Feb 6, 2023 - World

For Syrians, quake is "another devastating blow"

Residents retrieve an injured man from the rubble of a collapsed building following an earthquake in the town of Jandaris, Syria, on February 6, 2023.

Residents retrieve an injured man from the rubble of a collapsed building following an earthquake in the town of Jandaris, in the countryside of Syria's northwestern city of Afrin in the rebel-held part of Aleppo province, on Feb. 6, 2023. Photo: Rami al Sayed/AFP via Getty Images

The massive earthquake that killed thousands in Syria and Turkey on Monday is a "crisis within multiple crises" for a population already reeling from nearly 12 years of war, humanitarian groups are warning.

The big picture: The 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck as people slept in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria — areas hosting millions of Syrians displaced by years of conflict.

  • A second strong quake hit the same area later in the day.
  • The death toll, which was at more than 3,400 late Monday local time, is expected to rise as rescue workers search through the debris left by toppled buildings.

For many Syrians living in both countries, Monday's quake will likely mean they will be displaced yet again. The International Rescue Committee noted in a statement that many people in northwest Syria have been displaced as many as 20 times.

  • That reality compounds the already dire multi-prong humanitarian and economic crises millions of Syrians are facing in the region. More than 4 million people — the majority of whom are women and children — in northwest Syria depend on some kind of humanitarian assistance, according to OCHA. More than half of the 4.6 million people living in northwest Syria are those who have been displaced.
  • An ongoing cholera outbreak has killed at least 100 people since late August, the World Health Organization reported at the end of January. At the same time, the region has experienced a harsh winter, which is expected to make rescue and relief operations even harder.
  • "It was like the apocalypse," Abdul Salam al-Mahmoud, a Syrian in the northern town of Atareb, told Reuters. "It's bitterly cold and there's heavy rain, and people need saving."

Hospitals in some of the hardest-hit areas of Syria were overwhelmed as they worked to treat those injured by the earthquake, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said in a statement.

  • “We’ve got quite a lot of hospitals that had been previously hit in the war. So they had already the foundations, everything had already been weakened,” Shajul Islam, a British doctor, told AP.
  • The devastation is especially acute for children living in Syria, where conflict, the worsening economic situation and food insecurity have left millions of kids to contend with "one of the most complex humanitarian situations in the world," the UN children's agency (UNICEF) said on Monday. Many already struggling with the "physical and psychological scars of war" will now have to deal with yet another traumatic crisis.

What they're saying: “This earthquake is yet another devastating blow to so many vulnerable populations already struggling after years of conflict," said Tanya Evans, the Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee.

  • "With health facilities strained beyond capacity, even before this tragedy many did not have access to the health care they critically need," she said.
  • Carsten Hansen, the Middle East regional director for the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), said Monday's disaster "will worsen the suffering of Syrians already struggling with a severe humanitarian crisis."
  • "In the midst of a winter storm and an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis, it is vital that Syrians are not left to face the aftermath on their own," Hasen said.
  • “The needs are very high in northwestern Syria as this [earthquake] adds a dramatic layer for vulnerable [people] who are still struggling after many years of war,” said Sebastien Gay, the head of MSF's mission in Syria. “The massive consequences of this disaster will require a [scaled up] international aid effort.” 

State of play: Before Monday's quakes, less than 50% of the $4 billion needed for the UN-led Syria Humanitarian Response Plan (2022-2023) was funded.

  • "We count on the international community to help the thousands of families hit by this disaster, many of whom were already in dire need of humanitarian aid in areas where access is a challenge," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement.
  • Several organizations, including IRC, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and the Islamic Relief, have launched emergency appeals to help with relief efforts.

Meanwhile, countries worldwide have pledged immediate assistance, including the U.S. and U.K., as well as NATO and several European Union member nations.

  • President Biden said he has authorized an immediate response. "Our teams are deploying quickly to begin to support Turkish search and rescue efforts and address the needs of those injured and displaced by the earthquake," he added.

Other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, China, and India, have also said they would send monetary aid or search teams to help.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke to his Syrian counterpart and Russia's close ally, Bashar al-Assad, following the earthquake and offered to provide "necessary assistance in relieving the consequences of this disaster," the Kremlin said in a statement. Russia also expressed its readiness to immediately provide assistance to Turkey.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Twitter that Kyiv was "ready to provide "the necessary assistance to overcome the consequences of the disaster."
  • Iran said it was ready to provide "any kind of assistance," according to state media agency IRNA.
  • Israel is sending an Israeli military search and rescue to Turkey, Axios Barak Ravid reports. Israel will provide aid to Syria through third parties, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Israeli officials said the Russians asked for tents, blankets and medicine.
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