by Dr Hazem Rihawi, Senior Programs Manager, American Relief Coalition for Syria (ARCS) / Co-Chair of InterAction’s Syria Working Group, Washington DC
On February 6th, 2023, at 4:17 am, a colossal earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter near Gaziantep, struck the Southern region of Türkiye and Northwest Syria. This seismic event was swiftly followed by another significant earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.6, on the same day at 1:24 pm. The impact of these unprecedented earthquakes, coupled with subsequent powerful tremors and countless aftershocks, has been nothing short of devastating. In Türkiye alone, over half a million structures have suffered damage, while in Northwest Syria, more than 10,600 buildings have been either partially or totally destroyed. The human toll has been staggering, with a reported 50,500 fatalities in Türkiye, 4,540 in Northwest Syria and an additional 1,414 lives lost in government-controlled areas in Syria.
Disastrous conditions for a population in need
The conditions in Northwest Syria created a perfect recipe for a disastrous situation, as nowhere else in the world could these earthquakes have struck a more fatigued and underserved population. In that particular region, approximately 4.5 million Syrians resided, with 4.1 million individuals requiring humanitarian assistance and over 1.8 million being internally displaced. Compounding these difficulties, the humanitarian response in Northwest Syria, after 12 years of protracted crisis, was encountering donor fatigue, resulting in an anticipated 30% reduction in funding for the year 2023. This expected loss of funding has led to a discernible contraction of humanitarian operations by UN agencies and the NGO community, primarily impacting local Syrian non-governmental organizations (SNGOs). Moreover, the situation was further complicated by the fact that the United Nations (UN) agencies faced additional challenges as they were granted authorization by the UN Security Council to carry out life-saving cross-border humanitarian operations solely through a single crossing, Bab Al-Hawa, for only six months at a time, due to restrictions imposed by two veto-wielding countries, Russia and China.
Türkiye and Syria – different realities
As the dawn of February 6th broke in Türkiye and Northwest Syria, revealing scenes of mind-blowing destruction, the stark contrast between the search and rescue operations in these two regions was truly remarkable. In Türkiye, a coordinated governmental response, complemented by a substantial international effort, unfolded with the arrival of numerous teams from around the globe. Their mission was clear: to save as many lives as possible during the critical first hours and days when the survival of civilians trapped under the rubble hung in precarious balance.
Meanwhile, in Northwest Syria, a different reality played out. With limited resources and heavy equipment, only the Syrians themselves, alongside dedicated Syrian NGOs, tirelessly worked to dig through the wreckage. Their years of experience in saving lives amid the rubble, a result of enduring barrel bombardments and ongoing conflict, allowed them to navigate the treacherous conditions and deliver vital humanitarian assistance to the survivors. In the meantime, the UN, UN agencies and the international community were completely paralyzed at the border and could not figure out a way to overcome political complexities to save lives. As a result, international systems designed to respond to earthquakes did not mobilize within the first critical three days of the earthquake to conduct search and rescue activities in Northwest Syria, nor did they scale up the humanitarian response to the levels required by the increased needs in the area.
NGOs – resilient frontliners
In reality, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), specifically Syrian and Syrian diaspora NGOs, emerged as the resilient frontliners, providing essential aid and support to affected populations in a hostile and complex environment. Despite facing significant challenges, these organizations demonstrated remarkable resilience, resourcefulness, and unwavering dedication.