Turkey-Syria earthquake and selective humanitarianism

Turkey-Syria earthquake and selective humanitarianism
International response to the Turkey-Syria earthquake has disproportionately overlooked Syrian suffering and people's need for aide due to the Assad regime’s hold over affected areas. This defies the principles of humanitarianism, argues Emad Moussa.
7 min read
08 Feb, 2023
Collapsed building following an earthquake on 7 February, 2023 in Afrin, Cinderes, Syria. [GETTY]

With a 7.8 magnitude, the Turkey-Syria earthquake caused multi-storey buildings to crumble like a stack of cards and roads spilt up as if they were made of butter.

Bodies of the victims protruding from underneath the collapsed structures painted a horrifying picture of their last moments as they tried to save themselves and their families. Hundreds are still unaccounted for. And as the dust is yet to settle, the disaster is potentially on track to become one of the most devastating in decades.

The last time Turkey experienced an earthquake of a serious scale was in 1999. It hit the country’s Kocaeli Province with a catastrophic magnitude of 7.4, claiming the lives of over 17,000 people.

''The relief complexities in northern Syria also came to test the limits of human empathy. It came to prove that, indeed, some disasters are more worthy of humanitarian intervention and media coverage than others. Not by virtue of their gravity or severity, but by the assumed ethnic, political, or social value of the humans experiencing them.''

Syria’s last devastating earthquake, known as the Aleppo earthquake, took place in 1138. It is now deemed the third deadliest earthquake in recorded history – after China’s 1556 Shaanxi and 1976 Tangshan earthquakes - and is believed to have killed around 230,000 people.

But today’s Syria is more complicated geopolitically speaking. The situation in north-western Syria in particular, where some of the worst-hit regions exist, is the home of millions of people already forcibly displaced by the civil war. They are now dealing with both the tragic consequences of the earthquake, as well as  the Assad regime’s ongoing repression.

Of the 11,000 dead so far, about 2,500 fatalities have been reported in Syria.

One can only imagine how Syrian relief workers in the opposition-controlled regions felt having to reuse the skills they acquired rescuing civilians from Assad’s airstrikes, to then pull people out from underneath the earthquake-struck buildings.

Nearly one-third of the homes in Aleppo and Idlib, according to a 2017 report by the World Bank, had already been damaged or destroyed by the conflict. Now the destruction is a lot more extensive, adding to the $120 billion in infrastructure damages since 2011.

The losses to Syria’s GDP have since been estimated at $268 billion. 150% inflation rate and a multi-fold increase in prices, droughts, and the destruction of water infrastructure in the past two years especially, pushed nearly 90% of Syrians below the poverty line and shattered food security and livelihood. Not only did that make the people extremely vulnerable to the elements, but also limited the efficacy of any relief efforts.

While the humanitarian crisis has impacted all of Syria, the situation in the north has been particularly dire, made a lot more desperate by the earthquake, which also coincided with freezing winter temperatures.

Those who escaped the widespread destruction found themselves unable to access medical care due to already exhausted and depleted health services. Reportedly, hospitals in the area have been receiving new patients hourly, mostly children. People filled the hallways and were treated on the floor. This was exacerbated by a huge lack of staff and equipment.

Politicising a tragedy

One would expect that a humanitarian calamity of such scale would render irrelevant - or at least alleviate - any political rivalries or obstacles. But, as events continue to unfold, this does not seem to be the case. Alas, we are once again faced with the grim politicisation of humanitarianism which continues to undermine people’s access to basic human rights.

Western sanctions on Syria have been cited as one of the obstacles blocking a proper and supplemental delivery of aid that would provide immediate relief for those in need in the earthquake-stricken regions.

While pledging to provide humanitarian help to Syrians through ‘non-governmental partners' but  without naming them, Washington - as a matter of policy - ruled out any direct contact with the Assad government.

The Syrian state-run Red Crescent, among others, and which dispatched 3,000 volunteers to the stricken areas, urged Western governments to lift the sanctions. This thus far fell on deaf ears.

What complicated the situation further is the closure of the Bab al-Hawa crossing between Syria and Turkey due to earthquake damage to the roads around it. The crossing has been the only UN-approved route for aid over the past nine years.

But the debacle is not one-directional.

Instead of taking a step back to facilitate the flow of aid, and despite welcoming any assistance, Damascus said any relief efforts will have to go through the Syrian government.

It means that despite the unprecedented emergency, the Assad regime remains resistant to allowing aid into the opposition-controlled region. He fears the aid will undermine Syrian sovereignty and limit the government’s chances of regaining control of the region.

Selective empathy

Certainly, some of the approved relief routes have been genuinely damaged and the infrastructure of some of the aid agencies, such as Syria Relief, located near Gaziantep - the earthquake epicentre, has been disrupted, too. However, beyond all of that, the relief complexities in northern Syria also came to test the limits of human empathy.

It came to prove that, indeed, some disasters are more worthy of humanitarian intervention and media coverage than others. Not by virtue of their gravity or severity, but by the assumed ethnic, political, or social value of the humans experiencing them.

Almost immediately after the earthquakes hit, several Western countries mobilised to send aid and rescue teams to Turkey, but offered very little or nothing to Syria. Many limited their intervention to condolences or just expressed preparedness to help the disaster-stricken Syrians.

EU foreign affairs chief and EU crisis management commissioner said in a joint statement that the EU dispatched several search and rescue teams, comprising 1,155 rescuers and 72 search dogs, to Turkey after Ankara requested help. At the bottom of the statement, they said Europe was also ready to support those affected in Syria, ignoring the fact that Syrians did indeed call on the international community for humanitarian intervention.

NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, expressed “full solidarity” with Turkey, saying “NATO allies are mobilising support [to Turkey] now.” Not a word about Syria.

The UK Foreign minister, James Cleverly, said that 76 search and rescue specialists, equipment, rescue dogs, and an emergency medical team would be sent to Turkey.  The reference to Syria was only in terms of the government staying in contact with the UK-funded White Helmets relief organisation operating in northern Syria.

Likewise, Germany, Poland, Greece, and Japan spoke exclusively about Turkey. Canada issued an ambiguous statement expressing support for the victims without specifying the country.

The issue of selective empathy - the act of empathising with a certain group more than others - is common in international relations. It is driven by various factors: shared values, similar political/ethnic affiliations, and/or mutual interests, among other things. When these factors are used to gauge the West-Turkey relations versus the West-Syria ties, the former has the upper hand. It creates a hierarchy of support, assistance, and media attention.

This is why in addition to empathy, humanitarian intervention should also be based on the element of justice and strictly defined human rights standards. That is not to say this is a magic formula devoid of personal and political biases, but it will at least help develop a dynamism where humanitarianism can be deployed more effectively.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.

Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.