The earthquake which struck Turkey on Monday had a devastating impact on south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria. According to the World Health Organization, approximately 23 million individuals live in these affected regions. While the situation in Turkey is dire, the catastrophe is in many ways worse in northern Syria. It is expected that things will go even worse for the rebel-held parts of northern Syria as help cannot reach with ease. In this unfortunate strip, which constitutes only 4% of the Syrian territory, there are over 4.5 million civilians, most of whom are displaced by the civil war. Even before the earthquake, 90% of them relied on humanitarian aid, which was solely provided through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing from Turkey. As this earthquake heavily impacted the local population, it will also have consequences for prospective Turkish military operations that would take place in northern Syria before the general elections normally scheduled in July.
The AKP government viewed a cross-border military operation in Syria as a beneficial election campaign strategy. A successful military operation against the YPG in northern Syria was likely to increase President Erdoğan's popularity among his supporters and divert attention from Turkey's economic crisis. Additionally, the opposition alliance requires the support of the pro-Kurdish HDP to win presidential elections. However, if the opposition alliance endorses the invasion, they would find it difficult to secure the backing of the HDP in the presidential election. If not, the nationalist wing of the opposition alliance could alienate some of its supporters. For this reason, many analysts and politicians have been expecting a military operation soon that would be mainly launched for political considerations.
If a new ground military operation is launched, it would probably target Tal Rifaat, Manbij, and Kobani. On several occasions, President Erdoğan has indicated these provinces as potential targets of the new incursion to establish a 30-km deep safe zone along the southern border of Turkey. Nonetheless, all these provinces are adjacent to Turkey’s disaster-stricken area. Social media is replete with images of bridges, roads, airports, railways hospitals, which were wrecked by the earthquake in this region. Besides, the main road connecting Turkey to Syria has been severely damaged, significantly disrupting the Turkish military’s logistics. Under these circumstances, Turkey will not launch a large-scale military operation until it fixes logistical problems.
On the other hand, decision-makers in Turkey are now concentrating their efforts on relief operations in the ten provinces ravaged by the earthquake. As these decisions are micro-managed under the new presidential system, it is unlikely that Turkish leadership would spare enough energy to make necessary preparations in politics, military and media for an incursion before things calm down in the region. Moreover, the Turkish Defense Ministry has allocated some of its resources and capabilities to help the rescue efforts and provide security in the disaster area where there are several reports of looting and plundering.
Another issue that will affect the incursion is the timing of the presidential elections scheduled in June. President Erdogan previously announced that the vote could be brought forward to May 14, but legal procedures about changing the election date were not complete. With the disaster, the AKP deliberates if it will go on with its decision to bring the vote forward. While some AKP sources familiar with the discussion said to Bloomberg that “Erdoğan is working on the assumption that general elections will be held in Turkey three months from now,” other officials told Reuters that “We will look at the developments, but right now there are serious difficulties in holding an election on May 14." These different reports point out that the AKP is still assessing the issue of election dates within the context of the earthquake. Besides, some members of the opposition alliance suspect that the AKP will probably try to postpone the elections for one more year under the pretext that Turkey’s Supreme Election Council cannot complete voter registration processes under these circumstances.
In summary, the earthquake has probably changed the calculus of a political decision on an incursion into northern Syria before the presidential elections. The earthquake has disrupted a vital logistics link between Turkey and Syria. The Turkish leadership is busy with the political outcomes of the earthquake and containing heavy criticism against its incompetence in handling the disaster. It is, therefore, most likely that Turkey will postpone a final decision over an incursion into Syria until the dust settles from the devastating earthquake.