake to normalize itself.”
Saudi Arabia has been one of the last major hurdles to regional normalization with Assad, whose regime was suspended by the Arab League in November 2011. But rumours have been circulating of late that Syria is close to being re-admitted, pending a no-objection from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which is yet to reach out to Assad.
During a meeting with European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan emphasized the need to deliver aid “to all parts of Syria,” adding that “we must ensure that the huge humanitarian burden on the Syrian people is lifted.”
The president has received a number of calls and visits from foreign leaders and diplomats. The United Nations and the EU have also heeded the Syrian demand for cooperation with the regime if they wish to deliver aid to victims in the country.
Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC, said that “there is no correlation between sanctions by the US and other like-minded partners around the world and the delivery of humanitarian aid.”
“The real obstacles are political,” he told CNN’s Boris Sanchez, adding that the regime has constrained cross-border aid by placing a great deal of pressure on the UN to coordinate with Assad.
On the government front
Jordan’s foreign minister Ayman Safadi arrived in Damascus on Wednesday in the first such visit since the Syrian conflict between the two neighbours who have long been at odds over regional issues, officials said.
The visit, to show solidarity after the recent earthquake, will be followed by one to Turkey and will focus on humanitarian needs and how Jordan, a neighbour that hosts tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, can help in ongoing relief operations, Jordanian officials said.
“Safadi will discuss the humanitarian and aid needs that the two countries need,” a statement from the foreign ministry said, adding that aid planes will fly to both countries on Wednesday. Syrian President Bashar al Assad met Safadi in a meeting that Jordanian officials downplayed as a political gesture towards Damascus whom the staunch U.S. ally is at odds with over a range of regional issues.
Assad has been seeking to benefit politically from the quake that has killed thousands in both Turkey and Syria and hoping to capitalize on it to break Western sanctions and ease his country’s diplomatic isolation. read more
Jordan has sent large shipments of aid to both countries with the kingdom sending a medical hospital to Turkey and organising several large flights and aid convoys through the country’s northern border crossing with Syria.
Syrian Government Demands 40% Of AANES Aid
The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has agreed to hand over to the Syrian government 40 of the 100 fuel trucks it had sent to areas affected by the Feb. 6th earthquake in return for safe passage for the remaining 60 trucks and a medical convoy, a source within the Kurdish Red Crescent (KRC) told North Press.
The KRC medical convoy, consisting of three trucks of supplies, two ambulances, as well as two staff cars, has been waiting to pass from AANES-held territory to areas affected by the earthquake since Feb. 11.
According to an on-the-ground source, the convoy carries tents, mattresses, blankets, winter clothes, baby food, heating fuel, as well as medicine and medical equipment. Doctors, paramedics, and KRC staff are among the convoy.
In parallel, the AANES sent 100 fuel trucks to government-held areas on Feb. 8, two days after the earthquake. Both convoys have been held up by government forces at the al-Tayha crossing point west of Manbij. The KRC source said the AANES has asked the medical NGO to take charge of their trucks as well.
Both convoys were initially meant to relieve Kurdish-held areas in the northwest – namely, the Aleppo northern countryside, locally known as Shahba region, and the neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh in Aleppo city – as the Syrian government keeps both areas under embargo.
Relief aid planes arrive to Syria for quake- affected people
Three planes from Belarus and Jordan arrived Wednesday at the international airports of Aleppo and Damascus, carrying relief aid for those affected by the earthquake, SANA reported.
“The two Belarusian planes carry supplies for a field hospital and medications, with forty doctors on board of various specializations to assist those affected by the earthquake”, said Colonel Andrei Gorinovich, head of the medical team for special missions of the Belarusian army, indicating that within two days, a mobile hospital will be equipped in Ismailia town of Aleppo to receive 70 cases per day for medical operations and consultations.
“All shelters in that area will be visited to reach the largest possible number of affected people,” he added.
The Jordanian consul in Damascus, Anwar Badawi, for his part, said that the Jordanian plane is the second to land at Damascus International Airport, carrying 12 tons of medical aid, pointing out that Jordan also sent two convoys consisting of 14 trucks two days ago through Nassib border crossing loading food and medical supplies, adding that there will be more aid in the coming days.
Japanese aid plane
In addition, a Japanese aid plane arrived at Damascus International Airport Wednesday, carrying 18 tons of medical aid for those affected by the earthquake.
“We offer our condolences to the Syrian people. As we have previously been exposed to earthquakes in Japan, now we share pain and sadness with the Syrians”, Mr. Hirofumi Miyake, Charge d’affaires of the Embassy of Japan in Syria, said in a press statement after the arrival of the plane, noting that this is the first in-kind assistance from Japan to Syria, and there will be other aids.
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, President of the United Arab Emirates(UAE), directed providing $ 50 million to relieve those affected by the earthquake in Syria.
This comes in continuation of UAE’s tireless efforts to stand by the Syrian people and provide the necessary aids.
Twenty million will be dedicated to carrying out humanitarian projects in response to the urgent appeal by the UN regarding Syria and in coordination with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
U.S. military shoots down Iranian-made drone over oil site in Syria
The U.S. military announced Tuesday it shot down a drone believed to have been manufactured by Iran as it was allegedly conducting surveillance over an oil site in northeastern Syria.
According to Fox News, the drone was taken down at around 2:30 p.m. local time, according to U.S. Central Command.
“US forces in Syria engaged and shot down an Iranian-manufactured UAV attempting to conduct reconnaissance of Mission Support Site Conoco, a patrol base in northeast Syria,” U.S. Central Command said in a statement.
The U.S. military on Tuesday shot down a drone believed to have been manufactured by Iran as it was allegedly conducting surveillance over an oil site in northeastern Syria.
The U.S. military on Tuesday shot down a drone believed to have been manufactured by Iran as it was allegedly conducting surveillance over an oil site in northeastern Syria. (U.S. Central Command)
The U.S. and Iran both carry out counterterrorism missions in Syria, although the two countries support different groups. The U.S. backs a Kurdish-led group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which leads an autonomous government in northeastern Syria, and Iran supports the central government in Damascus.
Iran has faced drone attacks on its own soil, including a strike conducted last month allegedly by quadcopters. The Islamic Republic has blamed Israel for the incident and announced Friday the arrest of suspects involved in the operation.