Earthquake shows why the war must end in Syria
A large earthquake and aftershocks have caused massive destruction and loss of life across southern Turkey and northwestern Syria. Although Turkey has long experience with earthquake threats, and aid is being mobilized from all over the world to help Turkey recover, Syrians likely will struggle to get access to the medical support and aid they need. A decade-long civil war has divided northwestern Syria, while displacing millions and killing hundreds of thousands. The earthquake compounds their misery and it’s unclear how aid will move freely across the divided landscape.
This gives leaders an opportunity to reassess the Syrian conflict and support efforts toward reconciliation and the opening of borders and front lines.
It’s important to understand the challenges facing northwestern Syria in order to understand the suffering that is now exacerbated by the quake. In the beginning of the civil war, this area was divided between Syrian regime forces, Syrian rebels and Kurdish groups. As time went by, extremist groups, including jihadists and fighters linked to al Qaeda and ISIS, infiltrated the region. Russia intervened in Syria in 2015 and, along with Iran, helped Bashar al-Assad’s regime retake Aleppo, a major city affected by the earthquake.
Between 2016 and 2018, Turkey also intervened in northwestern Syria, taking over some areas where Syrian rebels were located. Fighting between Turkey and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units caused further divisions. Today, this once diverse area, full of ancient archeological sites and numerous ethnic and religious groups, is deeply divided. Humanitarian support for people in the area controlled by Turkey flows through one border crossing and arrives in the areas of Idlib and Afrin. On the other side of the front, aid must come from Damascus in southern Syria. The United States, which once had a limited role north of this area, left Kobani and Manbij in 2019.
The Syrian conflict is not as destructive as it once was. In general, the country has been partitioned between areas the Syrian regime controls, areas where Turkey has control, and areas in the east where the U.S. has influence. Natural disasters, however, cut across the political lines on maps, and cut through the various militias and armed factions on the ground. Unfortunately, one feature of the Syrian war is that the major powers involved have not invested in reconstruction or infrastructure. This isn’t the fault of only Russia and Iran, which back the Syrian regime; Turkey and the U.S. also have not invested.
Without assigning blame for what has happened, it’s worth now prodding countries to enable reconstruction and provide humanitarian assistance.
How can the earthquake lead to reconciliation? First, countries should promise a moratorium on military offensives. Turkey, for example, has threatened new operations in Syria but could take this opportunity to put that aside. Russia, whose forces are tied up fighting in Ukraine, could play a more helpful role in encouraging the opening of more border crossings for aid. Washington could do more as well.
Since the beginning of the war on ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition has viewed the war primarily through a tactical lens of “by, with and through” — working through the Syrian Democratic Forces, which fought ISIS. This is a military mission, run primarily by U.S. Central Command, with a very small footprint on the ground. The mission hasn’t resulted in the full array of U.S. expertise to be used in Syria to aid civilians, rebuild schools, and help enable medical aid. This doesn’t mean the U.S. must shoulder the burden of a large mission in Syria, but it can do more to facilitate access and encourage international donations to Syria — and make sure the funds flow to all regions and groups.
In the past, support for Syrians often has been siphoned off to supporters of the Syrian regime, Iranian-backed militias, or Turkish-backed groups. Other regions and minorities, such as Kurds, often were starved of humanitarian support. We know the results: Cities lie in ruin; people live in ramshackle camps; children are denied education; medical care is lacking. In some cases, militias even cut off electricity and water to harm their adversaries.
Now is the time for the international community to put together an appeal for Syria that goes beyond entrusting aid solely to Damascus or Ankara. It should make clear that everyone must benefit and the war should end so that people can begin to rebuild their lives. There are many complexities ahead, but ignoring Syria once again will only increase the suffering.
Seth J. Frantzman has spent 15 years covering security, refugees and conflict in the Middle East, including in areas now affected by the earthquake. He is the author of “Drone Wars” and “After ISIS.” He is executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. A former assistant professor of American Studies at Al-Quds University, he covers the Middle East for The Jerusalem Post.
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