This article originally ran on Forbes.com on February 15, 2023. All rights reserved.
Daniel B. Markind is a Forbes.com energy column contributor. The views expressed in this article are not to be associated with the views of Flaster Greenberg PC.
In rapid succession during the morning of February 6, Eastern Turkey and its environs were hit by first, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake and, then, a magnitude 7.5 quake. Horrific images showing high rise buildings collapsing, people trapped under the rubble, massive coastal tides, and utter devastation, death, and destruction have been reported by multiple news outlets, as well as on social media.
As of this writing one week later, more than 30,000 deaths have been reported in Turkey and neighboring Syria. That number is expected to rise further – especially among those who were trapped in collapsing buildings where the likelihood of survival diminishes rapidly the longer that people remain stuck in the rubble. As noted, however, Turkey was not the only country affected. While information is more difficult to obtain in other areas, parts of Syria were also badly damaged. Thousands of deaths have been reported in that country as well. Meanwhile, less severe earthquakes, aftershocks, or simple tremors were felt in Lebanon, Israel, Cyprus, Jordan, Iraq, Georgia, and Armenia, if not other countries in the region.
Despite frosty relations between Jerusalem and Ankara over the last twenty years, Israeli search and rescue teams were dispatched to Turkey within hours of the second big quake to help out, along with other international teams. Israel also reportedly was asked by Syria, which is probably second only to Turkey in terms of overall impacts from the quakes, if it would like assistance too, notwithstanding an eternal state of war between the two Middle Eastern neighbors. At first, Syria apparently responded positively to Israel’s feelers. Subsequently, however, Syria denied asking Israel for assistance. That situation remains unclear.
In the hours and days after the tragedy, unconfirmed pictures circulated of a blast at the Turkish Akkuyu Nuclear Reactor. Whether or not that occurred, and if so was caused by the earthquake, are not clear, but some newspapers are warning about potential imminent risk to the reactor in light of the seismic tremors. Fortunately, recent reports do not show any radiation release so far.
Nonetheless, in light of the history of the Japanese nuclear disaster at Fukushima in 2011 following a 9.0 earthquake, the world once again will face questions about the wisdom of relying on nuclear energy, as we seek to transition to less carbon-intensive fuels to combat climate change.
Natural disasters have a way of changing history. Even before the earthquakes, thaws appeared in the traditionally frosty relations between Turkey and Israel, and even between Lebanon and Israel. After practically destroying bilateral relations throughout most of his more than two decades in power, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has signaled to Israel that Turkey wishes to restore some semblance of international relations. Lebanon and Israel, despite being technically still at war, recently signed an agreement concerning development of offshore natural gas fields in the Mediterranean Sea.
Given the desperate state of the current situation in places like Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon, the dire reality on the ground may overwhelm the political ossification that has existed for so long. For example, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Qatar recently signed a deal to replace Russia in joining with Lebanon to develop Lebanon’s natural gas fields in the Mediterranean. The Lebanese fields are adjacent to Israel’s fields, and cooperation would certainly be beneficial to both of those countries.
Over the last decade, and more recently following the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut in August 2020, Lebanon’s economy has collapsed. With the future now in the north of that country threatening more chaos and despair, it would be hugely advantageous for Lebanon to join forces with Israel in natural gas exploration. Of course, current political realities make this unlikely in the short term. One has to wonder, however, how much more death, destruction, and despair the populations of Lebanon and Syria will tolerate as the price of maintaining a continuing state of war with Israel.
Less exaggerated, but no less significant, is the situation with Turkey. In 2020, Turkey reached a bizarre agreement with one of the factions claiming the right to rule Libya to try to divide up the Eastern Mediterranean into economic zones between the two countries. When that didn’t work out, the Erdogan government reached another agreement last year to develop natural gas fields located in the easter portion of Libya. That deal was immediately condemned by Greece and Egypt.
Erdogan now is in a difficult reelection campaign. With the country trying to navigate between nearby warring Ukraine and Russia, and with Turkey now facing real devastation in its own southeast quadrant due to the recent earthquakes, Erdogan’s wiser course would be to try to make common cause with its traditionally adverse or problematic neighbors like Greece, Cyprus, and Israel, all of whom have joined together to develop the Mediterranean natural gas resources themselves.
Since Russia’s invasion, Erdogan has occupied a swing position as a member of NATO, as well as a neighbor to both warring parties. To this point, Erdogen has managed to simultaneously maintain positive relations with each of the antagonists. Erdogan has used this new found power to disrupt plans to admit Finland and Sweden into NATO, and to sell goods to both warring parties, while also making himself a potential arbiter between the two sides if and when an end to the war can be imagined.
Unfortunately for Erdogan, none of this has changed Turkey’s precarious economic situation. Instead of developing Turkey into a wealthy and dominant leader with an equally confident, happy, and content population, the earthquake devastation forced Erdogan to quickly plead for international help. That help is coming at a remarkable pace, but the aftermath already is showing huge deficiencies in Turkish building practices, not to mention long term effects from the sheer devastation on the Turkish economy and international influence. This is not commensurate with the modern, powerful, broker state that Turkey strives to be.
The international news from the earthquake area will likely be filled over the next few weeks with stories of horror, as well as a few of courage and hope. Beyond that horizon, and over the next few years, we might see the tectonic plates that caused the earth to shake also to cause the international political alignment to shake in the Middle East region. The result of that second earthquake and its accompanying physical damage may go a long way to determining the shape of the international order – if not the energy use and economy of the entire region – for a generation to come.
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