‘Earthquake Diplomacy’ brings countries together over Turkey-Syria disaster, even if temporarily

The earthquake, just like other natural disasters throughout history, could have an impact on international relations, experts say.

 Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan talks to media in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey February 8, 2023 (photo credit: PRESIDENTIAL PRESS OFFICE/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan talks to media in the aftermath of a deadly earthquake in Kahramanmaras, Turkey February 8, 2023

When a massive earthquake struck Turkey and Syria earlier this week, it was clear that an international effort would be needed to cope with the disaster.

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Countries from around the world quickly rallied, putting aside political differences and tensions and rushing to help.

Medical personnel, soldiers, rescue dogs and a huge amount of equipment are already on scene or on their way. People are leaving their homes and loved ones to help people in Turkey and Syria out in the crippling cold.

According to the European Commission’s European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations, 20 EU countries have offered aid, including 29 search and rescue teams and five medical teams.

Relations between the EU and Turkey have been strained recently. A member of NATO, Turkey has challenged Sweden’s application for membership, citing its leniency toward Kurdish groups hostile to Turkey.

 TURKEY’S PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to journalists at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month. (credit: G20 Media Center/Reuters) TURKEY’S PRESIDENT Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to journalists at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, earlier this month. (credit: G20 Media Center/Reuters)

Yet, Sweden immediately rushed to assist in the immediate aftermath of the quake.

“We are working on quickly getting resources out,” Elin Bohman, press secretary for The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, told The Media Line. “This type of event poses major challenges for the countries affected.”

“Turkey, like Sweden, has been a member of the EU's civil protection mechanism for a long time, where support and assistance in this type of event can be coordinated,” she added.

“The conflict over NATO between Sweden and Turkey is going to change because Sweden provides earthquake relief,” according to Professor Gerald Steinberg, from the Political Science Department at Bar Ilan University. “Usually, the political realm and the people-to-people realm are completely separate. Efforts to try to use one as a bridge to the other usually don’t work.”

According to the United States State Department, two US Agency for International Development Urban Search and Rescue teams arrived in Turkey on Wednesday, with more than 150 personnel and 170,000 pounds of equipment.

In Syria, with which the US has a tense relationship, “the United States is committed to providing humanitarian assistance to help the Syrian people recover from this disaster,” the State Department announced, emphasizing the money being allocated for the cause goes “to the Syrian people, not the regime.”

Over 80 experts from the Los Angeles County Fire Department also have landed in Turkey to help in the search and rescue efforts, racing against the clock with other experts from around the world.

The earthquake, just like other natural disasters throughout history, could have an impact on international relations. Many countries in conflict with Turkey and Syria have set their differences aside, but it is not known if this will last beyond the response to the disaster or if new bridges will be built and agreements reached.

“Such an event can affect the way a country is seen by the host population,” said Dr. Yonatan Freeman, an expert on international relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He added that it “increases positive interactions.”

In 1999, earthquakes that hit both Turkey and Greece led to the birth of “earthquake diplomacy” and the improvement of strained relations between the two countries. The positive atmosphere after the quakes lasted for a few years, before tensions resurfaced.

Today, Greece also is sending aid to Turkey in the form of medical supplies, sniffer dogs and doctors.

The areas hard hit in Turkey earlier this week are largely populated by the Kurdish minority in the country. Internal tensions between the Kurdish minority and the Turkish majority might be temporarily alleviated as both peoples face the same fate that nature has harshly imposed on them. Turkey’s treatment of the Kurdish minority throughout the current crisis could improve its relations with countries that have been critical of its behavior.

Israel has sent assistance to Turkey. The countries have known ups and downs in their relations. According to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the military delegation dispatched to the scene has 400 people, including doctors and engineers.

“We’re working alongside 10 other countries,” read a statement from Commanding Officer of the National Search and Rescue Unit, Col. (res.) Golan Vach, “it’s a great honor to represent the State of Israel as part of such a crucial international mission."

The delegation is expected to set up a field hospital near the site of the quake’s biggest devastation in Turkey.

Turkey and Israel have improved their relations recently after over a decade of discord.

Linor Attias is an emergency responder from United Hatzalah, an Israeli NGO that provides emergency medical services. Speaking to The Media Line from Turkey, Attias says that the mission is her fourth this year. After being in Ukraine during the Russian invasion, in Florida following Hurricane Ian and in Puerto Rico following the floods caused by Hurricane Fiona, she was not concerned about any animosity while in Turkey.

“The population that has been hit doesn’t care where the aid is coming from,” Attias said. “All tensions are erased in such moments.”

“I knew I wouldn’t feel threatened in anyway,” she added.

The plane that took Attias together with 25 members of the volunteer delegation parked next to planes from Qatar and Iran – both countries have no relations with Israel.

“We all have the same goal – to help the people,” said Attias. The delegation arrived with ten tons of equipment, most of it medical supplies.

Though Israel is officially at war with neighboring Syria, Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said his government would also send humanitarian aid to the Syrians, after receiving a request. Syrian officials quoted in media reports denied making any such requests and said they would not accept help from Israel.

“In most cases, provision of aid can strengthen ties that already exist,” said Steinberg. “When there are very bitter conflicts and no positive connections, aid doesn’t turn around relations.”

Throughout the long-running Syrian civil war, Israel has provided medical care for wounded Syrians, many of them civilians or opposition forces. This has not led to any rapprochement in the strained relations between the two countries.

However, this could lead to a humanitarian gesture later on, according to experts.

“Such support is often unconditional and, if not, it is not always obvious at the beginning. It is about helping people, but later on things may be received in return,” said Freeman. “Between Syria and Israel, we could see more indirect dialogue.”

Syria is believed to be holding at least one body of an Israeli spy caught in Damascus over 50 years ago.

Syria, which has been at odds with much of the international community, has also turned to the EU with a request for emergency assistance.

Russia also has sent aid to Syria. With a substantial military presence already in Syria in order to bolster the regime of President Bashar Assad, Russian assistance in the face of calamity is a natural progression.

Wide-reaching humanitarian aid also can be used as a tool to elevate status in the international arena.

“It is a way to show the international community a country’s strength,” said Freeman. “Sending aid, which often includes sophisticated technology, is a projection of power.”

For the Palestinian delegation that left Thursday heading to Syria and Turkey, their assistance is a source of pride.

“We feel responsible toward the international community and want to share the challenges,” said Imad Zuhairi, assistant minister for International Cooperation and director general of the Palestinian International Cooperation Agency. “We want to add our efforts to those in the world who face such challenges amid such a catastrophe. We feel proud and responsible,” he said.

“We want to and have to stand next to nations in need,” Zuhairi added.

It is the fifth mission the Palestinian team is taking part in on the international level. Seventy-three Palestinians will take part in the effort, including doctors and experts on civil defense and rapid response. The delegation will be on the ground for at least 10 days, depending on the need.

The global effort will go on in the coming days. Teams from China, Lebanon, Qatar, Spain, Germany, India, Pakistan and Australia are among other countries are on the ground helping survivors in Turkey who are trying to cope with the enormous disaster.