The deadly twin earthquakes in Kahramanmaras struck southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria on February 6, 2023, killing at least 41,000 people in both countries. So far, at least 5,800 were killed in Syria, most of whom resided in the northwest, while thousands are still missing. Even before the earthquake struck, northwest Syria was already in a state of isolation, caught between the geographic progression of the Syrian regime and its Russian ally, and Turkey, as well as deep economic struggles. The little infrastructure that was still available was severely damaged with the earthquakes: entire buildings and neighborhoods collapsed, roads connecting Turkey and Syria are nearly impassable, electricity and phone networks broke down, and vehicles were destroyed. The isolation that Northern Syria has been facing in the last years is more striking than ever, as populations were deprived of any international humanitarian aid days after the catastrophe, despite active calls for assistance. Aid was blocked or delayed by all sides, mostly from the Assad regime, but also from the closure of cross-aid border crossings where for days only bodies of dead Syrians crossed from Turkey to Syria.
The following article offers a comprehensive view of the state of affairs in northwest Syria before the earthquake, focusing on the geographic context, the actors on the ground, the preexisting political isolation, and the economic struggles resulting in daily difficulties for the region’s inhabitants.
Geographic context: understanding local games of power
Northwest Syria’s current geographic configuration is rooted in the progressive dislocation of the territory: the war deeply disrupted the social, political, and economic landscape, leaving it unable to recover. The region is cut into two parts. The first one is the Idlib governorate, which the Salafi militia Hayat’ Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been fully controlling since mid-2017, leading to the establishment of the Syrian Salvation government. The second one is made of Aleppo’s countryside, a wide area stretching from Afrin to Jarabulus and al-Bab, under the control of the Syrian National Army (SNA), backed by Turkey. Such areas are also called by the names “Euphrates Shield”, “Olive branch”, “Peace shield” and “Peace spring” (which includes the towns of Ras al-Ayn and Tell Abyad) after joint military operations led by the Turkish army and the opposition forces.
Land roads with the Turkish border play a central role in the circulation of people and goods, in addition to being crossings linking them to the areas controlled by the Syrian regime or those under the power of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). These access points constitute an instrument of political influence and economic power and have been the subject of tensions between the different factions. They are part of the daily life of people who want to develop a business, pay a social visit to their family, or deal with administrative operations. Among all of them, the famous Bab al-Hawa crossing was the last cross-border humanitarian corridor used by the United Nations to provide aid to nearly 4 million Syrians located in the areas beyond the control of Bashar al-Assad.
Karam Shaar, economist and non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, also notes the presence of an official crossing between the zones under the control of HTS and the SNA located in el Ghazawiyye/Der Ballout. No official crossing exists between the HTS area and regime-held territories. A non-official crossing located in Abu Zenden links the SNA areas to the regime. Finally, the SNA and the SDF are connected in several spots, including in al-Bab and al-Rai, in Aleppo’s countryside.
The existence of closed borders and crossings is nothing but a symptom of the political isolation of Northern Syria, under the pressure of Assad’s regime as well as regional and international powers—Russia and Turkey in particular. Indeed, the proper functioning of Bab al-Hawa crossing completely depends on the UN Security Council, pressured by Russia, which reauthorized its use for six months only in January 2023 through Resolution 2672. On the day after the earthquake, the crossing was closed due to road damages, according to Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, leaving northern Syrians more than ever abandoned to their fate. Rescuers and residents were left to dig for potential survivors on their own. The crossing was partially reopened on February 8 to repatriate bodies of Syrian victims who died in Turkey while other accesses were still not opened and no aid reached Syria the first few days after the quake. On February 9, six trucks finally entered Syria, providing “shelter items and non-food kits, including blankets and hygiene kits,” but no help to support the rescue efforts of local organizations. On February 12, UN aid chief Martin Griffiths tweeted that “we have so far failed the people in northwest Syria. They rightly feel abandoned. Looking for international help that hasn’t arrived.”
Two former border crossings—Bab al-Salam and al-Rai—were reopened on February 13 for three months, and will serve as temporary aid corridors. This decision was taken by the UN only after obtaining the approval of the Security Council and Bashar al-Assad. This is “a cynical move that has come far too late,” says Raed Al Saleh, head of the White Helmets. A first UN convoy crossed into northwest Syria through Bab al-Salam on February 14.
Impact on the local population
Wael Alwan, researcher at the Jusoor Center for studies and development, underlines that the movement of civilians within the opposition areas of HTS and the SNA up until the Kahramanmaras catastrophe could be described as “relatively easy and smooth, but could not be considered as safe: inspections used to happen constantly to prevent anyone from transferring goods and oil between them,” as the militias wanted to keep full control of trade operations and movements of goods. In the Idlib governorate, a public transport company called al Zajel could be used by the inhabitants between the villages. In other areas, people had to use registered cars or minivans.
In case of necessity or desire to travel out of these areas, locals were forced to adopt illegal and dangerous roads, except in a few special cases. According to Alwan, there had been recent movements from areas controlled by the regime to areas controlled either by HTS or factions of the SNA: up to 600 people were using the crossings daily, fleeing the extreme difficulties of the government areas as well as the compulsory military service. Such movements were supervised by agreements between HTS and the forces of Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Division, which has been undertaking war economy activities such as scrap metals trade and looting of private and public property, and dominates smuggling routes and human trafficking operations. A single crossing costs approximately $6,000.
As explained by media activist Osama Al-Mousa, Syrians could only enter Turkey legally in the three following specific cases. The first one was to obtain a merchant card, which would allow legally entering Turkish territory for short periods to transport allowed goods, but not the other way around. The process can cost up to $3,000. The second one was to accompany a child under the age of 10 to get medical treatment in a Turkish hospital. The third option was to have a valid passport and visa to enter a third country. As such situations were extremely rare, it was more common to see people obtain a visa to go on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, with the help of the Supreme Hajj Committee in agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Hajj.
Such strict rules associated with the socioeconomic difficulties faced daily by inhabitants led to the killing of 470 Syrians trying to escape through the Turkish border between January and October 2020. In January 2021, the number reached 480. The Commission of the European Union later on approved a new financial package to support refugees as well as improve border control in Turkey.
As the region is not under the control of the Syrian regime, residents of northwest Syria did not participate in the May 2021 presidential election which led to the re-election of Bashar al-Assad for the fourth time with a score of over 95 percent. This was also the case during the local elections held by the regime in September 2022.
In the province of Idlib, the Syrian Salvation Government established a consultative Shura council in February 2019 composed of 107 members in charge of nominating a prime minister. As underlined by Haid Haid, Senior Consulting Associate Fellow at Chatham House, the group aimed to “increase its legitimacy and popularity by consulting with local communities and encouraging their participation through local elections.” However, the participative process was limited, as only a small number of representatives of local communities were selected. Salafi militia HTS is also regularly accused of interfering in the work of the council, as revealed by its president Bassam Zioni before his resignation in April 2020. The election of Ali Abdulrahman Keda as the council’s prime minister with a score of 81 percent against unknown opponents was widely criticized by the opposition who denounced these methods, comparing them to those of the Syrian regime.
For Jihad Yazigi, expert in Syrian economic affairs and editor-in-chief of the Syria Report, the Syrian Salvation Government is institutionalizing itself and increasing its autonomy through administrative measures. A good example of such ambition is the creation of identification cards which will be needed by residents to conduct transactions, access socio-medical and educational structures, receive work permits, and get marriage certificates. Yazigi also notes the creation of monetary “quasi banks,” such as the Sham bank in 2018, a former money transfer and exchange company used to regulate Idlib’s financial services but also to facilitate oil transactions.
In the rest of the region under the control of the Turkish-backed SNA, since 2017, the mass displacement campaigns carried out by the Syrian regime and Russia led to the arrival of newcomers from several regions, including central and southern Syria, who tried to get involved in local councils. They were met with suspicion and were left unable to vote in local politics until today, undermining the legitimacy of the local structures. In parallel, the progressive expansion of the Assad regime, which has regained control over neighboring territories and forced local communities to “reconcile,” has also impacted the opposition’s ability to govern.
The imposed Turkish tutelage on the SNA forbade the militia to take independent decisions without referring to the Turkish security leadership in charge of the Syrian file. This process suppressed the possibility of any citizen participation in choosing representatives freely. The appointment of high-level administrative cadres in local councils takes place in collaboration with Turkish authorities, aimed at unifying and supervising the region.
The inhabitants of northern Syria pay the price for the area’s defiance to the regime on a daily basis. As highlighted by the recent disaster, the regime wants to remain the only center of power at any cost, including at the cost of human lives: all humanitarian assistance must be centralized. Bassam Sabbagh, Syria’s envoy to the United Nations, declared the day of the earthquake on February 6 that all aid should transit “from inside Syria,” and added that “if anyone would like to help Syria, they can coordinate with the government.”
Trade and crossings
The war and local actors’ political agendas have created a new socioeconomic order in the region. As local agricultural production has greatly decreased due to the war and to periods of drought and poor water management, imports currently play a central role in the population’s survival. Northwest Syria secures most of its various needs primarily from Turkey, including petroleum, wheat flour, and seed oils. In 2021, according to the United Nations’ COMTRADE database, Turkish imports amounted to $2 billion, representing close to 40 percent of Syria’s estimated total imports. The region also exports goods to its Turkish neighbor: Idlib’s olive oil is renowned for its quality, as well as its spices and barley. Finally, it is an important zone of transit, as part of Turkish imports is transferred to regime-held cities. However, many essential supplies remain difficult to find or are too expensive for the population, as 90 percent live under the poverty line in northern Syria. The region has experienced inflation as well: this was the case in Spring 2022 due to delivery shortages and poor agricultural production, leading to food insecurity and much less diversity in people’s diet. Jihad Yazigi insists on the fact that transiting goods generates profits for local powers through transit fees withheld at crossings. For example, despite having renounced the same project in 2020, the Salafi militia HTS started working in October 2022 on a land crossing with regime-held territory to control the smuggling of goods and earn commissions, leading to clashes with other factions involved in contraband and also protests from local populations.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, as the road network is severely damaged and buildings could still collapse, the fragile economic organization of the region will be even more severely disrupted. Further restriction of movement will lead to episodes of famine, malnourishment, and diseases, will have dramatic consequences on the lives of locals, and will lead to other desperate attempts to leave the region.
Economic sanctions and internet access
Since 2011, economic sanctions have been imposed on Syria by the US and the EU to “deprive the regime of the resources it needs to continue violence against civilians.” In May 2022, the Biden administration decided to authorize activities in certain economic sectors in some non-regime-held areas from the Aleppo governorate including the Manbij, al-Bab, Ayn al-Arab, A’zaz and Jarabulus districts. For Jihad Yazigi, this decision should not have a major impact on the inhabitants but could reduce the risks for local actors already involved in economic activities in the region while encouraging new modest regional activities: “Turkish merchants might feel empowered to take some initiatives and be supported by national banks.” The sanctions remain the same in the Idlib governorate.
Economic sanctions are impacting the life of locals in many concrete ways. It prevents them from opening bank accounts or working online as technology resources and online services are blocked, including Google Workspace, Oracle Java, Google Chrome, or Zoom. As noted by Karam Shaar, despite the internet connection available in the Idlib governorate being functional albeit expensive, qualified workers such as engineers are not able to funnel any income to the country: “Syrians in Turkey struggle to open a bank account, let alone Syrians in Syria. They are virtually cut off from the rest of the world in terms of banking.” Virtual spaces could greatly benefit locals who could perform a broad set of jobs online and open small e-businesses.
Interestingly enough, HTS militants managed to take advantage of the situation by getting involved in cryptocurrency and trading to fund their activities, side-step sanctions and recruit experts. In Fall of 2020, France arrested 29 people involved in a network of cryptocurrency organized by two HTS members. According to the Chair of the UN Security Council Committee, the increasing risk of use of cryptocurrencies by terrorists representing “an evolution in tactics, […] with training in how to send funds using certain privacy-enhancing methods,” is raising concerns among UN member states since 2021.
Sanctions do not target the entry of humanitarian aid on the Syrian territory, despite the Syrian regime and its supporters regularly insisting otherwise. On February 10, the United States issued an exemption of six months for all transactions related to aid relief to Syria. As explained by Syrian economist Karam Shaar, despite the sanctions not being the main impediment to an efficient humanitarian response, such decision could facilitate the situation on the ground as sectoral sanctions impacting the banking sector will be removed: humanitarian actors will not have to ask for exemptions from sanctions anymore to bring money inside the country.
A dark and hopeless future
Before the earthquake, the future of northwest Syria was already strongly compromised. Any attempt to economically revive the region without a radical solution to put an end to military operations and political factions’ competition for power would not do much for civilians in the long term, especially concerning their rights to obtain official papers and to travel freely.
The recent trauma suffered by the inhabitants will dramatically impact their quality of life in the upcoming months. As the Syrian regime slows and blocks aid to the northwest for political gains, the HTS blocks the little aid coming from government-held areas, and the West shows no real urgency in supporting the region, yet another new red line is being crossed in terms of violation of the human dignity and right to assistance, which does not augur any improvement for northern Syrians.
The acute crisis where the country has sunk in these last 10 days must constitute a wake-up call for states and international organizations. It must also spell the end of the lasting and unsatisfying consensus characterizing the political situation of Syria while initiating a drastic political transition, for which respect of human rights and human dignity will become the core value.
Hussam al-Nahar is a Syrian journalist and human rights activist.
Elise Daniaud is a researcher and PhD candidate in Politics at LUISS University, Italy.