The horrific 6 February earthquakes that killed over 40,000 people along the Turkish-Syria border led to an international outpouring of generosity and assistance. Greece has been at the forefront of offering help and trying to save lives, even though the area is a major conflict zone.

Multiple parties are fighting against Syria’s totalitarian dictator. Turkey is led by a regime perpetuating violence against its own citizens. Both countries have major disputes around the region, while Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unfolds just across the Black Sea. Kurds have long been seeking their own country across Syria, Turkey, and Iraq.

Do disasters in conflict areas bring peace?

Initiated by the 1999 earthquakes in Turkey and Greece, we have been examining ‘disaster diplomacy’ for over two decades, aiming to understand how and why disaster-related activities do and do not influence conflict and cooperation. We have detailed dozens of examples around the world and throughout history, including Greece-Turkish relations.

We conclude that addressing disasters, beforehand in order to prevent them and afterwards through response and recovery, can influence an ongoing peace process in the short-term. Long-term impacts are rarely seen. If those involved have reasons for seeking conflict, then disasters can actually exacerbate violence.

On 17 August 1999, over 17,000 people perished when northwestern Turkey was shaken by a tremor. Greece unhesitatingly offered aid, immediately accepted by Turkey. Just three weeks later, on 7 September, over 140 people died in Greece in another earthquake. The main search-and-rescue team in Turkey rang the Greek ambassador to offer anything needed and soon deployed across the Aegean.

Both countries were euphoric with this neighbourliness, mushrooming from the grassroots and promoted by the media. Politicians emphasised friendship to tackle the decades-long hostilities, and at times military attacks, between these two NATO allies. Was this earthquake diplomacy, with the pair of disasters creating rapprochement?

Disaster diplomacy research answered ‘no’. High-level connections between the countries seeking reconciliation dated back to at least 1996. The Kosovo war in April 1999, months before the two earthquakes, solidified the desire among élites of Greece and Turkey to end the disputes. The powers felt that the time had come to work together for peace.

The two earthquakes forced this collaboration out into the open, pushed along by a groundswell of popular opinion. Since 1999, Greece and Tukey have continued extensive cooperation (including in disaster prevention and response), despite leadership changes, economic crises, nearby and internal violence, and a still-divided Cyprus.

From war drums to peace overtures

Fast forward to December 2022 – January 2023. Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened military action against Greece over disputed islands. Yet Greece was one of the first countries to offer assistance after the main February earthquake. Greece’s Prime Minister spoke with Turkey’s president and a rescue team was airborne. Greek equipment, beds, blankets, and tents are saving Turkish lives.

Then, the Turkish-Armenia border was opened after three decades to allow Armenian aid to enter. Cypriot rescue workers and medical staff were cleared to enter Turkey, although it appears that now they will not travel. This pattern is standard disaster diplomacy. Immediately after devastation, enemies sometimes come together with little prospect for long-term amity based on only the disaster.

In fact, while Israeli teams have been assisting Syrians in Turkey, they do not appear to have entered Syria. Israel has warned Iran that it will stop any shipments deemed to be weapons disguised as post-earthquake aid. The Syria-Turkish border took a while to open while cross-border aid remains slow. The Turkish president is seen as politically vulnerable due to the catastrophe and initially slow national response.

Rescue teams paused some operations in Turkey due to alleged shooting while poor safety means that many are avoiding Syria. Syria’s ally Russia immediately supported the country while being accused of impeding other aid.

Again, it is the standard disaster diplomacy pattern that many conflicts are exacerbated by disputes over emergency response. Throughout, Greeks have led the world in supporting disaster-affected Turks while being well-aware that, any day, they could require similar help from their neighbour. Even though earthquake diplomacy has not yet been a baseline in ending conflict, the past generation of Greek-Turkish connections demonstrates what could be achieved for peace. Disasters are one influence among many.

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England and a Professor II at the University of Agder, Kristiansand, Norway. His research interest is linking disasters and health, integrating climate change into both.