Aftermath of earthquakes in Syria, Turkey

Picture from the candlelight vigil for earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. PHOTO CREDIT: Eddie Melfi | Staff Photographer

In a matter of minutes, the earthquakes that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on Feb. 6 created a humanitarian crisis with both physical and political impacts. 

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake killed tens of thousands of people, flattened cities and left millions homeless. The quake’s death toll has surpassed 46,000 as of Feb. 20, with over 40,000 in Turkey and around 6,000 in Syria, according to a New York Times article.

While rescue and recovery efforts are still occurring, there is concern over how the political conflicts in Turkey and Syria will impact later support, according to Brendan “Skip” Mark, assistant professor of political science and director of the Center for Nonviolence and Peace Studies at the University of Rhode Island. 

Since facing an insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party, Turkey has experienced domestic unrest and human rights violations, according to Mark. The Kurdish population in Turkey, who make up about a fifth of the country, led this insurgency. Turkey’s leadership has become “increasingly authoritarian” as a response to this unrest.

Syria has been in the midst of a civil war since 2011, which caused a mass migration of refugees into southeast Turkey — the region where the recent earthquake hit. 

Prior to 2011, relations between Turkey and Syria were improving, according to Mark. While there has been a heightened dispute between the two countries over the past decade, the early February earthquake provided a break in the fighting.

The government and the rebels in Syria, as well as the government and opposition in Turkey, are “all hands on deck,” according to Mark. This includes sending aid in the form of food, blankets, winter clothing, medical supplies and tents for temporary housing. 

“People are working together to rebuild,” Mark said. “And if they can coordinate and cooperate, this could lead to more peace than would have been possible before.”

However, there is growing concern about what will happen when resources and aid dry up, according to Mark. Countries are cooperating through sharing resources that are currently available, but when those resources become scarce, Mark explained that there is a real risk in resumed fighting.

Surrounding crises such as Syria’s own civil war and the war in Ukraine will also impact the rate of donor fatigue, contributing to a lack of resources in the future.

The earthquake in Turkey and Syria occurred as a result of the region’s placement above the Earth’s tectonic plates, according to URI’s chair of the department of geosciences Brian Savage. When two plates slide past each other to create an earthquake, that is called a strike-slip fault. 

Turkey has a huge strike-slip fault on its northern boundary and has a second that is located more towards the Turkey-Syria border, according to Savage. These fault zones are the same type as California’s San Andreas Fault — a sliding boundary that runs through the state.

The recent Turkey-Syria earthquake was given a magnitude of 7.8, which is a measure of force multiplied by distance, according to Savage. There are other factors measured as well, such as the size of the fault area. Savage explained that seismologists, geologists and engineers use these measurements to compare earthquakes — not to predict them.

By comparing related earthquakes, places that are more susceptible to them can adopt appropriate building codes, according to Savage. These codes can differ depending on where the fault zone is located and what material it is located above and can help protect against the impact of shaking from earthquakes to a certain extent.

The last major event in Turkey occurred in August 1999, when a 7.6 magnitude earthquake hit the northwestern city, Izmit, according to Savage. Despite being similar in magnitude and location, Savage explained that Turkey’s most recent earthquake has destruction that differs significantly from the previous.

“In 1999, the buildings literally looked like they had been tipped over on their sides,” Savage said. “Building after building after building, and they were structurally sound, but then they just fell over. So they stayed intact but fell over. These look like they’ve been pulverized in some way.”

This comparison has caused questions about Turkey’s building codes to arise, through either lack of code revisions or a lack of enforcement, according to Savage. 

A majority of the buildings destroyed in the Turkey-Syria earthquake were found to be made out of concrete, according to Savage. He then explained that most buildings in California are made of wood, which is a much more flexible material and has a better response to shaking than concrete.

Speculation over the enforcement of these codes, combined with hesitance about how Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is dealing with earthquake aid efforts, will have a “huge” impact on the country’s upcoming election, according to Mark.

A large sum of potential voters have either been killed or have moved away from the region they would have voted from. There is additional election uncertainty about where and how votes will be collected and counted, according to Mark.

The decision to postpone the election and continue to fully fund the earthquake would face opposition because it could be seen as an excuse for Erdoğan to maintain power in Turkey, according to Mark.

There is also a possibility that Erdoğan uses the disaster to rally support, according to Mark. But that is heavily contingent on whether the government and people of Turkey believe that he did a good job handling the earthquake. 

URI does not currently have any International Studies and Diplomacy students studying nearby the affected area in Turkey, according to Marc Hutchinson, the interim ISD program director. The closest ISD student to the recent earthquake is in Jordan and was unaffected.

Despite the devastation, Mark noted that one positive outcome of the earthquake is that the world is paying attention.

“Everything that’s been happening in Syria and Turkey is now under a microscope,” Mark said. “It’s going to make it harder for [Turkey] to suppress human rights. And so there is a really good opportunity to help right now.”

Even though Rhode Island has not been impacted by the crisis firsthand, it is important to maintain attention and provide support in affected areas, according to Mark. This can be done by donating to organizations with a “tried and true track record” and investing in monthly donations, rather than a one-time donation, in order to provide support when resources begin to deplete.

“I’m hoping that URI and others will continue to focus on this and do more, and not move on too quickly,” Mark said. “Do something, donate your money… or donate your time to organizations. The lack of logistical support can be made up if people volunteer to help.”Mark endorsed donating to organizations such as the Norwegian Refugee Council, UNICEF, International Federation of the Red Cross, Red Crescent Society, Global Giving and Doctors Without Borders as resources.