On Monday, 6 February 2023 at 13:25 local time, a disrupting earthquake of 7.8 magnitude devastated the regions of central and eastern Turkey and the Syrian border with twenty seismic shocks. This has been, in the words of Erdogan, the worst humanitarian and natural catastrophe since 1939, when another quake struck Turkey, resulting in 33,000 dead and 100,000 wounded people.
This time, the tragedy spikes higher numbers: 34,000 dead have been recorded so far. Half a million people are in need according to the WFP, with 141,000 rescue personnel digging into the rubble, especially the White Helmets, who are working in ten provinces. The WHO is warning of a second disaster as cold winter sets in. The homeless and internally displaced people (IDP) are almost uncountable, especially in Syria where the aftermath of the earthquake has added to the IDPs of the civil war. Thus, the data are extremely alarming.
What will happen next is unlikely to be foreseen, both in Turkey where Erdogan will face the presidential election in June (and much will depend on his handling of this crisis), and in Syria, which is internationally isolated and supported only by Russia and Iran.
The scenario is taking a bad turn. The main international organizations and the UN, EU, and USA are releasing substantial humanitarian aid to Turkey, but are almost leaving Syrians to their destiny, as the country is under severe sanctions.
Syria, in effect, is fundamentally divided into three regions: the northwest, which is occupied by the rebels; the northeast, which is under the influence of Turkey; and the rest of the country, which is pro-Assad regime. Syria is coming from a history of a twelve-year civil war against its sanguinary president that succeeded in exterminating the ISIS forces in its womb, although some terrorist groups still remain. The country is in a deadlock that is now worsened by the earthquake. The external aid that has been provided is merely symbolic and hard to reach civilians. The points of entry for humanitarian assistance are being debated (Balaban or Damascus), and the country is internationally more and more alone, having been kicked out of the Arab League in 2011. In addition, Syrian territory withstands terrible fighting between international influencers and allies, such as the Israeli attacks against Iranian bases on its lands.
Therefore, Syria is a nation torn apart by both internal and external conflict. It is not exempt from terrorist attacks, and is fighting for supremacy by aiming to share the area of influence in the Arab world. A large array of civilians remained trapped in a no escape situation and find it hard to survive, having to face bureaucratic and political blocks to the arrival of humanitarian aid. The world keeps on watching, powerless, at the development of a humanitarian crisis with no precedent, in which political decisions get the upper hand and have been given priority over humanitarian needs and the protection of human rights. Syria is relying solely on Putin’s Russia, whose forces are at their lowest and were recently condemned by the international community as the perpetrator of crimes against humanity for the Ukraine conflict. Thus, in the Near and the Far East, a degeneration of superpowers is crystal clear. Syria, entangled in a series of sanctions that put at risk the possibility of profitable and optimistic diplomatic relations, is plagued by the catastrophe of war, natural calamities, and economic dependence.
Thus, here we are. When we add unforeseeable factors to the ongoing social and political elements, such as an earthquake of long range or other environmental disasters, these authoritarian regimes show their vulnerability and lack of capacity to raise themselves up from the bottom. President Assad launched a first call for help to the UN only on 13 February, leaving the population to be exterminated and enmeshed in the shadow of a complex intertwining of difficult and ambiguous relations in the international panorama.
Paola Canale is a writer/journalist covering International Relations and Human Rights.