When natural disasters strike, many people are severely impacted. Some lose their homes, their belongings and sometimes even their lives. Yet despite the negative results for most, some actually benefit from tragedies. Following the recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria, Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad has clearly decided to see what he can gain.
While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to conduct damage control and separate himself from the problem, Assad has seen a gleaming opportunity.
Up until this point, Assad has become an international pariah. This is how things should be, considering his past. He has gassed his own people, conducted extrajudicial killings, ordered the use of torture and many other human rights abuses.
After years of horrific civil war which has led to bloodshed and mass terror, most countries have gone great lengths to separate themselves from Assad’s regime. Syria is heavily sanctioned, and diplomatic relations with most Western nations are heavily diminished or borderline nonexistent.
Due to the wide range of media attention the 7.8 magnitude earthquake has received, Assad presumably sees an opportunity to remove himself from international isolation and revitalize his image in the world. While many nations are surely queasy about doing this, there really is no other way but to engage with him. While Turkey has received more aid than Syria due to better ties and relations, this has begun to incrementally change.
This creates a difficult conundrum where nations have to decide between helping a vicious dictator revitalize his image or helping the people of Syria recover from this terrible tragedy. The right choice is clearly to help the people of Syria. Yet, this brings up a question: how can nations help the people while minimizing the impact on Assad?
This is a tricky subject to navigate, so it must be done so with great care. The U.N. must do everything in their power to assist without taking the extra step of reputation revitalization. For instance, the U.N. can send an adequate shipment of humanitarian aid, but that does not mean that sanctions should be lifted from the country. Despite the pleas of some, doing so would only reward Assad.
Some have argued that lifting sanctions would help increase the speed at which aid could be delivered, but in reality this would not work. According to the Voice of America, there is no real correlation between the two. The demands coming from the Syrian government clearly have nothing to do with aid.
One major issue is a lack of alternative management. Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, talked to The New York Times about the problem.
“A tragedy for Syrians is a boon for Assad, because nobody else wants to manage this mess,” Hokayem said.
As officials pose for photos with Assad and former enemies offer their open hand, few to no volunteers have stepped forward to manage the disaster apart from the Syrian regime.
The method the U.N. used to allocate aid can unintentionally become a political one, so it is their job to avoid such affiliation. Assad should not be awarded for the destruction his people have suffered. Clearly a large portion of the damage was partially due to poor infrastructure, while even more people were not properly taken care of after the fact.
While Assad looks to maneuver, the possibility of failure remains strong. As it has occurred in other nations in the past, the earthquake could also turn Assad’s people against him even more. In other occurrences, leaders have been overthrown and effectively replaced. Assad is playing with fire by blatantly using the affected people as pawns.
According to The New York Times, approximately 5.3 million Syrian citizens are now homeless. Anger will grow if something is not done about it. By receiving unfettered aid, Assad opens back diplomatic channels while also saving his own skin.
Familiar allies such as China, Russia and Iran will inevitably come to Assad’s aid, but it is imperative that the collective of Western nations does not do the same. Aid needs to come to Syria, but Assad’s machinations should not be ignored. To really help the people of Syria, it will not be ideal to give Assad a crutch.