Earthquakes with epicenter in the Kahramanmaras in southern Türkiye have already recorded a grim death toll of more than 8000 in Türkiye, and northwest of Syria, at time of writing. Experts with W.H.O. and elsewhere are fearing a much higher toll, as time goes by, and all the missing are accounted for.

The hard winter weather conditions and the damage to approach roads delay search and rescue operations adding to the toll. The number of injured now stands at more than 21,000. There have been more than 100 aftershocks with 4758 buildings destroyed in Türkiye alone.

More than 70 countries are rushing in relief material, and search or rescue teams to Turkey. President Erdogan has declared a seven-day mourning, and an Emergency to last almost till the presidential election in May 2023.

There is another factor hindering the rendering of speedy assistance. The area affected in Türkiye has Syrian refugees, as many as 4 million living in subhuman conditions even before the disaster. The area in Syria is only partly under the control of Damascus.

Another part is held by anti-Assad rebels under attack from his forces supported by Russia and Iran. Yet another part is held by anti-Assad rebels. There was an outbreak of cholera there recently.

Though the epicenter is in Türkiye, Syria has been severely affected even though some media reports in India refer only to Türkiye in headlines. Unfortunately, Syria is getting less attention for reasons that are not good.

Syria is under sanctions and the West has not yet lifted those sanctions. The right thing to do is to lift the sanctions immediately.

The historic city of Aleppo, mentioned by Shakespeare in ‘Macbeth’, rich in UNESCO-listed monuments, has been badly destroyed. The minaret at the Abbuyid Mosque has been damaged.

It was the 1755 earthquake in Lisbon with a toll of 30,000 or more that prompted the thinkers in the age of Enlightenment in Europe to question the doctrine of an All-Merciful Divinity. Voltaire satirized the theory that ours is the best of all possible words in ‘Candide’ in the character of Dr. Pangloss. Immanuel Kant meticulously studied the earthquake and its impact and laid the foundation for modern seismology.

Let us look at the response of the international community in general and of India in particular.

We start with the P-5. President Biden spoke to President Erdogan and the Administration is sending aid. Biden has not spoken to Syrian President Basher Al Assad. Nor is there any report of the Administration sending any aid to Syria.

Russian President Putin has spoken to the presidents of two countries and aid has been sent. China, France, and the U.K. have announced aid to Türkiye and Syria.

The European Union, Japan, Egypt, Mexico, South Korea, and many others have rushed in aid. In this context we may take note that Greece, not entertaining good neighborly relations with Türkiye for reasons well known, has rushed in aid. Due note should be taken of a cash-strapped Lebanon’s sending aid. All told, 45 countries have promised aid.

Coming to India, Prime Minister Modi tweeted “Anguished by the loss of lives and damage of 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.”

India has already dispatched aid material including skilled dog squads, medical supplies, advanced drilling equipment along with personnel, men and women. The BBC noted that teams from India, Israel, and Germany were the first to reach Türkiye.

We may note that there is no mention of Syria in Modi’s initial tweet. It is understood that the Syrian Embassy had kept the G.O.I./P.M.O. in the picture about the death toll and damage in Syria. The Prime Minister in a course correction tweeted support for Syria, offering aid and assistance.

The latest is that M.O.S. Muraleedharan in a special gesture called on the Syrian Ambassador on February 7 2023 and offered condolences and assistance. The M.E.A. should be complimented for elegantly correcting a serious mistake.

When I was in service, and that was in the last millennium when there was no social media such as Twitter, the joint secretary in charge of the area where the disaster occurred would decide to initiate action for a response from India depending on the relevant factors.

The Foreign Secretary, getting approval from E.A.M. if time permitted, would request P.M.O. for a final decision. Thereafter, it is for the Cabinet Secretary to take consequential action. If any message had to be issued from the Prime Minister, the M.E.A. would have provided a draft.

We see that the ruling party, other parties, and the Central government is preoccupied with state elections to be held shortly, and the big one in 2024. It is important to note that M.E.A. should not be distracted by domestic developments such as elections, or even of any domestic controversy about any foreign policy decision taken in national interest. It is M.E.A.’s task to pursue national interest without mixing it with narrow partisan debates in India.

In this context it is impossible not to point out that India should have rushed to Pakistan’s assistance when it was ravaged by floods. As the prices of tomatoes and onion rose, with the housewives getting angry with the government of Pakistan, it was an ideal opportunity for India to ask, or rather demand, Pakistan to open the road traffic between Amritsar and Lahore for goods transport.

Officially India failed to act despite its much noise about the motto: Vasudeva Kutumbakam. Nor did any NGO come up with any action plan.

I wrote a piece advocating sending aid to Pakistan. I argued that humanitarian aid can be part of smart diplomacy as there is an allergy to ‘humanitarian aid’ among some in Delhi. A few of my tribe derived malicious pleasure from Pakistan’s pain to my disgust.

India aided Sri Lanka with U.S. $ 4 billion. Additionally, India could have convened an international conference on aid to Sri Lanka as the situation there got worse. The P5, IMF, World Bank, ADB, and other stakeholders could have been invited. There is reason to believe that had India asked for it, the UN would have been a joint convener.

In the UN sponsored pledging conference reports do not indicate India’s offer of aid. The conference held in Geneva resulted in raising more than U.S. $ 8 Billion from donors.

India is a major power with the legitimate ambition to a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, not to speak of the status of the ‘Vishwa Guru’ now holding the G-20 crown.

India in its capacity as the G20 chair should seriously consider convening a pledging conference for assistance to Türkiye and Syria emphasising that human beings are human beings irrespective of the passport they hold and that Syria deserves assistance and support from the international community despite the political differences and the presence or absence of diplomatic relations. The West should be urged to lift the sanctions on Syria.

This is the hour to uphold the essential unity of humanity in tune with India’s motto: One Earth, One Planet, One Future.

Prime Minister Modi should speak to his counterparts in Turkey and Syria. Tweets are good, but not good enough in the grave situation faced by millions.

Cover Photograph: Aleppo, Syria destroyed in the earthquake.

Ambassador K. P. Fabian served in IFS from 1964 to 2000. His latest book is THE ARAB SPRING THAT WAS AND WASN’T commissioned by INDIAN COUNCIL OF WORLD AFFAIRS.