On the 6th February, when two huge earthquakes struck South-West Turkey and North-West Syria, rescue workers failed to arrive in some badly hit areas for more than 24 hours. In Gaziantep, the epicentre of the first earthquake, no aid arrived for 12 hours after the disaster occurred, and Turkey’s military, (the second largest in NATO) was not deployed to the region for more than 48 hours. The current temperatures in Turkey are around 0ºC, so it is likely many injured people who survived the initial shock would have died of exposure by the time the rescue operation was able to begin. In Turkey, a country where 70% of its territory is at risk of being affected by earthquakes, why was there not a higher level of preparedness? Particularly after an earthquake in the North-West region killed over 20,000 people in 1999.
In fact, preparations were put in place for the next major disaster after what happened in 1999, but years of government corruption and authoritarian rule by president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party seem to have eroded their effectiveness. Since 1999, the Turkish state has imposed a permanent tax on all home owners to contribute to earthquake relief. There are no official figures as to how much money should be available for this kind of natural disaster – figures regarding some aspects of public spending in Turkey have been censored by AKP since 2012. However, estimates suggest that close to $40 billion has been collected over the years to help manage exactly this situation. Additionally, after the 1999 earthquake the European Union provided aid to Turkey for ‘adapted urban planning’. This made money available to build new buildings in a way that would have made them more resilient to earthquake damage. According to many news sources, contracts have been given to construction companies with close ties to AKP, who have failed to meet building regulations that would make buildings safer in the event of an earthquake. Speaking on Al Monitor’s podcast, the Middle East Institute’s director for Turkey, Gonul Tor stated that,
‘a handful of cronies in construction companies have been given official government contracts. These companies have very little regard for safety regulations and building codes’.
In a statement published on Tuesday 7th February, the Internationalist Commune of Rojava commented on the corruption present within AKP as well as the Turkish government response, writing, ‘the natural disaster is inseparable from its political implications’, alluding to the grim reality that the incomprehensible loss of life and destruction that has happened in the last week could have been lessened in a different political climate.
It is essential to note that many of the areas badly affected by the earthquakes are majority Kurdish. With elections scheduled in Turkey for 14th May, Erdoğan is likely aware that the regions affected are not his voter base due to the genocidal policies AKP has practised against the Kurdish population living within the borders of the Turkish state since it came to power in 2002. There is therefore no political will to ‘wow’ people in the region with a display of the government’s efficiency in creating a timely response. In fact, Erdoğan’s disregard for those affected by the earthquakes was noticeable in his attitude when addressing the nation in press conferences shortly afterwards. Throughout these, his tone was not one of a compassionate leader who could understand the suffering people were experiencing after a disaster. Instead, he was defensive and almost confrontational, threatening those who criticised the government’s response and promising ‘consequences’ for ‘individuals who were spreading lies’ about the situation on the ground. Later in the week, AKP declared a ‘state of emergency’ for the next two months. One aspect of this ‘state of emergency’ is tighter restrictions on the press, allowing the state to black out negative reporting and dissent amongst citizens. As this new set of rules will last until just before the elections the timing couldn’t be more convenient.
Further, on Tuesday February 7th Turkey bombed the town of Tel Rifaat, in North Western Syria with artillery. Tel Rifaat is one of the only regions west of the Euphrates still controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and Eastern Syria (AANES), the democratic body that administrates the Rojava revolution. Many of the people living in Tel Rifaat are already refugees following the Turkish invasion of Afrin in 2018 and this kind of bombing is not uncommon. However, it is stunning when placed in the timeline of events following the earthquakes. At the time the bombing occurred, the Turkish military had still not been dispatched to help with search and rescue efforts – in effect, sending the message that it was a higher priority to terrorise Kurdish held areas in Syria than help citizens in Turkey who were trapped under rubble and debris.
Across the border in Syria’s North West, the disaster response has been hampered by both the Assad regime and the jihadist gangs who control Turkish occupied regions. Since Tuesday, aid convoys sent by the AANES have been held up at the last checkpoint before entering areas controlled by the regime. In order for them to pass, the regime is demanding that half of the aid arriving be handed over to them to distribute. This means that institutions bringing aid to the region will have no control over how it is distributed or used. As corruption is an ever present feature of Assad’s regime this would mean that there would be no guarantee that aid would reach people who need it.
The weaponisation of disaster response against a particular demographic isn’t unique to this instance or even to Turkey. Consider the US response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, where majority black neighbourhoods were left to fend for themselves after their homes and livelihoods were decimated. How many people there died because the rescue response from central government was too slow? It is important to understand that though natural disasters are unavoidable, there is often a political undercurrent running parallel to the humanitarian news stories that will only remain in our social media feed for a few weeks (if they are lucky). That political undercurrent is important to understand because it determines what reconstructing areas like Gaziantep and Hatay will look like, how money will be spent, and who the £5 we send to a DEC appeal will benefit.
For AKP this is a make or break moment. With elections in sight, the response to this disaster is both shaped by AKP’s past failings and prejudice, and will shape the future of Turkey in the coming years. For Erdoğan, this is perhaps the first time since the Turkish occupation of Serekaniye in 2019 that the spotlight of western media has focussed so totally on his government and their policies. Sadly, the same western media has failed to highlight or even notice that there are particular demographics who are more affected by the loss of life, limb and shelter that has occured. Within Turkey opposition to AKP rule was already mounting prior to the earthquakes and fury over how this disaster has been handled could be enough to spark change come the election. A lot now depends on opposition parties maintaining a unified front to remove AKP from power. Much like his bedfellow Donald Trump, it is clear that Erdoğan will not leave without a fight and the disaster of the 6th February could still end up being a vital card that allows him to manipulate, and cheat his way into another election term.
If you wish to donate to a disaster relief organisation following the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, please consider supporting Heyva Sor Kurdistan.
Image: ANF English