The tragedy of the earthquake in Turkey and the fault lines of counterrevolution, authoritarianism, racism, and capitalism. Originally appeared in Tempest, Feb. 6, here https://www.tempestmag.org/2023/02/the-earthquake-in-turkiye-and-syria/ — Editors
On Monday, February 6, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Türkiye and northwest Syria in the early hours of the morning. It was followed by another 7.5 magnitude earthquake hours later, as well as over a hundred aftershocks in the days that followed. It is the deadliest and most powerful earthquake to hit Türkiye since 1939, and to hit Syria in more than 800 years, and the death toll is only expected to rise. It has already passed 40,000—a devastating and unimaginable toll. Entire neighborhoods and city centers have been flattened, reduced to exposed wires and rubble. Millions of people, those lucky enough not to be buried under the rubble, have been left houseless, living in cars, tents, and parks while facing harsh winter conditions.
On the Turkish side, the earthquake affected ten provinces, home to over 13 million people. The initial earthquake’s epicenter was Gaziantep, just 30 miles from the border with Syria; the epicenter of the 7.5 magnitude earthquake that followed was Kahramanmaras, about 60 miles north of the first. These had been smaller cities that grew to significant size over the past 20 years of AKP rule, becoming centers of support for the ruling party. Southern Türkiye has become home to millions of Syrian refugees who have fled over the past twelve years of counterrevolution and war in Syria. Gaziantep, the epicenter of the first quake, is home to two million people, 20 percent of whom are Syrian refugees. Many neighborhoods are up to 90 percent Syrian. One source reported that one-quarter of the dead in Hatay were Syrians.
No natural disaster
As numerous disasters over the past twenty years have taught us, there is no natural disaster untouched by politics, capitalism, and racism. This is true for the earthquake in Türkiye and Syria: It is a political earthquake deeply affected by the fault lines of counterrevolution, authoritarianism, racism, and capitalism.
In Türkiye, the emergency response has been criminally inadequate. The government, which has taken over the relief effort and declared a State of Emergency in the ten affected provinces, was slow to act, and slowest to provide support and resources to towns and cities closest to the border with Syria. The city of Antakya in Türkiye, for example, is just east of the Syrian city of Aleppo and northeast of Syria’s Idlib, and did not begin to receive relief operations for over a day. Other Turkish towns and villages did not receive relief for over two days. Rescue teams say that they have had to choose where to focus their efforts.
Since Türkiye’s last major earthquake in 1999, when the Turkish government put in place stronger construction standards and building codes, new buildings have been built without adhering to these codes, despite the government and building companies’–often closely tied to the government–knowledge of the likelihood of another major earthquake. In 2018, it was documented that 50 percent of buildings in Türkiye–nearly 13 million buildings–were built in violation of these codes. In 2022, Türkiye’s Union of Engineers and Architects released a statement that the country had failed to prepare its infrastructure for another major earthquake.
For two days after the earthquake, Türkiye’s stock exchange was in free fall–but with the exception of cement company stocks. Investors bought up shares, predicting lucrative reconstruction efforts, and causing frustration and anger that the stock exchange should have been closed after the earthquake. The stock exchange has since temporarily closed after this, but the spike in cement stocks foreshadows a reconstruction process that prioritizes profit over need.
Erdoğan, facing criticism of the government’s response to the earthquake, responded by shutting down Twitter on Wednesday, and detaining and blocking journalists not affiliated with state media, claiming that he was doing so to curb the spread of “misinformation”–thus preventing people from providing emergency updates and locating loved ones, over concern about his tarnished image. Also on Wednesday, Erdoğan visited areas affected by the earthquake, and promised new housing would be built in the span of a year; experts say that is highly unlikely. “Our citizens should not worry,” he said–perhaps an ominous warning of how Syrian refugees and other non-citizens will be excluded from reconstruction and relief efforts.
The declaration of a three-month state of emergency may also allow for more authoritarian control—Erdoğan last issued a state of emergency after an attempted coup against him in 2016, which he responded to with numerous authoritarian measures. The emergency powers allow Erdoğan to rule by decree, bypassing parliament, and overriding opposition-held regional authorities. But across southern Türkiye, areas historically known as highly supportive of Erdoğan and his AKP party, anger and frustration continue to grow. Türkiye’s infrastructure minister, when visiting one affected town, was met with local protestors who shouted at him. The earthquake may prove to be a challenge to his re-election in the spring, when Erdoğan seeks to extend his twenty-year rule over the country.
The fault lines of counterrevolution
In Syria, the fault lines of the earthquake are even more stark due to over a decade of counterrevolutionary war. The country is effectively partitioned, with a large part of the country held by the regime, rebels maintaining control of parts of the northwest, and Kurdish groups in control of the northeast. The areas hit hardest by the earthquake are in the northwest: rebel-held Idlib province, the province of Aleppo, which is divided between regime and rebel-held areas, and the regime-held provinces of Latakia, Tartous, and Hama.
The Syrian Revolution, which began in 2011 as a part of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolutions, was met with the most brutal counterrevolution of the region, which has marked the region of Syria affected by the earthquake. In order to win its counterrevolutionary war, the Assad regime has killed over 500,000 Syrians and displaced half the country.
Northwest Syria, Idlib province in particular, is the last bastion of rebel-held Syria, housing millions of internally displaced Syrians who fled previous rebel-held areas besieged and bombed by the Assad regime and its Russian ally, and have nowhere to go and few resources. Many of them have faced multiple rounds of displacement already and live in precarious conditions. The Assad regime and its Russian ally became known for bombing hospitals and healthcare facilities in the rebel-held northwest, including over 50 healthcare facilities in Idlib province alone.
Aleppo, the largest city in Syria and once the country’s industrial capital, has faced over a decade of destruction since rebels captured the eastern part of the city in 2012 shortly after the start of the revolution. The Assad regime and Russia responded to the rebel capture by shelling Eastern Aleppo and destroying a large portion of the city, up until the regime’s final victory in December 2016, accomplished through siege and bombardment. Very little of the eastern part of the city, or other areas destroyed by the regime, has been rebuilt since then–and even before 2011, many of the buildings were built against regulations.
The 2016 victory by the regime marked a turning point as the regime regained one rebel-held area after the other, until, by late 2018 and early 2019, only Idlib province and towns in northern Aleppo province remained in rebel control (excluding large parts of northeastern Syria under control of U.S.-backed Kurdish-led forces). The earthquake badly affected both regime-held Aleppo and rebel-held towns outside the city of Aleppo, both of which also have been home to internally displaced Syrians fleeing war and bombardment over the past twelve years, and both of which have had infrastructure dramatically weakened by war, in particular from the relentless Assad and Russian bombing campaign.
These fault lines created by counterrevolution and war make it difficult if not impossible to supply aid and relief to the most affected areas of Syria. Rebel-held areas are completely separate from regime-held areas, the latter of which rely on aid coming through Damascus. Rebel-held areas can only access aid through Türkiye. On February 9, three days after the earthquake hit, the first UN aid convoy finally entered Syria’s rebel-held area, with six trucks of provisions.
Until Monday, February 13, the UN only allowed international aid to enter through one border crossing, the Al-Bab crossing. For the first three days after the earthquake, the UN claimed that the road was blocked; only the bodies of the deceased were entering Syria from Türkiye. On Monday, February 13, the Assad regime agreed to the opening of two more border crossings from Turkiye into Syria. The control of border crossings has been in the hands of counterrevolutionary forces for many years now: the UN previously had several border crossings authorized between Türkiye and Syria, but over the years Russian vetoes removed all but the Al-Bab crossing.
Inside the rebel-held territories, the White Helmets, the local civil defense group, initially created to save Syrians in rebel-held areas from the Assad and Russian bombing, have been the main force working to save people from under the rubble in hundreds of sites across rebel-held northwest Syria. But there are fewer than 3,000 members of the White Helmets, supported by just a few other, smaller volunteer groups. And they are unable to cross into regime-held areas to support those who direly need relief in regime-held regions, either.
On February 9, the U.S. temporarily eased elements of its sanctions on the Assad regime that could obstruct the delivery of aid. Sanctions on the regime officially excluded the provision of humanitarian aid, but this still made it difficult for aid to reach regime-held areas due to the blocking of fuel or banks blocking transfers, including from Syrians outside the country attempting to send money to their families. However, sanctions have hardly been the cause of the level of suffering in the country–that should be clearly understood as the result of twelve years of Assad’s counterrevolution, and the imperialist interventions of Russia, Iran, and others.
Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, have also provided relief for the earthquake through Damascus, in addition to about a dozen other countries–including the UAE and Egypt. In fact, Assad is already using the earthquake to push for the furthering of normalization with countries regionally and internationally in an attempt to end the Syrian regime’s isolation over the past decade.
In a show of the regime’s “magnanimity,” instead of providing aid to rebel-held areas, Assad bombed the town of Marea, north of Aleppo, less than two hours after the earthquake hit onFebruary 6, as locals were engaged in rescue efforts. This was after the White Helmets issued a letter calling for assurance that there would be no bombing–they were familiar with this tactic of the regime, as it has repeatedly bombed hospitals and committed other war crimes throughout the past twelve years.
The Assad regime clearly cannot be trusted to provide aid to all areas of Syria, although it insists otherwise. Beyond bombing Marea, it has a history of directing aid to areas loyal to the regime and impeding it from rebel-held areas, and siphoning off and diverting aid money, including from the UN. But even the UN has a history of siding with the regime, contracting companies linked with Assad, and adhering to its demands with regard to dealing with regime-held and not rebel-held areas.
Horror, hope, and defiance
Many could say that the earthquake, in its destruction of rebel-held areas like Idlib and parts of Aleppo still under rebel control, accomplished what the Assad regime has not yet been able to in its quest to destroy rebel-held areas and to snuff out any last breath of the 2011 revolution. French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo seemingly shares this genocidal sentiment, as it posted a cartoon with a depiction of the earthquake in Türkiye underscored by the message “Now we don’t have to send tanks.” Ostensibly fueled by War on Terror sentiment, this racist statement implies that the region holding 20 million people is disposable, and deserving of death–something only counterrevolutionaries and fascists would agree to. Syrians within Türkiye have also faced racism and discrimination, including in the aftermath of the earthquake, with reports of Syrians threatened and forced to leave makeshift camps.
It is difficult to comprehend the pain, anguish, and suffering of the last few days, and the grim reality that lies ahead for the years if not decades to come. The millions of people affected by the earthquake were already living in the shadow of Erdoğan’s authoritarianism, and many were living as refugees or internally displaced people, having experienced unimaginable defeat, loss, and horror over the past decade since the hopeful start to the 2011 revolutions. Authoritarian regimes, including Assad’s and Erdoğan’s, have persevered and continued to grow stronger while the vast majority of people suffer one atrocity after another.
We can retain some hope in the fact that through each horror, people continue to defy the regimes of Assad and Erdoğan. Even in so-called loyalist areas of Syria and Türkiye, anger and frustration grow. Even in the wake of such an unnatural disaster, resistance and uprising are coming to the surface.
Featured Image credit: Photo by Hilmi Hacaloğlu; modified by Tempest.