Turkey's IHH in Syria and the Middle East

The start of its activity dates back to the Bosnian war in the midst 1990s. According to the Wall Street Journal investigation activists who were responsible for running the Bosnian affiliate of the IHH served in the Bosnian Army's 7th Muslim Brigade, which back then served as umbrella commanding structure for the foreign Muslim volunteers fighting along the Bosnian locals. The IHH activity in the 1990s became a part of the French investigation into the terrorist activity of Hocine Bendaoui and Laïfa Khabou who tried to carry out a car bombing in 1996. According to the official investigation reports, the IHH allegedly was involved in providing of the logistical support for the perpetrators.[1] On July 12, 2010 Germany banned IHH local branch because of its financial support for the Hamas, who is classified as a terrorist organization by the German government. Then Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said the Frankfurt-based IHH abused donors' good intentions "to support a terrorist organization with money supposedly donated for charitable purposes."[2]

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, a think-tank close to the Israeli Intelligence, reported in 2011 that the IHH is closely linked to the Turkish government through close cooperation with state Center for International Cooperation and Development (Turk. TIKA)[3]. Hakan Fidan, who served between 2003-2007 as a head of the TIKA was appointed in May 2010 as chief of the Turkish intelligence and security service (Turk. MIT), an obscure state agency with a rapidly expanding budget ($560 millions in 2016)[4]. Prominence of MIT’s activity in recent years was caused by numerous reports on its activity in the Syrian conflict. In May 2015 Cumhuriyet newspaper published photos of trucks, allegedly belonging to the Intelligence Service, loaded with ammunition meant for Turkey friendly armed opposition in Syria[5]

Since the outbreak of war in Syria the IHH has been enjoyed a privileged treatment by the Turkish government. The organization in a short time managed to build a network of humanitarian facilities along the Turkish-Syrian borders providing food, shelter and assistance to the Syrian refugees. Justin Vela from the Foreign Policy reported in 2012 that the IHH’s activity was not confined with mere humanitarian relief. “It times, it plays a diplomatic role that the Turkish government simply cannot, given its open hostility to the Syrian government. In May, Sahin, one of the managers within the organization, traveled to Damascus along with IHH’s president, Bulent Yildirim, to negotiate the release of two Turkish journalists captured by regime forces”.[6]

International Crisis Group back in 2013 in its reports of the risks Turkey may face with a deepening crisis along its border noted that IHH’s more or less neutral position in the war may eventually expand Turkey’s capacity to lead events on the ground. The think-tank cites a case of successful negotiations run by the IHH that led to the exchange across active front lines of 48 Iranians held by the Syrian opposition for more than 2,000 rebels detained by the Syrian government.[7]

The IHH activists were involved in numerous cases where Turkish government allegedly tried to use the NGO’s trucks to deliver ammunition to the Syrian border under the disguise of humanitarian help. Most famous case was January 1, 2014 incident in Hatay province with a truck that was stopped by local police who later reported MIT officials were involved in ammunition transfer. Few hours later MIT officials and a truck were released upon intervention of the governor. Two weeks later police in several provinces raided IHH branches during raids against al-Qaeda networks in Turkey. The IHH name appeared in all these operations though, according to the Turkish political commentator Mustafa Akyol, “few people believed in this account of events. In the social media, thousands commented that the raid was in fact orchestrated by the members of the Gülen Movement within the police. They believed that the IHH was “targeted” for its links with the government, which was again “targeted” by the movement in question for political reasons.”

The non-governmental character of the IHH is one of the merits and reasons why Turkish government may want to exploit the organizations further in its involvement in the Syrian civil war. Government’s direct support for the opposition forces caused wrath of Ankara’s western partners and led to the broad debates domestically. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is considered to be a staunch opponent of Assad and seeks to support major opposition factions in Syria. In the face of Russian involvement and advancing Syrian army Ankara has long been considering an establishment of the safe zone near its borders that could protect Syrian opposition and host refugees. At the same time Ankara witness lack of enthusiasm about its safe zone proposal on part of its Western allies, Europe and US.

This very combination of factors may explain why Turkish government bets on the IHH in control of its borders and logistical activities. As The Brookings Institution and Ankara-based International Strategic Research Organization (Turk. USAK) experts agree “Turkish authorities have ingeniously come up with a policy that enables the extension of cross-border assistance without directly challenging the principle of Syrian national sovereignty. AFAD, the Turkish Red Crescent and İHH play a critical role in managing this assistance. However, both the legal and practical bases of this policy remain very precarious.”[8] Marc Pierini, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Europe, confirms the observations and states that “the Turkish NGO IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation is setting up refugee camps on the Syrian side of the border as a way to enforce the safe zone the government in Ankara has long called for, but without any possibility of military protection, least of all from Turkish forces.”[9]

It is not totally clear, however, to what extend the IHH feels obliged to follow Ankara’s official line in Syria. The IHH high ranking officials despite its close connections to the government and AKP politicians allow afford to criticize Ankara on numerous occasions. The IHH’s head, Bulent Yildirim bashed government officials for normalizing of relation with Israel, hinted on the failed Kurdish policy of Ankara and expressed regret over newly signed refugee agreement between Turkey and the EU. Noah Blaser and Aaron Stein’s recent investigation in the The Islamic State’s Network in Turkey revealed connections between perpetrators of the terrorist attacks on the Turkish soil, and the Islamic State. The main important link between its Turkish branch and the IS in Syria was the IHH, who provided the activist, willingly or otherwise, an opportunity to travel via borders[10].

[8] The Brookings Institution, International Strategic Research Organization (USAK)