A message to the donors convening in Brussels to aid Syria’s earthquake recovery


On March 20, the EU will hold an international donor conference in Brussels to raise money for the recovery of Turkey and Syria from the devastating earthquakes that occurred in early February. Although the Turkish foreign minister will speak before the pledging session, no one will represent or even speak on behalf of the Syrians.

Various parties objected to inviting an organization affiliated with the Assad regime to speak for the entire country. Instead, the EU chose not to invite any Syrians. Not representing Syria at the conference is wrong because it further disempowers the very people the donors are trying to help. It would be even worse to portray them.

The earthquakes hit Turkey harder in terms of casualties (48,000 vs. 6,000) and estimated direct physical damage ($34 billion vs. $5 billion), and they came at a time when the Turkish economy was already struggling. Still, Syria is far more vulnerable, with nearly 90% of the population living in poverty and half of all Syrians internally displaced or in exile abroad.

Syria’s complex topography makes the international response more difficult. Although Bashar al-Assad’s government has regained control of two-thirds of the country, with military support from Russia and Iran, Syria remains fragmented: the remnants of the opposition have been driven to the north-west, some in zones controlled by Turkey, and US backed Kurds. led militias control more than a fifth of the country in the north-east.

The earthquakes struck areas inside and outside the Assad regime’s control, but most of the deaths were in the rebel-held northwest, where 4,500 people died as the international community watched, prioritizing protocol over human life.

In those crucial first few days to save lives, planes full of relief from around the world flew over civilians in north-west Syria, only to land next door in Turkey and areas where Assad was.

The “failed” response was so egregious that the UN-appointed Commission of Inquiry on Syria was called on March 13 to investigate the roles of the Syrian government, the UN, and others in the delay related to getting emergency aid to north-west Syria, where the Commission of Inquiry on Syria requested on 13 March. Health care infrastructure has already been strained by years of Russian rule and bombing. The conference on March 20 is an opportunity to correct that serious injustice.

Although the generosity of donors is greatly appreciated, the job cannot end after the checks are signed.

Nowhere is the diversion of aid more evident than in regime-held Syria, where the main facilitator of the humanitarian response, the UN, has repeatedly failed. Part of that failure is due to regime coercion and the operational and institutional frameworks of the UN, but a central part is due to corruption and incompetence.

The Financial Times recently revealed that Syria’s spy chief has a daughter working for the UN in Damascus, and our earlier research shows that almost a quarter of UN supplies inside regime-held Syria come from individuals sanctioned by the US, the E.U. or the United Kingdom for its role in. supporting the regime. Another investigation revealed that the World Health Organization gave gold coins and cars to regime officials.

Donors in Brussels need to ensure accountability for aid recipients, which can only happen with stricter and more transparent monitoring.

EU organizers must also urge the rich states of the Arab Gulf to fulfill their humanitarian responsibilities. Despite their direct role in the conflict, their share of funding for the humanitarian response in 2022 was a meager 2%, as reported by the UN Financial Tracking System. Assad’s supporters, Iran and Russia, whose humanitarian spending in Syria is almost non-existent, despite playing a central role in the country’s destruction, have lost all hope.

Much of the humanitarian response since the beginning of the war has focused on meeting people’s basic survival needs, such as food and shelter, without helping them to lead more dignified lives and build their local economies. Twelve years into the conflict, and with no political solution in sight, more of the response to the earthquake should be directed towards helping Syrians recover and rebuild their livelihoods.

The massive misuse of UN-facilitated spending gives the earthquake response even more reason to focus on working directly with local actors.

Everyone deserves an equal opportunity to rebuild their lives after a natural disaster. Despite great intentions, failure to understand Syria’s complex context will only ensure an unfair response. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Dr is a non-resident senior fellow. Karam Shaar at the Newlines Institute and an independent consultant on Syria. You can follow him on Twitter @Karam__Shaar or at www.karamshaar.com.

Photo by Bekir Kasim/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

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