Feb. 6 The Guardian (U.K.)
Though the full scale of the catastrophe is still emerging, the earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of Monday morning is already known to have been one of the most deadly in decades, claiming thousands of lives. A 7.8-magnitude temblor is extremely powerful, and all the more damaging when it strikes at a relatively shallow depth and is followed by a second major shock. But even when disasters are natural in origin, their impact is shaped as much by human actions before and in the aftermath as they are by their inherent force. Poor and otherwise vulnerable people are almost always disproportionately affected.
Photos and footage testify to the terrible destruction wreaked on the Turkish side of the border, where the highest death toll is currently recorded. Bitter winter storms have worsened the plight of survivors. Among the victims will be some of the 4 million Syrians who fled the war; many have been living in southern Turkey, often in overcrowded conditions. More remain in northern Syria, where war has pulverized homes and essential infrastructure, and traumatized the population. Millions have taken refuge in rebel-held Idlib, where most of them are dependent on aid. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic and a cholera outbreak, which a threadbare health service in Idlib — deliberately targeted by airstrikes — is struggling to handle. Fuel shortages and skyrocketing prices have deepened the misery. Now those battling with freezing temperatures and inadequate food have been left without even temporary homes. This is, as the International Rescue Committee has warned, “a crisis within multiple crises.”
Turkey faces an immense challenge. It does so with trained and experienced rescue workers, due to its history of quakes, and support from 45 countries. Both rescue and relief efforts will prove far harder on the Syrian side of the border. Providing aid is likely to be diplomatically as well as logistically challenging. Its White Helmets have had to become expert at rescuing people from rubble. But they are in desperate need of search-and-rescue equipment, spare parts and fuel. The organization also urged the international community to pressure Bashar al-Assad’s regime — and Moscow, which supports it — to hold back on airstrikes. Though conflict in Syria has faded from international attention, the complex regional struggle — not only of the regime against rebels, but of Turkey against Kurdish groups and Israel against Iranian-linked targets — continues to claim lives in the north and there are fears it could escalate.
The mandate for Syria cross-border aid via Turkey has, thankfully, been extended until July. But, at present, Damascus allows it to enter via only one border point. It would be unconscionable if the others remained closed at this time of desperate need. Though the regime bears the primary responsibility for the suffering of its people, others must step up. Ankara’s attempts to accelerate the return of Syrian refugees would exacerbate the situation were they to continue. The humanitarian response plan for Syria was already severely underfunded; less than half of the $4bn needed has been provided — the lowest level since the crisis began. The need is all the greater now. Ensuring that aid reaches the most vulnerable will be difficult in the extreme. But every effort must be made. It would be not only tragic but shameful if the international community’s failures were to compound this disaster.