Buildings have been completely destroyed, and towns in southeastern Turkey and northwest Syria have been ravaged by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday evening.
The need for immediate international aid for northern Syria is critical, particularly in earthquake-affected towns that are both government- and rebel-controlled, like Aleppo.
The first essential measure is to swiftly allow more crossing points for aid from abroad to enter northwest Syria.
Third, both in rebel-held and regime-held areas, a concerted international financial effort is required for earthquake survivors.
Finally, it should be permitted for newly homeless earthquake victims in northwest Syria to seek refuge in Turkey.
Buildings have been completely destroyed, and towns in southeastern Turkey and northwest Syria have been ravaged by the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that rocked the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday evening. The death toll has now surpassed 11,000, even though a full picture of casualties won’t be available for weeks. Even though rescuers are working nonstop to extract survivors from the rubble, news of hundreds more deaths is reported every hour.
The earthquake has wreaked havoc on villages in rebel-controlled northwest Syria that have already been decimated by more than ten years of civil war. Of the 4.5 million people living in the region, more than 4.1 million are dependent on humanitarian relief. 1.7 million of the almost 2.8 million people who had already been internally displaced from other areas of Syria survived the earthquake by living in camps in conditions of utter hardship. Buildings in northwest Syria were heavily damaged by years of government shelling before the earthquake, and those who survived building collapses are now being relocated in frigid weather to city streets and already overcrowded IDP camps. Communities uprooted by the earthquake have nowhere to go because the border between Turkey and northwest Syria is effectively closed to refugees as of early 2015.
The need for immediate international aid for northern Syria is critical, particularly in earthquake-affected towns that are both government- and rebel-controlled, like Aleppo. However, political factors have made it difficult to provide relief, particularly to northwest Syria, and this has cost valuable time that could have been used to save a life. Russia’s veto power in the U.N. Security Council means that humanitarian aid can only be sent to northwest Syria through a single crossing. The roads to this crossing have been badly damaged by the earthquake and are now impassable. Other hubs are present, but three days after the earthquake, they are still closed.
Additionally, Western nations are hesitant to give in to pressure from the Syrian government to channel help for northern Syria through the regime’s officials due to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s history of aid diversion. One of the first things the Syrian government said after the earthquake was that all earthquake relief aid, even if it was going to places outside of its control, had to go through the government. There is scant evidence that this will reach rebel regions quickly enough for rescues, despite the fact that the Syrian government has received help from nations like Russia, Iran, and a number of Arab nations that have sought normalization with the regime.
Instead, the local aid agencies that were already present in northwest Syria were essentially left on their own. The majority of the rescue attempts are being carried out by groups like the White Helmets, who have a long history of rescuing bombing victims, as well as by the friends and relatives of individuals who are trapped. However, numerous people who may have been saved with earlier interventions are losing their lives because there is a lack of the tools or vehicles required for rescue operations.
Being in a conflict zone increases one’s vulnerability to natural catastrophes and the effects they have, especially for communities that have already been uprooted. An Overseas Development Institute analysis from 2019 revealed how communities in Colombia that were uprooted due to violence later succumbed to devastating landslides after moving into a highly landslide-prone area. Many survivors stayed in the area following the accident, unable to go back to their own communities.
It is hard to know with certainty when an earthquake will occur again. The earthquake that struck the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday was the most powerful in over a century. But the widespread destruction has shown that people who live in northwest Syria and people who have been forced to leave their homes may have nowhere else to go and may have to stay in destroyed buildings and terrible humanitarian conditions because they have nowhere else to go. In this situation, international cooperation is needed to help search and rescue efforts, help people in need, and change the terrible status quo.
The first important step is to quickly open up more crossing points so that aid from outside Syria can get into northwest Syria. Analysts have asked for two border crossings between Turkey and northwest Syria, as well as crossings from northeast Syria that are run by the Kurds. There is less and less chance of rescuing earthquake victims alive for each minute these borders are blocked. Given the dangers of assistance co-optation, several experts have recommended investigating other aid delivery mechanisms, including potentially through regime zones.
Second, these new crossings must be used to plan shelter and help for people who have recently been forced to leave their homes, as well as to make search and rescue operations go more quickly. The northwest of Syria is home to more than 90% of Syrians who depend on aid. The humanitarian needs of the population cannot be met by a single crossing and the meager supplies available prior to the earthquake. Due to the cold weather in the area, it will be necessary to build a huge number of emergency shelters in the coming weeks and months.
Third, earthquake survivors need a coordinated international effort to raise money in areas controlled by rebels and areas controlled by the government. Before the earthquake, Syrians were already feeling the effects of a collapsing economy, bombings by the government, sanctions, and damage to infrastructure from more than ten years of war. Less than 50% of the funds were allocated for the response plan for Syria in 2022, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has drawn attention away from other conflicts in the world. But, as it has done for the past ten years of relief efforts, the Syrian government would probably use international help to help people in government areas affected by the earthquake. Furthermore, commentators have noted that the method was seriously unsustainable even before the earthquake disrupted the sole humanitarian crossing, even though the United States and other donors pay for humanitarian assistance in rebel-held northwest Syria. It will take a concerted diplomatic effort and political will, which currently seem lacking, to navigate this atmosphere while quickly assisting earthquake sufferers.
Lastly, people who lost their homes in the northwest of Syria because of the earthquake should be able to go to Turkey for safety. Roads have been devastated, and many buildings have collapsed as a result of the earthquake’s severe consequences in southeast Turkey. But because it is hard to get to northwest Syria and the Syrian government keeps shelling earthquake-affected rebel areas, the border area would be a better place for mobile and camp shelters and help earthquake survivors from both countries. About 3.6 million Syrian refugees live in Turkey. Most Turks dislike them, and politicians from all political parties have said they should return home. The political response to the earthquake in Turkey is another thing Erdogan has to deal with. Let refugees stay in Turkey for a short time would not be popular. Therefore, this choice might be politically impossible. But the situation right now calls for an immediate response and safety for communities that have already been destroyed by war and natural disasters. Even though the Turkish government is already very busy dealing with the aftermath of the earthquake in Turkey, it is also responsible for ensuring humanitarian aid gets to people in northern Syria. If refugees aren’t allowed into Turkey, Ankara should at least make it easier for displaced people to go to areas in the north that are controlled by the Turkish army and help coordinate shelters. The needs of Syrians who are displaced in Turkey as well as those who are stuck in northwest Syria must be considered when the international community responds.