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Political complications have hampered the delivery of aid in Syria

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We've been hearing it over and over again - internal politics and logistics in Syria has made getting aid to many people suffering there after the earthquakes very difficult. To help explain why, we turn to Dareen Khalifa. She's the senior Syria analyst for International Crisis Group. Welcome to the show.

DAREEN KHALIFA: Thank you so much, Ayesha, for having me.

RASCOE: So one of the outcomes of the brutal civil war in Syria is that the majority of Syria is controlled by the government in Damascus, but the north, which was the place that was worst hit by these earthquakes, is actually controlled by opposition groups. So, like, how has that fact complicated the delivery of aid?

KHALIFA: You're absolutely correct, Ayesha. After over a decade of war in Syria, the country's de facto divided into four areas of control. The Syrian government or the Syrian regime in Damascus basically has control over around 65% of the country, including major cities like Damascus and Aleppo. But the three other areas of control remain divided between different forces. Now, what we've seen in the aftermath of the earthquake is many countries - non-Western countries per se - have rushed to offer assistance to Damascus, unlike northern Syria because it's an area that is de facto under the control of nonstate armed groups, some of which are even listed as terrorist organizations by the U.S. and by the U.N. It makes the delivery of international assistance to these areas very difficult. It also has a chilling effect on donors, who are very reluctant to be present on the ground or to send aid to these areas out of fear of the legal ramifications of these designations.

RASCOE: So President Bashar al-Assad's government finally said last week that it would allow aid to flow from the government-held areas to the opposition-held areas. But how well has that been going? And is enough aid actually able to move to these opposition held areas to relieve the suffering?

KHALIFA: Yeah, it hasn't been going very well. So Assad has been using aid as a war tool for so many years. The regime has really been trying to starve its opposition to death, so what they've been doing is imposing sieges on areas that they perceive as opposition strong hubs. Now, everyone, rightfully so, remains skeptical of the regime's intentions because this has been a very political and contentious issue. So they're thinking, like, even if the regime cooperates today, they might still abuse the money coming in to basically punish these communities and to force them into surrendering to their rule. And that's why it's really, really important for the U.N. to continue to be able to operate out of, like, being hostage to Damascus and to the regime and to be able to operate independent from that.

RASCOE: Well, tell me about the U.N.'s relationship and role in delivering aid to Syria at this point.

KHALIFA: You know, Ayesha, it's very ironic because the majority of humanitarian assistance coming into Syria is funded by Western states. Russia and Iran really don't fund any humanitarian assistance into Syria. Their support to the Syrian regime is pure military and security. They have not offered any humanitarian assistance thus far, and what's really ironic about it is that Russia uses its veto power in the Security Council every few months to really blackmail Western countries into how they're going to use their funding, and it forces them to pour a lot of money into the Syrian regime instead of giving it directly to people impacted by its own war campaign in Syria. So every six months, there is a vote in the Security Council, and the Russians threaten to stop aid coming in to these areas unless and until Western countries offer concessions to Moscow and offer concessions to the Syrian regime. So they are de facto taking the international community hostage on that front. And because all donors want to go through the U.N. and want to go through the U.N. Security Council, they have to play along.

RASCOE: How would you describe the hold that the Assad regime has on the country at this moment? Like, is he secure in the areas that he does hold control over?

KHALIFA: Assad has control over 65% of Syria, but he doesn't have control over almost 80% of Syria's natural resources, including oil, gas, water and wheat, which is located in northern Syria, so - and they also don't have control over the majority of the country's border. So within the areas they actually control, not only is it an area deprived of natural resources. It's also an area that is very much contested between various militias and various actors, including the Iranians and the Russians. So it's a very loose grip.

RASCOE: With all of these political complications, it is the civilians who suffer the most. Like, what do we need to know about how they have fared in the past decade?

KHALIFA: Yeah. I mean, Syria has pretty much fallen off the news. It's been over a decade of war, but the reality is you have millions of Syrians that remain displaced, living in incredibly dire circumstances even prior to this earthquake. And now with this natural disaster that happened, it pretty much hits Syrians harder than anyone else. And it is something that the international community really has a moral obligation to keep in the forefront of their efforts and try to support them. Whether the displaced persons in Syria or the refugees in neighboring countries, there needs to be a concerted effort to support them and to try to get them the basic, decent life standards that they deserve.

RASCOE: That's Dareen Khalifa. She is the senior Syria analyst for the International Crisis Group. Thank you so much for joining us.

KHALIFA: Thank you so much, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.