In the first few days after the earthquake that devastated southern Turkey and northwestern Syria in early February, only vehicles carrying the dead bodies of Syrian refugees crossed the Turkish border into Syria—not aid and equipment to rescue people from the rubble of collapsed buildings, not vitally needed medical supplies, not temporary shelters to protect the frightened and injured from the extreme cold. These were naturally the most crucial days for search-and-rescue efforts, but it was left to the understaffed and underequipped teams of volunteer first responders in the Syrian Civil Defense, known as the White Helmets, to try to save lives in a region home to some 4.6 million people, 2.9 million of them displaced from other parts of Syria. The White Helmets rescued nearly 3,000 people, but how many more would they have been able to save if they had received any international help in those critical first days?
With the earthquake a month ago, Syria was in the news again, briefly. The international community—if one really exists—has for years passively dealt with the Syrian crisis as if it were a natural disaster, and it didn’t change course when a real one struck. Three days after the earthquake, the United Nations said that a convoy of aid had finally crossed the Turkish border to the most affected area in northwestern Syria, giving the impression that this came as a response to the earthquake. That was a cowardly lie. The convoy, with food and other subsistence, was one of the few sent regularly by the U.N. from Turkey into northwestern Syria through a single border crossing, but it had been delayed because of the earthquake. It took three more days before Martin Griffiths, the U.N.’s aid chief, admitted, in a tweet: “We have so far failed the people in north-west Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.” It was unforgivably late. People whose homes collapsed over their heads and might have been alive under the rubble died while the U.N.’s top official for humanitarian assistance was wringing his hands.
This catastrophe would not have happened were it not for the rest of the world normalizing death in Syria for so many years. State-centered international organizations like the U.N. have legitimized governments even when they are genocidal ones like President Bashar al-Assad’s. His regime, which has been destroying homes and killing Syrians with barrel bombs and cluster munitions for years with the help of its Russian and Iranian supporters, is also the only channel through which these same people can get humanitarian aid. Earthquakes do not recognize national borders, but the U.N. does.
Assad’s corrupt and criminal regime, which has been responsible of more than 90 percent of civilian deaths in Syria since 2011, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, has at times received more than 90 percent of aid deliveries from the U.N. and many countries—most of which it funneled to regime-held territory, or seized for itself. In some areas of Syria, like rebel-held Idlib in the northwest, “only 1 percent of the aid went through to besieged areas” during many years of the war, according to Carsten Wieland, a German academic and former diplomat who worked with three U.N. special envoys for Syria, and the author of Syria and the Neutrality Trap. As Wieland writes in his book, “delivering aid cross line—i.e. from government-held territories to opposition territories—was frequently blocked by regime-backed authorities who had no interest in helping foster resilience in the areas they bombed.”
As if the earthquake were the perfect chance for a public relations campaign, many Arab regimes—the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Egypt, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, maybe Saudi Arabia soon—are now normalizing their relationships with Assad under the pretext of humanitarianism. Yet the truth lies elsewhere. The common ground between these regimes is securitization of politics and enmity toward democracy and popular representation. With Assad’s Syria now a paradise of unaccountability, indeed of crime, these other Arab regimes enjoy more liberty in dealing with their own indignant citizens. In a way, Assad has shown his fellow autocrats how to exterminate any popular threats.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party, the AKP, have adopted the toxic and racist consensus of scapegoating Syrian refugees, with their eyes on June’s elections. Normalizing with Assad’s regime has been sold as a step toward returning the millions of refugees in Turkey to Syria, as well as a solution to the security threat represented by the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria, historically the Syrian branch of the PKK in Turkey.
There is a pattern of using catastrophes in Syria for PR campaigns. Assad’s chemical massacre in Ghouta in August 2013 proved to be a very good one, with the U.S. and Russia engineering a deal to disarm the regime of its chemical weapons, as a price for not punishing it for its breach of international law and killing 1,466 of its own people, nearly a quarter of them children. The disarmament, it turned out, was a cheap farce—the regime used chemical weapons several time after the deal, as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons proved in a recent report. In effect, the deal was a license to Assad to go on murdering en masse.
Erasing the boundaries between crime and politics is characteristic of Syria under more than a half century of Assad family rule. Those 53 years are more than half of Syria’s entire history as a modern polity. Today, March 8, 2023, marks the 60th anniversary of Ba’ath Party rule in the country, with the military coup that brought it to power (Hafez al-Assad would seize power in his own coup a few years later). Only around 4 or 5 percent of Syrians today are over the age of 60, which means that almost everybody in the country has only known a one-party system, a state of exception—and mostly under delinquent family rule with a mafioso constitution.
This is what many people do not understand, especially U.N. officials: Syria is not a state, not even a corrupt brutal dictatorship. It is a family mafia, ruling trough thuggery and massacres. Assad did not declare any national mourning for the victims of Syria’s earthquake; Erdogan announced a week of mourning in Turkey.
Many Syrians remember that when Hafez al-Assad died in 2000, 40 days of national mourning were declared. There were seven days of national mourning when Bassel al-Assad, the eldest brother of Bashar and the first to be groomed as their father’s heir, died in a car accident in Damascus in 1994. One can easily conclude that ordinary Syrian lives are unmournable, or as Judith Butler would have it, not “equally grievable” like the lives of the Assads.
This is one of the essential facts of Syria’s history for more than half a century, during which the country was reduced from a republic to a dynastic monarchy, more absolute and far more brutal than the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf, or in Jordan and Morocco. Syrians also remember that in June 1980, a day after an attempt on Hafez al-Assad’s life, his brother, Rifa’at, sent a commando team to Tadmur prison, near ancient Palmyra, led by his son-in-law, and they killed all the Islamist prisoners there, between 500 and 1,000 at that time.
What hinders many people from making sense of the situation in Syria is that it really is unbelievable. The level of suffering transcends human measure in scale, in duration and in intensity. This is what Hannah Arendt called the “shock of reality” and “the stark, naked brutality of facts, of things as they are.” It is unbelievable that more than 600,000 people have been killed since 2011, close to 15,000 tortured to death, more than 100,000 forcibly disappeared, 7 million made refugees in other countries—and now 90 percent of the population left in Syria is under the poverty line. It is unbelievable that the perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity are still in power after all they have done, and that governments are now normalizing with them. It is unbelievable that Assad himself appeared happy and smiling in Aleppo when he finally visited the wreckage there, four days after the earthquake.