Politics and Borders Matter, Even in a Humanitarian Catastrophe

For those who thought we live in a global village with nation-states in decline and borders disappearing, the earthquake that struck northwest Syria and southern Turkey has highlighted all the negatives of nationalistic politics when confronted with simple human needs. The earthquake, 7.8 on the Richter scale, has caused over 30,000 deaths, left 80,000 being treated in hospitals, and about one million people homeless without food and water, shivering in freezing cold. In a situation that cries for immediate relief, humanitarian aid has been hampered because a large number of the earthquake’s victims live in Syria in a region controlled by rebels opposed to the government of Bashar Al-Assad, and on the Turkish side in a region unprepared by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Politics and borders are having negative consequences when governments are confronted with a dire human catastrophe. For different reasons, the governments of Syria and Turkey have been grossly deficient in preparing for and reacting to the earthquake.

The Syrian government has allowed supplies from Turkey only at Bab al-Hawa.  Why would a government hinder supplies to help its own people? Why at only one crossing? The earthquake area is controlled by opposition forces in the 12 year civil war. The Syrian government does not consider the rebels worthy of assistance. According to Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad: “The Syrian state is ready to allow aid to enter into all regions, provided that it does not reach terrorist armed groups.” Political positions before humane considerations.

The Damascus regime has been under sanctions since 1979 because of human rights violations. But there have been efforts to overcome political concerns in view of the earthquake. The United States has issued a six-month exemption from sanctions for relief material: “I want to make very clear that U.S. sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said after the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued the exemption.

In another example, the Kurdish forces in the region have declared a unilateral cease-fire. “We call on all our forces that carry out military actions to stop all military actions in Turkey, in metropolises and cities,” senior PKK leader Cemil Bayik said in a statement published by the group’s media affiliate ANF on the website Rudaw. “We have decided to not conduct any operation as long as the Turkish state does not attack.”

Getting material to the devastated area was not simple even before the earthquake. A 2014 United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC) allowed aid to pass through four border crossings from Turkey to Syria. But permission from the Council had to be renewed every six months. Since 2021, with backing from Russia and China, Syria had the crossings reduced to one, at Bab al-Hawa. In January 2023, before the earthquake, the UNSC agreed to keep that one crossing open.

To show the importance of the crossings, sixteen pre-eminent international jurists signed a letter weeks before the disaster demanding more cross-border access to north-western Syria, an area of 4.1 million vulnerable people. “Overly cautious interpretations of international law should not risk the lives of millions who continue to rely on cross-border aid in the north and north-west, nor should they be allowed to change and politicise the landscape of international humanitarian law,” the jurists pleaded.

Following the earthquake, the international community’s response was inadequate to the situation. Jan Egeland, general secretary of the Norwegian Refugee Council, explained the slow arrival of material to pinpoint how politics hindered humanitarian relief: “Political divides are still holding back lifesaving aid that should flow cross-border and cross-frontline from wherever there is available aid to wherever there are unmet needs. The Security Council should immediately authorise more border-crossings from Turkey, and the Syrian government and armed opposition should allow cross-line access wherever we need it.”

As for Turkey and the role of politics in this humanitarian crisis, President Erdogan has declared a state of emergency in the region for three months. Opposition leaders point to the fact he is using the state of emergency to prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections in the Spring. In addition, opposition leaders are questioning what happened to the money collected in an earthquake tax after a 1999 earthquake that killed 17,000.

“If there is one person responsible for this, it is Erdogan,” Kermal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, was quoted on the BBC website.

Many of the collapsed buildings on the Turkish side were poorly constructed, well below basic safety standards. It has been reported that: “In the days since [the earthquake], a lawyers’ association has asked prosecutors in Kahramanmaras to identify contractors who built buildings that collapsed and inspectors who checked them so they can be investigated for possible criminal violations.” Turkish officials have begun detaining contractors in an effort to deflect blame from the government. The Justice Ministry ordered officials in the region to set up “Earthquake Crimes Investigation Units.” Turkey’s vice president, Fuat Oktay, said 131 arrest warrants had been issued for people suspected of contributing to building collapses.

Can humanitarian concerns be separated from politics?[i] “Emergency response must not be politicized,” Geir O. Pedersen, the U.N. special envoy for Syria, said after a meeting of humanitarian leaders here in Geneva. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the world’s leading humanitarian organization, prides itself on neutrality, impartiality, and independence.

The separation of the humanitarian and political is most difficult in crisis situations. The Independent Commission on International Humanitarian Issues concluded in Winning the Human Race that past experience has demonstrated that “as soon as they are directly or indirectly invoked in an armed conflict, most states qualify, interpret or simply ignore the rules of humanity…” At such times, they wrote: “Political considerations prevail over humanitarian requirements and humanitarian concerns are used to further political aims.” And that’s not just true in direct conflicts, as the earthquake situation demonstrates.

One would have thought, one would have hoped that the humanitarian consequences of the earthquake would have overridden political concerns in Syria and Turkey. Some material aid is now beginning to arrive through the Syrian ICRC with UN oversight. But precious time has been lost.

Humanitarianism should trump borders and politics. “Humanitarian endeavor and political action must go their separate ways if the neutrality and impartiality of humanitarian work are not to be jeopardized…” pronounced the then president of the ICRC,  Cornelia Sommaruga, before the UN General Assembly in 1992. Earthquake relief problems in Syria and Turkey have shown once again how states control humanitarian space, much to the detriment of victims.

The recent good news is that Martin Griffiths, the head of the UN’s Humanitarian Affairs Office, has reached agreement with Bashar al-Assad that two more border crossings from Turkey to Syria would be opened for three months. The bad news is that Griffiths had to ask the Syrian dictator for permission to allow assistance to be moved to the earthquake’s victims. Politics trumps humanitarianism, even in a humanitarian catastrophe.


[i] I write more on this subject in Daniel Warner, “The Politics of the Political/Humanitarian Divide.” International Review of the Red Cross. Vol. 81, Issue 83. March 1999. Pp. 109-118.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.