Brief: Assad Leveraging Earthquake Response
The devastating earthquake that struck parts of Syria and Turkey on 6th February has provided the Syrian regime with an unexpected boon to leverage its position. By vastly exaggerating claims of human and material damage from the earthquake, regime officials believe they can advance three main goals: increasing foreign aid flows to Syria and maximizing opportunities for corruption, centralizing control over resources within the country, and using the crisis as a springboard to push for unconditional international sanctions relief. The international aid that has been distributed so far has been placed under the coordinated, centralized control of two entities—the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), which is closely linked to the regime and complicit in well-documented past abuses; and the Syria Trust for Development, which is personally overseen by Asma al-Assad. Earthquake relief and aid distribution has also been used to further punish opposition-held areas, with threats of detention and prosecution levied against those fundraising to assist civilians in the far more deeply affected north-west of the country. There have also been reports of emergency aid being diverted to regime strongholds, hundreds of kilometers from earthquake-affected areas.
Exaggeration Of Earthquake Damage
- Conflating war damage: Although many buildings did collapse throughout regime-controlled areas of Syria, there is no evidence of entire neighborhoods being devastated. Much of the infrastructure damage that occurred in regime-controlled areas is the direct result of either corrupt building practices or, more commonly, foundations weakened by years of regime shelling of residential areas. This was observed, for example, in Aleppo city where a number of previously opposition-held areas or front- line zones on the eastern side of the city—such as Al Masharika, Al Fardos, Al Jalloum, Neirab, Salheen and Salaheddine— witnessed a disproportionately higher number of building collapses than those on the western side. A similar attempt was made to pass off damage at the Banyias Oil Refinery as earthquake-related, rather being the result of years of fighting in the area.
- Unaffected areas: The regime is also including several traditional loyalist strongholds, outside of the earthquake’s impact zone, in its assessments of earthquake damage. The regime has added Tartous to its assessment of earthquake-impacted areas, and ordered municipalities in south-west Syria to submit lists of damaged buildings. Similarly, buildings in the Alawi-majority Damascus neighborhood Al-Mazzeh 86, where many members of the Republican Guard and their families reside, were deliberately demolished in order to secure reconstruction aid for the area.
- Lifting of sanctions: The regime has utilized the crisis to push aggressively for sanctions relief, falsely claiming that sanctions restrict humanitarian aid from reaching the country. This push has brought some success, leading to the US Treasury to announce a 180-day exemption to its sanctions on Syria for “all transactions related to earthquake relief” efforts, along with subsequent sanctions waivers issued by the European Union and the United Kingdom. There is significant concern that even this temporary easing of sanctions has made it easier for the Syrian regime to move desperately needed foreign exchange into the country through its expansive and global network of regime-linked businessmen.
- Suppressing community efforts: Wherever additional material and human aid has been made available to the Syrian regime, officials have catastrophically mismanaged and squandered these resources. Despite the apparent incoherence of authorities simultaneously requesting assistance and actively preventing its distribution, the goal is ultimately control. For example, while thousands of Syrian civilians have expressed a strong desire to volunteer and assist in the aftermath of the earthquake, the regime has actively suppressed local volunteering efforts and restricted independent fundraising by community organizations.
- Punishing opposition areas: The regime is also threatening to prosecute anyone collecting funds or donations for more seriously damaged areas of north-west Syria, which lie largely outside of regime control. Initiatives by communities in south Syria to locally fundraise for earthquake-impacted areas in the opposition-held north-west were quickly shut down when Daraa’s governor threatened punitive action against anyone involved in these efforts.
- Centralized and limited response: Similarly, the Assad regime has only permitted highly centralized, limited search-and-rescue operations. Even then, these efforts have often devolved into scenes of security forces looting earthquake-affected buildings. The regime also took no serious steps towards establishing an operations room to monitor the earthquake’s impact on the ground.
- SARC & the Syria Trust: SARC, which is closely linked to the Syrian regime and has a long, documented history of aid diversion, is leading earthquake relief efforts. Most crucial aid distribution decisions are being made by Asma al-Assad’s Syria Trust for Development, under the coordination of Khaled Haboubati and Firas Klass. Humanitarian aid remains a key pillar in the regime’s resource pool that is selectively deployed to provide patronage to its inner-circle and retain its grip on loyalist communities.
- Distribution to regime strongholds: Regime-run media outlets documented earthquake relief received from Russia, Iran, Iraq and Libya being packaged for distribution to families in Damascus, rural Damascus and Hama through state-run “Syrian Trading” stores, where Syrians can purchase subsidized goods. Of these locations, only Hama was directly impacted by the earthquake.
- Military families: The Al-Areen Association, which is a Syrian charity affiliated with the regime, was similarly witnessed by sources distributing international aid received in the aftermath of the earthquake to officers in the regime’s military and their families at military housing compounds in the cities of As Sanamayn and Izraa in Daraa province.