Two 7.8 and 7.6 magnitude earthquakes hit the South of Turkey and North-west of Syria on Monday 6 February. To put the intensity of the earthquake into context, the highest magnitude on record was a level 9 earthquake (in Chile in 1960). Of course the impact and scale of destruction from any earthquake is magnified when it takes place in an urban and highly populated area. Add to that the backdrop of non-existent or negligent governance, poor infrastructure, large numbers of already displaced people in badly structured housing, bitingly cold weather conditions, and the political ramifications of war and corruption, and you have a total catastrophe.
All of the above applies to the areas that have been affected by the recent earthquake. Over 20,000 people have now died. A staggering death toll, one that is sadly likely to rise. [Edit: estimated at over 40,000 on 14 February]
While the initial trigger for this disaster was a natural one, all the negative conditions that preceded the earthquake and the state responses in the aftermath make this a man-made disaster. If we look at the areas hit by the earthquakes in both Turkey and Syria (Kahramanmaras in Turkey; Aleppo and Idlib in Syria) these are areas predominantly populated by refugees, such as in the camps of Gazientep, or Internally Displaced People (IDPs), in most cases fleeing the actions of the Syrian government. Since the start of the war in Syria, over 6 million people have been internally displaced in the country, with at least 3 million of all IPDs moving to non-regime territories in the North-west. Having forced people to flee their homes due to continuous aerial bombardment, siege tactics, and political repression and incarceration, the regime continued to inflict punishment on these areas by closing access to humanitarian aid paid for by the international community.
Responsibility for the huge death toll does not only lie with the Syrian regime, but also its allies. In December 2019, Russia and China vetoed a UN security council resolution that would have allowed cross-border aid deliveries from two points in Turkey and one from Iraq. All of the 13 other members had voted in favour. Even then, the Deputy UN aid chief Ursula Mueller warned the SC that without the cross border operations “we would see an immediate end of aid supporting millions of civilians…that would cause a rapid increase in hunger and disease, resulting in death, suffering and further displacement – including across borders – for a vulnerable population who have already suffered unspeakable tragedy as a result of almost nine years of conflict.”
However, despite its condemnation of the vetoes, the UN has also been forced into complicity with the Syrian regime’s tactics. Since the regime refuses to grant UN access to rebel-held territory, the UN capitulates to the impasse by channeling all its resources to regime-controlled areas where it can at least appear to be doing something. In 2016, due to the extent of damage to the roads, the UN was able to airdrop hundreds of supplies to the regime-held area of Deir Ezzor; but the UN must first seek approval from the regime, and with a lack of permission, no such airdrops have been made in the North-west of Syria. This means the UN’s limited aid distribution is helping to widen the disparities within the population and are facilitating the regime’s weaponisation of aid as a way of winning the long war. Most likely the regime’s goal is not even to subdue the rebel areas into submission, but rather to enact vengeance and make an example of them.
In the context of the earthquake, this has meant two things. First, if there is any humanitarian assistance and aid by major international non-govt organisations and states, it will in many cases end up in the hands of the regime, due to their being bound by stricter international regulations and fears of illegality or diplomatic confrontations for breaching sovereignty. Second, for those states and INGOs who do not want to inadvertently supply the regime, they will forgo providing any assistance altogether. This dilemma and complication in providing non-politicised humanitarian aid is precisely the goal of the Syrian regime to ward off any support for non-regime areas.
And so far they have been very successful in their goal. Four days on, while international disaster relief has slowly reached the communities in southern Turkey, no international aid specifically in response to the earthquake (whether from the UN, states, or INGOs) has reached the Syrian regions affected. The recent convoy of aid that was allowed to pass through the Turkey-Syria border on 9 February appears to have been humanitarian aid already due to arrive prior to the earthquake, and thus did not provide the type of equipment needed right now by people on the ground.
The disparity between relief efforts in Turkey and Syria exposes the malice and arbitrary punishment contained in borders – an earthquake does not heed such constructs, the line is an imaginary one. And yet we make them real with devastating consequences. That isn’t to say there are no problems with the relief efforts on the other side. The Turkish government have been criticised for instructing aid to be directed and delivered via the government and not civil society organisations who could make the process of reaching grassroots communities easier and more efficient. While Turkey’s regulations for constructing safe and quake-proof buildings are of a high standard, especially since the Izmit earthquake in 1999, question marks have been raised about the implementation and monitoring of those regulations given the harrowing videos circulating of swaying and capitulating buildings. Due to this criticism and scrutiny, Twitter, pivotal for relief efforts and the sharing of vital information, seemed to be restricted 2 days after the earthquake, largely suspected to be a political move rather than a technical issue.
Political decisions are felt by civilians on both sides of the border. As a result of the slow international response and lack of aid, residents in Idlib have reported that most of the victims who are still alive and might have been saved are still trapped under the rubble after four days. Tragically, the sounds of people calling for help under the debris are slowly giving way to silence. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime has not stopped with its attacks, bombing two areas that were already affected by the earthquake. Many of the dead also cannot be removed; nor are survivors able to bury them for example in Hatay, Turkey, because the cemeteries are now full. With no homes to go to, those who are able to do so sleep in their cars, but with no fuel to stay warm inside; those who do not have cars sleep outside. Anyone who has experienced the winter in that region will know how the chill seeps into the bone; the people who lost their homes and everything in them, fleeing without warning, are now experiencing those temperatures without access to blankets, warm clothes, nutrition, electricity, medication, and basic sanitary products.
With all these obstacles at the international and state level, what can we do to help? One of the ways in which we can help is to support civil society relief agencies who have been working on the ground in these areas for many years. Last week they would have been removing rubble caused by aerial bombardment from the regime, this week they have been removing rubble due to the earthquake – often with their bare hands due to lack of proper equipment: they have almost a decade of experience dealing with the devastating conditions of war, and in most cases are known to the local communities and are trusted. These relief agencies are likely to be less well-known globally, and they are also likely to have been deliberately demonised by the regime. This may make some people wary of providing donations to any organisations other than the well known large International NGOs; while laudable and generous, that may risk reproducing the existing patterns of weaponised aid since many of the larger organisations do still have to operate via the UN and thus the regime. Syrians friends and students I have spoken to, and those who have been raising public awareness online, have suggested instead the following grassroots organisations. Multiple people have verified them as trustworthy, with access to non-regime areas that have otherwise been shut off from international aid:
Operating in Syria
- The Syrian Civil Defense: https://www.whitehelmets.org/en/
- Molham Team: https://molhamteam.com/en/campaigns/439
- Chams Network (recommended by a student whose family member runs it): https://www.instagram.com/chams.network/
Operating in South Turkey:
- Karam Foundation https://give.karamfoundation.org/campaign/emergency-earthquake-support/c465190
- Doctors Worldwide, Turkey branch https://www.yyd.org.tr/en
So what about sanctions, would calling for an end to sanctions also help? No doubt sanctions make things worse for all civilians. When you have sanctions, it makes it harder for independent organisations, informal networks, individuals, to make bank transfers or send material support. Even where clauses allow humanitarian support, fear of criminalisation may put people off. Sanctions also allow regimes to exploit and control the narrower channels that do exist for aid. Even if sanctions hurt the regime in question, they do not stop the regime from continuing to hurt their own people. That much has been clear with Syria after almost 12 years of war, it was evident under Saddam Hussein’s rule in Iraq as well. But, in recent days we have seen the Syrian regime try to divert attention from relief efforts by focusing on this issue. Crucially, sanctions are not the primary cause for the current failure to assist civilians desperate for help since the earthquake. Sanctions, as problematic as they are, are devised to provide for exceptions. Aid has arrived in wider Syria from a number of countries, but currently is held in regime areas and not being sent on to the stricken areas. Therefore, it is the Syrian government that is immediately responsible for this current impasse and crisis. The debate about sanctions has been a particular cause of frustration for the Syrians that I have spoken to, because it creates confusion in the narrative and dilutes focus from the area of real need and action. And while the removal of sanctions is a wider issue that warrants attention, at the moment such calls feed into misleading explanations for the lack of assistance to Syrians in the North-west.
If it is possible to find anything positive in such a devastating event, it is the incredible efforts from first responders on the ground, even while sustaining political and military attacks, witnessing the joy and hope that comes from finding even one person alive in the most impossible of circumstances. There does also seem to be more awareness and immediate concern in the west this time, and necessarily so, reflected in welcome statements and initiatives of support and solidarity from some academic institutions – while the learning process is a collective one and will continue, this does show willingness to listen and set a positive precedent.
Finally, I send my dua and express my profound condolences and sympathy to all those who have lost family and friends, or who have not yet heard from them; to all those affected by the earthquakes, to anyone further traumatised by the events. Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’oun.
Image: The Guardian, “Rescue workers search for survivors among the rubble of a destroyed building in the Rihawi area in Latakia province, north-west Syria, on 8 February 2023. Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock” https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/feb/09/turkey-and-syria-earthquake-what-we-know-so-far-on-day-four
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