An earthquake is a natural disaster, but the death toll and suffering on the northern Syrian border is anything but natural

As of this morning, more than 28,000 people are known to have died in Monday’s two devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and the death toll is going to continue to rise as the rescue and clear-up work continues.

The sheer scale of the destruction is obvious, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has called it “the disaster of the century.” The World Health Organisation is also warning of a second humanitarian disaster, as well over one million already vulnerable people have been displaced by tragedy. There is a desperate lack of shelter, food, fuel and electricity in a region currently experiencing near freezing temperatures by day, and far worse by night.

It wasn’t until four days after the tragedy hit that the first international aid supplies to reach the stricken region. Six UN lorries carrying Carrying blankets, mattresses, tents and basic relief items sufficient for 5,000 people, crossed into Syria from Turkey through the Bab al-Hawa crossing. The convoy wasn’t actually a response to the earthquakes, but just a scheduled run of relief aid to the region, which had been happening since before the earthquake. The most urgent needs – for medical equipment, medicines and rescue equipment, have still yet to reach the disaster area in any meaningful amounts.

Although there is huge experience and expertise in responding to global calamities, the aid logistics – if they are to be effective ­– inevitably consume precious time, exactly when this commodity is least available. As numerous international aid agencies swing into action, it is hoped that the situation on supplies will improve significantly over the weekend.

In any such disaster politics is rarely far from the surface, and this one is no exception. The bitter civil war between the Free Syrian Army led by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and various opposition forces has been rumbling on since March 2011. This ruthless conflict has displaced millions of Syrians to the north of the country, and across the border into southern Turkey, the epicentre of Monday’s earthquakes. In his turn, Turkey’s president, Tayyip Erdogan, has backed rebels fighting to topple Assad and even sent his own troops into northern Syria, leading to diplomatic ties between the two countries being severed.

With conditions after the earthquake far worse than anything seen during the 12 years of civil war, the pressure is on both governments to open a humanitarian corridor to allow large-scale supplies to reach the devastated region, where 90% of the population was already reliant on humanitarian aid even before the earthquake hit. The demands come after the Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Basssam Sabbagh, was accused of ‘playing politics with aid’, when he stated earlier this week that Syria should be responsible for the delivery of all aid into Syria, even those areas not currently under government control. Understandably, al-Assad’s well documented history of aid diversion is making western governments wary of complying with this particular demand.

Over at the United Nations, where Vladimir Putin is a protector of the al-Assad regime, the Russian power of veto has also been hampering cross border aid. Just yesterday the Syrian Network for Human Rights released a report entitled, Russia’s Veto Blocking the UN Cross-Border Relief Aid is Unlawful and its Only Aim is to Seize UN Relief Aid, stressing that Russia’s exploitation of the UN relief aid for political gain must be stopped.

Currently there is only one supply corridor, and one border crossing, in northern Syria, and there’s even a doubt as to whether or not this is being controlled by the Syrian government, or Turkish-controlled opposition. Following the quake the route has been all but destroyed, with snow and freezing temperatures adding to the problems. In response, the US Secretary of State has ruled out delivering aid via the Syrian government, saying: “it would be ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalised its people over the course of a dozen years now – gassing them, slaughtering them, being responsible for much of the suffering that they have endured.”

There are deep questions too on the Turkish side. Following the catastrophic earthquake there in 1999 that killed more than 18,000 people, the government imposed an earthquake tax on its citizens, designed to create a reserve of billions of dollars to help with future such disasters. By all accounts the money collected over the past 20 years seems to have disappeared, under accusations of cronyism and corruption.

“They grease their cronies’ palms with earthquake taxes,” says political opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu. “Where is that money? It’s gone.”

It is believed that that the reserve was spent on highway and other construction projects, with the contracts being handed to associates of Erdogan and his coalition government. Some of these contracts are believed to have been for the construction of domestic properties, many of which were poorly constructed and linked to corruption within the Turkish building industry.

Stricter building safety standards were introduced across Turkey following the 1999 quake, but there has also been a policy of granting “construction amnesties” (for a suitable fee) that offer legal exemptions to buildings constructed without the required earthquake safety certificate. according to Pelin Pınar Giritlioglu, Istanbul head of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects’ Chamber of City Planners, there could be up to 75,000 building across the earthquake zone with an exemption certificate, which points to a far more systematic abuse of the system than just periodic exemptions. A study this week by the BBC of video and social media images of collapsed buildings has raised worrying questions about some of the most modern apartment blocks in the affected region. These structures, several only completed as recently as 2019, should have been able to withstand the quake – but video has shown them crumbling to dust. With more than four million Syrian refuges displaced into southern Turkey, there was undoubtedly considerable pressure to provide housing, but lax practices and government corruption has added immeasurably to the suffering and loss being experienced this week.

As ever, the inability of national leaders to settle their differences, and a fixation with the accumulation of personal wealth, has brought tragedy and grief to millions of innocent, ordinary people. Dictators and autocrats have been around since time itself, but we don’t seem to have made much progress in our ability to deal with such despots, and the terrible consequences of their actions. In the case of Syria and Turkey we have two dictators who have been engaging for decades in the annihilation of their own citizens, and the denial of their basic human rights and freedoms. Just this week, Dame Barbara Woodward, UK Permanent Representative to the United Nations in New York, gave evidence to the UN Security Council meeting on Syria that: “the Assad regime has been working actively to rebuild its chemical weapons stockpile since at least 2018.” Dame Barbara also spoke of: “the latest overwhelming evidence of Syria’s chemical weapons use.”

The UK has had a highly questionable relationship with Syria’s President al-Assad ever since Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed him enthusiastically to the UK on an official visit in 2002, and a similar welcome was accorded Turkish President Erdogan on a UK official three-day visit in 2018, after which Erdogan praised Britain as “an ally and a strategic partner, but also a real friend” .

In politics there will always be an element of strategy, and arguments for maintaining dialogue with even the worst of dictators – in the hope of enlightenment and transformation. There are, however, times when blatant injustice, corruption and inhumanity just needs to be called out for what it is. Disasters such as earthquakes are entirely natural phenomena, but there’s nothing natural in the terrible, mounting casualty figures in Syria and Turkey, nor in the difficulties being experienced by aid agencies in reaching the devastated region. As well as praying for the victims and all who are working to provide them with help and support, we should pray too for legislators, dictators and despots – that better ways might be be found to resolve our human differences.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian