Normalising al-Assad’s regime is dangerous and must be abandoned

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

To all serious policymakers, it is crystal clear that normalising the al-Assad regime is a misguided policy that neglects the fundamental principles of justice, accountability, and the rights of displaced Syrians, Refik Hodžić and Osama Seyhali write.

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A year ago, in February 2023, in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit North West Syria and Southern Turkey, the world witnessed a geopolitical tremor that shook the ground beneath Syrian diplomacy: a sudden rush by regional powers and some Western states to normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad’s regime. 

This move, while seemingly pragmatic, did not resolve nor address any pressing issues or threats affecting the Syrian people or Western stakeholders in Syria. 

At the same time, it threatened to betray the hopes of millions of displaced Syrians who yearn for justice and a dignified return to their homeland.

For example, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) provided $100 million (€92.5m) in earthquake-related humanitarian assistance directly to the Syrian regime, and countries like Saudi Arabia and some European states provided earthquake relief via Damascus. 

Yet, the main affected areas were outside the control of the Syrian regime, and the international community had direct and faster access to those areas. 

This self-imposed and artificially created bureaucracy driven by political agendas contributed to the unnecessary death of thousands of Syrians trapped under the rubble and prolonged the suffering of hundreds of thousands more.

Friends will be friends

A series of diplomatic engagements between Syria and Russia, Turkey, Jordan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE indicated that a new approach to the Syrian regime may be materialising. 

Saudi Arabia reopened its embassy in Syria in May, while in the same month, the Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia invited Bashar al-Assad as a full member, after 12 years of isolation.

Although the regional normalisation attempts had a mixed reaction in the West, ranging from official silence to mild reservations, there has been expectation to see if such normalisation will yield any tangible effects that could serve the interests of some of the Western governments — serious prospects for the return of Syrian refugees and the prevention of new displacement waves towards Europe.

Amidst the lack of any clear political horizon or seriousness on behalf of the international community in the implementation of UNSC resolution 2245, and the lack of effective monitoring mechanisms to enforce sanctions on the Syrian regime, normalisation of the Syrian regime offered the illusion of peace and stability while ignoring the underlying issues of accountability, human rights abuses, and political disenfranchisement that have plagued Syria for decades.

Bashar al-Assad’s intransigence, the continued production and smuggling of huge quantities of synthetic drugs which are significantly affecting countries like Jordan, and have already reached Turkey and Europe, and the recent adoption of “Assad Anti-Normalisation Act” by the US House of Representatives, have put a spanner in the works of international champions of his regime’s normalisation. 

However, it is not entirely clear that they have completely abandoned this flawed stance.

Legitimising a regime of brutality and repression

This makes it even more important to remind everyone that any policy which seeks to normalise the murderous regime in Damascus disregards the fundamental rights and aspirations of the largest and most directly affected constituency: the displaced Syrians.

Displacement is more than just a physical journey across borders; it leaves deep emotional and psychological scars on individuals and communities. 

A recent survey conducted among displaced Syrians revealed the profound mistrust they continue to harbour towards the al-Assad regime. 

Their distrust is well-founded, given the regime’s history of brutality and repression. 

For displaced Syrians, returning home is not merely a matter of crossing a border; it entails rebuilding trust, ensuring safety, and guaranteeing basic human rights, all impossible under al-Assad’s rule.

Normalisation with the al-Assad regime would effectively legitimise a government that has committed widespread human rights abuses, including the use of chemical weapons, arbitrary detentions, and torture.

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It would send a disheartening message to the victims of these atrocities that their suffering is overlooked for political expediency. 

The Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity’s findings reveal a clear rejection of normalisation by displaced Syrians, with a significant majority ceasing efforts to return due to safety concerns and unresolved issues such as the fate of detainees. 

By sidelining these concerns, normalisation risks further entrenching a regime that has consistently shown disregard for basic human rights and international norms.

Moreover, normalisation without a credible pathway to political transition ignores the root causes of the Syrian conflict. It clearly diverts from the UN Security Council resolutions, like Resolution 2254, which outlines a roadmap for peace, including a ceasefire, humanitarian aid access, and a political settlement reflecting the Syrian people’s will. 

Such political adventurism on the part of the international community further erodes the faith among displaced Syrians in the current political process, driven by the belief that normalisation strengthens al-Assad’s position, further diminishing the prospects for a genuine political solution.

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What happened to accountability?

The policy of normalisation also undermines the principle of accountability. 

For any durable peace in Syria, accountability for war crimes and human rights abuses is indispensable. 

Displaced Syrians, as highlighted in the survey’s findings, prioritise the issue of tens of thousands of detainees still held in al-Assad’s prisons and the establishment of a safe environment for all Syrians.

By engaging with the al-Assad regime without addressing these issues, the international community fails to uphold justice, potentially fostering a climate of impunity that could have far-reaching consequences beyond Syria’s borders, as it fails to address the humanitarian and security dimensions of the Syrian crisis. 

The conflict has created one of the largest displacement crises globally, with millions of Syrians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries and beyond. The international community’s engagement with al-Assad without a clear commitment to resolving the displacement crisis risks exacerbating the vulnerabilities of refugees, subjecting them to further discrimination and instability.

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Consequently, the normalisation policy overlooks the strategic error of alienating the most numerous constituency of Syrians — more than 13 million displaced Syrians represent the majority of the country’s population, with deep ties to their homeland and a vested interest in its future. 

Their exclusion from the political process not only negates a wealth of potential contributions to Syria’s recovery and reconciliation but also disregards their right to self-determination. 

The work of organisations and movements representing displaced Syrians continuously emphasises the necessity of including them in any discussions on the country’s future, ensuring their experiences and aspirations shape the path forward. 

It is a grave illusion that this can be ignored without severe consequences for the region and European states.

There are no shortcuts to peace

Seeking shortcuts to peace that bypass the difficult but essential steps of ensuring justice, accountability, and reconciliation is a perilous path. 

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History has shown us that such shortcuts often lead to fragile and unsustainable peace that collapses under the weight of unaddressed grievances.

To all serious policymakers, it is crystal clear that normalising the al-Assad regime is a misguided policy that neglects the fundamental principles of justice, accountability, and the rights of displaced Syrians. 

It needs to be abandoned in all its shapes and guises. Instead, for a sustainable resolution to the Syrian conflict, the international community must prioritise a political process that includes the voices and concerns of displaced Syrians, aligns with international resolutions for peace, ensures a safe environment for all Syrians, and holds perpetrators of human rights abuses accountable. 

The insights we have witnessed so far serve as a crucial reminder of the stakes involved and the imperative to reevaluate current approaches for the sake of Syria’s future and the dignity of its people.

Refik Hodžić is a transitional justice expert and senior advisor at the European Institute for Peace, and Osama Seyhali is advocacy officer and member of the Board of Trustees of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity.

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How much does Russia stand to gain from turmoil in the Middle East?

By David Kirichenko, Journalist, Associate research fellow, Henry Jackson Society

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

With Putin’s good relations with Israel and the Arab world, Russia has a vested interest in continuing to play both sides while the world remains distracted from its failed war in Ukraine. However, the advantage is only temporary, David Kirichenko writes.

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As tensions flare in the Middle East, global attention has swivelled to the region, providing Vladimir Putin with what he desperately needs: the world to lose its interest in his war in Ukraine. 

A long protracted low-intensity war in the Middle East is what Putin is hoping for — not enough to transform into a large regional conflict, yet lasting long enough to have the West divert attention and resources away from Ukraine. 

He wants Washington — and others — to support and supply Israel instead, and as a result, provide a public smokescreen for Russia’s offensive in the Donbas.

And this is exactly what happened: as the world was turning its attention to the carnage in Israel following 7 October, Russian forces launched a sizable counterattack in Avdiivka just two days later.

Russia attempts to take advantage in the Donbas

With Russia almost two years into its failing “special military operation”, the turmoil couldn’t have come at a better time for Putin. 

Control over Avdiivka, located on the northern outskirts of Donetsk — a city partially occupied by Russian forces — has allowed the Ukrainian army to act against the enemy by means of artillery superiority and could serve as a springboard to free the entire urban centre. 

Highlighting Avdiivka’s importance, just last week, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu lauded his troops for “prohibiting Ukrainian advances” near the city of formerly 32,000. 

However, after 20 months of conflict, his omission of any Russian advancements highlights the current predicament of his army, showing Moscow’s desperation.

The Kremlin continues to throw its resources at surrounding Avdiivka, setting up for what looks to be the meatgrinder of a new Bakhmut, with Putin possibly aiming to deplete Ukraine’s ammunition, banking on the possibility of US war funding dwindling. 

As US President Joe Biden attempts to link aid for Ukraine and Israel, nine Republican senators have already urged for separate considerations of aid for the two nations, all ahead of the White House’s push for a $100 billion (€94bn) foreign funding request, which includes funding for Israel and Ukraine.

Western military aid remains essential

Even before the outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Hamas, about half of US House Republicans recently opposed a relatively small $300 million (€282m) aid package for Ukraine. 

It’s perhaps an early indication of the direction a Trump administration would take on Ukraine as Trump Republicans, especially those on the far-right, have been at the forefront of trying to slash aid meant for Ukrainian military assistance from the proposed budget.

Despite the Israel-Hamas conflict potentially diverting resources, Biden has been trying to assure allies that the US will still continue to fund support for Ukraine.

The US recently deployed its Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) to Ukraine, which were used by Ukrainian forces to strike Russian airfields in Berdyansk and Luhansk. 

These strikes, according to Kyiv’s defence ministry, resulted in significant losses for Russia, including nine helicopters, air-defence equipment, and ammunition depots. 

Britain’s defence ministry estimated higher damages, suggesting the possibility of nine helicopters destroyed in Berdyansk alone and an additional five in Luhansk. British intelligence also believes the severity of these strikes might prompt Russia to relocate its bases further from the front lines, complicating its logistics.

The Telegraph reported Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba’s confirmation that the US will continue supplying advanced missiles to Ukraine, putting a lot more pressure on Russian forces. 

ATACMS have the potential to alter the war’s trajectory if given in larger quantities, enabling Ukrainian forces to target previously inaccessible Russian supply lines, air bases, and rail networks in occupied areas. It also serves as a key example of why continued arms donations are essential if Ukraine is to drive the invading forces out of its territory.

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‘A new source of pain undermining world unity’

Sergey Mardan, one of Russia’s best-known propagandists, recently wrote on his Telegram channel that “This mess is beneficial for Russia because the globalist toad will be distracted from [Russia’s war in] Ukraine and will get busy trying to put out the eternal Middle Eastern fire. 

“Iran is our real military ally. Israel is an ally of the US. Therefore, choosing a side is easy,” Mardan concluded, making the Kremlin’s intentions even more clear.

Kyiv also believes that Russia is a major beneficiary of the growing conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that “Russia is interested in triggering a war in the Middle East so that a new source of pain and suffering could undermine world unity, increase discord and contradictions, and thus help Russia destroy freedom in Europe.”

Kyrylo Budanov, Head of Defence Intelligence of Ukraine (DIU), claimed that the Russians supplied the Hamas group with infantry armaments that they managed to seize in Ukraine and that Russians taught the Hamas militants how to use FPV-drones against armoured equipment. 

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Will the ammunition shortage become an even bigger problem?

Russian-made weapons, including anti-tank and shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, have found their way into Gaza in the past, most likely through Iran. 

Yet, there still isn’t concrete information that Russia supplied Hamas with weapons. So far, one Israeli official claimed that some of the weapons used by Hamas came from Russia.

Meanwhile, international press initially reported that the US intended to redirect tens of thousands of artillery rounds from Ukraine to Israel. 

However, a US official refuted this claim. Meanwhile, the chair of NATO’s Military Committee, Lieutenant Admiral Rob Bauer, has previously expressed concerns about allied ammunition supplies nearing depletion, and the risk of Ukraine not having the ammunition it desperately needs is indeed real.

Yet, it was DIU’s Budanov who emphasised that “if the situation drags on, then there will definitely be some problems as Ukraine will not be the only state to need armament and ammunition supplies.”

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The impact is already felt on the battlefield. British-supplied artillery guns are facing ammunition shortages, limiting their use. Ukrainian soldiers trained on L119 howitzers report firing them infrequently due to a severe lack of shells. 

This, in turn, was cause for celebration back in Moscow. Russian military analyst Boris Dzherelievsky also believes that a “long war would lead to Minsk III and the surrender of vast swathes of Ukraine, including Odesa and Mykolaiv, to Russia.”

Not all is rosy for Russia, either

However, not everything is rosy for the Kremlin, either. If events continue to escalate tensions into a large-scale war, Russia has its own reasons to be concerned as well: already, Syrian artillery has hit Israel, and Israel has targeted Iranian-backed assets in Syria, including conducting airstrikes on Syrian airports. This only increases the risk of Israel engaging with Russian forces in Syria.

Russia is keen on balancing between its main military ally, Iran, and its close partnership with Israel, as Putin and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu share a friendly relationship. 

Hamas representatives reportedly met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in March, stating that the organisation is running out of patience with Israel. Additional meetings between senior Hamas members and Russia occurred in May and September 2022.

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The Soviet military historically supported Arab armies, particularly Egypt and Syria, in their efforts against Israel, especially during the wars in the 1960s and the 1970s. 

In contrast, contemporary relations between Israel and Russia are characterised by military coordination, particularly in Syria. Israel values its positive relationship with Russia, recognising Moscow’s significant influence in the war-torn neighbouring country.

If Russia was caught red-handed supporting Hamas, it would unravel the close ties between Putin and Netanyahu, which Russia is desperate to maintain.

Benefits are temporary at best

The highly volatile atmosphere is perhaps best illustrated by the recent interview with Amir Weitman, chairman of the Libertarian faction of Israel’s ruling Likud party, who openly threatened Russia on its own propaganda channel RT: “After we win this war, we will make sure Ukraine wins as well and we will make sure Russia will pay for what it has done.” 

If anything, Wietman’s words show that a major reshuffle of sides could well be on the cards, all depending on who Russia chooses to side with — a decision the Kremlin might not be able to stall over forever.

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Russia might benefit temporarily from a renewed Western focus on the Middle East, but a full-scale war between Iran and Israel, potentially involving Syria, would stretch its resources, and with its military largely committed to Ukraine, a war of that size would definitely threaten its position as well as its forces in Syria.

Thus, at some point, the Kremlin’s hand might be inevitably forced by the sheer magnitude of the brewing conflict. 

On top of that, US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently labelled China, Russia, and Iran as the new “axis of evil”, signalling that sooner or later, Israel will have to take a hard stance against Russia, too.

We should be aware of the smokescreen

Moscow continues to value its ties with Israel and Arab states, even as it grows closer to Iran. Following the attack on Israel on 7 October, Russia has been quick to cynically position itself as a peace broker in the Middle East, presenting a draft resolution in the UN Security Council, though it failed to gain majority support. 

Putin’s delay in expressing condolences to Netanyahu after the attack and Russia’s pro-Palestinian media stance also reflect the bind he is in.

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However, Moscow’s strategy will still hinge on balancing relations with multiple Middle Eastern players to maximise its benefits, at least for now. 

Nonetheless, Russia has been quick to benefit from the situation by expanding military operations in Ukraine, while being cautious that things can quickly pull Russia in a direction where it doesn’t want to go. 

And we can’t stop paying attention to its actions now and allow Moscow to use other flashpoints as a smokescreen for its own destructive goals.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist and an associate research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, a London-based think tank.

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Working in neuroscience taught me that music is key to our well-being

For many of us, the understanding that music can calm our nerves, improve our mood, and make us feel connected to one another, is largely intuitive. 

Parents sing to their babies to facilitate sleep, modulate mood, and scaffold communication. Likewise, adults turn to uplifting music for energy and motivation and soothing music for relaxation and calm.

While such effects can feel mysterious, the truth is that they arise mechanistically from the interaction between musical tones and rhythms with our brains.

Although I had been a musician since I was a child, and had studied the biological foundations of music for more than a decade, the relevance of music’s effects on the brain for mental health was not initially obvious to me. 

Intellectually, I understood that music is an important part of human nature, with deep roots in the biology of social communication, which goes a long way towards explaining its emotional power.

Practically, I knew that I looked to music every day as a source of joy, motivation, and connection. 

But, perhaps like many basic scientists, I was naïve about how closely such effects align with critical dimensions of mental health (like mood, anxiety, focus, and sociality). 

I didn’t understand how overlap in underlying neurophysiology could provide a scientific basis for music as therapy.

Leaving my comfort zone helped me as a scientist

This began to change when, after nearly 10 years abroad completing my studies, I returned to the US for a job in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford School of Medicine. 

There, I quickly learned about the magnitude of our society’s growing problems with mental health (especially for young people) and the tremendous need for better services. 

I also felt the collective frustration with our current best practices (i.e., our best behavioural and pharmacological therapies), which unfortunately have so little to offer so many in need, and which often carry significant burdens through side effects.

In what felt like a cliché at the time, I was also contacted by a start-up, Spiritune, about consulting work within several weeks of my arrival in Silicon Valley. 

Despite my initial scepticism, I’ve learned some important things that have changed how I think about the value of music.

In taking a closer look at musical applications in health, I’ve come face-to-face with the mountain of evidence showing that music-based therapies and interventions are broadly effective, e.g., at reducing core symptoms and/or quality of life across many of our most common ailments, including disorders of anxiety, mood, social function, psychosis, and dementia. 

Together, these and other insights have made me wonder how much more music could do for us.

What if we stopped thinking about music primarily as a source of entertainment and profit and more as an essential form of social communication with real neurobiological benefits?

This is how we came up with a lulaby for Syrian children

One of the more satisfying applications of my research so far has been in working with Spiritune on the Frequencies of Peace campaign, which seeks to bring a bit of peace to Syrian children in a world plagued by war and natural disasters. 

As part of a larger effort to supply toys, blankets, and other sleep aids to these kids, Babyshop, a Middle-Eastern retailer of products for children, came up with the goal of composing a special Arabic lullaby to be played over the radio at bedtime in homes, camps, orphanages, and hospitals all over the region. 

The small editorial role played by us in this process was in iterating back and forth with a local composer to help ensure that the final lullaby was acoustically aligned with parameters that communicate peace and calm and that is suitable for use in a context of helping children for whom unpredictability has engendered a fundamental state of hyper-vigilance and anxiety.

While the magnitude of the problems faced by these children, now and in the future, far outweighs what we can hope to have achieved with a single lullaby, the effort remains important in a number of ways.

Can a song really help?

First and foremost, we hope that it will provide some immediate comfort and predictability in the lives of these children while also serving as a window into the tenderness and kindness that exists in the world.

Second, we hope that it will draw attention to the emotional plight of these children and stimulate other local and international partnerships aimed at helping them. 

And third, we want this campaign to highlight the tangible value of music for mental health, not only for the most vulnerable but for us all. 

The capacity of music to soothe, lull, and generally calm our nerves applies broadly, as does its capacity to stimulate positive emotions, motivate and reward, and bring people together. 

These effects have a biological reality that we are increasingly coming to understand, and the effects are just as real as those of other interventions that have become staples of modern mental health care.

Music does more for our mental health than you think

As problems with mental health continue to rise and the world faces new challenges, music will continue to help people, as it always has. 

If we continue to overlook this reality, we will miss an important opportunity in a time of need. We need to double down on understanding music’s effects on the brain, promote them, and perhaps most importantly, teach our children how to leverage them. 

The onus is thus on scientists, clinicians, educators, musicians, public funders, and private companies to push forward with work that advances the integration of music into our healthcare systems and wellness practices. 

This project will not be without its challenges, but the collective knowledge of musicians, music therapists, and biological music researchers can already provide considerable insight into the way forward. 

We are also starting to learn how to target musical treatments to individuals with greater precision, which, combined with new technologies, will allow us to develop better ways of getting the right music to the right people at the right time. 

All of this is to say that a world in which music does more for our mental health is eminently achievable, and I would encourage anyone who has ever felt moved by music to take it seriously and actively seek out ways in which music can improve their condition.

Daniel Bowling, PhD, is a neuroscientist working at Stanford School of Medicine’s Parker Lab, focusing on auditory-vocal function in human social communication.

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West must move faster to prevent a catastrophe in northern Syria

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

On the “treacherous night” of the deadly earthquake that shook northern Syria, Idris Nassan, a Kurdish official living in Raqqa, was startled awake as his apartment swayed.

“My body was trembling, noise filled the place; the building turned into a swing, leaning left and right,” he said.

With his wife and mother in tow, Nassan scrambled down three flights of stairs, joining neighbors who, “like birds fleeing snakes of prey,” made their chaotic exit. The stairwell echoed with the cries and screams of terrified children.

The scenes outside were “beyond endurance,” Nassan said — telling, coming from a man who witnessed the siege of Kobani and the vicious battles between Kurds and the Islamic State militants there. But, he added, the “pain of the earthquake has been “deepened by the failure of others to help.”

Of all the places to be tested by the grinding of tectonic plates, this is one that just didn’t need to suffer more pain and grief.

The Syrians of Idlib and northern Aleppo, many displaced from elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, have endured barbaric conflict, a gruesome descent into hell, for over a decade. They’ve suffered barrel bombs; their hospitals and markets have been targeted; they’ve been starved; and they’ve been preyed upon by the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Idlib was turned into a large “kill zone” by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, as rebels and their families were funneled into the area, corralled like cattle awaiting slaughter.

Adding insult to injury, since 2018, Turkish authorities have been deterring Syrian asylum seekers from crossing the border and declining to register them. Turkey has also mounted unlawful deportations and coerced some to return to northern Syria, while the European Union — fearful of another migration surge — has raised few objections to this breach of the Geneva Convention.

Along the arc of northern Syria, the widespread complaint by Arabs and Kurds alike is that since the defeat of the Islamic State, they’ve been abandoned by the international community. That sense of desertion is now being compounded as they dig mass graves and grapple with the effects of a devastating earthquake.

Since the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened towns, destroyed homes and crushed thousands of lives on February 6, the world’s focus has mainly been on Turkey — that’s where Western media and international rescue crews, aid and equipment have been heading.

But across the border, there’s been scant assistance.

Sent into rebel-held Idlib, a member of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, said, “What sticks in my mind is that some people were standing above the rubble and hearing the voices of their families and relatives a few meters away, but they could not do anything to rescue them due to the lack of equipment and the absence of an international response to help.”

Predictably, Moscow and Beijing haven’t been lagging in their efforts to try to spin the events in Syria. “The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies are hampering relief and rescue work . . . such a humanitarian disaster is not enough to melt the cold-blooded heart of the US,” goaded the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the “collective West” of ignoring what’s taking place in northern Syria, blaming the economic sanctions against the Assad government for prolonging suffering.

Of course, these are crocodile tears coming from a Chinese Communist government that’s incarcerated over a million Uyghurs since 2015. It’s also strikingly indecent of Russia to claim sympathy for the north of Syria, where it shunned the laws of war and rehearsed the bombing campaigns and egregious tactics it’s now using in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be a Russian or Chinese propagandist to question the West’s sluggishness in anticipating the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Syria, or in developing an action plan to ease the suffering in Idlib and northern Aleppo.

Last week, EU officials slammed the complaints of neglect coming from northern Syria. “I categorically reject the accusations that EU sanctions may have any impact on humanitarian aid. These sanctions were imposed since 2011 in response to the violent repression of the Syrian regime against its own civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič told reporters. “There is nothing there that would hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation in which Syrian people find themselves after this terrible earthquake,” he added.

The EU says it’ll provide additional emergency support to both Turkey and Syria, and emergency humanitarian assistance worth €6.5 million. But officials say the bloc will also require safeguards to ensure aid effectively reaches those in need and isn’t misused by the Assad government — something that’s plagued humanitarian assistance in the past.

Indeed, funneling aid into northern Syria is fraught with logistical and political nightmares. Idlib is controlled by a variety of feuding rebel groups, with a large part held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group that’s been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and, much like the Assad government, has been accused of manipulating international aid.

Additionally, of the five border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria, only one has been authorized by Turkish authorities to handle humanitarian aid — although Ankara has now said it’s considering reopening more crossings to allow aid into both opposition-held and Assad-controlled areas.

But time is of the essence, and the scale of the crisis unfolding requires a momentous step change.

Mercy Corps reports that there aren’t enough structural engineers in northern Syria to inspect buildings, and even small aftershocks risk further collapse. There’s also very little coordination on the ground, with extremely limited information available on shelter options for survivors.

Fuel for heating and cooking is becoming a major challenge as well. “There is limited availability, and what is available is of poor quality and very expensive. People are burning trash to stay warm, and aid deliveries will be dependent on consistent access to fuel for trucks,” said Mercy Corps. Meanwhile, food is hard to procure, prices are skyrocketing, and access to clean drinking water is becoming a critical problem, with assessment teams worried about pollutants leaking into water sources.

On Friday, the United Nations warned that over 5 million Syrians may be left homeless after the earthquake. “That is a huge number and comes to a population already suffering mass displacement,” said Sivanka Dhanapala, the Syria representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thankfully, in the past few days, 20 U.N. aid trucks have crossed into rebel-held areas, but most were carrying pre-planned provisions that had been delayed due to the earthquake. And on Friday, the U.N. announced it was releasing an additional $25 million in emergency funding for Syria, bringing the total to $50 million so far.

However, NGO assessment workers say this is far short of what’s needed — and they argue that Western powers will have to rethink the sanctions regime.

While humanitarian aid isn’t barred by Western sanctions, there are plenty of other things desperately needed in northern Syria that are, including fuel and construction equipment critical to rescue efforts, to prop up battered buildings and to rebuild, so the displaced aren’t left to shelter in tents.

The United States has moved faster than the EU in recognizing that sanctions risk impeding quake assistance, issuing a six-month waiver for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

 Navigating the political dilemmas all this will bring — getting in front of Assad exploiting the earthquake to force a normalization of relations, getting Turkey to coordinate with the Kurds of northern Syria, and dealing with HTS and the other feuding rebel groups — is undoubtedly going to be a tall order.

Aside from the imperatives of compassion, a slow and inadequate Western response will also feed into African and Middle Eastern countries’ perception — kindled by Moscow and Beijing — that Western powers only pay attention to them when they want or need something.

And if these challenges aren’t confronted, the immediate humanitarian crisis risks turning into a catastrophe.



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