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Some more Turkey-Syria earthquake politics
Washington, Damascus, and the UN made some moves that were better late than never, but the Turkish-Kurdish and Israeli-Iranian conflicts introduced new complications.
The worst fears around the earthquake in Turkey and Syria have been realized, with the official death toll surpassing 20,000 and rescuers continuing to comb through rubble. The Levant is experiencing unusually cold weather this time of year, and the United Nations warns that unsheltered survivors are about to suffer a “secondary disaster which may cause harm to more people than the initial disaster.”
The politics of the Syrian civil war and other pressing issues are continuing to hinder aid. A few things have happened, some positive, some better late than never, and some downright worrying:
The first UN aid convoys entered rebel-held territory from Turkey, three days after the earthquake. Roads to the only UN-authorized border crossing into rebel-held territory had been damaged in the earthquake, and the Syrian government has tried to get that crossing shut down, because it wants to bring aid under its own control. The shipments did not include rescue equipment. Syrians in those areas rely entirely on volunteer rescue services like the White Helmets.
The Syrian government finally authorized “cross-line” aid deliveries from government-held to rebel-held territory, four days after the earthquake. As the head of the Norwegian Refugee Council told the BBC: “The most earthquake-stricken area of Syria is in the [rebel-held] north-west. We need full and free access across front lines, and full and free distribution.” But the Syrian government has a history of using aid to reward supporters and punish opponents.
The U.S. Treasury issued a six-month sanctions exemption for “all transactions related to earthquake relief efforts in Syria that would otherwise be prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations.” Although the U.S. government insists that economic sanctions do not affect humanitarian aid, the fact that it had to issue a new exemption suggests that U.S. officials know these excuses are hollow.
The Turkish-backed rebel administration in northwest Syria has rejected aid from Kurdish areas. Apart from Turkey’s influence, there’s lots of bad blood between the two sides. Kurds accuse the northwestern opposition (including the White Helmets) of participating in the ethnic cleansing and resettlement of Kurdish areas. The opposition accuses Kurdish-led forces of collaborating with the government and targeting civilians in insurgent raids.
Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government sent aid convoys to Afrin, the main Syrian Kurdish region under Turkish occupation. The Barzani Foundation, founded by Iraqi Kurdish prime minister Masrur Barzani, also provided relief in Turkey. The KRG is politically close to Turkey, and has chilly relations with the Syrian Kurdish revolution; Turkish-backed rebels in Afrin thanked Barzani for the help.
Greece has sent aid to Turkey, an echo of the “earthquake diplomacy” of the 1990s. India has also joined in relief efforts in Turkey, which is a good sign given that the two countries have increasingly found themselves in opposite geopolitical camps. Jordan has sent its own aid to Syria and Turkey as well as facilitating Palestinian rescue teams on their way to the region.
Cuban doctors arrived in Turkey, and another team will be setting out for Syria. Cuba, an extremely poor country under U.S. sanctions, has adopted a strategy of cultivating and exporting medical expertise. In some cases, Cuba offers medical services for free. Washington accuses Cuba of “human trafficking” because of the military-style discipline that Cuban medical missions operate under.
Israel made threatening noises at Iran over its earthquake aid flights. An unnamed Israeli official said that there will be a “firm military response from us without any hesitation” if Iran moves weapons under the cover of aid shipments. Iran has been accused of using civilian planes to move weapons, but Israel also has a history of baselessly claiming that civilian structures were military targets.
Finally, the New York Times ran a harrowing account from the Turkish city of Antakya, biblical Antioch. It’s been utterly destroyed, taking with it priceless historic sites. For all the global grief over the non-fatal fire in the Notre Dame of Paris four years ago, there has been much less ink spilled over the sight of refugees huddled in Peter and Paul’s own church or the end of a 2,500 year old Jewish community.
The destruction also has a political aspect, as the Turkish government has been accused of encouraging shoddy construction that could not stand up to earthquake damage. A similar disaster in 1999 had caused the political reshuffling that brought President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to power in the first place.
While Turkey has had a much easier time getting aid than Syria, that is a cold comfort for the thousands of homeless and bereaved families.
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