Politics and class warfare taint Syria's earthquake response

Destruction mostly affected poor communities, even in regime areas

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When the Aleppo high-rise apartment of Syrian civil engineer Abdulmoez Raouf shook from the earthquake across the border in Turkey this week he was confident the residents would be OK.

“The Soviets built it in the 1970s to house their advisers,” Mr Raouf said by phone from the southern middle-class Sheikh Saeed neighbourhood of the city.

After the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, Mr Raouf went to check on relatives in impoverished eastern parts of Aleppo, where he says most of the damage occurred.

Two days after the worst natural disaster in the Middle East in decades, a picture is emerging of its effects on Syrian regime territory, despite severely restricted media access.

President Bashar Al Assad's regime also restricts the movement of international organisations. Residents avoid giving information for fear of retribution.

The government has been saying the earthquake mainly affected Aleppo, Hama to the south, and other regime areas on the coast.

The disaster has also brought out disparities within communities perceived as loyal to Mr Al Assad and mainly comprising members of his Alawite sect.

Mr Raouf said buildings in eastern Aleppo were especially weak because the former rebel area was a main target of Russian and regime bombing in 2015.

The Russian intervention that year enabled forces loyal to Mr Al Assad to recapture Aleppo, Syria's second city, along with other parts of the country.

“The buildings that collapsed in the east were waiting to fall,” Mr Raouf said,

He said most of them had been built without a permit, or what is called in Syria “ashwaeiyat”: illegal structures lacking engineering standards.

Before 2011, around 60 per cent of all construction of Syria was ashwaeiyat.

An initial assessment of earthquake damage in regime areas by the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs put the number of collapsed buildings in and around Aleppo at 40, and 53 in the coastal Latakia governorate. The organisation reported three collapsed buildings each in Hama and Tartous.

While the report pointed out damage to urban water reservoirs and cautioned that infrastructure could be affected, the destruction appears relatively modest compared with areas outside regime control to the north and west of Aleppo, especially in Idlib governorate, where Turkey holds sway.

Syria earthquake survivor tells his story

Syria earthquake survivor tells his story

In the rural centre of Jindayris, the opposition local council said 257 buildings had collapsed. The town, which is north of Aleppo, has a population of 100,000.

Mr Raouf said there did not seem to be much effort being put into rescuing people in eastern Aleppo.

“You might see the odd army bulldozer here and there with dozens of soldiers loitering around it,” he said.

The Syrian Foreign Ministry blamed US sanctions for what it described as a lack of equipment and medicine to deal with the earthquake.

While Idlib, Hama and Aleppo are stigmatised Sunni regions because many of their residents took part in the 2011 revolt, the governorates of Latakia and Tartous have large proportions of Alawites, who have been dealt an uneven hand by the disaster.

Leila, a kindergarten teacher in Latakia, said most of the damage in the city appears to have occurred in ashwaeiyat districts.

She moved a decade ago from a modest dwelling to a new residential property built by her wealthy husband.

“I hate to think what would have happened if we had stayed there,” she said.

Signs of discontent with the regime have emerged in outlying areas in the past few years, particularly among Alawites who have not seen windfall profits from the war economy, such as a multibillion dollar narcotics trade.

They have been hit by massive purchasing power decline, due to the collapse of the Syrian pound.

The currency is trading at 7,150 pounds to the dollar, the same rate as on Sunday, the day before the earthquake. But it was at 50 to the dollar on the eve of the outbreak of the conflict in March 2011.

A Facebook news page on Jableh, a coastal city south of Latakia, showed photos of Russian forces bringing in a crane to lift rubble from a collapsed building.

The Russian military is based in Hmeimim, on the outskirts of the city.

“What took them so long to get there?” one resident said of the pictures, in one of many expressions of anger in regime areas about slow relief efforts.

Across pro-regime social media channels, there were pictures of collapsed buildings on the coast with appeals for aid.

Jumaa Al Harer, another resident of Jableh, said the authorities had not yet dispatched any engineers to advise people whose dwellings remained standing on whether they could return inside.

The municipality, he said, is “only good at cleaning the streets when officials in their luxury cars come for visits”.

The earthquake killed at least 2,032 people across Syria. Sixty per cent of them were living in areas not under regime control.

An unemployed man in Latakia said deficiencies in the relief efforts were glaring, even in core regime areas.

He was fired from his government job last year for criticising the regime for not delivering on promises of reconstruction and economic revitalisation.

“There is no state in Syria,” he said. “The earthquake just made it more obvious.”

Updated: February 08, 2023, 2:43 PM