Turkey’s Men in Syria

How the Gaza flotilla organizers became the best hope of Syrian refugees abandoned by the world.


ISTANBUL — Two years ago, a largely unknown Turkish aid organization found itself in the middle of a showdown between the Middle East’s most powerful countries. The Humanitarian Relief Foundation, known by the acronym IHH, had sponsored a flotilla intent on breaching the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza to deliver aid and construction materials. As the ships approached Gaza, Israeli commandoes stormed the MV Mavi Marmara, the largest vessel in the flotilla, and in the ensuing struggle killed nine activists, most of whom were connected to IHH. The raid caused a rupture in the Israeli-Turkish relationship, one that lingers to this day: Ankara still refuses to normalize ties with the Jewish state until it issues an apology for the attack.

The flotilla raid also showed how the fates of the Turkish government and IHH were intertwined. Turkey’s popularity in the Arab world soared in the wake of the standoff, while IHH, which is allegedly close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), received strong financial support following the crisis from grassroots donors.

Now, Ankara and IHH are working together again — this time in war-wracked Syria. IHH is one of the few international or domestic aid organizations allowed by the Turkish government to provide humanitarian services to the approximately 80,000 Syrian refugees registered in the country and, also, officially cross the border into Syria.

While IHH denies being given favorable treatment by the government, it serves as an important part of Turkey’s soft-power strategy around the world. In recent weeks, members of its 50-person relief team began crossing into Syria to offer food and medical assistance in stricken areas such as Aleppo, Idlib, and Hama provinces. IHH has also moved a "mobile kitchen" into Syria at the Bab Salam border crossing, and provides food for the thousands of refugees waiting along the border to enter Turkey when new camps are completed. Through these steps, IHH appears to be bolstering Turkey’s image as a supporter of the uprising — even as Ankara hesitates about taking more aggressive action to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

"Quick response, quick distribution, quick come back," said Izzet Sahin, a senior member of IHH, describing how the organization’s aid workers have braved regime jets and helicopters during one-day forays into Syria to deliver aid. Sahin, who studied at Saudi Arabia’s Islamic University of Madinah and speaks fluent Arabic, works out of the organization’s Istanbul headquarters — but stays in close touch with developments in the conflict and the aid distribution work on the ground. A serious but affable man in his early forties, Sahin only agreed to speak with Foreign Policy after receiving permission from the most senior members of IHH, a sign of the organization’s tight control over information.

The role of IHH — a pious organization composed almost entirely of Sunni Muslims — is not only emblematic of Ankara’s more assertive role in the Middle East, but also Turkey’s resurgent Islamic identity. While the organization claims to be active in 126 countries worldwide and not differentiate based on sect, the Syrian conflict — where predominantly Sunni rebels are fighting against an Alawite-dominated regime — clearly inspired particular enthusiasm. Sahin, for example, spoke of helping their "brothers" in Syria, no matter the hazards.

The aid, previously handed over the border fence or given out in the Turkish city of Antakya, is now being delivered to Syria in trucks with Turkish license plates, Sahin said. The group is aware of the risks, but has deemed the crisis severe enough to send its aid workers into the country.

"[T]he Syrian regime can easily bomb all the humanitarian aid workers, the humanitarian aid, even the people who receive the aid, but there is not any other way to help the Syrian people," Sahin said. "The United Nations tried to open the humanitarian aid channel inside Syria, but they couldn’t until now."

IHH staff on the ground sees themselves as part of a lonely effort to provide relief to a country that the world has abandoned.

"The U.N., what is it doing? Why was it established? What is the [U.N.] refugee council doing?" said an IHH aid worker who is part of the organization’s 50-person team along the border.

He said that IHH had a long history of working in Syria, where the organization had previously aided Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. Now it was aiding the Syrians themselves — a task the aid worker said was made easier because of the family ties between people living on both sides of the border.

"We have relatives in every city," he said. "In this sense there is nothing that provides us difficulty in providing aid inside Syria. There are some parts of Syria that are even closer to me than Istanbul."

But in a sign of how intertwined it is with the Turkish government, IHH has had difficulty working among populations not in Ankara’s good graces. The aid worker admitted that IHH had not reached Qamishli, a Kurdish city just across the border from Turkey that was largely free of regime forces. "The Syrian government supports some of the groups in this region," the aid worker said, a reference to Kurdish insurgents. "They were supporting them since before this uprising. This constitutes a problem for our group in this area."

Despite not being able to access all areas from where regime forces had retreated from, both Sahin and the aid worker maintained that IHH was focused on helping the victims of the crisis, no matter their religious sect or political affiliation.

Keeping Turkey’s relationship with Syria’s rebels on an even keel is no small feat. Over the past months, activists and members of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) have more than once questioned what side of the conflict Turkey is on.

For instance, following tensions with the local Alawite population earlier this month, Turkish authorities began issuing notices to Syrian refugees renting houses and flats in Antakya notifying them that they were required to move to other cities. If strongly enforced, the decision could severely impede the Syrian opposition, which has used Antakya as a rear base where it can procure supplies, receive medical treatment, and rest.

Ankara has also failed to follow through on its oft-bellicose rhetoric toward the Assad regime, leading some Syrian activists to consider it a paper tiger.

"We are past the phase when the Syrians were expecting Turkey to take bold steps for the Syrian opposition," said Ufuk Ulutas, a Middle East researcher at the Ankara-based SETA think tank, which is affiliated with the AKP. "Turkey has a certain limit and certain capacity and Turkey is doing its best to help the Syrian refugees."

IHH, however, represents a tangible example of Turkish goodwill. It has spent a grand total of $9.1 million to deliver Syria-related aid in Turkey and inside Syria, and also through affiliate aid organizations in Lebanon and Jordan, said Sahin.

Its work has been impressive: Since first establishing operations along the Syrian border in the spring of 2011, IHH has helped with the distribution of food, clothing, and medical supplies in the refugee camps and also in cities and towns. The organization has also provided the refugees with household appliances such as mini-fridges, fans, stoves, food, and clothing. It has made some cash donations, especially to widows and orphans, said Sahin. There are two mobile medical clinics in the border area that treat wounded refugees as they enter Turkey, along with the mobile kitchen in Syria. IHH also has a medical rehabilitation center in Antakya, and has sponsored some refugees’ surgeries in private clinics in Istanbul, according to Sahin.

Inside Syria, IHH has provided food, dry rations, milk, special nutrition products, baby food, first aid, health kits, cleaning supplies, blood bags, and blood clotting products. And going forward, IHH is only planning for Syrians’ needs to increase.

"Because no one knows when the problems will finish in Syria and winter is coming, it will be very hard for the refugees," Sahin said.

But IHH doesn’t only hand out aid — at times, it plays a diplomatic role that the Turkish government simply cannot, given its open hostility to the Syrian government. In May, Sahin traveled to Damascus along with IHH’s president, Bulent Yildirim, to negotiate the release of two Turkish journalists captured by regime forces.

He described the experience as "very difficult" due to the bad relations between the Turkish government and Syrian regime. "The Syrian regime does not differentiate between government and NGOs," he said. "Syria is the most complicated place that I witnessed."

Negotiating the release of the two journalists had taken almost two months. Going to Damascus was just the final step. While there, they made a request to deliver aid to other affected cities through cooperation with the Syrian Red Crescent and local NGOs. They also asked for the release of children and women in jail, Sahin said. There was no response to either request.

IHH portrays itself as solely interested in acting on humanitarian grounds, but as anyone who followed the Gaza flotilla crisis knows, there are often strong political feelings behind the causes that the organization throws its weight behind. In conversations with people that work for the organization, it is clear that the Syrian conflict’s potential to realign regional politics produces a special enthusiasm. The aid worker voiced a commonly held view in Turkey that — after peaceful revolutions gave way to civil war — international actors had become embroiled in a proxy fight in Syria.

"It’s a security problem. If there was no Israel, this Syrian problem would have already been solved," said the aid worker. "A new system based on the will of the people constitutes a threat for Israel."

The conflict in Syria had the potential to end a legacy many inhabitants of the region feel was bequeathed by colonial powers, said the aid worker. Sahin said that IHH called on the international community to pressure the Assad regime into ending the violence. However, the organization opposed foreign intervention, he said, because it would cause violence to spread throughout the region, citing Iran and Israel as key parts to this dynamic.

Although Israel has called for Assad’s departure, IHH clearly sees the principles that underlie its activism on Syria as a natural extension of the group’s efforts to provide relief to Gaza. Sahin said that the time had come for all inhabitants of the region to "respect each other and the borders of others," seemingly alluding to the region’s other unsolved conflicts.

So even as the United States and the IHH find themselves aligned on Syria, that doesn’t mean that Sahin has forgotten what he termed Western "double standards" when it came to Israel.

"If they continue their pressure on the Palestinian people, I am afraid the conflicts in the region will continue and everyone in the region will be affected from these conflicts, as we are [seeing] now with what’s going on in Syria."

Justin Vela is an Istanbul-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @justinvela.