Turkey earthquake and disaster diplomacy

Can Disaster Diplomacy Overcome Geopolitical Differences After Turkey’s Devastating Earthquake?

On February 6, the region’s biggest earthquake in a century hit southern parts of Turkey and northwestern parts of Syria, resulting in devastating and unprecedented losses in the lives as well as in the national infrastructure of 11 provinces. A high magnitude quake of 7.8 on the Richter scale, another 7.6 magnitude shock, and thousands of strong shockwaves ultimately killed over 50 thousand citizens and affected around 20 million people on both sides of the border.[i]

The humanitarian branch of its foreign policy conduct made Turkey the biggest donor country in the world in 2017 and 2018.

The Turkish government responded by declaring a state of emergency, thus allowing a remarkable level of international support to pour into the country.[ii] Nearly 240,000 rescue workers participated in search and rescue efforts, including around 11,500 search rescue teams from 90 countries.[iii] International NGOs mobilized around the globe to provide help and support. Around 102 countries and international organisations provided some kind of aid.[iv] As put by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the international community is currently reciprocating Turkey’s good deeds over the past few decades.[v] [vi]

Indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic that shook the world at the end of 2019 and beginning of 2020, Turkey sent medical aid and support[vii] to over 150[viii] countries, organisations, and institutions, including the United States, Germany, China, the United Kingdom and Italy. Turkey currently hosts more than 4 million refugees; around 3.5 million of them are Syrians.[ix] Since its establishment, the Turkish Republic opened its doors for refugees and asylum seekers, including those coming from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Chechnya among others.

Over the years, Turkey’s governing AK Party, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has carefully crafted a humanitarian foreign policy that draws on the nation’s enduring tradition of humanitarian aid emanating back to the days of the Ottoman Empire.[x] [xi] This “humanitarian diplomacy” has helped Turkey join the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA) Donor Support Group in 2014, which shapes global humanitarian policies.[xii] Two years later, the country hosted the first-ever UN World Humanitarian Summit.[xiii] The humanitarian branch of its foreign policy conduct made Turkey the biggest donor country in the world in 2017 and 2018.[xiv] Despite its troubled economic situation during the last few years, Turkey continues to be among the top donors of the world.[xv]

The earthquake catastrophe paved the way for a “disaster diplomacy” to emerge.

High-level officials from several countries paid visits to Turkey over the past two months to display their solidarity and support. The Emir of Qatar was the first high-level foreign official to meet with President Erdoğan.[xvi] US President Joe Biden swiftly expressed support for Turkey through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).[xvii] On February 19, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid his first official visit to Turkey in two years, and so did many other officials.[xviii] Likewise, NATO expressed support to Ankara and Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg met President Erdoğan to discuss the mobilisation of NATO’s resources to help Turkey. Stoltenberg also praised NATO-candidates Finland and Sweden,[xix] which have had a rocky relationship with Turkey against the backdrop of their joining NATO, which got infused with the Turkish government’s concerns over their harbouring supporters of Kurdish terrorist groups[xx].

The earthquake catastrophe paved the way for a “disaster diplomacy” to emerge. Countries with whom Turkey has had a complicated relationship, such as Greece, Armenia, and Egypt put disaster diplomacy on full display. Greece’s Foreign minister was the first European high-level official to visit Turkey following the earthquake.[xxi] Greek-Turkish relations deteriorated significantly in the last few years, mainly against the backdrop of the two countries’ conflicting positions over national sovereignty in the Aegean Sea and disagreements over the status of Cyprus.[xxii] Cavusoglu received his Greek counterpart with open arms and a hug, and highlighted the importance of the moment by stressing that “[w]e should not wait for an earthquake or some sort of natural catastrophe to improve our relations”.[xxiii]

As for Armenia, it sent a rescue team, technical support, and 5 trucks of humanitarian aid.[xxiv] To allow aid coming through Yerevan to reach the victims of the earthquake, a border gate between Turkey and Armenia opened for the first time in 35 years. Despite several previous attempts to mend the ties between Ankara and Yerevan in the last two decades, the two parties have yet to fully normalise their relations. In response to Armenia’s recent gesture of good-will amidst the earthquake disaster, the Special Representative of Turkey on the normalisation of relations with Armenia, Serdar Kilis, highlighted the unique moment by thanking the Armenian officials and people.[xxv]

Empirical evidence shows no strong connection between disaster diplomacy and conflict resolution.

The catastrophe prompted Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Sameh Shoukry, to pay the first visit of its kind to Turkey in a decade.[xxvi] Following this visit, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Ahmed Abu Zeid, said that they would launch a new consultation process with Turkey to “put relations back on track”.[xxvii] The Turkish-Egyptian relations deteriorated significantly following the 2013 military coup, which brought General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to power in Cairo. Since then, a host of issues fuelled the disputes between the two parties, including questioning the legitimacy of the Egyptian regime, the Muslim Brotherhood issue, Cairo’s position in the Eastern Mediterranean and its support to Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, before they initiated a rapprochement process in 2021.[xxviii]

The uncommon positive developments in relation to disaster diplomacy, and the accompanied positive atmosphere on the diplomatic level, might create an impression of imminent change in the nature of relations between these countries and Turkey. Although this forecast could prove correct, we should not exaggerate the prospects. Though disaster diplomacy has the potential to positively affect broader international relations and might offer a window of opportunity to resolve certain disagreements, empirical evidence shows no strong connection between disaster diplomacy and conflict resolution.[xxix] [xxx] [xxxi]

Whilst natural disasters can achieve a breakthrough in the troubled relations between two nations, it is rare for the outcomes of disaster diplomacy to stretch beyond the event that triggered it. In this sense, the impact of disaster diplomacy is usually limited in time and scope. Moreover, the dynamics of Turkey’s relations with each of those countries are different and hence, the impact of disaster diplomacy on rapprochement and potential normalisation with each of these countries might differ significantly.

At the rhetorical level, the Greek gesture was seen as the start of a new chapter in the relationship between the two countries. During a joint press conference on February 14th, Çavuşoğlu stated that “[w]e have opened a new page with Greece after the earthquake”.[xxxii] Following Greece’s high-profile rail accident at the end of February, the top diplomats of the two countries met in Brussels. “We continue our solidarity after the recent tragedies,” Çavuşoğlu said.[xxxiii] As a result, Ankara and Athens agreed to support each other’s candidacies in various international organisations. Turkey will support Greece’s candidacy for a nonpermanent seat in the United Nations Security Council for the 2025-26 term, while Greece will support Turkey’s candidacy for general secretariat of the International Maritime Organization.[xxxiv]

However, it is highly unlikely that the relations between Ankara and Athens will be normalised without a comprehensive agreement over their dispute in the Eastern Mediterranean. Greece’s membership of the European Union will likely keep complicating reaching a possible agreement.

As for prospects of normalisation between Armenia and Turkey, the two countries have critical interests in mending ties, and fully integrating Armenia into regional economic projects.[xxxv] Having said this, it is important to take into consideration the complex dynamics of Armenian-Azerbaijani relations in the context of their conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh[xxxvi], the position of Armenia’s allies on regional geopolitics, mainly Russia and Iran[xxxvii], as well as the disagreement between Armenia and Turkey over the recognition of the events of 1915 afflicting the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire.[xxxviii]

When it comes to the question of disaster diplomacy and its impact on Ankara’s relations with the aforementioned countries, Turkey’s next elections...are a wild card in play.

Regarding the Egypt-Turkey relationship, the prospect of normalisation between the two countries as a result of disaster diplomacy seems more realistic. The two countries are facing a dire economic situation. Egypt’s total debt amounts to around $400 billion[xxxix] while inflations surpassed 40%.[xl] As for Turkey, the President’s unorthodox economic and financial policies have been a source of controversy for the last few years.[xli] Annualised inflation stood at over 55% in Turkey in February[xlii], although it has been slowing for months. The unprecedented earthquake is exacerbating the negative aspects of the financial situation of the country as the devastating damages caused by the earthquake are estimated to be around 104 billion euro or around 9% of the country’s GDP.[xliii] Egypt is Turkey’s largest economic partner in North Africa[xliv] while Ankara is the top importer of Cairo’s gas.[xlv] Such existing frameworks of cooperation can serve as a foundation for expanding ties between the two countries.

Importantly, Turkey and Egypt have already put in place a mechanism that launched the normalisation process between them in 2021.[xlvi] [xlvii] Although they have achieved progress on the diplomatic level, some challenges still need to be addressed, specifically in relation to the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya.[xlviii] [xlix] Whilst there is no doubt that Sameh Shoukry’s visit to Turkey, and Çavuşoğlu’s first visit to Cairo in a decade[l] are important milestones, the two parties need sustain the momentum and build on recent developments in order to make a lasting impact.

As for Turkey’s relations with Syria, the earthquake has had a tranquillising effect on recent Russian-sponsored communication between the two countries. One reason for this is that Erdoğan wanted to use these communications to unblock Moscow’s objection of a new Turkish military operation, by showing Putin that Assad is not willing to fight YPG and facilitate progress in the political process. Another reason might be Assad’s preference for the Turkish opposition and, therefore, his desire to wait for the outcomes of the coming elections before deciding.

When it comes to NATO, the member states’ strategic disaster diplomacy, in tandem with Finland’s clear and direct adherence to the terms of agreement with Ankara over countering terrorism, have facilitated Finland’s imminent accession to NATO, which Erdoğan recently green lighted.[li]

Additionally, when it comes to the question of disaster diplomacy and its impact on Ankara’s relations with the aforementioned countries, Turkey’s next elections – set to happen on May 14 – are a wild card in play. They are expected to be the most intense and competitive elections since the AKP ascended to power in 2002. With the significant gains made by the Turkish opposition coalition heating up the presidential race, the outcome of these elections is what countries like Syria and Egypt are waiting for before deciding how to proceed vis-a-vis Turkey.

[i]Al Jazeera (2023) Death toll climbs above 50,000 after Turkey, Syria earthquakes, Earthquakes News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/25/death-toll-climbs-above-50000-after-turkey-syria-earthquakes
[ii]Prakash, C. (2023) Turkey declares ‘level 4 alarm’ after hundreds of people killed in 7.8 magnitude earthquake, Firstpost. https://www.firstpost.com/world/turkey-declares-level-4-alarm-after-hundreds-of-people-killed-in-7-8-magnitude-earthquake-12110142.html
[iii]Arydogan, M. (2023) Countries, organizations rush to provide aid to quake-hit Türkiye, Anadolu Ajansı. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkiye/countries-organizations-rush-to-provide-aid-to-quake-hit-turkiye/2838426
[iv]Arydogan, M. (2023) Countries, organizations rush to provide aid to quake-hit Türkiye, Anadolu Ajansı. https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkiye/countries-organizations-rush-to-provide-aid-to-quake-hit-turkiye/2838426
[v]Stepansky, J (2023) “Turkey’s ‘aid diplomacy’ reverberates in global quake response”, Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/21/turkeys-aid-diplomacy-reflected-in-earthquake-response 
[vi]Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2016) “Türkiye’s Enterprising and Humanitarian Foreign Policy”. https://www.mfa.gov.tr/synopsis-of-the-turkish-foreign-policy.en.mfa
[vii]Güngör, B. (2021) “Foreign aid during the COVID-19 pandemic: evidence from Turkey”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14683857.2021.1900668
[viii] Altun, F (2023) “As Türkiye recovers from devastating earthquakes, we remain grateful to all our allies”, Euronews, https://www.euronews.com/2023/03/20/as-turkiye-recovers-from-devastating-earthquakes-we-remain-grateful-to-all-our-allies
[ix]UNHCR. (2023). Refugees and asylum seekers in Turkey. UNHCR Türkiye. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://www.unhcr.org/tr/en/refugees-and-asylum-seekers-in-turkey#:~:text=T%C3%BCrkiye%20currently%20hosts%20some%203.6,of%20concern%20from%20other%20nationalities.
[x]Esen, B (2018) “Turkey: A historical sanctuary for refugees”, Daily Sabah, https://www.dailysabah.com/op-ed/2018/06/08/turkey-a-historical-sanctuary-for-refugees
[xi]Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017) “Turkish Emergency Humanitarian Assistance”
[xii]Altunisik, M. (2022) “Humanitarian diplomacy as Turkey’s national role conception and performance: evidence from Somalia and Afghanistan”, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14683857.2022.2131978?needAccess=true&journalCode=fbss20
[xiii]Agenda For Humanity (2016) World Humanitarian Summit 2016, AGENDA FOR HUMANITY. https://agendaforhumanity.org/summit.html.
[xiv]Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2017). “Turkish Emergency Humanitarian Assistance”. https://www.mfa.gov.tr/humanitarian-assistance-by-turkiye.en.mfa
[xv]Ergocun, G. (2021). “Turkey continues to be ranked among top donor countries” , Anadolu Agency, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/world/turkey-continues-to-be-ranked-among-top-donor-countries/2300237
[xvi]Qarjouli, A. (2023). “Qatar’s Amir lands in Turkey, becomes first foreign leader to visit after deadly earthquake”, Doha News, https://dohanews.co/qatars-amir-lands-in-turkey-becomes-first-foreign-leader-to-visit-after-deadly-earthquake/.
[xvii]The White House (2023) “The Biden-⁠Harris Administration’s Response to the Earthquakes in Türkiye and Syria”, 10 February 2023. https://eg.usembassy.gov/fact-sheet-the-biden-%E2%81%A0harris-administrations-response-to-the-earthquakes-in-Turkey-and-syria/
[xviii]Pamuk, H. (2023) “Blinken to Turkey: ‘the United States is here’ with aid”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/blinken-talk-aid-nordic-nato-bid-visit-quake-hit-turkey-2023-02-19/
[xix]NATO (2023). “Secretary General: NATO stands with Türkiye, working to deploy shelters and tents”, NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_211987.htm
[xx]Aljazeera (2022). “Why did Turkey lift its veto on Finland and Sweden joining NATO?”, Aljazeera.com, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/6/29/why-did-turkey-lift-its-veto-on-finland-sweden-joining-nato-explainer
[xxi]Nellas, D. (2023) “Earthquake diplomacy: Greek foreign minister visits Turkey”, Associated Press. https://apnews.com/article/greece-government-mevlut-cavusoglu-turkey-earthquakes-dc5c29677dba7ecd83198a1e2c0dde46
[xxii]Bakir, A (2023). “Egypt just seized part of Libya’s maritime zone. What’s the story behind the Egyptian decree no one is talking about?”, Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/egypt-just-seized-part-of-libyas-maritime-zone-whats-the-story-behind-the-egyptian-decree-no-one-is-talking-about/ ; Bakir, A. (2020) “The Turkey-Libya agreement benefits Egypt, but the UAE is a spoiler”, TRT World. https://www.trtworld.com/opinion/the-turkey-libya-agreement-benefits-egypt-but-the-uae-is-a-spoiler-37292.
[xxiii]Carassava, A. (2023). “Greek Foreign Minister Visits Quake-Hit Turkey, Promises More Aid, EU Support”, Voice of America, https://www.voanews.com/a/greek-foreign-minister-visits-quake-hit-turkey-promises-more-aid-eu-support-/6961019.html
[xxiv]Akman, B. (2023). Armenian aid trucks enter Turkey for first time in 30 years. Bloomberg.com. Retrieved March 29, 2023, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-11/armenian-aid-trucks-enter-turkey-for-first-time-in-30-years?leadSource=uverify+wall
[xxv]Kılıç, S. (2023). @serdarkilic9, Twitter, https://twitter.com/serdarkilic9/status/1624330474721009667?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1624330474721009667%7Ctwgr%5Ea5b0bb5cbe8724159d7469146c4363fc87c06234%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Farmenpress.am%2Feng%2Fnews%2F1103946.html
[xxvi]Akman, B and Bilgic, T. (2023) “Egyptian Minister Visits Turkey Amid Push to Restore Ties”, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2023-02-27/egyptian-minister-to-visit-turkey-amid-push-to-restore-ties
[xxvii]Daily Sabah (2023) “Egypt aims to restore ties with Türkiye with new process”, Daily Sabah, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/egypt-aims-to-restore-ties-with-Turkey-with-new-process
[xxviii]Bakir, A. (2022). “The 2021-2022 “De-Escalation Moment” in the Middle East: A Net Assessment”, Insight Turkey, Spring 2022, Volume 24, Number 2, pp. 55-66. http://doi.org.10.25253/99.2022242.4
[xxix]Kelman, I. (2014) “Does Disaster Diplomacy Improve Inter-State Relations?”, E-Internatianol Relations, https://www.e-ir.info/2014/11/04/does-disaster-diplomacy-improve-inter-state-relations/
[xxx]Peters, L. (2020). “To Understand How Disasters Relate to Conflict and Peace, Reframe the Starting Point”, New Security Beat, https://www.preventionweb.net/news/understand-how-disasters-relate-conflict-and-peace-reframe-starting-point
[xxxi]Kelman, I. (2011) “Disaster Diplomacy How Disasters Affect Peace and Conflict”, Routledge, https://www.routledge.com/Disaster-Diplomacy-How-Disasters-Affect-Peace-and-Conflict/Kelman/p/book/9780367669645
[xxxii]Yanisafak (2023). “We have opened a new page with Greece after the earthquake”, Yenisafak, https://www.yenisafak.com/gundem/bakan-cavusoglu-yunanistan-ile-yeni-bir-sayfa-actik-4507696
[xxxiii]Daily Sabah (2023). “Türkiye-Greece ties take off with vows for ‘mutual support’”, Daily Sabah, https://www.dailysabah.com/politics/diplomacy/turkiye-greece-ties-take-off-with-vows-for-mutual-support
[xxxv]Aslı Aydıntaşbaş, R. G. (2022). Acts of normality: The potential for Turkey-armenia rapprochement. ECFR. https://ecfr.eu/publication/acts-of-normality-the-potential-for-turkey-armenia-rapprochement/
[xxxvi]Crisis Group. (2023). The Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict: A visual explainer. Crisis Group. https://www.crisisgroup.org/content/nagorno-karabakh-conflict-visual-explainer
[xxxvii]Bakir, A. (2022) “Why Iran is sabotaging an Armenia–Azerbaijan peace deal”, The New Arab, https://www.newarab.com/analysis/why-iran-sabotaging-armenia-azerbaijan-peace-deal
[xxxviii]Republic of Türkiye Ministry of Foreign Affairs (2020)“The Events of 1915 and the Turkish-Armenian Controversy over History: An Overview”. https://www.mfa.gov.tr/the-events-of-1915-and-the-turkish-armenian-controversy-over-history_-an-overview.en.mfa
[xxxix]Bakir, A. (2023) “What lies behind the Saudi-Egyptian media war?”, Middle East Eye, https://www.middleeasteye.net/opinion/saudi-arabia-egypt-media-war-lies-behind-what
[xl] Reuters (2023). Egypt inflation soars to 5-1/2-year high, core inflation at record. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/egypts-annual-urban-consumer-inflation-increases-319-february-capmas-2023-03-09/#:~:text=CAIRO%2C%20March%209%20(Reuters),official%20data%20published%20on%20Thursday.
[xli] Yilmaz, U. and Ant, O. (2019) “What Erdogan’s Unusual Economic Ideas Mean for Turkey”, Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-02/behind-erdogan-s-strange-ideas-about-interest-rates-quicktake#xj4y7vzkg
[xlii] Ozerkan, F. (2023). Turkey’s inflation slows further as presidential vote nears. Yahoo! https://uk.style.yahoo.com/turkeys-inflation-slows-further-presidential-083112269.html?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAAB1svlrvxjePi-s_xu6PeguyCrSL3ixG4LqSUEPaJAWD1LPIB8GlR8Zvyt1CmBSYCazOqVAma6P7JmZ
[xliii]Bianet (2023) “Erdoğan: Earthquakes to cost Turkey 104 billion dollars”, Bianet.org, https://bianet.org/english/crisis/276043-erdogan-earthquakes-to-cost-turkey-104-billion-euros
[xliv]Bakir, A. (2021) “The regional reset: a fresh start or more of the same? Turkey’s relations with Egypt, United Arab Emirates, and Israel”, Centro Studi di Politica Internazionale, July 2021.https://www.cespi.it/sites/default/files/documenti/approf._13_ali_bakir.pdf
[xlv]Egypt Independent (2022). “Turkey top importer of natural gas from Egypt in Q1-2022: CAPMAS”, Egypt Independent, https://egyptindependent.com/turkey-top-importer-of-natural-gas-from-egypt-in-q1-2022-capmas/
[xlvi]Bakir, A. (2022) “The 2021-2022 “De-Escalation Moment” in the Middle East: A Net Assessment”, Insight Turkey, https://www.insightturkey.com/commentary/the-2021-2022-de-escalation-moment-in-the-middle-east-a-net-assessment
[xlvii]Reuters (2022) “Turkey’s Erdogan shakes hands with Egypt’s Sisi at World Cup”, Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/turkeys-erdogan-shakes-hands-with-egypts-sisi-world-cup-2022-11-20/
[xlviii]Bakir, A. (2022). “The 2021-2022 “De-Escalation Moment” in the Middle East: A Net Assessment”, Insight Turkey, https://www.insightturkey.com/commentary/the-2021-2022-de-escalation-moment-in-the-middle-east-a-net-assessment
[xlix]Bakir, A. (2023). “Egypt just seized part of Libya’s maritime zone. What’s the story behind the Egyptian decree no one is talking about?”, Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/egypt-just-seized-part-of-libyas-maritime-zone-whats-the-story-behind-the-egyptian-decree-no-one-is-talking-about/
[l]Aljazeera (2023) Turkey’s Cavusoglu to visit Egypt in first such trip in a decade, Aljazeera, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/3/17/turkey-mevlut-cavusoglu-to-visit-egypt-in-first-such-trip-in-a-decade
[li] Caglayan, C., & Toksabay, E. (2023). Turkey’s Erdogan endorses Finland’s NATO bid, but Sweden must wait. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/world/erdogan-says-turkey-start-ratifying-finlands-nato-bid-2023-03-17/

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