How should IR scholars respond to tragedy?

6 February 2023, 1510 EST

Like many, I woke up in shock at the massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria. The earthquake, centered in Gaziantep, has killed 3,000 as of Monday afternoon devastated southeast Turkey and northern Syria. In addition to Gaziantep, other affected Turkish cities were Sanliurfa and Diyarbakir [Note-these aren’t the proper spellings as I can’t figure out how to insert Turkish characters].

The tragedy of Turkey’s southeast

Any destruction and death on this scale is a tragedy, but the earthquake followed a string of other problems for the region. Turkey’s southeast was long marginalized, and the site of an insurgency by its Kurdish population. This seemed like it may change when the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in Turkey in 2002; the AKP invested in the southeast’s economy and made overtures to the Kurds.

It seemed particularly unfair that this region should suffer further.

When I first visited Gaziantep (also known as Antep), in 2009, it was booming. Expanded relations between Turkey and Syria led to a rise in Syrian tourism, from which Antep–on the border–benefited. New construction projects dotted the city and the local officials and civic groups I met with were full of pride and optimism. Nearby Sanliurfa (or Urfa), was quieter but still vibrant, attracting tourists to its many holy sites.

This did not last, however. As the Arab Spring spiraled into civi war in Syria, this region of Turkey absorbed many of the refugees fleeing the conflict. The resulting social and economic strain reversed some of this progress. Meanwhile, the AKP’s Erdogan slid further and further into authoritarianism, while the Kurdish conflict broke out again. And the bordering region of Syria–centered on the city of Aleppo–was devastated by the civil war.

So it seemed particularly unfair that this region should suffer further. Given Erdogan’s administrative and economic struggles, and the Syrian government’s lack of concern for its citizens, I’m skeptical that they will rebuild this area.

What should we say?

When I read the news this morning I thought I should say something. I try to avoid Facebook, and have increasingly avoided Twitter since Musk’s takeover, so the usual post on those sites wasn’t going to happen. I have this platform, but it felt lame to write a blog post that just says “how horrible.”

Is it a problem to write about how horrible a disaster is if I have nothing helpful to contribute?

I tried to think of some analytical spin on this. But it didn’t feel right. Should we really take a tragedy and use it to highlight our research? It would be one thing if I studied post-disaster reconstruction, but nothing I work on would really contribute to the response to this disaster.

At the same time, “thoughts and prayers” has come under fire, at least in the United States. This tends to be how conservatives respond to mass shootings, instead of taking action to prevent them. Does that extend to international relations? Is it a problem to write about how horrible a disaster is if I have nothing helpful to contribute?


I’d say definitely if I used this post to talk about how this disaster affected me (i.e. “I hope that kebab place I liked survived). And anytime a Westerner writes about the tragedy and promise of the Middle East it comes off a bit Orientalist. But maybe there is a way to just express solidarity, and maybe that’s better than trying to force an analysis onto a tragedy.

At the least, here is a useful article listing the organizations currently on the ground in Turkey and Syria.