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Death Toll Still Rising in Turkey, Syria
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Death Toll Still Rising in Turkey, Syria

Plus: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declares a state of emergency and rescue teams head to the region.

Happy Thursday! North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was reportedly moved to pity recently after hearing his soldiers had been complaining about hard labor, short rations, and shorter haircuts.

Nothing’s changed on the first two, but the troops can now have hair as long as 30 whole millimeters. Kim’s not like the other dictators—he’s a cool dictator. 

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The death toll from Monday’s earthquake in Turkey and Syria passed 16,000 and will continue rising as rescue workers excavate more rubble and displaced people endure winter cold. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan visited a tent city in the affected area Wednesday and acknowledged criticisms over the government’s failure to swiftly deploy rescue teams and equipment, leaving people trapped longer. 
  • Russia’s Ministry of Finance reported this week the country’s budget deficit had increased from about $2 billion last year to about $25 billion this January, reflecting the costs of both the country’s invasion of Ukraine and the Western sanctions it elicited. The country’s oil and gas revenues dropped about 46 percent year-over-year, while military costs reportedly drove government spending up 59 percent. The Kremlin’s finance ministry did claim, however, that Russia still has about $150 billion in its national wealth fund.
  • United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said Wednesday the U.K. will train Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard fighter jets as part of a program the prime minister’s office said could take up to five years—opening the door for Ukraine to receive such planes in the long-term, but likely not immediately. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday also didn’t rule out eventually sending Ukraine fighter jets, but suggested such a move might not happen for a while given the need for maintenance capabilities and training.
  • The Commerce Department reported this week the United States’ trade deficit—the excess value of imports over exports—rose about 12 percent last year to a record $948.1 billion, about 3.7 percent of the gross domestic product. Growing trade deficits with individual countries including Mexico, Canada, and India suggested manufacturers were seeking alternative sources for foreign products, possibly reflecting supply constraints and tensions with China. At the same time, however, the U.S. trade deficit with China also grew by about 8 percent, to $382.9 billion.
  • Department of Labor Inspector General Larry Turner told Congress Wednesday that—largely because of unemployment benefit fraud—the estimate of wrongfully distributed COVID-19 aid may be $30 billion more than previously assessed, bringing the total to about $191 billion. The government has been prosecuting fraud and recovering a fraction of the lost money, and President Joe Biden called for more such efforts in Tuesday’s State of the Union address. 
  • In a Wednesday interview with PBS’ NewsHour, President Joe Biden sought to downplay his classified documents scandal, claiming the material discovered in his D.C. office and at his Delaware home was mostly “stray papers” from the 1970s. He attributed his possession of the documents—reportedly dating to both his time as vice president and as a U.S. senator—to people packing his offices not doing “the kind of job that should’ve been done” to carefully separate personal and official papers. Biden also maintained last week’s spy balloon incident won’t damage relations between China and the United States. “We’re going to compete fully with China,” he said. “But we’re not looking for conflict.”
  • The House voted 227-201 on Wednesday—with seven Democrats joining all present Republicans—to pass a bill that would end the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement for most foreign visitors entering the United States. The legislation would also ban any such future restrictions and the use of federal funds to enforce them, but it’s unclear if the Senate will consider the bill, and the White House on Tuesday formally opposed the measure.

Devastation in Turkey and Syria

Families of victims stand as rescue officials search among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, on February 9, 2023. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images.)
Families of victims stand as rescue officials search among the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, on February 9, 2023. (Photo by Ozan Kose/AFP/Getty Images.)

Night had fallen in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, on Tuesday, as a crowd gathered around a small opening in a pile of rubble. Framed by pieces of rebar sticking out at odd angles and some still-intact pieces of concrete, a rescue worker knelt in the small cavern, a headlamp strapped to the white helmet marking him as a member of the Syrian Civil Defense. He was used to digging people out of buildings toppled by missile strikes or barrel bombs—common in the country’s civil war that’s raged since 2011. This time, however, the devastation was entirely natural, caused by two massive 7.8- and 7.5-magnitude earthquakes that shook Turkey and Syria on Monday, leveling much of the impacted region. 

Suddenly, there was movement in the opening and shouts from the crowd. Another White Helmet lifted a little girl in dusty pajamas out of the rubble. Her eyes were wide, but she was seemingly unharmed despite being buried for almost 40 hours. The crowd chanted Allahu akbar—“God is most great”—as she was passed along a human chain away from what remained of her home.  

These scenes are playing out all across Turkey and Syria as rescue workers and good samaritans desperately race to pull people from the debris of the thousands of buildings that have collapsed this week. The death toll currently stands at more than 16,000 people between the two countries, and is expected to continue rising as recovery efforts continue. We could learn very soon that this tragedy was even deadlier than the earthquake that killed 17,000 in Turkey 24 years ago.

When casualty counts get so high, the human brain can default to processing the loss of life as a statistic rather than a collection of individual tragedies. But the earthquake has already killed more than five times the number of people who died on 9/11. Almost nine times the number of people who died during Hurricane Katrina. Each person buried in the rubble had a story. They had hopes and dreams. They had people who loved them.

The tragedy began early Monday morning, around 4 a.m. local time, when the first earthquake rocked Turkey and Syria from the epicenter in Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey about an hour’s drive from the Syrian border. The quake pancaked a Roman-era castle that stood in the center of the city, and the initial shockwaves were quickly followed by an aftershock that registered a magnitude of 6.7

Sara Kassim, a journalist in Idlib, Syria, was awoken by the frightened screams of her friends when the first earthquake struck. She rushed to cover her hair, grab her jacket, and get downstairs from the third-floor apartment, even as the earth was still shaking below her. 

“We stayed in the street, nowhere to go,” she told The Dispatch. “It was raining heavily. It was raining so much, and it was cold to death. And it was dark. So dark you couldn’t see one another because the electricity was cut.”

On Monday afternoon, a second earthquake—this one magnitude  7.5, its epicenter not far from the first—rattled the already flattened area, leaving thousands more dead, injured, and/or homeless. 

The earthquakes themselves were destructive enough, but the catastrophe they wrought is only just beginning. Syria and Turkey now face compounding crises: insufficient manpower for search-and-rescue, blocked roads for transportation of people, food, and disaster relief aid, and freezing-cold temperatures afflicting many who may have fled their destroyed homes in nothing but their pajamas. 

“People are freezing,” Feyza Develioglu, a student and volunteer at an Istanbul supplies drive, told The Dispatch. “Even if they managed to survive the earthquake, they might freeze or die from lack of food and water.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Tuesday declared a three-month state of emergency in the country’s 10 hardest-hit southern provinces, affording the executive power to enact laws without parliament’s approval. He faces a difficult re-election in May, and thus far, the earthquakes seem to have hurt his political standing more than helped: Both political opponents and constituents have complained in recent days about the slow arrival of government search-and-rescue teams as the clock ticked down on viable rescue operations. One woman, standing next to a crumbled building in Malatya underneath which her family members remained buried, cried out “Where is the state? Where have they been for two days? We are begging them. Let us do it, we can get them out.”

During his visit to the region on Wednesday, Erdoğan announced anyone affected  by the quakes would receive 10,000 lira (about $531) from the Turkish government. He also promised to rebuild the most devastated districts within a year, but that timeline seems overly optimistic. 

“It often takes time to carefully figure out how to build back better in a way that responds to the exact vulnerabilities we saw in the data,” Tracy Kijewski-Correa—a structural engineer who directs the Structural Engineering Extreme Event Reconnaissance (StEER) network—told The Dispatch. StEER deploys teams to learn engineering lessons from natural disasters to help countries “build back better” as quickly as possible.  

The damage has been so acute in part because much of the area’s infrastructure was already weak. “It’s difficult to watch this tragedy unfold, especially since we’ve known for a long time that the buildings in the region were not designed to withstand earthquakes,” U.S. Geological Survey scientist David Wald said in a release from the agency. “An earthquake this size has the potential to be damaging anywhere in the world, but many structures in this region are particularly vulnerable.”

One problem, Kijewski-Correa told The Dispatch, is that updated building codes in the country apply only to new builds, and it’s extremely costly—sometimes physically impossible—to retrofit old buildings up to new standards. That said, last fall’s 6.1-magnitude earthquake in northwest Turkey—where the 1999 earthquake struck—illustrated Turkey was capable of rebuilding stronger. There were no deaths as a result of that November 2022 earthquake, which Kijewski-Correa saw as a positive sign Turkey can rebuild in a way that mitigates future risk.

Syria, on the other hand, is particularly unequipped to respond to the twin catastrophes of war and earthquake. “The White Helmets are doing everything to help those people, but at a certain point it is out of control, because they need vehicles, they need medical centers, they need humanitarian, international support,” Kassim, the journalist, said. Syrians have called on Turkey to open its borders and allow international humanitarian aid and workers into Syria, and Syria’s Ambassador to the United Nations pointed the finger at years of war and Western sanctions for the country’s “lack of capabilities and lack of equipment.”

The reaction from world leaders was relatively swift, with President Joe Biden saying Monday he had authorized “an immediate U.S. response.” U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Samantha Power deployed a disaster assistance response team and worked with fire departments in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Los Angeles County, California, to send USAID Urban Search and Rescue teams to the affected area. The teams number about 80 people, and were set to arrive in-country yesterday. 

Even Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelensky, currently fighting a devastating war at home, offered his country’s support. “We are in this moment close to the friendly Turkish people, ready to provide the necessary assistance,” he said, and a 90-person team from the country arrived Wednesday. Dozens of other nations, including Russia, have pledged some form of monetary aid and search-and-rescue support. 

Aftershocks affecting already-weakened buildings will continue to be a problem as the window closes on search-and-rescue operations, now more than 72 hours from the first earthquake. “The next question will be keeping people away from buildings” that have been deemed structurally unsound and could topple with even relatively small aftershocks, said Kijewski-Correa. “This is the scariest part for survivors. For both their safety and their PTSD.” 

Worth Your Time

  • You know who Biden kinda sounded like Tuesday night? Donald Trump. “President Biden just gave a State of the Union speech whose key themes and most enthusiastic riffs could have been lifted—albeit with more Bidenisms and fewer insults—from Trump’s populist campaign,” Ross Douthat writes in his latest column for the New York Times. “There was an implicit condemnation of both parties for their neglect of the heartland and industrial policy and infrastructure. There was a lament for the forgotten man, the Americans ‘left behind or treated like they’re invisible’ and ‘the jobs that went away.’ And there was a none-too-subtle subtext in the policy boasts: What Trump once promised, I’m delivering. A bipartisan infrastructure bill. Tougher buy-American rules. Reindustrialization. Taking on Big Pharma. Big investments in technological competition with Beijing.” It’s a compelling message, Douthat argues, and one “whose potency Republicans underestimate at their peril.”
  • LeBron James surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time NBA scoring record earlier this week—but Abdul-Jabbar isn’t bitter about it. “When one person climbs higher than the last person, we all feel like we are capable of being more,” the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers legend wrote on his Substack. “That is the magic of sports. To see something seemingly impossi­ble, reminding us that if one person can do it, then we all somehow share in that achievement. It is what sends children onto playgrounds to duplicate a LeBron layup or a Steph Curry three-pointer. Or Mia Hamm inspiring a whole generation of girls to come off the bleachers and onto the field. Millions of children across the country pushing themselves toward excellence because they saw an athlete do something spectacular and they want to do it too. Or at least try. That same kind of drive is behind many of humankind’s greatest achievements. And it’s all exceptionally glorious.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • American Enterprise Institute Senior Fellow Dalibor Rohac joined Jonah on Wednesday’s Remnant for a conversation on eastern Europe and how the war in Ukraine is shaping geopolitics. And on today’s Remnant, Commentary’s Noah Rothman drops by to engage in some of the rankest punditry this side of the Mississippi. How does Biden look as a 2024 candidate given his age? Does the GOP have anything to offer the electorate? Could China’s floating middle finger be the Sputnik moment America needs?
  • On today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, friend of the pod David Lat challenges Sarah and David to think through the implications of different types of anonymous speech. Where is the line between a rumor-monger and a whistleblower in need of protection?
  • Biden may have given an energetic State of the Union, but in Wednesday’s edition of Dispatch Politics, Andrew, David, and Audrey report the address won’t win over the large chunk of Democratic voters worried he’s not up for another campaign. Plus: A potential challenge to Nebraska Sen. Pete Ricketts, and a Republican group’s plan to spend millions on candidates to unseat incumbent House Democrats.
  • Sure, artificial intelligence is coming for your job—but why worry? In Wednesday’s Capitolism (🔒), Scott ticks through the United States’ long history of adapting to new technologies that seemed poised to put us all out of work, and argues AI won’t be any different. 
  • Biden’s biggest political strength is that he’s underestimated—by his detractors and his allies alike. “Just as Democrats can’t persuade voters Biden’s a secular redeemer, put on Earth to deliver them to some new stage of history, Republicans can’t persuade voters that he’s a Mephistophelean Manchurian candidate for the forces of darkness,” Jonah writes in Wednesday’s G-File (🔒). “Oh, there are crackpots and hacks who try. But the dog just won’t hunt.”
  • Nick is finding it a little difficult to get too worked up about the Republican heckling of Biden during his State of the Union address. “What did anyone expect?” he asks in the latest Boiling Frogs (🔒). “I like when the public gets to see Republicans for who they are. A fraction of a cheer for truth in advertising.”
  • On the site today, Harvest reports on the House Oversight and Accountability Committee’s Tuesday immigration hearing, which featured testimony from two Customs and Border Patrol officers and plenty of sparring between Republicans and Democrats. Danielle Pletka, noting the absence of much national security talk in the State of the Union, argues that Americans are less engaged with the topic because presidents have all but stopped talking about it. And Alec writes that AI chatbots are here to say, and that we should expect to see more on the market.

Let Us Know

The Dispatch’s Charlotte Lawson is on the ground in Turkey and provided some of the reporting for our item this morning. She will have a piece on the site next week about what she’s seen. What additional angles do you think she should focus on?

Declan Garvey is the executive editor at the Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2019, he worked in public affairs at Hamilton Place Strategies and market research at Echelon Insights. When Declan is not assigning and editing pieces, he is probably watching a Cubs game, listening to podcasts on 3x speed, or trying a new recipe with his wife.

Esther Eaton is a former deputy editor of The Morning Dispatch.

Mary Trimble is the editor of The Morning Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, she interned at The Dispatch, in the political archives at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po), and at Voice of America, where she produced content for their French-language service to Africa. When not helping write The Morning Dispatch, she is probably watching classic movies, going on weekend road trips, or enjoying live music with friends.