A tragedy that will also shake up the region's geopolitics
The upcoming national elections in Turkey, Turkey-Israel relations and the Syrian civil war will all feel the tremors caused by the devastating earthquake
- In 1999, a quake of a similar magnitude hit the heavily populated eastern Marmara Sea region near Istanbul, killing more than 17,000 people. The fallout of this led to the rise of Erdogan.
- Turkey's economy has been in a downward spiral since 2018. At the moment:
- Year-on-year inflation is at over 64.30%
- The Lira fell by 30% against the dollar last year
- The current account deficit is about 5% of the GDP
- Parliamentary and presidential elections are scheduled for 14 May
- Turkey has accepted aid from Israel
It will be some time before we learn the full scope of Monday's enormous earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and adjoining Syrian provinces. More than 4,800 people have died as of writing this, but that number is expected to climb dramatically because thousands of people are still feared to be buried alive. The death toll could rise to more than 20,000 people, according to WHO.
Yet, the potential effects of the earthquakes on Turkish and Middle Eastern politics are already being discussed in some circles, as heartbreaking footage from the disaster zones continues to trickle in. The most pressing concern is whether or not the 14 May parliamentary and presidential elections in Turkey will go off without a hitch. This depends on two key factors: whether the necessary infrastructure is in a place closer to the election date and whether Erdogan decides it is to his advantage to extend the state of emergency declared after the first earthquake and postpone voting beyond the 18 June deadline for holding polls.
Turkey's economy enjoyed good growth during the early days of Erdogan's Justice and Development Party's (AKP's) rule, but has mostly been on decline since 2018.
At the moment, Turkey's inflation rate is at 64.30%, compared to 84.40% last month. The Lira plunged by 30% against the dollar last year, and the current account deficit has expanded to about 5% of the GDP. Erdogan's popularity is falling due to the economic crisis, and surveys show that the opposition still has a chance of toppling him.
How the government responds to what is likely the most serious crisis it has encountered so far is a litmus test. The AKP's emergence has been mainly attributed to the then-ruling coalition government's inadequate response to the massive earthquake in northwest Turkey in 1999. It didn't help that the country's vehemently anti-Islamist military, which ruled the country from behind the scenes, was the first to rush to save its own.
The 1999 earthquake struck Turkey's industrial heartland, killing around 20,000 people. This time around however the Turkish regions favoured by tourists have largely remained unscathed, meaning Turkey's biggest pipeline for foreign currency remains intact for now. Analysts believe if Erdogan plays his cards right, he might get the whole nation to rally behind him, as people often tend to unify under one leader during times of crisis.
The current government quickly dispatched rescue teams, including 3,500 soldiers, after the first earthquake, which struck at 4:17am local time, measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale. The "tarikats"—pro-AKP Islamic charities and fraternities—are also mobilising. More than 7,800 people have been rescued across 10 provinces, according to Orhan Tatar, an official of Turkey's disaster management authority. According to The Guardian, so far, 13,000 rescue workers have left Istanbul to help in impacted areas.
Announcing seven days of national mourning, the ever-pragmatic Erdogan quickly abandoned his prickly nationalism to accept aid from Western countries, notably from Israel. Relations between Israel and Turkey have gotten much better in the past year, thanks in part to high-level visits and better diplomatic ties.
Israel has rushed to support Turkey. The Knesset, Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant have made statements. Israel has decades of expertise in providing humanitarian help, search-and-rescue teams, and earthquake relief, especially under the Home Front Command.
So, the ties between the two countries might come out even stronger from this. This is a very interesting development for middle-eastern geopolitics.
Politics of scrutiny kicks off at home
Help requests have flooded social media. A lawmaker for the opposition nationalist Good Party, Metin Ergun, described scenes from Hatay, a province bordering Syria, one of the hardest hit places. Ergun claimed on social media that he could hear people saying "help us" from beneath the rubble.
"Hatay has become a ghost town. Destruction is everywhere. There is no electricity. The rescue teams are highly inadequate," Ergun tweeted.
Locals in Pazarcik township, the first quake's epicentre, dug through the debris by hand in an attempt to reach loved ones. Mehmet Gedik, who joined the effort, said, "Our village had 350 homes, 90% of which are now destroyed. People are hungry and thirsty. We called the police and [the state-run disaster relief agency] AFAD but nobody has come so far. We have at least 30 of our people trapped under the rubble. The gendarmerie [Turkish rural police force] told us to make do with our own means."
As in 1999, questions will be asked about building codes and safety standards during the 20 years of rule of the AKP administration. Erdogan's contractor allies, known as the "Gang of Five," allegedly gained billions of dollars in public contracts. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, who is largely anticipated to run against Erdogan, has promised to bring them down.
Erdogan has resorted to spending to stimulate the economy prior to the election, offering early retirement to 2.3 million workers, energy subsidies, and promising to build 500,000 homes for low-income families. The injections of cash from friendly Gulf regimes and cheap oil from Russia, which aided in lubricating the frenzy, are unlikely to reduce the enormous costs of Monday's disaster.
Growing public antipathy towards the presence of over 4 million Syrian refugees will make it difficult for the administration to explain any diversion of funding to northern Syria, which is held by Turkey.
In the days ahead, it will become clear exactly how skilled Erdogan continues to be at manipulating adversity to his own benefit, as he did after the failed coup attempt in 2016 when he used it as grounds to undermine his opponents.
His detractors claim he's already exploiting the issue to foment strife among the opposition. He decided to contact Meral Aksener, the head of the nationalist opposition Good Party, rather than informing the main opposition leader Kilicdaroglu of the aid effort.
Aksener disagrees with both Kilicdaroglu's candidature and the idea of working with the Kurds, whose support is essential for the opposition to emerge victorious in this election. Some others say that she is conspiring with the president to make secret agreements.
Adding to Syria's woes
The devastation in Syria is staggering. Over 10 years of civil war have displaced millions of people from their homes, forcing them to live in camps or makeshift shelters in the afflicted areas. The quakes on Monday are reported to have killed up to a thousand people in Syria, with roughly half of the fatalities occurring in the rebel-held northwest of the nation.
Videos show entire neighbourhoods destroyed, neighbourhoods that already lacked essentials like hospitals and roads to deliver humanitarian aid. Thankfully, trucks transporting food, medicine and other desperately needed aid into northwestern Syria from Turkey, will continue their lifesaving journeys for another six months following a vote in the UN Security Council.
In Syria, the United States is a major player. The SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), supported by the United States, maintains bases in strategic cities close to the front lines. Will the United States and the anti-ISIS alliance play more than just a military role and opt to deliver aid?
Perhaps Turkey and the Syrian militias it supports will be willing to stop attacking people, put an end to the never-ending war, and allow aid convoys to pass through Manbij, Kobani, and other locations. The silver lining for the Kurds of Syria, whose territory in the northeastern part of the country was hardly touched by the conflict, is that Erdogan is even less likely to invade as he has been threatening to do.
Will sanctions be eased on Syria to allow for more help to enter the country? The earthquakes may mark a turning moment in Syria's capacity to improve relations with Turkey. Is this a good enough reason for Turkey's leaders to sit down with Bashar Assad's government, and would that alter the country's already drawn battle lines?