The Earthquake in Turkey, Syria, and Rojava Is Not Just a Natural Disaster

The quake reveals how corrupt, far-right regimes multiply the devastation of natural disasters, whether tectonic or fossil-fueled

The earthquake that devastated southern Turkey and northern Syria in early February was a natural disaster — but the decades of war, sanctions, and exploitation that made it so deadly were manmade.

If the earthquake recovery can become a recovery from endless war and corrupt, far-right nationalist rule, the people of the region will be better protected from all future disasters, natural or otherwise.

After four decades of war against its own Kurdish population and 10 years of intervention in Syria’s conflict, the Turkish national security state is omnipresent in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria.  

From Diyarbakir to Cizre to Afrin, Turkish military operations have brought death, displacement, and destruction to Kurdish communities. Kurds there cannot choose their own leaders or exercise any democratic control over the security forces that terrorize them. In Turkey their elected officials are imprisoned and jailed; in Syria their local administrations are destroyed entirely, with all who served in them becoming targets for extremist militiamen and Turkish drones. The slightest word of dissent is grounds for imprisonment. 

Since the breakdown of peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in 2015 and a failed coup attempt in 2016, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan expanded that system of repression to target any and all critics. Foreign Policy reported that Turkey’s prison capacity is set to increase by more than 70% since 2016, at a cost of $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion. More people were investigated for “insulting the president” in 2020 alone than under several previous Turkish presidents combined. 

While the Erdogan regime has not yet turned its guns on its ethnic Turkish citizens, the proliferation of shadowy paramilitary groups and illegal weapons has left many fearing a scenario in which such violence could be possible — particularly in the aftermath of a contested election. 

AWOL Government During Earthquake Crisis

The Erdogan regime and its supporters justify a state of such size and centralized power in the name of national security. But when Turkey faced the greatest threat to the lives and security of its people in recent memory — the 7.8 magnitude earthquake with its epicenter in the southern province of Maras that struck on February 6, 2023 — the state and the regime were nowhere to be found. 

The most devastated regions in Turkey reported receiving no government assistance at all in the first critical hours. Rather than coordinate with the NGOs and desperate civilians taking matters into their own hands, authorities interfered with their work and threatened dissenters — going so far as to shut down Twitter as first responders were using it to locate and rescue survivors trapped under the rubble. The Turkish military, quick to descend on Kurdish cities when the AKP’s electoral future demands a war, was slow to use its resources for disaster relief. 

On the surface this seems like a contradiction. In reality, however, this is what autocracy and endless war do by design. When every state resource is devoted to consolidating one man’s rule and destroying his so-called “enemies,” there is nothing left for anyone else — even when tens of thousands of lives are at stake. 

It is not difficult to find direct connections between Erdogan’s rule and any number of circumstances that made this tragedy worse. There is the role of low-quality state-linked construction projects in helping Erdogan’s regime build political and economic power, and the fact that his government has collected decades of earthquake taxes but cannot explain what it has done with them. There is the price tag of refusing to solve the Kurdish question at the negotiating table — $4.2 trillion over four decades — or that of the occupation of northern Syria — approximately $2 billion per year — all money that could have been spent on meeting citizens’ needs in times of crisis but was not. 

If war and autocracy exacerbated this catastrophe, then peace and democratization must be part of the solution. 

This will require an effort to push Western governments to change course. The same governments now pledging aid have helped create a Turkish state more capable of killing and imprisoning its people than protecting them. They have supplied Erdogan with deadly weapons, offered political and legal support by criminalizing Kurdish resistance, and looked the other way when these choices inflamed conflict.

They have also waged an economic war on Syria that has hit impoverished civilians much harder than the state elites whom proponents of broad sanctions claim to target. A recent U.S. general license for earthquake relief was a tacit admission that the existing framework was impeding efforts to get immediate aid to victims and rebuild in the long term.

None of this is sustainable.

Solidarity and Mutual Aid Fill the Void

As for what could be done instead, one can look to the situation on the ground in the region — where, despite everything, survivors are showing a new path forward.

The role of democratic civil society in Turkey, Syria, and Kurdistan has been exemplary. Communities already suffering from war, poverty, and displacement have mobilized to provide assistance to areas that governments cannot or will not reach. Turkey’s opposition parties have also stepped up in spite of attempts to criminalize their efforts. They have proven that flexibility and solidarity, not centralization and fear, are what it takes to keep a society safe, and that people, not foreign governments, should have the final say in where resources can go.

This response has already inspired some creative diplomacy. Kurdish groups that Turkey considers existential threats to its national security have not only expressed sympathy for the victims, but have also taken principled steps toward deescalation in order to put the humanitarian effort first. 

Immediately after the earthquake, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) commander-in-chief Mazloum Abdi expressed his condolences and stated that the SDF were ready to assist all who required help in Turkey and Syria alike. The Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) has prepared an aid convoy to send to civilians in Turkish-occupied Afrin and Idlib. 

And on February 9, Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) cochair Cemil Bayik called on the PKK’s military forces in Turkey to unilaterally end all military actions on Turkish territory while the country recovers from the earthquake.

If the earthquake recovery can become a recovery from endless war and corrupt, far-right nationalist rule, the people of the region will be better protected from all future disasters—natural or otherwise.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Let’s Save Each Other

Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission