On February 6 2023, a massive earthquake near the city of Kahramanmaraş, Turkey affected Turkey and Syria.
A popular post on Reddit’s r/todayilearned claimed that Greece and Turkey had a standing agreement about “earthquake diplomacy”:
A comment at the top of the appended thread alluded to existing, unrelated tensions between Turkey and Greece:
Despite the political feud between the two countries, what I feel is that the majority of people don’t harbor hatred toward each other. There is some mistrust, but when it comes to natural disasters, both countries understand each other and help each other. I’m in Turkey and if something happens in Greece, I’d like to help them, too.
February 6 2023 Earthquake in Turkey and Syria
The massive quake — measured at a magnitude 7.8 — leveled hundreds of buildings and killed thousands. It is one of the strongest recorded in the region in at least a century, with the complication of heavy aftershocks:
“It was like the apocalypse,” Abdul Salam al-Mahmoud, a Syrian in the northern town of Atareb, tells Reuters’ Mert Ozkan and Kinda Makieh. “It’s bitterly cold and there’s heavy rain, and people need saving.”
Dozens of aftershocks followed the first earthquake, including an unusually strong 7.5-magnitude tremor that hit 60 miles north of the first in Turkey, just nine hours later. Both large quakes were picked up on seismographs as far away as Denmark and Greenland, along with many of the aftershocks.
Turkey sits in one of the world’s most active earthquake zones. In 2020 alone, the country recorded 33,000 quakes, 332 of which were magnitudes 4.0 and higher, writes Saumya Kalia for The Hindu.
“This area is where three tectonic plates come together—it’s a triple junction,” Alex Hatem, a geologist with the USGS in Golden, Colorado, tells the Wall Street Journal’s Eric Niiler. “It has not had a lot of seismic activity in the recent past, however it is an area where a lot of stress builds up over time.”
The New York Times used its “liveblog” format to publish ongoing updates about the earthquake and its aftermath. A “pinned” entry on February 7 2023 read:
Time was running out on Tuesday [February 7 2023] as thousands of rescue workers were digging through debris in freezing conditions in an increasingly desperate search for survivors, a day after an earthquake left at least 6,200 people dead in Turkey and Syria.
“The later people are found under the rubble, the worse the chances for survival get,” said Dr. Gerald Rockenschaub, a regional emergency director for the World Health Organization. The agency warned that the death toll from the 7.8-magnitude earthquake on Monday [February 6 2023], in a region already burdened by a war and refugee crisis, could increase by the thousands.
Concise updates followed:
“People are driving bodies to us in their personal cars,” said Nehad Abdulmajeed, a doctor in Al Atarib, near the city of Idlib, Syria. He works at a hospital dug deep underground to protect it from airstrikes, which had received the bodies of 137 quake victims. “We have cried over children, who lived through this war and are now dead for no reason,” he said.
“I believed that maybe I had seen everything,” amid civil war, “but these are the most tragic days that I have seen in my entire life.”
CNN also used a “liveblog” format, accompanied by bullet points reporting:
- More than 6,300 people have been killed and tens of thousands injured after a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Turkey and Syria on Monday [February 6 2023], according to officials.
- Thousands of buildings collapsed in both countries and aid agencies are particularly worried about northwestern Syria, where more than 4 million people were already relying on humanitarian assistance.
- Freezing weather conditions are further endangering survivors and complicating rescue efforts, as more than 100 aftershocks have struck the region.
- The quake, one of the strongest to hit the region in more than 100 years, struck 23 kilometers (14.2 miles) east of Nurdagi, in Turkey’s Gaziantep province, at a depth of 24.1 kilometers (14.9 miles), the United States Geological Survey said.
As of February 7 2023, rescue and recovery efforts remained ongoing in the affected areas of Turkey and Syria.
Relations Between Turkey and Greece
A September 2020 NPR article about relations between Turkey and Greece (“‘Not Our World’: This Greek Island Wants An End To Greece And Turkey’s Feud”) described the relationship and tensions between the two nations in its opening paragraphs:
The pastel-painted taverns, cafes and hotels that line the small port in the remote Greek island of Kastellorizo are usually bustling this time of year with tourists, including hundreds of day-trippers from Turkey — which is just a 10-minute speedboat ride away.
This year, the port is quiet, and not just because of the coronavirus pandemic.
This stunning, craggy isle [Kastellorizo] surrounded by the deep-blue Aegean Sea has become a pawn in a dispute between Greece and Turkey — NATO allies and longtime frenemies — over maritime borders and offshore gas and oil exploration rights.
As tensions heightened [in August 2020], their militaries went on alert, sending warships and warplanes to the eastern Mediterranean, and raising fears of a confrontation.
“If you type Kastellorizo on Google, you will have an idea of war, gray zone, that something terrible is happening,” says Eleni Karavelatzi, a tourism marketer who grew up on the island. “This is not our world. This is politics.”
In late December 2022 (a little over a month before the quake), several news stories about relations between Turkey and Greece detailed the tensions between the two countries. A December 29 2022 Politico.eu article described how the rhetoric was escalating:
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu on [December 29 2022] threatened Greece with retaliation if Athens proceeded with any expansion of its territorial waters in the Aegean, saying that it would still be seen as a casus belli justifying military action.
“Our position is clear, no 12 miles, we will not allow for territorial waters to be expanded by even a mile in the Aegean,” Çavuşoğlu said during an end-of-year  press briefing in Ankara, commenting on reports that Athens plans to extend territorial waters around the island of Crete.
“Don’t get into sham heroism by trusting those who might have your back. Don’t seek adventurism,” he added. “It won’t end well for you!”
On December 31 2022, ABC News mentioned historically “strained relations” against the backdrop of active rancor:
Even by the standards of Turkey’s and Greece’s frequently strained relations, it was a remarkable escalation. Speaking to youths in a Black Sea town, Turkey’s president directly threatened his country’s western neighbor: Unless the Greeks “stay calm,” he said, Turkey’s new ballistic missiles would hit their capital city.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comment on an otherwise unremarkable December  weekend followed repeated threats and warnings in recent months: Alleged violations of international treaties by Greece could throw the sovereignty of many inhabited Greek islands into doubt. Turkish troops, Erdogan warned on several occasions, could descend on Greece “suddenly one night.”
The striking rhetoric has led to questions about the reasons behind it, and whether it could be a prelude to more alarming developments, including potential armed conflict between Turkey and Greece, both NATO members.
Both countries face national elections in the first half of 2023, which is likely to ramp up the rhetoric still further, and Russia’s war in Ukraine has demonstrated that an invasion of a smaller European country by a larger neighboring power is no longer unthinkable.
But analysts on both sides of the Aegean Sea are cautious, noting an escalation in verbal barbs but still assessing a military conflict between neighbors Greece and Turkey as unlikely.
“Tensions” and “diplomacy” functioned as intentionally abstract phrasing, masking the specter of a hot war beneath the saber-rattling. The excerpted reporting above again dated back to a little more than a month before the earthquake struck.
Greece-Turkish Earthquake Diplomacy
As is often the case, the Reddit r/todayilearned post linked to a Wikipedia entry — “Greek–Turkish earthquake diplomacy” — and its summary explained:
The Greek–Turkish earthquake diplomacy (Greek: διπλωματία των σεισμών, diplomatia ton seismon; Turkish: deprem diplomasisi) was initiated after successive earthquakes hit both countries in the summer of 1999 and led to an improvement in Greek–Turkish relations. Prior to this, relations between the two countries had been generally volatile ever since the Istanbul pogrom. The so-called earthquake diplomacy generated an outpouring of sympathy and generous assistance provided by ordinary Greeks and Turks in both cases. Such acts were encouraged from the top and took many foreigners by surprise. They prepared the public for a breakthrough in bilateral relations, which had been marred by decades of mutual hostility.
In that context, the concept of “earthquake diplomacy” between Greece and Turkey included the modifier of “so-called.” We searched the Greek label (“διπλωματία των σεισμών”) mentioned on Google; more than 707,000 Google search results dwindled to 81 total when we restricted search to material published on or before December 1 2023.
That particular Wikipedia entry was first published in September 2013. A nearly identical initial summary did not include the translated phrases:
The Greek–Turkish earthquake diplomacy was initiated after successive earthquakes hit both countries in the summer of 1999 and led to an improvement in Greco-Turkish relations. The so-called “earthquake diplomacy” generated an outpouring of sympathy and generous assistance provided by ordinary Greeks and Turks in both cases. These acts were encouraged from the top and took many foreigners by surprise, preparing the public for a breakthrough in bilateral relations, which had been marred by decades of mutual hostility.
One of many updates to CNN’s liveblog was a section about Greece pledging to aid Turkey. It was subtitled “Greece set aside tensions with Turkey to send aid, but Syria is ‘more complicated,’ prime minister says,” and it began:
Despite its tensions with Turkey, Greece is among the countries that have dispatched help to the country, but conflict-torn northwestern Syria makes the same efforts “more complicated,” Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis told CNN on Tuesday [February 7 2023].
Greece and Turkey “are neighbors who need to help each other through difficult times. This is not the first time earthquakes have struck our countries,” he said. “This is a time to temporarily set aside our differences and try to address what is a very very urgent situation.”
In Syria, however, there is no official interlocutor and no assurance that aid will make it to the impacted area and people, and that makes relief efforts hard to pull off, Mitsotakis said.
Greek newspaper Proto Thema published a piece about Greek aid to Turkey on February 7 2023, “Earthquake diplomacy – Süddeutsche Zeitung: Greeks are always ready to help.” A contemporaneous report from AFP indicated Greece promised “every force available” to its neighbor, Turkey:
The countries [of Turkey and Greece] cooperated on recovery efforts in 2020 after a strong earthquake struck in the Aegean Sea, killing scores and causing vast damage mainly in Turkey.
They also worked together in 1999 when both countries were struck by deadly earthquakes less than a month apart.
However, less recent mentions of “earthquake diplomacy” remained accessible on the web. A June 2000 article in French monthly paper Le Monde Diplomatique, “Greece’s earthquake diplomacy,” highlighted the following excerpt at the top of the page. It pinpointed earthquakes in 1999 as when “solidarity” between the two nations “emerged”:
Costa Simitis’s victory in the Greek parliamentary elections on 9 April  and Ahmet Necdet Sezer’s election to the Turkish presidency on 5 May  are likely to encourage détente between the two countries. That is what the people want. The solidarity that emerged during last year’s earthquakes [in 1999] is still strong. But the way ahead is full of difficulties. There is the knotty problem of Cyprus. And Turkey, now an official candidate for EU membership, still has to meet the accession criteria, including recognition of individual freedoms and minority rights.
It continued, explaining that successive major earthquakes in Turkey and Greece in 1999 inspired the concept:
The ancient enmity [between Greece and Turkey) appeared to die down in 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, under which the two countries decided to defuse a potentially explosive ethnic situation by organising a compulsory exchange of populations. Trouble flared up again, however, in 1955 with the conflict over Cyprus. More recently, Andreas Papandreou and Turgut Özal made tentative moves towards détente in 1988 but these foundered on the complex problem of conflicting interests in the Aegean, and in 1996 war was only narrowly averted.
Events took a new turn in 1999. The earthquake in the Marmara region last August  sparked a wave of solidarity in Greece and created a new climate in bilateral relations. This was reaffirmed in October  by Turkish demonstrations of sympathy when Athens, too, was stricken. Many observers noted that a new “earthquake diplomacy” appeared to be emerging but the rapprochement had in fact started earlier with changes at the Greek foreign ministry.
On September 13 1999, the New York Times described a novel form of disaster-related diplomacy:
The day after Athens was struck [in 1999] by its most serious earthquake in decades, millions of television viewers watched in awe as Turkish rescue workers pulled a Greek child from under a pile of rubble. Announcers struggled to control their emotion.
“It’s the Turks!” one of them shouted as his voice began to crack. “They’ve got the little boy. They saved him. And now the Turkish guy is drinking from a bottle of water. It’s the same bottle the Greek rescuers just drank from. This is love. It’s so beautiful.'”
Although Greece and Turkey are both members of NATO, there are perhaps no two allied neighboring nations whose dealings have been marked with so much conflict and mistrust. But in the last four weeks [in August and September of 1999], their relations have improved with a spectacular suddenness that no one had expected … Although serious political differences remain, both sides are now displaying a willingness to resolve them that they have not shown for generations.
Greek-Turkish relations had been improving slowly for several months, but it took earthquakes in both countries to push them toward a more heart-felt friendship. Each sent rescue teams to help the other, and their gestures were greeted by waves of ecstatic publicity and popular emotion.
In October 2020, “US salutes Greece, Turkey earthquake diplomacy” mentioned another quake and ensuing cooperation:
The United States on [October 30 2020] hailed diplomacy between uneasy neighbors Greece and Turkey following a major earthquake and said it was ready to assist the NATO allies.
“It’s great to see both countries putting their differences aside to help each other during a time of need. The United States also stands ready to assist,” said Robert O’Brien, the national security advisor.
In November 2022, The New European examined the concept outside the context of earthquakes, in an editorial titled “A need for earthquake diplomacy”:
Everyone I interviewed [for this story] said if Turkey and Greece wanted to sit down and solve their problems like grown-ups, they could – since many battles are based on technicalities, confected disputes, deliberate provocations and historical misconceptions. They could apply for independent arbitration if necessary, as Greece has done with Italy and now seeks with Albania.
This was amply demonstrated in 1999, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that hit north-west Turkey, including Istanbul, and killed more than 17,000 people. Greece was the first to send aid and rescue teams. Less than a month later, Turkey reciprocated when an earthquake hit Athens. “Earthquake diplomacy” was enthusiastically embraced by both sides, leading to a thaw in official relations and new friendships among the public – there were even reciprocal visits by the descendants of those deported in the population exchange.
Proper peacemaking is simply a matter of political will. But which leader will countenance accusations of “backing down”? Unfortunately, in Greece and Turkey, what’s more commonly on offer at the moment is a whole lot of political “won’t”.
A popular “today i learned” Reddit thread from February 6 2023 asserted that Greece and Turkey engaged in “earthquake diplomacy,” setting down ever-present tensions in the event of earthquakes affecting either nation. A linked Wikipedia page was published in 2013, and the concept appeared in news and analysis in 1999 and 2000. Earthquakes struck both countries in 1999, leading to a somewhat informal diplomatic agreement between Greece and Turkey, to render aid regardless of existing conflict.