The catastrophic earthquakes and aftershocks that first hit Türkiye and Syria on February 6 have led to a staggering loss of life and infrastructure. Nearly 50,000 people have succumbed in the disaster and many more remain injured, homeless, and vulnerable as people, rescuers, and governments struggle to cope in the harsh winter conditions. In this Council Views, Middle East Council experts examine various aspects of the earthquakes’ aftermath in both countries and offer policy recommendations for the future.
Mitigating the Middle East’s Growing Natural Disaster Risks
The devastating loss of human life and economic destruction caused by the recent earthquake in Türkiye and Syria is a wake-up call for governments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region to recognize the major risks they face from natural disasters and to adjust their mitigation strategies accordingly. By several metrics, the region has experienced in recent decades the highest growth in the number of natural disasters around the world, including earthquakes, floods, droughts, sandstorms, heat waves, etc.
These disasters have affected tens of millions of lives, especially among the poor, vulnerable, and marginalized populations. They have also cost regional economies tens of billions of dollars in recovery expenses, damaged infrastructure, and lost income. Growing risks from climate change are forecast to further exacerbate the impact of natural disasters since they accentuate the existing vulnerabilities of water scarcity, food insecurity, and conflict. The political and security implications of the combined effects of natural disasters and climate change for the most populous countries in the region and their cross-border reverberations should not be underestimated.
While the international community will always respond to catastrophic events, as it is doing now with aid and assistance, those after-the-fact efforts will inevitably fall short of what is required and should be understood as primarily the responsibility of national and local governments. In this regard, the growing recognition by authorities in MENA of the need to reduce and manage disaster risks needs to be brought to the forefront of policy priorities and public awareness campaigns, and become institutionalized through laws, regulations, and robust response capabilities.
After the Quake: Political gridlock exacerbated the loss of life and hardship in northern Syria
Following the immense devastation of the earthquake, the situation in northern Syria was further aggravated by long delays in receiving vital resources and assistance. This was especially the case for excavation equipment, needed to rescue people trapped under the rubble of fallen buildings. The delays greatly escalated the loss of life and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the region. After days of waiting, tents, medication, food, and supplies finally began to arrive. However, time had run out for many people who were trapped and unable to escape.
While logistical issues were partly to blame—roads leading to affected areas had been damaged by the quake—the main culprit was political. The regime and their opposition, together with their respective allies, have created strangleholds in their fight to control the region. The opposition supported international sanctions that have limited the flow of heavy equipment and financial resources into the country, which have hurt ordinary citizens. The regime has tried to limit humanitarian access into northern Syria from neighboring countries in order to assert its sovereignty over the area and to control aid flows but has not retaken it. The earthquake laid bare the disastrous impact of these policies.
Following the earthquake, both sides loosened their grips. The regime has allowed the opening of two more border crossings from Türkiye for three months. The U.S. Treasury announced a 180-day exemption to its Syria sanctions for earthquake relief efforts. However, it took precious days to bring about these steps, at the cost of thousands of lives. Furthermore, the temporary nature of these reprieves will keep people vulnerable to future crises. Both sides can ease the stranglehold on the region by reaching an agreement to make these temporary arrangements permanent.
Time to Build Trust Prior to New Buildings
The earthquake and its aftermath have shattered public trust in Türkiye and Syria as the devastation was intensified by the quality of building development in the affected areas. Prior to the disaster, many in Türkiye believed that buildings constructed after the 1999 Izmit earthquake were safe and could withstand anticipated seismic activity. However, the recent earthquake was more intense than anticipated, leading to and exacerbating concerns about the lax implementation of regulations. Angry citizens are now demanding action to prevent further loss of life.
Lessons learned from governance and institution-building programs and discussions on governance, especially in the 1990s, offer insight into how to rebuild trust. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, for example, condition their loans on improved local governance, which increases public trust in government institutions. Empowering independent agencies, such as central banks, has also been shown to improve administrative quality and build trust.
To rebuild trust in the wake of this disaster, Türkiye should establish an independent regulatory authority to oversee seismic building codes and ensure their implementation without political intervention. Establishing an independent regulatory authority would not only restore confidence in building safety but also demonstrate the government’s commitment to accountability and transparency while helping the government mobilize international and local funds for reconstruction efforts. To promote accountability, the government could issue sustainable bonds and sukuks for new construction projects, with funds only being allocated if the independent regulatory authority approves the plans.
A Greek Handshake Could Help Türkiye Find Solace in This Tragedy
Despite the magnitude of the disaster in Türkiye and Syria and the tragic loss of life, there may be a silver lining for Turkish diplomacy in the longstanding feud with its neighbor Greece. A Greek show of solidarity with Türkiye in the aftermath of the earthquake has renewed faith in what is sometimes called “people’s diplomacy,” founded on unconditional solidarity with a country and/or a people in times of need. Days after the earthquake, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited Adana and met with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, in a goodwill gesture that pleasantly surprised the international community and offers potential for a diplomatic breakthrough.
Against the backdrop of the Russia-Ukraine war, raging unabated in a geography adjacent to Türkiye, the gesture signals thawing relations between two historic rivals. Both share NATO membership, yet they dispute each other’s territorial claims to islands in the Aegean Sea. Their disputes revolve around maritime borders including the continental shelf and the alleged “militarization” of Greek islands adjacent to Türkiye in breach of the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty. As a result, tensions regularly flare, including to dangerous levels as occurred in mid-2022. Yet, the appearing thaw in relations, dubbed by some as “earthquake diplomacy” is similar to active cooperation during the 1999 earthquake that affected the two countries. Greece’s support has included rescue personnel and canines, medicine, and engineers. The country is also lobbying within the EU for a meeting of donors to help Türkiye rebuild quake-destroyed homes and infrastructure. At a time of escalating warfare in their neighborhood, the Greek diplomatic goodwill gesture may be viewed as a mini “Grotian moment,” re-introducing trust-building and cooperation as the golden rule of engagement in bilateral relations.
Disinformation in the Türkiye-Syria Earthquake
The tragedy in Türkiye and Syria has another unwelcome facet, which is the proliferation of online disinformation and conspiracy theories that seek to re-orient humanitarian focus and displace it with politicized narratives. For example, thousands of social media accounts on Twitter and Facebook have been spreading stories that HAARP (High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program), a U.S.-based technology designed to study the ionosphere, was responsible for the earthquake. This conspiracy pushed several news outlets, including Reuters, to run fact checks, diverting valuable coverage to countering outlandish falsehoods. Thousands of others have spread a false story suggesting several Western countries withdrew their ambassadors before the earthquake, implying they knew it was coming. These stories seem to be propagated by right-wing U.S. accounts, conspiracy theorists, and anonymous pro-Russia accounts, many of whom claimed the HAARP-induced earthquake was a punishment for Türkiye’s obstruction of Sweden and Finland’s accession to NATO.
Elsewhere, scammers have been using social media and images generated by artificial intelligence (AI) of firefighters rescuing children to scam people into donating to false earthquake rescue funds. While scams have clear monetary incentives, politicized disinformation seeks to aggravate social conflict, sew distrust, and promote alternative explanations of natural phenomena. In extreme cases, it can lead people to believe that a specific event did not even happen or was constructed—a so-called false flag—undermining relief efforts by fracturing global sympathy. At the same time, tackling disinformation can also open the door for censorship. Türkiye quickly rolled out a disinformation reporting app, a tactic that has previously been criticized as a means to censor information critical of the government response. While digital media has many benefits in a humanitarian crisis, such as mobilizing sympathy and providing real-time information about a situation, it is also being used to exploit the ongoing information disorder and the erosion of a shared reality.
One Earthquake, Two Different Aftermaths
The implications of the earthquake are likely to present themselves in different ways for Türkiye and Syria. For Türkiye, the recovery has been supported by the region and the international community. The U.S. has pledged $85 million in humanitarian assistance; the U.K. has committed 25 million pounds ($30 million) and is leading NATO’s response; while the Arab Gulf states have mobilized financial support, field hospitals, aid packages, and search and rescue teams. Such support will likely accelerate the reconstruction process, provided it is not hindered by an increasingly volatile political environment as the country approaches presidential and parliamentary elections in June.
But Syria’s recovery effort started days after the tragedy hit because the Assad regime did not immediately open up border crossings and demanded to control the flow of UN aid entering the country, weaponizing the assistance and slowing it from reaching thousands of people in need. Syrians are still engulfed in conflict and displacement. The calamity of the earthquake and the regime’s response could likely fuel further anger and resentment, thereby decreasing the country’s prospects of peace. Militant groups in Syria may draw on the tragedy and experience a recruitment boon. Türkiye must also avoid complacency: natural disasters devastate communities and economies, and estimates suggest up to 23 million people in Türkiye and Syria require assistance, while the recovery effort will require close to 69 billion British pounds ($83 billion) in Türkiye. The Turkish state may, therefore, find that the earthquake empowers groups such as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Islamic State, both of whom have the capacity to exploit the widespread grievances that the earthquake has generated.
The Earthquake Was a Wake-Up Call on Infrastructure
The earthquake in Türkiye and Syria should be a wake-up call to governments around the world to improve their infrastructure, contingency plans and emergency shelters. A comparison of the impact of natural disasters in poorer and richer countries shows that having such measures and facilities in place preemptively can both reduce the number of casualties and the material damage caused by such catastrophes. The average natural disaster in Japan kills 63 people, while in Peru, the average toll is 2,900—46 times higher. Hurricane Elena in the United States killed five people in 1985, while a cyclone that hit Bangladesh in 1991 killed half a million. Earthquakes killing more than 10,000 people have only ever occurred in the Third World.
Although Türkiye did make advances in managing natural disasters following a huge earthquake in 1999, including the establishment of an early warning system, this tragically did not make up for the lack of infrastructure that could bear the impact of such quakes.
In the Middle East, the concept of infrastructure rarely goes beyond the presence of buildings and roads, with little consideration for whether or not they can withstand natural disasters. The destruction caused by the latest earthquake has shown that governments need to take such risks into account. The Middle East experienced over 200 earthquakes last century, while climate change poses a growing threat in the form of huge storms and floods in areas that have not seen them previously. Governments should urgently ensure that their infrastructure is able to endure such natural disasters. This in turn will reduce the human and material costs of natural disasters, wars, and climate change in the future.
Council Views is an ME Council blog series that brings together our experts’ insights on headline issues facing the Middle East and North Africa region.