Earthquake Wreaks Havoc in Turkey and Syria

Photo Credit: Murad Sezer

By Harshita Devavarapu
Staff Writer

In the early hours of February 6th 2023, a major earthquake of 7.8 magnitude hit the town of Gaziantep. Located in southeastern Turkey, near the Syrian border, Gaziantep and the surrounding areas were reduced to rubble in the wake of the earthquake and intense aftershocks. 

This particular earthquake was caused by the Arabian plate sliding past the Anatolian tectonic plate. According to Michael Steckler from Columbia University, the entire nation of Turkey is getting pushed to the west as the Arabian plate is moving north towards Eurasia. This region has experienced earthquakes of this scale before in 1138 CE and then again in 1999; both incidents resulted in mass casualties. Even though they could not have predicted when the earthquake would hit, Fatih Bulut– an academic researcher in the Geodesy department at the Bogazici University in Istanbul–  had been expecting one soon since it had been around 2 decades since the last one. 

Professor Joanna Walker from the University College of London stated that there was only one other earthquake of this magnitude in the last decade. However, there are a number of factors that exacerbated the devastation in Gaziantep. The earthquake hit in the early hours of Monday while people were still in bed– meaning that few people could get to safety in time. Moreover, considering that the last time a disaster like this occurred in this region was 200 years ago, there was little to no disaster preparedness as well as patchy earthquake-resistant infrastructure.

The impacts of the earthquake were devastating for both Turkey and Syria. The total death count has exceeded 15,000. Turkish disaster management agencies put the death toll at 12,391 people and reported that 62,941 others were injured. 1262 deaths and 2285 injuries were reported in government-occupied Syria, while more than 1780 deaths and 2700 injuries were recorded in rebel-occupied Syria. There are also multiple obstacles to foreign aid and rescue workers trying to reach the impacted zones in both Turkey and Syria. While the civil war in Syria has made it difficult for humanitarian aid to reach civilians in rebel-occupied territory, the fire in port Iskenderun, Turkey that burned until Wednesday caused delays in the docking and unloading of resources. 

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is up for reelection in May, is facing criticism for the slow response rate and the delay in rescue operations. Furthermore, Erdogan’s government is facing public suspicion about their attempts to censor the information flow to and from the impacted region. There have been issues with communication networks and access to internet websites like Twitter. While state officials like Vice President Fuat Oktay chalked up the lack of access to technical problems, experts like the internet monitoring group NetBlocks note that the pattern of limitations matched previous forms of censorship. Elon Musk announced on the evening of February 8th that “Twitter has been informed by the Turkish government that access will be reenabled shortly” and Omer Faith Sayan, the deputy minister of transport and infrastructure, mentioned that the social media site had the responsibility of the stopping of disinformation that could lead to mass panic. The nation also continues to face economic shocks on top of the existing steep inflation. The Istanbul stock exchange gave the “volatility” and the “extraordinary price movements” as reasons for the suspension of trading. The stock market has had more than a 20% decrease from January, and the Turkish currency decreased to a record low in value in comparison to the US dollar. 

Furthermore, there are numerous challenges in getting aid into rebel-occupied Syria. Since the government controls the distribution and flow of aid that enters Syria through Damascus, the United Nations has to use the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey to directly deliver aid into the opposition held areas. Unfortunately, this border crossing has been difficult to access due to the earthquake. While the European Union announced that they will work with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs to get aid into all parts of Syria, they are still firm on not lifting sanctions which were placed in response to how al-Assad’s authoritarian regime violently handled protests. Despite requests from Syrian officials like Khaled Hboubati, the head of the Red Crescent, EU spokesperson Balazs Ujvari mentioned that the sanctions will not be lifted as they do not “prohibit the export of food, medicines or medical equipment (to Syria)”. 

Members of the international community are all showing their support in various ways. Turkish Airlines and Pegasus airlines are offering free transportation out of the region. Pegasus airlines said that domestic flights from a number of local airports will be free through the 12th, and Yahya Ustun, the Vice President of Turkish Airlines, announced that they will continue to help with evacuation efforts. Turkish communities in other EU countries like Britain and Germany are raising funds to send back home to help the displaced populations. India, the United States and other countries sent rescue teams and continue to work with the UN to ensure that aid gets delivered into the impacted regions. 

Since it has been a few weeks since the earthquake took place and rescue operations began, information is still being updated. 

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