Turkish Group Behind Gaza Flotilla Setting Up First Refugee 'Safe Haven' on Syrian Soil

The camp operates with approval from Erdogan's government, despite reports of ties between the IHH group and radical Islamist entities.

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Syrians gather to collect food from the group workers at An IHH refugee camp, a temporary refugee camp for displaced Syrians in northern Syria, near Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey, Sunday, Feb. 7, 2016.
Syrians gather to collect food from the group workers at An IHH refugee camp, a temporary refugee camp for displaced Syrians, near Bab al-Salameh border crossing with Turkey, Feb. 7, 2016.Credit: AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

Turkish-Syrian border - Two kilometers from the Bab el-Salam border crossing, inside Turkish territory, is a large, orderly fenced-in compound. Entering vehicles are carefully inspected for explosives. Inside the compound, trucks are loaded with food and tents, which they then transport beyond the border into Syria.

Inside a big, shiny, spanking clean structure equipped with an advanced computer system are activists working for The Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, known by its Turkish acronym IHH. They are coordinating the extensive activity involved in transferring aid to the Syrian refugees and setting up camps on Syrian soil.

This huge compound was set up to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have been streaming past the nearby border crossing point from war-torn Syria to Turkey over the last five years. Now IHH is working on a new Turkish initiative — to create, for the first time, a refuge for the refugees on Syrian soil.

For Israelis, IHH is the organization that initiated and arranged the Marmara flotilla to Gaza in 2010, in which nine activists were killed in a violent clash with Israeli naval commandos. The Israeli government classifies IHH as a terrorist organization because of its ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. IHH defines itself as an international humanitarian organization that operates in more than 100 countries, sending rescue teams and aid to disaster points around the world. But above all, IHH serves as the long arm of the Islamist establishment in Turkey.

An IHH refugee camp within Syria near the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey for displaced Syrians, February 4, 2016.Credit: AP

IHH publicizes its own activity widely. A communications team prepares video clips shot inside Syria for uploading to the organization’s website. “We set up tents 2-3 kilometers beyond the border [on the Syrian side] for 15,000 refugees,” says Burak Karacaoglu, one of the managers at the IHH aid center. “We bring them bread, medicines and equipment every day. There are thousands more people there sleeping under the trees. We’ll put up tents for them too.”

Clips shot in the last two days show orderly lines of hundreds of tents, prefab structures for food distribution, and preparations for hygienic arrangements — all the elements of a large refugee camp like the ones erected in the last five years on the Turkish side of the border, but this one is on Syrian soil.

IHH does not purport to be part of the Turkish government, or any arm of the ruling Islamist AKP (Justice and Development) Party, which was founded by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. IHH is utterly independent. But make no mistake: Its activities inside Syria are coordinated with the authorities. It couldn’t happen otherwise. Other humanitarian organizations have difficulty obtaining entry permits but IHH is going into Syria with permission, and is working together with official Turkish government aid entities on erecting refugee camps over the border. IHH personnel also say that armed guards secure their camps, check the identity of the refugees they take in, and make sure they enter unarmed.

The close coordination between IHH and the Turkish establishment continues despite reports of ties between the organization and radical Islamist entities — including Al-Qaida. Some IHH activists have even been arrested and arms have been seized. Some would say these ties are even helpful; Erdogan's regime wants to preserve its influence among the radical elements. With its activity in welfare and healthcare throughout the Muslim world, IHH is an extension of Turkey’s soft power. It is natural for the organization to operate on the Syrian front as well, which it has been doing since the civil war erupted.

An IHH refugee camp within Syria near the Bab al-Salam border gate with Turkey for displaced Syrians, February 7, 2016. Credit: AP

Aside from one brief remark on Saturday by the governor of the Kilis district that Turkey means to handle the Syrian refugees escaping from besieged Aleppo, Ankara has not issued any official statements about creating a buffer zone for refugees within Syrian territory.

After the tent camps are erected, it is not clear what the next stage will be. Will the Turkish army take them under its protection? Could that lead to clashes with the Syrian army? Might the Turkish air force get involved if Syrian forces attack? What will the NATO alliance, with the U.S. at its head, do if their ally Turkey becomes embroiled in military conflict on Syrian soil? Nobody has answered any of these questions yet but, through IHH, Turkey is already creating new facts on the ground.

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