The Earthquake in Syria

Natural disaster always worst affects those who have already lost so much. And so it is in Turkey and Syria, where a double earthquake has killed more than 1,900 people. Across both countries, there are widespread scenes of destruction: apartment blocks reduced to rubble; gas supplies cut off in the middle of a freezing winter; survivors left to try and pluck their relatives from the rubble. 

Much of Syria’s population is displaced and living in refugee camps whose temporary buildings are hardly structurally sound. A million Syrians, forced to flee their homes, are living in poor accommodation across Turkey. In Syria itself, the country is still in ruins after a decade of civil war. 

Those places where rebuilding is underway after years of fighting have done so in cut-price fashion; some of the construction companies are allied to the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his family. They have skimped on materials and skimmed off the top. No doubt their buildings will prove of an inferior quality when put to the test of natural disaster.  

Worse for some areas of Syria is that the state and civil society no longer exist. The first, the government, dedicated the last decade to a war of extermination, not leading; the latter, the structure of society we take for granted in the West, was destroyed in that war.  

Many Syrians will doubtless find themselves, already having lost everything, facing the fact of their own isolation. They will be forgotten by their government for a second time. Amid a patchwork of competing armed groups, the more elaborate preparations to respond to potential natural disaster are unlikely to have been made. 

There are few civil organisations remaining which are capable of tending to the injured and rebuilding lives and buildings.  

The most successful rescuers in the country – the civil organisation Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, who specialise in saving people under buildings destroyed by bombing – have spent much of the past decade under fire.   

They have seen their most capable and bravest members murdered from the air by the regime and its Russian ally. Their expertise and heroism will be even more keenly missed in the aftermath of this latest tragedy.  

For a region which is often hit by earthquakes, the Middle East is one of the least well prepared to suffer the effects. When I covered an earthquake which hit Iraq and Iran in 2017, the eyewitness stories of rural Iran were hair-raising.   

Entire communities vanished as their buildings disintegrated around them. People’s bodies disappeared under their homes and were never found. As a result, it was never possible to give them funeral rites, something which added to the misery of their families, who held to strict tradition.  

In rural Iran in 2017, government failure and indifference compounded the suffering of the people. Rescuers either arrived late or not at all in villages which functionally had ceased to exist.  

In Syria, especially regime-controlled Syria, it is possible there will be no one in authority visiting much of the country with an eye to helping people there.   

There is little money to go around, and the government and its allies have already stolen most of it. The army and the militias have pocketed much of the rest. A worse position to encounter a natural disaster could hardly be devised.   

As with all earthquakes, over the next few days and weeks, the death toll of this disaster will continue to rise, but it may never encompass the true scale of what has happened. People will go unrescued, bodies will go unfound, and many of the missing will be unreported.   

In the depths of winter, the destruction of so many homes at a time of poverty and hardship will add to the sense of despair.  

Syria has suffered unrelentingly over the past decade. It is seemingly especially cruel for it to face so destructive an act of God at this time. Once again, its people, no stranger to death and destruction, will try and pick up the pieces alone. 

This piece was originally published in The Spectator.

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