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Reeling from dual crises, Syria needs more than just humanitarian aid

(AP Photo/Ghaith Alsayed)
Civil defense workers and residents search through the rubble of collapsed buildings in the town of Harem near the Turkish border, Idlib province, Syria, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. A powerful earthquake has caused significant damage in southeast Turkey and Syria and many casualties are feared. Damage was reported across several Turkish provinces, and rescue teams were being sent from around the country.

This month marks 12 years since the civil war began in my homeland, Syria. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more

Then last month, the worst earthquake in modern history struck the region. It has so far killed a combined tens of thousands of people in Syria and neighboring Turkey. It made around 1.5 million people homeless in Turkey and more than 5 million more homeless in Syria. After a dozen years of suffering, the earthquake’s toll is unimaginable. 

International headlines about the earthquake are already less frequent. I just saw the BBC run a headline about a dog rescued after 23 days under the rubble. And I am pleased for the dog. But honestly, I would like more media attention on the international response to prevent further loss of life for people in the region. President Joe Biden, in particular, can take specific steps to ensure better outcomes for the people on the ground. We need him to show more of the kind of bravery it took to sneak into Ukraine on a train overnight in February. Or worse is yet to come.

I recently talked to a friend who is in the northern part of Syria, now. In Syria, if someone passes away we have always said, “God bless his soul.” And my friend told me that in Syria, we don’t use this term anymore. Instead, we say, “he got rest from his life.” And that’s an appropriate illustration of how hard it is to live there now. This should be unacceptable to anyone in the international community.

I have lost too many friends. Today I live in Washington, D.C. — I was lucky enough to be able to move here in 2007. But all my family members are refugees in Turkey. There are around 3.6 million Syrian refugees from the civil war in Turkey, alongside my family. Many of my friends died in the earthquake, both as refugees in Turkey and in Syria.

It is easy to feel helpless, especially here, 6,000 miles away. But America has a powerful government. Because this is a democracy, we can and must ask our government to do the right thing and help the people of Syria. 

The U.S. has so far given $185 million to aid recovery efforts in Turkey and Syria, and for this, I am grateful. But if President Biden wants to support the people of Syria, humanitarian aid can only go so far. His administration has stepped back from engaging with the political crisis in Syria. It has focused instead only on offering humanitarian aid. But without a political solution, the suffering will continue. I ask President Biden to devote his political and financial capital to settle the war. That’s what we all called for in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, signed back in 2015. Our signature is on that resolution and it should mean more.

We also need to make sure humanitarian aid gets to where it is most needed, in the northwest area of Syria. The area is in opposition-held territory, so international relief needs to be delivered to the area through the border with Turkey because aid for people in the area cannot be entrusted to the hands of Assad’s forces. There are three entry points now being used to deliver aid through the border from Turkey — but the response has been slow and completely insufficient. Further, the U.N.’s authorization for these cross-border aid points expires in July. The United States and like-minded countries must act urgently to massively increase the amount of aid getting into the territory and must ensure that the cross-border aid access points remain open past this summer.

I am still trying to understand why it took the first U.N. convoy 72 hours to cross the border into Syria. They didn’t enter the country despite the security and legal coverage to do so. They even had a mandate from the U.N. Security Council. We must ask for an investigation.

There has been a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Syria for 12 years. This earthquake is another horrible layer of pain and injustice for Syrians. President Biden has the power to ease the suffering of all Syrians. Especially those who are now twice displaced and suffering due to the earthquake. He has the power to give them rest now, while they are alive. Not when they die. As the leader of the free world, I’d argue that his administration has a moral responsibility to do so. 

Radwan Ziadeh is a senior fellow at the Arab Center, He is a member of the Refugee Storytellers Collective. 

Tags Bashar Al Assad Earthquake Humanitarian aid during the Syrian Civil War Joe Biden Politics of the United States Syrian civil war Syrian refugees US Aid

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