The earthquake in Turkey and Syria has been devastating. The UN warns that the disaster’s full extent is still unclear.
Rescuers are still searching rubble for survivors, but hopes are fading more than four days since the first earthquake. Freezing conditions threaten the lives of thousands of survivors who are now without shelter, water and food.
Politics should never get in the way of helping victims of a natural catastrophe. In fact victims of any form of mass destruction and carnage, be it natural or man-made, should have immediate access to international aid and assistance.
But the devastating earthquake that hit southwestern Turkey and northwestern Syria last Monday has underlined the flawed political fissures that have differentiated between the victims of the same natural calamity — separated only by a border line.
Geopolitical restraints and political calculations have prevented the humanitarian assistance from heading to beleaguered Idlib province, for years under Syrian opposition groups, and to territories under government control such as Aleppo, and Latakia.
The US Caesar Act of 2019 may have forced many countries to hesitate sending much needed and life saving aid. For the Idlib province it was a combination of logistical obstacles and political considerations that left thousands of victims trapped under the rubble for days.
Ironically the Caesar Act full title is Syria Civilian Protection Act, but little has been done under the act to help the civilian population across the war-ravaged country.
It was only on Thursday, three days after the debacle, that the first convoy of aid managed to get through the Bab Al Hawa border crossing between southern Turkey and northern Syria. And it was too little to start with. By Thursday night hundreds of victims were still trapped alive or dead in the sprawling Idlib countryside.
Bad weather, lack of heavy equipment and acute shortages of tents, manpower and medicines made the situation worse. It was and remains a nightmare for the survivors and rescue workers.
The same applies to other areas. Years of biting sanctions and civil war have resulted in a few resources to deal with mass destruction let alone carry out an organised search and rescue mission.
Urgent appeal to all
The UN sent an urgent appeal to all countries to give Syria the same attention that is given to Turkey. Meanwhile, Arab response to the disaster has been efficient.
Almost immediately, the UAE, Jordan, Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Tunis, Iraq, Kuwait and Palestine announced that they are sending aid and rescue teams to Damascus, Latakia and Aleppo. Their initiatives prompted western countries to reconsider their positions.
The EU announced, on Thursday, that they would be sending immediate aid to Syria while the US embassy in Damascus tweeted that “Our sanctions programs do not target humanitarian assistance and permit activities in support of humanitarian assistance, including in regime-held areas. The US is committed to providing immediate, life-saving humanitarian assistance to help all affected communities recover.”
The heartbreaking saga should open the eyes of the world to the validity of the sanctions regime as a diplomatic tool. Probably the most searing indictment of the blind sanctions system came about when the US TV program 60 Minutes interviewed then US ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright in 1996 on the catastrophic effect US sanctions imposed on Iraq had on the Iraqi population.
“I think that is a very hard choice,” Albright said that time, “but the price, we think, the price is worth it.” Nothing morally justifies the price.
Saving precious lives
The calamity that has afflicted the Syrian people, especially those driven from their homes as a result of 12 years of civil war, must transcend political calculations — for now. The immediate goal of the international community is to save lives — all lives regardless of geopolitics.
That is not to say that the past is forgotten or forgiven. The Syrian crisis remains a complicated one with multifaceted political and humanitarian diversions.
There is time, once the dust is cleared, to address the political challenges. For now the world must do its best to save lives and address the impending humanitarian crisis that will follow: More refugees in need of long-term help, towering rebuilding challenges and yes a political solution.
Either way you look at it, the life of the victims should be the only priority today.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.