At times events in one area can have unpredictable consequences even in far way domains. We have seen striking examples in the past and we might be on the brink of a similar experience today because of COVID-19. We may call it “unintended connections”! I have in mind diplomatic breakthroughs triggered by disparate unrelated events elsewhere.
The first example is what was dubbed as Ping-Pong diplomacy. The process started with an invitation by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) of an American ping-pong team to China in 1971. That sporting event opened the way to political dialogue and eventually led to the normalization of relations between the USA and the PRC. Until that time the USA refused to recognize the communist Chinese government which had taken control of the country back in 1949. With high-level visits by political leaders that followed the ping-pong encounter, ties between the two countries gradually improved.
The second example was closer to home. Turkish-Greek relations took a turn for the better after the two successive earthquakes in 1999 first in Turkey, then in Greece causing high casualties and devastation that generated a spontaneous demonstration of solidarity and mutual help between the Turkish and Greek peoples. Political leaders took the cue and subsequent diplomatic steps opened a novel phase of cooperation between the two neighbors. This process is now referred to as the “earthquake diplomacy”.
Now we have COVID-19, a pandemic playing havoc with our lives and the established international order. The world is already not the one we knew only a few months ago. When and if the pandemic is over, we will be probably be living in a “brave new world” a la Aldous Huxley.
So far, the international response to COVID-19 has been inadequate and at best sporadic and ad hoc. The pandemic is global, yet the response to date has been and remains local - at the national level. World Health Organization (WHO) lacks clout and authority beyond giving expert advice and warnings. The need, however, is for an earth-wide set of measures. Perhaps the UN Security Council should be called to duty. Instead what we are seeing are countries self-isolating, taking different steps to fight the pandemic. What is not clear is whether the measures taken at the national level constitute an integrated whole at the international level or are in conflict with one another. This is for the scientists to answer. But the responsibility for failing to come together to develop a global strategy to fight COVID-19 will forever belong to our political leaders.
Let me now return to my proposition that COVID-19 too, like the ping-pong and earthquake examples before it, might/could/should lead to openings in diplomacy. What I have in mind is more than the examples of China and Cuba extending a helping hand to Italy. I am more impressed by the news of cooperation between Israel and Palestine to contain the virus. That is a striking leap of faith between two intractable enemies, one which hopefully may lead to other improvements in their relations.
In the Turkish language Gazete Duvar, I earlier called for the induction of “corona diplomacy” by Turkey in its relations with Syria. Here is why! There have so far been just a few cases of COVID-19 infections in Syria. But that does unfortunately not mean the Syrians will be spared. They have suffered enough already. And if the pandemic hits Syria, the results could be catastrophic. Their infrastructure has been decimated by years of armed conflict. They are short on hospitals, medicines and medical equipment and in many parts of Syria, these facilities probably do not exist at all. Millions live in crowded settings in make-shift lodgings. COVID-19 could kill thousands and more.
In short, Syria needs help and Turkey can provide that help. This is necessary not only for the good of the Syrian people but also for the safety and health of our own citizens. We play host to more than four million Syrians in Turkey. We should feel a similar obligation toward the millions still in their country, especially since the Turkish Government’s policies have a large share of the responsibility for the continuation of the war in Syria.
Hence, Turkey should call for a country-wide ceasefire in Syria and ask the UN Security Council to adopt a resolution to this end. The Syrian Government must on its part be willing to cooperate. Then contacts should be initiated by Turkey with the Syrian Government in Damascus to develop a joint plan of action to fight the pandemic. Turkey should be a leading partner in this humanitarian endeavor.
This is the hour of truth. Let the darkness of the pandemic be the gateway to the light of improved ties between Turkey and Syria.
Faruk Loğoğlu is a retired diplomat and a former deputy of the Republican People’s Party (CHP).