Looking for responsibility among the rubble: why have the earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria been so devastating?
When a devastating earthquake that could be felt all throughout Europe hit Lisbon in 1755, the theodicy debate went into yet another round. Contemporaries wondered how God could be good and merciful, yet allow for (or even provoke) such immense suffering. As science has progressed, we have acquired the ability to explain (if not always predict) the mechanisms behind natural disasters, but the “why?” question relating to the loss of lives remains. The most recent events to have triggered these types of questions are the earthquakes in the border region between Türkiye and Syria. As rescue and rebuilding efforts continue, survivors have started looking for responsibility among the rubble, and are wondering: could any part of this have been avoided?
At 4.17 am local time, the city of Gaziantep, located in South-eastern Türkiye, was struck by an earthquake of 7.8 Mw magnitude. The seismic shockwave moved outwards in concentric circles and affected the surrounding region, including the cities of Adana in Türkiye and Idlib and Aleppo in Northern Syria. Later that day, at 1.24 pm local time, another earthquake that can hardly be called an aftershock given its 7.6 Mw magnitude, occurred, its epicentre less than 100 kilometres north of the first one. The region continued to be shaken by aftershocks all the way through the week following the initial earthquakes, but the Earth seems to have calmed down since. The same cannot be said for the humanitarian situation in the affected area: On 16 February, ten days after the earthquake, the total death toll was nearing 42,000, with at least a million people left homeless, and around 26 million in need of aid. More than 35,000 people were killed in Türkiye, and almost 6,000 died in Syria. These numbers are bound to rise further as the more time passes, the less likely it is that survivors will still be discovered under the rubble.
Earthquakes are not uncommon in this region of the world, where several of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth meet.
Earthquakes are not uncommon in this region of the world, where several of the tectonic plates that make up the Earth meet. Most, but not all, of Türkiye is located on the Anatolian Plate. The very North of the country, as well as the East, are on the Eurasian Plate, meaning that the North Anatolian Fault Line between the two plates goes right through the country, and even right through Istanbul, Türkiye’s biggest city that is home to around 15 million people. The Anatolian Plate borders on another plate to its south: the Arabian plate, on which most of Syria is located. The interaction between these two plates, notably a movement of the Arabian plate towards the Anatolian plate, is what most likely caused the recent earthquakes along the East Anatolian Fault line. The two plates had been locked for a considerable time, with very few seismic events occurring, meaning that when they did unlock, they triggered a series of earthquakes with a considerable potential for destruction.
To make matters worse, the epicentre of the two most powerful shocks was located very close to the surface, at only 10 km depth. This may not sound like a short distance in human terms, but it’s a stone’s throw where tectonic plates are concerned.
While Türkiye has borne the brunt of these earthquakes, the complex political situation in Northern Syria has exacerbated the effects of the natural disaster. There are several regions that are part of Syria according to international law, but have been factually autonomous ever since the Civil War.
The city of Idlib, which was hit particularly badly, and the surrounding region are controlled by the islamist group Tahrir al-Sham. While the group have established military authority over Idlib, they have not been able to replicate the infrastructure and basic amenities provided by the state. Even before the earthquakes, living conditions were dire, with many of the 4 million people in Idlib homeless or living in tents and other makeshift accommodations. Stuck between Assad-controlled Syria to the South and the border with Türkiye to the North, the region was essentially cut off from international aid as the roads leading up to the only border crossing that was open to disaster relief supplies were badly damaged in the earthquake. What little aid or financial support has reached Idlib in the past has often been pocketed by the rebels.
Relations between Türkiye and Syria are tense. But a reconciliation between the two countries does not appear to be entirely out of the question.
Another semi-autonomous region in Northern Syria, though with a very different background, is Rojava. The region, which is predominantly Kurdish, became factually autonomous as a result of the war in Syria. While this has reluctantly been accepted by the government in Damascus, it is anathema to the Turkish government in Ankara. Violating international law, Türkiye started a military offensive against Rojava in 2018 that has had devastating effects for the population of the region.
Parts of Northern Syria remain under the control of the central government, notably the 3-million city of Aleppo, which was also struck by the earthquakes. The regime of President Bashar al-Assad has been an outcast from the international community since the Syrian Civil War, with embargos and other sanctions against Syria in place. On 8 February, Syria requested assistance from the European Union, which some observers interpret as an attempt to overcome Syria’s international isolation under the pretext of disaster relief. Such a development appears unlikely since humanitarian aid through the Civil Protection Mechanism is clearly exempt from EU sanctions, but some non-EU countries, such as Egypt, have signalled that they might be willing to pursue a closer relationship with Syria.
Relations between Türkiye and Syria are tense. But a reconciliation between the two countries does not appear to be entirely out of the question, as the Syrian and Turkish defence ministers met in Moscow last December. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is eager to deliver on his promise to send back one million Syrian refugees that fled to Türkiye during the Syrian Civil War. But to achieve this, he needs Assad’s help, which might be one of the topics of discussion at a potential meeting between the two leaders. It remains to be seen whether a potential cooperation between Türkiye and Syria could be extended to reconstruction efforts and mutual aid following these earthquakes.
In Türkiye itself, voices stating that the Turkish state is partly to blame both for the immense death toll have been getting louder, criticising both the lack of preventive measures taken to minimise the damage of a potential earthquake, and the inefficiency of rescue efforts in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
Though earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict, experts had been warning about this one for years.
Some of the fallout can be traced back to the seismic ongoings themselves. This includes the shallow location of the epicentre as well as the magnitude of the two main earthquakes, 7.8 and 7.5 respectively.
Population density might be a factor, and one might be inclined to wonder why people live in seismically active zones in the first place. But given that our understanding of plate tectonics has much improved compared to historical earthquakes, blaming the severe loss of lives on population density feels like an excuse rather than an explanation for the severe loss of lives. Though earthquakes are notoriously hard to predict, experts had been warning about this one for years, giving the Turkish government plenty of time to implement preventive measures. Japan lies in a region of similar seismic activity, yet the impact of recent earthquakes of a similar magnitude has been much less severe.
Part of the anger at the Turkish state goes back almost 25 years, to another seismic event that sent shockwaves through Turkish society. In 1999, Izmit (around 100 km East of Istanbul) and the surrounding region were hit by a 7.6 magnitude earthquake that killed 17,000 people. New, stricter building regulations were introduced in 2000 to ensure that going forward, construction standards would be appropriate for the region’s high seismic activity. But in the provinces affected by this earthquake, there were many old buildings whose time of construction preceded the introduction of the new regulations, and even new buildings did not always comply with safety standards. The state turned a blind eye, or even formally legalised such buildings through ‘construction amnesties’ like in 2018. Owners of buildings that did not comply with earthquake safety regulations paid a special fee in exchange for obtaining a retroactive permit, filling the state coffers. A win-win situation, at least until the ground starts shaking, buildings collapse like pancakes, and thousands find their death under concrete that clearly was not reinforced.
Delayed rescue efforts in the aftermath of the catastrophe added insult to thousandfold injury. Again, some of this is linked to natural causes, as the region in question was hit by the earthquakes and a winter storm at the same time, blocking off roads and preventing rescue teams from reaching the scene of the disaster quickly. Minor delays can be fatal for thousands when it comes to earthquake relief: Humans can survive without water for around 72 hours, not to mention the danger of asphyxiation once air pockets under the rubble run dry, and the increased risk of hypothermia due to the cold temperatures brought on by the storm. There is a short window of around 72 hours to rescue survivors, and afterwards, the survival rate plummets. Survivors were discovered several days after the earthquakes, but every one of these rescues is a small miracle.
Criticising the earthquake prevention and mitigation performance of the Turkish state is synonymous with criticising the government.
However, in these crucial first hours and days after the catastrophe, the otherwise omnipresent Turkish state was nowhere to be seen, with reports of citizens left to their own devices, forced to begin search and rescue efforts equipped with nothing but their bare hands. The centralisation of disaster relief coordination under the national agency AFAD barred other groups from intervening, and it is likely that the Turkish army, which played a significant role in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake, could have made a difference had it been sent to the affected regions immediately after the earthquakes.
Criticising the earthquake prevention and mitigation performance of the Turkish state is synonymous with criticising the government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been in power in one form or another since 2003. Up for re-election in May (though there is talk of postponing the elections due to the earthquake), President Erdoğan is more careful than ever about his public image. During his first visit to the disaster zone, Twitter was blocked in Türkiye, presumably to limit the circulation of negative comments about Erdoğan and his government. The state of free speech and free press in Türkiye has deteriorated under Erdoğan’s increasingly authoritarian presidency, with numerous cases of journalists being detained and, in the aftermath of the current disaster, people being arrested for “provocative” and “dishonorable” posts on social media.
Perhaps with the elections fast approaching, Erdoğan is looking to present himself as a second Marquês de Pombal, the level-headed Enlightenment prime minister who oversaw the reconstruction of Lisbon and (at least architectonically) gave it back some of its former glory. The Portuguese statesman is often quoted as having said: “bury the dead, and take care of the living”. Echoing the sentiment, Erdoğan claimed on his visit to the disaster zone that “such things have always happened. It’s part of destiny’s plan.” In other words: it’s no use crying over spilled…lives. The 15 million people living in Istanbul, which is at high risk of an earthquake and by no means prepared, might have a different opinion on this.
In the past, Erdoğan has masterfully turned around tricky situations to his advantage, including the 2015 European migrant crisis. Who knows whether this time, the outrage at the cynical mismanagement of this earthquake both before and after it happened will threaten his political career once and for all, or whether he will be able to hold on to power in the same way he has for the last 20 years.
Meanwhile, hearts from all around the world have gone out to people in Türkiye and Syria. Being buried alive is one of people’s biggest fears, being unsafe in your own home is another, and having a literal crack go through the fabric of reality as your home and your life are reduced to rubble is the stuff of nightmares. As governments have offered their help, individuals wonder how they can contribute to the rescue and rebuilding efforts from abroad.
The easiest way of getting involved is by donating or, depending on your budget, encouraging others to donate. Given the sheer number of organisations active in the region, it is best to do some research beforehand to ensure that donations reach the people and places that need them most. At Warwick, Turkish Society organised a fundraiser to support earthquake victims, and a number of societies including Arab Society, Warwick Islamic Society, and Warwick Action 4 Palestine also collaborated to set up a Help Syria Charity Stall at the Piazza. Donating might seem like a small thing to do in light of the immense suffering and devastation, and in some ways, it is. But the Turkish lira and the Syrian pound are very weak currencies right now, meaning that even donations that might not seem like much can make a big difference on the ground.