Skip to content

An aerial picture shows rescuers searching the rubble of buildings for casualties and survivors in the village of Besnaya in Syria's rebel-held northwestern Idlib province at the border with Turkey following an earthquake, on 7 February 2023. (Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images)

Earthquake Response: Search and Rescue Continues, But New Focus on Humanitarian Aid Emerges

More than 22,000 people are confirmed dead from the catastrophe of the century—a 7.8 earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Monday, followed by powerful aftershocks that toppled buildings and destroyed vast amounts of the two nations’ infrastructure.

The emergency response has turned into a race against the clock as search and rescue teams continue to comb through the rubble to locate and free people trapped underneath. There is also a massive effort underway to provide thousands of people with shelter and medical care after their homes were destroyed in the earthquakes.

In Syria

While the death toll from the earthquake is lower in Syria—3,384 people killed, 5,245 injured as of the morning of 10 February—the race against time is no less dire. The response is especially challenging in the northwestern region of Syria, which is partly controlled by rebels after 12 years of civil war with the Assad regime. More than 3,000 White Helmets—a volunteer first responder group—are on the ground in the region to assist with search and rescue efforts.

“All of the White Helmets teams are working full capacity to save everyone they can, but with their limited resources, this is a herculean task,” according to the group’s website. “Several hospitals buckled in the tremors, and the health system in northern Syria is already severely depleted after years of deliberate attacks by Russia and the Syrian regime. That’s why the White Helmets urgently need your support to act quickly to provide resources, shelter, and care for injured people who have lost their homes.” 

While there are sanctions in place limiting financial investments in Syria, humanitarian aid is not subject to them. Even if money is donated, however, there is the difficulty of actually transporting materials and humans to assist in the recovery efforts into the country. There is only a single access point that humanitarian aid is approved to travel through from Turkey into northwest Syria—Bab Al-Hawa—which was damaged in the earthquake before re-opening Thursday, says Reva Dhingra, a post-doctoral research fellow at Brookings Institute who researches the politics of forced migration and humanitarian responses in the Middle East and other developing states. 

“Six trucks made it through, but those were pre-planned—they weren’t related to the earthquake itself,” she says. “They didn’t have a lot of rescue equipment that people in northwest Syria have been asking for, and this lack of support has cost a lot of lives that could have been saved. People are still being rescued alive, but search and rescue equipment hasn’t gotten to northwestern Syria even as of today.”

This is especially problematic because infrastructure in northwestern Syria was already heavily damaged before the earthquake due to years of bombardment and shelling during the civil war. More than 6.9 million people were displaced inside of Syria because of the war, with another 5.5 million registered across the Middle East and an additional 1 million in Europe, Dhingra adds.

“You had a heavily isolated population, dependent on humanitarian aid from Turkey that Russia—with its veto power at the UN Security Council—restricted to a single crossing into the country,” Dhingra explains. “They didn’t have a back-up option for getting aid into that area, and the humanitarian needs were already extremely dire.” 

The Syrian government has pledged to let humanitarian organizations use black market exchanges for aid, which Dhingra says is encouraging. Previously, these organizations were required to use the exchange rate set by the central bank, which meant $0.50 of every $1.00 was being taken by the regime.

The U.S. Treasury Department has also granted a license to transactions for earthquake relief in Syria so they will not be in violation of sanctions against the Assad regime. The United States itself has pledged $85 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria and Turkey. Germany, France, Britain, Tunisia, and the Untied Arab Emirates have also pledged various forms of aid to assist Syrians, according to the Washington Post. 

“I’ll be paying attention in the next few weeks to how they’re planning to put in place humanitarian financing and funding to make sure earthquake victims get the support they need,” Dhingra says. She notes that she will also watch how the Assad regime responds given allegations that aid has been stolen from some relief efforts and resold.

“I’m curious to see what practices the international donors and organizations operating inside Syria put in place to ensure this scarce aid isn’t being stolen,” she adds.

In Turkey

Across the border in Turkey, more than 6,000 buildings have been destroyed, and search and rescue teams are working to recover people who may still be alive inside the rubble despite dropping temperatures. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed that at least 19,388 people have been killed and 77,711 injured, but the toll is likely to climb. 

Aid workers are continuing to rescue people alive, but chances of finding survivors drop each day following a disaster.

“Typically, it is rare to find survivors after the fifth to seventh days, and most search and rescue teams will consider stopping by then,” said Dr. Jarone Lee, an emergency and disaster medicine expert at Massachusetts General Hospital, in an interview with the AP. “But there are many stories of people surviving well past the seven-day mark. Unfortunately, these are usually rare and extraordinary cases.”

Core infrastructure—hospitals, airports, roads, and apartment buildings—were damaged by the earthquake and its aftershocks. Aid has been pouring into the country with representatives from dozens of nations sending teams or financial support to assist with recovery efforts.

The United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) released $25 million to kick-start humanitarian response efforts in the region, and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths is traveling to Turkey and Syria this weekend. 

“As the people in the region deal with the devastating consequences of this tragedy, we want to tell them that they are not alone,” Griffiths said in a statement. “The humanitarian community will support them in every step of the way out of this crisis.”

Anger has also been rising about Erdogan’s administration’s preparation for and response to the disaster, including allegations that some of it could have been avoided.

This criticism is in part founded on how the Turkish government responded to a major earthquake in 1999, which struck near Istanbul in an industrial area. The official death toll was approximately 17,000, but the unofficial toll was closer to 34,000, says Howard Eissenstat, non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and an associate professor of history at St. Lawrence University. 

“The government of the time badly mismanaged the rescue efforts—the military initially focused only on saving its own,” he explains. “The government was underprepared, so civil society really stepped in to take a leading role in the rescue.”

The government also initially refused to let foreign aid come in from the United States and Israel to assist with the response in 1999. The aftermath of the earthquake led to a lot of “finger pointing” over mismanagement of rescues and the failure to enforce earthquake proofing measures for construction, Eissenstat says. This ultimately undermined the traditional Turkish parties and allowed for the rise of the AKP—which Erdogan, who was then the mayor of Istanbul, was part of.

Following the 1999 earthquake, the government enacted legislation to require additional earthquake proofing and levied taxes to fund the efforts. But they were not effectively implemented, and combined with poor city planning this created a devastating situation when a 7.8-magnitude earthquake struck the country.

“Under the best circumstances with the most cleanly managed government that one could ask for, this earthquake would have been a very difficult situation,” Eissenstat says. “The first thing that struck me was the scale of the devastation, which was exacerbated by bad city planning and by a lack of control over construction—a failure to implement existing rules.”

After the 2023 earthquake struck, Eissenstat adds that he was also surprised that Turkey did not immediately engage the military in debris clearing and infrastructure building efforts to allow aid to move quickly into the affected region.

“A lot of basic infrastructure was destroyed—airports, runways, highways,” Eissenstat says. “And as strong as Turkish civil society is as a people and prepared to volunteer, it’s only the military who can build a runway overnight. It’s only the military that can deal with those big infrastructural problems on a short-term basis.”

Another note of concern is the potential politicization of the earthquake response due to presidential elections planned for May 2023. In Erdogan’s first speech about the earthquake—48 hours after it struck—his remarks focused on criticism of the government’s response to the disaster, Eissenstat says.

“There have been prosecutors opening investigations and detaining people for writing critical stuff of the government,” he adds. “They were also throttling Twitter because of criticism, which was the main system by which people on the ground were communicating with the wider world. It was the main way civil society organizations were finding out where they were needed.”

Looking Forward

Approximately 3.6 million Syrians were living as refugees in Turkey before the earthquake struck, and anti-migrant sentiment from the opposition and ruling parties was already strong, Eissenstat says.

“They have tried to address it by repatriating migrants and by promising to repatriate more,” he explains. “Those pressures will increase because those resources will be limited. People are already complaining on social media that resources are going to migrants instead of Turkish citizens.”

If Syrians living in Turkey are repatriated, however, they will likely face oppression from the Assad regime, which has engaged in kidnappings, forced disappearances, and arrests of young men who left the country because they did not want to join the regime’s army, says Dhingra, adding that it is still extremely important to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Syria for the next weeks, months, and years.

“Particularly in the health sector in terms of shelter,” she explains. “Keeping pressure up internationally to get aid to northwestern Syria is really important. It’s not an advocacy position; it’s a fact.”