An Unmitigated Disaster
On February 06, 2023, three earthquakes in quick succession, one after another, measuring 7.8, 7.6 and 6.0 in magnitude on the Richter scale, woke up the people of Turkey and Syria who were fast asleep in their homes. It made them realise more than ever that there is nothing more powerful than nature’s fury and their homes after all are not as safe as they so far believed them to be.
The impact of the earthquake was felt as far away as Cyprus (456km), Lebanon (874km), Israel (1,381km) and Egypt (1,411km). This was followed by 120 aftershocks in less than 24 hours causing widespread damage to life and property. By the time all this was over, more than 5,000 people lay dead or wounded and at least 5,775 buildings had collapsed making everything seem like a nightmare or unreal drama. Thousands of buildings have been razed to the ground trapping people underneath adding to the complexities and challenging task before the rescuers trying to extricate and move the victims to safety.
According to the United Nations, the death toll due to the recent earthquake, one of the most powerful in the last 100 years, could be more than 20,000. The situation is so bad that many colonies have vanished without a trace and thousands of people have been rendered homeless in Turkey and Syria. Even worse, many of the injured today may lose their life or limb over the next few days, inflating the statistics of direct and indirect deaths due to the disaster. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish President, described the earthquakes as the ‘biggest disaster’ ever to hit the country. Many foreign embassies and missions in the Turkish capital Ankara, flew their flags at half-mast as a mark of respect for the dead and wounded who may not have survived.
Tremors are fairly common in Turkey which happens to be one of the most earthquake-prone countries in the world. One of the deadliest natural disasters in the history of modern Turkey, the recent earthquake seems to be like the one in 1939 also with magnitude of 7.8 which left 32,968 people dead and over 100,000 injured. The recent earthquake is also being compared to and seems to be even worse than the earthquake in 1999, which lasted 37 seconds and left behind over 18,000 dead and many more injured.
Assistance Offered by India
Even though India and Turkey are not exactly each other’s best friends, India was one of the first countries to respond to Turkey’s distress calls. Prime Minister Narendra Modi decided to immediately send search and rescue, medical teams and relief material to Turkey and issued explicit instructions to extend all possible assistance and humanitarian aid to help Turkey cope with the disaster. Expressing his concern at the death and devastation due to the earthquake, Prime Minister Modi tweeted, “Anguished by the loss of lives and damage to property due to the earthquake in Turkey. Condolences to the bereaved families. May the injured recover soon. India stands in solidarity with the people of Turkey and is ready to offer all possible assistance to cope with this tragedy.”
In a separate message expressing solidarity with the people of Syria, Prime Minister Modi tweeted: “Deeply pained to learn that the devastating earthquake has also affected Syria. My sincere condolences to the families of the victims. We share the grief of Syrian people and remain committed to providing assistance and support in this difficult time.” In all probability, it was the brainchild of Prime Minister Modi who wanted to kill two birds with one stone and drill home the point that there are no permanent friends or enemies in international relations and a friend in need is a friend indeed. It was a perfect example of proactive diplomacy where you rule over people’s hearts and minds – not over territory and convert enemies into friends without fighting a pitched battle.
Action by the Government of India
According to an official statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) a high-level meeting was held in South Block to discuss immediate relief measures. The meeting was chaired by Dr P K Mishra, Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, who is a 1972 batch IAS officer from the Gujarat cadre who had served as the Principal Secretary to Narendra Modi when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat. The meeting was also attended by Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba, 1982 batch Jharkhand cadre IAS officer who is one of India’s most powerful bureaucrats and the right hand of the Prime Minister. Representatives of the Ministries of Home Affairs, NDMA, NDRF, Defence, MEA, Civil Aviation and Health and Family Welfare were also present in the meeting. It was decided in the meeting to immediately rush two teams of about 100 National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF) personnel, specially trained dog squads and drilling machines as well as necessary equipment for Search and Rescue operations, trained doctors and paramedics.
The 8th Battalion of NDRF led by Commandant PK Tiwari played a key role in this operation. “The Ghaziabad NDRF team has been tasked to conduct Search and Rescue operations in Gaziantep, the epicenter and most affected area of the earthquake in Turkey, about three hours from Adana airport. The relief material from various NDRF battalions under the National Disaster Response Reserve reached the NDRF 8th Battalion located in Ghaziabad. The NDRF team also helped in branding, packaging and loading medicines being sent by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Branding and packaging of NDRF relief material was done in the Ghaziabad NDRF Battalion to expedite the relief and rescue operations in the disaster-affected area”, said PK Tiwari, Commandant 8th Battalion, NDRF. Doctors and paramedics of 60 Para Field Hospital of the Indian Army based in Agra were also ordered to rush to Turkey and help the earthquake victims. This apart, orders were passed to dispatch over six tonne of relief material, life-saving medicines and emergency medical items to Turkey in the Indian Air Force (IAF) aircraft.
The first C-17 Globemaster III heavy lift aircraft of the IAF with over 50 Search & Rescue personnel, specially trained dog squads, drilling machines, relief material, medicines and other necessary utilities and equipment reached Adana, Türkiye. The second plane followed soon and the relief and rescue efforts commenced in full swing.
India and Turkey – What is Common?
India was one of the few countries that supported the Turkish War of Independence and the formation of the Turkish Republic. Indo-Turkish bilateral relations started with the establishment of diplomatic relations between India and Turkey in 1948. India has an embassy in Ankara and a Consulate General in Istanbul. Turkey has an embassy in New Delhi and a Consulate General in Mumbai. India and Turkey have many things in common in their history, heritage, and culture, for instance, there are over 9,000 common words in Hindi and Turkish language including the word ‘Dost’. The famous 72.6-metre tall ‘Qutub Minar’ constructed by Qutab Ud-Din-Aibak in 1500 A.D is also one of the common features. There are many similarities between Indian and Turkish cuisines. Food is something that not only provides nutrition but is an important element that unites people and cultures. As one Turkish diplomat once said, culturally, Turkey is another India.
Turkey’s Gravitational Pull Towards Pakistan
Despite being dipped in a ‘drum of Fevicol’, Indo-Turkish relations have invariably been strained, largely because of Turkey’s affinity, gravitational pull and unconditional love for Pakistan. Islam as a shared religion is the glue that binds Turkey and Pakistan – both staunchly Muslim nations. Citizens of Pakistan and Turkey are allowed to hold joint citizenship and dual passports of both countries. Turkey figures in the visa-free travel list in Pakistan. The main idea behind this is to promote tourism and business between the two countries. There are many similarities in the food, designs of clothing and culture of the two countries. Kebab, Pilaf and Halva are just a few things in common.
Diplomatic relations between Turkey and Pakistan were established in 1947, soon after Pakistan gained independence as the then largest Muslim country on the world map. The bilateral relations between the two countries grew from strength to strength because of shared geo-political, cultural, and religious links. Turkey was among the first few countries to recognise Pakistan after its creation and supported its inclusion as a member of the United Nations.
Interestingly, Quaid-i-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah visited Turkey in December 1947 and stated, “Pakistan admires the glorious past of Turkey and its administrative achievements and organisational abilities in the past and present times. Pakistan is now two months old and in the near future, the two brotherly countries are going to establish close cultural, commercial and political relations. A new happy era will emerge for these two countries.” Jinnah was a great fan of Field Marshal Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first President of the Republic of Turkey. Atatürk means ‘Father of the Turks’. It was the title given to Mustafa Kemal Pasha by the Turkish Parliament in 1934, in recognition of his role in building the modern Turkish Republic. Jinnah secretly desired to develop Pakistan on the Turkish model.
The Kadir Topbas Chowk in Lahore is a symbol of friendship between Turkey and Pakistan. It was inaugurated by Kadir Topbas, the Mayor of Istanbul (Turkey) on March 12, 2012. There are many roads in Islamabad (Attatürk Avenue), Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar and Larkana in Pakistan which are named after Atatürk. On a quid pro quo basis, Jinnah is revered in Turkey and a prominent road, the Cinnah Caddesi is named after him in Ankara. In the Turkish language, Jinnah is spelled as ‘Cinnah’. It is one of the most important all-weather roads with multiple lanes and is surrounded by high-rise buildings, residential complexes and public places in the city. It is an important landmark in Ankara and many government offices and embassies including India, Afghanistan and Canada as well as high-priced residential buildings along its route in the heart of the city.
Rise of General Pervez Musharraf
Even the Late General Pervez Musharraf, the 7th Chief of Army Staff and the tenth President of Pakistan after the military take-over, grew up in the Turkish Capital Ankara where his father was posted on a diplomatic assignment with the Pakistan Foreign Ministry. Musharraf, who was born in Delhi, spent his early childhood (1949–1956) in Istanbul and was deeply influenced by Mustafa Kemal Pasha whom he considered his hero. Musharraf, who served as a second lieutenant during the Indo-Pakistani War in 1965, was commissioned in the regiment of artillery after completing training at the Pakistan Military Academy and the Royal College of Defence Studies in the United Kingdom. Musharraf also attended various military training courses in Turkey and admired the manner in which the military traditionally played an important role and influenced Turkish domestic policy.
After he took over as President of Pakistan in June 2001, General Pervez Musharraf who could fluently speak Turkish, the 13th most widely spoken language in the world, managed to convince his counterparts in Turkey to sign at least five agreements to fight organised crime as well as cooperate and exchange information on international terrorism in his visit to Ankara in 2004. The timing of Musharraf’s first official three-day visit to Ankara the Turkish capital was important considering the fact that since he became President, the Pakistani leader had survived two assassination attempts in his own country and needed someone he could trust to watch his back. Their common enemy was radical Islamic groups affiliated with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network which was behind a series of deadly suicide bombings in Turkey in November 2003.
Hence, the façade to put up a joint fight against terrorism and organised crime was one of Musharraf’s three main topics for discussion with the Turkish leadership and a short address at Çankaya Mansion which used to be the Presidential residence before becoming the official residence of the Turkish Prime Minister. Later, addressing a joint press conference, Musharraf and Ahmet Necdet Sezer the then-Turkish President, announced that the anti-terrorism agreement covered the exchange of information and experts between the two countries. Musharraf also held separate talks with the Turkish Prime Minister and Turkish government officials including General Ilker Basbug, the Deputy Army Chief of Staff and addressed the Grand National Assembly (Turkish parliament).
Significantly, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former Mayor of Istanbul and leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) who was at the time the Prime Minister, is now the 12th President of Turkey. On October 26, 2009, he became the fourth global leader to address the Pakistani Parliament and was awarded the Nishan-e-Pakistan (Order of Pakistan), the highest civilian award by the President of Pakistan, equivalent to Nishan-e-Haider, the highest military gallantry award. Some of the other prominent world leaders who have received the Nishan-e-Pakistan include Queen Elizabeth II, Bhumibol Adulyadej (King of Thailand), Hussein bin Talal (King of Jordan), King Birendra (King of Nepal), Dwight D Eisenhower (President of the United States), Richard Nixon (President of the United States), Xi Jinping (President of China), Josip Broz Tito (President of Yugoslavia), Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (Shah of Iran), Nelson Mandela (President of South Africa) and Morarji Desai (Prime Minister of India).
Musharraf also served as the Deputy Military Secretary and Director General of Military Operations of the Pakistan Army before taking over as the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) following General Jehangir Karamat’s resignation. It was the first and only time a Pakistani COAS resigned instead of staging a coup and seizing power. The COAS always made it a point to develop a close relationship with the Turkish military and strengthen the long-standing military ties between the two countries.
Turkey’s Role in Pakistan
Turkey, in turn, helped train Pakistan Air Force officers and upgrade its F-16 fleet and provided the required spare parts while the Turkish ambassador to Pakistan spent almost a week in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to show Turkey’s solidarity with Pakistan with regard to Kashmir. Turkey has always supported Pakistan’s stance on the Kashmir conflict and recognised Jammu and Kashmir as part of Pakistan, while Pakistan supports Turkey’s policy in Cyprus. Turkey mistakenly believes that being an Islamist nation, it has a duty to care for Kashmiris, just like the Palestinians for whom it has even alienated Israel and USA, who used to be its best friends.
Turkey is, today, Pakistan’s major arms supplier. Pakistan is purchasing T129 ATAK attack helicopters for the Pakistan Army Aviation Corps (PAAC), to replace the aging Bell AH-1F Cobra gunships. Earlier, the scheduled date of delivery of T129 got delayed due to US sanctions on Turkey. The United States Department of Defense (DoD) refused to issue the export license for the LHTEC T800-4A turbo-shaft engines for the gunships, due to diplomatic issues between USA and Turkey. In January 2022, a number of reports suggested that Pakistan was on the verge of canceling the deal for the 30 T129s. However, Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the Pakistani military’s public relations wing, issued a rejoinder denying the whole thing and stated that the deal was not being terminated.
The T129 ATAK is a twin-engine, multi-role, all-weather attack helicopter based on the Agusta A129 Mangusta platform developed by the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) in association with Leonardo (Agusta Westland Helicopters). The helicopter is designed for armed reconnaissance and attack missions in hot and high environments and over difficult terrain by both day and night. The Turkish Armed Forces are using the T129 ATAK helicopter with Turkish avionics, airframe modifications and weapon systems as armed tactical reconnaissance and attack helicopters.
Turkey sold four MILGEM-class (MILGEM project) Ada class corvette ships to Pakistan worth $1.5 billion – in the single largest military export deal, while Pakistan in turn supplied 52 Super Mushak trainer turbo-props to the Turkish Air Force. This helped Turkey train new pilots and tide over the shortage of pilots after the attempted coup to overthrow President Erdogan on the night of Friday, July 15, 2016.
Over the last decade, nearly 1,500 Pakistani military officers have received training in Turkey and are now collaborating to produce their own fighter jets, drones and stealth fighters while Pakistan’s ISI and the Turkish intelligence agencies collaborated with each other in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ironically, Turkey has been contributing troops to the international peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, while Pakistan, that used to actively support the Taliban in the 1990s, has now vowed to fight the armed groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Initially, both countries agreed to join the coalition forces in Iraq at the behest of the USA, but Turkey, which in beginning agreed, subsequently withdrew its troops at Iraq’s behest.
Partners in Mischief
Turkish President Erdogan dropped a bombshell when he expressed a desire to mediate between India and Pakistan to settle the long-standing Kashmir issue and thus relieve the immense agony and suffering of the Kashmiri Muslims. He said so while on a visit to Pakistan at the invitation of the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in November 2016. On yet another occasion, Turkey helped Pakistan set up a secret cyber-army to attack the US and India under the garb of rebutting propaganda and disinformation against Pakistan and its rulers. The plan was reportedly hatched in 2018, and was given a green signal by Prime Minister Imran Khan. The confidential plan was allegedly developed at the highest level in Islamabad’s interior Ministry. Even senior officials were kept out of the discussions which were done on a need-to-know basis, though Shehryar Khan Afridi, the then Pakistani Minister of State for Interior and the Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu were kept in the loop. Interestingly, the then Prime Minister Imran Khan himself officiated as the Union Interior Minister.
During the 1971 war for the Liberation of Bangladesh, Turkey supported Pakistan diplomatically and even militarily. Turkey did not accept Bangladesh as an independent state until Pakistan accepted it in 1974. Turkey has sided with Pakistan on a number of occasions because of common Islamic religious roots. Turkey has been opposing India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers Group. Turkey reportedly stood by Pakistan and criticised India at the United Nations on the Jammu and Kashmir issue and revocation of Article 370 in September 2019. Indo-Turkish ties deteriorated after the abrogation of Article 370 which diluted the special status of Jammu and Kashmir. Since then, both India and Turkey have been indulging in shadow boxing – hitting each other, mostly indirectly, at various international fora.
Delivering a speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the 12th and current President of Turkey, raised the Kashmir issue in 2019. Prime Minister Modi responded by holding meetings with the leaders of Armenia, Cyprus and Greece, three countries with which Turkey has strained relations and disputes. Likewise, Prime Minister Modi who was slated to visit Turkey and Saudi Arabia in October 2019, canceled his visit to Turkey and only visited Saudi Arabia, sending a strong message to Ankara that it cannot take India for granted.
Erdogan raised the Kashmir issue again at the UNGA during his speeches in 2020 and 2021. In 2020, India’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, TS Tirumurti, counter-attacked by saying that Turkey should first respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other nations. In 2021, India’s External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met Ioannis Kasoulides the Foreign Minister of the Republic of Cyprus during his first official visit to Cyprus on the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and Cyprus and had a prolonged discussion on “Turkey’s provocative actions against Cyprus”. Jaishankar also signed a Memorandum of Understanding on defence and military cooperation. Significantly, Turkey invaded Cyprus on July 20, 1974, violating international law as well as the UN Charter and went on to carve the Turkish-occupied territory of the Republic of Cyprus in 1983. The occupation is viewed as illegal under international law and no country recognises Turkish Cyprus except Turkey.
As a counter-offensive move, India called upon Turkey to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. The trend continued in 2022 when just a week after his meeting with Prime Minister Modi, Erdogan once again raked up the Kashmir issue in his speech at the UNGA. This prompted Jaishankar to meet the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevut Cavusoglu and raise the Cyprus issue. Jaishankar also met Nikos Dendias, the Greek Foreign Minister. The stalemate continues particularly because of Turkey’s reluctance to decouple itself from Pakistan and conduct relations with India independently. Turkey’s affinity towards Pakistan has been a major irritant in Indo-Turkish bilateral relations.
Anti-India Stance of Turkey
Of late, Turkey has also been encouraging radical Islamic youth to relocate their base to Istanbul and Ankara. Turkey is increasingly being used or allowing itself to be used as a hub for all kinds of conspiracies and planned anti-India activities. Reportedly, Turkey is also indoctrinating journalists, providing scholarships and funding anti-India NGOs. Insan Hak ve Hurriyetleri ve Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), a Turkish NGO has close links with the Popular Front of India (PFI), a radical Islamic political organisation banned by the Indian Home Ministry for a period of five years under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on September 28, 2022. The PFI is allegedly promoting radical Islam and nurturing groups.
There is a saying – there can be no smoke without fire. Some of the weapons seized from terrorist groups recently were found to have Turkish markings. But all said and done, diplomacy they say, is the art and science of converting your worst enemies into your best friends without actually firing the first bullet. The biggest plus point in India’s favour is that it has always treated even its enemy with dignity and respect. In the 1971 war, even after capturing large tracts of the enemy territory in East Pakistan, the Indian Army vacated gracefully and allowed the creation of Bangladesh as an independent nation. Likewise, even after taking 93,000 Pakistani soldiers as prisoners of war in the largest surrender since World War II, not a single one of them was tortured. Rather, the prisoners of war were transported by train and air to specially rigged-up camps in different parts of India where the Indian army took care of their safety and well-being.
It is worth mentioning that Lt Gen JS Aurora even allowed the Pakistani Prisoners of War to retain their small arms to protect themselves against the Mukti Bahini which wanted to take revenge for the atrocities committed by the Pakistani servicemen. All the prisoners of war were treated strictly in accordance with the Geneva Convention and eventually released at Zero Point, Wagah and the Line of Control (LoC).
Proactive Diplomacy – Making the Right Moves at the Right Time
On the face of it, this smart diplomatic initiative at the right time – hit the bull’s eye. Fırat Sunel, the Turkish Ambassador to India, Nepal and Bhutan tweeted: “Dost” is a common word in Turkish and Hindi… We have a Turkish proverb: “Dost kara günde belli olur” (a friend in need is a friend indeed). As they say- all’s well that ends well. This is exactly what India wanted. This has been a creditable victory for diplomacy of the present Government of India.