The earthquakes that struck Turkey, Syria, and Kurdistan on 6 February 2023 caused unprecedented human loss and physical destruction. The Turkish government failed dramatically in responding to the disaster, leaving tens of thousands of people presumed dead under the ruins and millions of traumatized survivors wondering desperately, “Where is the state?”
Even after sixty-two hours, Turkey's Disaster Management Authority (AFAD) failed to conduct rescue operations to save people trapped under rubble in one of the worst-hit areas: Hatay’s central district. The situation was similar in nine other city centers and much worse in rural areas. The government’s poor emergency management and screams for help from the earthquake zones via social media quickly created a spontaneous aid mobilization across the country. Solidarity networks, mutual aid organizations, and opposition-led municipalities, which Erdoğanists have long vilified as “terrorists,” organized a massive campaign to rescue people trapped under the rubble and to mobilize aid needed by earthquake victims. The international community also reacted quickly to calls for assistance, including Greece, Armenia, and Iraqi Kurdistan (states that are typically demonized as enemies by the Turkish state), as well as many Western states that the government has repeatedly accused of conspiring against Turkey's unity and territorial integrity.
One might think that the Turkish government would welcome community-based relief efforts in such a time of crisis. It might even move quickly to incorporate these efforts into the state-organized disaster response. Far from it: The AKP government perceived the opposition-led solidarity campaign as a threat and launched an aggressive campaign to suppress collective actions aimed to deliver aid to the earthquake victims.
How can we explain the AKP government's relentless hostility toward civil society groups organizing for mutual aid after the earthquakes? What explains the Turkish government’s refusal to work with civil society to organize disaster relief, and its turn to racialized moral panic against “looters” and Syrian immigrants?
Over the last decade, Turkey has undergone an authoritarian state transformation that has primarily focused on bolstering coercive state institutions (police, military, and intelligence) at the expense of those performing non-coercive functions (disaster management, health, and education). This process unfolded through a series of collective contentious events, including two uprisings (2013-14), urban warfare (2015-16), and a coup attempt (2016) at home, as well as three cross-border military operations in Syria (2016-19). During this time, the government became increasingly adept at dealing with political emergencies by orchestrating pacification campaigns.
In these contentious episodes, Erdoğan overcame challenges to his rule primarily by mobilizing Turkish ethno-nationalism to garner popular support, unify the body politic, and undermine the opposition by claiming to fight both internal and external enemies. On the other hand, when the need to challenge public emergencies such as the pandemic, wildfires, and, most recently, earthquakes arose, related state agencies were unable to effectively manage them, resulting in widespread public outrage and criminalization of opposing voices and/or minorities.
Regardless of the underlying cause of an emergency, the Turkish government has treated states of emergency as a political competition for legitimacy. The government's reaction to the recent earthquakes is consistent with its overly politicized conception of states of emergency. Faced with a legitimacy crisis as a result of its failure to protect the lives of its citizens, the Turkish government has resorted to a pacification campaign, leveraging widespread anti-Syrian sentiments in an attempt to pacify the solidarity movement. Rather than simply reclaiming legitimacy, the government's pacification efforts also aim to create the conditions for a new megaproject to rebuild the quake-hit areas within a year.
Critical Antecedents and the Politics of Disaster Management
The magnitude and shallowness of the earthquakes unquestionably increased the destructiveness of the disaster. The structural dynamics that directly contributed to the high human and physical costs, on the other hand, have been in the making since the AKP took power in 2002. The AKP's capital accumulation strategy relies heavily on rapid growth in the construction sector and bureaucratic tolerance for systemic violations of rules and regulations at both the national and local levels—particularly when contractors have access to the right political networks. In such a context, any easy resort to the term “corruption” is misleading: the pervasiveness of these systemic violations indicates that the problem is embedded in and shaped by the AKP's economic growth model. According to a report prepared by the Union of Chambers of Engineers and Architects (TMMOB), nearly half of all the structures that collapsed or were damaged due to the earthquakes were constructed after 2000.
Another significant factor contributing to the high death toll is the government's failure to establish a well-functioning disaster management agency after dismantling the previous military-led disaster response infrastructure in 2009. The AKP’s conviction to prevent the military from exploiting emergencies was based on a legitimate concern. From the 1960s to the early 2000s, the secularist-nationalist Turkish military was able to run the country directly or indirectly by exploiting real or fabricated states of emergency. This entailed the permanent insertion of counterinsurgency principles into governance structures. The AKP government's project to civilianize disaster management, however, resulted in a less effective disaster response agency in the years following. All previously existing disaster relief organizations were merged in 2009 under the umbrella of Turkey's Disaster Management Authority (AFAD). Soon enough, the AFAD was encircled by a multi-layered coordinating bureaucracy that subjected disaster relief to greater political control. Its independent decision-making power to act quickly in the event of a disaster was gradually eliminated. Furthermore, the AKP government restructured disaster relief organizations like the Red Crescent to generate soft power by delivering humanitarian aid abroad at the expense of domestic disasters.
The AKP government’s lack of investment in disaster recovery infrastructure is also linked to Turkey's authoritarian turn and its over-investment in coercive state institutions. Over the last decade, the Turkish government has increasingly directed a sizable portion of its resources toward establishing a police state to suppress internal dissent and a war-making apparatus to advance its regional-imperialist agenda in Kurdistan, Syria, Iraq, and the broader Middle East. Since 2009, AFAD has mostly concentrated on managing refugee camps in Turkey and Turkish-occupied areas of Syria. This left it without the capacity to handle a major “natural” disaster. In the absence of effective non-coercive institutions at home, the ambitions of Turkey's political elites to build a regional power in the Middle East exacerbated the devastating effects of the earthquakes. Similarly, the heavily politicized disaster response of the government is still shaped by a belief in the dominance of the state over society as well as political lessons drawn from the recent history of major disasters.
The Government That is Everywhere and Nowhere
Two consecutive crises precipitated the pro-Islamic AKP's ascension to power in 2002. The first was a coalition government's failure to protect lives and effectively provide aid in the aftermath of the 1999 Izmit earthquake. This was particularly striking because the Turkish military had acted swiftly during the first seventy-two hours to organize disaster response. Due to limited state capacity, relief efforts were only partially effective, while the economic impact of the earthquake was severe because the industrial heart of Turkey was struck. The 2001 economic crisis signaled the end of “the Old Turkey,” which was ruled indirectly by the secularist military. Although the military had aimed to legitimize its coercive domination during the 1990s by framing the Kurdish and Islamic movements as threats to the state and nation, these two crises paved the way for the AKP to win the election in 2002.
This transition also made clear how poorly managed disasters can erode society's trust in the country's government, state institutions, and leadership. Likewise, the 2023 earthquakes have already exposed the government's inherent weakness in protecting its own citizens while also providing the opposition with a structural opportunity to further undermine Erdoğan's authoritarian rule. That said, understanding how the earthquakes might reshape the political landscape in Turkey requires a more thorough examination of the government's approach to the politics of emergency.
Turkish state agencies were almost non-existent in the worst-affected areas for days after the first earthquake in 2023. But this does not mean that Erdoğan's authoritarian political machinery was idle. Since 6 February 2023, the government has focused on managing the political repercussions of the crisis rather than the disaster itself. In the absence of effective institutions to adequately respond to such disasters, Erdoğan's authoritarian playbook for dealing with challenging “natural” disasters is characterized by pacification, the process of absorbing widespread collective anger towards the government through a combination of violent and nonviolent repression tactics.
The core objective of Erdoğan’s playbook has been to minimize the political costs of inadequate disaster response. His approach amounts to disaster management as pacification. Such a strategy can be effective to the extent that the government is able to externalize the costs of its failure to protect its citizens and to the extent that it can suppress solidarity networks and civil society mobilized for community-based emergency response. Pacification at this point is the prerequisite for Erdoğan to be able to launch his new megaproject in quake-affected areas, which will once again seem to prioritize speed over safety. In this vein, the government aims to clear the solidarity networks from devastated cities, silence oppositional voices on a national scale, and also prevent a likely increase in political mobilization in the near future.
Attempting to win hearts and minds through a mix of violent and nonviolent tactics is hardly a novel phenomenon in Turkey. Coercive state institutions in Turkey are an extension of the pacification campaign in Northern Kurdistan ongoing since 1984. As such, state institutions rely heavily on counterinsurgency tactics to overcome any major challenge to state legitimacy, not just in the Kurdish region, but throughout Turkey. Counterinsurgency practices have played a significant role in Turkey's transition to authoritarianism after the Gezi uprising (2013), especially after the AKP formed an alliance with counterinsurgent elites of the 1990s while ending the Kurdish peace process (2009-2015). Over the last decade, the ruling elite’s constant use of counterinsurgency techniques has resulted in the labeling of nearly half of the citizenry as “terrorists.”
When a genuine state of emergency occurs, combining coercion with legitimacy-building activities has been central to the government's pacification repertoire since 2015. The government's psychological operations may vary depending on the type of emergency, but their overall goal is to appeal to the Turkish dominant majority by criminalizing subordinate minority groups. In the context of disasters, the state's strategic scapegoating of minority groups becomes a systemic diversionary response when the government's incompetence manifests itself. For instance, due to a lack of fire-fighting aircraft, the AKP government struggled for weeks to put out a series of wildfires that started in August 2022 as a result of the climate crisis. The government-controlled media immediately began to spread conspiracy theories and misinformation blaming and criminalizing the Kurdish movement for the wildfires, with no justification. This racialized mass panic resulted in lynchings of Kurdish people and Syrian refugees in affected areas, while also potentially reducing the political cost of the government's failed disaster response. The Turkish government undertook similar repressive actions in the first week after the earthquake disaster. Pacification efforts were carried out at the expense of a more effective disaster response that could have saved thousands more lives.
Pacifying the Solidarity Networks
Right after the disaster, Erdoğan sought to appeal to his religious base by claiming that the two earthquakes were acts of fate. The government quickly realized the limitations of this framing, and pivoted to an argument that the two earthquakes were exceptionally severe and that no disaster mitigation efforts could have prevented the inevitable devastation. Baffled by how quickly and effectively solidarity networks, aid organizations, and opposition-led municipalities embarked on a mobilization campaign, the Turkish government launched a pacification campaign instead. This could be seen on 7 February 2023 when the government declared a “state of emergency” for three months in the ten cities damaged by the earthquake to grant more discretionary authority to the police and military. (Previously the government had designated earthquake-hit areas as “disaster zones” to provide extensive disaster relief funds.)
On 8 February, the government tried to restrict people’s access to Twitter and TikTok, which have been essential for community-based relief efforts. At a moment when Turkish Twitter was completely dominated by calls for immediate rescue with specific locations, such a cruel move not only exposed the government's incompetence but also severely jeopardized rescue efforts. Strikingly, the government was forced to backtrack within nine hours due to widespread public outrage, which indicated a deepening of the crisis emerging at the heart of the AKP's authoritarian disaster response. In the days that followed, the Turkish police began arresting contractors suspected of code violations in an effort to shift the cost of failed disaster mitigation to others. Nonetheless, in comparison to the magnitude and urgency of the ongoing humanitarian crisis, none of these government actions have had much impact on the persistent public outrage.
Things quickly escalated. Relatively few looting incidents had been reported. But while justifying the need for emergency powers, President Erdoğan sowed the seeds of moral panic by vowing to crack down on looters and criminals in the quake-affected areas. An effective misinformation campaign on social media was launched to inflate the “looting threat” in collaboration with “opposition” parties pursuing a racist anti-immigrant agenda. Footage of alleged "Syrian looters" being tortured by Turkish police mysteriously appeared and started to dominate social media feeds.
Faced with a deepening legitimacy crisis as a result of a disaster response mobilized independently of the state, the government had to invent the “danger” (looters) while also claiming to be the “shield” (state violence) against the threat, as an attempt to create legitimacy through law-and-order politics. Government-sponsored racialized hysteria over looting did not just involve torturing alleged looters; it also resulted in the lynching of three people to death and another death under the custody of the gendarmerie (rural police force). State-sponsored terror has already militarized earthquake-affected areas, with the goal of driving out solidarity networks in near future.
The expropriation of aid organized by the solidarity movement has also been at the center of the Turkish government’s repertoire of pacification. It insisted that all disaster relief aid be delivered to earthquake survivors through the AFAD's coordination centers. The government even used police forces to seize aid organized by Kurdish civil society organizations and the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and appointed a district governor as a “trustee” to an aid organization center in Pazarcık, Maraş. Similar incidents of aid obstruction have been reported also in Siverek, Güçlükonak, and Malatya.
Likewise, ten aid workers from the Communist Party of Turkey (TKP) were arrested by a large group of police officers, apparently as part of an attempt to intimidate activists in the quake-hit areas. Moreover, officials of the government ally Nationalist Action Party (MHP) have repeatedly threatened to seize donations given to Ahbap, one of Turkey's leading disaster relief organizations. Furthermore, after seeing how college students have been instrumental in organizing nationwide aid in the last week, the AKP government preemptively devised a strategy to prevent university students from organizing and mobilizing on campus. The government declared that all state-run dormitories be evacuated for earthquake victims, making in-person university education impossible through the end of the academic year.
The growing anti-government protests around the country demonstrate why Erdoğan has resorted to preemptive measures. Tens of thousands of soccer supporters demanded the resignation of the government on 26 February in response to the earthquake response. Over one hundred activists from the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP) were brutally attacked and detained in Istanbul after organizing a rally to protest the government's inability to provide tents for earthquake victims.
According to the growing literature on pacification, the term refers to more than the crushing of opposition. Pacification is also productive of power. It enables the creation of new policies, economic projects, and social orders. Erdoğan promised in the second week of the government-led pacification campaign that all devastated cities would be rebuilt in a year. Aside from other potential issues, Erdoğan must first overcome a new and formidable challenge: the new social forces rising from below through solidarity efforts that are pushing opposition parties to unite even more closely against the ruling coalition.
 For a recent example of how Erdoğan mobilized Turkish ethno-nationalism in the face of the AKP’s electoral defeat in 2015 and the rise of the Kurdish movement in Rojava, see Onur Günay and Erdem Yörük, “Governing Ethnic Unrest: Political Islam and the Kurdish Conflict in Turkey,” New Perspectives on Turkey 61 (November 2019): 9-43.