The eerie cloud hanging over Syria in the aftermath of the recent earthquake there is no new phenomenon; rather, it is simply the latest layer to an existing crisis that has been occurring in the country for the past 12 years. For Syrians, the sound of bombing may be replaced today with the sound of rubble crumbling and cries of desperation, but for how long will this silence last before conflict begins again?
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck north-western Syria as well as south-eastern Turkiye at 4:17am on 6 February 2023, with its tremor being felt in Lebanon, Greece, Cyprus, and Palestine. One eyewitness told Euro-Med Monitor that the situation in Antakya, Turkiye, is extremely dire, as the city is destroyed beyond recognition. The eyewitness spoke of weak Internet connections throughout the city and claimed that there has also been no electricity at all since 4am on the 6th of February—which is particularly alarming considering the harsh weather conditions—and that the buildings that have not yet collapsed are inhabitable.
The earthquake’s epicentre was in the Turkish province of Gaziantep, whose capital is also called Gaziantep. Due to Turkiye’s shared border with Syria and the ongoing conflict there, Gaziantep city is a United Nations location for the delivery of Syrian aid, and is home to nearly 500,000 Syrian refugees. According to the UN, 14.6 million civilians inside Syria needed humanitarian assistance in 2022, with 4.1 million already living in fragile camps.
Adnan Hezam, spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria, said that the humanitarian situation in Syria has been catastrophic for the past 12 years. “Now another catastrophe has come, and has just added to the pain Syrians have already been feeling,” he told Euro-Med Monitor. “Can you imagine that there are people who were displaced, in these damaged areas, and [who] are now forced to relocate again?”
Making matters worse in the aftermath of the quake, north-western Syria is torn between rebel and government-held areas, making transportation routes for much-needed aid difficult to reach. With the current death toll of over 20,000 people and tens of thousands more injured, rescue committees are still trying to understand the real scope of the earthquake that has hit the two countries. However, due to Syria’s conflict lines, poor infrastructure, international sanctions, and political disputes, Syrian civilians are feeling the heavy toll of unequal aid distribution in their time of most need.
“Some countries have launched special initiatives to provide aid to the Syrian people,” added Hezam, “but in terms of current needs, before and after the earthquake, there are approximately 15 million Syrians in need of humanitarian aid—or more accurately, dependent on it.” When speaking to Euro-Med Monitor, Hezam made it clear that the ICRC is calling for increased support for Syrians specifically because of the existing crisis in the country.
Syria’s main aid provider, Turkiye, is calling for international assistance to help Turkish citizens in the aftermath of the quake, leaving Syria more helpless than usual. In desperation, the Syria-based White Helmets organisation has called on international forces to unite and provide relief for those affected; within this plea is an appeal for the international community to put pressure on political actors and refrain from bombing the affected regions. Prior to the earthquake, humanitarian organisations had been operating in Syria with very little capacity due to the limitations on location access and general insecurity caused by ongoing conflict between foreign forces, rebel groups, and the government.
Accessibility to Syrian areas hit by the quake is now made worse by heavy snow fall, strong winds, and sub-zero temperatures. In addition, years of conflict have affected vital infrastructure in both rebel and regime areas; hospitals, for instance, are already operating at limited capacity. The situation is further exacerbated by inadequate access to safe water, especially as the worst water crisis seen in 70 years was declared in 2021, and resulted in a confirmed cholera outbreak in 2022.
The combination of political restrictions, serious weather constraints, and an overall lack of safety has created an environment which severely limits the work of humanitarian organisations in Syria. Intensifying the situation is the impoverished living conditions of many displaced Syrians, in both Turkiye and Syria—temporary housing, such as unstable tents, and inadequate infrastructure in place prior to the quake has engendered a population in a constant state of flux. Particularly vulnerable are Syrian youth, said United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) spokesperson James Elder. “Children in Syria continue to face one of the most complex humanitarian situations in the world,” he told Euro-Med Monitor. “Economic crisis, continued localised hostilities after more than a decade of grinding conflict, mass displacement, [and] devastated public infrastructure.
“And most recently…an on-going cholera outbreak and heavy rain and snow”, Elder added. “And now, this earthquake. It's a humanitarian emergency on top of a humanitarian crisis. The situation has become a living hell, which is why UNICEF’s emergency response in providing water, sanitation, nutrition, and getting medical supplies to hospitals is so critical.”
Policy, Advocacy, and Communications Coordinator at the International Rescue Committee, Jennifer Higgins, said that north-western Syria was impacted the most by the earthquake, and was incredibly hard to access even before this most recent disaster. Higgins told Euro-Med Monitor that it has always been heavily reliant on humanitarian assistance. “It is an area with very high numbers of IDP camps,” she said, referring to camps for internally displaced people, “with limited water, electricity, and fragile vital infrastructures such as health, water, and electricity.”
Higgins pointed to the vast number of Syrians who had already witnessed multiple atrocities and experienced life-altering physical and emotional trauma, let alone been displaced, numerous times before the quake. “These are communities that have been living for over a decade in a perpetual conflict zone, with 2.8 million displaced [people] currently living there,” she explained. “All of this is coming just after a snow storm which has created freezing temperatures, making the ability to respond effectively to help those in need extremely difficult.”
Taking into consideration the dire situation in Syria’s north-west due to conflict that existed prior to the quake, hope of a speedy recovery can only be described as too optimistic. With an already desperate population, poor housing, bad weather, and an unstable political climate, the quake has only scarred Syrians further. “When you look into people’s faces, there are no expressions, no speech,” said Hezam, the ICRC spokesperson, “just hopelessness…unfortunately, this is the dark reality that Syrians are living through, causing them both physical and emotional pain”. Hezam stated that the Syrian people, now more than ever, have a bleak view of their future.
This disaster is a critical wake up call for all States, rebel groups, and intervening parties to put aside their international, political, and social disputes to aid the increasing list of victims currently fighting for their survival in Syria. Like many humanitarian aid organisations and human rights groups, Euro-Med Monitor calls on the global community to ensure that those affected in both Syria and Turkiye are given the support they urgently need.