As search and rescue operations in the aftermath of the devastating earthquakes in Turkey and Syria wind down, there has been widespread criticism of the Turkish state’s response. Nevertheless, for all the shortcomings in the government’s response to the earthquakes, it is miles ahead of how the Syrian state responded.
The importance of civil defense capabilities, so often neglected during quieter times, has become starkly visible in Turkey and Syria in the past two weeks. When confronted with war or natural disasters, a society can only protect survivors if it has the state capacity to organize an effective civil defense effort.
Two earthquakes on Feb. 6 have so far killed more than 35,000 and injured tens of thousands more in southern Turkey and northwestern Syria. But while the disasters were natural, not all of the fallout was: The humanitarian catastrophe caused by the earthquakes has been worsened by corruption, politics and geopolitical rivalries.
Why we pay so much attention to some tragedies, like this week’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria, and not others is bound up in questions of cause and effect. There is nothing political about an earthquake, we tell ourselves. There are no perpetrators, only victims. But politics always plays a role in the impact of a natural disaster.
Could the horrors of the earthquake that hit Turkey and Syria on Monday be accompanied by a slim silver lining? Could the international humanitarian efforts in response translate into lasting repairs of destabilizing diplomatic rifts? The evidence from history suggests that it’s complicated. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.