Gaziantep, Turkey: The earthquake in Turkey is one of the deadliest this century Image Credit: Reuters

Turkey and Syria are not immune to earthquakes — no country is — but the last major ones took place a long time ago. One deadly earthquake in the eastern city of Erzincan back in December 1939 killed close to 33,000 people and damaged over a million buildings.

More recently, we had one in August 1999 in the Kocaeli Province on the easternmost end of the Sea of Marmara, claiming the lives of 18,000. Seventeen others have occurred since then, where over a fourteen-year period, a thousand people were killed.

Last Sunday’s deadly earthquake has whipped up a tragic death toll of 8,000+ although thousands remain trapped underneath the rubble. The World Health Organisation (WHO) says that the number could increase significantly.

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Much of Turkey stands on the Anatolian Tectonic Plate, which is bounded by two major fault zones and lies on a collision area between the Eurasian Plate and both the African and Arabian Plates. Any sudden movement along these faults can cause earthquakes, making the country prone to frequent disasters.

But even then, authorities were taken completely by off-guard with what happened on 6 February, a major quake that rippled throughout the Syrian north and was felt strongly in relatively distant cities like Damascus and Beirut, and as far as Cyprus and Greece.

Support for quake victims

Turkey is a long-time member of Nato and happens to be on good terms with most of the world’s major countries. Immediate aid poured in — all the way from Austria, China and nearer home from the Middle East. Thousands of aid workers and rescuers from fifteen European countries were dispatched officially by the EU.

Germany is going to send doctors, generators, tents, and water treatment units; Japan is supporting with aid workers, so is Spain, the UK, Israel and Switzerland. Even rival countries like Greece are helping with relief workers and doctors. The US is sending hundreds of firefighters to help in the relief and rescue effort.

The UAE pledged $100 million to Syria and Turkey, one of the largest sums yet following the massive earthquake. Saudi Arabia has ordered the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Centre to provide health, shelter, food and logistical assistance to Syria and Turkey.

It will also launch a public donation campaign for quake victims. The WHO said its network of emergency medical teams had been activated to provide essential health care for the injured and most vulnerable.

Dire situation in Syria

In Syria, things look bleak. The death toll there currently stands at 2,000+, divided between government-controlled areas and those in the hands of armed opposition. Syria suffers from eleven years of deadly war that has depopulated cities and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Infrastructure is already suffering, and the economy at a whole is cash-strapped, suffering from major devaluation of the local currency, hyperinflation, and crippling sanctions. The last thing Syrians expected was a deadly earthquake in the cities of Aleppo, Hama, and Latakia.

The country has had its deadly share of such disasters. Historically Damascus has suffered two major earthquakes in 847 and 991, while Aleppo was hit by a massive earthquake in October 1138, killing 230,000 people.

Then we had one in southern Syria in 1202, and another in Hama in 1157 — among others. But the last major earthquake to hit Syria was 200-years ago, in 1822, making the country far-less prepared, even in times of peace, for such natural disasters.

Presently help is pouring in. Russia sent hundreds of soldiers and special relief workers to help those who remain beneath the rubble. UAE has pledged humanitarian assistance worth $13.6 million.

Humanitarian aid from Tunisia and Algeria was followed by Jordan, which sent relief workers; Iraq sent fuel and 650 tons of food, and Lebanon, which contributed with Red Cross workers. Egypt has pledged three aeroplanes for Syria, The EU said that it would send aid if requested.

As harsh winter and freezing climate hampers rescue work, Turkey and Syria need a helping hand. The international community’s assistance to both nations, following one of the biggest natural disaster in the Middle East for decades, must accelerate.

— Sami Moubayed is a historian and former Carnegie scholar. He is also author of Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the New Jihad.