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Earthquake victims in Syria: Politics first, aid second?

February 8, 2023

There are ways to get aid into earthquake-impacted areas in northern Syria and save lives. However various political positions taken by both Turkey and Syria may prevent this.

A man who evacuated his home warms up next to a fire on a street, in the aftermath of the earthquake, in Aleppo, Syria
Frightened of what more tremors might do to their homes, many Syrians are living on the street outsideImage: Firas Makdesi/REUTERS

It was not long before dawn when the first tremor woke Khawla and her two brothers up — the family live in Idlib, in northwestern Syria, near the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that struck the area early Monday morning.

"We were so scared. At first we had no idea what was happening," Khawla, 47, told DW over the phone. "There was no way we could leave the house. My two brothers are ill and it's freezing outside. And where would we have gone anyway?"

Together with their neighbors, the family decided to stay indoors and hope for the best. Happily, although their building shook, it remained standing.

"A lot of homes here have suffered structural damage and are in danger of collapse," Khawla continued. "But there's no emergency accommodation here, nowhere safe to go. There are people who spent last night on the street or in their cars for fear [of more tremors]." That's despite the fact that it's been freezing outside, she added.

A picture shows rubble in Aleppo's old town on February 7, 2023 following a deadly quake
The earthquakes in Turkey and Syria damaged historic sites, including the historic center of AleppoImage: LOUAI BESHARA/AFP

Khawla preferred not to give her full name for security reasons because she lives in one of the last areas in Syria that is not under the control of Syrian dictator, Bashar Assad.

Idlib, near the Turkish border, is run by the last opposition fighters remaining, who took part in the Syrian civil war. The area has been under constant attack from Syrian government and Russian military. In fact, shortly after the earthquake hit, Syrian forces shelled the opposition-held town of Marea. 

As a result of years of fighting, infrastructure here is already heavily damaged, with scarce medical supplies, hardly any rescue services, and many people living here dependent on international aid.

Huge challenges to getting aid into Syria

Locals living beyond these rebel-controlled areas, in government-held territory nearby, have also been heavily impacted by the earthquake. The death toll from both rebel-held and government-controlled areas in northern Syria is already in the thousands and likely to continue to rise.

There are a lot of challenges to getting emergency services into these areas, said Anita Starosta, who helps bring aid into the northern Syria for Medico International, a human rights organization based in Frankfurt.

Getting help to places like Aleppo, which is controlled by the Assad regime, is tricky, she explained. "It means that in these areas one cannot get around coordinating international aid with the Assad government," Starosta said.

This is problematic, Starosta noted. "Because we know from past experience that all the aid money that goes through the government in Damascus also ends up helping to finance the government. It goes to aid organizations that are closely connected to the Assad family."

That's something that became very clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, Andre Bank, a senior research fellow at the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies based in Hamburg, confirmed. During the pandemic, the Assad government tried to control the import of vaccines and only distribute them to groups it favored — that is, not those in the opposition-controlled territories. 

"This just shows how selective the [Assad] regime is and how it uses aid to maintain its domination," Bank told DW. "Basically the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Western states just can't cooperate with the regime."

A Syrian man cries as he sits on the rubble of a collapsed building in the Syrian town of Jindayris
Thousands have died in the earthquake, and the death toll continues to riseImage: Aaref Watad/AFP

Assad government making use of disaster

Only a handful of days after the earthquake struck, it's already evident how the Syrian government hopes to use the disaster to further its own aims. "The aid organization, Syrian Arab Red Crescent, which is very close to the regime, has already demanded that sanctions against the Assad government be lifted so it's easier to help [after the earthquake]," Bank noted. "This already shows how the political elite in Damascus plan to use this disaster strategically."

Safouh Labanieh, deputy chair of the board at the German-Syrian Aid Association (VDSH) in Berlin, an umbrella group representing over a dozen different Syrian aid organizations in Europe, is also skeptical. Past experience indicates that the Assad government doesn't genuinely want to help Syrian civilians, he suggested. "I think even now, it [the government] is trying to use this tragedy to monopolize aid and to win back international legitimacy for itself," Labanieh said.

These are the kinds of political challenges that exist for government-controlled areas in Syria that have been devastated by the recent earthquakes and aftershocks. 

Rescuers carry a victim on the rubble in the aftermath of an earthquake, in Jandaris, Syria
Civilians in rebel-held parts of Syria have been dependent on the White Helmets, a group of rescue volunteers, for helpImage: KHALIL ASHAWI/REUTERS

But there are further difficulties in getting aid into parts of Syria still controlled by opposition forces, for example, into Idlib. Around 4.8 million people live in these areas and even before this disaster, it was difficult to get supplies or aid into this area.

Humanitarian aid and other deliveries all came over just one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa on the Turkish-Syrian border. This crossing is only maintained thanks to a United Nations resolution, that must be renewed every six months and which is often used as a political football by the Syrian government and its Russian allies, no matter the cost to civilians living in this area.

Open borders for aid

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has argued that all of the border crossings between Turkey and Syria should be opened in order to expedite aid to earthquake victims.

It's a practical suggestion, GIGA researcher Bank agreed. "There are over 20 crossings along this long border," he said. "On the Syrian side, these are mostly controlled by Syrian militias opposed to the Assad government. These are moderate rebels, closely allied to Turkey. In that way one could avoid cooperating with the Assad regime, Russia or Iran," he concluded. 

Doing this would also allow international aid organizations to avoid the more extremist Islamist rebel factions in some other opposition-run parts of Syria, Bank said.

Qatari rescue and military personnel arrive at the Gaziantep Airport in Turkey
Hundreds of rescue workers are flying in from all over the world to help in the earthquake-impacted areasImage: Kamran Jebreili/AP Photo/picture alliance

Medico International's Starosta agreed. The situation for the displaced Syrians in this areas was already precarious. "The aid that was being delivered before the earthquake was not sufficient and sometimes it never even arrived," she pointed out. "Now it's winter and very cold. That means that now, more than ever, people in the displaced persons' camps here, and also in the areas in Idlib that have been destroyed, are dependent on international help."

All this will depend on one thing, Starosta added. "Whether Turkey opens a humanitarian corridor, to bring people who are fleeing the area to safety, or whether the country sticks with its political position and keeps the borders closed," she said. "Unfortunately we expect the latter to happen."

For the time being, all those Syrians in the country affected by the earthquake simply have to wait — for help to arrive or political decisions to be made, even as time is running out to find survivors.

Khawla and her brothers are among them. They have no choice but to wait in Idlib. "One day it's rocket attacks, another it's the terrible economic situation and now it's a natural disaster," she said, her voice breaking. "We have no time at all to take a breath or to recover, even just once. How is a human being supposed to endure all of this?"

With additional reporting by Khaled Salameh.

This story was originally published in German.

War-torn Syria braves earthquake devastation

Kersten Knipp
Kersten Knipp Political editor with a focus on the Middle East