US eases Syria restrictions to support earthquake relief

US eases Syria restrictions to support earthquake relief

Follow the latest on the earthquake in Turkey and Syria

US sanctions on Syria “will not stand in the way” of saving lives after Monday’s earthquake in Syria and Turkey, the US Treasury promised while easing restrictions to allow new relief efforts and pledging $85 million in humanitarian aid.

The Treasury’s Syria General Licence authorises earthquake relief efforts that would otherwise be prohibited by sanctions regulations for 180 days.

It comes after some in Syria claimed that US sanctions were hindering relief efforts after the earthquake.

The US relief package will be administered by the US Agency for International Development (USAid) and sent to partners in the countries.

“USAid is providing emergency food and shelter for refugees and newly displaced people, winter supplies to help families brave the cold, critical healthcare services to provide trauma support, safe drinking water to prevent disease, and hygiene and sanitation assistance to keep people safe and healthy,” the agency said on Thursday.

An aid convoy earlier on Thursday reached rebel-held north-western Syria for the first time since the earthquake, going through the only open border crossing — Bab Al Hawa on the Turkish side.

Death toll

The death toll from the earthquake exceeded 21,000 on Friday morning as hopes faded of finding more people alive in the rubble of collapsed buildings.

The aid announcement comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on Thursday by telephone with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to discuss the Nato ally’s needs.

“We are proud to join the global efforts to help Turkey just as Turkey has so often contributed its own humanitarian rescue experts to so many other countries in the past,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

The Treasury Department later announced the temporary lifting of some Syria-related sanctions.

“Our deepest condolences go out to the people of Turkey and Syria for the tragic loss of life and destruction in the wake of devastating earthquakes,” said Wally Adeyemo, Deputy Secretary of the Treasury.

“As international allies and humanitarian partners mobilise to help those affected, I want to make very clear that US sanctions in Syria will not stand in the way of life-saving efforts for the Syrian people.

“While US sanctions programmes already contain robust exemptions for humanitarian efforts, today the Treasury is issuing a blanket General Licence to authorise earthquake relief efforts so that those providing assistance can focus on what’s needed most: saving lives and rebuilding.”

US sanctions programmes are not aimed at legitimate humanitarian assistance, including earthquake disaster relief efforts, the Treasury said.

The US has sent rescue teams to Turkey and has contributed concrete breakers, generators, water purification systems and helicopters, officials said on Thursday.

USAid said rescue teams were focused on badly-hit Adiyaman, a city in south-eastern Turkey, seeking survivors with dogs, cameras and listening devices.

Following major damage to roads and bridges, the US military has sent Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters to transfer supplies, it said.

On Tuesday, the president of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent urged the US to lift economic sanctions that he said were hampering rescue and relief operations in the country.

But the US government said several general licences already in place permitted most activities in support of humanitarian assistance, including in regime-held areas, by the UN, the US government and some NGOs.

“While sanctions relief alone cannot reverse long-standing structural challenges and the brutal tactics of the Assad regime, it can ensure that sanctions do not inhibit the life-saving assistance needed following this disaster,” the Treasury said.

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