The Earthquake Has Left Syrian Kurds Even More Under Siege
Between devastating natural disasters and relentless attacks by Assad and Erdogan, the Kurds of Syria face threats from all sides.
It was raining and cold on February 6 when the earthquake hit Aleppo. As tremors shook the city’s autonomous Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, buildings crumbled and thousands of people fled into the streets. Among them were the family members of a middle-aged tailor’s assistant named Foruq. But Foruq himself could not get out in time. The multistory building in which he lived collapsed around him, and he was crushed in the rubble.
Foruq “was a good man,” a neighbor told us two weeks after the earthquake as we looked at the ruin left behind, now prowled by feral cats. Foruq’s family had fled to a refugee camp in nearby Shehba, the neighbor explained. He took us to meet another neighbor who worked with Foruq, but the man was so traumatized that he was unable to speak or move. Lying under blankets by the stove in his chilly apartment, frightened into silence, he was cared for by a family member who told us that they took him to the doctor, “but they say there was nothing they could do.”
The February 6 earthquake that killed more than 50,000 people and injured more than 120,000 across southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria has had a particularly devastating aftermath in the Kurdish communities in northern Syrian. Here, instead of trying to alleviate the suffering of their citizens, the governments of Turkey and Syria weaponized the crisis for their own political ends, particularly against the Kurdish people. This became painfully clear during our tour of three largely Kurdish areas.
In addition to the 22 people killed and 100 injured in Sheikh Maqsoud and bordering Ashrafiyeh, 60,000 people were displaced from their homes in those two neighborhoods alone. Because of the lack of emergency housing, five more people, including children, died from exposure.
While people were cold and hungry, for two weeks the Assad regime refused to let a single truck of emergency aid into Sheikh Maqsoud. When we arrived on February 20, we passed a convoy from Heyva Sor, the Kurdish Red Crescent, including ambulances, medical workers, trucks full of food, tents, blankets, medicine, and heating fuel—all sitting on the side of the road. They had been there for a week, waiting for permission to cross.
“We’re poor people. Now we have nothing, and we have nowhere to go,” an elderly woman told us, as we toured the neighborhood. “It’s been two weeks, and the regime still won’t let anything through. We don’t even have enough blankets.”
An elderly man ushered us closer. “We’re not just in this situation because of the earthquake,” he confided. “We’re here because of the oppression and discrimination against us as Kurdish people.”
Sheikh Maqsoud is a kind of Kurdish-controlled island in the middle of Aleppo, a city otherwise ruled by the Syrian regime. Many of its residents relocated from the Kurdish region of Afrin, where they lived until 2018, when it was invaded by Turkish-backed jihadist militias who displaced 300,000 Kurds in what is now widely viewed as ethnic cleansing. Though surrounded by the Assad regime, Sheikh Maqsoud is connected organizationally and ideologically to Rojava, more formally known as the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES).
Like the rest of Rojava, Shiekh Maqsoud is governed in a grassroots assembly model cochaired by women and embracing direct democracy, women’s rights, and ecological stewardship. As an isolated pocket of Kurdish autonomy, Sheikh Maqsoud has paid a heavy price for its freedom, including years of attacks from both the Assad regime and the opposition forces, the Al-Nusra Front. The regime has also imposed a strict embargo, blocking basic supplies such as food, medicine, cooking oil and heating oil. “In a sense, you could say that the people here have been living through an earthquake for the last 10 years,” a resident told us.
Shortly after the quake, Rojava leaders tried to send 50 aid trucks to areas controlled by the Syrian regime, and 50 to the areas controlled by Turkey. Turkey initially refused passage of aid into the region occupied by its jihadist proxy forces, but later let them through, reportedly because of US pressure, on the condition that all markings of the AANES be removed from the trucks. Much of that aid has been stolen and tampered with by Turkish-backed armed factions occupying the region, officials told us.
Meanwhile, two weeks after the quake, the Assad regime had still refused to let aid from the AANES enter their territory and reach those in need in Aleppo and in Shehba, another region we visited 30 minutes north of Aleppo. The regime demanded that the aid be handed over to the government.
“We’ve been working around the clock without rest, trying to make sure no one here goes without food, water, or a safe place to sleep,” a cochair of the Sheikh Maqsoud autonomous municipal council explained. Pausing to take a phone call, he told us: “That was the Syrian Arab Red Crescent. They’re willing to bring us some aid but now the military is demanding that we pay them an enormous sum of money just to let it through. We’re negotiating.”
At Sheikh Maqsoud’s autonomous hospital, Khalil, the head of staff told us, “We’re the only hospital serving 300,000 people. Due to the blockade, we lack medicine, staff, and basic supplies. We don’t even have a working ambulance.” He added, “Some people died here needlessly after the quake just because we couldn’t treat them. We know for a fact that the government has been receiving airplanes full of aid from other countries, but we still haven’t seen any of it.”
On March 6, a month after the earthquake, Amnesty International released a detailed report describing how aid had been turned away, stolen, and used as a cudgel against residents of the village, with devastating consequences. Amnesty found that the Syrian government had prevented at least 100 trucks with vitally needed aid from entering the Kurdish areas in Aleppo, and that Turkish-backed groups blocked an additional 30 aid trucks from entering the city of Afrin. The human rights organization noted that the turning away of aid had “tragic ramifications,” especially for search and recovery teams who needed fuel, hospitals that had run out of medications, and people without adequate food, clothing, and blankets in the cold.
We also saw the effects of the lack of aid in Shahba and Tel Rifaat to the north of Aleppo. Shahba is home to five camps for internally displaced people. Many fled there after Turkey invaded Afrin in 2018. Still more arrived after the February 6 earthquake and the second quake on February 20.
In one of those camps, Serdem, 125 new families had arrived since the earthquake, stretching the camp’s population from 3,100 to more than 3,600. Camp cochair Agiri told us that the refugee camps were already overextended before the earthquake, lacking resources and outside aid. “Now we have to cram multiple families into one small tent,” she said. UNICEF tries to provide the camp with water, but there is still not enough to go around.
Turkey’s refusal to let aid pass is part of an ongoing campaign, like that of the Syrian regime, to destabilize Rojava, home to 5 million people on a landmass twice the size of Vermont. Threatened by the democratic society on its border, Turkey in recent years has cut off water supplies, shelled residential civilian areas, and used drone strikes to assassinate local council leaders.
Turkey has a history of instrumentalizing earthquakes for political gain, especially against the Kurds. As in the past, in the aftermath of the February 6 quake, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by withholding aid, obstructing and arresting journalists, blocking grassroots community relief efforts, and centralizing power. The impact of these policies was felt particularly in the Afrin region, which was especially hard hit by the earthquake.
As one of the cities in the north closest to Afrin, Tel Rifaat, also part of Rojava, is in Turkey’s crosshairs as the next target for occupation. For months prior to the quake, Erdogan had threatened to invade, in keeping with his plan to create a 30-kilometer (18-mile) so-called “safe zone” on Syria’s northern border. In the months before the earthquake, Turkey and its proxies attacked the city relentlessly with air strikes, drones, and artillery. And just two days after the earthquake on February 8, Turkish forces again shelled the city, killing one civilian and wounding another.
In Tel Rifaat, we met the man wounded by Turkish shelling. When the attack occurred, he was living in a tent, having been displaced from his house by the quake. The roof of his neighbor’s house exploded when it was hit by a Turkish mortar, and a piece of shrapnel hit him directly in the face. He was now missing an eye. The neighbor, Yusef Abed, a 70-year-old retired butcher, was killed in the attack. “He was just praying on the roof when the bomb hit,” Abed’s son-in-law explained. “His body exploded and pieces of it were spread all over the place, even into the neighbor’s yard.”
Turkey has repeatedly shown that terrorizing civilians takes priority over providing earthquake aid. Five days after our visit to Sheikh Maqsoud, Hamza Kobane, a member of the Sheikh Maqsoud General Council Economy Committee, was assassinated, and three other civilians were injured by a bomb believed planted by Turkish National Intelligence Organization affiliates. This follows a Turkish drone strike on February 12, near Kobane that killed another civilian, and the shooting of a 16-year-old boy in the leg while he was pruning trees. The Rojava Information Center last week released a report documenting that Turkey engaged in 130 drone strikes in 2022, killing 87 people including civilians and children, and injuring 151, a 46 percent increase from the previous year, as part of its efforts to destabilize the region.
The people of Rojava fear that Turkey’s efforts to strangle their region by limiting outside aid and increasing military operations will only worsen as the coming presidential election approaches in May. Facing criticism for his sinking economy and poor earthquake response—even within non-Kurdish regions of Turkey—Erdogan is expected to resort to his usual playbook: stoking nationalist fervor by ramping up military action against the Kurds both in Rojava and in the mountains of Iraq, where the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) is based and against whom Erdogan has used banned chemical weapons.
Kurdish officials want the world to recognize that the future of Rojava and the Kurds is directly tied to the stability of Syria and the region. Rojava deserves US support, Kurdish officials say, not just because of the sacrifice of the 13,000 women and men who gave their lives to defeat ISIS, but because as a democratic, women-centered, non-sectarian society in an area riven with sectarian violence, it is a model of how Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens, Christians, Yazidis, and others can live in peace. It is a beacon of hope for the liberation of women throughout the Middle East and a testament to the ability of people to self-govern in a directly democratic political structure that empowers everyone.
It was clear from our tour that both Turkey and Syria are engaged in a cruel political game: deliberately exacerbating the suffering of Kurdish earthquake survivors by pirating and stalling aid meant to reach Kurds unfortunate enough to be refugees in territory controlled by Assad or Erdogan. While aid finally began to flow to the stricken Kurdish regions two weeks after the deadly quake, officials say much of it is still being held up or held hostage. An AANES spokesperson said that the Syrian regime had demanded 60 percent of the aid, which Rojava officials agreed to so as to get some through to the local population.
This callous stance by both strongmen underscores why it’s time for the United States to extend to Rojava the political recognition it deserves as an autonomous region so that it has better bargaining power with the Assad regime. Washington should also enforce the US-Russia treaty designed to prevent further incursions into Rojava by Turkey since the 2019 invasion that was green-lighted by Donald Trump. It should force an end to the low-grade drone war that Turkey is waging to terrorize the population, eliminate Kurdish leaders, and destabilize democracy. And it should shepherd a broader peace by pressing Turkey to honor the unilateral cease-fire announced after the earthquake by the PKK. Finally, the United States must push Turkey to return to the negotiating table with the PKK, and once and for all delist the PKK as a “terrorist” organization, which gives Turkey cover for its relentless, yet hopeless, mission to destroy the Kurdish people and their democratic society.
Kurtis Dengler reported this story from Rojava, the Autonomous Administration in North and East Syria (AANES). Debbie Bookchin provided reporting and writing from the United States.