The earthquakes that have devastated the southeast of Turkey and the north of Syria clearly pose extraordinary challenges to the governments of both countries, both in terms of immediate response and longer-term reconstruction. However, the aftermath of the two earthquakes also reveals both the political context within which these tragic events have played out and the scale of the political challenges that they pose to Ankara and Damascus.
For Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the government over which he presides, those challenges are significant. As it stands, Turkey is set to hold both parliamentary and presidential elections later this year on May 14th. Erdogan and the AKP head into elections (if, indeed, they take place as planned) in the context of the worst economic crisis in Turkey for decades and amid an array of charges of corruption levelled at the ruling elite.
In October 2022, the inflation rate peaked at 85 per cent while the government committed billions of dollars to propping up the Turkish lira. Erdogan’s candidacy for president is already controversial given that constitutional amendments adopted in 2017 limit the number of presidential terms to two – Erdogan was first elected to the presidency in 2014 and re-elected in 2018. He and his allies argue, however, that his candidacy is legitimate because he is serving his first term under the new constitutional arrangements and his first term doesn’t therefore count.
The ruling Party of Justice and Development, which has been in power since 2002, is facing a serious challenge in the scheduled parliamentary elections from an opposition coalition of six parties, the most significant member of which is the Republican People’s Party, whose leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, is the likeliest candidate to oppose Erdogan in the presidential election. Opinion polls in December of last year showed a small lead for the ruling party and its partners.
Critics argue that the state of emergency will allow Erdogan to bypass parliament, to limit or suspend rights such as freedom of expression and the media and to restrict movement to and from the region
Given all of this, the Turkish government is extremely vulnerable to criticism of its response to the two earthquakes that struck earlier this week. Notwithstanding the extraordinary devastation wreaked by the earthquakes and the significant difficulty of reaching many of the affected areas, there has been almost immediate criticism of inadequate responses – the delayed arrival of first responders in many places, and the shortage of rescuers and equipment.
Erdogan has responded by pledging over $5 billion to the region and by declaring a state of emergency in 10 provinces on the basis that this will ensure swift rescue operations. This means that the region affected will be under a special regime until just before the May 14th elections. Many support this as the only way effectively to bring aid. But critics argue that it will allow Erdogan to bypass parliament, to limit or suspend rights such as freedom of expression and the media and to restrict movement to and from the region.
Erdogan’s sensitivity to criticism is nothing new and has found new expression in reports of restricted access to Twitter this week as online criticism of the response to the earthquakes increased in scale. In addition, more than a dozen people have been arrested for social media posts.
However, even more problematic for the government will be scrutiny of its record in relation to emergency preparedness in a country that sits on a number of faultlines and has experienced several deadly earthquakes. Both Erdogan and those around him will be aware of the failings of the then coalition government to respond effectively to an earthquake in 1999, which cost some 17,000 lives and also paved the way for the success of the AKP in elections which followed in 2002. That government, led by Erdogan, promised that lessons would be learned. New legislation was passed to ensure mandatory checks on design and construction inspections of all buildings. In addition, a special levy was introduced after the 1999 earthquake which has brought in almost $4 billion.
However, the new laws have been poorly enforced, to say the least. Instead, the ruling party, which has been accused of having close, if not corrupt, links with property developers, introduced an amnesty in 2018 for illegally constructed buildings. Ten million people applied and 1.8 million applications were successful. Property owners paid to register their buildings, which brought in more than $3 billion in property taxes. Around 13 million properties were legalised in the process. Following a 2020 earthquake in Izmir, a BBC Turkey report found that over 670,000 buildings had benefited from the amnesty. Meanwhile, government spending on disaster management has been limited. According to one report, just $1.3 billion was spent last year on programmes related to disaster management – equivalent to around 0.5 per cent of all government spending and exceeded by spending on religious training and services, while interest payments and the financing of a scheme to prop up the Turkish currency cost 14 per cent of all spending.
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Across the border in Syria, political dynamics of a different order underpin responses to the earthquakes. There the challenge of an effective response is compounded by the fact that years of conflict had already produced one of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world. The UN estimates that some 15.3 million Syrians require humanitarian assistance, including seven million children. According to the World Bank, more than 50 per cent of the population live in extreme poverty.
In addition, the country has the highest number of internally displaced people with 6.8 million. The north, where the earthquakes have had the greatest impact, has also suffered some of the most devastating consequences of the civil war that raged in Syria following the outbreak of an anti-regime uprising in the spring of 2011. Idlib province alone is home to at least three million internally displaced people. The northern city of Aleppo bore the brunt of a Russian-Syrian offensive that drove opposition forces out in 2016, leaving many people living in damaged buildings even before the earthquakes. No systematic reconstruction has taken place and many suspect the Assad regime is punishing the population of areas that rebelled against his rule.
Assad insists that aid can only cross the Turkish-Syrian border at one point, Bab al-Hawa, because allowing aid into rebel-controlled territory constitutes a violation of Syrian sovereignty
While the Assad regime has regained control over most of Syria, much of the north of the country is under the control of rebel forces hostile to the government in Damascus. Northwest Syria, including Idlib province, is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a militant Islamist organisation that was formed in 2017 from a merger of the Nusra Front, which had close links to al-Qaeda, and a number of other Islamist groupings that emerged in the course of the long conflict. HTS claims to have broken with al-Qaeda and has established a ‘National Salvation Government’ in the area under its control, which oversees the provision of education, healthcare and other services. Parts of the northeast of the country are occupied by Turkish-backed militias, while other areas are under the control of Kurdish groups.
Despite its effective loss of control of significant portions of the country’s territory, the Assad regime continues to insist on its sovereignty throughout Syria. This insistence is key to its position on access for humanitarian aid to the north of the country. As is now well-known, Assad insists that aid can only cross the Turkish-Syrian border at one point, Bab al-Hawa, because allowing aid into rebel-controlled territory constitutes a violation of Syrian sovereignty.
Because of Syrian opposition to the delivery of aid, a UN Security Council resolution is required to authorise cross-border humanitarian operations in the north. This gives Assad’s Russian backers effective veto power over aid delivery, a veto that Russia has threatened to use every time the matter has come before the UN Security Council since 2014, claiming that these arrangements are temporary and should be replaced by Syrian government-controlled aid delivery. Russia has therefore used its leverage, with the support of China, to whittle down the number of crossings from four to just one.
Russia is also promoting a rapprochement between the leaders of Turkey and Syria. The Turkish and Syrian defence ministers met in Moscow last December in the presence of their Russian counterpart. Having long supported the opposition to Assad, Erdogan has begun to signal a willingness to move towards normalising relations with Damascus.
However, any such thawing in relations will bring little comfort to Syrians in Turkey. Before the earthquakes, the question of refugees, some four million of whom live in Turkey, had become an election issue, as opposition parties echoed popular anti-migrant sentiment and promised to send Syrians “home” in the run up to the May elections. Both in the immediate and longer terms, even greater uncertainty and insecurity appears to lie ahead for those on both sides of the border.
Vincent Durac is associate professor in the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin