The impact of the earthquake on the situation in Syria
- updated: March 3, 2023
In the early morning of the sixth of February, an earthquake of magnitude 7.8 struck the southern region of Turkey and northern Syria. Due to its highly destructive power, it led to a large number of casualties, with current estimates standing at over fifty thousand deaths in Syria and Turkey. Since the main earthquake, aftershocks and minor earthquakes have continued to hit the region. The disaster in northern Syria was caused not only by the earthquake, but also by the fact that the local economy has been for years dependent on what is allowed to cross through the crossings. A general lack of international response made the situation even worse.
Politically, the disaster showed the inability of the international powers to respond quickly in these disasters, and their failure to work in accordance with international laws and the available mechanisms to find effective ways in exceptional emergency situations. The response in these areas was delayed after the disaster, leading to an increase in the number of victims who could have been saved and rescued from under the rubble. However, due to the shortage in supply and inadequacy of available equipment, these people were left to face death which was totally avoidable had it not been for the lack of response.
The only crossing open in accordance with Security Council resolution 2672 was the Bab al-Hawa crossing, which Turkey announced unusable due to the poor condition of the road due to the earthquake, which left Syrian women and Syrians in northern Syria on their own, without the necessary equipment, in the face of the disaster. The United Nations failed to find alternatives in time, as no alternative roads or crossings could be secured. Belatedly, the United Nations admitted its lack of action, but this admission did not help those who lost their lives as a result of this negligence.
Neither was the behavior of local and regional powers any better. The politicization of humanitarian aid was clear from the start. Turkey was concerned with pleasing its citizens, who had suffered a huge disaster, paying no attention to the humanitarian needs of other victims. Bodies of dead Syrians entered Syria via the road that was declared closed due to the earthquake, but aid could not go through. Local powers, such as the interim government affiliated with the coalition, refused to let in the aid provided by other Syrian parties, such as the “Self-Administration,” as their leader tweeted. Meanwhile, the regime stipulated that aid must be provided only through its channels.
The Syrian regime took a long time to declare the Syrian cities hit by the earthquake as disaster areas. It did not declare a state of emergency based on the disaster, which made the provision of international aid slower throughout the whole country. One reason for this delay might have been negotiations conducted by this regime to make sure it controlled the distribution of international aid. On the same day that the regime declared the disaster areas, including Idlib is outside its control, it announced the opening of two border crossings with Turkey in addition to the Bab al-Hawa crossing. These are Bab al-Salama crossing and the al-Ra‘i crossing. The conditions for opening was that it was under the supervision of the Syrian regime and for a period of three months only. It was also announced that other crossings will be opened with the Syrian regime and that aid will arrive to the northwest through these crossings. Thus, the regime has maintained a strong grip over the crossings and the decision to open them.
The attitude of the head of the regime towards the areas he controls was not better. He paid a visit to the disaster-stricken areas of Aleppo laughing, talking about the war he fought against his people. He did not announce any steps he was going to take to help the afflicted.
The Syrian regime requires that aid is delivered through two organizations it controls, the Red Crescent and the Syria Trust for Development, which is run by the wife of the head of the regime, Asma al-Assad. This raises concerns that the aid may be stolen and not reach those who deserve it. It is a fact that damage in northern Syria makes up 80% of the damage in the whole country while regime-controlled areas suffered only 20%. Thus, questions about the fairness of aid distribution can be only described as legitimate.
The aid received remained too little, too late. The first aid convoy that arrived was originally scheduled to arrive before the earthquake but was delayed due to the closure of the crossings. It did not respond to the urgent needs created by the disaster. The assistance provided at the time of writing this editorial is insufficient, and the people’s needs are still unmet, especially the need for shelter. Syrian families are on the streets, or at best gathered in temporary collective housing set up hastily. Today, even a tent has become a dream for these families.
Syrian women and men living in Turkey fared no better. Many of them lived in the affected cities, and are suffering from homelessness now amid the confusion and lack of clarity of Turkish decisions about them. Social media outlets spread conflicting and unclear decisions, about the places they can go to, and about the procedures that must be adhered to, to leave the affected areas, and whether they can leave those areas or not. They are already anxious because of the prospect of facing forced return in the aftermath of the disaster. Most of them live in dire financial conditions, especially those who work low-paying daily work, and those whose jobs have been lost because of the earthquake.
We must not forget the special needs of women. Their needs must be provided in aid baskets. Gender-conscious aid must be provided, as well as special bathrooms in camps, which should not be in an isolated area so that women are not subjected to harassment. Separate tents should be given to separate families.
The earthquake also highlighted the problem of children who survived, but whose parents died under the rubble. Adequate care homes must be provided for them and care must be taken to ensure that they are not vulnerable to traffickers.
At a time of political division between Syrians, and political exploitation of the disaster by the warring parties, we must also point out the admirable cohesion between Syrians everywhere. Donations went in every direction, without asking about the political opinions of their recipients. This is what all national and democratic forces must build on in order to restore the inclusive Syrian national identity, and to mend the rift created by the war.
The countries of the world sympathized with the victims of the earthquake, so they suspended some of their sanctions on the Syrian regime in order to allow greater access to aid. The US has eased some sanctions for six months, always stressing that sanctions do not target food and the health sector. The EU has also eased the restriction on financial dealings with the Syrian regime, and announced a humanitarian airlift to aid those affected in all Syrian regions. However, aid will reach the regime’s areas first and aid planes have landed at Damascus airport. This may be in the interest of Syrian people if it is not exploited by the regime to rehabilitate itself, a concern expressed by many.
We see that the Syrian regime is trying to exploit the new links opened by some countries after the disaster to provide aid, in order to rehabilitate itself. The head of the regime recently visited the Sultanate of Oman in an attempt to break the diplomatic siege around him. He also received a delegation of Arab parliamentarians, as well as the Egyptian Foreign Minister, who confirmed in a press statement from Syria that the aim of the visit was humanitarian. The regime’s Foreign Minister, in return, stressed the importance of relations between the two countries.
These attempts by the regime are not new, and they did start after the earthquake. Neither is the attempt to restore relations with the regime. Shortly before the disaster, Algeria demanded the regime’s return to the Arab League but it failed. There was also an announcement about talks between the Syrian and Turkish regimes. A meeting between the two foreign ministers was scheduled but it was canceled due to the earthquake.
The intractability of a political solution in Syria has increased the suffering of Syrian women and men everywhere. It has politicized the access and distribution to those who deserve it. Although the disaster is now a humanitarian issue which must be addressed promptly and humanely, there is no radical solution to all the suffering of Syrian people, except through a comprehensive political solution through the full implementation of Security Council resolution 2254, ending the war and forming the basis for a sustainable peace, guaranteeing the rights of the Syrian people, and ending the suffering of detainees and the forcibly disappeared.
The Syrian Women’s Political Movement emphasizes the need for aid distributions to be subject to UN and international monitoring, to ensure that they reach those who deserve them. Aid should not be exploited politically and it should be distributed fairly among the affected areas. The monitoring should also cover aid distribution to refugee women in Turkey as well, in order to ensure fairness and sustainability. Aid must not stop after three months. The disaster caused by the earthquake needs an urgent and immediate response, but it also needs a long-term response. It also requires development plans that provide work and a source of livelihood for those affected so that they can live independent from aid.
We stress the need to ensure that the crossings remain open and that they are not closed after three months. This opening should not be subject to the approval of the Syrian regime. An international mechanism to ensure the opening of the crossings and the arrival of aid without politicization must be found, which should also make sure that aid is gender conscious. As for those who caused the delay in the arrival of this aid, they must be held accountable.
The SWPM emphasizes the need to work on a comprehensive political solution that ends the suffering of Syrian people. This natural disaster must not be exploited for political reasons by any party. The Syrian regime must not be allowed to use the disaster as a means to rehabilitate itself, steal aid to finance its war machine, or rebuild areas that were not damaged by the disaster. Aid must be kept out of the hands of war merchants and corrupt officials running the country.
The Political Committee of the Syrian Women’s Political Movement