Roadblocks to Syrian Humanitarian Aid and their consequences

Since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War, over 11 million Syrians have been displaced by the conflict and the resulting dire humanitarian consequences. The conflict has caused an estimated $117 billion in damage to infrastructure, and over 17% of all housing in the country has been destroyed. This damage and displacement is especially acute in population centres and cities such as Raqqa, Homs, and Aleppo which saw extended rebel control.

While the Assad Regime has retaken most of the country, including the historically important economic capital of Aleppo, government security forces are still struggling to bring the war to a conclusion. As the conflict—now in its 12th year—continues, the United Nations estimates that over 13 million people in the country need humanitarian assistance.

Source: OHCHR

Appallingly, the insufficient trickle of humanitarian assistance from the international community has been blocked, abused, and restricted from reaching those most in need by the Syrian government and its allies. Simultaneously, the EU, the United States, and their allies have created a regime of humanitarian assistance that falls woefully short of meeting the needs of those in Syria through rigid policies and a system of sanctions that stymies relief efforts.

The large-scale infrastructure damage, caused primarily by airstrikes from Syrian, Russian, EU, US, and Turkish forces, has been recently exacerbated by the deadly earthquake in Türkiye and northwestern Syria, where some of the most comprehensive destruction from the conflict can be seen. At the time of the earthquake, the international restrictions on humanitarian assistance had restricted almost all aid to a single narrow corridor passing through the Syria-Türkiye border.

The people of Syria, especially those in rebel-controlled areas, continue to face increasingly dire conditions as they struggle to get food, shelter, energy, and medicine. As the international community struggles to address the exacerbated crisis in the wake of the February earthquake, it is worth examining how all the actors involved in the conflict have worked to create and maintain this crisis, and why it has been so difficult to address the humanitarian needs of millions of Syrians.

The US and EU

From the first days of the conflict in 2011, the United States, EU, and their allies (The Coalition) have been vocal about their support of the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. This support has been both political and material with the US and EU supplying opposition fighters and—especially during the period of ISIS control over large swaths of the country—direct military support on the ground and in the air. Between 2014 and 2017, the United States carried out over 11,000 airstrikes in Syria killing thousands and causing immense damage to infrastructure in ISIS-held cities including Raqqa, Homs, and Idlib. These Coalition airstrikes not only killed and injured thousands of civilians but also helped create the difficult living conditions and inadequate access to resources that we see in today’s humanitarian crisis.

In addition to this direct involvement, the Coalition led by the US has developed and maintained a political strategy isolating the Syrian government and refusing to engage with it unless the Assad regime takes concrete steps towards political reform in the country. This policy is explicitly outlined in United Nations Security Council resolution 2254 which calls for a ceasefire and a political transition led by Syrians to establish ‘credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance’ in the country. This requirement has been used by the international community as a prerequisite for any humanitarian aid to be delivered through the Syrian government, to the people of Syria. For its part, the Assad regime insists that all humanitarian aid go through official government channels, with outside actors being rightfully distrustful of regime involvement. The result is a stalemate that leaves millions of Syrian civilians in areas of government control woefully underserved as they struggle against the effects of decades of war.

Finally, the United States secondary sanctions regime has hindered much NGO activity in the country, any group operating in the country seen as supporting the Assad regime in any way is at risk of incurring heavy penalties from The Coalition. This has also slowed aid from other countries in the region as governments fear retaliation from the United States. The sanctions, as well as the insistence on political transition, have created a pariah state out of Syria at the expense of the Syrian people. While the Assad government, backed by its allies is as strong as it has been since the outbreak of the war. The Assad regime letting go of its power seems less likely by the day.

Russia’s Cooperation with the Assad Regime

As the Assad regime’s most important ally, Russia has essentially propped up the Syrian government and ensured its continued survival since the first days of the conflict. In 2015, Russian support ramped up to an all-out military campaign that saw thousands of Russian troops on the ground and potentially over $1 billion spent by Moscow to date. In the same way that Coalition forces carried out thousands of airstrikes across the country, so too did the Russian military in conjunction with Syrian security forces. These airstrikes are the major cause of the apocalyptic damage to rebel-held and formerly rebel-held cities that have left inhabitants homeless, digging through rubble, and fighting to meet their basic needs.

Living in the bombed-out city of Aleppo after the government retook control, Syrian father of 6 Abo Hashim describes that “Each day that comes is, unfortunately, worse than the one before. The days are becoming harsher. We used to manage our living needs with simple solutions, but now you can’t.” The airstrikes still continue to this day in rebel-held areas.

Source: AMC

In response to the US and EU’s insistence on political change in the country and aid not being directed through Assad’s government, Russia has utilised its power in the Security Council to block and hinder cross-border aid instigated by the UN. In doing so, it has reduced the number of cross-border aid corridors from 4 to 1, with threats to block this final corridor in defiance of the insistence that power change hands in Damascus. This strategy, employed by Russia to hinder opposition to the Assad government, is cruel and has served to make living conditions for those in rebel-held areas hellish and untenable. From its support of a repressive regime intent on carrying out war crimes against its own people, to its involvement in military operations, to its blocking of humanitarian assistance, the Russian government is deeply responsible for the current catastrophe in Syria.

The Assad Regime

As the Assad government attempts to wrap up the conflict and regain control over the last rebel-held areas in the north of Syria, it continues to hinder humanitarian relief across the entire territory. Not only did the regime’s brutal crackdown on anti-government protests escalate the situation from demonstrations to civil war, but the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, use of chemical agents, and complete unwillingness to cede any ground to political rivals render the Assad government overwhelmingly responsible for the humanitarian crisis on the ground today.

The regime has used the stalemate over the administration of humanitarian aid in the country as a political and military tool to restrict aid to civilians in opposition-held areas. In addition to using humanitarian assistance as leverage, the regime has also made it functionally impossible for those living in formerly rebel-held cities to rebuild and begin the long process of reducing dependency on outside aid. Security forces and government-affiliated militias routinely harass people living in the bombed-out neighbourhoods of Aleppo and other cities across northern Syria, and the rule of law in many of these areas is tenuous at best. Heavy restrictions are placed on building construction and repair, and corruption reduces access to food, medicine, and energy. The regime’s unwillingness to take any concrete steps towards a change of government has led to a sanctions regime that has reduced the value of the Syrian Lira by 99% since 2011. Simply put, the government does not have the resources to provide its citizens with basic necessities, nor does it have the resources to begin large-scale reconstruction of infrastructure needed to drive economic growth and provide long-term relief for the humanitarian crisis.

Now, as it seems that the Assad government is here to stay, Syria is attempting to normalise relations with other countries in the region. Even Türkiye-Syria relations seem to be headed towards normalisation after years of Turkish intervention against the Syrian regime. As a new era, dawns in Syria, the international community will face difficult choices in its interactions with the regime and its distribution of humanitarian assistance to the millions of Syrians dependent on this aid.

The Earthquake, China, and the Future of Humanitarian Assistance in Syria

The recent devastation in northwestern Syria has demonstrated the precarious nature of life in the disastrous conditions found across much of Syria. At least 7,000 Syrians lost their lives because of the earthquake, with that number undoubtedly increasing as more rubble is cleared. The conditions of the infrastructure in the zone of earthquake damage not only made the earthquake more deadly but also hindered the transport of the trickle of humanitarian aid allowed in the country.

The humanitarian corridor on the Syria-Türkiye border itself saw the damage, drastically slowing international relief efforts. Every one of the barriers to aid explored here has exacerbated the impacts of this natural disaster as the conflict, politics, and already dire conditions continue even in the face of the deadly earthquake. In a small step in the right direction, the Assad regime agreed to temporarily open 2 additional crossings for aid to make it into rebel-held territories. Despite this move coming a week after the disaster, and its paltry 3-month time period, it is obviously a small victory for the people of Syria.

The earthquake has highlighted the need for a swift resolution to the humanitarian crisis as the precarious nature of life in post-war Syria looms. It is unclear to what degree the US and EU will accept the Assad regime and provide humanitarian aid after the conflict has wound down. The Syrian government faces an immense challenge in rebuilding the country to the tune of an estimated $250 billion.

In 2022, the Assad government signed a memorandum of understanding with the Chinese government officially bringing Syria into the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, which will provide some amount of aid for development and infrastructure as well as open Syria to Chinese business investment. This, along with Russia’s continued support, seem to be the bedrock for the long-term rebuilding plans of the Assad regime. During this rebuilding effort, millions of Syrian civilians will continue to struggle without housing, food, energy access, medicine, sanitation, and security. What the future holds in this humanitarian crisis, and just how long it is likely to continue is unclear, but as the recent earthquake has demonstrated, every day that Syrians are forced to go without adequate humanitarian relief is another day in which millions of lives hang in the balance.