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.