Turkey-Syria earthquake: Europe, with billions for war, shows its true heartless face

By David Hearst
Feb 10, 2023

An area 12 times the size of Belgium was hit by 20 earthquakes in two days.

The Turkey-Syria earthquake, which measured 7.8 on the Richter scale, released an explosion the equivalent of 7.5m tons of TNT. This was soon followed by a 6.7 magnitude aftershock in central and eastern Turkey, and a 5.6 magnitude aftershock on the TurkeySyria border.

There have been nearly 800 aftershocks recorded.

Up to 23 million people have been affected. At the time of writing – and these figures are changing by the hour – 17,674 in Turkey and 3,377 in Syria have lost their lives, with 72,879 injured. Over 100,000 in Turkey and 300,000  in Syria have been displaced.

Literally hundreds of multi-storey buildings, some 12 storeys high, have been reduced to heaps of rubble. Whole districts are devastated. Trunk roads and rail lines between major cities have been ripped up or are choked with aid traffic.

Transpose a map of this earthquake on Britain, and the fault itself stretches diagonally from the Severn in the west to the Humber Estuary in the north. Much of England including the cities of Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield would have been subjected to a level-seven shaking.

These figures sketch merely the contours of this disaster. The details will come in the days and weeks ahead.

Loss of public attention

Dozens of countries have sent search and rescue teams. But just three days into this disaster, at precisely the point when a search-and-rescue operation turns into a grim, slow recovery of bodies, the tragedy is slipping from the headlines in Europe, Turkey’s immediate neighbour.

We know what follows this loss of public attention.

This week, the earthquake was displaced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s visit to Britain and Brussels. The plucky khaki-clad Zelensky, who has morphed in political consciousness into a cross between Churchill, Boudica and Joan of Arc, has become a hot political ticket, as each parliament competes for his presence.

The fact that he visited Britain first in preference to France and Brussels was noted as a source of national pride. So, too, was the £2.3bn ($2.7bn) in military aid that Britain gave Ukraine last year, a sum that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak assured us will be matched this year. It makes Britain the second-largest military donor to Ukraine.

This is the sort of money available in Britain when the political will exists. Compare it to the sum the UK government said will be spent on the Turkey-Syria earthquake. When the 15 charities that make up the Disasters Emergency Committee launched their appeal on Thursday to provide rescue and medical aid, shelter, blankets, and food, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced the UK would match up to £5m ($6m) of the public donations.

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Cleverly said: “When disasters like these terrible earthquakes strike, we know the British people want to help. They have shown time and again that few are more generous and compassionate.”

£2.3bn in arms to Ukraine and £5m in disaster relief for 23 million people? Is this for real? Apparently yes.

Transcending politics

There are two ways in which this can be measured on the Richter scale of man’s inhumanity to man.

On a humanitarian level, disasters on a global scale require a global response which transcend politics – or the degree to which Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are treated as pariahs in gatherings of the great and the good like Davos.

Within a day of the disaster, the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon showing a damaged building, a toppled car and a heap of rubble with the caption: “No need to send tanks.”

This was more than just a one-off cartoon in poor taste and Charlie Hebdo is not just any satirical magazine.

In 2015, Hebdo became the epicentre of what was described as the defence of democracy and free speech against attacks by fanatics and terrorists – much as Ukraine is presented today. Its offices in Paris were attacked by Said and Cherif Kouachi, claiming to represent the militant group al-Qaeda, killing 12 people and injuring 11 others.

The attack prompted mass demonstrations. The chant “Je Suis Charlie” went viral. Charlie Hebdo became a symbol of free speech under attack from barbarians with beards. To achieve these ends, Charlie Hebdo’s unvarnished racism was brushed under the carpet then, as it continues to be today.

Few media organisations referred to its latest excrescence, although social media was not slow to react.

An error of major proportions

Much has been written about the slow demise of the US and Europe on the world stage, marched off by a rag-tag armies of the Taliban in Kabul or suicidal frontal assaults of Wagner’s convict army in the Donbas.

But the EU’s reluctance to be the first responder in this crisis is entirely voluntary. It is an unforced error of major proportions. This is a chance to show moral leadership and humanity to millions of people. It is a chance to speak directly to them, not their governments or presidents manoeuvring for re-election.

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This is a chance to show the world that the West can rebuild as well as destroy. But this is the last sentiment in the minds of Fortress Europe today. Fortress Europe ringfences its wealth. Its high electrified fences and drone patrols are there to keep the heathen hordes out.

What stronger stimulus could you give to millions of people to look elsewhere for leadership?

While no significant sums have yet been raised in Britain, France or Germany, the Saudis have collected more than $51m four days after the Sahem platform was launched for the relief of Syria and Turkey.

It’s peanuts for any member of the Saudi royal family, but a significant donation from Saudis themselves. It puts Britain to shame. However, let’s abandon morality or any sense of common humanity.

Let us follow the zeitgeist of self interest.

Astonishing figures

Before the war in Ukraine, the Middle East accounted for 25 percent of asylum seekers in Europe in 2021, and of those the greatest numbers came from SyriaIraq, and Turkey in fifth place. Afghanistan was second.

The war in Syria turned Turkey into the world’s largest refugee hosting country, sheltering over 3.6m Syrians refugees and 320,000 persons of concern from other nationalities. It spent $5.59bn in humanitarian aid last year, accounting for 0.86 percent of its GDP, which makes it a world leader, according to a report by Development Initiatives.

In terms of money spent, Turkey is second only to the United States. These are astonishing figures for a government so often vilified in the West.

But this effort is not set in stone. Turkish far-right parties, like the Victory party, run campaigns on the prowl, raising funds for bus tickets to deport Syrians. Turning for someone to blame for the slow relief efforts, some Turks are turning on refugees in the wake of this disaster.

These are events large enough to propel future waves of refugees as the rebuilding operation will take years, if not decades.

It’s absolutely in Europe’s interest to ensure that Turkey can cope and continue its policy of resettling refugees in northern Syria. But Syria, too, once the focus of so much covert western arming, has been abandoned. Syrian refugees were dying of cold a long time before the earthquake struck Aleppo and Idlib.

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A third of all casualties are thought to be in Hatay province just across from the Syrian border. The destruction in Hatay has had an immediate effect on the relief to Syria that passes through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, the umbilical cord of aid for millions of people in Syria’s northwest who live in areas outside Syrian government control.

Syrians under government control are not faring better. The state is shattered by war and, like Iran in the early days of the Islamic Republic, it is crippled by sanctions.

A biblical fate

Each year the chasm between the right thing to do, and the things we end up doing grows wider. Each year the words uttered by European leaders become more grotesque.

Last October the EU’s top foreign policy official Josep Borrell addressed the inauguration of the European Diplomatic Academy in Brussels on 13 October. This is what he said, according to the official transcript:

“Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that humankind has been able to build – the three things together. … Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden. The gardeners have to go to the jungle. Europeans have to be much more engaged with the rest of the world. Otherwise, the rest of the world will invade us, by different ways and means.”

If ever there was an opportunity to put a stop to this primitive gibberish, it is now.

Will Europe seize this moment? I doubt it, for I have long since abandoned belief in the concept of progress. And Borrell’s garden of Eden fully deserves its biblical fate.

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