By Reva Dhingra
The 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the Turkish-Syrian border on Sunday evening has leveled buildings and devastated communities across southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria. While a complete picture of casualties will not be available for weeks, the death toll has already soared past 11,000. Every hour brings news of hundreds of more deaths, even as rescuers work tirelessly to pull survivors from the rubble.
In rebel-controlled northwestern Syria, the earthquake has wrought disaster on communities already devastated by over a decade of civil war. More than 4.1 million of the area’s 4.5 million population are dependent on humanitarian aid. Over 2.8 million people were already internally displaced from other parts of Syria — 1.7 million of whom were in some ways spared the worst of the earthquake by living in camps in situations of abject deprivation. Buildings across northwestern Syria were severely damaged before the earthquake by years of shelling by the Syrian government, and survivors of building collapses are being displaced to city streets and already overstretched IDP camps in freezing temperatures. Since early 2015, the border between Turkey and northwestern Syria has been effectively closed to refugees, meaning that communities displaced by the earthquake have nowhere to go.
Immediate international assistance for northern Syria is crucial, in both rebel-held and government-controlled areas hit by the earthquake such as Aleppo. Yet getting aid to northwestern Syria in particular has been stymied by political dynamics that have wasted crucial time needed to rescue survivors. Russian veto power at the U.N. Security Council has choked the flow of humanitarian aid to northwestern Syria to a single crossing, the roads to which have been heavily damaged by the earthquake and rendered impassable. While other crossings exist, they have yet to be opened three days after the earthquake. And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s well-documented history of aid diversion has made Western governments wary of bending to pressure from the Syrian government to direct aid for northern Syria through regime authorities instead. Indeed, one of the first statements made by the Syrian government following the earthquake was to demand that all aid for the earthquake response be channeled through government authorities, even aid intended for areas outside of its control. The Syrian government has received support from countries including Russia, Iran, and a host of Arab countries who have sought normalization with the regime, though there is little evidence that this will reach rebel areas soon enough for rescues.
Instead, local humanitarian organizations already on the ground in northwestern Syria have effectively had to fend for themselves. Organizations such as the White Helmets, long accustomed to rescuing victims of bombings, have become largely responsible for rescue efforts, along with family members and friends of those trapped. Without the equipment or vehicles necessary for rescues, however, countless individuals are being lost who might’ve been saved with earlier interventions.
Across the globe, being in a conflict zone creates both heightened exposure to natural disasters and compounds their effects, particularly for already-displaced populations. A 2019 report by the Overseas Development Institute highlighted how communities displaced by violence in Colombia subsequently fell victim to deadly landslides after settling in a highly landslide-prone area. In the aftermath of the disaster, many survivors remained in the area, unable to return to their communities of origin.
In the case of earthquakes, it is impossible to predict exactly when they will strike again. Sunday’s earthquake was the strongest to hit the Turkish-Syrian border in almost a century. But the deep devastation has underscored that residents and IDPs in northwestern Syria will likely remain in damaged buildings and in dire humanitarian conditions because they simply have nowhere else to go. This situation requires concerted international efforts to facilitate assistance for search and rescue efforts and humanitarian aid as well as progress beyond the current disastrous status quo.
Immediately opening additional crossing points for international assistance to reach northwestern Syria is the first necessary step. Analysts have called for two crossings at the Turkish-northwestern Syria border to be opened as well as crossings from Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syria. With every minute these borders remain closed, hope diminishes for rescuing earthquake victims alive. Other analysts have called for exploring other aid delivery options, including potentially through regime areas even given the risks of aid co-optation.
Second, while facilitating expeditious search and rescue efforts, these expanded crossings must be used to coordinate shelter and assistance for newly displaced communities. Over 90% of Syrians in the northwest are reliant on humanitarian aid. A single crossing and the paltry level of aid that existed prior to the earthquake are insufficient to meet the population’s humanitarian needs. A widescale emergency shelter construction effort will be crucial in the coming weeks and months, particularly given freezing temperatures across the region.
Third, a concerted international funding effort needs to be made for earthquake survivors in both rebel-held and regime-held areas. Before the earthquake, Syrians were suffering the effects of economic implosion, regime bombardment, sanctions, and the infrastructural destruction of over a decade of war. In 2022, the response plan for Syria was less than 50% funded, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has diverted global attention from other conflicts. Yet in government areas, international support for earthquake survivors will almost certainly be co-opted by the Syrian government, as it has done for a decade of relief efforts. And while the United States and other donors fund humanitarian relief in rebel-held northwestern Syria, analysts have pointed out that the approach was deeply unsustainable even prior to the earthquake disrupting the single humanitarian crossing. Navigating this environment while rapidly assisting earthquake survivors will require a determined diplomatic effort and political will that appear largely absent for the moment.
Finally, newly-homeless earthquake victims in northwestern Syria should be allowed to seek shelter in Turkey. Southeastern Turkey is suffering the devastating effects of the earthquake, with roads destroyed and countless buildings collapsed. But given access challenges to northwestern Syria and the ongoing Syrian regime shelling of earthquake-affected rebel areas, the border area would more easily serve as a hub for mobile and camp shelters and assistance for earthquake survivors of both countries. The Turkish public holds largely negative opinions toward the approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and politicians across the spectrum have argued that refugees should be repatriated. Erdoğan is also politically navigating the earthquake response within Turkey, and admitting refugees even temporarily would be unpopular. As such, this option may be politically infeasible. Yet the current situation necessitates a dramatic response and the option of safety for communities that have now suffered the devastating effects of both war and natural disaster. While the Turkish government is deeply stretched by the earthquake response in Turkey, it is also responsible to ensure international assistance gets to Syrian communities given its extensive military presence in northern Syria. At a minimum, if refugees are not being allowed into Turkey, Ankara needs to expand access to areas effectively controlled by the Turkish army in the north for displaced communities and support shelter coordination. As the international community responds, the needs of Syrians trapped in northwestern Syria as well as displaced in Turkey cannot be forgotten.