A Story of Unreliable Western Humanitarianism: What Is so Political About the Humanitarian Crisis in Syria?

Iqra Athar ’26

Staff Writer

Countries from around the world rush to aid Turkey and Syria following a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that has claimed the lives of more than 20,000 people and left hundreds of thousands homeless. The aid to northwestern Syria, however, has been limited. The locked political dynamic around Syria has wasted crucial time in rescuing survivors and continues to do so.   

Even before the catastrophic earthquake, getting aid to the war-torn parts of Syria was difficult due to the sanctions imposed on the country. Not to mention the challenging political situation marked by its multi-prong humanitarian and economic crisis has left millions of Syrians displaced. With the recent earthquake, the situation has become even worse. Pre-earthquake, many Syrians were already suffering from a lack of food, water, and electricity—the necessities we take for granted—and now, they have been put into another humanitarian crisis which includes surviving winter without any shelter.

In this devastating time, Syrians cry for help; however, they go unheard. A Syrian I interviewed, who wishes to stay anonymous, noted that while they are “extremely sympathetic to Turkish people and their plight, and (are) relieved to see the immediate response of foreign powers they got, it is nevertheless frustrating to see the assistance that Syria received which took over 24 hours.” While Gulf countries and even the occupied territories of Palestine have come to aid, Western fronts have yet to respond with just more than words. “It is stressful to see war-battered countries coming to our aid, while we are here holding our sanctions really hard against the people,” they further commented. 

What are these sanctions in question, and why were they placed? Following the repression of civilians in the 2011 Syrian civil war, economic sanctions and restrictions against Syria imposed by the US, EU, and other countries were placed to discourage Assad’s government from repressing its civilians again. According to Balazs Ujvari, a spokesman for the EU, “these sanctions do not prohibit the export of food, medicines or medical equipment to Syria;” rather, sanctions were designed with humanitarian aid in mind. However, as argued by the Syrian interviewee, the statement makes them wonder if this is limited to humanitarian crises only. While they are not aware of how the EU processes the sanction on their country, they do know that when they go home it’s impossible to find even basic medicines like painkillers, “that’s how worse our situation is.” While there is truth to fears of the government controlling what goes into Syria, sanctions nevertheless seem to be helping no one, particularly the Syrians who are at their wits end. “Syrians aren’t happy with Russian troops, but they have no option since the rest of the world abandoned them…there used to be zero deaths and now we have this massive death toll,” the interviewee elaborates.

While the EU and the US have claimed that humanitarian aid is exempted from sanctions and are willing to send aid through humanitarian partners on the ground in Syria, the reality is starkly different. Aron Lund, a fellow at Century International and researcher in Syria, stated that the banks are likely to block transfers to aid organizations for fear of violating the sanction. Additionally, some sanctions placed by the West, to some extent, hinder the rebuilding of infrastructure with a lack of resources at hand—which can hamper post-earthquake recovery. 

Looking at the situation with its lack of alternative options, international NGOs are arguing for increased crossline support, which would mean negotiating with Damascus and easing the sanctions if one is to increase support entering the region via Damascus. Humanitarian help needs to trump longstanding political positions to aid survivors and the recovery of the region. In the past, following earthquakes in Iran, sanctions were temporarily set aside, so why can’t it be done again? For now, both Syria and Turkey need all the help they can get. While there are downsides to what the negotiation might mean, the alternative is much more detrimental, which no individual deserves. “The Syrians need your help. Lift the sanctions for a limited time so NGOs and the aid can come in; just for this winter, give people hope that the world cares,” my interviewee urges us. After all, there is nothing political about a child dying because of the cold. 

Reliable organizations suggested by Syrians and Turkish civilians that you can donate to include Basmeh & Zeitooneh, Direct Relief, Plan International, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, and Trinity’s page on the Turkish Philanthropy Funds site.

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    Iqra Athar

    Update: Recently, the US Department of Treasury lifted sanctions temporarily (for 180 days) to allow Humanitarian aid to get to Syria. This is a huge step in expediting humanitarian assistance to help those immediately affected by the earthquake. You can read more at the following link https://home.treasury.gov/news/press-releases/jy1261 . While this makes it easier to send humanitarian funding from the US without having to prove an exemption from sanction, it is important to note the restriction and limitations imposed by the EU on Syria. The EU has so far not announced the relaxation of its policy in response to the earthquake. This includes limitations to travel and financial flows. Hence, making it important for us to keep discussing the ongoing crisis in Syria and do as much as we can to aid the victims affected by the Turkey-Syria earthquake.

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