The Syria-Turkey earthquake could have profound implications

The impact is likely to reverberate not just domestically and regionally, but perhaps even internationally

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Last week’s earthquake that has devastated parts of Syria and Turkey will have domestic, regional and international implications, as it leaves a cataclysmic humanitarian and economic disaster in its wake. What will its impact be on the political future of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, and that of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan? How will it affect the interests of the global and regional powers in Syria? There is plenty to consider.

Let’s first focus on Syria, where the Assad regime is unlikely to be rehabilitated politically as a possible outcome of international and Arab solidarity with the country.

The Europeans will not rush to normalise relations with the Syrian government and the US is likely to block any attempts to bypass sanctions on Damascus. Russia is preoccupied with its conflict with Ukraine and Nato, but given its ties to the regime, it will provide assistance to the extent that it can. Moscow will also aim to balance its interests carefully, given its relations with both Turkey and Iran – two countries with competing interests inside war-torn Syria – particularly as the earthquake has affected large parts of the rebel-held areas in the country’s north-west.

Aleppo, in particular, is suffering from an open wound. This ancient city was already devastated before the earthquake hit, suffering from years of bombardment. It is also situated near the border with Turkey, and Ankara will not take kindly to Iran’s message to Syrians after the earthquake that “we are here, and we are in control”. Aleppo, therefore, could be the seed of a Turkish-Iranian standoff that will only harm the city and its surroundings, and the people who live there.

Turkey and Syria might be compelled to improve their relations because of the disaster. However, the recent push for rapprochement between the leaders of the two countries could now slow down, not only because of their preoccupation with the catastrophe, but also due to the Tehran-Ankara competition during this extremely sensitive time.

The earthquake could alter the electoral calculus in Turkey

Iran will be forced to factor in the impact of the earthquake on its regional projects, and may now relent. Indeed, the disaster’s regional and geopolitical fallout will force a number of actors to return to the policy drawing board. Syria remains a key part of the Iranian regime’s strategic ambitions, and Tehran is determined to prevent anything that could undermine its control over it.

The US is unlikely to lift sanctions on Damascus on humanitarian grounds, although it has announced easing of restrictions to allow new relief efforts. The US will probably look into mechanisms that complement the work of international relief organisations, including UN agencies, but will not agree to dealing with the regime to deliver aid to the affected regions, whether under government or rebel control.

American politicians are determined to avoid providing any legitimacy to the Assad regime. Their particular focus will be to ensure that Washington does not issue waivers for the Caesar Act, the law enacted by the US Congress targeting individuals and companies providing financing or assistance to the regime as well as the Iranian and Russian entities backing it.

Republicans in Congress are working on a plan to keep aid and relief for Syria away from the regime’s hands, and to bypass a Russian veto in the UN Security Council on opening aid corridors to rebel-held areas. Some Republican legislators believe the UN and other international mechanisms are inadequate, therefore requiring new ones to co-ordinate between US forces in Syria and the Turkish army and to bypass the Syrian government and deliver aid to the affected areas. A sustainable plan is being sought to launch an aid effort immediately without waiting for the approval of the Assad government. Congress is also working to pass additional laws to prevent the regime – and its backers in Iran and Hezbollah – from benefitting from the disaster.

Turkey, meanwhile, is in dire economic straits. With cities and towns devastated, reconstruction will require billions of dollars. This is beyond the millions already being sent as immediate aid. But it comes as the West remains focused on the Ukraine war and the Turkish government’s supposed intransigence on the issue of Finland and Sweden joining Nato.

In 2022, Ankara opposed Sweden and Finland’s bid to join the alliance, on the grounds that they “host terrorist organisations which act against Turkey”. It also has continued economic ties with Russia. The question now is whether it will consider lifting its veto as it seeks financial assistance from the US and Europe.

The earthquake could paralyse several of Ankara’s projects, from Central Asia and the Caucasus to North Africa. It is likely to impose changes on Mr Erdogan’s ambitious foreign policy agenda and curtail his repeated calls to establish a buffer zone inside Syrian territory.

Where this leaves Moscow’s own ambitions is open to question, too, with the fate of the Russian economy tied, to some extent, to Ankara’s policies towards it.

Finally, the earthquake could alter the electoral calculus in Turkey for a number of reasons, including the fact that Mr Erdogan has until now leveraged foreign policy to try to convince voters of his ambitious programme for the country. If he is forced to focus on the home front, as would understandably be the case, he could lose one of his electoral trump cards in his campaign to secure re-election in May.

Put differently, the earthquake could benefit the opposition in Turkey. A shift in focus from foreign policy to domestic issues presents it with a chance to put together a stronger coalition. The state of emergency imposed in the aftermath of the earthquake might provide electoral fodder to the governing AKP as well as the opposition, as it is a double-edged sword.

It is, of course, still too early to assess all the dimensions of the disaster that has killed close to 30,000 people. For now, the world is watching the tragedy unfold. But even as its attention eventually, and inevitably, shifts to other global crises – both current and impending – the suffering of the survivors in Syria and Turkey will last a long while yet.

Published: February 12, 2023, 2:00 PM