Home / Opinion / Views /  Mint Explainer: Why India is providing quake-hit Syria aid while West hesitates

Ten days after a devastating earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, it has become apparent that aid flows to the latter have been distinctly underwhelming. The country’s devastating civil war and complicated relationship with the West have played a role. Mint explains why India has rushed aid to Syria even as the West has hesitated.

Soon after a 7.8 magnitude earthquake hit Syria and Turkey in the early hours of 6 February, India began work on Operation Dost, its relief operation to both countries. So far, India has flown seven C-17 planes with relief material to Ankara and Damascus.

The seventh flight, which departed on 12 February, carried 23 tonnes of relief material for Syria. In addition to India, regional powers like Saudi Arabia and the UAE also rushed to support Syria. However, Syria has remained a distinct sideshow to relief efforts in Turkey.

Much of this can be attributed to the international isolation suffered by the Bashar Al-Assad regime in Damascus. Assad, who has fought a bloody civil war against Islamist groups and other rebels since 2011, has been condemned in the West for the violence he has inflicted on his people. This included crackdowns on violent protests in the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring protests of the early 2010s and chemical bombings in 2013.

Ostracized and sanctioned by the West, Assad’s regime has remained isolated internationally. India, however, has maintained its relationship with Damascus and high-level diplomatic visits have continued. Syria’s Foreign minister visited New Delhi in November.

When the earthquake hit, Western governments’ efforts to provide aid were stymied by their difficult relationship with Assad’s government. While Damascus wants aid to be distributed throughout the country by its agencies, the West has refused for two reasons,

First, analysts have argued that aid to Assad’s government may not make it to earthquake-affected regions in the country’s northwest. Instead, they argue, the government will likely absorb aid flows and use them to strengthen its influence.

Second, the affected northwest regions are held by rebel Syrian opposition groups, not Assad’s government. To give Assad aid to distribute throughout the country would mean implicitly acknowledging his regime’s claim over these regions.

Assad’s government has also protested that Western sanctions imposed for the last decade have made aid flows to Syria difficult. America and Europe have pushed back on that claim, stating that sanctions have humanitarian exemptions. The US government also announced a general waiver exempting any earthquake-aid-related efforts from sanctions. However, substantial aid flows remain blocked.

Attempts have been made to work with local partners in Syria, who lack the capacity to channel massive aid flows. Western governments have tried to ferry aid to Syria’s northwest through the UN, which is allowed to use a single border crossing from Turkey to supply millions of people. While efforts have been made to push for more border crossings, the Syrian government has resisted these proposals. For Damascus, it would mean accepting Western powers undercutting its sovereignty.

While the West has been hamstrung by red tape and bureaucratic workarounds, India has willingly flown aid directly to the Syrian government. Its relief efforts, which have attracted appreciation from Damascus, speak to New Delhi’s pragmatic policy on dealing with the Syrian government.

This is also consistent with New Delhi’s previous policy on humanitarian aid. In 2021, at the height of the covid-19 pandemic, India called for countries to provide aid to Syria without allowing politics and disagreements to get in the way of emergency relief to affected populations.

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