Facing tragedy, Turkey mends ties with Greece and Armenia

But could ‘earthquake diplomacy’ heal historic wounds and produce a sustainable partnership between these neighbouring nations?

Greek turkish foreign ministers meet in Turkey
Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias is welcomed by his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusoglu, following the deadly earthquake, in Adana, Turkey, February 12, 2023 [File: Greek Foreign Ministry/Handout via Reuters]

In the past few years, Turkey’s foreign policy has been defined by resets. Ankara has buried the hatchet and re-engaged with several countries it has long been at odds with, including the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Israel. A rapprochement with the government of Syria is also on the table, with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan saying he would consider meeting his Syrian counterpart to “foster peace and stability in the region”.

Now, the deadly February 6 earthquakes appear to have paved the way for Turkey to mend its ties with yet more of its neighbours.

Take Greece. Before the earthquakes, which claimed tens of thousands of lives and flattened entire cities across Turkey’s southeast, the country’s relations with Greece were on the verge of collapse. With both nations gearing up for elections, there were widespread fears that ever-increasing tensions in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean could escalate into a full-on military confrontation. But everything changed after the earthquakes hit and the scale of devastation Turkey is facing became apparent.

The government of Greece sent tens of thousands of tents, beds and blankets to the disaster zone to help survivors. It also deployed fully equipped teams of rescue professionals, doctors and paramedics to the region. On February 12, Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Dendias paid a visit to the earthquake-stricken Hatay province, becoming the first high-ranking official from a European Union member state to do so. Private Greek citizens have also been eager to support their neighbours through this crisis, donating what they can to charities working in affected areas and sharing messages of solidarity on social media. Turkey responded with genuine gratitude, leading Dendias to say he welcomes “the shift in Ankara’s tone”.

This dramatic improvement in relations in the face of a humanitarian crisis was not particularly surprising for long-term observers of Turkey-Greece relations, as the two countries had successfully engaged in so-called “earthquake diplomacy” for the first time in 1999. Following a deadly quake in Turkey’s northwestern Marmara region in August that year, then-Turkish Foreign Minister Ismail Cem and his Greek counterpart George Papandreou embarked on a journey to improve the neighbouring nations’ relations. The consequent rapprochement paved the way for the EU’s December 1999 decision to grant Turkey official candidate status.

The earthquakes also led to an ease in Turkey-Armenia tensions.

Putting its longstanding differences and disputes with Ankara aside, the Armenian government sent food, medicine, drinking water and other emergency supplies to devastated cities and towns soon after the quakes. Armenian research and rescue crews were also on the ground. Armenian crews taking part in rescue operations in Gaziantep and Kahramanmaras, two provinces that were home to large Armenian communities in the past, was highly symbolic. More importantly, the aid from Armenia crossed into Turkey through the land border which has been sealed since the early 1990s. On the back of these goodwill gestures, Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan visited Ankara on February 15 to discuss the ongoing efforts to normalise ties between Armenia and Turkey.

There is no doubt that Turkey is on significantly better footing to improve its relations with Armenia and Greece now than it was just a month ago. But could the ongoing “earthquake diplomacy” truly transform Turkey’s relations with its two neighbours, both of whom – for reasons of history – loom large in Turkish society’s imagination?

The prospects are mixed.

Today, amid a global economic downturn and a war at the heart of Europe, Greece has much reason to try and improve its relations with Turkey. Yet, despite a natural disaster once again bringing the neighbouring nations closer together, the issues at the root of Greece and Turkey’s problems remain unaddressed.

In October, for example, Turkey signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tripoli-based Libyan authorities to prospect for offshore oil and gas in parts of the Eastern Mediterranean claimed by Greece and Egypt. Though a Libyan court has now suspended the deal, it remains an irritant to Greece. Turkey, meanwhile, likely did not forget Greece’s move to beef up its military presence on the Aegean Islands and Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’s promises to strengthen the fence along the Greek-Turkish border to prevent asylum seekers from pouring in. Last but not least, there is no sign of a breakthrough in divided Cyprus, where Greece and Turkey have been at loggerheads for decades.

So Greek-Turkish relations remain locked in a vicious cycle. There is every reason to believe, once Turkey dresses its wounds and gets back on its feet, the longstanding disputes between the two nations will return to the surface.

Today, Armenia has even more reasons than Greece to try and improve its relations with Turkey. The 2020 defeat it suffered against Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh has revealed the perils of its dependence on Russia. Moscow not only failed to come to Yerevan’s rescue, it did next to nothing to stop Azeris and their Turkish allies from recapturing territory.

As a result, Armenia now feels the need to change its foreign policy and views stronger relations with the EU and a possible reconciliation with Turkey as a possible way forward.

Last July, Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan held his first-ever meeting with Erdogan, while attending the European Political Community’s inaugural summit in Prague. With Azerbaijan having the upper hand in Karabakh, Turkey is happy to engage with Armenia – enhancing its own status as a top player in the South Caucasus. In addition, the Turkish government is eyeing the establishment of the so-called Middle Corridor running to Central Asia via Armenia and Azerbaijan. A critical piece of the puzzle is the so-called Zanzegur corridor connecting through Armenian territory the Azeri exclave of Nakhichevan, adjacent to Turkey, to Azerbaijan proper.

However, there are also limits to how far this rapprochement between Turkey and Armenia could go.

The chief spoiler is the ongoing skirmishes around Karabakh. Since December, Azerbaijani “environmentalists” have been blocking the only land route between the Armenian-run territory and Armenia. The blockade has caused a shortage of medicine, food and other essential supplies. It seems Baku is trying to force the Armenian side to sign a peace treaty which would see Karabakh’s full return into Azerbaijani sovereignty. On February 16, Azerbaijan even put forward a draft. As long as Azerbaijan continues its attempts to expand its territory, a major step forward on the Armenia-Turkey front will probably have to wait.

The immense suffering and loss Turkey experienced as a result of the February 6 earthquakes led its neighbours to put aside deep-rooted disagreements and historic grudges to offer support and solidarity. But, just as it has been the case back in 1999, current attempts at earthquake diplomacy are unlikely to produce long-term, sustainable improvements in bilateral relations. With time, harsh political realities will kick in, and we will see a return to old tensions and confrontations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.