Two powerful earthquakes that struck Turkey’s southeast on February 6, 2023, have taken an enormous toll on lives and livelihoods, putting aside the economic and social damage of epic proportions inflicted on the country. Apart from the ensuing chaotic political atmosphere ahead of the general election in May, the tragedy also has implications for foreign policy.
One juncture that stands out is a possible further rapprochement among Turkey, Egypt, and the three nation-states of the former minorities in the Ottoman Empire: Greece, Israel, and Armenia. The earthquake’s shock wave that rippled through the country’s fragile southeastern region seems to have opened a rare window of opportunity for dialogue among Ankara’s allies, adversaries, and partners alike, thanks to international rescue efforts and humanitarian aid sent for disaster relief.
The post-quake rapprochement is a new phase of a nuanced bridge-building process on Ankara’s part that started earlier. Since 2021, Turkey has engaged in diplomatic dialogue for a regional reset, where realpolitik and economic pragmatism based on mutual interests in security and stability rather than Islamic solidarity take precedence. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP government has sought more harmonious relations with regional actors to alleviate a severe economic downturn and break political isolation. Turkey’s growing defense and economic ties with the Gulf are signs of this changing dynamic. After the earthquakes, scenes of cordial meetings between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his counterparts crowned this momentum, creating a positive environment toward further reconciliation and cooperation between Turkey and the four countries.
Behind the photo ops, there is reason to balance optimism with a sense of realism based on similar experiences from the past. The quakes in 1999 and successive diplomatic fence-mending in the 2000s created a positive atmosphere conducive to dialogue, even if their impact remained limited due to Turkey’s 2002 change in government. However, it would be prudent not to place high hopes on a quick breakthrough toward dispute resolution until underlying interests, domestics political power structures, and the geopolitical pressures on all parties are duly considered and addressed.
A step-by-step approach, based on mutual interests and a forward-looking agenda toward settling disagreements over land borders, maritime rights, and armed proxies – supported by a good atmosphere – may lead to concrete progress on reducing tensions in Nagorno-Karabagh, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean. This article explores the motives behind the recent shift in relations and assesses prospects for further dialogue toward more stable relations between Turkey and Israel, Greece, Armenia, and Egypt.
Post-Quake Diplomacy and Regional Implications
Within a week after the earthquakes, foreign ministers (FM) from several countries visited Turkey. Greek FM Nikos Dendias arrived on February 12, “embraced his counterpart, Çavuşoğlu, and visited quake-stricken areas” to meet with rescue teams on duty. Israeli FM Eli Cohen landed in Ankara on February 14 and met with Çavuşoğlu and Erdoğan to express Israel’s “solidarity and discuss ways to advance bilateral relations beyond earthquake relief.” Armenian FM Ararat Mirzoyan arrived the next day and “pledged to continue the normalization process” between the two countries that began in 2021. Lastly, Egyptian FM Sameh Shokry visited Turkey for the first time in a decade to “break the ice,” and to “turn a new leaf between the two countries.” It is vital to analyze internal, regional, and international dynamics that shape these relationships, highlight outstanding issues, and understand what to expect for the future.
Since forming full diplomatic ties in 1949, the Israeli-Turkish relationship has witnessed ups and downs. While the 1990s are remembered as the golden age between the two, the last decade will be remembered as a period of significant deterioration. Erdoğan’s pro-Palestinian stance and harsh rhetoric against Israel, combined with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s firm stance against Hamas and his criticism of the Turkish president, paved the way for a personal diplomatic quagmire between the two leaders, who failed to take any steps to mend the fences with each other.
With this background in mind, Netanyahu’s departure as prime minister in June 2021 was seen as a golden opportunity by the Turkish administration to restore relations to the ambassadorial level. Apart from the government change in Israel, the deteriorating Turkish economy and the normalization with the UAE and Saudi Arabia – considered the driving forces behind the Abraham Accords, which Turkey criticized – facilitated this U-turn.
The official visit of Israeli President Isaac Herzog to Ankara in August 2022 ushered in the beginning of a new period in bilateral relations. Moreover, both governments launched reciprocal ministerial visits to enhance the dialogue between the two capitals.
Netanyahu’s return as PM in December 2022 raised skepticism in Ankara once again over the survival of the fragile normalization process. However, given the crucial importance of having proper relations with a regional power like Turkey, Netanyahu chose to continue normalization.
It seems that the Turkish leadership also adopted that approach. Unlike before, Erdoğan softened his rhetoric vis-à-vis Israel. While still not hesitating to condemn the anti-terror operations in the West Bank – portraying them as if they were conducted against innocent civilians – Ankara simultaneously began to condemn the attacks against Israeli civilians as terror attacks. It seems Jerusalem appreciates Turkey’s relatively ambivalent stance.
The new Israeli government regarded the February 6 earthquake as an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations further. By sending a search and rescue team accompanied by medical personnel composed of 450 professionals, Israel became the second-largest humanitarian aid provider after Azerbaijan. Apart from saving the lives of 19 Turks under the rubble, Israeli field hospital services and the success of the Israeli portable water purifying stations in cleaning the polluted water allowed many Turks to appreciate these efforts.
However, the Israeli rescue mission’s enormous efforts were overshadowed by a cultural misunderstanding. Right after the return of the rescue team to Israel, the picture of a retrieved – several decades old – “Esther Scroll” brought from the Hatay province circulated in the Israeli press. Accordingly, the scroll was given to the Israeli rescue officer by a local earthquake victim Turkish Jew - who could no longer protect it since he became homeless because of the earthquake. What was portrayed as a romantic earthquake story in the Israeli press rapidly became a negative social media campaign against Israel. Many Turkish social media users accused the Israeli rescue officer of conducting historical artifact theft. It seems that the term “Esther parchment” in reporting created an impression of “a historical artifact.” Even though the scroll was immediately brought back to Turkey by the Turkish Jewish community, the public outcry did not calm down for several days.
While the incident caused minor damage to Israel’s reputation in Turkey, Jerusalem’s attitude and behavior during this disaster – at large – improved Israel’s image in the eyes of the Turkish public. The Israeli non-governmental organizations’ voluntary recruitment in favor of the Turkish earthquake victims also played a crucial role in this transition. These people-to-people channels will likely strengthen the cooperation between the two nations.
However, Turkey’s linkage of relations to developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could endanger all these achievements. Thus, the level and style of the Turkish critique against Israel and the willingness to cooperate in joint projects will determine the nature of the relations between Ankara and Jerusalem.
Tensions between Greece and Turkey have run high since the summer of 2020 due to disagreements on issues such as the delimitation of maritime zones in the Mediterranean and the territorial rights and status of islands in the Aegean Sea. High-level officials and politicians traded barbs on every occasion, blaming each other for agitation and brinkmanship. After the bilateral meeting between FMs in the quake-hit region came a swift change in rhetoric, with politicians from both sides expressing positive views toward finding a political solution to settle their differences.
“We can reach a win-win solution,” FM Dendias said on February 24, hinting at the possibility of restarting confidence-building measures and negotiations. Similarly, Çavuşoğlu revealed on February 19 that Turkey “submitted a six-point proposal” in December 2022 to “de-escalate tensions” and signaled its interest to restart consultations with Greece. These complementary steps and declarations were probably agreed upon at the in-person meeting on February 12, raising hopes about a political breakthrough after the exchange of formal gestures.
As the first tangible outcome, Dendias and Çavuşoğlu announced that Ankara agreed to support Greece’s bid for non-permanent membership to the UN Security Council in 2025-’26, and Athens decided to support Turkey’s bid for the presidency of the International Maritime Organization. Also, deputy foreign ministers of both countries met at the fourth round of the “Positive Agenda” initiative on March 22 to discuss ways to improve ties in energy, trade, and transportation.
Based on the historical precedent, there is arguably reason to be optimistic about restarting formal dialogue between Greece and Turkey. In 1999, two high-magnitude earthquakes (6.5 and 7.4) in each country enabled a rapprochement over mutual search and rescue, humanitarian aid, and relief missions. Turkey then had a long-held aspiration to join the EU that was stuck mainly against Greece’s veto over it. Under a new mode of sympathy toward each other, Greece lifted its veto over Turkey’s candidacy to the EU at the Helsinki Summit in December 1999. The positive momentum then led to a temporary cooling of tensions until 2004.
But there was a less-acknowledged price for Ankara: Greece withheld its veto in 1999 only in return for Turkey’s tacit approval for the Republic of Cyprus (RoC) to start accession negotiations with the EU. The Kostas Simitis government in Athens believed that instead of blocking Turkey’s candidacy directly, it would better serve Greece’s interests to gain more concessions in the long run during Turkey’s endless accession process with the EU. The RoC’s EU membership as a de facto divided island in 2004, and the failure of Turkey to gain any compensation in return, was the most tangible benefit of this new strategy for Greece. However, many Turkish politicians, bureaucrats, and academics now say it was a mistake to trade RoC’s EU membership for Turkey’s candidacy.
The same level of engagement or enthusiasm on Turkey’s part to join the EU does not exist anymore. Democratic backsliding, illiberal practices, and over-centralization of executive authority in Turkey are some of the reasons behind it, as well as the EU’s ignorance of Turkey’s legitimate concerns about PKK activism and interests in modernizing the customs union agreement, among others. Also, following the failed coup attempt in 2016 and the cooling of ties, the US no longer enjoys a significant sway over decision-making in Ankara. Turkey shifted away from the pro-Western policy orientation and instead sought strategic autonomy via alternative alliances in Eurasia, such as the Organization of Turkic States and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
As for bilateral relations with Greece, said a senior Turkish diplomatic source who requested anonymity, “We approach it with an open mind, ready to discuss, negotiate, and settle all bilateral issues on the table, but do not see genuine reciprocity from Athens.” Despite scenes of warm gestures between foreign ministers, and although there is enormous appreciation and sympathy among people toward each other, the fact is that leaders in capital cities ultimately make decisions concerning national security, and not folks on the street. Since both countries are headed toward a general election in May, it is unrealistic to expect any substantial step toward a formal dialogue on most contentious issues until after the election results.
It would be more prudent to wait to assess prospects for improved ties between Greece and Turkey. People-to-people interactions could become warmer, but it is not clear whether that translates into overcoming long-standing simmering geopolitical tensions.
Despite mutual recognition in 1991, Turkish-Armenian diplomatic relations had failed to make considerable progress. Turkey’s official policy of not recognizing the tragic events of 1915 as the “Armenian Genocide,” Armenia’s historical land claims in Turkey’s eastern Anatolia, and the Armenian occupation in Azerbaijan’s Nagorno Karabakh in 1993 closed the door for a full-fledged normalization between the two countries.
The Second Nagorno Karabakh War in 2020 constituted a new low in bilateral relations between Yerevan and Ankara. Since the beginning of the skirmish between Azerbaijan and Armenia, Ankara adopted a very blunt pro-Azeri stance. It even supported Baku through diplomacy and sharing its military expertise and weapons technology. Indeed, Turkey-made Bayraktar TB2 UAVs functioned as an essential game changer in favor of Azerbaijan.
The Azeri victory that resulted in the liberation of most of the occupied territories of Nagorno Karabakh in 2020 provided Ankara with the necessary maneuverability to normalize its relations with Yerevan. At that time, Turkey officially launched a series of normalization summits at the bilateral level with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. Thus, the inclusion of Armenia into this “normalization basket” was very convenient for the Turkish decision-makers.
Unlike in previous attempts, the Turkish leadership allowed for significant progress this time. In February 2022, civil flights between Istanbul and Yerevan were launched. This positive step was followed by the March 2022 bilateral summit between Turkish FM Çavuşoğlu and his Armenian counterpart, Ararat Mirzoyan, in the Antalya Diplomacy Forum. Indeed, the meeting ushered in a new era in relations since their foreign ministers had not met in person since 2009.
Following the recent earthquakes, change became more apparent. The Alican-Margara land border crossing between the two countries was opened for the first time to transfer Armenian humanitarian aid to Turkey’s earthquake victims. In addition, Armenia also dispatched a search and rescue team to the disaster zone, where it managed to save the lives of three Turkish citizens. The Turks greatly appreciated the Armenian team’s efforts. If not entirely, the negative prejudice against Armenia and Armenians faded away in the mindset of many Turkish citizens, especially among those who witnessed Armenia’s humanitarian aid mission. Indeed, seizing this as a diplomatic opportunity – similar to his Greek and Israeli counterparts – Mirzoyan paid a visit to his country’s rescue team in the city of Adıyaman. While being hosted by Çavuşoğlu, Mirzoyan was not received by Erdoğan as his Israeli counterpart Eli Cohen was. While this act might be related to the scale of the humanitarian aid mission, it can also highlight the obstacles on the way to even better relations.
In the meantime, this positive diplomatic momentum might pave the way for fulfilling new objectives, such as the reparation of the ancient historical Armenian heritage ruin Ani bridge (inside the Turkish territory), and the re-opening of the land border between the two nations. Such a move could be considered an essential diplomatic success for the land-locked, isolated Armenia and may usher in new trade opportunities for the bordering Turkish towns.
However, to realize this venture, Armenia first needs to provide a solution to the Zangezur corridor, which is designed to unite Azerbaijan to its Nakhcivan autonomous enclave through Armenia’s Syunik region. Thus, the corridor formation will eventually form a contiguous territorial connection between Turkey and Azerbaijan. As can be recalled in the aftermath of the war, Azerbaijan portrayed the formation of the Zangezur corridor as a diplomatic gain, but Armenia never implemented it. Turkey will most likely be reluctant to re-open the border with Armenia if this issue remains unaddressed. Thus, the earthquake diplomacy probably overcame the negative public opinion against normalization. Consequently, both Ankara and Yerevan will use the earthquake as an apparatus to shield the ongoing normalization process – despite the built-in negative domestic criticisms in both countries.
Egypt and Turkey have deep historical and cultural ties that went through a tumultuous period of competition that prioritized force, intervention, and risky gambits over diplomacy. Relations between Cairo and Ankara have been strained since the so-called “Arab Spring” uprising in 2011. Turkey’s support for the transnational network of Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated former president Mohamed Morsi against General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s ascendence in 2013 revived the rift between the two capitals. They also supported rival camps in Libya, Qatar, and the Eastern Mediterranean, vying for regional influence to further their political and economic interests.
But since 2021, Turkey has engaged in regional reconciliation with the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, which are closely allied with Egypt. Gradually, positive perceptions of mutual interests and rational re-assessment of geopolitical risks in both capitals began to prevail over ideational influences in foreign relations. Political leaders prioritized economic pragmatism and interdependence over geopolitical saber-rattling, putting their personal feuds aside. This process of reconciliation that culminated in the meeting of presidents Erdoğan and Sisi in November 2022 pre-dates the earthquakes.
Early signs of rapprochement have been present since 2020, when Turkey lifted its veto over Egypt to develop its partnership with the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue forum, which includes Israel and Jordan. The regional impact of the global economic downturn also led to improved bilateral relations. Egypt suffers a severe foreign exchange crisis and must expand its trade partnerships to receive much-needed foreign investment. Turkey needs closer cooperation with its largest trade partner in Africa to find areas for partnership in energy, defense, and tourism.
Notably, bilateral economic cooperation continued to grow even when diplomatic disengagement was at its lowest. As Turkish investments in Egypt reached $2 billion, Egypt emerged as a key supplier of liquefied natural gas to Turkey. In the face of the corona crisis, the Russia-Ukraine war, and the global shift in the balance of power, there is a rising tendency to de-escalate tensions and focus on areas of common interest on both sides.
Egyptian FM Shokry’s visit in February to meet his counterpart Çavuşoğlu should be viewed as a part of this thaw in relations. Prior contacts between respective intelligence agencies paved the way for the symbolic handshake between presidents Erdoğan and Sisi at the FIFA World Cup in Doha on November 20, 2022. The meeting under Qatar’s sports diplomacy then cleared political clouds and signaled the restoration of bilateral diplomatic ties. To mark the significance of this mini-summit, Çavuşoğlu highlighted in March that the “Erdoğan-Sisi meeting in Doha was the most important turning point in normalization of bilateral relations between Ankara and Cairo.”
By the time of the earthquakes in February, the rapprochement had been baking for some time, and both sides had taken steps to reduce tensions and normalize relations. Sisi’s phone call to Erdoğan to offer his condolences after the earthquakes exhibited a keen desire to leverage the “humanitarian crises as a springboard to improve political relations.”
Significant points of tension remain, including the precarious situation in Libya, the quest to monetize gas deposits in the Mediterranean, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Turkey. And there is no quick, easy solution that lies within reach. Nevertheless, according to a senior Turkish diplomatic source speaking on the condition of anonymity, “these issues are manageable and do not present an immediacy to act for either side.” Egypt remains most sensitive about leaders of the Brotherhood residing in Turkey and voices criticism, but an “improvement in relations is more likely now” than before.
Neither country enjoys massive political-financial support from the Gulf countries or great powers to sustain their hard stance on geopolitically contentious issues. Still, reconciliation in such a deep, complex relationship is a long process that takes time. As the next positive step, Çavuşoğlu reciprocated Shokry’s visit, and the two FMs met in Cairo on March 18 to discuss the re-appointment of ambassadors. An official state visit at the presidential level is expected to be scheduled after the election in Turkey.
The two earthquakes on February 6 that claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people opened a new window of opportunity to strengthen Turkey’s ongoing normalization processes with the regional countries. The generous humanitarian aid of Israel, Greece, and Armenia, combined with Egypt’s diplomatic outreach to Turkey indeed dismantled Ankara’s “Precious Loneliness” foreign policy doctrine that could be summarized with a very well-known Turkish proverb: “The Turk has no friend other than the Turk.”
This multilateral diplomatic rapprochement that is backed with a humanitarian dimension weakens the Erdoğan administration’s quest “to rally his people around the flag” by tagging a particular state as an “external enemy.” As recalled during the previous election campaigns, relations with the four states mentioned above were frequently instrumentalized to divert the attention of the Turkish constituency from the country’s domestic problems to ethnoreligious and ideological conflicts.
In the shadow of the deteriorating economy and the devastating results of the earthquake, Erdoğan has no choice but to adopt the strategy of mending the fences with all actors to attract more humanitarian aid and foreign investment to sustain Turkey’s ailing economy. Although the AKP government’s lackluster performance and poor timing in responding to quake-hit areas attracted much domestic criticism, Erdoğan’s re-election chances are not slim. In the meantime, in order not to disrupt this ongoing strategy of bridge-building, it seems that the Turkish president will downplay various issues of potential conflict such as the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey’s support to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Nagorno-Karabakh and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
Turkey’s recent de-escalating, constructive foreign policy moves, such as supporting Greece in its bid for the UN Security Council temporary membership and maintaining open-door diplomacy with Israel, Armenia, and Egypt, can be seen as proof of this re-positioning. Whether these positive reciprocal steps will culminate in reconciliation over most contentious issues depends on addressing the interests of each actor and shifting further from conflictual to cooperative positions among decision-makers.
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