As Russia, Iran, Arab States Aid Quake-Hit Syria, U.S. Vows No Assad Talks

As friends and foes of the United States pledged humanitarian efforts to help Damascus contend with a devastating earthquake that rocked Syria and neighboring Turkey, the U.S. has asserted that it would not engage with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Speaking at a press briefing Monday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters that "the U.S. is a partner to the people of Syria" and has "provided more humanitarian assistance to the people of Syria than any other country going forward."

However, he said that "it would be quite ironic—if not even counterproductive—for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now—gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured."

"Instead," Price added, "we have humanitarian partners on the ground who can provide the type of assistance in the aftermath of these tragic earthquakes."

Contacted for additional comment, a State Department spokesperson further explained President Joe Biden's position.

"The United States is the largest provider of humanitarian assistance throughout Syria, and we are moving quickly to provide targeted relief for survivors and the displaced after today's devastating earthquake," the spokesperson told Newsweek. "We are committed to providing immediate, life-saving humanitarian assistance to help all affected communities recover from this disaster."

Washington cut ties with Damascus as its crackdown on protests in 2011 first devolved into a civil war that remains ongoing to this day. The Syrian government, led by Assad, has managed to retake much of the country from jihadis and rebels, including insurgents backed by the U.S. in earlier years of the conflict, but Washington has accused Assad of conducting war crimes, a charge he and his administration have denied, and has employed sanctions against the Syrian government.

The State Department spokesperson argued, however, that "our sanctions programs do not target humanitarian assistance" and "rather, as a general matter, our General Licenses permit activities in support of humanitarian assistance, including in regime-held areas. "

And yet, "no U.S.-funded humanitarian aid for the earthquake response is being provided through the Syrian regime, and we continue to demand that the regime – and all parties to the conflict – ensure unhindered humanitarian access to all parts of Syria," according to the spokesperson.

"U.S.-government humanitarian partners implementing programs in Syria are required to possess robust risk mitigation mechanisms up front prior to funding," the spokesperson added. "Our partners in regime-controlled areas directly deliver assistance to beneficiaries without control or direction from the Assad regime. This is to ensure that our assistance is not diverted by malign actors or the Assad regime and reaches the intended beneficiaries."

Syria, Assad, poster, in, Hama, after, earthquake
Syrians on Monday gather near a poster of President Bashar al-Assad hanging outside the emergency section of a hospital in Hama following a deadly earthquake. The Syrian government urged the international community to come to its aid after several hundred people died in the country after the 7.8-magnitude temblor in neighboring Turkey. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. has instead worked with a Kurdish-led group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces, which lead an autonomous government in northeastern Syria, where U.S. troops continue to operate against Damascus' wishes.

Reached for comment by Newsweek, U.S. Central Command spokesperson Army Colonel Joe Buccino said that "the thoughts and prayers of U.S. Central Command team are with the people of Turkey and Syria in this critical moment."

"While we have not received a request for aid," he added, "we are in dialogue with the leadership of our local partner forces in Syria and State Department officials."

In a statement issued Monday, the Syrian Democratic Forces said its personnel "stand ready to provide immediate assistance to overcome the earthquake aftermath in all Syrian territories, including providing relief support and sending rescue teams to the disaster-stricken areas."

Destruction caused by Monday's earthquake, which originated in central Turkey, occurred in areas under the control of various factions. More than 700 people have been reported dead in government-held areas and around the same figure estimated in rebel-held areas near the Turkish border in the northwest, where millions of displaced people continue to live in dire conditions, including makeshift camps and residences.

"The devastating earthquakes bring a new level of suffering to the people of Syria and threaten a new humanitarian crisis exacerbated by a brutal winter and 12 years of war," the State Department spokesperson said. "The situation was already fragile with 15 million people in need of humanitarian aid to meet basic needs."

As Assad convened emergency meetings in an effort to mobilize available resources to respond to the disaster, the Syrian Foreign Ministry issued a statement appealing "to the member states of the United Nations, the General Secretariat of the Organization, its agencies and specialized funds, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian action partners from international governmental and non-governmental organizations to extend a helping hand and support the efforts made by the Syrian government in facing this humanitarian disaster."

In a briefing to the U.N. General Assembly delivered Monday, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres said the U.N. was "mobilizing to support the emergency response" in Syria and Turkey, and called on all member states to "work together in solidarity to assist all those hit by this disaster, many of whom were already in dire need of humanitarian aid."

Among the initial responses came from Damascus' close partners, Moscow and Tehran, which have militarily backed the Syrian government in its conflict. Russia has deployed troops already stationed in the country as well as teams of rescue and medical personnel to help in recovery efforts, while Iran has also sent emergency aid.

Fellow Arab states have also responded, with the North African states of Algeria, Egypt and Tunisia sending assistance as well as neighboring Iraq and Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula nations of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two nations with close ties to the U.S., also sending aid.

President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain, two leaders who have set out reestablish ties with Damascus, spoke directly to Assad via telephone calls, expressing condolences and vowing efforts to help his government overcome the fallout of the earthquake.

While Assad has made several visits to Russia and Iran since the outbreak of his country's conflict, the Syrian leader's trip to the UAE in March marked his first to a third foreign country in 12 years. Syria remains suspended from the Arab League, however, which required an elusive consensus to unfreeze its membership that has yet to be reached despite increasing attempts from regional countries.

Iran, flag, rescue, operations, in, Aleppo, Syria
A truck adorned with Iran's flag and a photo of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a U.S. strike in Iraq in January 2020, takes part in the search operations following a deadly earthquake on Monday, in the city of Aleppo, Syria. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

But even as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who continues to support opposition groups in Syria, signaled an effort to rekindle ties with Assad, President Joe Biden's administration has repeatedly voiced its opposition to any rehabilitation of the Syrian leader in the international community.

"When it comes to the Assad regime, look, we're very clear. We don't support normalization," Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Dubai-based Al Arabiya outlet on Friday. "The challenge is this: The United Nations has proposed a process, a step-by-step process leading to the implementation of the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, a political way forward."

"We support that. Unfortunately, the Assad regime does not and has refused to engage in that process," Blinken added. "Unless and until it does, it's very hard to see how you can move forward."

And yet a seemingly even less likely U.S. ally suggested it had established contact with the Syrian government in the wake of the recent earthquake.

Despite being in a state of war with Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that his government had received a request for aid from Damascus and that Israeli rescue teams would operate in Syria as well as Turkey. Assad's administration has offered no confirmation of the request.

Other commitments to send aid to Syria came from as far away as China, India and Venezuela, while Western countries without relations with Damascus remained mostly silent as to potential efforts to assist the Syrian government, instead focusing on supporting Turkey, a member of the NATO military alliance, where the death toll has neared 3,000.

The World Health Organization has said that the current death toll of those killed in both Syria and Turkey could ultimately multiply by eight as efforts continue to account for the full scale of destruction wrought by what has already become one of the deadliest earthquakes of the 21st century.

This article has been updated to include comments from U.S. Central Command spokesperson Army Colonel Joe Buccino and a U.S. State Department spokesperson.