The agonising rescue effort is entering its final stretch in Turkey and Syria. The death toll has risen to 41,000, but emergency teams are not giving up on the Turkish cities of Malatya, Kahramanmaras and Antioch, which have been reduced to rubble. Nor in the Syrian enclaves of Jindires, Afrin or Aleppo, where the tragedy is the final nail in the coffin of a country torn apart by the wounds of civil war. Nearly 6,000 people have lost their lives so far in Syria, most of them without even receiving assistance.
Other Syrian cities, such as Latakia and Hama, have been badly affected by the quake. But the hardest hit area has been the northwest of the country, where a myriad of groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad's regime are fighting for control. This area has escaped the tentacles of the weakened Syrian government since the civil war began in 2011 and has suffered throughout this time from bombardment by Damascus forces with the air support of Russia, its main ally. So much so that 60% of the infrastructure had already been damaged or destroyed before the earthquake, especially medical centres, according to the Middle East Institute.
The capacity to cope with the catastrophe is minimal. Northern Syria has had to cope with the aftermath of the earthquakes almost single-handedly as a result of the isolation it has been subjected to by the Syrian government and its Turkish neighbour. Rescue work relies on the White Helmets volunteers, who rose to fame during the war after assisting civilians under heavy bombardment by the al-Assad regime. But compared to the international teams deployed in Turkey, few have provided support to a region home to some 4.5 million war-displaced people fleeing bombing, conscription, fighting or systematic persecution.
Crises overlap in northern Syria. The war is not over, despite having entered an impasse. In fact, just a week before the earthquakes, Damascus forces shelled the outskirts of Idlib governorate with heavy artillery. And just two days earlier, the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a network of al-Qaeda-affiliated Salafist militias that controls much of the region, clashed with al-Assad's troops. The fighting has been compounded by freezing temperatures and an unprecedented outbreak of cholera that began in August.
The civil war has fragmented Syria into three parts: the majority regime-held area, the northeast run by the Kurds of the Autonomous Administration of Northeastern and Eastern Syria (AANES), better known as Rojava or Syrian Kurdistan, and the northwest, where several groups opposed to al-Assad operate and are fighting each other to establish their power, such as the Syrian National Army (SNA) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In this scenario, Turkey seeks to prevent the Kurds from creating an autonomous state at all costs.
"Turkey has an interest in stabilising the north in order to prevent a possible influx of Syrian refugees into its territory and to return those already in Turkey. However, this desire has often been hampered by the steadily deteriorating security situation, resulting mainly, but not exclusively, from infighting between factions of the Syrian National Army," explains analyst Orwa Ajjoub at the Middle East Institute. Ankara supports this actor but has to some extent allowed the HTS Salafists to advance.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, designated in 2013 as a "terrorist organisation" by the US, manages the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, which was the only operational corridor for humanitarian aid into northern Syria until the al-Assad regime allowed the opening of two new crossings on Monday. Bab al-Hawa is crucial for assisting earthquake victims on Syrian soil, but successive earthquakes and aftershocks damaged the route, and it could not be crossed for three days. Now, with the road passable, its operation is once again vital to rescue and relief efforts.
The organisation's leader, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, who once headed the al-Nusra Front, is now trying to present his more pragmatic and moderate side to win more explicit backing from Turkey and acceptance from Western countries. But that did not stop him from blocking access to the UN humanitarian convoy days after the earthquakes, accusing the agency of trying to gain access from a Damascus-controlled area. However, in an interview with the London daily The Guardian, al-Jolani assured that the border crossings were open and denounced the UN's inaction. He also slammed al-Assad and his Russian allies: 'They have turned this place into an earthquake for the last 12 years. Yet we have built a government that meets the needs of our people. We need to be able to build governance and sustain the people. But this place still needs much more".
Turkey, which hosts more than 3.5 million Syrians, bears the brunt of the casualties from the 10-day-old earthquakes in Gaziantep. At least 36,187 people have lost their lives so far in a country that will also have to cope with the adverse economic effects. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) estimated in a report published on Thursday that Turkey will lose one per cent of GDP. A day earlier, the Turkish lira reached a new all-time low.