The earthquake in Turkey and Syria has wrought terrible devastation, killing more than 21,000 people, injuring thousands, destroying infrastructure, and upending the lives of people who are already devastated by conflict, displacement, and poverty. The tremor, which caused extensive suffering among Kurds — who are the majority in earthquake-affected areas — may also present an opportunity for peacemaking between Turkey and Kurdish groups that have fought for decades. US mediation can play a critical role initiating a new phase in Turkish-Kurdish relations, moving from armed conflict to peacebuilding.
History is instructive. In early 1996, a territorial dispute between Turkey and Greece arose over islets in the eastern Aegean Sea after a Turkish freighter ran aground on the island of Imia, known as Kardak in Turkish. The islets are a part of Greece but only a few miles from Turkey’s coastline. Both countries deployed naval and special operations forces. Although US diplomacy helped defuse the crisis, the conflict heightened tensions.
A few years later, on Aug. 17, 1999, an earthquake of 7.6 on the Richter scale rocked southeast Turkey, killing 17,000 people. Greece and other countries rushed supplies and aid to Turkey. Just four weeks later, Athens was rocked by an earthquake of its own and Turkey responded with a helping hand.
The tremors initiated a period of “earthquake diplomacy” led by George Papandreou, who served as Greece’s foreign minister at the time, and his Turkish counterpart, Ismail Cem. In the aftermath of the earthquakes, Turkey and Greece negotiated a series of bilateral agreements on maritime issues, environmental protection, and counterterrorism. Earthquake diplomacy defused tensions and marked a new phase in bilateral relations between the countries. While Papandreou and Cem deserve credit for their visionary approach, the United States also played a critical role moving the countries forward by identifying confidence-building measures and encouraging the parties to move forward.
This week’s earthquake near Gaziantep presents a similar opportunity for diplomacy. Affecting majority-Kurdish communities, the earthquake is a wake-up call about the importance of improving relations between Turkey and Kurdish groups.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party has been waging an insurgency, demanding greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey since the 1980s. More than 40,000 people have died as a result of the conflict. Despite international mediation, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan is committed to a military solution to the Kurdish question. In addition to draconian treatment of Kurds in Turkey’s southeast, he has dispatched Turkish troops across the border in pursuit of Kurdish rebels in Syria.
Erdogan’s targeting of Kurds has militarized Turkish society, polarizing Turks from Turkey’s citizens of Kurdish origin. It has also undermined US-Turkey relations because Kurds in Syria are America’s primary ally in a multinational coalition to defeat ISIS.
Erdogan accuses the West of “abetting terrorism,” scorning US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces, which includes Kurdish fighters. According to Erdogan, Washington cannot defeat terrorism through security assistance to the SDF, which he views as a foreign terrorist organization.
Just as Papandreou and Cem used the 1999 earthquakes to reconfigure Turkey-Greece relations, this week’s earthquake offers Erdogan an opportunity to reimagine Turkey’s relations with Kurds in Turkey and Syria. A new peace initiative would burnish Erdogan’s credentials during the runup to Turkey’s national elections in May.
It is unlikely that Erdogan will suddenly reverse course and show accommodation, however, unless the Biden administration helps mediate an end to Turkey’s war on Kurds.
The United States should designate a special envoy for Turkey’s Reconstruction and Regional Peacebuilding. It should work with the European Union and international financial institutions to convene a donor’s conference to support the material costs of reconstruction from the earthquake devastation in Turkey.
The initiative should also make clear that funds are conditioned by genuine discussions between Turkey’s government and elected representatives of the Kurds in Turkey, many of whom languish in jail on bogus terrorism charges. The discussion should also include Kurds in Syria, whom Erdogan calls “terrorists.”
Natural disasters have an effect on the psychology of combatants. While war is a manmade disaster, earthquakes and floods are humbling. In the face of natural catastrophe, enlightened adversaries realize the limits of their power and may choose to resolve disputes through dialogue.
Numerous precedents exist. In addition to earthquake diplomacy between Turkey and Greece in 1999, the December 2003 tsunami that devastated North Sumatra in Indonesia led to negotiations between the government of Indonesia and the Free Aceh Movement, which successfully resolved a long-standing insurgency. Martti Ahtisaari, the former president of Finland and recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace, played an indispensable role.
Turkey’s seat at the international table as both a democracy and an economic powerhouse has been limited by its conflict with and oppression of the Kurds. The United States can contribute to Turkey’s progress by exerting its diplomatic and economic leverage to peacebuilding in the wake of this week’s natural disaster. The earthquake in Gaziantep has caused terrible suffering. It also presents a historic opportunity for Turkey to change course.
David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peacebuilding and Human Rights at Columbia University. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert at the State Department during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.