Every cloud has a silver lining: can this be true of earthquakes as well?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Jamie Shea
Jamie Shea

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe, and former Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Emerging Security Challenges at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

The impact of the two devastating earthquakes that struck southern Türkiye and northern Syria last week has gripped our attention. Pictures of people being rescued after spending a week or more trapped under the rubble and of brave response teams working around the clock to help survivors have rekindled our faith in the human spirit and the resilience of people caught up in a natural disaster of this scale. At the time of writing, over 41,000 people have lost their lives and this figure is likely to climb much higher as more rubble is cleared and more bodies are recovered. Hundreds of thousands of people on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border have been made homeless and their survival is threatened by the freezing temperatures, contaminated water supplies, risk of disease and the almost inevitable slowness in delivering urgent shelter, food and medical treatment. The toll of destruction is destined to get worse as more damaged buildings collapse or are torn down. Entire regions such as Hatay will need to be rebuilt. Over 13.5mn people in Türkiye have been affected in an area the size of the United Kingdom. International financial institutions are already estimating reconstruction costs in the $70bn to $80bn range. Turkish President Erdoğan has promised reconstruction within a year, but even if funding is readily available, this seems somewhat optimistic.

Clearly, the Turkish-Syrian earthquakes are an unalloyed story of catastrophe and human misery. Like the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, which so deeply affected Voltaire and convinced him to declare the end of the ‘age of optimism’, they are timely reminders of how little we control our own destiny and how much we are at the mercy of natural events that we are still unable to predict, despite our best efforts to track seismic activity and to engineer our buildings to make them more resistant to earthquakes. Human agency may not be able to prevent natural disasters, but it can always mitigate their impact through good preparation and resilience building.

At a time when the focus is on saving lives, it may seem perverse to ask if any good could emerge from this disaster, but the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in southern Türkiye and northern Syria presents four possible geopolitical silver linings.

Erdoğan needs to focus on dealing with the humanitarian crisis

The first is in relations between Greece and Türkiye. Readers will be familiar with the litany of disputes between Greece and Türkiye extending from territorial demarcation lines in the Aegean and the status of Greek islands, to the rights to drill underwater for gas and the tense situation on land and sea borders as illegal migrants try to reach the EU , not to speak of the unresolved issue of the reunification of Cyprus. In the past, natural disasters have been used by both countries to reboot relationships and establish a more open and friendly dialogue between leaders in Athens and Ankara. An example occurred in 1999 when Türkiye gave Greece immediate and substantial help to control its forest fires during a particularly hot summer and Athens sent search and medical teams to Türkiye to help cope with the earthquake that same year. The reciprocal outpouring of public sympathy led to summit meetings between Athens and Ankara, and the hope that they could pull back from the military confrontations in the eastern Aegean that had almost led to a war over an uninhabited Greek rock off the Turkish coast just three years earlier. Yet, as the impact of the natural disasters faded, so did the newfound entente cordiale. Athens and Ankara were back to the disputes and the finger pointing. Just a few weeks before the current earthquakes struck, Erdoğan dropped hints that Turkish soldiers could land in Greece “in the middle of the night” and that new Turkish intermediate-range missiles could be targeted on Athens – rhetoric perhaps, but hardly conducive to a productive relationship.

Today, Greece is reaching out to its eastern neighbour again. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was the first foreign diplomat to visit Ankara after the disaster and offer his country’s help. Greece has sent 60 tonnes of equipment and supplies, as well as medical teams, winter protection materials, clothing and food. Athens has promoted the idea of a donors’ conference to be rapidly convened to help Türkiye and Syria cope with urgent humanitarian needs, as well as kickstart vital infrastructure repairs and reconstruction. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres and the UN Office of the Coordinator of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have already launched an appeal for $397mn for urgent relief. Athens can certainly help Türkiye lobby for these funds in the international financial institutions and national aid agencies. Türkiye’s elections, currently scheduled for 14 May, may well need to be postponed as Erdoğan needs to focus on dealing with the humanitarian crisis and defending his government’s earthquake response record rather than whipping up nationalist fervour at campaign rallies. This too could create a space for a quieter, behind-the-scenes dialogue between Athens and Ankara.

Earthquakes present opportunities for a change in attitudes

The second opportunity concerns relations between Türkiye and its northern neighbour, Armenia. The border between the two countries has been closed since the early 1990s, soon after Armenia became independent following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Türkiye has largely instituted an economic blockade against Yerevan. Relations have been exacerbated by Armenia’s lobbying for international recognition of the Armenian genocide, carried out in 1915 by the Ottoman Empire, and Türkiye’s one-sided support for Azerbaijan in its dispute with Armenia over the status of Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave largely made up of ethnic Armenians but part of the territory of Azerbaijan that Armenia seized and occupied during fighting in 1991. It was Türkiye’s abundant military support of Baku, including the supply of T2 Bayraktar armed drones, which enabled Azerbaijan to go on the offensive and retake much of Nagorno-Karabakh in renewed fighting in 2020. Türkiye is now participating with Russia in the control mechanism that is supervising the tenuous ceasefire in Nagorno-Karabakh.

Here again, the earthquakes present opportunities for a change in attitudes. Armenia has offered aid to Türkiye and this week, Ankara reopened its border crossing point on the Aras river for the first time since 1988 when the Turkish Red Crescent sent aid to Armenia after it suffered an earthquake. Last year, the Turkish and Armenian leaders met for the first time in a decade when they both attended the inaugural meeting of the European Political Community in Prague, while the two foreign ministers had met previously. The last time there was this much high-level engagement was a decade ago when the leaders met on the sidelines of international football matches. That attempt at rapprochement came to nothing as more and more Western parliaments formally recognised the massacre of the Armenians as a genocide. Yet today, the special envoy of Ankara for Armenian affairs, Serdar Kilic, has spoken more encouragingly of future prospects for the dialogue. So, will the Aras river border post remain open? Will commercial as well as diplomatic relations between Yerevan and Ankara be restored, and will Türkiye work with its European partners in the Minsk Group and Geneva negotiations for a balanced solution to the status of Nagorno-Karabakh that is acceptable to both Baku and Yerevan and enables the people of Nagorno-Karabakh, whether Azeri or Armenian, to return safely to their homes? Lifting the current blockade of the enclave along the single road that connects it to Armenia would be a good start.

Sweden has immediately offered humanitarian assistance to Türkiye

A third opportunity is in regard to Sweden. Türkiye has delayed its ratification of Sweden’s NATO membership  – along with that of Finland – due to its unhappiness with the country hosting Kurdish militants on its territory. Ankara believes that many of these individuals are linked to the PKK terrorist organisation and has demanded the extradition of 120 individuals. Sweden has gone a long way towards accommodating Ankara, for instance, in revising its counter-terrorism legislation, extracting one terrorism-linked Turkish citizen to Türkiye and lifting its arms embargo against Ankara. Erdoğan has also been upset by some of the admittedly small anti-Erdoğan demonstrations in Stockholm. It is difficult for Sweden to fulfil all of Ankara’s conditions given its laws guaranteeing freedom of speech and assembly and its need to abide by the verdicts of the courts and European legislation on human rights.

Yet, the suspension of the Turkish election campaign, which made it highly unlikely that Ankara would move on Sweden and NATO before the outcome of the vote, presents an opportunity to calm the waters. Sweden has immediately offered humanitarian assistance to Türkiye and as it holds the current six-month presidency of the EU, it is in an excellent position to rally Brussels behind a longer-term package of support for Türkiye. This help can also hopefully lead to the resumption of ministerial meetings between the foreign and defence ministries, suspended by Ankara after the anti-Erdoğan protests in Sweden. NATO Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg clearly believes in a moment to be seized by heading to Ankara to make the case for Finland and Sweden to Erdoğan immediately after the NATO defence ministers meeting this past week. Can Sweden also seize the moment to initiate a more productive dialogue with Türkiye and reboot its image as a solid, reliable partner for its future NATO ally?

An end to Syrian and Russian military attacks and a ceasefire would help

Finally, there is the issue of Syria. The earthquakes have affected the lives of millions of people in northern Syria, even if the loss of life has been less severe than in Türkiye thus far. The impact has been particularly severe in the Idlib pocket, the enclave abutting the Turkish border where four million civilians have been under the rule of jihadist militia groups opposed to the Assad regime in Damascus. In turn, the Assad regime backed by Russia has been bombarding the Idlib pocket with barrel bombs and artillery for the past five years in the hope of bludgeoning this bastion of resistance to Assad’s repossession of Syria into submission. So, the humanitarian situation in Idlib was already dire well before the earthquakes struck. Syria, backed by Russia in the UN Security Council, has since 2014 only allowed one border crossing, Bab al-Hawa, between Idlib and Türkiye to remain open for the delivery of UN relief supplies.

Now Damascus, having initially allowed aid to be delivered only within Syria across the boundary lines, has agreed to two more international border crossings to be opened at Al Ras and Bab al-Salameh for an initial duration of three months. The UN’s Guterres and Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths have been pushing hard to obtain the reopening of these two border crossings. This is significant because only 45,000 people inside the Idlib pocket were being fed by aid coming from elsewhere in Syria before the earthquakes, but 2.5mn were being fed by aid coming across the Turkish border. Fears that the Assad regime would manipulate aid for political purposes have proved to be all too founded in the past. Syria has promised that international aid coming into Syria will be delivered fairly and without discrimination. It will need to be held to account on this commitment. The United States has also lifted some of its sanctions against Syria to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian relief. This week, Saudi Arabia carried out its first humanitarian flight in five years to the Damascus-controlled city of Aleppo.

The question now is whether this new gesture by Damascus can be converted into a long-term easing of the humanitarian situation. An end to Syrian and Russian military attacks and a ceasefire would help in this respect. Given the slowness in delivering humanitarian aid to Syria vis-à-vis Türkiye, the dangers of the secondary effects of hunger, exposure and disease affecting the civilian population are even greater than in Türkiye. This makes it all the more urgent for the UN to do what it does best: negotiate local and tactical agreements on the ground among the various parties to allow aid to flow to those who most need it. Certainly, there are geopolitical dangers here too. The Assad regime will certainly try to use its new ‘goodwill’ and ‘flexibility’ to gain more recognition and respect from the international community in exchange for paltry concessions. Assad may conclude that the earthquakes have providentially weakened his jihadist opponents inside Idlib and that this is a good time to launch a new offensive to regain control of the pocket. The West will need to consider what it can do to deter such a move.

A reduction in violence and an improvement in the conditions of the civilian population might create the space for a live and let live freezing of the status quo

This said, prior to the earthquakes, Türkiye and Syria had resumed a diplomatic dialogue after Erdoğan’s strong support of the anti-Assad opposition at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Their defence ministers had met and the foreign ministers were planning a meeting of their own in early March. If this dialogue can lead to a policy of mutual restraint in Syria, with Türkiye withdrawing its forces from northern Syria and from along its border with the country, and Syria ceasing its attacks against Idlib or the Kurdish-held areas, then it might be possible for many of the 3.6mn Syrian refugees in Türkiye to return home for the UN to operate a coherent long-term aid programme and for the reconstruction of devastated cities such as Aleppo to begin. Of course, this will not bring us close to a political settlement in Syria, and Assad is farther today to ceding power to a national roundtable dialogue with the opposition and national elections than ever. A reduction in violence and an improvement in the conditions of the civilian population might create the space for a live and let live freezing of the status quo in Syria where people can live more normally in protected enclaves in a more decentralised state. Half a cake is better than none.

So, there may yet be such a thing as earthquake diplomacy. Diplomats need always to be on the lookout for opportunities even in the most unlikely circumstances. Nonetheless, there are three conditions to make earthquake diplomacy more successful in the long run than in the past when it has tended to fizzle out after the early promising signs.

Nothing is more urgent nor as important as saving lives and providing relief to the destitute

First, the donor countries have to stay the course and demonstrate to the stricken country that their commitment goes beyond a few token contributions in the hope of gaining major concessions. Patience and perseverance as well as significant levels of assistance in the short and long term are required.

Second, the actions that diplomats are hoping to secure from the provision of humanitarian assistance must be achievable and realistic. Of course, there cannot be any formal conditionality or the offer of help would appear cynical and opportunistic. To take the example of Greece and Türkiye, it might be possible to aim for a relaxation of military activity in the Aegean, for instance, scaling back on exercises or other confidence-building measures, but not the immediate resolution of maritime boundaries which will take years to resolve through courts of arbitration. So go for the low-hanging fruit first.

Finally, earthquake diplomacy has to be followed up by a comprehensive roadmap as to how disputes can be addressed and resolved. Goodwill and better personal relations between leaders who can suddenly emphasise with each other can certainly create a better conducive atmosphere. But politics remains politics, and issues remain as complex and as intractable as ever. So, roadmaps on the way ahead, which give hope and incentives for both sides to continue the engagement with realistic expectations of results, are key. Diplomats need to devise them and put them on the table before the magic effects of empathy begin to wear off. A roadmap with clear timelines, objectives and ideas on what both sides can offer to one another can lock each side into a negotiation process before populist politics and the need to play to the gallery close out the space for compromise.

After a disaster on the scale of the Turkish and Syria earthquakes, nothing is more urgent nor as important as saving lives and providing relief to the destitute quickly and effectively. Some of the disputes described in this article are more dangerous and longer-term than others. Yet, it is in the nature of disputes between countries that they become more entrenched and intractable the longer they go on. Opportunities for progress, let alone breakthroughs, become ever rarer; and they are rarely seized. If earthquake diplomacy can help develop some momentum and progress, we should not feel guilty about using it. This way, some good may yet emerge from this awful tragedy.

The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

Related activities

view all
view all
view all
Track title


Stop playback
Video title


Africa initiative logo