The Earthquakes in Turkey (7.8) and Syria (7.5) are the worst in nearly a century, affecting tens of millions, killings tens of thousands – but a second shoe may fall. Geopolitical reverberations may be significant. Americans need to watch the situation closely, and act with foresight.
What happens next could improve – or undermine – Turkey’s position in NATO, NATO’s position with respect to Ukraine and Russia, push Turkey closer to China, affect Turkey’s economy (80 percent inflation), sideline the nation as a potential peace broker, possibly tighten ties to key Mideast nations.
First, Turkish presidential elections, set for May 14, are going to look different. While a viable opponent to strongman Tayyip President Erdogan is not obvious, Erdogan’s economic mismanagement is. It will get worse with the earthquake.
Already performing a high wire act, engineering a temporary solution to 80 percent inflation and collapse of the country’s currency, down 30 percent this year against the dollar, his act just got harder.
Erdogan is a controversial, autocratic, pro-Muslim President of a nation historically secular, reliable, and collegial. Over the past 20 years, 2003 to 2014 as Prime Minister then 2014 to 2023 as President, he forcibly remade every institution in the country, persecuted the press, gutted the judiciary to military.
Methodically consolidating power, he has silenced, arrested, and marginalized critics, has an eclectic style, was arguably the least cooperative NATO member. He has advanced his own aims, often frustrating US and European allies on issues from refugees and energy to Syria, Russia, and the Kurds.
Now, he has a major challenge to address – and many are beginning to ask whether the death toll had to be as high as it is, whether some 6000 collapsed buildings needed to collapse, whether the government was ready. All this will be part of his case to make – or defend – in May, assuming elections go forward.
Second, the US – and dozens of other countries – are sending major aid to Turkey, including US search teams, pre-loaded packages from USAID totaling $85 million dollars. China sent one team and $6 million dollars. Perhaps surprisingly, nations like Saudi Arabia have sent multiple planes of aid to Turkey, and continue doing so.
All this adds to a potential shift in relations with the rest of the world. On one hand, the US could – with other European allies – solidify relations with Turkey, causing Turkey to drop opposition to admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO, reducing Erdogan’s tendency to migrate away from team play.
On the other hand, if China ramps up aid to Turkey, this could outflank Western efforts, creating incentives for closer relations between China and Turkey, tipping the balance against closer NATO cooperation, and perhaps even tipping Turkey’s role as a potential peace negotiator between China’s ally Russia and Western ally Ukraine.
As an aside, Middle Eastern countries that crossed swords with Turkey in the past– like Saudi – may be able to craft new and more mutually supportive relations with Erdogan and Turkey, realigning players and allegiances – both before and after the May elections.
Third, below the radar – in the Turkish population itself – how this earthquake affects, and how recovery affects, the way people feel about their government may be affected. At the least, major population centers within Turkey containing millions of citizens have been adversely affected.
This devastation will affect the poverty level, economic wellbeing, public health and safety, perhaps even encouraging regional criminal elements, such as drug traffickers who transit Turkey. Also affected may be ambitions of regional terrorist groups in Syria and points south.
All this suggests several obvious action items. US national security is enhanced by securing a NATO partner, aiding and potentially supporting Turkey’s swift recovery – to strengthen NATO collectively. Direct dialogue with Erdogan would help architect a future that includes admission of Sweden and Finland, a stronger position in addressing Russia’s belligerence, elevating Turkish support for Ukraine.
On the China front, how the US responds to this crisis – versus China – may influence how Turkey perceives the future, economically and militarily, but also how other non-allied countries see the US and China.
Net-net, we live in highly fluid times, defined by a need to solidify alliances, stand for values we have always stood for, reassure longstanding friends, deter overeager adversaries, and in particular blunt – wherever possible – efforts by China to reset global relationships.
Turkey is at a crossroads, which are complex, involving a headstrong leader who has been insufficiently cooperative, a presidential election that may unseat him, a national tragedy affecting millions, and a chance for the US and Western allies to showcase what we do when others are in peril.
Americans help – and always have in response to global earthquakes, back to 1812 – for humanitarian reasons, but we should also keep one eye on the future and American interests. The Turkish earthquake may have far wider reverberations.
Robert Charles is a former Assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, former Reagan and Bush 41 White House staffer, attorney, and naval intelligence officer (USNR). He wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003), “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), and is National Spokesman for AMAC.