Turkey, Syria Earthquakes: Earthquake Diplomacy Smooths Rocky Bilateral Ties – Analysis


By Luke Coffey*

It has been almost two weeks since a major earthquake struck southern Turkiye, delivering devastation across the region. More than 41,000 people have died and another 120,000 injured. Millions of people in Turkiye and Syria have been left without a home and their lives ruined. As the window of survivability closes, it is likely that cleanup efforts will tragically add even more deaths to the total.

With so much death and destruction, it is hard to find anything positive. However, one glimmer of optimism is the possibility of a regional rapprochement between Turkiye and Greece and Turkiye and Armenia as a result of so-called earthquake diplomacy.

Greece was one of the first countries in the world to send rescue teams to neighboring Turkiye in the aftermath of the earthquake. Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias was the first among his EU colleagues to visit Turkiye. Not only has Greece sent several rescue teams, it has also sent multiple planeloads of humanitarian assistance. Greece is also playing an important role inside the EU to ensure that assistance finds its way to Turkiye in a speedy manner.

Meanwhile, hundreds of kilometers to the east of where the Greek foreign minister visited in Turkiye, the Turkish-Armenian land border at Alican opened for the first time in more than 35 years to allow humanitarian aid to cross. Armenia has also sent dozens of search and rescue personnel to assist in the recovery efforts. Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan visited the site of the devastation in Turkiye and ended his visit with a high-level meeting with his Turkish counterpart.

So what is to be made of the earthquake diplomacy between Turkiye and these two neighbors?

Obviously, any interaction and engagement between Ankara and Athens and Ankara and Yerevan is positive and should be welcomed. However, one should also understand that the challenges in Turkiye’s relations with Greece and Armenia are complex and deeply rooted in history.

The main sticking point between Turkiye and Greece is over agreeing to a fair and equitable maritime delineation of the Aegean Sea. This is a complex issue steeped in history, geography and international law. While there will be a positive short-term impact in the Turkish-Greek relationship resulting from earthquake diplomacy, do not expect a major breakthrough anytime soon.

Both the Turkish and Greek leaders face hotly contested national elections later this year. Unsurprisingly, Turkish-Greek bilateral relations are a hot button political issue in both countries. For there to be any progress made in Turkish-Greek relations beyond the goodwill of earthquake diplomacy, both sides will have to seek a reasonable compromise. With elections forthcoming, there will be little room for compromises by either side. While earthquake diplomacy might help pave the way, it is more likely that a new political mandate after the elections can create the political space for genuine talks between Turkiye and Greece. This possibility becomes even more realistic if both incumbent leaders win reelection. It will be the last term in office for each, thereby giving them more political flexibility for compromise than they otherwise would have.

Even though Turkiye and Armenia have had a difficult relationship over the past few decades, there is cause for more optimism. Turkiye was one of the first countries to recognize Armenian independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but relations between the states quickly soured after Armenia’s invasion of Turkish ally Azerbaijan in the early 1990s. By 1993, diplomatic relations between the two states had ended and the border was closed. This is why the opening of the border last week for humanitarian aid was so significant.

But even with these tensions going back decades, there have been steps taken in recent months between Turkiye and Armenia that earthquake diplomacy can build on. For example, in the past year, the Turkish and Armenian foreign ministers have met to discuss the prospects of diplomatic normalization. Both sides have appointed special envoys to negotiate during discussions about normalizing relations; Turkish and Armenian airlines have resumed direct flights between the two countries; and Armenia ended its embargo of imports from Turkiye last year.

Also, ongoing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan offer a window of opportunity for Ankara and Yerevan to normalize. In the short-term, Turkiye and Armenia should use the momentum created by earthquake diplomacy to keep the border open for trade and commerce. This would serve as an important confidence-building measure for both sides that could lead to the normalization of relations.

Even though their relations are rocky, Greeks, Armenians and Turks understand that they are bound by history and geography. Greece and Armenia quickly stepped up to the plate in Turkiye’s time of need. There is no doubt that the Turkish people will always remember this goodwill and generosity.

Hopefully, this latest round of earthquake diplomacy can pave the way to improved relations for all.

  • Luke Coffey is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey

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