With rescue efforts continuing after a devastating 7.8 Richter earthquake that took place on the Turkey-Syria border on February 6, survivors are miraculously still being found despite the fact international attention has begun to shift towards recovery and reconstruction, and internally, Turkey’s polarizing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has refocused his attention to laying blame for the death toll on his political opponents.
At the time of writing, the estimated number of casualties in both Turkey and Syria has reached 50,000 as more data is collected.
Much of the world’s attention is focusing on how different Turkish governments going back decades allowed newer, and fairly strict earthquake-proof building codes, to be flouted. In some cases, those who were in charge of various construction projects openly accepted payments from developers for what has been dubbed “construction amnesty.” What has become abundantly clear is that the cash generated by this amnesty is far from what will be needed for the years-long reconstruction that will follow the upcoming clean-up period.
Ultimately, this will bring into question the theoretical basis behind the conceptualization of the construction amnesty program and will bring about much-needed scrutiny of top-level corruption in Erdogan’s government, with potential electoral consequences for an authoritarian leader who has been in power for two decades.
The scale of the international rescue effort has generated a high level of so-called “earthquake diplomacy,” a normal side effect of similar major disasters, most of which opens a window of hope that regional cooperation in the recovery and reconstruction efforts will miraculously soothe long-simmering tensions. Unfortunately, this playbook has been seen before, despite the fact that the latest generation of those covering the catastrophe seems to have learned about this recent history only after their more seasoned colleagues reported on previous, mostly failed, diplomatic cycles.
As estimates of the scale of the required regional reconstruction projects are just now being put together, a number of key questions need to be asked; key among those being whether Turkey is willing to shift its surging military expenditures and worryingly bellicose rhetoric towards its NATO allies into vitally needed reconstruction projects and conciliatory diplomatic tones. If the Turks follow this path, a “peace window” could open, so long as the Syrian government allows relief groups access to their quake-devastated northern regions. Adding such “conditionality” to international donors’ aid flowing to Turkey, whether directly or quietly, could make a significant difference in the regional recovery effort.
Aid groups have long faced difficulties reaching vulnerable groups in war-torn Syria as access has been impeded by a number of the factions fighting in the country’s seemingly endless civil war. The recent quake has only exacerbated this problem; a fact noted by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who has been calling on key donor countries to press Syria to allow better access. The UN has already launched appeals for $1 billion in emergency aid for Turkey and $400 million for Syria. The Russia and Iran-backed regime of Bashir al-Assad has so far responded by allowing two new access points for aid deliveries.
Greece, the Turks’ historic and most implacable foe, rapidly dispatched well-trained emergency relief teams to eastern Turkey, a good-faith act that was first carried out in the earthquake of 1999, prior to Erdogan’s coming to power. At the time, this opened a cycle of earthquake diplomacy, which also saw Turkey reciprocate the gesture by dispatching its own relief teams to Greece after a major earthquake hit Athens a month later.
These widely appreciated actions did indeed calm bilateral tensions for a number of years until both countries changed leaders in the early 2000s. The hope now is that Greece’s large assistance efforts will once again calm the tense bilateral atmosphere that has dominated Greek-Turkish relations in recent years. Greece’s Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited the quake-stricken area on February 12.
Unfortunately, Athens currently places too much emphasis on public diplomacy in order to claim as much credit as possible for coordinating EU relief efforts, which could eventually backfire if not fine-tuned. Greece called for an emergency EU donor conference on February 9 hoping to take a central role in relief efforts.
Both countries will hold elections in the first half of this year.
While discussing earthquake diplomacy, the massive international relief effort may provide a few additional opportunities for some countries to convince Turkey that those nations that Ankara sees as “problematic” may not fit that description.
Turkey has long objected to Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO entry, but the time for ratification of these countries’ NATO accession is approaching, with nearly every other member of the alliance having already completed the process. The Turks are particularly upset about Sweden’s refusal to extradite Kurdish activists that Erdogan claims are “terrorists.”
The Swedes have so far given €3.3 million in humanitarian support to Turkey, and have sent more than 50 search and rescue experts, search dogs and medical relief teams to areas most affected by the disaster.
Erdogan supporters and some Western critics have said that the Swedes sent far too little aid and took their time in doing so.
At the EU level, Sweden, which is currently holding the rotating presidency of the European Council, convened the EU’s Integrated Political Crisis Response mechanism, specifically to synchronize all EU support efforts for both Turkey and Syria. Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also announced plans to pull together a standard international donor conference for Turkey and Syria in March.
Despite substantial efforts by the West to convince Erdogan to soften his tone, most regional observers agree that these strong measures of support may not be enough to change Ankara’s mind with regard to the ratification of Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership.
Turkish-Armenian relations have been frozen since the height of the First Karabakh War in 1993. The border between the two countries has been tightly closed for decades, with soldiers from the Russian Armed Forces acting as joint border guards with the Armenian counterparts.
Armenia’s dispatch of earthquake relief aid may open a window for normalization of relations, according to comments made by Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who met his Armenian counterpart in Ankara on February 15.
As its relations with Turkey gradually thaw following a dozen years of nearly no contact between the once-close allies, Israel also sent emergency relief teams and erected a field hospital on site less than 24 hours after the Israeli aid workers arrived at the site
Another unknown variable in all of this darkness is the extent to which relief resources immediately needed in Turkey and Syria will divert resources that may well be needed soon for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction, whenever that begins, and which hinges on that conflict ending sooner rather than later.