Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria deepen humanitarian struggles in the region

Editor’s note, February 6, 5 pm ET: This is a developing story and will be updated as new information becomes available

More than 5,000 people were killed after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of February 6. A magnitude 7.5 earthquake struck that afternoon, with several strong aftershocks, adding to the devastation in an already devastated region. Years of conflict and economic and humanitarian crisis.

Syria’s more than 10-year civil war has destabilized the region for years, which still suffers from an ongoing — and chronically pointless — humanitarian emergency.. Millions have been displaced within Syria or fled to Turkey, which is struggling with high inflation and a deepening economic crisis. The earthquake caused extensive damage and destruction in some of the most vulnerable areas of the region.

Thousands are injured, and the death toll continues to rise as search and rescue operations continue in difficult, cold and stormy conditions. Freezing, wintry conditions are hampering some recovery efforts, as the window to find survivors narrows.

The 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck near Nurdagi in southern Turkey at around 4:17 a.m. local time on February 6, according to the United States Geological Survey. Southeast Turkey and northern Syria were among the hardest hit areas, but the quake was felt far away. Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and Israel. Another earthquake, this one about 7.5-magnitude, struck around 1 a.m. local time.

The disaster has hit an already fragile region, battered by decades of civil war and economic, humanitarian and public health crises in Syria. Turkey is facing a deep economic crisis, collapsing inflation and hyperinflation that hit nearly 80 percent last year, the highest in nearly 25 years. A survey in late summer found that nearly 70 percent of those surveyed in Turkey had problems affording food. Over the years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pursued a heterogeneous economic policy, including keeping interest rates low, leaving the Turkish central bank with few tools to cool the overheated economy. The economic cost of the earthquake is not entirely clear, but the United States Geological Survey estimates that it could be about 2 percent of Turkey’s GDP.

This part of Turkey – including Gaziantep, which is close to the earthquake – also hosts a large population of Syrian refugees. Turkey’s economic crisis has helped fuel a backlash against the country’s estimated 3.6 million Syrian refugees, who already face poverty, discrimination, increased violence and the risk of deportation.

Inside Syria, the civil war continues and has created one of the world’s most enduring – and persistently pointless – humanitarian crises. The earthquake caused widespread devastation in northern Syria, including the last rebel-held holdout in the northwest where an estimated few hundred people were killed. About 4 million people there, many of whom have been repeatedly displaced from other parts of Syria, depend on international humanitarian assistance. Much of that food and medical aid comes from a border crossing from Turkey, which the United Nations says is closed due to earthquake damage.

Humanitarian groups in the region fear the earthquake will deepen the humanitarian emergency. “Our colleagues in northwest Syria reported that the situation was dire, with the area affected by the earthquake being the center of more than 1.8 million displaced Syrians who were already suffering after a decade of conflict in Syria,” said Mercy Corps Country Director Kieran Barnes. In a statement, the director of Syria. “Already, 4.1 million people are hungry in northwest Syria and food insecurity has worsened since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, with essential food prices rising and staple food shortages in some communities.”

About 2.1 million people in northwest Syria are also at risk of a deadly cholera outbreak. The outbreak began in northeastern Syria, blamed on contaminated water from the Euphrates River — which people relied on, in part, because years of war destroyed water infrastructure. About 47 percent of Syria’s people rely on unsafe drinking water, a potentially greater risk after the earthquake caused extensive infrastructure damage. In northwestern Syria, in particular, the outbreak has strained an already stretched and under-resourced health system, which must now find ways to treat the earthquake-wounded.

“Many in northwestern Syria have been displaced up to 20 times, and health facilities were stretched beyond capacity, and even before this tragedy many did not have access to the health care they desperately needed,” Tanya Evans, Syria country director for the International Rescue Committee, said in a statement.

Ground fighting still erupts in northwestern Syria, as do heavy airstrikes, usually by pro-government forces, that hit northwestern Syria. But over the years, the Syrian government, aided by Russia, has destroyed cities in northern Syria, such as Idlib and Aleppo, and surrounding areas, all of which have weakened and damaged buildings and infrastructure. Several thousand are already living in makeshift shelters, camps or tents. A White Helmets representative told the Washington Post, “What makes it even more dangerous is that the bombing has affected buildings, almost destroying infrastructure.”

The devastation extends beyond northwestern Syria as the entire country has been overwhelmed by years of war and destruction. International sanctions against Syria are also deepening Syria’s economic crisis. The country faces record and widespread poverty and food shortages. About 90 percent of Syrians live below the poverty line and about 75 percent of Syrians struggle to meet their basic needs. The war in Ukraine, which has driven up global food and fuel prices, has also put pressure on the Syrian economy.

Even in Syria, where pro- and opposition groups control different areas, there is a risk of uneven aid access and support in the wake of the earthquake. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has few international friends, and although partners such as Russia and Iran have offered support, it is likely that most Western governments will support the United Nations and other humanitarian agencies rather than providing direct support. John Kirby, chief coordinator of the National Security Council, said in a call Monday that the United States is working “with humanitarian aid agencies that we regularly partner with to support their efforts on the ground and in Syria.” But, again, the primary aid route to Syria is now closed.

And across the region, the crisis remains acute, as agencies and officials rush to find survivors amid the rubble as temperatures drop. The White House has described the situation as “fluid” and many humanitarian agencies are trying to fully assess the situation. The Guardian also reported that there are questions about the response capacity of many aid agencies in the region, as many of them are located in places like earthquake-ravaged Gaziantep.

The earthquake added to disaster after disaster in Syria and Turkey. It can exacerbate what already exists – displacement, food, economic and health – while creating new, unexpected ones.