The earthquake of February 6 did not care about borders and shook Türkiye and Syria similarly. But the two countries presented a quite different capacity to respond the disaster. We spoke with Firas Alshoufi, Journalist in the Syrian daily newspaper Al Akhbar on the reasons for that difference, the current situation in Syria and political opportunities in relations between Damascus and Ankara.
International terrorist war against Syria since 2011
What would you like to point out about the conditions in Syria after the earthquake?
Unfortunately, Syria is under international terrorist war since 2011. This was very costly and caused tremendous effects on the Syrian people, economy and infrastructure. There are Kurdish militias in the east of Syria. They occupy a large territory. There is gas, fuel, oil and wheat in this territory. They have all the fundamental goods that any economy needs, but Syria lacks gas, oil and enough food.
The terrorist groups and some Western countries have heavily attacked the electricity and communication infrastructure and network. The hospitals and medicine factories, agricultural fields, even hubs for weeds and seeds that Syria has been collecting for 20-30 years…
So the Syrian economy suffered enormous loss. Syria is now a country 80% of the people below the poverty line. When you don’t have gas or oil that means you have no power, electricity and transportation. People cannot go to their work, open markets and even agricultural or industrial produce is decreasing.
Impacts of sanctions
Syria is under the sanctions of the US. What is the impact of that?
Instead of helping Syria to recover from war and to start the rebuilding process, maintain infrastructure, transportation, in short bringing back stability to Syria, they are trying to crush the Syrian economy more and more. They say that they are lifting sanctions that are within the boundary of humanitarian aid. But the issue is not only about humanitarian aid. It is not just about bringing some food to the Syrian people, but about how to get back this country on the right track.
The Western sanctions are now crushing the economy by preventing Syria’s reach to some very effective and sensitive equipment such as trucks, caterpillars, all the heavy machinery, X-ray machines, chemistry materials and machines. The Syrians cannot buy these from outside. Some parts of the oil refineries are also under the American and Western sanctions.
For example Syria lost 50,000 heavy machines in the war. So when the earthquake happened we did not have enough machines to lift the rubbles.
Another point is that Syria lost some educated section of the population. Many of them left Syria too. Many doctors and chemists etc.
The Turkish government has enough infrastructure, army, companies, machines to handle the impact of the earthquake, but Syria doesn’t.
The disaster will put big cities like Aleppo in a very difficult situation. This crisis will be added to 10 years of crisis during the war.
Tricks in ‘lifting the sanctions’
The Americans claim that they lifted the sanctions. In reality they did not lift it, but they are just letting some planes to land in Damascus and deliver, humanitarian aid. The refinery of oil needs valves and it’s not produced anywhere except Western countries. So Syria cannot buy this kind of equipment because of the sanctions even if it gets some money from other countries after the earthquake. There are many hidden parts or let’s say tricks in the statement of the US State Department on ‘lifting the sanctions’.
What Syria needs now
What can and should be done for needs of the Syrians affected by the earthquake in the short term? And in the medium term how can be Syria rebuilt in a broad sense?
Syria now needs everything. Food, medicine, clothes, tents, hospitals, heavy equipment, prefabricated housing, new schools. For example children will probably lose six months of education time because their schools are destroyed.
In the medium term, we need to make plans to keep Syrian people with dignity both pshysically and emotionally. The sanctions on Syria should be lifted without any hesitation. This decision should be taken now for a quick recovery. There are millions of Syrians now, they may think of leaving Syria and going to Europe. These people are now losing their hopes.
What do you think about the relations between Turkish and Syrian governments?
Two countries were affected from this disaster, which some experts call ‘disaster of the century’. These two governments should together respond to the disastrous effects of the earthquake.
Türkiye’s aggressive policy against Syria
Unfortunately the Turkish government and Erdoğan are implementing an aggressive policy against Syria since 2011. It is not a secret that the Turkish army, intelligence service and government supported some terrorist groups with money, weapons and even directly militarily -especially the ‘Free Syrian Army’ to occupy Syria lands. The US has also done the same, particularly by a narrative of ‘helping Kurd’ in the eastern part of the country.
So the role of the Turkish government was really negative. But we heard that some politicians in Istanbul and Ankara began to change their minds about five or six months ago. President Erdoğan said that he would like to meet President Assad and cooperate with the Syrian government. But this is not enough. There are still armed organizations in Idlib, in northern Aleppo that Türkiye is engaged with. This is totally inappropriate in diplomatic and political relations. There are many things to be solved.
Opportunity for Türkiye to change Syria policy
It is weird that years ago the Turkish government declared a policy of ‘zero problems with the neighbors’’, but obviously this is not the case with Syria. We hope that the Turkish people, Turkish political parties and groups have a different opinion from the government.
Now there is a very great opportunity for Türkiye to change the policy towards Syria. Türkiye should withdraw its army from Syria and help the Syrian Army to get the control of these areas. This would take Syria on the track to recover.