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A Mosaic of Crises: How the February Earthquakes Impacted Syria

Updated: Aug 13, 2023

The two earthquakes that rocked southern Turkey and northwest Syria on February 6, 2023, at 4:17 AM and 1:24 PM local time were far from a normal natural disaster—this was a once-in-a-generation catastrophe.

Early reports of 1,500 people killed in both countries were soon dwarfed by casualty counts that reached into the tens of thousands. The death toll currently stands at an estimated 59,259, with 50,249 people confirmed dead in Turkey and another 8,476 in Syria. However, this is almost certainly an undercount while the slow, under-resourced efforts to clear away rubble inevitably discover more bodies. Nearly three hundred people are still reported missing in Turkey alone and entire families remain unaccounted for in Syria.

Professor Shinji Toda, a seismologist at Tohoku University, declared it “the worst inland shallow earthquake,” recorded thus far in the 21st century. Thousands of buildings were damaged or toppled and millions of people in both countries were rendered homeless, the affected area as wide as 350,000 square kilometres or 140,000 square miles. That is larger in diameter than some sovereign nation-states, including Syria.

Activists, journalists, and other horrified locals immediately started posting pictures of destroyed buildings and videos where injured people can be heard screaming from under the rubble, which quickly went viral. Fared Al-Mahlool, an Idlib-based photojournalist, started documenting his neighbourhood’s devastation shortly after the first earthquake and provided real-time updates on Twitter as the day went on. His posts frequently mention how survivors were tormented by incessant aftershocks.

The first one, a magnitude 7.8 to 8.0 earthquake with its epicentre just northwest of Gaziantep, was the strongest one instrumentally recorded in the region since 1939. The second one, a 7.5 to 7.7 earthquake in the Kahramanmaras province, interrupted rescue workers and other first responders who had struggled throughout the day, while more than forty aftershocks as strong as 5.0 to 6.7 compounded the damage and trauma.

Turkey has a long history of earthquakes due to the Anatolian peninsula being located at a crossroads of tectonic plates. Examples range from the previous 7.8 record-holder in Ezrincan on December 27, 1939, as well as a 7.6 quake in Izmir that killed thousands and was followed by a 7.2 tremor months later in Duzce, both in 1999. There was also a magnitude 6.2 earthquake one night in November 2022 that caused property damage from Ankara to Istanbul, but only two people were recorded to have lost their lives to that event.

This being Turkey’s worst natural disaster since 1939, as well as Syria’s worst one on record, makes it one of the region’s deadliest and most destructive in living memory. A tremor on this scale is exceedingly rare, the first one recorded anywhere in the world since August 2021. The ground could be felt shaking as far away as Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Cyprus, Iraq, Armenia, and Romania.

Civil defense organizations in Syria have more than a decade’s experience excavating people—alive, dead, and everywhere in between—out of destroyed buildings in a war waged specifically and illegally against civilians. But none of that prepared them for the unprecedented crisis they faced with the earthquakes. Not just one city here and one town there bombed by artillery and airstrikes, but almost everywhere all at once needed immediate attention.

Videos of survivors crying out for help while buried under debris, anguished pleas to God and everyone else, bear a hideous resemblance to the innumerable online clips of wounded Syrians trapped underneath similar piles of building material. The main differences between this and other mass-casualty events in Syria were its origin—a unique and arguably even worse exception compared to normal, man-made tragedies—and its scale. The White Helmets and similar entities were never equipped for simultaneous devastation across entire regions but still gave their best possible effort to help whoever they could.

Deaths, injuries, and property damage were reported in territory held by the Assad regime, the Syrian Salvation Government controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and allied groups, as well as the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army. The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces were largely spared from the earthquakes, located a safe distance away in the country’s northeastern corner. The SDF publicly promised to provide aid and refuge for displaced people—although this was marred by their violent response to concurrent protests in Raqqa. It was also hampered by the SNA, the Assad regime, and HTS refusing to allow convoys from SDF-held territory into their own. An HTS commander told Syrians for Truth and Justice “[we] turned back aid sent through regime-held areas to maintain pressure on the UN to open the border crossings… and deploy aid through crossings with Turkey,” despite the time-sensitive nature of disaster relief.

Ultimately, the harm caused by SNA and HTS misconduct pales in comparison to that of the Assad regime and the Turkish government refusing to open border crossings. Both governments face widespread accusations of “politicizing” the delivery of emergency support to people suffering from crush injuries or hypothermia from several days and nights without shelter from the winter cold.

Turkey closed all border crossings into Syria while it grappled with the deadliest natural disaster in the Republic’s history. The government’s slow response and failure to either prepare ahead of time or coordinate with local agencies sparked an unprecedented wave of public anger at Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which nearly cost him reelection months later. The Turkish president and his supporters claimed it was “not possible to be ready for a disaster like this.” The apocalyptic scale of this disaster may have been unimaginable, but Erdogan’s ascension to power was a direct result of his predecessor’s mishandling of the 1999 Izmir earthquake response. Nearly half of the Turkish electorate was angered enough by these broken promises and other controversial developments on Erdogan’s watch to vote for his opponent in last May’s election.

The desperation and despair caused by the earthquakes also inflamed xenophobic hatred and violence. Around 3.6 million Syrian refugees, more than half of 6.8 million men, women, and children forced to flee their country since 2011, currently reside in Turkey. They are widely scapegoated for the current economic downturn and associated with every ugly stereotype that racists invoke to justify their bigotry. Far-right demagogues have spent years dishonestly claiming the government gives everything to refugees while neglecting the increasing number of Turkish citizens struggling to make ends meet. This hateful rhetoric has been escalating for years, sometimes to the point of inciting mob violence and other hate crimes against Syrians, including multiple murders. This preexisting xenophobia resulted in refugees being demonized as thieves and vandals after the earthquakes, as well as being subject to discrimination by first responders and others engaging in relief efforts.

Syrians residing in Turkey have reported being ignored by rescue workers while trapped under rubble, excluded by paramedics while injured, and being evicted from temporary shelters to make room for Turks or just denied entry from the start. The government’s slow, unprepared response combined with dehumanizing anti-refugee rhetoric inevitably resulted in Syrians being last in line for aid when it finally arrived overdue. Not even those who earned Turkish citizenship were spared from anti-Syrian discrimination—even so much as speaking Arabic or having a Syrian city listed as their birthplace on an identity card can prompt exclusion or violence. All these factors contributed to 6,600 Syrians on the Turkish side of the border losing their lives.

The Assad regime meanwhile saw the earthquakes as an opportunity to regain geopolitical clout, launder its propaganda into media coverage of the disaster, and maximize its opponents’ suffering. Many of the worst-hit parts of Syria had previously been damaged by years of indiscriminate bombing intended to maximize civilian loss of life and destruction of infrastructure, forcing armed opposition to surrender by rendering the area uninhabitable. Buildings that were spared from destruction for twelve years by sheer luck, as well as damaged structures that were somehow still standing, collapsed in part or whole. Even world-famous castles, centuries-old stone giants such as Krak des Chevaliers and the Aleppo Citadel, sustained damage from the earthquakes.

One might have assumed that the Syrian government’s top priority in that situation would be to transport aid to those who need it, perhaps allow non-governmental organizations to send teams across the country to aid local rescue and recovery efforts. That is what a reasonable, responsible state would do—but that is not what the Assad regime did. Their response to the UN, NGOs, and generous individuals offering help was denial unless sanctions against the regime and high-ranking officials were lifted.

There is a common misconception that sanctions enacted in response to the Syrian government’s habitual crimes against humanity prevented life-saving aid from reaching displaced people and others in need. But there were exceptions in place for humanitarian assistance—it was the Assad regime who closed border crossings and refused to allow help from the outside world for the better part of two weeks. That was long enough for people who could have been saved to die under debris or out in the cold.

Put into perspective, when most countries would beg for international assistance because they lacked the resources necessary to provide emergency services for people impacted by an unprecedented natural disaster, the Assad regime saw an opportunity for diplomatic extortion. This was not a starved-by-sanctions scenario but a hostage situation, where the regime tried to use its own citizenry’s suffering as leverage over the international community. Lifting sanctions would have allowed regime elites to move their ill-gotten funds out of the country and dole out lucrative enterprises as a reward for loyalty—a patronage network that includes some of the world’s most heinous and prolific war criminals.

The Assad regime went out of its way to prove this point in the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes. Residential neighbourhoods in the opposition-held territory were shelled on the afternoon of February 6, just hours after the second catastrophic tremor. Artillery and rocket barrages occurred at random throughout the following days and weeks, killing and maiming civilians while endangering rescue workers. Their constant fear of an extremely strong, unpredictable aftershock was compounded by the similar dread of wondering when an explosive projectile might randomly land near or right on top of them.

Northwest Syria was already experiencing a humanitarian crisis prior to the February earthquakes. Opposition-held Idlib is home to more than three million people, two-thirds of whom fled from other parts of the country when Iranian and Russian military intervention enabled the Assad regime to recapture swaths of lost territory. Camps for internally displaced people have swollen to the size of small cities where meeting one’s basic needs is a daily challenge. Tents frequently catch on fire while people try to stay warm during the winter, causing injuries and deaths—overlooked civilian casualties of the conflict in Syria.

Living conditions across the country have plummeted, not only due to war but also economic collapse. Infrastructure that randomly avoided destruction has been deteriorating for years, making it harder than ever to provide Syrians with food, clean water, electricity, and medicine. COVID-19 found a uniquely vulnerable population when it spread to Syria, a situation exacerbated by a cholera outbreak that started last year when contaminated water was used to irrigate crops.

All of this put together, along with the earthquakes, have resulted in a mosaic of different crises making life harder for Syrians just trying to survive each day.


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