Earthquake May Deepen Syria’s Divides

For millions of Syrians accustomed to the drudgery of a debilitating but frozen conflict, the earthquakes that rattled the Middle East early Monday morning triggered deep trauma. For over a decade, buildings collapsed and crushed bodies as a result of air strikes from above. This time, buildings collapsed from tremors underneath.

Early on in the Syrian conflict, Turkish search and rescue workers—accustomed to numerous earthquakes in the country— trained another group of civil defense workers who soon became internationally known as the White Helmets. Today, hundreds of White Helmets spread throughout the opposition-controlled northwest where they are allowed to work to rescue their fellow Syrians with a decade of muscle memory that could compete with any career civil defense worker in the world.

While air strikes primarily battered opposition-controlled areas, this disaster has affected the entire country. Syria’s war, however, has left the country deeply divided, with different authorities in control in different regions. How each affected area will weather this crisis in the immediate and long term reflects broader power dynamics as states receive and coordinate the most immediate direct assistance.

For its part, the Syrian government, long alienated for its part in collapsing buildings on civilians through airstrikes for over a decade, immediately made an emergency statement at the United Nations. Bassam al-Sabbagh, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations, announced that the Syrian government would accept aid from any country and coordinate assistance to all areas of control, but it would not agree to greater cross-border access from Turkey into non-government held areas. In the meantime, Syria’s allies have promised rescue teams and support, and Western donors to the response will continue to coordinate their aid through NGOs and UN agencies. President Vladimir Putin promised to send Russian teams to both Syria and Turkey. Iran, the UAE, and Iraq have all also promised to send teams and assistance. Iraqi prime minister Mohammed Shia` al-Sudani also announced that Iraq would set up an air bridge to Syria and Turkey to send urgent relief aid, including emergency medical supplies, first aid, shelter supplies, and fuel. However, this offer is unlikely to extend to opposition-controlled parts of Syria.

Millions of Syrian refugees live in southeastern Turkey. Even with recent tensions between Turkey and its NATO allies over Sweden’s accession to the alliance, the European Union sprang into action. The European Union immediately mobilized search and rescue teams for Turkey following its request to activate the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Even Kyriakos Mitsotakis, prime minister of Turkey's historic rival, Greece, pledged to make "every force available" to aid its neighbor including sending rescuers and supplies by military plane. Turkey is welcoming all assistance, but President Erdoğan has made it clear that all of this international support must be coordinated through the appropriate Turkish government agencies. Such a reminder comes just four months before a highly contentious election that will determine the fate of the long-time Turkish president’s political future. His response to this crisis could make or break that fate.

The logistical hurdles of cracked highways, closed ports and airports, and funding shortfalls impose impediments to the response everywhere. For areas controlled by recognized governments, ports and airports will reopen due to the emergency and international personnel will pour in to provide more assistance. However, few places are as isolated as opposition-controlled northwest Syria, which heavily depends on cross-border aid from Turkey and lacks an international presence of journalists, aid workers, and search and rescue teams. Over five million people live in this territory with two-thirds forcibly displaced —often multiple times—from other parts of Syria. Today, thousands of them are homeless yet again after entire towns have been wiped out. The town of Jindires near Afrin has been one of the most heavily affected. A former local council member lamented that four families displaced from his hometown in Hama had been killed. Harem, a town that has become a city of tents over the course of conflict, has also been leveled. Donor governments and aid agencies have launched into action but the situation is different this time.

The aid response to the crisis in northern Syria will face many challenges in the coming days and months. While the Turkish military has stated that it will assist with the response in northwest Syria, the prioritization of needs across the region and the heightened role of Turkey in aid efforts—considering its own need for support—could further impede aid and recovery efforts. In addition, aid workers coordinating the Syria cross-border response in Turkey are now living in shelters and in their cars themselves—either rendered homeless by damaged buildings or unable to return to offices and apartments until the danger of aftershocks has passed. And whereas Turkish hospitals once welcomed some of those most severely injured from Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes, today, hospital hallways are filled with casualties from the Turkish side of the border.

The Bab al-Hawa hospital along Syria’s northwestern border with Turkey has become the main triage site due to its proximity to the most affected towns and cities, but it is struggling to cope with the number of casualties. And while the Bab al-Hawa crossing that Russia debates closing at the UN Security Council every six months remains open, the roads around it are destroyed, making a timely response to a crushing tragedy even more remote. In light of the lack of access through main roads in Turkey, humanitarian organizations have called for more roads to be open to traffic for relief efforts and even an air bridge between northern Syria and Turkey. Due to logistical and political constraints, it is unclear if this will come to pass. When asked about the possibility of opening an additional crossing, Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the secretary-general said, “At this point, we have one border crossing. We will try to get as much aid as possible through that one crossing. I think we need to take things one step at a time to see exactly where the needs are and what can be met through cross-line, what can be met through cross-border.” For millions, that reassessment might be too late. In the meantime, NGOs must suffice with what is available on the local market and in warehouses.

On the Syrian side of the border, other challenges persist. With the heightened security situation, geopolitical dynamics with Turkey and the Syrian regime, and Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al Qaeda affiliate, controlling much of the area, international aid workers, rescue teams, and journalists are less likely to reach northwest Syria. Understanding the need to highlight the plight of the area, even the Syrian Salvation Government, the civilian wing of HTS, immediately issued a public call for foreign journalists to cover the disaster. At the same time, the earthquake response reminded the world of how a humanitarian imperative and matters of national security can become one in the same. As medical workers and NGO staff issued pleas for surgical kits, fuel, generators, winter clothing, and shelter items, reports surfaced that a mutiny took place at a military police prison in Rajo, near the Turkish border in northwestern Syria, allowing 20 alleged members of the Islamic State group to escape. The prison, which is controlled by Turkish-backed armed factions, holds approximately 2,000 inmates, including around 1,300 suspected members of the Islamic State group and fighters from Kurdish-led forces.

Each area’s ability to respond to the immediate disaster and its aftermath is a larger struggle for international attention and power. But this crisis has also highlighted the need for greater interest and consistent access for personnel and aid in northern Syria to better manage the expected and unexpected, regardless of power dynamics and dwindling international attention.

Natasha Hall is a senior fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.