The deadly earthquake that struck southern Turkey and north-west Syria six months ago was a natural phenomenon, indifferent to manmade borders. Turkey has begun the long process of rebuilding but for the millions of people trying to cope with displacement and division in Syria, the quake and its aftershocks added another layer of hardship to an already precarious situation.
Of the more than 50,000 people who died in the 7.8-magnitude earthquake, it is estimated that 13 per cent were in Syria with impoverished areas in the north-west of the country bearing the brunt of the disaster. Most of the three million people in this part of Syria are displaced, living outside areas held by the government. Complicating aid and relief efforts is the fact that large parts of northern Syria are under the control of forces locked in deadly rivalry, often backed by or working with foreign powers.
Syrian government forces, Turkey-backed opposition factions, militant groups and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces exercise control over different parts of the region and bear responsibility for the millions of civilians living under their rule. The region, and Syria in general, is also peppered with bases belonging to foreign militaries: the Russians who back Damascus, the Turks, who have supported several Syrian opposition groups, and the Americans, who are present in the Kurdish-run areas.
The political mess resulting from this situation could be seen in the days and weeks after the earthquake when wrangling over who should be responsible for aid delivery and distribution led to delays in getting vital support to civilians already living with years of poverty, unemployment and displacement. Last month, some charities in Syria said they were still struggling to deliver aid despite western countries extending sanctions exemptions in the humanitarian sector that were put in place after the earthquake.
However, despite the sporadic violence that does take place – such as car bombings, assassinations and clashes between armed groups – the reality is that most of these factions are not going anywhere, given that the war has settled into something of a stalemate. That leaves some serious choices for those exercising control in this part of Syria if they want to maintain relevance and help civilians labouring under the additional burden of earthquake damage.
There are no easy answers to such a combustible situation but there are signs that progress is possible. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said he was open to holding talks with Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. If two of the main forces in Syria’s north-west can reach an understanding, it could help reduce tensions and could lead to an improved environment for relief and rebuilding. In the Kurdish-administered region, doubt lingers over the future of the SDF’s partnership with a 900-strong US military presence which, although it has helped to counter a low-level ISIS insurgency, could come to an end if the political situation in Washington changes.
And although the presence of the militant Hayat Tahrir Al Sham group based in Idlib is hugely problematic, it too must realise that the responsibility for thousands of innocent lives rests in its hands.
Across the region, realism and pragmatism are beginning to prevail as relationships are repaired and dialogue becomes more important. For those in Syria left with the task of managing what is a complex and challenging humanitarian situation, realising that dogmatism and intransigence are political dead-ends may be the starting point for creating a different reality on the ground. That doesn’t mean justice will be served but at least an alleviation of suffering can be the basis for compromise.