The massive earthquake that hit the north and west of Syria on 6 February 2023 struck a country that was already devastated.
The day before the natural disaster, Syria was broken. It had lost millions of its people to civil war, via a death toll of 500,00. It also created 6.5 million refugees – one-in-five of the global total – and 6.8 million internally displaced people, who fled within its national borders. Those who remained were labouring under the weight of harsh sanctions.
Its President Bashar al-Assad was not ready to leave, even after 12 years of war. The conflict pushed millions of Syrians into poverty, ignorance, and insecurity.
The future looked just as grim. Fuel shortages had forced the government to declare additional non-working days in December 2022. That was hard to grasp after Daesh was able to smuggle out oil worth between $1 million and $4 million every day when it controlled the oilfields in the northeast. By February 2023, they were under the control of the United States and the Kurdish Social Democratic Forces.
Billions of dollars in military support and humanitarian aid four United Nations Special Envoys, several UN Security Council resolutions, and numerous meetings and summits have failed to produce tangible results, just like the programme of international sanctions.
The commitment to to Syria’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity – championed by the UN Security Council’s Resolution 2254 of December 2015 – was waning, as was hope for an inclusive Syrian-led political solution with the resolution has helped establish. The step-by-step approach advocated by the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Geir Pedersen, was not producing results.
Diplomatic language internationally remained bellicose. US and European Union sanctions were hurting the economy and rippled through society. There was a lack of capacity in health, education, transportation, security, water, and electricity, with problems sourcing equipment and spare parts.
Even humanitarian groups was struggling to comply with the requirements of a risk-averse private sector, amid higher costs and multiple red lines imposed by theit partners. Some prominent donors feared that early recovery could legitimize the “Regime”, but the sanctions designed to harm it were hurting vulnerable people the most.
And yet Syria is still standing. Support from its allies certainly helps, but it cannot explain everything. Smuggling is a thriving business across borders and ports. Fuel, arms and some consumer goods flow in and out of Syria, bringing much-needed income for imports. There is also the trade in the drug Captagon, produced in Syria.
Meanwhile, Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan have become a burden on their host countries and communities and face daily threats of expulsion. Many refugees would like come home, but the conditions for a safe and dignified return do not exist. Basic infrastructure, schools, hospitals, protection, and livelihood opportunities are missing. The biggest donors often opposed UN efforts to improve conditions in areas of return.
There is a rampant feeling of fatigue. Syrians want peace to go on with their lives. Whenever security and stability allowed, they rebuilt their businesses and houses in the midst of ruins and rubble.
And so, on the eve of 6 February, the circumstances of the country were desperate. And then came the earthquake