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Syria earthquake: A year on, 'situation is devastating'

February 5, 2024

In the year since a major earthquake hit Syria, the situation has deteriorated. But, as people affected by the quake are suffering, President Assad has used the disaster to leverage himself back onto the political stage.

A young man carries pictures of his family that he extracted from the rubble of his destroyed house
Syria's northwest is held by rebels, and not only suffers from a humanitarian catastrophe caused the earthquake but also from shelling by Russian forcesImage: Anas Alkharboutli/dpa/picture alliance

For Maryam abo Atban, it's hard to believe an entire year has passed since her life was wrecked by a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

Memories of the early hours of February 6, 2023, remain painfully vivid for the 42-year-old mother.

"When the sun rose, half of my family was dead," she said. "We now live in a tent, only a few meters from the place where two of our children died in the rubble of our house," she told DW in Jindires, a small town in northwestern Syria.

"My husband wanted to leave, but I refused as it doesn't matter where we go, their images remain before our eyes," she said, crying.

According to the United Nations, at least 6,000 Syrians were killed in the earthquake. However, other organizations have tallied the death toll closer to 8,000, and the nongovernmental organization Syrian Network for Human Rights has listed 10,024 deaths.

Assad burnishes reputation in fragmented Syria

An official number, such as the 50,783 people who died in the earthquake across the border in Turkey, is impossible to collate from the variety of authorities that maintain de facto control of different parts of Syria.

After 13 years of civil war, the country is divided into areas controlled by the government under President Bashar Assad, with Russian and Iranian backing, and those under the control of opposition groups and militias who are backed by Turkey, the United States and others.

That political fragmentation has helped reestablish Assad's position as Syria's state leader. He insisted for days after the earthquake that any aid to Syria — which was promptly offered by the United Nations, Russia, Iran and around a dozen Arab neighboring countries — including for the rebel-held northwest, needed to go via Damascus, the government-controlled capital.

A Syrian woman places furniture under a cover which holds her belongings
Two of Maryam abo Atban's children died in the earthquake on February 6, 2023Image: Omar Albam/DW

Underfunded and out of focus

However, a year later, the situation hasn't improved in the country.

"Syria continues to be in an absolutely devastating situation," Julien Barnes-Dacey, the director of the Middle East & North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told DW.

Instead of any improvement, he said, "Syria has fallen off the international agenda, and we're seeing funding levels dry up."

"One year on, the humanitarian and economic crises in Syria have worsened," said Hiba Zayadin, a senior researcher in the Middle East and North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch.

"Many damaged structures remain untouched, and funding for UN agencies is dwindling at a time when more and more people are almost entirely reliant on aid to survive," she said.

Abdul Razzaq Khaled Al-Sah points to his tent which he had to buy after the earthquake destroyed his house on February 6, 2023.
Abdul Razzaq Khaled Al-Sah had to borrow money to buy a tent since no organization was able to give him a temporary shelter after the earthquakeImage: Omar Albam/DW

This is true for Abdul Razzaq Khaled Al-Sah, who lost 10 family members and his house in the earthquake.

"A year ago, I went back to below zero and was left without help," he told DW in Jindires. "Nobody gave me a tent, so I had to borrow money and buy one, and nobody has compensated me so far." 

"Last year's humanitarian response plan for Syria was only 38% funded, the most underfunded plan, percentage-wise, since the start of the crisis in 2011," said David Carden, UN deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis.

"Progress has been made since the earthquakes struck, but the response is significantly underfunded, and we could only do less with less," he added.

He agreed that "the long-term consequences of the earthquakes are still being felt by Syrian communities today on top of active hostilities, economic deterioration and increasing food shortages."

According to the United Nations World Food Program, Syria is among the world's 10 countries with the highest number of hungry people and some 12.9 million Syrians — more than half the population — are suffering from hunger.

Despite this, the WFP announced in January that it would end the food assistance program in Syria due to a "funding crunch."

"Most Syrians now are focused on surviving day to day as the collapse of Syria continues including an ongoing implosion and an inability of the government to provide any meaningful services or prospect of an improvement," said Barnes-Dacey.

Assad's rise after the quake

The humanitarian situation is not only harsh in the rebel-held northwest but also in government-controlled areas.

"It has gotten much worse since the earthquake," Wafa Mustafa, a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based think tank Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, told DW.

"This might or might not be directly related to the earthquake itself, but it's certainly related to the political developments after the earthquake," she added.

Trucks move in a United Nations aid convoy en route to Syria's rebel-held northwestern city of Idlib
Aid trucks were stalled for days at the border crossing from Turkey to Syria as the UN waited for permission to crossImage: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images

Because of the earthquake, many Arab nations, even those who had severed ties with Assad, offered aid deliveries.

This paved the way for renewed talks and three months later, in May 2023, Assad was readmitted to the Arab League.

The group of 22 countries had suspended Syria from the organization in 2011 as a consequence of the crackdown on the local population.

According to various estimates, between half a million and 650,000 people have been killed in Syria's civil war so far, Assad's forces have been accused of carrying out poison gas attacks against parts of the population, and thousands have vanished in the country's notorious prisons.

Turkey-Syria earthquakes and their aftermath

"The current situation is obviously giving space to President Assad to maintain his position without much pressure, as no one is really bringing political attention or money to the table, and all of the associated issues are slipping away," said ECFR's Barnes-Dacey.

For Wafa Mustafa, it's clear "Bashar Assad continues enjoying impunity when it comes to accountability for the crimes that happened in the past, but also for the crimes that are still ongoing within its areas.

"What is left of this country says a lot about the impunity that the Assad regime has, but also about the global system that I think is also failing Syrians again and again," she added.

Edited by: Sean M. Sinico

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa