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Syria's forgotten thousands must not be overlooked

Ethan Dincer
February 8, 2024

It’s been a year since the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria that saw over 50,000 killed and millions displaced. As the Middle East has shifted attention to more pressing matters, the hundreds of thousands still struggling must not be forgotten.

In Turkey, which experienced the majority of destruction, hundreds of thousands of buildings were destroyed, which the Turkish government vowed to be reconstructed within the year. The area of destruction in Turkey spans nearly the size of Germany, resulting in an estimated $148bn in damage. While the promised level of reconstruction in Turkey’s southeast has not been reached, major strides have occurred. The Turkey Design Council is spearheading the rebuilding of some of the most damage-stricken areas with international teams, and close collaboration with the Turkish government has granted their projects relative success.

On the other side of the border, the situation is significantly more dire. Northwest Syria, already riddled with the baggage of a 13-year civil war, has been unable to enact adequate reconstruction. The United Nations estimates that the quakes left over 250,000 homeless in Syria, with over 10,000 buildings destroyed. Certainly not to the scale as in Turkey, the capacity for adequate aid remains stunted in Syria. With over 8 million people living in Syria’s northwest, immediate coordination of international aid is needed.

However, most international attempts of coordinated humanitarian aid in Syria have been thwarted. In July of last year, the UN Security Council failed to continue the mechanism that allows the Bab al-Hawa border crossing to stay open. Russia vetoed the resolution, and after many negotiations a resolution was passed in August to reopen Bab al-Hawa for six months—renegotiation for the crossing’s continued openness is imminent and unlikely to be addressed soon.

Bab al-Hawa is the only internationally recognized border crossing for international humanitarian aid into Syria from Turkey. While other crossings exist, they cannot be utilized by international organizations; many crossings are based in territory run by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, considered a terrorist group.

With the current conditions in Syria — what many call a crisis within a crisis — there are no large-scale, organized reconstruction efforts. Molham, or the White Helmets, have only been able to rebuild 2,000 homes using crowdsourced individual donations, and other nonprofit groups in the region do not have the capacity to rebuild.

Furthermore, overlapping international regulations and sanctions make the import of building material into Syria extremely challenging, even with Bab al-Hawa temporarily open. Should Bab al-Hawa close permanently, international aid will be nonexistent. In addition, the expiration of the US Treasury’s General License 23 — which temporarily lifted sanctions over dual-use materials — last August means that any organized attempts will have to reckon with exceedingly challenging sanctions regimes.

The largest donors to Syria, the United States and European nations, continue to decline funding towards reconstruction until the Syrian civil war reaches a political settlement. Syria’s re-integration in the Arab League last year might signal a status quo acceptance of al-Assad’s regime back into the Middle East, but his government is far from gaining acceptance in the West.

While GL23 was a modest attempt at aiding reconstruction efforts, leaders in Western governments must make a clear delineation between post-war reconstruction and earthquake rebuilding efforts. The millions impacted by these earthquakes, still fresh in the eyes of many, should not be discarded as another civil war-related catastrophe.

Leaders in Western governments must make a clear delineation between post-war reconstruction and earthquake rebuilding efforts Quote

Aid providers in Syria should not be ignored by the private sector, either. While international teams come together to aid Turkey’s southwest, Syria has received markedly less attention. While the scale of damage is incomparable, the difference in international funding is significant. Changes to international sanctions and regulatory regimes are in order to allow for continued support for rebuilding; the 6-month period after the earthquakes was too short to enact sustainable change. Private sector investment into rebuilding efforts must be cushioned by international regulatory support in order to build capacity within Syria for adequate humanitarian rebuilding.

As the world looks onto an increasingly fragmented Middle East, it is crucial to remember the catastrophes of last year and ongoing calls for aid.

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Ethan Dinçer is a geopolitical analyst and consultant specialising in the Middle East and North Africa and Research Director at London Politica.

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