Disaster Politics and Earthquake Diplomacy in Syria and Turkey

The morning of February 6, 2023 was not a normal day for people in Syria and Turkey. At 4:17am, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck southern Turkey near the Syrian border and, together with hundreds of strong aftershocks, caused more than 50,000 deaths and enormous devastation, severely damaging infrastructure, including roads and border crossings. The epicenter of the earthquake was in Turkey’s Gaziantep Province, which hosts millions of Syrian refugees who have been stranded there by the 12-year-long war in Syria. The destruction caused by the earthquake was widespread, with the Turkish provinces of Adana, Gaziantep, Hatay, Kahramanmaras, Malatya, and Sanliurfa, and the Syrian cities of Aleppo, Latakia, Hama, and Idlib being the most direly affected. The earthquake was the most severe to hit Turkey since a 1939 earthquake that killed 30,000 people, and was among the world’s deadliest since 1950.

As the aftershocks of the quake continue to increase the devastation in both Syria and Turkey, the political aftershocks are also worth considering. The earthquake has exposed the Turkish government to public anger over its slow response to the disaster, which may give leverage to Turkey’s political opposition ahead of the presidential and parliamentary elections that are scheduled for June, but which may be held in May, and to thereby help it end Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s two-decades-long reign, first as prime minister and now as president. Meanwhile, the earthquake may very likely allow Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria to consolidate its power if both the aid that is currently pouring into the country and Assad’s rapidly normalizing relations with Arab states are used to rebuild the regime’s military apparatus and infrastructure.

The Politics of the Disaster

The Syrian regime, which before the earthquake was already paralyzed by an economic crisis that brought 90 percent of the population into unprecedented poverty levels, took the opportunity of the disaster to demand that the US and the European Union lift the sanctions that they had previously imposed on Syria, which Assad’s government claimed were hampering search and rescue operations. The regime also demanded that all humanitarian aid to rebel-controlled territories in the country’s northwest be sent through the government, and not across Syria’s borders with Turkey. Following the quake, the US issued General License 23, which “authorizes for 180 days all transactions related to earthquake relief that would be otherwise prohibited by the Syrian Sanctions Regulations,” even though the sanctions already exempted humanitarian assistance. Aid to northwest Syria was initially delayed by both logistical issues and damaged roads leading to the sole operational border crossing between Turkey and Syria, meaning that the earthquake’s Syrian victims faced an unconscionable four-day wait for assistance. And Assad, rather than quickly opening additional crossings to help with the delivery of humanitarian aid to those affected, waited an entire week before opening two additional crossings with Turkey, reportedly at the behest of the UAE.

Aid to northwest Syria was initially delayed by both logistical issues and damaged roads leading to the sole operational border crossing between Turkey and Syria.

On the other side of the border, the earthquake caused a political tsunami in Turkey ahead of its upcoming elections. The Turkish opposition leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, has already blamed the government for not being sufficiently prepared for the large-scale devastation, and more uncomfortable questions are yet to come. The government will have to address concerns over how it spent $40 billion in “earthquake taxes,” which it instituted in the aftermath of the 1999 Izmit earthquake, and which were meant to be used for earthquake preparedness measures. The government may also be held accountable for the mass amnesties that it granted—despite warnings from engineers and architects—to buildings that violated the country’s construction code, which was also instituted after the 1999 disaster.

However, instead of taking the necessary measures to address public anger, Erdoğan’s response was to crack down on dissent. Turkish police arrested 78 people for “sharing provocative posts” related to the earthquake on social media, and briefly blocked Twitter two days after the quake, despite the fact that people were utilizing Twitter and other social media to direct rescuers to affected areas. With public anger mounting, Erdoğan is now more vulnerable ahead of elections. And it remains to be seen if his party will propose postponing the elections due to the extraordinary circumstances the country is facing, as Bulent Arinc, a founder of Turkey’s Justice and Development Party and the current speaker of parliament, recently suggested.

Earthquake Diplomacy

In Syria, Assad’s diplomacy to leverage the earthquake has been evident since day one of the disaster. The Syrian government, which has been suspended from the Arab League since 2011, exploited the earthquake and the need for humanitarian aid in Syria to notch a diplomatic victory. Some Arab states, including Jordan, the UAE, Bahrain, and Algeria had already reestablished relations with the Syrian regime before the quake, in a strategy that has been described as a policy shift “from punitive isolation to ‘step-for-step’ diplomacy” that would give Syria an Arab “counterweight” to Iran, relieve economic hardship, incentivize the regime to accept reforms, and secure the safe return of refugees.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, step-by-step diplomacy transitioned to accelerated diplomacy that is erasing Assad’s accountability for the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure.

However, in the aftermath of the earthquake, this step-by-step strategy transitioned rapidly to accelerated diplomacy that is erasing Assad’s accountability for the destruction of Syria’s infrastructure, with the blame now focused instead on the natural disaster. For example, Tunisia has said that it wants to strengthen relations with Damascus; Saudi Arabia—a fierce opponent of the Syrian regime—sent a plane carrying aid to a state airport in Aleppo and stressed both the need to rethink the main “crisis points” in Syria and the necessity for dialogue with the government in Damascus; and Assad received his first ever phone call from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and one from Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and also hosted the foreign ministers of the UAE, Jordan, and Egypt, and was welcomed by the Sultan of Oman in Muscat.

It is very unlikely that such earthquake diplomacy will succeed in countering Iran’s military and political influence in Syria. In fact, Iran’s proxies in the region took their chances in the aftermath of the quake to consolidate their power in Syria as well. For instance, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces sent aid to regime-controlled territories, raising concerns that Iran could exploit the chaos caused by the disaster to funnel weapons to Assad’s regime under the guise of humanitarian aid.

In Turkey, meanwhile, the earthquake was an opportunity to warm bilateral relations with states like Greece and Armenia, with whom Turkey has long been feuding. Greece, for instance, promptly dispatched aid to Turkey, despite the fact that Turkey and Greece were on the brink of a military confrontation over territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, with Erdoğan having threatened that Turkey might “come all of a sudden during the night” and that Turkish missiles could strike Athens if Greece did not “keep quiet.” Following Greece’s post-earthquake goodwill gesture, Erdoğan took a call from Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, thus backing down from a prior statement that he would never speak to him again. And Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu hosted his Greek counterpart Nikos Dendias, who visited earthquake-affected areas in Turkey and stressed the need to improve relations.

Similarly, despite Turkey and Armenia’s having severed relations when Ankara closed its border in 1993 in solidarity with Azerbaijan during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, and despite Turkey’s having backed Azerbaijan in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, the two countries opened a border crossing for the first time in thirty years to allow Armenian rescue teams and humanitarian aid to enter Turkey. Foreign Minister Cavusoglu saw this as an opportunity to improve relations with Armenia, and welcomed his Armenian counterpart Ararat Mirzoyan in Ankara following Armenia’s first earthquake aid delivery to Turkey.

It remains to be seen, however, if the earthquake will also provide another incentive for Erdoğan’s interest in a rapprochement with Assad. Before the earthquake, Erdoğan found common ground with Assad on ending the US-backed Kurdish presence in northern Syria. Assad, in turn, conditioned reestablishing relations with Ankara on Turkey’s military pullout from Syria’s northwest, which would allow the return of Syrian government forces to the region. However, with the public’s anger focused on the Turkish government for its slow response to the earthquake and its lack of preparedness, Erdoğan may be more enthusiastic than ever to reach an agreement with Assad to secure the return of 3.6 million Syrian refugees to Syria. Meanwhile, Assad, who is eager to unite the country under his control, and who is touting both the United States’ relief-related sanctions exemption and Arab states’ efforts to normalize relations with his regime, may seize the opportunity to secure Turkey’s withdrawal from rebel-held and earthquake-hit territories in northwest Syria. With Russia renewing talks on Syrian-Turkish reconciliation after the earthquake, and with it having previously stressed the temporary nature of the Turkish military incursion in northwest Syria, an Erdoğan-Assad rapprochement is now more likely than ever before.

Syria and Turkey: The Way Forward

Given the vast devastation the earthquake has caused, it is in the best interest of the Turkish government to avoid increasing public anger, which it can do by refraining from politicizing the earthquake and admitting responsibility for its lack of sufficient preparedness and its bungled response to the disaster. The government should also immediately reinstate an important protocol—which Erdoğan’s government had previously dissolved—that allows the army to respond to disasters without instruction. The absence of this protocol hampered the military’s prompt response during the first crucial hours following the devastation.

The Turkish government must admit its failure to enforce the construction code, which was developed precisely to prevent destruction from earthquakes.

The Turkish government must also admit its failure to enforce the construction code, which was developed precisely to prevent destruction from earthquakes like the one that struck in February. This failure highlights the need for a transparent and independent mechanism to oversee how the government is using “earthquake tax” funds to prevent such widespread disaster from happening again and to supervise the government’s enforcement of the construction code in all building projects.

The magnitude of Turkey’s earthquake-hit infrastructure and the fact of its already deteriorating economy will require it to work with allies and partners on rebuilding projects and large-scale investments. This should incentivize Ankara not to antagonize the US and its European allies, and hence to rethink its rapprochement with the Assad regime. In this regard, Turkey and the US can work together to coordinate their strategies in Syria to stop the so-called Islamic State from regrouping and prevent the escalation of hostilities between Turkey and the United States’ Kurdish proxies in eastern Syria, while also maintaining Turkish troops in northwest Syria to avoid putting the three million people stuck in Syria’s Idlib Province under pressure to flee toward the Turkish border should a fully empowered Assad regime take control of their territories.

On the Syrian side, the earthquake must not be an opportunity for Assad’s autocratic regime to rehabilitate itself in the eyes of the international community; nor should it be an opening for Arab states to normalize relations with a government that is responsible for a war that has killed more than half a million of its citizens. Instead of dealing with the Assad regime, Arab states should adopt an earthquake relief strategy that secures the direct delivery of all humanitarian aid to people in need, rather than sending it through government channels. At the international level, the US should take the lead to open all border crossings to Syria without waiting for Assad’s consent.

A rational US Syria policy would also pair General License 23 with intelligence assessments that use imaging resources to distinguish between destruction caused by the earthquake and that caused by the war. Such a strategy would enable Washington to assess if the aid sent to Syria is being spent on earthquake relief or on regime reconstruction. The Biden administration should also initiate a similar approach to the one it took with Iran in October 2020, which established a payment mechanism ensuring that all legitimate humanitarian funds were not transferred to the regime. Such a mechanism would help civilians in Syria benefit from earthquake relief aid without assisting the regime in rebuilding its military infrastructure. The politics of the earthquake in Turkey and Syria must be shaped into a policy of reform and accountability, and not a diplomacy of erasure.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: Shutterstock/Jasminko Ibrakovic