Al-Assad takes advantage of quake to break isolation, opening diplomatic channels

Bashar al-Assad, head of the Syrian regime, at a quake-hit site in the al-Masharqa neighborhood in northern Aleppo city - February 10, 2023 (Facebook/Syrian Presidency)

Bashar al-Assad, head of the Syrian regime, at a quake-hit site in the al-Masharqa neighborhood in northern Aleppo city - February 10, 2023 (Facebook/Syrian Presidency)


Enab Baladi – Hassan Ibrahim

The massive earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria moved the stagnant waters in the path of almost severed or limited relations between the Syrian regime and several Arab countries, opening the line to contacts from their presidents and aid from them.

Contacts may be the beginning of breaking the stalemate in relations, which during the past years were not devoid of some interplay at levels lower than the presidential level, and a breakthrough to open the door to re-normalization.

The magnitude 7.7 and 7.6 quakes struck nine hours apart in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria on Feb. 6. They killed at least 37,000, including over 3,600 in Syria alone.

Solidarity calls, support

On the evening of the first day of the earthquake, on February 6, the King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, called the head of the Syrian regime, offering condolences and sympathy, declaring Bahrain’s solidarity and standing by Syria and its people and providing all possible support to help mitigate the effects of the earthquake, in the first official conversation between them for more than ten years, after Bahrain restored its diplomatic relations with Syria in 2018.

A day after the earthquake, Bashar al-Assad received a call from the Egyptian President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who offered condolences, declaring his country’s solidarity and readiness to provide all “possible aid and relief assistance,” to be the first official contact between them since al-Sisi assumed power in 2014.

The call was preceded by security relations and limited diplomatic representation since 2014, and the meeting that brought together Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry with his Syrian counterpart, Faisal Mekdad, was one of the most prominent meetings at the diplomatic level between the two countries, which took place on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly meeting on September 24, 2021.

On February 9, Tunisian President Kais Saied announced an increase in the level of diplomatic representation in Syria, ten years after severing diplomatic relations between them due to the regime’s violations against protesters, considering that the regime’s issue is “an internal matter and that the ambassador is accredited by the state, not the regime.”

Tunisia previously returned a limited diplomatic mission to Syria in 2017, seeking to track down more than 3,000 “extremist” Tunisian fighters in Syria.

Saied’s announcement came after many indications of restoring relations with the regime, represented by his speech that “the issue of overthrowing the regime in Syria is an internal Syrian matter in which no one should interfere,” as well as meetings at the ministerial level.

In August 2021, a meeting took place between the newly-sacked Minister of Foreign Affairs, Immigration, and Tunisians abroad, Othman Jerandi, with Faisal Mekdad, in the first meeting to be held between the foreign ministers of the two countries since former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki announced the severance of relations with Damascus in 2012 with the expulsion of the Syrian ambassador from Tunisia.

Al-Assad also received calls and solidarity messages that convey condolence and willingness to provide support and aid also from “friendly” Arab countries that were not on opposite sides of the regime, such as the UAE, Lebanon, Algeria, Iraq, Sudan, and Libya, despite some of them passing through previous bumps that disturbed the peace of relations.

Opportunity for both parties, Regime is investing

Post-earthquake contacts, which were the first of their kind, were not surprising, as they were preceded by indications and messages through statements or meetings at the security or ministerial level that maintained a certain distance with the regime.

Until about a full day had passed, news of the earthquake’s victims, human losses, and the death toll were not on the pages of ministries, official agencies, pro-regime newspapers, and websites, while the calls made with al-Assad and the telegrams and letters of condolence he received were at the forefront.

The earthquake incident was accompanied by calls from activists on social media to lift the sanctions on the regime under the pretext that it stands as an obstacle to providing aid to the Syrian people, reinforced by the statement of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which stated that the sanctions prevent the entry of heavy equipment and tools for removing rubble.

Bilal Salaymeh, a researcher at the Higher Institute of International Studies in Geneva, believes that the earthquake incident represents an opportunity for the regime to promote its narrative regarding the sanctions and their impact on the economic situation in Syria or for some countries that have a tendency to restore relations with it, and that found an opportunity from the earthquake and humanitarian event to take a step in this direction.

The Ph.D. candidate in Political Science told Enab Baladi that the earthquake is an opportunity to accelerate the path existing in some countries in their relations with the Syrian regime, as in the case of Tunisia under Saied’s leadership.

For his part, political analyst Hassan al-Nifi told Enab Baladi that the countries that took the initiative to communicate with al-Assad after the earthquake occurred were originally trying to restore their relations with the regime before it occurred.

This “communication” was either motivated by Russia or Iran, as the two allies of the regime have the greatest role in attempts to refloat it.

Al-Nifi believes that Bashar al-Assad considers himself the winner of this catastrophe that befell the Syrians, and he took the initiative from day one to capitalize on the earthquake by harnessing a chorus of his media outlets to talk directly about the necessity of lifting economic sanctions, although the sanctions do not affect the humanitarian aspects.

Al-Nifi considered that the regime undoubtedly tried to capitalize on the catastrophe by talking about the need to lift the sanctions and that what he wants is to release the frozen balances in foreign currencies held by Europe and which belong to the Central Bank of Syria, in order to spend them on supporting his regime and security requirements, not on the needs of the people.

The US State Department responded to the accusations and claims of the Syrian regime that the sanctions include exceptions that do not prevent the delivery of humanitarian, medical, food, and other aid to the Syrian people and that Washington will not prevent any country from providing that support.

Bashar al-Assad at a quake-hit site in the al-Ghazalat neighborhood in the coastal Jableh city - February 11, 2023 (Facebook/Syrian Presidency)

Bashar al-Assad at a quake-hit site in the al-Ghazalat neighborhood in the coastal Jableh city – February 11, 2023 (Facebook/Syrian Presidency)

Damascus-Ankara rapprochement

From the earthquake portal, the talk returned about the convergence of relations between the regime and Turkey five days after its occurrence.

This comes at a time when steps are accelerating to save the victims in Turkey and calls for support with mechanisms and equipment for the opposition-held north of Syria and the arrival of land and air aid shipments to the regime.

On February 10, a Turkish official said that Turkey is discussing re-opening a border crossing (Kasab) into Syrian government territory, enabling earthquake aid to be sent directly to areas under al-Assad’s control after a decade of enmity, Reuters reported.

“Discussions and planning continue to open another gate that will enable sending aid to Idlib and United Nations aid to reach areas completely flattened by the quake,” the official said.

The past months have witnessed hasty talk about a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus, represented by meetings at the level of the defense ministers of Turkey, the regime, and Russia in Moscow on December 28, and talk about a meeting at the level of the presidents of Turkey and the regime, but it has not yet seen the light.

Researcher al-Nifi considered that what can be said about some Arab countries that want to restore their relationship with the regime can be applied to Turkey, pointing out that Ankara had begun its turn towards normalization with al-Assad before the earthquake.

“Talking about the possibility of opening the Kasab crossing for humanitarian needs is clearly not the case, and that the purpose behind it is political, and the Turks may also have justified normalization or an increase in its pace with al-Assad through these calls,” al-Nifi added.

No horizon, Sanctions deter

With any Arab movements, whether through reopening embassies or through visits by presidents and officials to Damascus or building various agreements and understandings, there is talk of breaking the stalemate and isolation of the Syrian regime, securing its engagement with the international community, returning it to the “Arab embrace” and restoring relations with it.

However, many attempts collide with strict sanctions imposed by Western countries, led by the United States and the European Union, on the regime and its most prominent officials and influential businessmen for their involvement in war crimes in Syria.

The most prominent of these sanctions is the Caesar Act, signed by former US President Donald Trump on December 21, 2019.

The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, also known as the Caesar Act, is a US legislation that sanctions the Syrian regime, including al-Assad, for war crimes against the Syrian population. The Act was signed into law by President Trump in December 2019 and came into force on June 17, 2020.

Al-Nifi believes that the regime’s consideration of the earthquake as a very appropriate opportunity to restore its relations with some of its Arab or international milieu is a useless effort in light of the continued Caesar Act and EU sanctions.

The researcher believes that if countries that think or want to normalize their relations with the regime were able, they would have normalized since 2019, but the American deterrent prevents this.

Considering that the normalization of Arab countries or others with al-Assad has no result, and the goal is propaganda and political floatation because the Bashar al-Assad regime does not have anything to offer to others.

Washington confirmed that lifting sanctions on the regime in these critical circumstances, in reference to the consequences of the earthquake, might lead to counterproductive results, according to what US State Department spokesman Ned Price said during a press briefing on February 6, explaining that “the regime has brutally treated its people over the years. Twelve years, and he massacred his citizens and bombarded them with poisonous gases, and he is most responsible for their suffering.”

Foreign Minister Anthony Blinken said, during his meeting with his Austrian counterpart, in Washington, on February 7, that his country is committed to providing assistance to the people in Syria in order to recover from this disaster, adding, “This money goes, of course, to the Syrian people and not to the regime, and this will not change.” 

On February 9, the US Treasury issued a decision exempting Syria from sanctions imposed under the Caesar (sanctions) Act for a period of six months, including all transactions related to the earthquake response.

The 180-day license allows the processing or transfer of funds on behalf of people from other countries to or from Syria in support of authorized transactions, as well as allowing all earthquake relief-related transactions that were prohibited under Syrian sanctions regulations.


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