There is nothing that makes the human condition more visibly fragile than the kind of massive natural disaster that Turkey and Syria are now facing in the wake of a massive earthquake. The search for survivors, providing aid to the injured and eventually the massive project of reconstruction render our petty human conflicts ridiculous, with the spectacle of children being pulled from the rubble under which their parents may lie dead reminding us of the terrible fragility of life.
Yet the multitude of conflicts in the Middle East is also on display in this vast humanitarian effort.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is now the man in the spotlight. He is playing politics already, trying to appear as the all-powerful prince of the realm who knows all and arranges all. The whole world has rushed to him to offer their sympathy and aid, yet he cannot escape his image of the West’s best frenemy.
Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, in contrast, has remained largely out of the limelight, as the world has long witnessed his ongoing slaughter of his people, who are now being faced with a horrific act of fate that has only compounded the terrible suffering of that war-torn country.
Thus, Erdogan has been the address for international aid, with U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken immediately promising assistance. But they must also be carefully weighing the political implications of doing so because Turkey is only two months from elections in which Erdogan could very well be defeated. Inflation in Turkey is over 80%, the economy is on its knees and Erdogan’s prisons are filled with dissidents and alleged spies and traitors. Then there is the shadow of Erdogan’s neo-Ottoman foreign policy ambitions to expand Turkey’s sphere of influence to Libya and Syria.
What matters most to the Americans, however, is Turkey’s ambiguous policy on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At best, Erdogan appears to be determined to play the role of mediator. Yet there are signs that he is playing both sides, supplying drones to Ukraine but also exporting microchips, chemicals and other products to Russia that could well be employed in Russia’s ongoing war on its neighbor. Brian Nelson, the U.S. Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, has already warned Erdogan to stop these exports. Nor are the Americans happy with Erdogan’s threat to block Sweden and Finland from joining NATO.
Politics are even being played between the earthquake victims. Turkey and Syria are now united in disaster, but they are very far from collaborating on a response. Erdogan and Assad are at loggerheads over the Kurds, ISIS, the role of pro- and anti-Assad militias and other issues.
At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin is lurking in the background. He essentially controls Syria and may ask Erdogan to at least speak with Assad, as Putin has reportedly done in the past. Western powers, however, might not be happy about this.
Despite the politicization of all this horror, there have nonetheless been rays of light, instances of genuine and even moving generosity, such as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s offer to send aid despite his stricken country’s desperate war for survival.
Israel, with its long tradition of humanitarian aid, has forgone its many domestic problems and rushed to Turkey’s aid, building field hospitals and participating in rescue operations. Remarkably, Israel is also secretly helping Syria—an enemy state—cope with the disaster. This was not an easy decision to make and placed Israeli aid workers in some danger. Nonetheless, Israel has done it and has the largest delegation on the ground, which has already saved 12 people buried under the rubble.
But there are some ominous signs: Israel’s mortal enemy Iran is also involved in the rescue efforts, with Iranian aid workers seen alongside Israelis and citizens of the Abraham Accords countries. A large Iranian airplane landed in Damascus loaded, the Iranians say, with aid materials—but who can trust them? And now the Israelis are also acting on Syrian soil, where Iran is almost as powerful as Russia. In Gaziantep, Turkey, you could see Iranians in the background during an Israeli journalist’s television report.
Is it possible that these warring parties will find common ground in their humanitarian efforts? It seems unlikely that the Iranians and Hezbollah, now together with Israel and other sworn enemies in the affected areas, will attempt to forge better human relationships. But nothing is impossible. They are all together at the epicenter, working hand in hand to save people struck down by fate. Perhaps this will be enough to cause at least some Shiite Islamists in the field to wonder about the hatreds that dominate their actions?
“There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of Jewish Lives Matter.
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