In the decade since the Justice and Development Party assumed power, Turkey has become a much more assertive foreign-policy player. And when it comes to projecting soft power, the government clearly views the Turkish Red Crescent Society as an important component.
While the Turkish Red Crescent (TRCS) operates under guidelines established by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in order to maintain its standing as a neutral entity, its humanitarian activities tend to complement the policy priorities of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. The prime minister’s attendance at a TRCS gala on August 10 confirmed that the government and the humanitarian aid organization have a close working relationship.
Another example of the government’s strong ties to the aid organization came on August 11, when a TRCS representative escorted a Turkish delegation led by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on a tour of the Banduba Camp in Burma, home to Rohingya Muslims who have been displaced by sectarian violence.
Closer to home, the TRCS and Turkish government have worked closely to accommodate Syrian refugees arriving in Turkey’s Hatay and Kilis provinces. TRCS refugee camps and relief services have helped reduce tension in an extremely combustible situation by providing vital services. Officials estimate there are about 65,000 Syrian refugees located in nine camps in Turkey.
The TRCS’s involvement in work involving conflicts and displaced persons is not new. In 2011, the TRCS was involved in Libya during NATO’s operations against the Gaddafi regime, and also worked in the ongoing conflicts in Gaza and Lebanon in 2008 and 2009.
In the Caucasus and Central Asia, the TRCS played an auxiliary role to the Georgian Red Cross during the Georgia-Russia conflict of 2008. The Turkish aid agency also was on the ground in Central Asia in 2010 when conflict erupted between ethnically-Turkic Uzbek and Kyrgyz populations near the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh.
In addition to its ongoing work with Syrian refugees, the TRCS was among the first international aid groups to establish a presence in northwestern Iran, scene of a series of earthquakes that left over 300 dead.
Elsewhere, the TRCS is deeply engaged in Somalia and is coordinating with the Somali government and other Red Cross/Red Crescent partners on food security and medical issues. The TRCS additionally provided assistance to Pakistan following the devastating floods of 2010 and established a presence in Banda Ache, Indonesia, following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Gradually, the TRCS has taken steps to raise its profile beyond the Muslim world, including the construction of temporary “Turkish Towns” for 2004 tsunami survivors in Sri Lanka and the provision of search-and-rescue teams following the 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile.
The expansion of the TRCS’s humanitarian activity comes at a time when Ankara’s national security objectives and foreign policy have been shifting away from a focus on specific potential adversaries, such as Greece and Russia, to transnational issues, including terrorism. This shift is seen in Turkey’s strengthening bilateral ties with China. The AKP-led government has downplayed advocacy on behalf of China’s ethnically-Turkic minority Uighur population in favor of an enhanced Chinese-Turkish relationship, which even culminated in joint military exercises between the two nations last year. Uighur nationalists have carried out acts of armed resistance in recent years in response to what they see as forced cultural assimilation policies enforced by Beijing.
The TRCS’s humanitarian operations play an important role in Turkey’s national security doctrine, acting as a rapid deployment mechanism that works to address regional disruptions at the root level before they escalate. In addition, the TRCS’s growing contributions to humanitarian missions is an asset for Turkish public diplomacy.
Mehmet Burk is a practitioner in the humanitarian assistance field, and conducted fieldwork in southeast Turkey in 1999. He is the senior writer and editor of the Relief Analysis Wire (www.mganalytics.org) which assesses emerging trends in international humanitarian issues.