Expect Turkey Earthquake to Have Far-Reaching Effects

Criticism of President Erdogan, who is up for re-election this spring, is already starting to be heard amid the grieving. The disaster could also open the way for Ankara and Damascus to repair their frayed relations.

AP/Thanassis Stavrakis
Greek firefighters wait to enter a military plane at Elefsina Air Force Base February 6, 2023. Greece is sending a rescue team to Turkey after deadly earthquakes there. AP/Thanassis Stavrakis

The deadly earthquake in Turkey could alter this spring’s presidential election and even hasten a Russian-backed political thaw between Ankara and Damascus after a decade of icy relations.  

Thousands of people died in southeastern Turkey and northwestern Syria when consecutive large tremors, measured at magnitudes 7.8 and 7.7, devastated the region just before dawn Monday. Among the casualties are many Kurds on the Syrian side of the border and refugees from Syria’s civil war on the Turkish side.

Even as Turks were grieving, criticism of President Erdogan started to crop up. “Turkey’s earthquake regulations are solid but have not been fully enforced over the last decade,” a well-connected Turkish journalist, Asli Aydintasbas, tweeted. Much needs to be discussed, she added, “but not today. Today, we are focused on saving lives.”

Following an earthquake in 1999 and amid warnings of future tremors, Turkey mandated strict building codes meant to mitigate quake devastation. Critics of Mr. Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party, AKP, are saying that those codes were relaxed as building contracts were awarded to the president’s favorite allies, who in turn maximized profits by cutting corners on building materials.

Specifically, earthquake building codes “are better enforced in Turkish areas than in Kurdish areas,” the president of the Washington-based American Kurdish Information Network, Kani Xulam, told the Sun. The southeastern part of the country, which was most affected by the quake, is traditionally a Kurdish stronghold — though it is now heavily populated by refugees from the decade-long civil war in Syria. 

Mr. Erdogan could overcome such criticism by pointing to the outpouring of international aid to the country as proof of his global appeal. The Turkish president has long boasted of his foreign policy prowess, even as the country’s relations with Washington and Western allies frayed. 

American rescue teams are joining counterparts from dozens of countries that are rushing to the areas of devastation. They include countries that have chilly relations with Turkey, like Greece and Armenia. Israel, often in Mr. Erdogan’s crosshairs, sent in a large team, which according to Prime Minister Netanyahu may also go to help earthquake-stricken parts of Syria, a country officially at war with Israel.

Many of the Syrian war refugees on the Turkish side of the border are housed in tents supplied by international aid organizations and the United Nations. These refugees are exposed to the elements even on normal days. Temperatures in the low teens are expected to dip even further in coming days. Wind, rain, and debris from the earthquake will make rescue efforts much more difficult. 

On the Syrian side of the border, things look even worse. The quake hit in one of the last regions of the country where Russian- and Iranian-backed troops loyal to President Assad are yet to assert their authority. The area has been contested by Islamists and American-allied Kurdish militias.

Mr. Erdogan has long vowed to invade the Kurdish-controlled area as part of his war against American-backed militias he considers terrorists. To cater to his political allies on the right, Mr. Erdogan has amplified his threats to invade the Kurdish areas across the border as the election nears. 

Critics say Mr. Erdogan’s ultimate goal is to move all the Syrian refugees currently on the Turkish side to the Kurdish-held areas in Syria. 

Following the 2011 launch of the war in Syria, Ankara emerged as one of Mr. Assad’s most formidable foes. Mr. Erdogan accused his Syrian counterpart of being a “more advanced terrorist than ISIS.” He often exchanged sharp barbs with Mr. Assad, and joined other world leaders who said the Damascus butcher “must go.”

Yet, in late December the Turkish and Syrian defense ministers met at Moscow with their Russian counterpart. Last Thursday Mr. Erdogan indicated further steps in that direction were afoot. “We have launched a process as Russia-Turkey-Syria,” he said. “We will bring our foreign ministers together and then, depending on developments, we will come together as leaders.”

The rapprochement between a NATO ally and two of America’s foes, Russia and Syria, worried Washington. “We’ve not seen that this regime in Damascus has done anything that would merit normalization, or improved relations with partners and other countries around the world,” the state department’s spokesman, Ned Price, said in reaction to Mr. Erdogan’s plan to re-establish ties with Mr. Assad. 

Moscow and Tehran said they would send large rescue teams to the areas hit by the earthquake. They may meet American, European, and even Israeli counterparts there. Mr. Erdogan once boasted a foreign policy of “zero problems with all of the neighbors” — even as at one time or another he fought with every leader in the region. 

Domestic criticism of the president’s past handling of natural crises, and even more so of measures to mitigate earthquake devastation, is bound to grow. Yet as an election nears, and with a little help from friends and foes, the Turkish strongman could work to overcome his shortcomings — and not let a natural disaster go to waste. 

The New York Sun

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