Author : Kabir Taneja

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Feb 17, 2023

Providing relief and aid to the extended neighbourhood of West Asia bodes well for the kind of diplomacy India is aiming to conduct in the future

India’s HADR diplomacy: Earthquake relief in Türkiye and Syria

The earthquake that hit Türkiye and Syria simultaneously, one of the strongest in a century, brought incredible levels of destruction to the region with conservative estimates putting the death toll at over 40,000. The calamity has also affected swathes of northern Syria, a region already in dire straits due to years of conflict, including nearly half a decade of Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh in Arabic) insurgency.

India’s humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) capacities tying into its diplomacy have grown significantly since its initial days—institutionalised in wake of the 2011 tsunami disaster that struck multiple locations around Asia. Of course, one of the most defining diplomacy initiatives in this part of the world, the Quad, was also conceived out of an initial blueprint to build disaster response systems in the region. Since then, India’s own capacities have been visible in many disaster-struck regions, with the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) often deployed as both man-made and climate change-made disaster points have only increase over time. New Delhi even offered a helping hand to Pakistan in wake of its devastating floods late last year, and during the COVID-19 pandemic was one of the first to deploy capacities across the West Asian region. Keeping these traditions in mind, it was no surprise that New Delhi mobilised quickly to dispatch aid for both  Türkiye and Syria.

Ankara’s long-standing stance on Kashmir and backing Pakistan, specially at the United Nations (UN), pushed some to ask why India was offering aid if Türkiye did not back India’s sovereignty.

HADR capabilities and presence lie at an interesting juncture of geopolitics, that being soft power where presence and narrative is mixed with solidarity and empathy at a time when suffering populations require as much help as possible. However, there are geopolitical trade-offs as well, also often in soft power, as positive perceptions of states and their institutions working in disaster zones often bypass governments and deal with the public directly. For New Delhi, these capacities are now part of  its global positioning as it promotes an ‘Indian pole’ in the global order.

Aid for Türkiye 

The time taken between India announcing and mobilising aid for Turkiye was quick, as NDRF teams along with Indian Air Force C-17s made multiple trips to deliver aid, search teams, setup field hospitals, and so on. The public reception to this within India was, as per expectations, mixed. Ankara’s long-standing stance on Kashmir and backing Pakistan, specially at the United Nations (UN), pushed some to ask why India was offering aid if Türkiye  did not back India’s sovereignty. The simple answer here is that diplomacy is complicated, and more than often does not exist in black and white, but within strategic grey zones. Disaster response is almost never seen as helping a state, but the people with whom a strong connection should be built and preserved. While many questioned India’s aid to Türkiye  from the lens of geopolitics, not many brought up the fact that Türkiye  as well, like others, had sent oxygen aid to India at the peak of the COVID Delta wave in 2021.

The earthquake now poses more challenges for Erdogan as Türkiye looks to go into elections in June this year, leaving mere days for the leadership to successfully rehabilitate the earthquake survivors both socially and economically.

Soft power is often developed using tools such as aid and solidarity at a time of global crisis, and with such crisis becoming more frequent, the space for geopolitical one-upmanship, for example around adverse climate events, will be small as such events do not recognise the limitations of both physical and mental man-made borders. New Delhi’s prompt response for Türkiye comes on back of somewhat thawing relations between the two countries. The reasons for this range from an economic crisis in Türkiye to a level of normalisation of relations with other regional powers such as United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. A lot of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s anchoring of both ideology and power came from the post-2016 coup attempt which he blamed on external powers, and where he saw a re-enforcement of his political position domestically, regionally, and internationally being critical to not be seen as a weak leader. The earthquake now poses more challenges for Erdogan as Türkiye looks to go into elections in June this year, leaving mere days for the leadership to successfully rehabilitate the earthquake survivors both socially and economically.

Complications for Syria

On the other side of the border, northern parts of Syria, already devastated due to years of civil war in wake of the Arab Spring and Islamic State (ISIS or Daesh) insurgency, suffer largely in silence. In contested areas such as Idlib, militias fighting against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government control the space, and disaster management has come under their rule, complicating aid delivery significantly. Rebel leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, officially designated as a terrorist by the US in 2013 for being the leader then of Al Nusra Front, a splinter group of Al Qaeda, has demanded the UN to send help to the region that his Salvation Government controls.

India has maintained normal relations with Damascus through much of the crisis, as Iran and Russia stepped in over the years to make sure Assad remains in power. Over the past year, Arab neighbours that had isolated him, returned to a level of normalcy in a sign of acceptance that Assad had managed to hold on to power despite reports from Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) suggesting that there was ‘reasonable ground’ that the Syrian government had used prohibited weapons against its own population. However, the global capacity to manage conflicts does not see Syria as a cause to rally behind too much anymore, and Assad is placed to try his best to make this ‘disaster diplomacy’ work in his favour for long-term stability and international acceptability of his government.

India has maintained normal relations with Damascus through much of the crisis, as Iran and Russia stepped in over the years to make sure Assad remains in power.

The above complexities are why India chose to send aid directly to Damascus and via the UN, and not deploy NDRF teams in Syria directly in regions that remain politically contested and where local actors operate with little clarity over their affiliations.

Conclusion

Providing relief and aid to not just neighbouring, but in the extended neighbourhood of West Asia bodes well for the kind of diplomacy India is aiming to conduct in the future. However, public opinion should be well-informed that diplomacy is to sit across the table from those who you disagree with the most, and public diplomacy, such as HADR capacities, remain one of the most effective tools to build capacities on a people-to-people level, conduct of which needs to be done in a humble way, making it about the people who are suffering, and not first about one’s own capability and intent of providing help. Successful HADR and humanitarian assistance automatically feeds into diplomatic capital, if the first part of it is conducted successfully with a long-term vision in mind.

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Author

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja

Kabir Taneja is a Fellow with Strategic Studies programme. His research focuses on Indias relations with West Asia specifically looking at the domestic political dynamics ...

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