Last week’s disastrous earthquakes have shaken the political fortunes of leaders in Turkey and Syria, analysts say. Some see a possible accelerated path to regime normalization for pariah Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while an onslaught of criticism has engulfed Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, calling into question his re-election bid.
More than a decade of conflict and blocked borders to aid deliveries have hampered access to the rebel-held area of northwest Syria, decimated by the powerful quakes. Turkey has received the lion’s share of international assistance to date. The Norwegian Refugee Council and 35 other nongovernmental organizations are demanding increased support for Syria’s affected areas, saying “the humanitarian response must match the scale of the disaster.”
Syria expert Charles Lister of the Washington-based Middle East Institute said, “It shouldn’t surprise us that the Assad regime is willing to take advantage of a catastrophic natural disaster to serve its own interests,” citing Syrian government appeals to the United Nations and aid deliveries from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Iraq and Italy. But he warned against lifting sanctions on the government to further its normalization.
“The main area of exploitation is its demand for sanctions relief,” Lister told the Italian Institute of International Political Studies. “There is no correlation between the sanctions imposed on the regime by the United States, the European Union, Canada or the United Kingdom and the delivery of humanitarian aid. In 2022, the billions of dollars of aid that flowed into regime areas, through Damascus, 91% of that was funded by the four sanctioning entities.”
Lister added that “we do probably appear to be on an accelerated path toward the normalization of the regime, but a lot of it will depend on how the regime responds: whether it is stubborn or more pragmatic as it deals with requests for further aid and how it deals with the governments that continue to press against it.”
Meanwhile, analysts say Erdogan has come under fire for his government’s reaction to the earthquakes, as the death toll rises in the southwest and affects his chances of re-election.
Dorothee Schmid, who leads the Turkey and Mideast program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris, said Erdogan “was already in a slightly delicate situation because he has not always been leading in the polls last year. Everybody is wondering whether the popularity of the party is going to be damaged by the difficult response to the earthquakes. The party is really on the front line to confront the growing anger of the local population.”
Schmid also said there a debate about whether Erdogan’s “government is totally unable to cope with the situation or if any government would be completely helpless, given the magnitude” of the quakes.