Earthquake in Turkey and Syria is a moment for international co-operation

Some countries are already sending help but much more will be needed in the days, weeks and months ahead

Emergency personnel search for victims at the site of a collapsed building in Diyarbakir, south-east Turkey, on Monday. EPA
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A 7.8-magnitude earthquake near the southern Turkish city of Gaziantep in the early hours of Monday struck when buildings were full of sleeping families. The timing of the earthquake meant most people were indoors, maximising the casualties caused by collapsing structures.

Images of apartment blocks left with gaping holes or reduced to rubble entirely are upsetting but they only hint at the level of human suffering that is taking place. Snow storms and the harsh winter are hampering rescue efforts and making the situation even harder for those who have lost their homes.

Turkey is no stranger to earthquakes – its location on two major fault lines regularly produces tremors – but it is already clear that Monday’s earthquake is particularly devastating.

Its power has been frightening, with a string of aftershocks shaking already-damaged buildings and some being felt nearly 800km away in Baghdad.

While numbers are still unclear, many people are trapped under debris and thousands have been injured. Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay said shortly after the earthquake that the government could declare a full state of emergency in the days ahead.

Among the dead and injured in Turkey will surely be some of the millions of Syrian refugees who live in Gaziantep and the surrounding region, having fled north from their country’s long-running civil war. Across the border, just 90km away, the situation in their homeland – already perilous after more than a decade of conflict – has been made even worse by yesterday’s disaster.

Early yesterday, reports from rescue workers in Syria described a “catastrophic situation” in the northern city of Salkeen and said roads were blocked in parts of Idlib and Aleppo provinces.

Many people in this region depend on the Bab Al Hawa crossing with Turkey – the sole road route for UN cross-border aid. In 2022 alone, 7,566 trucks loaded with supplies crossed into this part of Syria, reaching 2.7 million people on average a month. It remains to be seen how the earthquake might affect this vital flow of aid.

The international co-operation that enabled aid to reach war-torn Syria will be needed now more than ever, and some countries are already sending help. The UAE is to send a field hospital and search-and-rescue teams to Turkey, with another team going to Syria. Rescue teams from the Netherlands and Romania are on their way to Turkey as part of an EU response.

For those across the region affected by the earthquake, a key question will be if the international community and national governments, some of whom have fraught relations, can come together to help thousands of people who badly need support. There is a precedent for this: in 1999, Turkey and Greece – two neighbours with a complex history – were both hit by earthquakes.

The 7.6-magnitude Izmit earthquake in Turkey that August cost thousands of lives, but led to an outpouring of support from Greece. This was not just at the government level but also came from individuals, NGOs and local authorities. Less than a month later, when Athens was hit by a 5.9 tremor, Turkey sent rescue teams to help and the Greek embassy’s phone lines were jammed with Turkish people offering to donate blood.

There are no easy answers to the problems posed by such a catastrophe, but it is clear that this is a moment for international co-operation, not just in the short term, but in the weeks and months ahead.

Published: February 06, 2023, 2:00 PM
Updated: February 10, 2023, 7:23 AM