After more than a decade of destructive civil war, the Syrian people are now reeling from massive earthquakes. Yet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad sees an opportunity: While this month’s earthquakes killed at least 41,000 people in Syria and Turkey and left many more homeless, Assad has used the disaster to try to legitimize his contested rule.
Last week, the United States Treasury announced a six-month freeze on sanctions against the Syrian government involving “all transactions related to earthquake relief.” Though U.S. officials insisted none of their existing penalties on Damascus targeted humanitarian aid shipments, the move followed finger-pointing from regime officials who wasted no time in blaming Western sanctions for their own deficient response to the catastrophe.
“I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in announcing the temporary measure. “While U.S. sanctions programs already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today Treasury is issuing a blanket General License to authorize earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.”
While his government complained about sanctions, the dictator of more than two decades has been stalling the delivery of life-saving relief for political gain. Until last week, the regime had insisted that all international assistance be routed through the Damascus government, delaying aid shipments to some of the hardest-hit areas in the country’s rebel-held northwest.