The devastation caused by the earthquakes that struck Turkey and Syria is in everyone’s eyes. The two earthquakes, with magnitude 7.8 and 7.5 on the Richter scale, occurred within 9 hours of each other. The epicenter of the first earthquake is located in southeastern Turkey, about 30 km from the city of Gaziantep, at a depth of about 20 km. The second earthquake, on the other hand, struck just north of Kahramanmaras at a depth of 28 km. The most impacted areas are thus southeastern Turkey, one of the poorest and least developed in the country, and northwestern Syria. Antioch, the New York Times reports, is virtually gone. As we write, the death count has exceeded 20,000 people, and unfortunately looks set to rise. The seismic events were so strong that they caused the Anatolian peninsula to shift more than 3 meters. According to Joanna Faure Walker, who heads the Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction at the University of London, the first earthquake to hit Turkey released 250 times more energy than the 2016 earthquake in central Italy.
While we hope that the search and rescue efforts will lead to the rescue of as many people as possible, we point you to two entities that are making an initial response to the emergency and trying to get aid even where it is most difficult, such as in Syria. One is the NGO Avsi (you can donate here) and the other is Pro Terra Sancta (here to donate, in particular, to the people of Aleppo). In the rest of today’s topical focus we try to speculate what political consequences this tragedy may have, particularly for Turkey and its president.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared at least three months of a state of emergency in 10 Turkish provinces (the maximum under the Turkish Constitution is 6 months for natural events) and traveled to the earthquake-affected areas. In announcing the state of emergency, the Turkish president also said he is taking note of all the falsehoods being circulated about relief operations. When the time comes, he said in an ominous tone, this notebook will be opened. Under the circumstances, the decision to apply the state of emergency is, of course, supportable. However, the consequences of this decision will have to be carefully evaluated. Indeed, some observers have recalled that in 2016, after the failed coup, Erdoğan decreed three months of a state of emergency, but this was later extended for two years. The special legislation that applies to periods such as this allowed him to purge much of his political, judicial and intellectual opponents. When we consider that the newly decreed state of emergency will extend at least until close to the May elections (assuming they are held on the announced date), the precedent can only cause further concern.
The Akp leader will have to effectively manage the relief and initial reconstruction machinery, or risk being punished by the voters just as the election contest, which even before the earthquake was considered the most uncertain in recent years, approaches. But the opposite could also be true: effective management of the emergency response could strengthen Erdoğan’s position and foster a sense of national solidarity and aggregation around the president’s leadership.
However, a first, important, political fact is already emerging these days regarding the buildings, some built even only a year ago, that crumbled as a result of the earthquake. According to many, including, Kishor Jaiswal (U.S. Geological Survey) it had been known for some time that numerous buildings in the earthquake zone had not been designed in accordance with the engineering requirements required when building houses and infrastructure in an area of high seismic risk. Of the same mind was researcher Roger Musson, questioned by the Japan Times, who argued that Turkish buildings were “not appropriate for an area susceptible to large earthquakes” (as Ishaan Tharoor mentioned in the Washington Post, the history of the entire region is punctuated by several disasters, with the earliest evidence of violent earthquakes dating back to the time of the Hittites and the city-states of Mesopotamia). The point, emphasized among others by Alexander Clarkson (King’s College), is that many of these buildings “were erected during the building boom in the decades following the 1999 earthquake,” which claimed more than 17,000 lives. It is important to note, as Clarkson did, that “the Akp’s power base and client structure is heavily intertwined with the construction sector.” When Turkey was hit by the 1999 earthquake, the blame for the high death toll was placed on “contractors who used shoddy materials, officials who failed to enforce bland construction codes, and, of course, the government at the time, which failed to produce a national response strategy, ” Asli Aydintasbas wrote in the Washington Post. It was anger at this management and the resulting desire for change that started the parable of the Akp, a party that has made investment in infrastructure a centerpiece of its governing program.
Since then, Turkey has had to wait until 2018 for specific legislation on construction in earthquake-prone areas to be passed, but it has been largely ignored, according to Aydintasbas. The mantra repeated by seismologists is that it is not earthquakes that kill, but buildings. It is therefore obvious, and normal, for attentions to focus on who built, and how, the thousands of buildings that collapsed. This is precisely where the sour notes for the Turkish authorities begin. According to an investigation published by the BBC, even buildings constructed only a year ago have collapsed, the sale of which was advertised with signs indicating resistance to earthquake events. Adding to the pain of loss of life is a psychological element that has been well described by Monica Marks (New York University-Abu Dhabi): everyone in Turkey knows that the risk of major earthquakes is constant, but now it is evident that “it doesn’t matter how selective you are in choosing your apartment.” There was a hope that living in a building constructed after the ’99 earthquake was a decent guarantee of being prepared should “the big one” come along. Many, Marks explains, “did not move to these newer buildings, either because they are not in the center of Istanbul or simply because they cannot afford it. But we all appreciated the psychological reassurance” that we would one day be sheltered from earthquakes. Not so: “We are basically powerless in the face of fate,” Marks concluded.
But why, despite special legislation, have so many buildings collapsed? Part of the problem, of course, concerns buildings built before the 1999 earthquake. But this is compounded by the numerous building amnesties (the latest in 2018) passed by the Turkish government to legalize cases of recent construction that did not meet the standards required by law (sounds familiar?!). According to the BBC there are 75,000 buildings in the earthquake zone that have benefited from these amnesties, and just days before the catastrophe the Turkish media had announced the imminent officialization of a new amnesty.
The earthquake also has devastating effects because it is true, as Zvi Bar’el noted in Haaretz, that Turkey today is much better prepared for emergency management than it was during the 1999 earthquake, but it is also true that most of the resources (economic and organizational) have been directed to the northern parts of the country, to the detriment of cities such as Gaziantep, Kahramanmaras, and Diyarbakir. In these areas, which moreover are home to more than half a million Syrian refugees, the number of hospitals and medical teams is extremely fewer than in northern Turkey. In addition, “some cities do not have ambulances and rescue equipment.” Thus, criticism for relief management was added to criticism for poor construction quality standards. The reaction of the Turkish authorities was lightning fast and resulted in the restriction of access to Twitter in Turkey.
It is not just a matter of ignoring building code laws, however: some of the criticism that is slowly emerging is directed at the Akp government’s choices and priorities. Emblematic is the case of the budget reserved for AFAD (roughly the equivalent of our civil defense), which has dropped from 2.85 billion Turkish liras in 2021 to 2.3 billion liras in 2023. In contrast, the budget reserved for the Directorate of Religious Affairs (Diyanet) has grown from 12.9 billion liras in 2021 to 35.9 billion liras today. As noted by Hetav Rojan these figures indicate what the Turkish government’s policy priority is.
Then there is the question of whether the elections will actually be held and whether it will be physically possible to set up polling stations in the earthquake-affected areas. The question, however, is whether holding the elections in the predetermined period will be seen by Erdoğan as an advantage or not. If not, extension of the state of emergency and subsequent postponement of the elections is likely.
Internationally, the pragmatism that distinguishes Erdoğan, according to Amberin Zaman, has led the Turkish president to immediately accept foreign aid, including from rivals such as Israel and, especially, Greece.
In addition to Gaziantep (where a castle built between the 2nd and 3rd centuries by the Roman Empire has also collapsed), among the hardest hit areas is the city of Aleppo in Syria and the Iblib area, the last pocket of the anti-Assad rebellion. Relief and aid have immediately begun to flow into the areas under the control of the Damascus government, but these are complicated by the sanctions Syria is under. It is precisely on this issue that a debate has developed. According to some, it is the sanctions that are preventing relief to earthquake victims, while others point the finger at the Assad regime. The Wall Street Journal reported a memo from the U.S. State Department’s press office specifying how the sanctions regime provides exemptions for humanitarian relief efforts. Interviewed by the Associated Press, Swedish researcher Aron Lund explained, however, that these exemptions work only in theory, because “banks could block money transfers to pay suppliers or local staff of relief organizations for fear of violating sanctions.” The issue has an important political implication, because Assad is evidently trying to seize the “opportunity” of the earthquake to gain reintegration into the international system, starting with relations with Arab countries. In this regard, also in the Wall Street Journal, Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla predicted that “aid diplomacy will pave the way for political diplomacy.” A separate discussion must be made for the situation in Idlib, an area that was experiencing a catastrophic situation even before the earthquake because it was constantly targeted by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies. As Middle East Eye reported, Assad reportedly raged by bombing the area just hours after the earthquake. Getting aid here has become even more difficult because immediately after the earthquake Turkey closed the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, the only one over which humanitarian supplies could pass, and only one UN aid convoy was able to reach the area. As stated by Sharvan Ibesh, director of the Turkish humanitarian organization Bahar, until now, when things were bad in Idlib, aid could arrive from the Turkish border. Now, however, across the border the situation is even worse.
Analysis by Claudio Fontana – taken from Fondazione Internazionale Oasis