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Turkey and Syria Earthquakes: Safety Issues Raised

On Feb. 6, a massive earthquake hit both Turkey and Syria, according to the BBC.

The BBC also noted that the earthquake, measuring a 7.8 on the Richter scale, was focused near Gaziantep. Later, a second earthquake, a 7.5 on the Richter scale, occurred near Ekinözü.

Turkey is situated in an area that is prone to earthquakes, because it lies on the Syrian-African fault line. As a result, it is not the first time an earthquake of such magnitude has occurred in Turkey.

In 1999, a major earthquake near İzmit occurred in southern Turkey, and its effects were felt as far away as Istanbul, according to Britannica. This earthquake was recorded at 7.5 on the Richter scale and resulted in more than 17,000 deaths. About 250,000 people were displaced from their homes when thousands of buildings across Turkey were destroyed in the 1999 earthquake, according to PreventionWeb.

This week’s earthquakes are already responsible for the deaths of over 17,000 people in both Turkey and Syria, according to CNN. CNN also noted more than 69,000 people are injured, and medical facilities are being overwhelmed.

The winter weather in Turkey is hampering rescue and recovery efforts. NBC News says that the bitterly cold temperatures in Turkey are causing additional problems for survivors.

Why Did So Many Buildings Collapse During These Earthquakes?

The scope of the deaths in Turkey and Syria and the devastation that can be seen in news pictures raises questions about building codes. There are strong voices claiming that despite the risk of earthquakes, adhering to building codes was disregarded on a mass scale and contributed to the high number of deaths.  

According to the BBC, David Alexander, a professor of emergency planning and management at University College London, said the poor construction of some buildings resulted in fatalities during the earthquakes. Alexander noted, “The maximum intensity for this earthquake was violent but not necessarily enough to bring well constructed buildings down…In most places the level of shaking was less than the maximum, so we can conclude out of the thousands of buildings that collapsed, almost all of them don’t stand up to any reasonably expected earthquake construction code.”

The Earthquakes in Turkey and Syria Could Result in a Political Fallout for Turkey’s President Erdoğan

These earthquakes have the potential to create a significant political fallout. Although no one can be blamed for the earthquakes themselves, a systematic failure to adhere to building codes is a different issue, given that there is an ongoing danger of earthquakes in the region.

It’s possible that many people in Turkey will blame President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for the poor building construction that led to so many deaths. However, Erdoğan has additional problems.

He has been dealing with an economic crisis that has plagued Turkey for several years, according to Al Jazeera. That resulted in record-high inflation in Turkey last summer, says CNBC.

This latest catastrophe could have a strong effect on the upcoming election; the president and his political party might face their reckoning. While Erdoğan is an authoritarian ruler, it is not likely that he will ignore the election process. The building construction problem could be seen by Turkish voters as an extreme failure on the part of his government, and they could remove him from office.

The opposition has not wasted time making Erdoğan’s government look bad to the public. According to the BBC, “Many in the worst affected areas have criticized the response by the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) for being too slow. Others say the government was not sufficiently prepared in advance.” The BBC also noted that Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition party, said, “If there is one person responsible for this, it is Erdoğan.”

Syria’s Response to the Earthquake Is More Complicated Due to Civil War

Following the earthquake, Syria’s disaster response is far more complicated. After years of civil war, the infrastructure in Syria is in ruins. There is limited access to many areas of Syria and international sanctions against the Assad regime in Damascus limit the ability of other nations and organizations to send assistance.

NPR reported, “The U.N. is trying to get into the rebel-held northwestern part of Syria through a humanitarian corridor. Some 4 million internally displaced people there have little heavy machinery of the sort that might be found in other parts of Turkey and Syria, and hospitals are poorly equipped, damaged, or both. Volunteers are digging through rubble with their bare hands.”

News reports about the devastation wrought by the earthquakes have come separately from the areas controlled by the rebels and the current regime. Axios says that after years of internal displacement as a result of Syria’s civil war, many Syrians lived in makeshift homes that were destroyed by the earthquakes and are now wandering the streets.

There is less of a chance for a major political fallout in Syria since both the rebels and the Assad regime have been waging war for years. Both sides are propped up by their allies: Iran and Russia for the Assad regime and the U.S., Saudi Arabia and the E.U. for the rebels. Tribal and ethnic demarcation lines in Syria control the support each side is getting, and there is no room for any consideration of government responses to natural disasters.

This earthquake showcases how a failure to prepare for a disaster can have devastating results for a country’s population. The scale of the tragedy in southern Turkey is in direct correlation to the lack of preparation of government authorities.

The scope of these earthquakes and the growing number of fatalities brings a greater awareness of human vulnerability to everyone. Events such as these earthquakes in Turkey and Syria are a reminder of how fragile life is and how a country’s infrastructure can be easily upended by natural disasters.

Ilan Fuchs

Dr. Ilan Fuchs is a scholar of international law and legal history. He holds a B.A. in Humanities and Social Science from The Open University of Israel and an M.A. in Jewish history from Bar-Ilan University. Ilan’s other degrees include an LL.B., an LL.M. and a Ph.D. in Law from Bar-Ilan University. He is the author of “Jewish Women’s Torah Study: Orthodox Education and Modernity,” and 18 articles in leading scholarly journals. At the University, Ilan teaches courses on international law while maintaining a law practice in several jurisdictions.

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