From Syria’s Earthquakes, Assad Emerges the Only Winner

The catastrophe is already being exploited to pave the way for international normalization with the Syrian regime

From Syria’s Earthquakes, Assad Emerges the Only Winner
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (C) smiles while visiting neighborhoods affected by an earthquake in the northern city of Aleppo on Feb. 10, 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

That things are never so bad that they can’t get worse is an adage that appears to have held especially true in Syria and Turkey over the last few weeks (indeed the last few years, for the former). Just a fortnight after twin earthquakes tore through southern Turkey and northern Syria, leaving at least 47,000 dead in their wake, and hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, displaced, another powerful tremor shook the same region on Monday. This latest quake, with its epicenter in the southern Turkish border province of Hatay, had a magnitude of 6.4 — smaller than the 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude quakes of Feb. 6, but still large enough to potentially cause severe damage. At the time of writing, at least eight people had been killed by the latest temblor, with hundreds wounded and others trapped under the rubble of newly collapsed buildings.

Whatever the full extent of the damage from this latest earthquake — which was followed minutes later by a 5.8 magnitude aftershock and prompted (unfounded) fears of a tsunami — it is all terrible news for the people of Turkey’s Antakya, the historic grand metropolis that was already shattered by the first quakes two weeks ago.

Northwest Syria is not faring better. Just as the bare minimum of aid had begun to trickle in to this long-suffering populace — already displaced dozens of times by war, living in homes pockmarked with shells even before the earthquake struck, relying on volunteers to dig people from under rubble — their foundations were shaken again. In government-controlled areas, the fear is also palpable. Throngs of residents stood terrified in the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, unable to find refuge even in their homes amid the winter. A local radio station, Sham FM, said that an elderly woman in Hama died of a heart attack brought on by the fear and shock of the tremor.

This renewal of disaster and suffering, of calamity after calamity, in this luckless region can test even the most ardent optimist, and in fact feels sadistic to even chronicle. As the Saudi intellectual Sultan al-Amer wrote on Twitter, “One needs to possess a high degree of faith that God is merciful after what happened and is still happening in Syria: How is the tyrant victorious? How can the earthquake strike his opponents? And why is the result of the earthquake that governments are normalizing relations with him?”

There does indeed appear to be one figure who has consistently managed to profit off of the suffering of Syria’s people, and that is its president, Bashar al-Assad, who has adroitly managed to extract every possible concession and benefit out of every catastrophe to befall his people, whether brought upon their heads by himself or by natural disasters. While life has handed Assad a panoply of lemons to sour his endless stint in power, he has perfected the art of making lemonade out of them.

Assad’s fortunes have risen in direct proportion to the death toll. The Syrian president was not in the country during this latest earthquake — he was in fact reveling in receiving the red carpet treatment in the Sultanate of Oman, where he was being feted on a state visit, the first since the earthquake, that appeared to have little to do with the prospect of helping his own citizens navigate the aftermath of the tremors. Instead, the visit was a portent of what is to come — a broader rapprochement with his regime by its neighbors, with the earthquake and its humanitarian emergency a convenient excuse to effect it.

Oman is, of course, a perfect conduit for resolving regional crises. Vehemently nonaligned, it has refused to take sides in the various standoffs that have plagued the region, a position that has allowed it to act as mediator for some of the more momentous diplomatic efforts of the past decade, such as the early nuclear negotiations between Iran and the U.S. under the Obama administration. If there were any doubts that the Arab world and other nations were prepared to embrace Assad once again, they were laid to rest by comments from the Saudi foreign minister, who said at a security conference in Munich over the weekend that, “In the Arab world, there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable,” and that the earthquake necessitated a new approach to address humanitarian and refugee issues.

Saudi Arabia’s reticence — avoiding full normalization, allowing other regional powers to forge ahead instead, while maintaining back-channel contact — mirrors its approach to normalization with Israel, where it maintains its long-held stance that it will only offer full-fledged relations in exchange for a resolution of the Palestinian crisis, despite allies like the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco establishing full diplomatic ties with Israel. The Saudi foreign minister declined to say whether he would visit Damascus himself, despite recent visits by his Jordanian and Emirati counterparts, with the UAE in particular announcing enormous aid packages for Syria’s earthquake victims with great fanfare.

More significant still was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s declaration last month that he was prepared to meet Assad “for peace,” as part of a Russian initiative to end Syria’s war that has seen the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of both countries meet after over a decade of Turkey backing the opposition fighting to unseat Assad. Erdogan’s about-face, in fact, had energized a regional diplomacy to bring Assad back in from the cold, which the earthquake only accelerated.

With the latest crisis, the international embrace of the regime is likely to stick. Ankara, of course, has ulterior motives for making a deal with Assad — Syrian refugees have been blamed for Turkey’s economic woes and the collapse of its currency, both of which are in fact largely the result of government mismanagement. This perception has contributed to Erdogan’s party’s slow decline in recent elections, an issue that is growing more urgent as general elections this summer draw nearer (his nationalist and secularist opponents have for years pledged to pursue a deal with Assad to resolve the refugee crisis).

Less immediately clear is why the Gulf states would want to normalize relations, or even why they haven’t normalized yet, given human rights do not govern their foreign policies, beyond perhaps securing some influence through business investments, a vehicle for their rapprochement with Erdogan, with whom they were at odds for years over his support for the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Gulf states may also hope to draw Assad gradually away from the Iranian sphere of influence — an approach that has failed spectacularly in the past. After the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, Gulf allies first joined in isolating Assad, who was blamed for the bombing that claimed the premier’s life. Yet as Hezbollah’s influence grew and the alliance between Syria and Iran solidified, the Gulf states then sought a rapprochement with Assad, culminating in a historic summit in Beirut between Saudi King Abdullah and the Syrian president in 2010. The influence these diplomatic efforts hoped for failed to materialize a year later when the uprising and subsequent conflict in Syria began.

Whatever the reasons for this rapprochement, the earthquakes are a perfect opportunity to cloak it in the garb of humanitarianism. This push began shortly after the earthquake, when supporters of normalization took to social media to claim that the sanctions against the Assad regime were making it impossible to provide aid to ordinary Syrians in the immediate aftermath — a concern that did not extend to those living in rebel-held territories in the northwest like Idlib, where aid through the border crossing with Turkey was hampered by the abject failure of the U.N.’s bureaucracy.

And so we find ourselves in the bizarre situation where a man who presided over the destruction of his country and the deaths of half a million of his countrymen through all forms of killing is the only beneficiary of a calamity that has again crushed his own people. Indeed, Assad hardly looks like a commander-in-chief mourning the thousands that perished in the tremor — he is surprisingly jubilant and unfailingly smiling in his visits to shelters and foreign states alike, almost like an ambulance-chasing lawyer who has never seen an accident that didn’t please him, perfecting once again his penchant for succeeding and rising by standing atop the corpses of Syrians.

But perhaps the lesson to be drawn from all this is just how alone Syrians are, on both sides of the divide. The residents of cities like Aleppo sleep in their cars in the cold winter, with little left of a state to help them recover and live their lives again. There was nothing normal about their lives before the earthquake, let alone after it. In Idlib, meanwhile, international powers abandoned even the pretense of caring enough to send aid or help people trapped under the rubble.

Alone they remain, tremor after tremor, as their leader drinks the lemonade.

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