The United States has said it is “committed” to helping residents “on both sides” of the Turkey-Syria border devastated by deadly earthquakes, but Washington ruled out dealing directly with the Syrian government.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters on Monday that the US will deliver aid to Syria through nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) without engaging with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which it does not recognise as legitimate.
“It would be quite ironic — if not even counterproductive — for us to reach out to a government that has brutalised its people over the course of a dozen years now,” Price said.
“Instead, we have humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes.”
Two earthquakes, followed by powerful aftershocks, hit southeastern Turkey and northern Syria early on Monday, causing widespread destruction and trapping thousands under the rubble.
More than 3,600 people have been killed in Turkey and Syria, according to the most recent estimates, and that number is expected to rise.
Price said on Monday that the US has already mobilised assistance to help those affected in both countries.
But the disaster appears to have done little to soften Washington’s stance towards Damascus. The US government called on Assad to step down in 2011 as a popular uprising turned into a protracted civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people in Syria.
Although some US allies in the Middle East have mended ties with Damascus in recent years, Washington has said it would not change its opposition to Assad without an inclusive political settlement to the conflict.
The Syrian government remains under heavy US sanctions aimed at isolating the country economically in response to widely documented human rights violations.
On Monday, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), a US-based advocacy group, called for the “immediate” lifting of US sanctions to facilitate the delivery of aid to Syria.
“We commend and are thankful to existing organizations on the ground providing immediate humanitarian aid and relief to those in Syria, Turkey, and across the region. The reality is more aid and relief is needed, and time is of the essence,” ADC executive director Abed Ayoub said in a statement.
“Lifting of the sanctions will open the doors for additional and supplemental aid that will provide immediate relief to those in need.”
But Price said Washington will not change its policy of working with nongovernmental partners to help Syrians. “This is a regime that has never shown any inclination to put the welfare, the well-being, the interests of its people first,” he told reporters.
“Now that its people are suffering even more, we’re going to continue doing what has proven effective over the course of the past dozen years or so — providing significant amounts of humanitarian assistance to partners on the ground.”
Price also said the process of delivering aid to Syria and Turkey was different, but the US wants to help people in both countries.
“In Turkey, we have a partner in the government. In Syria, we have a partner in the form of NGOs on the ground who are providing humanitarian support,” he said.
Price added that Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu earlier on Monday to offer condolences and convey that Washington is willing to provide “anything” that Ankara needs.
“We stand ready … to help our ally in a time of need,” said Price, adding that the same position extends to Syrian NGOs in “their efforts to alleviate the suffering of the Syrian people“.
Early on Monday, President Joe Biden said he ordered top US officials to reach out to their Turkish counterparts to coordinate “any and all needed assistance” for Turkey, a NATO partner.
“Today, our hearts and our deepest condolences are with all those who have lost precious loved ones, those who are injured, and those who saw their homes and businesses destroyed,” Biden said in a statement.