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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, June 16, 2024

Op-ed: Bashar al-Assad is manipulating you

Across social media, calls have been mounting for the U.S. and the EU to lift sanctions against the Syrian government. One particularly influential post, which accumulated over two million views in just three days, claimed, “the US and EU refuse to lift the sanctions which prevent Syrians from receiving direct aid from many countries. Remember this the next time they lecture the world about human rights.” It seems that this take has garnered considerable popularity, especially among younger liberals who are genuinely wrestling with the legacy of a complex and morally ambiguous history of U.S. foreign policy.

It is also massively problematic, misleading and oversimplified. More alarmingly, it is propaganda — very likely propelled by a Russian disinformation campaign that can be traced back long before there was a humanitarian justification — put out in support of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s dictator.

First, it is important to understand that sanctions are leveled against the Syrian government in order to mitigate al-Assad’s oppression of his own people. His brutal tactics have included the use of chemical warfare, torture and extrajudicial killings. He is also infamous and directly culpable for shameless diversions of aid. One study found that Damascus, the capital of Syria, retained “51 cents of every international aid dollar” channeled through the government to be spent  in 2020. Although the U.S. still makes exemptions to sanctions for humanitarian aid, Western countries are still rightfully wary of giving bilateral aid to Damascus because of its persistent practice of massively exploiting and depriving other regions within the country of said aid.

Indeed, the northwest region of Syria is more likely to face renewed reprisal from the national government rather than assistance. This is because the region is controlled by various opposition groups with whom the national government fought bitterly during the decade-long civil war. A ceasefire was finally tenuously negotiated in 2020. Based on his deplorable track record, it is clear that al-Assad has no real intention of helping the victims of the earthquake. Instead, he is taking advantage of the international community’s sympathy and shock following the earthquake to leverage the disaster in two ways. First, as a bargaining chip to shame Western countries into lifting the sanctions, and second, as a public relations platform to improve his own political position. At the same time, he is holding back direct aid sent by Iraq, Algeria, Russia, United Arab Emirates and more from the victims, arguing that empowering the rebel groups would be a violation of national sovereignty. Soon, al-Assad may well weaponize aid funds to renew conflict in the region while he has the upper hand against the weakened opposition groups. A breach of the ceasefire would pile even more suffering on Syrians already struggling to recover from decades of bloody civil war, brutal repression, economic collapse and one of the worst natural disasters of the century.

As for the U.S. response to the crisis, the U.S. is, in fact, the single largest contributor of humanitarian aid to Syria. Rather than working with the corrupt and repressive national government, it funds multiple local, reputable and experienced aid groups that are already on the ground responding to the crisis, including the White Helmets (also known as the Syria Civil Defence), the U.S. Agency for International Development and the United Nations.

Crisis response in Syria was indeed delayed, shockingly so in comparison to that of Turkey. This delay is far more attributable to structural problems that arose during the war rather than any direct impact of sanctions. Some of these problems include weakened infrastructure and the isolation of rebel-controlled northwestern Syria from other regions of the country and from Turkey. To illustrate, there used to be four humanitarian corridors between Turkey and Syria. Russia successfully lobbied for three of them to be closed. The sole remaining corridor was rendered impassable by damage from the earthquake until Thursday, and local Syrian groups tried at first to prevent humanitarian workers from entering with aid. The first UN aid convoy was finally able to enter Syria on Thursday, four days after the earthquake happened, meaning the necessary help was not able to reach affected areas for the first 96 hours.

Going forward, the best thing that the international community can do is negotiate additional crossing points for aid to reach Syria before it is too late. A single crossing — choked by complex geopolitics that dehumanize the inconceivable suffering of many thousands of victims — is criminally insufficient to meet the dire need of Syrians at this critical moment. At the same time, we must also donate to the incredibly brave groups currently racing against the ruthless clock and bitter cold to ensure that they have the money and resources they need to save lives.