Shattered Relief: A 7.8-Magnitude Earthquake Strikes Turkey and Syria

A 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck Turkey and Syria in the early hours of the morning on February 6 with the large southeastern Turkish city of Gaziantep at its epicenter. This was followed less than 10 hours later by a 7.5-magnitude aftershock slightly to Gaziantep’s north. In addition to its impact on Turkey and Turkish citizens, the twin quakes hit the heart of a border area home to millions of Syrian refugees at a time of great economic and geostrategic uncertainty in Turkey and across the region.

Remote Visualization

Q1: What are initial damage estimates?

A1: The reverberations from the earthquakes were felt in Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan, though initial estimates suggest the greatest devastation occurred in southeastern Turkey and northern Syria. Home to over 2 million people, Gaziantep is the sixth largest city in Turkey. Within 24 hours, an estimated 5,600 buildings were destroyed in Turkey and over 5,000 people had died in Turkey and Syria, though these figures are likely to grow in the coming days.

Q2: What are some of the biggest concerns?

A2: The biggest concerns are and will continue to be the loss of life and providing humanitarian relief to survivors. But the already high death toll could continue to grow for at least four reasons.

First, since the initial earthquake struck when many people were still at home, most were likely to have been in the thousands of buildings that were destroyed. Search and rescue operations will continue for the next few days, after which efforts will shift to recovery and ultimately to rebuilding damaged and destroyed infrastructure. The physical and psychological human impact will be far greater and longer lasting. In the coming days and weeks and months, international donors and NGOs will need to draw on lessons from other rapid onset disasters (e.g., tsunami and hurricane relief) which share similar destructive qualities. These lessons include the critical need to coordinate assistance, to build local resilience, and to draw from and strengthen local response structures.

Second, this happened in the middle of winter in a region where temperatures routinely dip below freezing this time of year. Snow blanketed the region over the weekend and cold rain fell over rubble on Monday afternoon; temperatures dropped to near freezing levels in the evening hours. Though search and rescue and humanitarian relief teams have been deployed from 45 countries around the world—including two 79-person search and rescue teams and a Disaster Assistance Response Team from the United States—wintry conditions will make search and rescue operations and all humanitarian relief efforts more challenging.

Third, the strength of the earthquakes resulted in entire neighborhoods being reduced to rubble. In addition to the loss of life this has caused, the magnitude of the destruction means that all relief efforts will be challenging thanks to blocked roads, damaged bridges, communications and power outages, food and water shortages, and other critical disruptions. Many of the local and international NGOs that would typically respond to such a disaster have (or have in the recent past had) a presence in Gaziantep supporting Syrian refugees; this could help them understand the terrain and the language, but it also means that many of their own operations could have been destroyed or damaged.

Fourth, Gaziantep is the economic and political center of a region literally on the frontlines of humanitarian response after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Of the nearly 3.8 million registered refugees in Turkey—by far the largest number of refugees hosted by any country in the world—an overwhelming majority are Syrian. Over one million Syrians live in the Turkey-Syria border region, almost half a million in Gaziantep city alone. Though the municipality of Gaziantep has prioritized integration of Syrian refugees for years, the earthquake adds will further stress an already stressed environment. Syrian refugees have been forced to navigate shifting temporary protection measures while dealing with the psychological and physical effects of protracted displacement; for Syrian refugees, the earthquakes create new trauma on top of old.

Q3: Have earthquakes happened in Turkey before?

A3: Turkey ranks among “the most seismically active countries in the world.” The initial 7.8 earthquake on February 6 was the highest magnitude earthquake recorded in Turkey since 1939 and the second highest in its recorded history. But earthquakes are a regular fact of life in many parts of a country that sits on the intersection of two major fault lines. The February 6, 2023, quakes happened along the East Anatolian Fault, though the most recent major earthquake almost a quarter century ago happened along the North Anatolian Fault.

The 7.6-magnitude earthquake on August 17, 1999 and its aftershocks resulted in as many as 73,000 casualties: 18,373 deaths, 48,901 people injured, and 5,840 people never found. Though the 1999 earthquake impacted a more populous region that includes Izmit and Istanbul—the latter Turkey’s largest and most densely populated megacity—most of the casualties occurred in buildings, many of which were built using substandard building materials and allowed to stand by government officials who failed to enforce building codes which require earthquake resistance. The levels of devastation seen in the hours after the February 6 earthquakes—e.g., entire multistory apartment buildings crumbling to the ground—are reminiscent of the destruction seen in northwestern Turkey in 1999.

Q4: What is the broader context in Turkey and how could it impact relief and recovery efforts?

A4: Founded in 1923, the Republic of Turkey has long anticipated celebrating its centennial, though its leaders probably would have preferred a calmer environment in which to do so. Turkey will hold presidential and parliamentary elections on May 14 where voters will decide whether to extend President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s 20-year rule, which began with him as prime minister in 2003 then continued with his ascendance to the presidency in 2014, a position he then placed at the top of the country’s leadership structure in a 2017 referendum. They will be voting against the backdrop of a plummeting Turkish lira that lost 44 percent of its value in 2021 alone and an approximate 58 percent annual inflation rate in January 2023.

Regionally, President Erdoğan has signaled interest in rapprochement with the Assad regime in Syria while making increasingly frequent threats to launch more cross-border incursions into northern Syria to attack Kurdish groups, namely the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which it considers an arm of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, a designated terrorist organization also known as the PKK. At the same time, tensions with NATO ally Greece are at the highest levels in years—and speaking of NATO, Turkey continues to delay Finland’s and potentially block Sweden’s entry into the transatlantic security alliance.

Turkey’s ongoing domestic and regional challenges could complicate—or at least divert attention away from—its response to the earthquake, though it is likely to prioritize recovery efforts in an election year, especially in a region that has reliably voted for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party for the past two decades. The Turkish government has also welcomed international assistance, though the provision of such assistance from Russia and Iran, if it materializes, could result in additional (and unwelcome during an emergency response) diplomatic challenges for Turkish agencies and international organizations coordinating relief efforts.

On the other hand, the disaster could also offer a window for “earthquake diplomacy” between otherwise adversarial powers (e.g., Russia and the United States). It could also provide an opportunity for Turkey to resolve its own geostrategic issues, as was the case in the wake of the 1999 earthquake between Turkish and Greek leaders who were, at the time, exchanging similar levels of heated rhetoric. Whatever the geostrategic possibilities, one only hopes that the focus remains on searching for and rescuing as many people as possible in the coming days, after which the hard work of recovery will begin anew in a region all too familiar with disaster.

Erol Yayboke is a senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Erol Yayboke

Erol Yayboke

Former Director, Project on Fragility and Mobility and Senior Fellow, International Security Program