Earthquake In Turkey In A Geopolitical Context (I), (II)

Any disaster, natural or man-made, is always a challenge to the current government. Victims and society as a whole expect immediate and, most importantly, correct action from their government, closely monitoring both the statements and actions of the leadership.

A similar situation now exists in Turkey. The enormous tragedy, the victims of which were hundreds of thousands of people (about 40 thousand dead) became not only a test for all the Turkish people, but also a catalyst for political battles. At the same time the opposition has started to be proactive.

Challenges for Erdoğan

Before Erdoğan appeared on television to address the nation, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s largest opposition People’s Republican Party, said he would travel to Hatay with his colleagues, Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, Ankara Mayor Mansur Yavas and Izmir Mayor Tunç Soyer, who won the 2019 elections over candidates from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Kiliçdaroğlu made an appeal to citizens from Hatay late in the evening of February 7. In stark contrast to Erdoğan’s address, Kiliçdaroğlu appeared by the light of a spare overhead streetlight in the city, still without electricity, dressed entirely in black, and without much ceremony placed the blame for the disaster on the regime, saying: “this collapse is entirely the result of systematic rentier policies. There is no meeting ground either with Erdoğan, or with the palace, or with these rentier gangs”.

On the eve of the earthquake, the opposition coalition also announced that it would name its candidate to run against Erdoğan on February, 13. Although there were fears that there would be a split within the opposition over disputes over who would go as the main candidate, the days after the earthquake showed unity. This poses certain risks for the AKP.

Turkish journalist Ceyda Karan points out six key aspects that relate to the problems of the earthquake and its aftermath:

1) the long delay or lack of assistance to the victims by the state. This was affected by the scale of the disaster, so the state simply could not help everyone at the same time;

2) the inadequate response of the emergency agency, which is within the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Lack of necessary rescue equipment and qualified personnel;

3) attempts to censor criticism of the government by the opposition and temporary blocking of social networks;

4) contradictory use of Turkish Armed Forces to respond to the earthquake. In the first 24 hours, only 3,500 military personnel were deployed, while 50,000 Turkish soldiers and officers are in Syria. Rescue teams from Russia, Spain and Israel managed to deploy field hospitals earlier;

5) complexity of the elections scheduled for May. Erdoğan has a mandate to postpone elections only if there is a war, and the current disaster provides him with a negative backdrop for the Justice and Development Party to win a majority of parliamentary seats;

6) relationship with foreign policy because Turkey’s relations with EU and NATO countries worsened on the eve of the earthquake. Conversely, there was a rapprochement with Syria mediated by Russia.

The fifth point is the most important right now because, by law, elections cannot be postponed. But supporters of postponement say there is another way. The Supreme Electoral Council, known as the YSK, the final arbiter of electoral disputes, can rule that it is not prepared to hold elections in the 10 hard-hit provinces and amid an unprecedented displacement of voters to other cities.

Indeed, in 1966, the YSK ruled that local elections could be postponed after an earthquake struck the eastern provinces two days before voting, making it impossible to hold elections. It is likely that a decision will be made soon, and now the emissaries of the YSK are listening to public opinion so as not to lose their reputation.

However, James Ryan of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (USA) actually linked the earthquake damage to the work of Erdoğan’s own party.

He writes that “the reason this is so unsettling for Erdoğan is that the nature of these tens of thousands of deaths—pancaked concrete apartment buildings—strikes at the core of his party’s governance strategy…. In a rush to build massive amounts of new housing, the Turkish government has issued hundreds of thousands of exemptions from earthquake safety standards across the country, including 75,000 buildings in the area affected by these earthquakes. In the last decade, this development has gone into overdrive to build not only massive and expansive new housing projects, but questionable “mega projects” including two new bridges over the Bosphorus and Dardanelles Straits, a massive new airport in Istanbul’s exurbs, and a planned canal project meant to circumvent the Straits, cutting a huge swath through Turkey’s Thracian province. For a large part, this construction was paid for with injections of foreign debt—much of which came from Turkey’s allies in the Gulf, beginning with Qatar and more recently with the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Visitors to Istanbul over the recent years can not help but notice the speed with which skyscrapers and development projects appear across the landscape—less well observed but no less true is that this development has proceeded at a similar pace across the country, and especially in rapidly urbanizing southeast Turkey, a region that has also been bearing the social and economic brunt of the influx of millions of Syrian refugees since 2011. To put it bluntly, a decade’s worth of economic and political capital has been poured into this region by the AKP government, and it fell to ruin in the space of a few hours”.

Obviously, Erdoğan will be blamed for all this. Although it is already known about the detention of representatives of construction companies, whose houses turned out to be less reliable than others, it should be taken into account that this business would hardly have been possible without the patronage of the authorities.

It will be the opposition, which has been deprived of various privileges, to take an active search for a scapegoat.

Erdoğan should not underestimate other political risks, including a possible escalation of conflicts within the country. A study of the impact of earthquakes on intra-state conflicts, based on a statistical analysis of 185 countries from 1975 to 2002, shows that earthquakes “not only increase the likelihood of conflict, but that their effects are greater for higher magnitude earthquakes striking more densely populated areas of countries with lower gross domestic products as well as preexisting conflicts”.

The author of the study writes that “although many scholars, policy makers, and relief organizations suggest that natural disasters bring groups together and dampen conflicts, earthquakes can actually stimulate intrastate conflict by producing scarcities in basic resources, particularly in developing countries where the competition for scarce resources is most intense”.




External Assessments

Erol Yaybok of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (Washington, DC) focuses on sociаl issues. He notes that beyond the first active phase of search and rescue operations, the physical and psychological human impact will be far greater and longer lasting.

Therefore, international donors and NGOs will need to draw on lessons from other rapid onset disasters (e.g., tsunami and hurricane relief) which share similar destructive qualities, to learn how to coordinate assistance, to build local resilience, and to draw from and strengthen local response structures.

In addition to the loss of life this has caused, the magnitude of the destruction means that all relief efforts will be challenging thanks to blocked roads, damaged bridges, communications and power outages, food and water shortages, and other critical disruptions…

Gaziantep is the economic and political center of a region literally on the frontlines of humanitarian response after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011.

Of the nearly 3.8 million registered refugees in Turkey over one million Syrians live in the Turkey-Syria border region, almost half a million in Gaziantep city alone. The earthquake adds will further stress an already stressed environment. For Syrian refugees, the earthquakes create new trauma on top of old.

RAND experts look at the earthquake and its aftermath from various international policy options.

Jessie Riposo writes that “current estimates of the economic impact from the disaster include nearly $70 billion in housing losses and another $10.4 billion in economic loss. These preliminary estimates likely fall short of total damages as it can take months to fully assess and establish the total cost of recovery. These costs appear to be driven by the poor construction of many properties, which may lead to legal action, and serve a stark reminder of the importance of implementing more-resilient building codes and standards. As Turkey takes steps to rebuild, they must consider how they will enforce more-rigorous adoption and adhesion to safe building practices”.

Howard Schatz touches on a more politically sensitive topic, noting that “helping Syria presents a far more difficult problem. The greatest damage occurred in parts of Syria that are governed in part by Turkey and Turkish-linked rebel groups, and in part by the designated terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an offshoot of al-Qaeda. Regardless, help is needed. Schatz suggests involving the group known as the White Helmets. The United States is among many countries that support this organization. However, they are known to be provocateurs who have actually made false staging in order to accuse the Assad government. Isn’t Schatz’s call an attempt to use the tragedy for another sabotage? It is entirely possible. Especially since Schatz calls one of his relief options “airdrops of supplies to the White Helmets, coordinated in advance. This could include lifesaving food, water, medicine, and shelter, such as insulated tents”.

And probably new materials for sabotage and provocation, including weapons.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, shown here on Feb. 10 at his Ankara palace, remains popular with conservative and religious Turks, while his critics face a growing crackdown.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, February 2023

Also, an alternative option is to use a corridor via the Kurdistan Region of Iraq through the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. This requires negotiations on crossing lines of control with either Turkish-led groups or the Syrian government.

Schatz’s misunderstanding of the real situation in Kurdistan is evident here. The Iraqi Kurds are not cooperating with the Syrian Kurds. And even when there was a threat from ISIS (an organization banned in the Russian Federation), Syrian Kurds did not cooperate with Iraqi Kurds.

What kind of corridors for humanitarian aid are there? Although the Kurdish question itself also needs to be raised, because in Turkey not only ethnic Turks have suffered, but also Kurds, who live in large numbers in the eastern part of the country. In the mentioned Gaziantep, about half a million people are ethnic Kurds.

And James Scheer observes that “Turkey faces a “congested access” problem. Syria is more prone to this, to be sure; but Turkey’s air, sea, and overland transit routes are getting swamped by a huge influx of relief and recovery aid. Their initial “first come, first served” approach for clearing flights just didn’t work. There also seems to be a need to engage with Turkey regarding safe rebuilding practices. Turkey may need to start with viable habitability assessments for buildings that are still up but fragile. Then, there’s the challenge of monitoring and enforcement of building codes as well as seismic retrofitting of existing structures before the next big quake”.

It is likely that there will be states that are willing to help solve these problems under certain conditions.

Earthquake Diplomacy

Any natural disaster, of course, shows who is a real partner and friend of the affected party, and who uses the situation to extract certain interests.

In this context, Fehim Tastekin writes that “also making use of quake diplomacy is Israel, which recently restored ties with Turkey. Israel’s President Isaac Herzog called Erdoğan shortly after the first quake, and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen met with the Turkish president in Ankara on Tuesday… All those steps are expected to add momentum to the normalization process that formally kicked off in late December when Israel’s new ambassador to Ankara presented her credentials to Erdoğan. NATO allies such as France and the United States, which have often been at odds with Erdoğan, also offered support, as did Finland and Sweden, whose NATO membership bids are being blocked by Turkey. China, whose treatment of the Uyghur community has often cast a pall on bilateral ties, won Turkish hearts by sending 467 rescuers and high-tech equipment. Russia, whose ties with Turkey have been a mélange of cooperation and conflict, sent a 401-strong rescue team — the fifth largest after those of Azerbaijan, Spain, China and Israel. Nechirvan Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq — and who has enjoyed close ties with Ankara but often felt the heat of Turkish military operations on Kurdistan territory — also traveled to the quake-hit region to show solidarity.”

In diplomacy, however, it is not only the facts that are important, but also the presentation of information. With their advantage in strategic communications and control of the global media, Western powers may very well indulge for wishful thinking. The diligence and gratuitous assistance of other countries will thus be sidelined.

Tellingly, the catastrophe did not lead to any softening of Turkey’s position in Syria, which northern regions, including Turkish-controlled Afrin, also suffered devastation. Ankara has refused to let Syrians into Turkey, but has agreed to reopen two border crossings for three months, in addition to one on the Idlib border, to allow the flow of UN-coordinated humanitarian aid.

All three border crossings lead to rebel-controlled areas, while those that are controlled by the Syrian government and those that lead to Kurdish-controlled areas remain closed. Humanitarian convoys from the Kurdish-controlled northeast were blocked for days by Turkish-backed rebels before they could reach earthquake-hit areas in the northwest, with Kurdish sources blaming Turkey.

Ankara also did not soften its stance on Western countries, in particular after the earthquake it was announced that Turkey would not ratify the admission of Sweden and Finland into NATO. There are conspiracy theories that the earthquake was the result of seismological weapons used by the United States. Such narratives should not be underestimated either.

Supporters of various conspiracy theories abound in Turkey, while on the other hand Muslims (not only in Turkey) see apocalyptic omens in the quake.

According to Islam, such natural disasters are a divine providence and serve as a reminder to believers of their existence. The Prophet Muhammad said that earthquakes are a warning from the Almighty, so believers should pray and ask Him for mercy. It is also linked to the fact that the catastrophe occurred in the year of the centennial of the formation of the Republic of Turkey.



By Leonid Savin

Published by Oriental Review (I), (II)



Republished by The 21st Century

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of




[Photo: Smoke billows from the Iskenderun Port as rescue workers work at the scene of a collapsed building on February 7 in Iskenderun, Turkey. A 7.8-magnitude earthquake hit near Gaziantep, Turkey, on February 6 followed by another 7.5-magnitude tremor just after midday. The quakes caused widespread destruction in southern Turkey and northern Syria and were felt in nearby countries.]


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