Early on the morning of Monday 6 February, a devastating earthquake shook the Middle East, ripping the earth apart and reducing buildings to rubble. The magnitude 7.8 quake, with its epicentre just to the west of Gaziantep in Turkey’s Anatollian region, is the strongest to hit the country in modern times. With the strength of 130 atomic bombs, it was felt as far away as Greenland.
The initial earthquake and its 145 aftershocks wreaked destruction in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria, claiming the lives of an estimated 16,000 people (so far), with tens of thousands injured. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that, when the dust clears, 20,000 people might have died.
As ever with such tragedies, the immediate cause may have had a natural origin, but the level of death and suffering was man made. Profiteering, corruption and imperialist war conspired to turn a long-expected seismic event into an utter catastrophe.
The working class must reject cynical appeals to so-called ‘national unity’, and instead point the finger squarely at the real culprits, and organise to put their murderous mismanagement to an end.
Rescuers struggled to dig people out of the rubble of collapsed buildings in a ‘race against time’ as the death toll from an earthquake across a wide area of Turkey and Syria passed 5,000.
— Reuters (@Reuters) February 7, 2023
“We are without hope”
The earthquake struck with cruel timing for both Turkey and Syria. Turkey has been enduring skyrocketing inflation, collapsing living standards, and intensifying attacks on democratic rights from the regime. Meanwhile, Syria is still bleeding from a thousand wounds inflicted by the civil war, the flames of which were fanned by imperialism.
Hundreds of thousands of people were suddenly left homeless, in freezing conditions, desperately trying to locate lost friends and relatives. A man in Elbistan, a town near the epicentre, posted a video of piles of rubble, crying out: “This was our main high street. We are without hope.”
The northwest of Syria, which is home to hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees, took the brunt of the quake in that country. Entire villages have simply ceased to exist, including Basina in the Idlib province, which aerial images now show to be nothing but a pile of debris.
There are dozens of heartbreaking videos of people cradling dead fathers, mothers, siblings, and small children, or calling to trapped loved ones suffocating in the rubble.
In Aleppo, thousands of casualties have been reported in a city that was already torn apart by years of war. Entire neighbourhoods were in total ruins before Monday, and much of the damaged and dilapidated infrastructure still standing was simply flattened by the quake, including essential buildings like hospitals.
Survivors are without water or electricity, while official and civilian emergency response teams struggle against cold weather and heavy rain to pull people out of their destroyed homes.
Damage from the civil war and continued fighting between the government and rebel groups only makes it harder to send aid to the victims, especially in rebel-held areas in the north west of Syria, which can no longer be reached from Turkey because of damage to roads, and which the Syrian government is unwilling to allow aid to reach from the south.
Not an accident
The level of destruction caused by the earthquake is not solely explained by its unusual magnitude. Obviously, the carnage of the civil war made Syria especially vulnerable. But in Turkey’s case, a major part of the blame lies with the regime, and profiteering private construction companies, who colluded in a disaster that was waiting to happen.
This earthquake was expected. Turkey sits between the North and East Anatolian Faults, and is highly prone to seismic activity. “All sane earth scientists, including me, said that this earthquake came with bells ringing years ago,” said Turkish geologist Naci Görür in a live interview on US television. “No one cared to listen to what we had to say.”
The country has been hit by a number of devastating quakes over the years, including one in 1999 with an epicentre near Izmit in the Kocaeli Province that killed around 18,000 people. That particular disaster shone a spotlight on the widespread practice of building contractors ignoring safety regulations, resulting in an outpouring of public anger, forcing the government to carry out arrests.
One such gangster, Veli Gocer, was arrested after three weeks in hiding, following telephone interviews in which he admitted to cost-cutting measures such as mixing sea sand and concrete. “I’m not a builder, I’m a poet,” he said in one of these interviews. “If I’m guilty I will pay for it, but I don’t feel guilty. I feel sorry but I’m not responsible for those deaths.”
This particular parasite was only one of a whole hive, infesting a massive system of corruption in the Turkish construction sector, which the government at the time was unwilling to probe, due to the thousands of threads tying building tycoons to the state. Meanwhile, the inept rescue and relief efforts indirectly contributed to a political crisis that ended with the fall of Bülent Ecevit’s DSP government in 2002.
Following this avoidable tragedy, reforms were promised, and new regulations implemented to protect buildings from earthquakes. However, these measures were once again undermined, not only by corruption, but also conscious government policy.
According to an article in the Toronto Star, a 2018 zoning amnesty law passed by Erdogan’s regime, saw licences given to buildings that may not have adhered to building codes – in return for a fee paid to the government. 13 million structures were legalised under this officially sanctioned system of bribery.
As president of the Istanbul Branch of the Union of Chambers of Turkish Engineers and Architects, Professor Pelin Pinar Giritlioğlu, explains:
“With the laws enacted by the central government, a system of arbitrary licensing was created for construction companies which distorted the initial urbanisation goals. The construction of structures was legal on paper but contained flaws that fuelled disasters.”
This process massively accelerated after the 2016 military coup attempt against Erdogan (the background to which remains murky), after which a huge number of state buildings and public lands were privatised, and many given to the army, possibly to purchase their loyalty against the coup-plotters.
“The policy shift led to an unregulated, untransparent system,” Giritlioğlu says. “The construction companies were also able to move as they pleased and did not comply with regulations.”
The consequence is that buildings that should have held up, and were approved by state officials (who are themselves gangsters), came crashing down.
“The South East is suffering great damage now, including public buildings such as hospitals, police stations, schools, municipal buildings, bridges and airports, all built after 2007,” Giritlioğlu adds. “And these places should be the safest in case of disaster, the places where the earthquake victims will be provided for.”
Erdogan and the construction racket
Erdogan’s bloody hands are all over this scandal. All the way back to his tenure as mayor of Istanbul, and especially as Prime Minister, he developed close ties with Turkey’s construction industry. This sector was a major driving force behind the massive economic growth in the 2000s and 2010s, on which Erdgoan and the AKP built much of their authority.
Toki, Turkey’s public housing administration, answered directly to Erdogan as prime minister, and expanded enormously under his rule. A 2014 corruption probe alleged that the government was fast-tracking building permits.
“The way the system works is that if Istanbul municipality says you can’t build in a place, Ankara can overrule it – so it makes a lot more sense if you’re a business to go to the central authority,” said Refet Gurkaynak, an economist at Bilkent University in Ankara.
At the time, the Financial Times cited two (anonymous) leading Turkish businessmen, who said bribes were “sometimes necessary” to go ahead with big construction projects. Transcripts of telephone conversations leaked to the Turkish press had construction mogul Ali Agaoglu (who was amongst those detained for questioning) referred to Erdogan as “big boss”.
All in all, it is absolutely clear that Erdogan and his cronies encouraged construction fat cats to grow fatter, and grift their way to lucrative contracts for years. As president, he passed laws that allowed them to skirt around safety regulations, so that he could benefit politically from the subsequent economic growth.
Buildings constructed according to official recommendations should be fairly resistant to collapse, even during very powerful earthquakes. The cost of Erdogan and the AKP’s sleazy dealings with profiteering construction moguls can now be counted in the thousands of corpses buried under mountains of concrete.
Erdogan has declared a three-month state of emergency in the affected areas. This will give his government extraordinary powers, immediately following the introduction of a series of laws that seek to effectively ban the main opposition party, the HDP, in the run up to the general elections in May.
The president has been manoeuvring for months to shore up support for the AKP, amidst a brutal cost-of-living crisis, including announcing a new raft of public spending (in a country where the official inflation rate is in excess of 64 percent), repression against political opponents, and the whipping up of chauvinist hatred towards Turkey’s Kurdish minority and Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
Erdogan is already in a vulnerable position, and he knows it. He might hope that a swift, decisive response could be exploited to create a politically beneficial mood of ‘national unity’, that will help him secure his position. He is also cynical enough to consider using his new emergency powers to further crush his political enemies.
But this would be a dangerous move. The people were already at their wits’ end. If there is any hint that Erdogan is exploiting this tragedy for political gain, or if any personal responsibility falls on him or his party, this disaster could have profound political consequences.
The imperialist nations have engaged in an especially disgusting display of crocodile tears, particularly over Syria: a country that was left defenceless against this earthquake following years of hellish war and sanctions at the hands of these very same crocodiles.
While rescue teams from many western nations immediately headed to Turkey, it is a very different story in Syria, where continued fighting and hostilities with the Assad regime mean that western countries are refusing to engage with the official government.
The horrendous impact of this entirely preventable disaster is yet another testament to the madness and cruelty of capitalism, in which ordinary people are literally and figuratively crushed by their reactionary rulers, and the shameless profiteering of bourgeois bloodsuckers.
As one nightmare is piled onto another, it is only a matter of time before the people take their destinies into their own hands. The only way out is the expropriation of the tycoons who treat essential infrastructure as a mere cash cow; the overthrow of the politicians who facilitate their crimes; and the building of a socialist society fit for human habitation.