by Iqbal Jassat
Has demonization of Syria on the back of crippling sanctions by America and the European Union, contributed to pathetic minimal humanitarian responses in the wake of colossal earthquakes?
Sadly, this is the case almost everywhere barring a few notable exceptions such as Iran, China, Russia and a few Arab countries.
Even South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s marathon speech during his States of the Union Address ignored any mention of Syria.
It appears that many political commentators and media analysts missed this glaring omission by Ramaphosa when he expressed sympathy for Turkish victims but not for Syrians.
Absence of reference to the devastating impact on Syria can be construed as explicitly implying that only Turkiye had suffered tragic consequences of the earthquakes.
Was it a simple error or deliberately calculated to avoid delving into the vexing question of America’s embargo on Bashar al-Asad’s government?
Nevertheless, his speech inadvertently and at a time global attention has been rivetted on the unimaginable scale of devastation following massive earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria, brought to the surface the unfairness and unjust discrimination faced by Syrian victims resulting from US/EU-led sanctions.
Syria has for decades been in the crosshairs of various American regimes and in particular Israel.
Asad’s government had been earmarked for regime change along with Iraq, Iran and Libya.
However, unlike the violent overthrow of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi fuelled by a full-scale military invasion by the US and NATO, Syria was engulfed in a war in 2011 in which foreign mercenaries played a major role.
That America had a hand in it is clear from a statement attributed to its State Department:
“... the US government has intensely pursued calibrated sanctions to deprive the regime of the resources it needs to continue violence against civilians and to pressure the Syrian regime to allow for a democratic transition as the Syrian people demand.”
America’s duplicitous role used the pretext of “shielding civilians” while fomenting civil war.
And in cahoots with various groups of foreign mercenaries, US forces remain in occupation of a huge chunk of Syrian territory.
As questions arise about why very little aid is reaching most seriously-affected parts of Syria, it is crucial not to ignore America’s violation of international law by invading and dismembering the country and slapping sanctions on it.
This is quite a bizarre way to give expression to a “rules-based international order”.
That the shock and horror of utter devastation stretching across Turkiye and Syria has compounded the helplessness of families hoping in desperation to have their loved ones dug out from beneath the rubble of apartments, is a given.
But to have thousands upon thousands of search and rescue teams from hundreds of countries across the world aiding Turkiye while only a handful are operating in Syria, is unforgivable.
Debating the catastrophe, member of the European Parliament (EU) from Hungary, Gyorgy Holvenyi said:
“Following the disaster, I contacted one of the largest aid agencies in Syria. I’ve spoken to Italian agencies and other NGOs. They all told me that the EU sanctions present an obstacle to humanitarian work.”
Not only have Syrian victims of the earthquakes been unfairly dealt with during a decade of war, they continue to be victimised by the weaponization of America’s economic and political policies known as sanctions.
It is sadly true as pointed out by the UN special envoy for Syria, that the earthquake-affected regions in the country had received “nowhere near enough” lifesaving aid.
More importantly he warned against politicising assistance.
Regrettably, the reality is that Syria’s colossal disaster has suffered a double blow due to aid provided in “drips and drabs”, unlike the flurry of states, humanitarian NGOs and rescue missions who have descended on Turkiye.
With temperatures dropping below freezing alongside feelings of despair, sanctions have extracted a huge price: human lives.
The European Union is equally complicit in crimes against the Syrian population, by being an active partner and proponent of sanctions.
The end goal remains regime-change while casualties of the war and now of the earthquake are used as cannon fodder.
Not surprisingly, a western diplomat confirmed that “the goal is to get the Syrian people to blame their president for western countries’ refusal to provide aid,” as reported in Middle East Eye.
Having politicized this catastrophic disaster, America and the EU have pinned the blame on Asad’s government for the near-total absence of humanitarian aid.
In other words, it is not sanctions that’s having any bearing on non-delivery of assistance.
On the other hand, Syrian government spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban has argued that if the US and EU lift sanctions, the Syrian people will be able to take care of their country.
Similar pleas have been made by well-meaning humanitarian organisations as well as the United Nations.
UN Human Rights expert Alena Douhan has claimed to be struck by the pervasiveness of the human rights and humanitarian impact of the “unilateral coercive measures imposed on Syria and the total economic and financial isolation of a country whose people are struggling...”
The UN has reported that in 2022, 90% of Syrians lived below the poverty line as they have limited access to food and water.
The US-led sanctions are causing a lot more harm than good.
No wonder Douhan called for the immediate lifting of “suffocating sanctions”.
In defiance of America’s insistence that no aid be directed to Damascus, thus far the UAE, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Russia, China and India have sent relief aid directly to the Asad government.
It makes perfect sense given that access to the disaster-affected areas is easier and faster from inside Syria.
And the urgency of need cannot wait for America and the EU to lift sanctions.
One wonders why the media in South Africa hasn’t reached out to Syria’s ambassador in the way they regularly engage the envoy of Turkiye?
Hope this is not a blind spot induced by sanctions.
Iqbal Jassat is Executive Member at Media Review Network, Johannesburg, South Africa