How Turkey Weaponizes Natural Disasters Against Kurds

QAMISHLI, Syria (North Press) – Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has a way with natural disasters. Some may recall the scenes in the summer of 2021, when, in the wake of deadly wildfires on the country’s southern coast, the president threw tea bags at passers-by from a moving bus.  

But the government’s tragi-comic response also had a darker side. Pro-government media was quick to claim that the fires, which killed at least nine people and burned down over 150.000 hectares of vegetation, had been started by militants of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Local officials, which were largely from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), were blamed for failing to contain the blaze. The accusations were meant to distract from the fact that the central government had been unable to produce a single firefighting plane despite millions of public funds invested into the program.

The government in Ankara has history of instrumentalizing natural disasters for political gain – particularly against Kurds. The response to the twin earthquakes on February 6 appear to be the latest installment in this tradition.

No Crisis Wasted

In a recent thread on Twitter, Dastan Jasim, a political scientist at the GIGA Institute in Hamburg, recounted Turkey’s long history of anti-Kurdish discrimination in the wake of natural disasters.   

Examples include the 1975 Lice earthquake, in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority Diyarbakir Province, which killed upwards of 2.300 and destroyed three-quarters of the city. At the time, residents complained of belated aid by the government and a lack of investment in infrastructure in the region. The anti-leftist and anti-Kurdish putschists in Ankara, who had grabbed power in 1971, at first denied that the earthquake had happened and only sent aid when it was too late, the Kurdish researcher writes. The Kurdish residents resorted to erecting emergency shelter tents on their own.

A 2003 earthquake in Bingöl, a Kurdish Zaza-majority area, claimed the lives of 177 people and injured over 500 others. The mishandled aid distribution caused local residents to protest. The province’s governor claimed they had been incited by the PKK to “set the people against the state and security forces”. Erdogan, who had been elected Turkey’s prime minister that year, gave credence to the conspiracy theory and defended the police’s heavy-handed response.

In 2011, twin earthquakes near the Kurdish-majority city of Van led to the deaths of at least 600 people. Jasim explains that the Turkish government’s aid provision was “questionable,” as officials decided case-by-case who was entitled to receive emergency tents. Moreover, 2.445 soldiers flooded the area, though most did not help with rescue efforts, but instead securitized the area, even conducting security raids on recent victims.

The government’s response was so bungled even Erdogan was forced to acknowledge its faults, though he doubled-down on criticizing his detractors. In the wake the earthquake, media close to the government attempted to incite the general public by claiming that Turkish-speaking victims had been discriminated against by the local municipality.

Moreover, the Turkish government systematically prevented aid from reaching Kurdish-majority cities which were besieged and then razed by Turkish armed forces in 2015 and 2016, such Diyarbakir’s Sur neighborhood, Cizre, and Nusaybin.

The 1999 Earthquake

In 1999, a 7.6-magnitude earthquake struck roughly 100 km east of Istanbul, leading to over 18.000 deaths and just under 50.000 injuries. The botched response by the government at the time, which included the evacuation of soldiers before civilians, thrust the populist Justice and Development Party (AKP) to the fore in the 2002 general elections. Its leader, Erdogan, promised anti-corruption measures, better disaster management, but also an amnesty on illegally-built settlements in the city outskirts. This risked turning Turkish cities into “graveyards” in case of an earthquake, the chairman of the Chamber of Civil Engineers had said in 2003.

Despite the fact that the 1999 earthquake took place far away from the Kurdish heartland, Kurds nevertheless would suffer the consequences. In the aftermath of the arrest of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in February of that year, the Turkish state was attempting to reset its relationship with the country’s Kurdish citizens. Amnesties and large-scale investment for the Kurdish-majority southeast were on the table. The money earmarked for these projects, however, was redirected into reconstruction in the aftermath of the earthquake.

“We had our own earthquake,” Huseyin Umit, mayor of Hakkari, on the border with Iraq, told the New York Times at the time, “when our villages were evacuated” as a result of the conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK. Retaliatory attacks against Kurdish civilians by Turkish armed forces throughout the 1980s and 1990s pushed millions to flee into larger cities. Often, these displaced Kurds would move into the makeshift constructions most at-risk during earthquakes.

Aftershock Doctrine

Only three days after the February 6 earthquakes, the Turkish government has already been accused repeatedly of politicizing the natural disaster. Twitter users were quick to point out that the Turkish president had telephoned municipal and provincial leaders in the hardest-hit areas, but only called the mayors of affected cities if they were from his AKP party. Only one opposition leader was kept informed of the government’s early measures – that of the Good Party (IYI), a right-wing outfit that Erdogan wants to bring into his ruling coalition.

Locals in affected areas have complained of a belated emergency response and that many buildings sold as ‘earthquake-proof’ have been reduced to rubble. In a televised appearance on Tuesday, Erdogan threatened legal action against those who spread “fake news” and “caused social chaos”. Yesterday, monitoring sites said Twitter, a tool which has become crucial for rescue teams as well as trapped survivors to communicate, had been blocked in the country. The government backtracked the decision, though not before meeting with Twitter to “remind Twitter of its obligations” on taking down disinformation. Journalists, too, have been prevented from reporting on rescue operations.

Kurdish Problems

Kahramanmaraş and Gaziantep, the epicenters of the February 6 earthquakes, are not Kurdish-majority cities, though both harbor sizeable Kurdish minorities. Badly-affected cities further to the east, such as Urfa and Diyarbakir, however, are Kurdish-majority.

Just as it happened before, Turkey’s ‘Kurdish question’ has intruded into the humanitarian response. Kurdish relief foundations have had to work “incognito,” Jasim explained to North Press, as Erdogan has cracked down on visible instances of intra-Kurdish solidarity. In the eastern town of Patnos, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), a pro-Kurdish party, tweeted that a truck loaded with supplies for earthquake victims had been confiscated by the district governor’s office.  

Emergency teams and supplies of the Barzani Charity Foundation, based in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), have been involved in rescue efforts in Turkey, too. But unlike other countries, whose pledges for aid have received national media attention, their help has not been publicized. Despite the fact that the Barzanis are welcomed guests in Ankara’s presidential palace, the sight of Kurdish relief trucks crossing national borders to help their brethren would create an intolerable “pan-Kurdish momentum,” says Jasim.   

And in Rojava?

Syria’s northwest is ethnically and religiously mixed, though it, too, is home to a large number of Kurds. The Afrin region in Syria, including the town of Jindires, which was destroyed to 80%, was a disjointed Kurdish pocket until Turkey’s 2018 invasion. Many of those displaced now live in the Shahba region, the northern countryside of Aleppo, which was also affected by the earthquake. Others fled to Aleppo’s two Kurdish neighborhoods, Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh. Even before the earthquake, the Aleppine neighborhoods were the site of collapsing buildings, such as one incident on January 26, which killed 16 people. Six more people died during Monday’s earthquake.

Experts have warned that Erdogan may use the crisis to further his ethnic cleansing of Afrin, including by weaponizing aid. The areas under Turkish occupation are mostly cut off from the rest of Syria and depend on Turkey for supplies. Already, residents of Jindires have launched protests against the Turkish-imposed local council for failing to provide adequate aid.

The Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) reportedly hindered and stole aid and equipment sent to Afrin. Civilians in nearby Azaz, north of Aleppo, organized two truckloads of clothes, blankets, and food for the victims, which were confiscated at a checkpoint of Sultan Murad Division, an SNA faction. According to ‘Human Rights Organization – Afrin’, the SNA factions have harassed Kurdish youth in Jindires as they attempted to distribute aid collected from neighboring villages. The SNA militants have been seen taking percentages of the aid money sent to victims and robbing bodies of their jewelry.

While Syria’s Kurds may take some respite in the fact that Erdogan is currently in no position to launch an invasion of northern Syria, as he has promised to do, attacks against the region have continued. On Monday night, Turkish-backed SNA factions shelled Tel Rifaat, a town in the earthquake-afflicted Shahba area. An attack on Tuesday targeted an area north of Manbij, 75 km northeast of Aleppo, injuring four soldiers of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

The Autonomous Administration of the North and East Syria (AANES) has shown itself conciliatory, offering aid to all affected areas in Syria. Yesterday, the AANES attempted to send 30 fuel trucks to the affected areas through an internal border crossing north of Manbij controlled by the SNA. As of the publishing of this article, the trucks continue to be prevented from entering Turkish-occupied territory, even as northwest Syria is experiencing fuel shortages.

The Way Forward   

In an opinion piece published shortly after the February 6 earthquakes, David L Phillips, a political scientist at Columbia University, argues that the ground is ripe for what he calls “earthquake diplomacy” between the Turkish government and the Kurds. In 1999, earthquake diplomacy helped diffuse tensions between Greece and Turkey, he explains. “The recent earthquake offers Erdogan an opportunity to reimagine Turkey’s relations with Kurds in Turkey and Syria. A new peace initiative would burnish Erdogan’s credentials during the runup to Turkey’s national elections in May 2023.”

This is wishful thinking. Turkey’s history – and Erdogan’s personal record – have shown that in the aftermath of natural disasters more, not less, anti-Kurdish repression is likely to follow. States like Greece and Cyprus have their own interests in normalizing ties with Turkey, says Jasim. The AANES, on the other hand, threatens Ankara’s vision of Turkey as an ethnically homogenous state. “There is no chance; it is a red line for Turkey,” the Kurdish researcher says.

Much like in 1999, Monday’s earthquake, three months before general and presidential elections, is going to have a monumental effect on Turkey’s future. What this will be, however, is unclear. The earthquake uncovered failings not dissimilar to those in 1999: government unpreparedness, crumbling infrastructure, and widespread corruption. Other factors – such as centralization, the rooting-out of competent emergency response staff and their replacement with AKP yes-men – are unique to the Erdogan’ administration. The president’s gaffes have not helped, either.

Yet as the country is in crisis, Erdogan has also been bestowed with extraordinary powers. He is unlikely not to wield them against his political foes. The ‘National Alliance’, Turkey’s main opposition coalition, has also not done enough to convince voters that they represent meaningful change. Most importantly, argues Jasim, millions of earthquake-affected Turkish citizens are currently homeless; they are less likely to be able or want to turn out for elections. “But when voter turnout is low, hardliners profit,” says the researchers. This would give Erdogan’s right-wing coalition a winning edge.

The response to the February 6 earthquakes will dominate the news cycle up to the elections and shape the country’s future. What this future will be, however, is unclear. Only one thing is not: the Kurds will be on the losing side.

Sasha Hoffman