On quake’s expense, decisions refer to a deal between Damascus, Washington
Enab Baladi – Jana al-Issa
Decisions by the Syrian regime and the United States were issued on the fourth day of the earthquake that struck northwestern Syria and southern Turkey on February 6, as part of what observers considered a “political deal with UN participation.” A day later, the United Nations took its first steps in introducing aid as a response to the earthquake disaster.
Experts talk about an undisclosed deal, but its features were clear through “concessions” made after years of intransigence by both the regime and the United States.
Features of a deal
In a decision that was not published on the digital accounts of the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) or the pro-regime media, and after years of intransigence, the Central Bank approved on February 9 to apply the exchange rate of the remittance and exchange bulletin, which is close to the black market exchange rate ($1 for 6900 SYP), on the transfers of UN, international and humanitarian organizations received for the purpose of emergency response to the earthquakes that struck Syria on Monday’s pre-dawn.
The regime’s Central Bank said, in a statement, that the external remittances transferred for the purposes of emergency response to the earthquake are excluded from the provisions of Resolution “145/LE.”
During the past years, UN and international bodies called on the regime to adjust this price in order to try to benefit more from the value of aid and reduce the regime’s looting of this aid, which it was practicing through the difference in the exchange rates it was imposing and the real price of the dollar against the Syrian pound, a concession that the regime had never made previously.
On the same day, 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.
On the fifth day of the earthquake, the government of the Syrian regime declared the governorates of Idlib, Aleppo, Latakia, and Hama as disaster-stricken areas, without mentioning the reason for the delay, despite a prior statement by its officials that this could be announced at any time.
While a number of Syrian experts told Enab Baladi that the delay came until the regime achieved political gains, as declaring a disaster-stricken area is a political term related to the mechanism for requesting international relief aid, and it is subject to international standards that limit the powers of the official authorities in how to dispose of this aid, which the regime has tried to delay, so that aid organizations do not enter northwest Syria through its areas of influence without obtaining a return.
Regarding the use of humanitarian aid, the United Nations sent its first shipment of aid to northwestern Syria on the fifth day of the earthquake through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
The UN justified its delay by delaying access as a result of damage to the road from Turkish territory to the crossing, despite the Syrian opposition’s announcement that the crossing and two additional crossings (Bab al-Salama, and al-Ra’i) were ready to receive aid on the second day of the earthquake.
Also, no aid arrived across the lines of contact with the areas controlled by the regime. However, according to previous data, the deal was concluded with the regime announcing its agreement to deliver humanitarian aid to all parts of Syria, including through lines from within the territories it controls to areas outside its control, and this is done under the supervision of the International Red Cross and the Syrian Red Crescent, with the help of UN organizations.
The director of the Syrian program at the Observatory of Political and Economic Networks, Karam Shaar, said that it is necessary to remember that the UN made operational settlements previously in Syria in order to respond humanely, and in dozens of previous cases, and thus this latest deal is one of the many settlements that took place in the presence of the UN.
The political economist Dr. Shaar told Enab Baladi that the features of this deal, according to the given data, were carried out under several pressures.
Apparently, aid-donor countries pressured the regime to raise the exchange rate of dollars in remittances sent by them, Shaar adds.
In contrast, the regime did not immediately announce the areas of its control affected by the earthquake, with the aim that international and UN institutions would not be able to distribute aid without its intervention, according to Shaar.
Ayman al-Dassouky, a political economy researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, believes that the delay in the response of the UN and its response to the disaster in the areas outside the control of the regime was due to waiting for the results of these negotiations, which eventually reached the outputs that the UN wants as it grants it options for transferring aid without being limited to the cross-border mechanism.
The agreement also came with the Syrian state, which is represented by the regime, and this is consistent with the UN approach, by preferring to work through the state and its institutions, regardless of their legitimacy.
The adjustment of the exchange rate and the temporary suspension of US sanctions regarding the response to the earthquake also gives the UN a greater margin for it and other organizations to attract funds for its programs in Syria, al-Dassouky said.
On the possibility of Syrians benefiting from this deal, Dr. Shaar believes that the regime is known for its deception and manipulation. The regime agrees to such decisions on paper but later tries to win the decision in his favor by various means.
On the other hand, aid will begin to arrive, which will achieve a better humanitarian response to the current disaster, according to Shaar, adding that this approach was necessary for aid to arrive in the end, provided that the focus is on passing it to northwestern Syria through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, rather than through the contact lines.
Regarding the beneficiaries of this deal, al-Dassouky believes that the Syrian regime is the primary beneficiary of it, both in terms of financial and in-kind aid that will flow to Syria under the cover of responding to the earthquake disaster, which the regime will direct by manipulating them to strengthen private institutions and support his regime, as they give it much-needed resources to contain the economic and service crises it is suffering from.
The deal also legitimizes the Syrian regime more than prioritizing humanitarian considerations over politics and contributes to encouraging other parties to normalize relations with the regime.
Thus, breaking his diplomatic isolation, and what this means in terms of less commitment to the negotiated political process to resolve the Syrian crisis, according to the researcher.
Al-Dassouky believes that the benefit will be limited to the Syrians, given the manipulation of the incoming aid, the amount of corruption and nepotism that control its distribution, and the expected continuation of normalization with the regime through the gate of humanitarian action and what may lead to marginalizing the political solution in Syria.
On February 10, a Turkish official said that Turkey is discussing re-opening a border crossing 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.
UAE to broker the deal
Researcher al-Dassouky told Enab Baladi that the UAE is the most likely country to play the role of mediator to complete this deal, given its network of relations with the regime and other parties to this deal, including donors, the US, and Turkey.
The UAE’s interest in the mediator role comes as a gateway to strengthening its regional role, al-Dassouky added.
The UAE insists on being the most supportive Arab country to refloat the regime on the Arab and international levels for goals that do not appear to be completely specific, including searching for economic and investment opportunities in Syria within the framework of the reconstruction process and proving itself to everyone that it is a major player in the region with a role and presence that is no less important than the Turkish, Saudi and Qatari role, according to an analysis by the Emirates Center for Studies and Media website released on January 5.
The Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan arrived in Damascus on Sunday, six days after a devastating earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, killing more than 36,000 people in total, including over 3,500 in Syria alone, according to Al-Arabiya News.
“Al-Assad thanked the UAE for its emergency response, and tens of millions pledged in aid to the quake-hit country,” the presidency said.
“The UAE was among the first countries that stood with Syria and sent huge relief and humanitarian aid and search and rescue teams,” al-Assad said during a meeting with Al Nahyan.
According to Al-Arabiya News, the UAE pledged some $13.6 million to Syria after the disaster before announcing another $50 million in assistance.
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