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Syria’s rebel-held northwest, fragile from civil war, devastated by earthquake

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Picture: Ilyas Akengin / AFP – Rescue workers and volunteers pull out a survivor from the rubble in Diyarbakir on February 6, 2023, after a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Syria’s south-east. At least 3,500 people have died in the one of the biggest earthquakes in half a century that hit Turkey and Syria, as search and rescue work continue in several major cities.

By Sarah Dadouch and Leo Sands

Monday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake devastated parts of rebel-held northwestern Syria, its effects compounded by the past decade of bombardment by Syrian government forces in a civil war that had already damaged buildings and depleted emergency responders.

Videos from Syria’s opposition-held pocket offer only a glimpse of the damage. The death toll in rebel-held northwest Syria is now at least 385 and expected to rise. There are more than 1,000 injured; hundreds are stuck under rubble.

The quake also levelled buildings in Turkey, where the government reported at least 1,498 people killed and more than 8,000 injured. In regions of Syria held by President Bashar al-Assad’s government, at least 461 were killed and more than 1,000 injured, according to state media, mostly in Latakia, Hama, Aleppo and Tartus.

Picture: Bakr Alkasem / AFP People look on as Syrian rescuers (White Helmets) retrieve an injured man from the rubble of a collapsed building following an earthquake, in the border town of Azaz in the rebel-held north of the Aleppo province, early on February 6, 2023.

In northwestern Syria, buildings had already suffered extensive damage during the course of a nearly 12-year conflict.

“What makes it more dangerous is that the bombing has affected the buildings, which have almost destroyed infrastructure,” the White Helmets representative said, speaking on the condition of anonymity per the policy of the group, referencing bombardment of rebel-held areas from the Syrian government and its ally Russia.

The group, which operates in rebel-held Syria, says it is also having problems accessing damaged areas because of heavy rain and snowfall. Its teams are facing blocked roads and anticipating an intense rainstorm. They are calling on the international community to pressure Assad and Moscow not to bombard the area.

In a note sent on WhatsApp Monday, the representative begged foreign countries and international organisations to offer the northwest help.

The White Helmets media representative repeatedly described the worsening situation as a “disaster” and “disastrous,” emphasizing the lack of hyperbole in his choice of words. All White Helmets volunteers and members “are not capable of responding; the size of the disaster is far larger than our abilities,” he said. An adequate response requires urgent international intervention, he said.

As he continued speaking, his voice thinned with urgency as a list of calamities tumbled out. “Every minute, we lose a life. We are now racing with time. We need heavy equipment. We need heavy machinery dedicated for rescue missions. We need rescue teams. We need fuel. We have been using up backup fuel for the past two months.”

“Tens of thousands of civilians are homeless,” he continued. “The medical situation is abysmal. Tens of thousands of buildings are now cracked. There’s a snowstorm. There’s predictions of flooding in the area. The humanitarian situation is disastrous, with every meaning of the word. It’s not just the rescue – it’s the rescue and the humanitarian situation.”

Picture: Sertac Kayar/REUTERS – People search through rubble following an earthquake in Diyarbakir, Turkey February 6, 2023.

Syria’s northwest is home to roughly 4.5 million people – nearly all, 4.1 million, require humanitarian assistance, according to the United Nations. Medical care is scant, as is solid infrastructure following years of bombardment by government forces and their Russian allies.

Half of the population has been dislocated from elsewhere, many several times. Large numbers live in tent camps or rickety settlements, often built among olive groves or on hard, barren earth. Many live in bombed-out buildings abandoned during the war.

In a statement, the International Rescue Committee aid organisation said the impact of the earthquake was devastating for areas already hosting high numbers of displaced and vulnerable families. Overstretched by a recent cholera outbreak and grappling with a snap of freezing cold weather, the area is experiencing a crisis within multiple crises, according to the IRC.

“There are very real concerns about the ability of an already decimated health system to cope,” the IRC statement said.

The area also does not have enough doctors – which is especially apparent during calamities – and many of its hospitals and health centres have been destroyed. Hospitals have been repeatedly bombarded by airstrikes from Assad’s forces or those of his Russian allies, which often provided air cover during the war.

On Monday, the Syrian American Medical Society, which supports 36 facilities in northwestern Syria, said four of its hospitals were damaged and evacuated.

“The conditions in our hospitals are catastrophic,” it said by WhatsApp. A video posted to social media by officials at the society, which The Washington Post was not able to immediately verify, appeared to show medical workers and civilians crowded in an emergency ward at Bab al-Hawa Hospital, in the country’s northwest.

Victims were filling the hallways, and there weren’t enough trauma supplies and equipment to save survivors or treat the injured, the group said in a statement Monday.

In government-held areas, a parallel rescue operation was under way early Monday. Assad convened an emergency meeting and ordered the cash-strapped government to distribute food and medical assistance to those in need, as well as assess the stability of cracked buildings across the country, according to a post on his official Telegram channel.

Syria’s government said its Banias oil refinery near the Mediterranean coast has suffered damage from the earthquake and will be out of service for 48 hours until the issues have been addressed.

Syria’s Ministry of Oil and Mineral Resources said the earthquake caused a crack in the chimney of a power unit in the oil refinery, the largest in the country, and that the brick lining of furnaces had collapsed. The earthquake also caused some oil derivatives to leak out of pipes.

The ministry added that oil compressors in a factory in Syria’s south central area were halted, checked and restarted. Syria is going through a severe oil shortage, a crisis compounded by a widespread economic collapse following a civil war that began in 2011 when Syrians took to the street to protest Assad’s rule and demand freedom.

Assad lost control over much of the oil-rich northeast of the country to US-backed Kurdish forces, leaving it heavily reliant on Banias, which has the capacity to process over 130,000 barrels of crude per day, according to Reuters.

Sarah Dadouch is a Beirut-based Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post. She was previously a Reuters correspondent in Beirut, Riyadh and Istanbul. Leo Sands is a breaking-news reporter in The Washington Post’s London Hub, covering news as it unfolds around the world.

This article was first published on The Washington Post