Rescue teams and humanitarian aid from around the Caucasus have been sent to Turkey and Syria to aid recovery efforts following a massive earthquake this week, the death toll of which has already topped 11,000. But even in the face of such human tragedy, the aid efforts were deeply suffused with the region’s politics.
The response from Azerbaijan, which counts Turkey as its closest ally, was the quickest and most significant.
On February 6, the day the earthquake hit, Azerbaijan sent a team of 420 rescue workers and several rescue dogs to Turkey to assist in relief efforts. President Ilham Aliyev called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and “underlined that Azerbaijan and Turkey had always stood side by side,” according to a readout from Aliyev’s office.
The following day Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Emergency Services sent two planeloads of aid, including a mobile field hospital and tents, bedding, and other aid to Turkey to help those displaced from their homes, and additional shipments of aid and medical teams have continued to be sent. On February 8 the ministry said it was sending an additional team of 227 rescue workers to “our brotherly country,” a formulation that has been frequently used in Azerbaijani media.
Public sympathy also has run deep, with many ordinary citizens organizing private donations to Turkish charities and media and social media dominated by news of the earthquake and the rescue operations.
As of February 8 the Azerbaijani rescue teams reported finding 16 people alive and 29 dead bodies under the rubble of collapsed buildings.
Azerbaijan did not report sending any aid to Syria, where the devastation also was widespread and magnified by the fact that it happened in an area that has already been ravaged by years of civil war.
Georgia sent a team of 60 rescue workers to Turkey and on February 8 the Interior Ministry reported that the Georgian rescuers had saved one person in the city of Adiyaman. Officials also reported that they were sending an additional team of 40 firefighters to the region. Georgia also did not report sending any aid or rescue workers to Syria; Tbilisi cut ties with the Syrian government in 2018 after Damascus formally recognized the independence of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The Armenians’ contribution was smallest in quantity, but carried the most political significance.
Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan talked to Erdogan on February 7 and “offered condolences and expressed solidarity to the president and the people of Turkey,” according to the readout from Pashinyan’s office. He also told Erdogan that a team of rescue workers was getting ready to fly to Turkey.
Pashinyan made a similar call to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad but was less committal about aid to that country; he said Armenia was “planning to support Syria to be able to ease the difficult living conditions of the earthquake-affected population and eliminate the consequences of the disaster.”
The following day, Armenia’s Interior Ministry reported that 29 rescue workers had been sent to Syria and 27 to Turkey. Few other details have been released about their activities.
Armenia is in the delicate process of normalizing relations with Turkey following its 2020 war with Azerbaijan, in which Turkish support played a key role in the Azerbaijani victory. The process stalled following a flareup in tensions in the Caucasus last fall, starting with a September offensive by Azerbaijan into Armenian territory and continuing through the ongoing Azerbaijani blockade of the Armenian protectorate of Nagorno-Karabakh today.
But at the beginning of January, Armenia announced that ties with Turkey had taken a step forward, albeit a mostly symbolic one, with the reestablishment of air cargo flights between the two countries. Yerevan also said that a pilot reopening of the countries’ land border, which has been closed since 1993, would take place “very soon.”
Both sides acknowledged the political importance of Armenia’s earthquake aid in moving that process forward.
In his conversation with Pashinyan, Erdogan reportedly said that “the Turkish government highly values Armenia's support, emphasizing that step also from the point of view of further deepening the dialogue between the two countries.”
Garo Paylan, an ethnic Armenian member of Turkey’s parliament, was the one to report the arrival of Armenia’s rescue team in Turkey. “Solidarity saves lives!” he wrote in a tweet.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan recalled the 1988 earthquake in Spitak that killed more than 25,000 people and which saw an unprecedented-for-the-time degree of international humanitarian assistance coming to the Soviet Union.
“We ourselves saw what disastrous consequences an earthquake can have, and we were not alone at that time. We received help from the international community. I believe that we should also be ready to extend our helping hand to all the peoples who at that moment need that help as a result of natural disasters,” he said at a February 7 press conference while on a visit to Germany.
He tied the aid to the ongoing talks between Armenia and Turkey.
"There is a dialogue, as you know, about the opening of borders and the establishment of diplomatic relations,” he said. “I want to reaffirm the readiness of the Republic of Armenia to be sincerely involved in this process and bring it to a logical and positive conclusion as quickly as possible. I want to let you know that there is some progress. In our opinion, the process is a bit slow, but it is still very positive that we have positive records on the ground.”
Since the normalization process began, Turkey and Armenia have sent each other condolence messages whenever there has been a tragedy. Turkey’s Armenia envoy expressed condolences after an August 2022 explosion at a Yerevan shopping mall that killed six people. Mirzoyan sent his own condolences in November following an explosion in Istanbul that also killed six people.
Public response to the Armenian rescue team deployment was muted, and reactions were mixed on social media. Aside from the relief efforts, much attention was focused on the areas of northern Syria that are home to large Armenian communities.
The government appears to be trying to curry favor with Western countries in order to get their support on the Turkish normalization process, said Benyamin Poghosyan, an analyst in Yerevan. In particular, Yerevan hopes to get other countries to push Turkey to advance on the normalization process without tying it to efforts to reach a peace agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, where the Armenian side has much more to lose.
“This is another attempt by the Armenian government to send a message first of all to the West, that it is ready to move forward with normalization with Turkey,” Poghosyan told Eurasianet. “Probably they want to show that they are the constructive side, and hoping the West, especially the United States, will put pressure on Turkey to move forward without connections with Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia and Azerbaijan.”
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.