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The Politics of Foreign Aid in war-torn states

Two devastating earthquakes hit Northern Syria and Southern Turkey on the 7th of February 2023. The earthquakes have caused detrimental damage. It has been reported that 7,000 people have died, although estimates predict that this number will increase to up to 20,000 casualties across both countries. Many key actors are on the ground providing first-hand aid. However, the political orientation of Syria has shed light on the complexity of delivering foreign aid.

Unlike Turkey, Syria continues to face international sanctions imposed by the United States and European countries due to Bashar Al Assad’s tyrannous regime. The sanctions are aimed at limiting Assad’s authoritarian power. However, these sanctions are not the only obstacle for aid. Syrian’s have been suffering from a civil war for the past 11 years – and many key actors, such as Russia, Iran, and Turkey have prolonged the devastating war. The war has left Syrian territories divided between Assad’s regime, and rebel forces that are backed by many other key actors such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, who are seeking to contain Assad’s influence, along with the influence of his main backers –

Russia and Iran. It is in this sense that the conditions of the war have made it extremely challenging for foreign actors to deliver aid without handing over the funds to Assad himself.

Syria has become geographically divided between Assad’s regime, rebel fighters, Jihadist forces, and other civilian groups. Many key relief organisations, such as The White Helmets and Islamic Relief, have been able to deliver aid and assistance to the affected areas. However, the sanctions and conditions of the civil war continue to make this process difficult. This has raised the question of ‘Should sanctions be temporarily lifted in times of extreme need?’ The simple answer is no. There is no reason for us to expect that lifting the sanctions on Assad’s regime, and therefore including Assad in the alleviation process, will have any positive implications or increase how many lives that can be saved. Assad’s government has historically operated on corruption and violent oppression. Therefore, it is unlikely that inter-state cooperation would result in a more effective deliverance of aid. Here, it becomes evident that even foreign aid cannot be separated from political affiliations and conditions.

The most affected region by the earthquake is Northern Syria, and this has added further complexity to the situation. Northern Syria is primarily controlled by rebel fighters and Jihadists. In this sense, the affected region does not have a reliable governing body. Therefore, there isn’t a viable channel for foreign aid to get into the region. This means that donors need to truly trust the organisations they are financing, as otherwise there is no way for us to be sure that donations will be used for aid. It is devastating to think that Syrian civilians that have suffered immensely at the hands of a deadly civil war cannot safely receive aid, even in the midst of a natural disaster.

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