Turkish-Syrian Earthquake: National and International Politics
Callum Martin considers the legacy of 1999 for the February Turkish-Syrian earthquake and the complicated national and international politics on both sides of the border for disaster relief and reconstruction.
On August 17th 1999, a brutal 6.7 magnitude earthquake struck Western Turkey, decimating the region. Towns and cities around the eastern end of the Marmara Sea were levelled, and thousands were killed, injured or trapped under the rubble. As the weeks passed, and the death toll surpassed 17,000, grief turned to anger and criticism. It was widely accepted that poor build quality as well as a lack of preparation exacerbated the impact of the disaster. In response, the authorities promised to tighten up building regulations and introduce an earthquake tax to increase readiness for future tremors. Tremors that, given the country sits on two major geographical fault lines, are a practical inevitability.
Sure enough, 25 years later, a pair of even deadlier earthquakes have hit Southern Turkey, as well as large areas of Northern Syria. The full impact of these shakes and their aftershocks won’t be fully apparent until the rubble is cleared, and all the bodies are counted, but in the days since February 6th, several things have become clear.
It has become plain that Turkish authorities have neglected the promises made back in 1999.
Firstly, the personal, structural, and economic damage to affected regions will take years, if not decades to fully recover from. Latest estimates exceed 41,000 deaths, including ex-Premier League star Christian Atsu, and the chances of finding survivors under the wreckage after so long are very slim. is amongst the dead.
According to the World Health Organisation, around 23 million people, including 1.4 million children, have been affected by the disaster. Aside from the widespread death and injury, hundreds of thousands have lost their homes, and are left without shelter in freezing winter conditions. Turkish survivor Zehra Kurukafa, talking about his family and others, says simply, “We sleep in the mud”.
It has also become plain that Turkish authorities have neglected the promises made back in 1999. On the one hand, Turkey has in fact developed some of the most comprehensive construction laws in the world, for instance, concrete must be reinforced with steel and buildings are designed to prevent ‘pancaking’. However, the rules have been frequently ignored to cut costs, and much of the blame for this must lay with the government.
When construction companies have been found to skirt the regulations, the penalties have not been severe enough to deter others from cutting corners as well. As a result, many major Turkish cities contain hundreds of buildings that experts describe as ‘rubble in waiting’. The precarious situation was made worse by several government run ‘construction amnesties’: to generate income for an ailing state account, the government has periodically turned a blind eye to buildings without proper safety certification in return for a fee. Reportedly, billions of lira have been raised from this policy, and the last amnesty was as recent as 2018. Furthermore, the £2.5 billion raised in earthquake tax since 1999 isn’t publicly accounted for, and there is widely suspected corruption. In a similar manner to 1999, anger is rising.
After another smaller quake in 2011, President Erdogan condemned poor construction, going so far as to say ‘negligence amounts to murder’. The hypocrisy is striking.
“Often, those who suffer the worst during such disasters are those who were already vulnerable”Aya Majzoub of Amnesty International
Finally, it appears that many Syrians affected are getting left behind by international aid. As a long-established NATO member, Turkey has received offers of relief from over 70 countries, as well as various NGOs. Across the border, it’s a very different story.
It’s true that Turkey has suffered more damage, enduring the epicentres of both quakes, but the effect on Syria should not be neglected, as it seems to be in most of the headlines. To quote Aya Majzoub of Amnesty International – “Often, those who suffer the worst during such disasters are those who were already vulnerable”. Clearly the people of North Syria are particularly vulnerable, their country ravaged by bloody civil war. Syria has become something of a global pariah due to President Assad’s brutal crackdowns, and the region affected by the earthquake is divided between state and rebel control. For these reasons, offers of international aid to Syrian victims have been much less enthusiastic.
The situation is complicated. President Assad calls for all aid to be sent directly to the government and says that they will distribute it to all regions, even those outside of their control. However, after years of preventing those in rebel-held territories from accessing basic resources, some nations doubt this pledge and are reluctant to comply. Furthermore, due to American and European sanctions, many planes refuse to land at Syrian airports, resulting in a supply bottleneck. A US State Department spokesperson has ruled out the lifting of sanctions, refusing “to reach out to a government that has brutalised its people over the course of a dozen years”. The impact of limited aid to rebel territory is detrimental, especially at a time of harsh winter and cholera outbreaks.
On the ground however, amongst the rubble, the complex politics of the situation don’t matter; not to the victims, desperately searching for their loved ones.