Why Earthquake Rescue Workers Are In A 'Race Against Time' In Turkey And Syria

Political pressures and changing weather could hamper the humanitarian efforts.

Aid workers in Turkey and Syria are trying to rescue as many people as possible after a devastating earthquake hit the region, but experts are warning that it is a “race against time” right now.

The 7.8 magnitude earthquake caused whole building blocks to collapse in Turkey and northwest Syria on Monday just before sunrise, in what is expected to be one of the deadliest quakes this decade, according to seismologists.

Just 11 minutes after the first shock, the region was hit with a 6.7 magnitude tremor, with a 7.5-magnitude quake coming hours later and a 6.0 spasm in the afternoon.

There are fewer than 20 quakes over 7.0 magnitude in any regular year, making this week’s disaster severe.

The U.S. Geological Survey also said it was the largest quake recorded worldwide since a tremor reported in the south Atlantic in August 2021.

Reuters news agency claimed it was the deadliest seen in Turkey since 1999, when a quake of similar magnitude struck, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said it was a historic disaster and the worst the country had seen since 1939.

The death toll had exceeded 5,000 by Tuesday morning, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has since warned that the number of casualties could exceed 20,000 as rescue efforts continue.

As Raed al-Saleh of the Syrian White Helmets — a service in rebel-held territory known for helping in regions affecting by air strikes — told Reuters: ”[We’re] in a race against time to save the lives of those under the rubble.”

The first 72 hours in a disaster like this are essential for saving lives.

Thousands of workers are trying to retrieve as many people trapped under the debris as possible — but there are two major issues which threaten to derail the already complex rescue mission: politics and the weather.

Where the earthquakes struck
Where the earthquakes struck
PA Graphics via PA Graphics/Press Association Images

How Could Politics Hold Up The Humanitarian Efforts?

Syria has been caught up in a civil war for 11 years, with the country completely divided between its President Bashar al-Assad’s oppressive regime and those rebelling against it.

This split between the rebels, including Kurdish-led forces, and the Syrian government could hamper aid as it tries to reach the disaster-hit areas, such as the city of Aleppo.

The UN says 4.1 million people, many of whom were already displaced and living in camps due to the war, depended on cross-border humanitarian aid even before the earthquake — so this natural disaster just makes a bleak situation even worse.

The earthquake has also mainly affected the rebel-held parts of Syria, where, according to foreign office minister Andrew Mitchell, “there is practically no governance,” making it harder to co-ordinate aid efforts.

He told Radio 4′s Today programme: “We hope that the UN will be able to negotiate additional access into Syria from Turkey, which is inevitably where the support is going to come from.”

But, Turkey and Syria have been at loggerheads since 2011, with Turkey leading the armed and civilian opposition against al-Assad, with troops in northern Syria. The two sides only began talking cordially again in December 2022, under Russia’s insistence.

al-Assad’s regime has left Syria alienated from much of the international community.

Syrian rescue teams search for victims and survivors at the rubble a collapsed building in the city of Aleppo following a deadly earthquake on Feb. 6, 2023.
Syrian rescue teams search for victims and survivors at the rubble a collapsed building in the city of Aleppo following a deadly earthquake on Feb. 6, 2023.
LOUAI BESHARA via Getty Images

While at least 45 countries have offered to help the search and rescue efforts in Turkey, the Syrian government has pleaded for international assistance from UN member states, the International Committee of the Red Cross and other humanitarian groups.

The BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet said that al-Assad may be forced to accept assistance from Western countries or middle east neighbours he previously condemned for supporting his enemies.

Syria does have its ally Russia on side, and the UN said it is assessing the situation and offering help already.

But, speaking to Today host Justin Webb, Mitchell noted: “You’re quite right to draw the contrast between the ability of the international community to help in Turkey and the inability, because of the geography and ungoverned space, to do so in Syria.”

“The position of people caught up there is very bleak indeed,” the minister continued: “Help and additional shelter, warmth, medicine, food and healthcare, can only really come over the border from Turkey and they are in deep jeopardy.”

What Does Weather Have To Do With It?

People living in both Turkey and Syria were facing extreme weather conditions over the weekend even before the earthquake.

Al Jazeera’s Sinem Koseoglu reported from Istanbul: “Everywhere there is snow or rain and it’s very cold...the weather conditions and the climate is making it very difficult for the rescue workers and civilians. It seems to be the biggest challenge for everyone.”

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York: “Syrian communities are simultaneously hit with an ongoing cholera outbreak and harsh winter events including heavy rain and snow over the weekend.”

Meanwhile, Oben Coban from Save The Children said that the “worst thing” was the weather in Turkey right now.

He told Sky News: ″The worst things were the freezing night, -10C of temperature in those aras.

″It’s actually making it like a race against time for us and everyone.”

Coban also noted there was already a “desperate” situation unfolding in ten Turkish cities at the same time with roads obscured with debris.

It make access to areas particularly difficult, meaning some search and rescue efforts are not going at full pace,” he told Sky News.

“More than 5,000, 6,000 buildings have collapsed. We know there are still children and families trapped underneath those buildings at the moment.

“Why it was extremely tough for international organizations like Save or government organizations to reach out to those people.

“What we are hearing from many people in the field is that they are still holding up, so there’s still hope for those people.”

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