The world must not abandon northwest Syria (again)

As the February 6 earthquakes move down the global news agenda, we should not forget the promises we made to long-suffering Syrians.

Mahmoud Omar al-Ormi sits with his son Ahmad amid the rubble of their building in Atarib
Mahmoud Omar al-Ormi sits with his son Ahmad amid the rubble of their building in Atarib, northwest Syria. Al-Ormi lost his pregnant wife and four children to the earthquake [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

This month, after two massive earthquakes claimed thousands of lives and flattened entire towns and villages in the country’s northwest, the world finally started paying some attention to Syria. The devastation caused by the disaster grabbed international headlines, and governments pledged to deliver aid to affected areas.

This renewed focus on Syria is much needed and welcome, but long overdue.

Syria’s humanitarian crisis did not start with the February 6 earthquakes. Before this month’s disaster, seven in 10 Syrians – some 15.3 million people – were already unable to meet their basic needs. Millions were suffering the many consequences of seemingly never-ending conflict, and a shocking 90 percent of the population was considered to be living in poverty.

For too long, the international community turned a blind eye to the growing humanitarian crisis in Syria. In fact, many in the West did not even know Syria’s brutal conflict is not yet over until this month’s earthquake returned the country to the global spotlight. Indeed, a poll commissioned in the United Kingdom by our charity, Syria Relief, in 2021 – during one of the most intense moments in the conflict and as humanitarian needs spiralled to unprecedented levels – revealed that only 58 percent of Britons were aware that the Syrian war was still ongoing at that time.

The international community was indifferent to and ignorant of Syrian suffering until this month’s tragic events for several reasons: media apathy towards a conflict that has been going on for more than 10 years, the West becoming more insular and focussed on its own immediate problems, the prevalence of a “charity begins at home” mindset amid a global economic downturn…

Of course, none of these is an acceptable excuse for ignoring the plight of Syrians. I believe charity should begin where the needs are greatest and Syrians, suffering from several interconnected crises, have been in desperate need of humanitarian assistance for more than 10 years.

Since the February 6 earthquakes, Syria finally started to receive, to a certain extent, the attention it deserves and the assistance it needs from the world. But can we be certain that the international community will not abandon Syria once another crisis starts dominating the news cycle?

I recall the devastating aftermath of the blast that ripped through the port of Beirut in 2020. I remember how the entire world suddenly started to pay attention to the problems that had plagued Lebanon for at least a generation – the problems that paved the way for the explosion. I remember how the great and the good said action would be taken, help would come, and no longer would the global community leave Lebanon without any support. Regrettably, this dedication lasted only a few weeks – if that. Today, the economic and political turmoil in Lebanon is worse than ever.

I also remember how in 2021, when Gaza was under bombardment, so many in positions of power said they were outraged and promised action. Their determination, of course, lasted only a single news cycle. The blockaded enclave was again under attack just a few weeks later.

Last year, Pakistan and war-torn Yemen suffered from fatal floods. There were news reports, pledges and promises of help, but the world’s attention dried up faster than the floodwaters.

Now, I am afraid the same will soon happen to Syria. I am afraid that once a new crisis grabs the headlines, the plight of the Syrian people will be forgotten.

This week marks one year since the start of the Ukraine war. On this anniversary, the media attention will understandably turn to Ukraine, and the human suffering still being caused by this conflict. This, however, should not be at the expense of the Syrians. We cannot afford to focus on a single crisis at a time, and allow media attention to decide who gets to be supported or saved.

Today there is a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. However, the February 6 earthquakes did not start this crisis – they only exacerbated it. The situation got this bad because the international community did relatively little to address the root causes of Syria’s many problems for many years. Today, Syrians are suffering not a natural disaster but a man-made one.

Now that the world is once again looking at Syria due to the earthquakes, it should not look away. Governments and UN bodies must treat this tragedy as a wake-up call – they should not only take action to swiftly meet the urgent humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, but also start working towards securing a lasting, just and sustainable peace in the country. We, the public, must pressure our leaders to act. We must make sure they do not simply move on to the next tragedy, problem or conflict once the earthquakes fall off the news agenda.

The West and the wider world have the luxury to move on when they become bored of the myriad problems facing Syria – but Syrians, especially those in the earthquake-hit northwest, are not. They have no easy way out of the area which has long been devastated by conflict and is now also a natural disaster zone – an area so isolated and closed up that high-level UN negotiations have to take place on a six-monthly basis to even get basic humanitarian aid into the region.

Today Syrians are suffering so much because the world has been ignoring their plight for years. The earthquakes caused so much destruction and pain in Syria because they tore through what was already a hotspot of poverty and deprivation. We should make sure the world does not turn its back on Syrians again – if it does, the damage it causes would be worse than that of 100 natural disasters.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.