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Quake aid to Syria highlights complications of getting help to a place mired in war


In the two weeks since an earthquake rocked Turkey and Syria, rescue workers and international aid have poured into southern Turkey. But in the quake zone in northern Syria, already ravaged by war, the humanitarian response took days. The U.N. called it a failure. Survivors pleaded for help.

JOSHUA LANDIS: Many of the roads were destroyed and had giant fissures in them or cracks. The airport in Antakya was not open, and the aid that was being sent into Turkey was used by the Turks. So nothing really dribbled down into the opposition region because it was hard to get in there. And Assad, of course, is at war with these rebel militias supported by Turkey. So he, of course, didn't want to let materials go into there from his side.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Joshua Landis of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. He says the response highlights the complications of getting aid to a place mired in war where no one entity is in total control.

LANDIS: Syria today is divided into three different sections ruled by different people. Assad rules about 65% of the country, and he rules the major cities - Damascus, Aleppo. The United States rules a big hunk with their proxy militia, largely led by Kurds in the northeast. And the northwest, where the earthquake hit the hardest, is ruled by a bunch of different opposition militias that are supported by Turkey.

MARTÍNEZ: Our co-host Leila Fadel spoke with Landis about the challenges of delivering aid to Syria without empowering a government that tortures and kills the opposition.

LANDIS: Assad wants to use the earthquake and the outpouring of both Arab support, which has been tremendous, as well as international support in order to re-legitimize himself, get himself back into the Arab League. He's been completely ostracized, and Syrian government has been isolated and to, in a sense, try to put the civil war behind him and become a non-pariah, if you will.


Is it working?

LANDIS: It is. It is working. Saudi Arabia has sent many planeloads of help. And this is very important because the Saudis had been very strict observers of this boycott. Sisi, the head of Egypt...

FADEL: Yeah.

LANDIS: ...Called Assad for the first time and gave his condolences. Many other governments have been responding as well - Arab governments. They're using this occasion to try to reestablish some kind of relation, break this boycott, because they understand that the civil war is over. Assad has survived, and they have no choice but to try to establish some new kind of relationship with the Syrian government.

FADEL: And there's even that added layer of complication because some of these opposition groups, if they're not allies with the U.S., may be considered terrorists.

LANDIS: Absolutely.

FADEL: And then that would - if you give to the wrong group...

LANDIS: The major ruler in this rebel area is Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, and he was a sidekick of caliph Baghdadi, the head of ISIS. And later, he became his own separate guy with Nusra, the al-Qaida wing in Syria. And he has evolved over time and now is pro-Turkish, sort of, and has promised that he will not engage in any international terrorism. But still, he is designated as a terrorist by the United States and Turkey, and it makes it very difficult to give aid legitimately to him and his government.

FADEL: Now, there are growing calls to lift sanctions entirely so that money and aid can get in. Because even before the earthquake, both in government areas and opposition areas, people were starving because of the inability to have accounts. People didn't get electricity, things like that. But there's also a very loud voice on the other side saying, yeah, if you lift sanctions, you're only benefiting this very brutal government that conducted a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians. And with the temporary relief, you can't trust that this president won't then just empower himself.

LANDIS: Well, there is some truth in that. You know, any kind of opening to Syria creates opportunity, creates jobs, creates money. And all of that will - undoubtedly, some of it will get to the president and to the people around him and the government. That's undeniable. On the other hand, much of that money is getting to the people who need it most. For example, my wife, a Syrian, Latakia - their family is terrified. Their house has been just shaking.

FADEL: The aftershocks.

LANDIS: Shaking constantly, their apartment building. And they've been living in their car for the last several days.


LANDIS: We've been able to send money through Western Union. There is a virtuous cycle of diplomacy that's going on because the White House announced they were going to lift sanctions temporarily for six months. Then Western Union, which was the only way to get money in, said it would no longer charge 15% of every dollar that goes into Syria, and it would allow you to send it for free. So that money is now getting to the people who need it most. It's not going to the government.

FADEL: But then does Assad just get to get away with everything that he's done? I guess my bigger question is, you know, I think the earthquake brought Syria back into the world's conscience. Does this reopen the conversation on what to do about Syria instead of ignoring it?

LANDIS: It does. It does. And, you know, the problem with the last 15 years is that Assad was not turned out of the government. And in many ways, this was a dilemma that the West couldn't solve. The West wanted to turn him out. But once they saw what the opposition was, that ISIS and al-Qaida had grown to be the dominant force in the opposition, they got spooked by their own policy of funding these opposition groups. And they stopped funding them, and that left Assad in power. They don't like it. They put terrible sanctions on, but they've left him in power. And that has been - you know, that - nobody knows what to do in this situation. They don't know how to change the government, and they've given up trying. And in that sense, sanctions are their last option. But they're not a good option. It is time for the international community to figure out a new way of dealing with the region and allowing Syrian people to rebuild their lives.

FADEL: Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, thank you so much.

LANDIS: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.