EARTHQUAKE IN TURKEY AND SYRIA: REFLEXIONS ON EMERGING CONSEQUENCES
The earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6, 2023, was a natural disaster of “biblical” proportions with devastating humanitarian consequences, in excess of 30 000 estimated deaths at the time of writing, but with a tragic probability of further rising numbers, many more wounded and rendered homeless and enormous physical destruction – a new reminder of Turkey´s and the region´s permanent vulnerability to seismic events. For instance, and in particular, seismologists have warned for years of the vulnerability of the megacity Istanbul and its combination of seismic threats (“not if, but when…”), enormous numbers of people and still today hundreds of thousands of non-earthquake-proof buildings as a result of all these decades of spontaneous influx from Anatolian rural areas.
So now, with this new reminder, it is time for rescue, nationally and internationally, mourning, solidarity with and support to affected survivors, focus on immediate needs and urgent priorities. But already now it can be safely said that this most recent, massive disaster will have wide and lasting consequences, economically and politically, as well as domestically and internationally/regionally. At the same time, clearly, it will take some time to assess more definitely what these consequences will be.
It would be, therefore, appropriate to start out here with a reminder of the various dimensions of the political context prevailing, or emerging, as the disaster struck Turkey and Syria (and beyond).
The domestic Turkish political scene early February; consequences of the disaster
Most importantly, and in brief, Turkey (or nowadays Turqiye) was – and is, albeit now with some fresh question marks – headed for parliamentary and presidential elections in mid-May as the current 5-year mandate term under the 2017 constitutional provisions and after the 2018 elections enters its final months. In these elections, parliamentary as well as presidential, the choice of the more than 60 million Turkish electorate is basically between continuation and consolidation of the presidential system imposed by president Erdogan and his AK party, supported by the ultra-nationalist MHP in an electoral coalition, and the return to a parliamentary democracy more in line with European standards as offered by a 6-party coalition of opposition parties – and as preferred also by the pro-Kurdish HDP and its friends on the political left.
The outcome of that choice would/will have strong and significant implications at several policy levels, nationally and internationally. Hence, an attitude of anxious, guarded anticipation in the various capitals, from Moscow to Washington – and Brussels, and Stockholm and Helsinki, a genuine concern about where the strategically important Turkey is headed, not least in the light of a Russia-Ukraine war raging.
Opinion polls had for long indicated real difficulties this time for President Erdogan and his party to prevail in these forthcoming elections, and similarly in personalized polls, Erdogan versus individual opposition politicians, especially Ekrem Imamoglu, the popular mayor of Istanbul who had prevailed over regime interferences in the 2019 municipal elections (even though now set aside by politicized legal action). A real uphill battle for Erdogan and his chances of re-election was consistently indicated.
Chief among reasons for this difficult state of affairs for the incumbent president was clearly the economy and the way economic difficulties were widely blamed on the presidential system as such, in addition to the person of the president and his team. After all, unavoidably, there is a relationship between absolute power and absolute responsibility/accountability.
It could reasonably be asked: how on earth can a regime possibly win re-election in a situation where people, most people, are suffering from the day-to-day effects of sky-high inflation – among other indicators of economic malaise? If it is too late now, and perhaps was politically impossible all along (especially amid an emerging electoral campaign), for any of the draconian austerity measures that an international economist consensus would strongly urge as needed for crisis prevention? And if whatever you do to win votes by means of artificial spending, regardless of long-term costs, risks simply adding fuel to the inflationary flame? How can you win (free and fair!) elections in such a situation, other than by creating an atmosphere of crisis and appealing to nationalist sentiments? And/or pinning hopes on the notorious weakness of the divided opposition?
And then there was the issues of human rights and the failing state of rule of law, based on governmental narratives and policies regarding a pervasive terror threat, and the strong-arm regime policies of prohibition against pro-Kurdish political actors, including the HDP party – and the polarizing effects of these authoritarian policies.
The strategic and tactical dilemma for the opposition in this pre-electoral context concerned whether to focus on seeking to win in the first election round (of the presidential election) – and if so, whom among the leaders to agree to choose as the joint opposition presidential candidate to face the powerful incumbent – or whether instead to focus on the second round, after seeking tactically to abort chances for Erdogan to reach the stipulated winning limit of 50 (plus one) percent of the vote in the first round. Which strategy would be the surest way of preventing Erdogan from winning in the first round? That was, perhaps is, the question.
Using the momentum of opinion polls and economic hardships (and other incumbent hardships) in order to go for the first round strategy had its clear attractions as a mobilizing instrument, but also the clear and present difficulty of this requiring opposition consensus regarding whom among the party leaders – or someone else – to choose as the joint presidential candidate, trusted as the one with the biggest chances in terms of charisma and other qualities to beat the mighty Erdogan and at the same time trusted, should he win, to deliver on promises made to his colleagues regarding post-election power sharing. And when to publicly announce the name of the candidate, exposing him or her to the full polemical powers of the incumbency and its mighty apparatus?
Indications are, at the time of writing, that the opposition coalition partners, having found the first round strategy too risky and difficult and perhaps also due to the added uncertainties following the disaster, have now settled for the alternative, running the campaign with separate party candidates, hoping the aggregate numbers, including the Kurdish vote, will be sufficient to prevent an Erdogan first round victory and to hence enforce a second round – where all opposition parties will stand behind whoever comes out strongest among them in the first round.
Huge issues now arise as a result of the earthquake disaster, even well before the full dimensions – and costs - of the disaster can be assessed. Already at the time of writing, a week after the quake struck and still during the declared days of mourning, political effects have started to appear, with the president announcing a full three months state of emergency in the 10 most affected provinces, and with opposition voices voicing harsh criticism against the government. It can be foreseen that after a first period of emergency rescue, mourning and solidarity and national unity calls there will follow a period of acrimonious accountability debate dominating the electoral campaign.
If indeed there will be elections as planned, on May 14 (and two weeks later for the probable second round). A discussion on this sensitive matter has begun. The discussion is in part constitutional, including whether again moving the election date is at all constitutional and whether the incumbent president in such a case is eligible for a new five-year term while the 2017 constitutional amendments on the presidential system clearly limits presidential entitlement to maximum two terms. And in part practical: to what extent is it physically feasible and defensible to implement credible elections in view of the level of destruction in the affected areas? Presidential calls for national unity and discipline notwithstanding – with the long built-up degree of socio-political polarization in the country, is it conceivable for regime and opposition to peacefully agree on these existential matters during the course of the weeks and months to come? For constitutionality, after all, there has to be a 3/5 majority in parliament to decide on matters like these, and the ruling coalition commands far less than that.
So as the country struggles through the hardships of disaster relief – in a year that also encompasses the 100 years anniversary of the Turkish republic, for many years the goal of strategic policy making by the Erdogan regime – a cloud of uncertainty and unpredictability hangs over the ways ahead.
And then there is the economic impact of the disaster, still essentially impossible to calculate, even though figures of total reconstruction costs in the order of 50 or more billion USD have been guessed in the media. What will these added costs – whenever payable – do to the Turkish economy, already ailing for years? What kind and degree of external financial assistance will be offered and deemed acceptable? To what extent will external assistance be dependent on the outcome of the Turkish elections, and perhaps held back pending information of that outcome? All these are “known unknowns”, later to be filled in by emerging “unknown unknowns”, quoting a well-known US minister of defense.
How, one might add here, how, if at all, might the shock effect of the disaster affect Turkey´s stand on the issue of ratification of the Swedish/Finnish bids for NATO membership? The much broader question is, obviously, the one regarding how (if at all) the disastrous earthquake might impact Turkey´s foreign policy as a whole, in the various strategic directions, including Syria.
The earthquake disaster and the Syria context: scenarios concerning consequences
Little is known at the time of writing of the real proportions of the disaster as regards the affected parts of northern/north-western Syria, of course due to the absence of external media and representatives of the international community in the prevailing conditions of protracted civil war, internal displacement, lacking humanitarian access, and complex structures of political dominance, these same conditions adding extra dimensions of massive human vulnerability.
Huge questions now arise as to how the disaster, adding to the pre-existing catastrophic hardships of the millions of people trying to survive in these areas, might affect ongoing efforts on the part of a number of internal and external players to maneuver for leverage and to seek political settlements in spite of seemingly endless complications.
What, for instance, about the previously ongoing attempts by the Ankara and Damascus regimes to seek reconciliation or normalization under Russian oversight? What about pre-existing Turkish plans regarding another military incursion into Kurdish (SDF/YPG/PYD) dominated areas close to the border? What about continued US military presence in the country´s north-east, and US-SDF military collaboration there in the continued struggle against what remains of the ISIS threat? What about the status of the Idlib province in the north-west, with its millions of IDPs squeezed between Russian, Syrian and Turkish interests but dominated politically and militarily by the islamist/”terrorist” Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)? What about the Israeli-Iranian armed conflict on Syrian soil? What about humanitarian access by the international community, and what about possible impacts of the disaster on the broader international efforts to find a political solution to the protracted Syrian crisis?
This is just a sample of issues where, potentially, the disaster could have a de-blocking and – in a benign scenario – positive impact, over and beyond the immediate tragic suffering. As yet, one can only speculate on the various ways in which highlighting the cruelty of the disaster impact and a resulting moral imperative – in spite of crisscrossing political fault lines - might open up for cross-border solidarity paving the way for political détente, if temporary. Many are now comparing with the 1999 earthquake disasters that hit first the Izmit area close to Istanbul in Turkey and then Athens in Greece, and the comparatively benign effects of these developments on bilateral Turkish-Greek relations. If temporary.
The earthquake disaster, in sum, can be expected to have comprehensive consequences in the context of both Turkish and Syrian political and economic realities. Alternative scenarios are only just emerging, but – again – clouds of uncertainty and unpredictability are overhanging assessments as to what these consequences will be. In the case of Turquie the single most important uncertainty now pertains to whether and to what extent a crucial minimum of political stability can be preserved and be compatible with a crucial minimum of political liberty, as the country now has to navigate towards and beyond existential elections, this time under extraordinary constitutional, political, economic and humanitarian difficulties.
Concretely, and essentially, the question to be clarified in the electoral perspective is whether the decisive impact of the disaster will prove to be in favor of the incumbent regime to the extent a majority of Turks look to the Leader for leadership and guidance in a time of crisis, or whether the majority turns against Him because of now dramatically exposed sins of both omission and, especially, commission, after more than 20 years of hegemony.
In the case of long-suffering Syria, or Syrians in Syria´s north, rather, the issue now is whether – somehow – the shock effect of the new disaster and the resulting renewed international focus on the unbearable conditions long prevailing there, humanly, politically, militarily, could pave the way for a new momentum in de-blocking what has been blocked for too long.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine war – Russia´s war of aggression in and against Ukraine – provides overwhelming competition for international attention – a sobering proviso.