1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Could the Syrian earthquake help rehabilitate Assad?

February 10, 2023

In light of much-needed aid, President Bashar Assad accelerates his ambitions to end Syria's international isolation, have sanctions lifted and return to the international stage.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad
Does Syria's President Bashar al-Assad seek to politicize the earthquake Image: SANA/dpa/picture alliance

Syria's President Bashar Assad has stepped up efforts to return his country to the international stage following the devastating earthquake that hit parts of northern Syria as well as the south of Turkey. 

Last Friday afternoon, he said he would agree to international demands and allow aid  into regions not under state control and that aid would no longer have to go via the capital Damascus. This week, the Syrian leader agreed to open two further border crossings, allowing aid to cross more easily from Turkey into Syria for the next three months. Previously only one crossing had been open, and access had been dependent on the regular extension of a UN Security Council mandate. 

The Syrian parliament had earlier called on the international community "to immediately and urgently lift the unjust siege and unilateral coercive measures imposed on the Syrian people," the state-run Sana news agency reported on Tuesday.

According to Sami Hamdi, managing director of International Interest, a London-based global risk and intelligence company, "the earthquake offers an opportunity to strongarm the international community into official recognition by insisting that either all efforts are coordinated with Damascus on the basis that it is the sole authority of all Syrian territory, or [by insisting for four days that] no aid will be permitted to reach north-west Syria via Assad-controlled territories,"

For Hamdi, this shows that Assad was not prioritizing disaster relief "but that he pins his hopes on normalization and international rehabilitation."

UN trucks with aid supplies
UN trucks with supply had been waiting three days until they were allowed to pass the Bab al-Hawa crossing Image: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

In response to Assad's initial ban on aid for areas not under government control,

Turkey last Thursday began allowing UN-trucks with supplies to pass the Bab al-Hawa crossing at its border with Syria.

This means international aid can also reach Syrians in rebel controlled areas both in the country's northwest and the Kurdish semi-autonomous northeast.

A return to the Arab League?

As a consequence of the earthquake, the Syrian government is already seeing increasing support by Arab nations, even by those who had cut ties with Damascus over the civil war that has been raging since 2011.

Last Monday, Egypt's President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi reportedly called Bashar Assad for the first time since the beginning of the war. The Egyptian side later confirmed that the country was coordinating aid deliveries with the government in Damascus. 

Similarly, Qatar and Oman, who both firmly oppose the Assad regime, announced an air bridge with aid supplies to Turkey and indicated that it was directed to the Syrian people as well, albeit by circumventing the Syrian government.

Iraq's government meanwhile reiterated calls for Syria's return to the Arab League, a group of 22 countries that suspended Syria in 2011 as a consequence of Assad's brutal crackdown on protesters.

Similarly, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Lebanon, Oman and Algeria have all signalled they would like to see Syria back in the fold.

Arab League leaders in front of their national flags
The earthquake could accelerate Syria's return to the Arab LeagueImage: MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AFP/Getty Images

Even Turkey, the main supporter of the opposition-held regions in the northwest had been thawing ties with Damascus earlier this year. 

"Turkey is engaging in talks with the Assad regime," Guney Yildiz, a political risk analyst in London and researcher on Syria, told DW. "Although the details of the conversations remain unknown, it is plausible to believe that they encompass the gradual restoration of Assad's control over these areas."

However, Hamdi doesn't believe that Assad is likely to gain the upper hand in the country's northeast or north west anytime soon. "Security is neither guaranteed by the opposition groups nor by Turkey which remains adamantly against Assad re-establishing his authority in the northwest without first agreeing terms regarding buffer zones, relocation of refugees, and zones of influence," he told DW.

Town devastated by the earthquake
For three days after the earthquake, international aid was unable to reach certain areasImage: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP/Getty Images

"The same applies to the northeast where security is guaranteed by the US which seems adamantly on facilitating Kurdish autonomy as a check on Assad," he added.

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) promised Friday morning to send humanitarian assistance worth $85 million (€79 million) for Turkey and Syria, including to the vulnerable population of some 4 million people in the rebel-controlled Idlib region.

"US sanctions on Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people," the US Treasury said in a statement.

"While US 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."

Syria quake survivors face desperate situation

Ismail Azzam contributed to this article. This story was updated on February 14, 2023, to reflect changes in the situation on the ground with regard to Syrian-Turkish border crossings. 
Edited by Andreas Illmer

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa