By Kaden Silva
On Feb. 6, 01:17 UTC, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck near Syria’s northern border with Turkey, according to the US Geological Survey, heralding the start of a potential humanitarian crisis in the region.
Rescuers from both the Turkish Government and international organizations such as the UN have already begun mobilizing. Multiple nations have pledged to assist their Turkish counterparts in search and rescue efforts.
Fatalities have risen to 2,921 dead in Turkey, with 15,834 injuries, according to The New York Times, as of Feb. 6 at 8:51 EST. In Syria, official figures put the dead at 1,444 and around 3,500 injured, according to Reuters, as of Feb. 6 at 6:32 PM EST. Death tolls are expected to climb as more areas are assessed.
Search and rescue have already mobilized into affected areas. In a tweet by Ekrem İmamoğlu, mayor of Istanbul, rescuers from the city have been deployed to Hatay, one of the cities most affected by the earthquakes. In the attached video, rescuers can be seen pulling a child out of the rubble, wearing what seems to be pajamas. “More teams on the way,” İmamoğlu said.
Victims of the earthquake have reported collapsed buildings, trapped families, and lost relatives. According to CNN, eyewitnesses from Northern Syria say that conditions in northwest Syria are “terrifying” in the immediate aftermath of the quake, “leaving ‘entire families dead’ and ‘survivors sleeping on the streets in the freezing cold’.”
On The New York Times, a reporter named Muhammad Kaj Hadour in Idlib, Syria, chronicled his own experience from where he was in Idlib. Sleeping when the earthquake hit, he quickly moved his family into the streets of the town. “Everywhere I went I heard the same sounds: metal against stone, people crying and others loudly praying or appealing to God,” Hadour said. “In the town of Atarib the sights were indescribable. Most of the buildings were gone, entire areas the size of soccer fields were demolished.”
Estimates for the damage of the earthquakes, according to the US geological survey, have a high likelihood of causing anywhere between 1000 to 10000 fatalities and anywhere from $10 million USD to $10 billion USD in economic losses, which could be from 0-2% of Turkey’s GDP.
“It’s difficult to watch this tragedy unfold, especially since we’ve known for a long time about how poorly the buildings in the region tend to behave in earthquakes,” said USGS scientist David Wald on the US Geological Survey News. “An earthquake this size has the potential to be damaging anywhere in the world, but many structures in this region are particularly vulnerable.”
Winter conditions in the area serve as another complication for both the victims of the earthquake as well as rescuers. According to Fox Weather, when the earthquake started, temperatures were already as low as 21 degrees Fahrenheit. These harsh conditions may exacerbate the critical condition that victims of the earthquake are already in, and hinder search and rescue efforts.
A UN press release reports heavy snowstorms in the region. Forecasts have predicted that sub-zero temperatures will hold throughout the affected areas.
On social media, Turkish citizens have documented the devastation, with multiple videos garnering hundreds of thousands of views from social media netizens. One video uploaded by the user “Belli’s” on Twitter with the caption “Antioch” depicts a series of clips that show the devastation firsthand. Turkish residents can be seen searching through the rubble, with one part showing a rescue conducted through a chain of tied-together rugs from a three-story balcony.
The White Helmets, a Syrian humanitarian aid organization, called on the international community on social media to take action in affected regions. “Our teams are trying to save them, trying to save their people, trying to save the people under the rubble.”
A White Helmet spokesperson said, “We need help. We need the international community to do something, to help us, it’s a disaster area, we need help.” In the background, shouting and sirens can be heard as frantic rescuers coordinate rescue efforts.
Multiple nations abroad have pledged humanitarian assistance. According to AFAD, 62 search and rescue teams from 50 nations have offered assistance. A British government official on Twitter announced that immediate support is being sent to Turkey, including 76 search and rescue specialists, equipment, and rescue dogs. Search and rescue teams, medical and rescue specialists, rescue equipment and transport planes have also been offered from a myriad of EU nations, Greece, India, Russia, Ukraine and Israel, according to The New York Times.
The UN Secretary-General, Antoine Guterres, has pledged support by the UN for Turkey in a press release. “My heart goes out to the people of Türkiye and Syria in this hour of tragedy. I send my deepest condolences to the families of the victims and wish speedy recovery to the injured,” Guterres said. “The United Nations is fully committed to supporting the response. Our teams are on the ground assessing the needs and providing assistance.”
UN organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF have reported that UN staff are already on the ground giving aid to those affected. “The immediate priority is to support the response locally,” Dr. Catherine Smallwood said, Senior Emergency Manager coordinating the Türkiye earthquake response at WHO/Europe, in a UN News release. “Türkiye has very strong capacity to respond to earthquakes, but such is the level of the destruction, they have put out an alert for international medical assistance. And we are coordinating potential deployment with the Turkish authorities.”
The US Government is also coordinating with Turkish officials to provide humanitarian aid. “My Administration has been working closely with our NATO Ally Türkiye, and I authorized an immediate U.S. response,” President Biden said in a White House press release. “At my direction, senior American officials reached out immediately to their Turkish counterparts to coordinate any and all needed assistance.” He then offered his condolences to Turkish residents who have been injured or lost loved ones, and those who saw their homes destroyed.
Both Secretary of Defense Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have begun engaging with their Turkish counterparts. Another White House press release reaffirmed US support and their continued monitoring of the situation. Blinken announced in a State Department press release, “I have directed my team to remain in close contact with our Turkish allies and our humanitarian partners in the coming days to determine what the region needs. Our initial assistance response to Türkiye is already underway, and U.S.-supported humanitarian organizations in Syria are responding to the earthquakes’ effects across the country.”
In a follow-up, according to Reuters, Blinken spoke to Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, expressing his condolences, quoted as saying “pick up the phone and let us know” what the US could do to help.
Some feared that a nuclear reactor under construction in Akkyu, Turkey, would have been damaged by the earthquake and subsequent aftershocks. As of now, there have been no reports of any damage to the nuclear power plant facility. “Earth tremors of about magnitude 3 were felt here… but our specialists have not revealed any damage to building structures, cranes and equipment,” Anastasia Zoteeva from Russia’s state nuclear energy company Rosatom said on Reuters.
However, critical infrastructure elsewhere has reported major damage, such as a major Mediterranean port in Iskanderun, according to Turkish maritime authority reports to the Daily Asbah, sustaining major damage as a result of the earthquake.