Turkey-Syria Earthquake: The Shock was just the Start.

Earlier this month, an earthquake struck Turkey and Syria. It had a magnitude of 7.8 and has claimed the lives of over 45,000 people accordingly to recent estimates, with many more injured or missing. The crisis was exacerbated by the freezing temperatures that afflicted those stranded outside or trapped beneath the rubble.


What happened?

At 4:17 local time, an earthquake devasted the area on the East Anatolian Fault. The epicenter of the earthquake was 26 km east of Nurdagi, Turkey. It radiated to the Southeastern Anatolia region of Turkey and the Aleppo and Idlib Governorates of Syria along approximately 100 km of fault line. (Reuters)

A second earthquake occurred nine hours later, with a magnitude of 7.5 on the Richter scale. The magnitude of the initial earthquake is the 12th highest ever recorded and one of the deadliest in over a decade. (USA Today)


Why was it so bad?

There are a number of factors contributing to the deadliness of the disaster: the cold temperatures during the crisis, the poor structural stability of the buildings, and a slow government response. Another element is the proximity of these cities to the East Anatolian Fault; friction from the Arabian plate against the Anatolian plate caused the disaster. An earthquake of similar magnitude occurred during the 19th century, with damaging aftershocks continuing for almost a year. It is expected that the same will happen now. (BBC)

Garo Paylan, Member of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey representing Diyarbakir, said in an interview (NYT): “Even here, we are 250 kilometers away from the epicenter and still we have tons of demolished buildings.”

According to data from the U.S. Geological Survey, the affected regions contain buildings exceptionally vulnerable to tremors. While there are earthquake resistant buildings, they are few and far between. 

After the earthquake, many were missing or trapped beneath the rubble. When it comes to these types of disasters, the window to recue survivors is short — chances of successful rescue decrease significantly after 48 hours, according to Dr. Carmen Solana, a reader in volcanology and risk communication at the University of Portsmouth. (BBC)

Survivors now face freezing temperatures and exposure to rain and snow. After the first earthquake, temperatures were around 3℃ in the area surrounding the epicenter. A rainstorm also occurred, and temperatures remained below freezing. Almost half a million people are believed to now be displaced, with tens of thousands of buildings destroyed (Washington Post).

“Nobody can dare to get into their homes now”, said Paylan. “People are afraid. People are afraid to go into their homes and it’s freezing cold now, and they just try to sleep in their cars. People are devasted and some people are trying to still save their loved ones . . .  every fifteen minutes we are feeling an aftershock.” (The Daily)

Last week, a third earthquake of a 6.3 magnitude struck the region on the Turkey-Syria boarder. (Reuters)

Turkish Response

Turkey’s earthquake response was subject to criticism targeted at President Tayyip Erdogan. Many people felt the level of response from the government was inadequate, though significant aid came from abroad, as will be covered later. (Yahoo)

“I’m just trying to organize the humanitarian aid”, Paylan explained. “We don’t have enough rescue teams, and people are so angry about it . . . People are trapped under the rubble. We were hearing from them, but now it is we don’t hear from them anymore . . . time is our enemy and cold is our enemy.”

Considering the dire conditions of those trapped and those exposed to the cold, it seems the government’s response was too slow and too late for many.

Nasuh Mahruki founded a search and rescue group in response to the 1999 earthquake that claimed 17,000 lives. He said Erdogan’s policy to maintain control over the military prevented it from acting without instruction. In contrast, during the 1999 quake “Turkish Armed Forces started to work and were on the scene with the people within hours”, Nasuh Mahruki reported. (Reuters)

Damaged roads, bad weather, and airports rendered non-operational due to damages also played a hand in delaying the response. The Turkish government blocked Twitter access for 12 hours during the crisis following criticism of the government’s handling of the situation, citing the spread of false information. This was a senseless decision that Twitter cooperated with; it essentially barred people from locating their loved ones, sending updates about the impacted areas, and using the platform to coordinate rescue and humanitarian aid efforts. (Reuters)

The government did shelter some survivors in hotels and government facilities, blocked off roads to be used exclusively by aid vehicles, and coordinated rescue efforts. Erdogan declared a state of emergency in ten provinces and visited the affected areas. (Time). According to journalist Asli Aydintaşbaş, Erdogan’s excessively centralized government and political clashes between mayors hindered the cooperation necessary for an efficient response effort (ABC News).

Many nations began or pledged to provide aid despite political tensions with Erdogan’s increasingly illiberal government and its fraught relationship with NATO. The United States National Security Council dispatched search and rescue teams and other agencies to Syria and Turkey. Japan, Russia, and international organizations like NATO and the WHO have also mobilized or offered assistance. The list of countries mobilizing resources and measures for assistance is vast (VOA News).


Syrian Response

Syria, it seems, is another story. The state is less unified, and the area impacted is controlled by Bashar al-Assad, who does not have a favorable place on the world stage: he is subject to sanctions and exclusion for over a decade now. This, however, seems to have been put aside. The U.S has paused its sanctions and the U.N has sent aid (The Guardian). Israel, despite a historically adversarial relationship and weak diplomatic ties, has also pledged to send aid (US News).

Aid first came to Syria from the UAE, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, and India to name a few. Bashar al-Assad is also taking a centralized approach that has likely deterred some nations. 

Médecins sans Frontières reports that access into Syria is restricted. Bab Al-Hawa is the only humanitarian crossing between Turkey and northwest Syria, but the damage to this route is comprised due to the aftermath of the earthquake. Limitations on airport access mean it is hard to reach these Syrian regions (MSF.org). Furthermore, the communities effected were already afflicted by disease outbreaks.  To this day, there are areas that have no yet received aid. Resources are spread thin, and the extent of the damage is huge. To make matters worse, the earthquake significantly impacted the agricultural center (CNN) (AP).

The Syrian government, like Turkey, has set up shelters and transported supplies to the affected areas such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Tartus, and Latakia. The response from Western powers to aid Syria have been much slower. As in Turkey, there is tension between local leaders. Both internal and international conflicts have emerged. Some are critical of how the UN dealt with Assad’s government: waiting for his approval and the Security Council taking too much time to sanction aid. (The Guardian)



The disaster — itself enormous — was exacerbated by exposure to cold, the structure of buildings, and limitations in coordinating aid. The estimated death toll rises by the day, and many are injured. Close to half a million are displaced.

While Erdogan acknowledged the shortcomings of his government’s disaster response, there is strong criticism for his censorship during the crisis, the delayed aid, and the fact that the buildings had such poor structural integrity in the earthquake-prone region. With Erdogan’s Turkey witnessing soaring inflation and economic devastation, hostility toward the opposition, further crackdowns on journalists, the shortcomings of preventative measures in infrastructure, and a politicized disaster response, the crisis could spell another blow to Erdogan’s grip on power. While Erdogan is supposed to face an election in three months, the earthquake may result in it being postponed. 

The international response displays the possibility of overcoming political differences and conflict in the face of a humanitarian crisis. Many countries have sent help to Turkey and Syria despite historical animosity. While the damages are huge and numerous factors diminished chances for survival, you will find many stories of miraculous rescues long after the initial earthquake.


You can help by donating to UNICEF Student Team Middleburg. Donations are open for another two days.


By Luke Ravetto

Image credit: REUTERS/Suhaib Salem

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