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For many, the race has already been lost. On Friday, the death toll passed 21,500; tens of thousands of other people have been injured, and officials in Turkey and Syria are warning that the number of dead may be twice or three times the current number.
For now, the earth has stopped shaking violently. But beyond the crises brought by seismology and the weather and poorly-constructed buildings, the impact is being compounded by a different set of aftershocks: the geopolitical kind.
On one side of the border, there is Syria, where the northern areas affected by the quake are largely controlled by different opposition and rebel groups, a legacy of the civil war that has raged for more than a decade in that country. Part of the northwest is controlled by Turkey, another by a rebel group with links to al-Qaeda; and the northeast is in the grip of Kurdish-led groups, backed by the U.S. and opposed by Turkey. Most of the remainder of the country is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, who continues to rule ruthlessly and remains under international sanctions.
On the other side, there is Turkey, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who, facing a close election challenge later this year, is scrambling to counter harsh criticism of his government’s response to the quake. As the criticism flared this week, Erdogan resorted to the autocrat’s playbook and temporarily blocked social media — and in the process, interrupted the sharing of critical information about relief efforts and the locations of those trapped under the debris.
Two leaders — and two complex political circumstances — have contributed one more layer of trouble for those affected on both sides of the border.
In Syria, a dictator still calls the shots
When it comes to dealing with a disaster of this scale and complexity, the situation in Syria, in many ways, could not be worse.
At the heart of the problem: the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.
Protests against Assad’s regime in 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring uprisings that shook the region, metastasized into a protracted civil conflict that continues today and has left large swathes of northern Syria — the region impacted by the quake — in the hands of various rebel and opposition groups. Over the same period, Assad has consolidated his grip on the rest of the nation.
That grip is a brutal one. Over the years, aid organizations and human rights advocates have repeatedly accused Syria of blocking assistance to areas outside the government’s control; Assad and his Russian allies, meanwhile, have continued to bomb rebel enclaves.
The point was echoed by the U.S. this week as Washington turned to non-governmental and humanitarian groups to help deliver relief following the quake.
“It would be quite ironic, if not even counterproductive, for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized 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,” U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.
The upshot of all this is very little aid gets in, even in the best of times.
This week, relief shipments were shut down for days when that one crossing was blocked because of infrastructure damage caused by the earthquake; the first U.N. convoy carrying aid to the area only made it through on Thursday.
Meanwhile, Assad’s allies have been delivering relief supplies directly to Damascus; Russia and Iran have both sent help to the regime.
While Turkey asked for the world’s help immediately, Syria waited until Wednesday to make formal requests for help — including to the European Union. It’s still unclear whether the EU will respond; one unnamed EU official, speaking to Reuters, said the bloc would require safeguards to be put in place to ensure its aid reaches those most in need.
In Turkey, a strongman under fire
That crisis, which drove inflation as high as 85 percent at one point last year, now meets the crisis caused by the earthquake. In the initial hours following the quake, Erdogan faced scathing criticism for delays in his government’s response, something he addressed on Wednesday.
Anger persists, however, at the government’s lack of preparedness for a disaster that seismologists had warned about — Turkey, after all, sits on what is one of the world’s most seismically active areas. As Soli Ozel, a lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, told NPR: “This government was just not prepared.”
Critics noted that the government has collected a special earthquake tax for more than two decades; the levy was imposed in the aftermath of a 1999 earthquake that killed more than 18,000 people. Its purpose: to build a fund that could be used to support not just disaster relief but also disaster preparedness.
Erdogan’s critics claim that problems in the response this week are a result of those funds having been diverted to other government initiatives, including big-ticket infrastructure projects championed by Erdogan during his rule.
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