The Unstable Foundation of Earthquake Diplomacy | Opinion

Emergency aid from around the globe has reached the areas hardest hit by a series of earthquakes in Turkey. In Syria, the U.N. was able to get the Assad regime in Damascus to open more crossings into opposition held regions already devasted by a decade of civil war. Meanwhile, attracting little notice, within days of the February earthquake, on Turkey's far eastern border with Armenia, a small Armenian humanitarian convoy rolled across the Margara Bridge. What is most remarkable about the crossing is that for 30 years that border was closed.

Beyond the convoy and its 100 tons of aid, a team of 27 Armenian rescue workers and doctors flew to Turkey and were sent to the hard-hit city of Adiyaman near the epicenter. Another Armenian rescue team rushed to Aleppo, Syria. Armenia is one of the few countries that sent rescue teams to both countries.

The earthquake struck an area where Indigenous Armenian, Assyrian, and other non-Muslim communities flourished for thousands of years until they were erased during a World War I-era genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Empirea genocide officially denied by Turkey. Many survivors of that genocide live in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which has suffered a decade of war and bombings, and now this disaster.

Armenian rescuers sift through rubble
Armenian rescuers sift through the rubble of a collapsed building in the northern city of Aleppo, searching for victims and survivors days after a deadly earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, on Feb. 9, 2023. AFP via Getty Images

When the Armenian relief team pulled a child and two adults from the rubble, Turkish member of parliament Garo Paylan, the only ethnic Armenian member of that body, tweeted the simple truth that "solidarity saves lives."

Long-time observers of the cold relations between Turkey and Armenia welcomed the convoy as an act of generosity and a possible diplomatic opening. Other commentators noted that the bridge closed to commerce and travel immediately after the convoy passed through. Some challenged the decision, pointing to the fact that the 120,000 Armenians living in the break-away-republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, have been under an illegal blockade of food, fuel, and medicine by Turkey's oil-rich ally Azerbaijan for over two months, and Turkey had assisted Baku with military aid in its brutal war against ethnic Armenians only two years ago.

As the rescuers worked, Armenia's Foreign Minister, Ararat Mirzoyan, visited the earthquake zone, then met with his counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara on Feb. 15. They announced that building on the earthquake aid, they would resume work on restoring diplomatic relations. This could lead to opening the border not just to aid convoys, but also to commerce and tourism. Past attempts at diplomatic openings, starting with a soccer match between Turkey and Armenia in 2008, have all failed. The magnitude of this recent disaster has been enough to push both sides into conversation again through "earthquake diplomacy." Will this new-found solidarity move Turkey to reassess its relationship with authoritarian Azerbaijan—the main stumbling block in normalization—and push it to ease its blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh?

The bounds of solidarity will also be tested as Turkey begins the process of rebuilding. The earthquake damaged numerous cultural and religious sites. Many of the structures that were damaged, like the Latin Catholic church in Iskenderun, the St. Paul Greek Orthodox Church in Antakya, and the church of the last Armenian village in Turkey, Vakifli, are places of worship for the tiny remaining Christian minorities of southern Turkey. These, along with traces of historical non-Muslim presence in the earthquake zone like Gaziantep's Liberation Mosque, which until the genocide was the Armenian Church of the Holy Mother of God, are for some Turkish leaders uncomfortable witnesses to the ethnic and religious diversity of the region's pre-genocide past. Will the destruction wrought by the quake present an opportunity to simply forgo any restoration or rebuilding of these reminders of that history and instead finish the process of erasure begun by genocide? The documentation of the current status and continued monitoring of these critical sites of minority cultural heritage, and support for its communities, must become an element of the planned reconstruction of southern Turkey.

Armenia's humanitarian support, its organized compassion, shows its people's commitment to the highest ideals of solidarity and support for human rights. While the world's attention has shifted away for the earthquake as the long and hard process of rebuilding buildings and lives in Turkey begins, that small gesture has opened a possibility for real change in the lives of the peoples of both countries.

Heghnar Watenpaugh is professor of art history at the University of California, Davis. A Guggenheim Fellow and a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar, she is the author of an award-winning book on cultural heritage and violence, The Missing Pages.

Keith David Watenpaugh is a professor and founding director of the University of California, Davis Human Rights Studies Program and leads the global refugee higher education empowerment project, the Article 26 Backpack. An American Council of Learned Societies and National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow, he is the author of a multiple award-winning book about humanitarianism in the Middle East, Bread from Stones.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.