Diplomacy of Relief and Diplomacy of Disaster: How Countries are Reshaping their Foreign Relations?

Policy Analysis | The analysis shades light on the disaster and relief diplomacy, by providing an explanatory introduction to the two terms, focusing on the concept of disaster diplomacy by reviewing previous experiences, in order to reach an interpretation to the current scene after the recent earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria. Despite how tragic such event was, this analysis examines the extent to which the two countries are able to improve their domestic and foreign reality.

  • Release Date – Feb 13, 2023

States may experience natural or man-made crises and disasters, which oblige states to promptly act in order to halt losses, reconstruct in infrastructure or recover from such experiences, and also in order to save souls. Several terms would usually become active post disasters, especially the natural disasters. Among such terms: disaster diplomacy, relief diplomacy, and epidemic diplomacy. The link between such terms is the occurrence of a sudden major event, which effects thereof exceed the capacity of political systems, the matter that necessitates using a context for diplomacy that is different from how it was usually used while in times of peace, or in the ordinary tracks of the states’ relations.

Hence, following the earthquake that severely hit Turkiye and Syria on the sixth of February 2023, resulting a huge loss of lives, in addition to real losses, many press and research writings circulated the terms "disaster diplomacy and relief diplomacy" in the context of Damascus and Ankara's ability to move forward in improving their regional and international presence, via normalizing their bilateral relations, breaking an isolation, or strengthening relations.

 An Explanatory Introduction and Previous Experiences

There are many sources of power countries may possess. Such sources may be for the hard power (military and economic) and soft power (including diplomacy of all kinds). Countries need to use their powers during the crises they may experience, especially the use of diplomacy, which some consider an alternative to war. For nearly three decades, the world was witnessing an increase in the rate of natural disasters. Usually speaking, the countries rush to express their sympathy with the countries affected disasters of any kinds they might be. The countries also provide cash and many types if human aids. This coincides with the emergence of several terms linking different types of diplomacy and relations of states with each other, whether the countries that have conflicts, competition, alliances or integration. Such terms include:

First: Humanitarian Diplomacy

It is clear from the context of "humanitarian diplomacy" term that it combines two terms that do not necessarily have the same goal, as diplomacy is basically "the art of managing international relations through negotiation and dialogue skills, in order to achieve the parties’ interests, such as resolving disputes and conflicts, stopping wars, concluding alliances, and obtaining agreements or agreements binding on both parties in various fields". The term humanity aims to "the vocabulary of principles that promote the concepts of solidarity, relief, unconditional support, aid, and other noble values contained in humanity." So, the term "humanitarian diplomacy" after the times of conflict and disaster, aims to create conditions, provide support to those affected, and work to enable them to obtain the most basic rights of humanitarian aid, especially food, medicine, and temporary housing. The Red Cross defines humanitarian diplomacy as "Humanitarian diplomacy is persuading decision makers and opinion leaders to act, at all times, in the interests of vulnerable people, and with full respect for fundamental humanitarian principles".

Second: Disaster Diplomacy

Disaster diplomacy is a relatively recent term, which has no agreed comprehensive definition, as much as it is an academic field that examines the mechanism of addressing the impact of disasters on relations between states. It is also described as "diplomacy that investigates how and why disaster-related activities affect conflict and cooperation". Disaster diplomacy is, therefore, concerned with all forms of parties’ conflict at all times. Disaster diplomacy cove: earthquakes, eruptions, volcanoes, epidemics, and other changes that fall within the scope of chronic disasters Long-term.


Third: Relief Diplomacy

The concept of relief diplomacy is the third term in which the elements of the crisis (disaster and diplomacy overlap). Both humanitarian diplomacy and disaster diplomacy provide aid and aid to the affected parties. So, what is the difference between disaster diplomacy and relief diplomacy? Perhaps it is the time factor in terms of disaster’s long or short duration, in addition to the utility factor (of the winning parties) are the criteria of differentiation. Disaster diplomacy tends more to work before and after a disaster, whether as cooperative proactive steps, or to address the damage as a post-disaster stage. Disaster diplomacy is not similar to the relief process, which is closer to be an instantaneous diplomacy immediately after the disaster, not before it, with a focus on the rapid treatment of damage (human and material).

From the above, we can focus on the concept of disaster diplomacy by presenting previous experiences of reaching, in order to read the current scene after earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria, as follows:

1- 1999 Turkiye earthquake: On August 17, 1999, Turkiye was hit by an earthquake that struck the west of the country. About 17,000 people died. Despite the historical tension between Greece and Turkiye over the situation in Cyprus, Greece offered aid to Turkiye, which accepted such aid. On September 7 of the same year, Greece was also hit by an earthquake that killed more than 140 people, so Turkiye offered aid to Greece. A Turkish rescue team went to Greece, and was able to extract a Greek citizen from the rubble. The change in the ruling regimes in both countries was taken into account. Turkiye, at that time, was ruled by the nationalist left (now the Islamic Justice and Development Party), while Greece was ruled by a socialist current (now a conservative current).

2- The Iranian Bam earthquake: It occurred in eastern Iran in the city of "Bam" in Kerman province, on December 26, 2003. The earthquake's magnitude was 6.6 Richter, it caused thousands of deaths and injuries, and destroyed most of the facilities and infrastructure. In return, the George W. Bush administration made its communications and offered aid to Iran, which agreed. Two US military cargo planes landed, carrying 200 rescue teams as well as the necessary medical and humanitarian aid. However, Iranian relations before and after that incident are tense, with the exception of the nuclear deal period. With the Obama administration at the end of 2015, which lifted some partial sanctions on Iran. First: diplomacy (here it is closer to be a relief diplomacy) succeeded in mitigating the impact and remedying the damage (even between adversarial states) and it allowed unwelcome cooperation in times of peace or normal days. Second: this is momentary diplomacy that has not lasted cooperation between the parties and has not ended the permanent tension, which is an accidental event. In return, when Iran offered the United States 20 million barrels of oil to cope and mitigate the repercussions of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Washington refused this offer, as Iran conditioned that such aid is against lifting of U.S. sanctions. This means that disaster relief diplomacy is not necessarily successful in all crises and disasters. The stakes is on time frame, conflicting interest factors, succession of governments and policy differences.

Turkish Domestic and Foreign Interactions

Turkiye, with its various previous and current governments, has an ancient heritage of dealing with disasters, also it has a history in how to use and apply "disaster diplomacy" and the need to it, as well as the nature of the outputs resulting from the context of Turkiye's international and domestic interactions, whether during or after disasters. Apart from the scale of aid received by Turkiye, the speeches and statements of the leaders of Western and regional countries, which do not really reflect Turkiye's current relationship with these parties, or even the future of the Turkish relations with them, there are other indicators and scenes that may be the best to understand how the Turkish government follows a policy or approach of "disaster diplomacy" at the local level (between the government and the opposition), or at the foreign level according to the map of its regional and international relations, as follows:

First: The Upcoming Elections and the Opposition

Crisis management is an important criterion in evaluating governments, especially when they coincide with parliamentary or presidential elections, in which a new government or president is likely to win. For example, US President Trump's domestic performance remained strong until the Covid-19 pandemic came in the last year of his administration's tenure. The economic losses resulting from the pandemic, his populist handling in some cases of the pandemic, as well as the escalating number of victims at the time, seemed contributing to his loss of the presidential election in November 2020. In the same context, the Turkish opposition is counting on criticizing the Turkish government regarding the preparation for the crisis, in addition to the resulting economic and human losses resulting from the earthquake, besides the successive economic crises that exacerbated after the current Ukrainian crisis. All this criticism was reflected in increasing the number of opposition seats, or winning them for the upcoming elections expected in May 2023.


For his part, the Turkish president called on the whole world to provide urgent aid to Ankara, the world responded to such call, especially via the influx of aid from many countries, led by the United States, the European Union, many Arab countries, and Israel. Perhaps resorting to disaster diplomacy may have returns to the Turkish government for several reasons:

1- The nature of Turkish president's presence in the office, before holding the general elections, enables him to manage the financial part of international aid, which of course will contribute to reducing the losses of the earthquake at the financial level. Unlike the Turkish opposition, which will only be able to monitor the course of events, and mobilize the public to highlight the government's supposed mistakes, whether holding it responsible for the deterioration of the collapse of buildings, in reference to suspicions of corruption in their construction, or repeating the reminder of the Turkish citizen of the economic decline and the responsibility of government policies for that.

2- Disaster diplomacy will reduce - or postpone - tensions and disputes between Turkiye and other international and regional powers on important files such as Libya, military operations in Syria and Iraq, the position on the current Ukrainian crisis, and the suspension of approval of Sweden and Finland's accession to NATO.

3- Disaster diplomacy, with its aid and relief, may enable the Turkish government to recover quickly from the earthquake, and mitigate its medium-term and long-term repercussions, especially since Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the existence of "gaps" in responding to the earthquake, amid popular criticism of the government's preparations for such a crisis.

Second: Ankara's Rapprochement Towards Damascus

The earthquake was preceded by a rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara, against the backdrop of several contexts, including:

1- The relative shift to the "zero problems" policy that Turkiye was following to some extent before 2011.

2- There is a popular current that holds Syrian refugees residing in Turkiye responsible for economic crises, the matter which highlighted the need to think about returning nearly one million Syrian refugees to their country. The Turkish opposition used the refugee card in its election campaigns, in light of the fact that Turkiye's intervention in the Syrian crisis resulted in the presence of about 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkish territory.

3- The Western opposition to Turkiye's launch of new military operations against Kurdish groups in Syria provided the opportunity to conclude a tripartite deal between Ankara, Moscow, and Damascus, under which Turkiye and Russia would help the Syrian army take over border areas with Turkiye in northern Syria, without the need to carry out a new military operation there.

Third: Major and Regional Powers

Major countries were quick to announce their aid to Turkiye, led by the United States, Britain, and the European Union countries (especially Greece and Sweden), as well as Arab and regional solidarity and support such as Egypt, the UAE, and Israel, as Ankara is recently trying to change Israel's behaviour towards it the framework of a new approach to promote Turkish interests, especially economic ones. Hence, several issues emerge, which can be discussed to know the impact of disaster diplomacy on Turkiye's relations with major and regional countries, as follows:

1- Sweden and the Presidency of the European Union: Sweden's presidency of the European Union lasts until June 30, 2023. Turkiye still has reservations about Sweden's accession to NATO, citing Sweden's sponsorship of Kurdish refugees who support the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which Ankara classifies as a banned party. In addition, Ankara pledged its consent to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, in exchange for receiving F-16 aircrafts from the United States, the matter which Congress rejects. Sweden, on the other hand, has adopted a positive attitude towards Turkiye, as its partner, offering to provide aid, given that it is presiding the European Union. It is understood from the Swedish position, which came after a series of incidents, that contributed to straining relations with Ankara, that the offer of aid to Turkiye is a step that pushes to calm the atmosphere between them, since disaster diplomacy is not only an approach carried out by countries affected by disasters, but also can benefit other countries by improving their domestic and foreign conditions in a way that is not achieved in different circumstances.

2- Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean States: The Eastern Mediterranean is one of the areas of competition between countries, which has long witnessed tension in Turkiye's relations with countries such as (Greece, Egypt, and Cyprus) against the background of economic resources, maritime border demarcation, and the Turkish role in Libya. On the one hand, Turkiye does not recognize the High Seas Agreement, through which Egypt, together with Italy, Greece, and Greek Cyprus, has determined their maritime borders and exclusive economic zones. On the other hand, Egypt and Greece also do not recognize the maritime border demarcation agreement, signed by Turkiye with the former government of Fayez al-Sarraj in Libya.

Following the earthquake, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi communicated with his Turkish counterpart, which is the second live communication after their meeting at the opening of the World Cup in Qatar in November 2022. On the other hand, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias visited Ankara on February 12, 2023, and met with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, which made some see this as a breakthrough in Turkiye's relations with Egypt and Greece. However, these visions are contradicted on the Turkish-Egyptian and Turkish-Greek sides for several reasons, including that the Turkish-Egyptian rapprochement is carried out according to negotiations and diplomatic meetings that did not rise to the highest levels. There was no remarkable development that foreshadows any shifts in Turkish-Egyptian relations, in light of the disputes over the Eastern Mediterranean area as well as the Libyan crisis. Thus, Egypt's communication with Turkiye, in the context of the earthquake, is closer to momentary support and solidarity in the context of humanitarian relief. The previous experience between Turkiye and Greece, in the context of cooperation, also suggests that the disaster diplomacy both countries followed at the time (also now promoted in the February 2023 earthquake) is a diplomacy that reduces the conflict, and may postpone it, but it does not create a new turn in relations, as the position of the two countries has always not changed towards the outstanding controversial files, especially the division of Cyprus, competition for the resources of the Eastern Mediterranean, in addition to the crisis of refugees crossing from time to time across the Aegean Sea separating Turkiye and Greece.


Syria and the Limits of Isolation

Syria is facing multiple crises during the recent earthquake on the one hand, the repercussions have continued since 2011, and on the other hand: the interventions of international and regional powers in Syrian territory. While countries rushed to provide support of all kinds to Turkiye, neither aid nor support reaches all affected areas in Syria, in light of the tightening positions, as the Syrian government fears that aid will reach northwestern Syria and fall into the hands of terrorist and extremist groups, while some of these groups refuse to allow aid to enter through the state-controlled regions, according to what a UN spokesman said. It is also due to regional and Western powers opposing dealing with the Syrian government, the matter manifested by providing the required support for the relief of those affected in all Syrian regions. In this context, and with some Arab countries communicating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to show solidarity with the earthquake disaster and provide aid, estimates began to talk about the extent of Damascus' ability to move from its isolation to exploit disaster diplomacy, while pressing towards lifting the sanctions imposed on it. This scene can be interpreted from the Syrian side through the following points:

First: Aid Portal

Since the beginning of the crisis, Damascus has demanded that aid be transferred and delivered to the affected areas, through the Syrian government and under its supervision, not through the Turkish border, and also demanded that aid to Syria not pass through the Bab al-Hawa crossing, located in the northeast of Idlib governorate. The breakthrough in the aid file seems to depend on Damascus and Ankara agreeing to open other crossings to transfer aids, in light of the indicators of rapprochement previously presented, which may also be an entry point to ease international pressure on Syria, as such ease will allow the passage of aid to all areas, even those outside the Syrian government control. This proposal is not guaranteed, of course, but it is likely, especially with the continued difficulties in providing aid over the past days, and the continuation of the situation as it is would exacerbate the human and material losses caused by the earthquake.

Second: Continued Jordanian Moves Towards Syria

His Majesty King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein was one of the first Arab leaders to communicate by phone with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in October 2021. His Majesty called Assad for the second time to offer condolences to the earthquake victims, and to express Jordan's support for Syria in this disaster. Jordan provided convoys of emergency relief aid to Syria, and sent a military plane loaded with relief aid to Aleppo airport, sending another plane to Damascus Airport. The Jordanian-Syrian communication preceded the disaster, as the two sides sought to restore trade exchange between them through the Jaber border point, in addition to the fact that Jordan's supply of electricity to Lebanon passes through Syrian territory.

Third: Continuing the UAE's rapprochement with Syria

Emirati officials' communication with Damascus has increased over the past two years, with UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed visit Damascus for the first time in November 2021, preceded by several contacts between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Emirati counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed (then Crown Prince). Then the second visit of the UAE Foreign Minister to Damascus in January 2023, and the third visit on February 12, coinciding with the UAE's allocation of $ 50 million to support Syria in facing the repercussions of the earthquake. By analogy with the position of From November 2021 to February 2023, disaster diplomacy in the context of the Syrian earthquake contributed to accelerating the UAE-Syria rapprochement, but did not create it out of nowhere.


Fourth: Tunisian Solidarity

Tunisian President, Kais Saied, follows flexible policies towards regional Arab countries, especially (Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and Turkiye). Tunisia's relations with Syria improved in 2015, following the opening of an office to manage the affairs of Tunisians residing in Syria, three years after Tunisia closed its embassy in Damascus in 2012 by a decision of former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, and finally as the Tunisian presidency announced on February 9 its intention to raise the level of diplomatic representation in Syria, and the imminent exchange of ambassadors between the two countries.

It can be concluded, from the Tunisian context, that disaster diplomacy has brought about a development in strengthening relations with Syria, and it is a relative breakthrough in reducing the isolation of the Syrian regime, which may be exploiting the situation to further resolve the scene in the coming months.

Fifth: Justifications for Easing U.S. sanctions

On February 9, 2023, the U.S. Treasury announced the partial lifting of sanctions on Syria for a period of 6 months, allowing countries and relief organizations to provide their aid to all affected areas in Syria, provided that Syrian banks are used to receive upcoming funds for relief and support. Taking into account that financial support will not be used for reconstruction purposes in general, while the sanctions imposed on the import of Syrian oil remain. Although this period will clarify whether the partial lifting of sanctions on Syria contributed to alleviating the suffering: Will Damascus benefit from the upcoming funding of Syrian banks or not? However, the period of lifting sanctions is also a good time to correct the Syrian situation in the region, especially if this coincides with the Turkish-Russian agreements on the aid file, the return of refugees, and Turkiye's non-military operations in northern Syria.

Finally, it can be said that disaster diplomacy is a catalyst for strengthening international relations, provided that there are prior movements and not the result of the moment. Historical experiences prove the inability of disaster diplomacy to sustain cooperation between post-disaster and crisis states. In the context of the earthquakes in Turkiye and Syria, disaster diplomacy may balance the criticism that the Turkish government has faced for its lack of preparation for the crisis, taking into account the relative stability of Turkiye's relations with the West specifically towards NATO issues and American aircraft, as well as the East Average. As for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, there is a relative breakthrough in resolving the international isolation imposed on him since the Syrian crisis in 2011. Apart from diplomacy and its multiple concepts, the earthquake that struck Turkiye and Syria, killing - until the publication of the analysis - more than 36,000 dead and 150,000 wounded, is one of the major humanitarian crises facing the modern world, especially since several areas affected by the earthquake were marginalized by UN aid, according to the testimony of Martin Griffiths, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Emergency Relief Coordinator, who stated in a tweet that "the organization has failed the population in northwestern Syria." In this context, politicians must recognize that humanitarian considerations must come first in such catastrophic circumstances.



Policy Analysis Team