Days after a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit southern Turkey and northern Syria, the window for rescuing victims buried in the rubble is closing. Rescue efforts – and survival prospects – are being further challenged by freezing weather conditions.
The death toll has now surpassed 11,000 – and that number will certainly rise. Thousands remain missing, and nearly 400,000 have been moved to government shelters or hotels. Some 4 million Syrians in northern Syria alone were already displaced and relying on humanitarian support.
Tragically, this crisis compounds existing regional calamities, particularly for war-torn Syria, that make recovery efforts extremely difficult.
Tragedy compounds tragedy. For the people of northern Syria, the temblors bring yet more misery after a decade of war. Crucially, Idlib and Aleppo, central to the Assad regime’s strategy of retaking the country, have been subject to heavy shelling since late 2019. Before Monday’s tragedy, at least 3.3 million people in northwest Syria (out of 4.6 million) were food insecure. Meanwhile, a deadly cholera outbreak has also spread across the country in recent months.
Assad Sam Hanna, a Syrian activist who previously worked with Syria's “White Helmets,” says this week’s tragedy is even “more traumatic for the people who escaped the war where buildings used to collapse because of bombings.” He notes that a lot of those families resettled to southern Turkey, where they “felt they were on the safe side.”
Who’s offered aid? At least 45 countries have offered to help Turkey in its recovery efforts, including dispatching 27 teams to assist with search and rescue efforts. Conversely, just a handful of states – China, Russia, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, and cash-strapped Lebanon – have offered support to Syria, most of which is controlled by President Bashar al-Assad, considered a pariah by the West.
Since Syria’s civil war erupted in 2011, Western countries have cut the country off from international markets and imposed measures that have obliterated local industries, causing widespread poverty. Without access or logistical connections in the region, it remains unclear whether – or how – Western states are going to – or can – help the Syrian people. Washington has pledged to help those on both sides of the border but will do so through “humanitarian partners,” not by working with Assad’s regime. Assad, meanwhile, rejects any involvement that isn’t coordinated with the central government in Damascus.
The struggle to deliver aid. Control of northwestern Syria is divided between Turkey and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel group with connections to al-Qaida. Meanwhile, northeast Syria is held by a Kurdish-led group backed by the US and where most of the services are provided by NGOs. Simply put: There is no central government to enforce a coordinated response.
Making matters worse, the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the only humanitarian artery linking Turkey and northwest Syria, has been damaged by the earthquake. That’s a big problem for the Syrian recovery effort, Hanna says, because “the only way [to deliver aid] is through the Turkish side.”
But even before the earthquake, deliveries through this safe passage had been hindered by cynical geopolitics. Consider that Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a key backer of the Assad regime, used its clout to force the closure of several humanitarian corridors, leaving Bab al-Hawa as the sole lifeline. Still, Russia recently threatened to block this route as well if the UN failed to coordinate aid programs with the Assad regime.
Retraumatization of refugees. Many people impacted by the earthquakes – on both sides of the border – had already been displaced by Syria’s civil war. While some fled to northwestern Syria from other parts of the country, around 3.6 million had resettled in Turkey since 2011. Gaziantep, the epicenter of Monday's quake, is home to around 500,000 Syrians.
Complicating matters further is the fact that anti-refugee sentiment has been on the rise in Turkey in recent years. In response to growing public concern over migration flows, Ankara had already capped at 20% the number of foreigners in some districts. Now, dealing with its own catastrophe, it will be even more difficult for Turkish authorities to accommodate a surge in Syrian migrants.
While those on the ground await political and humanitarian solutions that may never come, aid workers are racing against the clock as the prospects of finding more people alive grow bleak.
The Caribbean state of Haiti has been in a persistent state of pandemonium for decades. Yet, what’s happening now on the island nation of 11 million reflects a profound new wave of instability that’s threatening to spill over into neighboring countries.
Thousands of Haitians have recently taken to the streets calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, while large swaths of the capital, Port-au-Prince, are being ruled by rival gangs vying for power. Forget democracy or autocracy – lawlessness is rampant in Haiti.
Backstory. Dictatorships have long ruled over Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. For almost 30 years until 1986, François and Jean-Claude Duvalier, the autocratic father-son duo known as Papa Doc and Baby Doc, led the country with an iron fist. Since then, the country has seen several military coups and a rotating door of leaders, many of whom have mismanaged the economy and lined their own pockets. As a result, poverty and crime plague Haiti, and there’s little hope for economic growth in a country whose top export in 2020 was … knitted T-shirts.
But things deteriorated further last summer after President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in a heist-like operation, giving rise to succession disputes and a leadership vacuum that left parliament mostly empty and paved the way for gangs to consolidate power.
Why now? The latest round of anti-government protests exploded after interim PM Henry announced he would slash $400 million in fuel subsidies. Many Haitians consider Henry’s tenure illegitimate because he was neither elected nor formally confirmed by the legislature. They are also fed up with his stalling tactics, having refused to set a date for new elections that have not been held since 2016.
So how bad is this situation? "It’s catastrophic," says Haiti’s former Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive (2009-2011). “I believe Haití has never experienced such chaos even during the 2010 earthquake,” he said. That cataclysmic event resulted in more than 200,000 deaths and decimated homes and infrastructure. (Bellerive was accused of corruption during his time in office.)
The king of Port-au-Prince. Haiti has just 12,800 active police officers, who are significantly outgunned and outnumbered by gang members. Arguably, the most powerful man in Port-au-Prince is a former cop turned gangster called Barbecue (his real name is Jimmy Chérizier). Some say Chérizier earned this nickname because he’s the son of a grilled chicken street vendor; others say it’s because he has a knack for burning alive those who cross him.
Barbecue heads one of Haiti’s most powerful gangs, G9, which rules large swaths of the capital, including coastal areas where shipments of food and fuel enter the country. As a result, wealthy business people who own warehouses and industrial parks have been forced to make deals with the devil to get goods flowing into the capital.
This dynamic, whereby the rich can afford to circumvent the chaos, has fed grievances over classism and inequality, deepening social fissures that gangs have exploited to accumulate more power. What’s more, many government officials have been accused of corruption and – along with elites – reportedly strike mutually beneficial deals with gang members.
The land of scarcity. Most recently, gangs have taken control of one of the country’s largest fuel terminals, exacerbating dire food and fuel shortages. (They already control the main arteries in and out of the capital, dictating what – and who – gets in and out.) Moreover, looting of food storage units is also widespread, leading last month to the loss of at least $6 million of relief assistance, including 2,000 tons of food, according to the World Food Programme.
The situation on the ground is dire, Bellerive says. “Most of the hospitals are closed, schools are yet to reopen, and supermarkets have very short opening times.” The international airport remains open, but “getting there or out of it could be risky.”
Moreover, lack of access to clean water – a scarcity in Haiti – has given rise to a cholera outbreak in a country already traumatized by a 2010 outbreak of the disease brought by UN peacekeepers that killed roughly 10,000. Meanwhile, neighboring countries like the Dominican Republic fear it could spread to their populations.
The timing of this explosion could barely be worse. “At the international level, Haití is clearly not a top priority,” Bellerive says, adding that the message received to date by Haitians has been “grow up and solve your problems.”
“Only because of the fear of massive emigration due to the collapse of the economy and the resurgence of cholera, some attention has recently been given” by the international community.
A plea for help. With the situation spiraling out of control and little hope for a domestic solution, PM Henry this week called for foreign troops to help quell the violence.
UN Secretary General António Guterres, for his part, supports sending in international armed forces, but Haitians on the street responded with a resolute … hell, no! Many Haitians despise the UN after its mission left the country in disgrace in 2017 with its peacekeepers having spread a deadly disease and reportedly raped and impregnated scores of Haitian women and girls.
Washington is unlikely to send in troops given that American voters – Democrats and Republicans – have little appetite for foreign interventions. Indeed, after Moise’s assassination last summer, Biden reiterated that “the idea of sending American forces to Haiti is not on the agenda.” Meanwhile, many Haitians also rallied this week against US boots on the ground, repudiating solutions that are imposed from outside.
There’s no sign that things will improve anytime soon – and Bellerive’s assessment is stark: Haiti has “gone beyond the fragile state characterization to become a chaotic state.”
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