It will be some time before final figures for those killed and injured as a result of the devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday morning are available.
As Al-Ahram Weekly went to press, almost 48 hours after the beginning of the seismic nightmare, the number of those who died had risen to thousands, the injured to tens of thousands. Rescue workers and medical staff continue to search for people caught beneath the rubble of collapsed buildings.
After Monday’s 7.9 and 7.5 magnitude earthquakes left large segments of cities and villages as little more than rubble, aftershocks continued to hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on Tuesday. The last time such a powerful earthquake hit Turkey was in 1939. Northern Syria has not seen such a high-magnitude tremor in 200 years. The initial earthquake was strong enough to be felt in Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus, and Armenia.
The aftershocks hit as the World Health Organisation was anticipating a final death toll of around 20,000 and rescue workers, especially in Syria, were appearing on satellite TV channels to complain about the difficulties of accessing emergency aid, either because the regime was determined to distribute all relief through the Syrian capital, or because of the complicated security situation on the border between northern Syria and its neighbours, including Turkey.
Damascus lost control of northern Syria to Kurdish rebel groups 10 years ago. More recently, Turkey has launched repeated military operations in the area targeting Kurdish rebels. Compounding the situation is the fact that the runways of Turkish airports near the most devastated areas were also affected by the quake.
As the world woke up on Monday morning to the news of the earthquake, world leaders were quick to offer assistance. US President Joe Biden spoke to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan offering help. Russia and Iran also promised help, as did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The European Union has vowed to do what it can, as have individual European states.
Arab countries, too, have reached out. On Tuesday President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi called his Syrian and Turkish counterparts to express condolences and solidarity. The phone calls came along with a presidential directive to send relief aid aboard five military planes. A day earlier, in his first ever call to his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri offered both condolences and assistance. Shoukri also had an unusual phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in which he said Egypt will send urgent relief aid.
The UAE has committed to delivering a $10 million preparatory rescue package to Syria and offered help to Turkey. Other Arab Gulf countries also promised relief, while the first relief aid to reach Syrian territories on Tuesday morning came from Iraq.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres called on the international community to show a quick response, saying that humanitarian aid is desperately needed in areas to which access is a challenge. A member of a UN humanitarian agency told the Weekly on Tuesday morning that prospects were particularly worrying for people in northern Syria.
The area is already facing a severe humanitarian crisis due to fighting that has included regime forces, Turkish forces, Kurdish groups and Islamist militants, including Jabhat Al-Nosra and Islamic State.
“This is a compounded situation, really horrific,” said the humanitarian worker.
The area is home to four million displaced Syrians who have fled the worst civil war ravaged parts of the country. By Monday evening, distressed medical workers were appearing on TV channels to say they had only a few hours to reach buried survivors and bring them out of their collapsed homes alive.
According to preliminary estimates, over 25 million people have been affected by the earthquake. In northern Syria, many lost the tents that were their only shelter from the freezing weather. There is also an acute shortage of food and medicine, and challenging health problems including an outbreak of cholera.
In both Syria and Turkey, the freezing weather and primitive equipment are hampering the search for survivors. According to the UN humanitarian worker, after 48 hours the chances of finding survivors alive plummets.
The humanitarian tragedy is hard to exaggerate, and is reinforced by images of people desperately scratching the rubble with their bare hands as they search for survivors. But alongside the very human tragedy, there are also political tremors in the making.
Erdogan, who is seeking re-election in the presidential poll scheduled for May, is doing so against the backdrop of a growing economic crisis that has severely undermined his reputation for economic competence.
According to a retired Turkish diplomat, the current crisis has thrown up further obstacles in Erdogan’s path.
“It was already very difficult because Erdogan has lost much of his former popularity. He is now seen as being just like any other dictator, with no economic successes to his credit,” he said. The opposition, added the former diplomat, is already working to support a consensus candidate.
Regional Arab and European diplomats, meanwhile, say it is too early to predict the effect of the earthquake on Erdogan’s chances of retaining the presidency. According to one, it was the economic crisis of 1999 that allowed Erdogan to ascend the political ladder to the top executive job.
“Erdogan could rework his scheme by using this humanitarian tragedy to lobby support in the face of a very difficult situation,” he said.
One option he anticipates is greater momentum towards a rapprochement with the regime of Bashar Al-Assad in Syria.
“This would work for both Erdogan and Al-Assad given that Al-Assad is also trying to use the crisis to repair his undermined legitimacy. This is why he insists on all relief aid being processed through Damascus.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly