Is the World Humanitarian Summit part of Turkey’s soft power strategy?

As Istanbul prepares
to host the WHS later this month, Bruce Mabley asks how the summit fits into
the country’s current foreign policy approach. 

By: /
13 May, 2016
Refugees wait for the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, EU Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans (all not pictured) at Nizip refugee camp near Gaziantep, Turkey, April 23, 2016. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Bruce Mabley
By: Bruce Mabley
Director, Mackenzie-Papineau Group

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) may well be a signature initiative of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, designed to create for himself a dynamic, if not dubious, humanitarian legacy, but it could hardly have been more heartily welcomed than in Turkey, the country where the 2016 WHS will take place later this month.

More precisely, the WHS will take place in Istanbul, a place where East meets West on the shores of the Bosporus Straits.

For the governing AK Party, it could hardly have come at a more opportune time. The summit will raise Turkey’s international visibility as a humanitarian nation especially given their numerous efforts to come to the aid of large numbers of Syrian refugees seeking to escape a dangerous civil war. At the same time, increased visibility also displays some fairly negative aspects of Turkey’s present government as illustrated by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s heavy handed approach to journalistic freedom, free speech, internet access and dissidence generally.

According to UNHCR data, with an estimated 2 million plus Syrian refugees in the country, Turkey has a real humanitarian crisis on its hands. Moreover, it is a country unaccustomed to dealing with refugees especially from the East. In the early days of the Syrian crisis, Ankara believed that the refugees would be back home within weeks or a few months, such was the catastrophic political miscalculation regarding the survival of the dictator Bashar al-Assad. It was commonly believed to be a short-term humanitarian operation, much like the numerous earthquake relief programmes in recent Turkish history.

The then-Turkish foreign minister, now ex-prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, was confident he could convince Assad to relent with his repressive measures, throwing to the wind American briefing notes prepared especially for the occasion. It did not work. Once known as the Tea Man patiently sitting outside President Erdogan’s office, Davutoglu, having jettisoned his academic career, has restructured his country’s foreign policy by looking East and multiplying trade and exchanges with the Middle East, Africa and Asia.

Despite his surprise departure as Turkish prime minister, the WHS bears the Davutoglu trademark.

Last year was the centenary of the Armenian genocide, still an open wound from which Turkish nationalism has never recovered. Davutoglu, the architect of Turkey’s current foreign policy, has employed the strategy of accumulating and strengthening soft power assets in order to counter the persistent lobbying efforts of Armenian authorities dedicated to having the genocide officially recognized by Western parliaments.

It is in this context that the WHS, and its historic location, are to be understood. The summit is meant to offset claims of Armenian genocide and prove to the world that Turkey is a country of humanitarians. In addition, with more than two million Syrian refugees on its soil and having spent $10 billion on the crisis since 2011, Turkey is also a logical venue. Even despite the recent accord between the European Union and Turkey on the refoulement of Syrian refugees, Turkey’s policy still looks and feels better than the neglect and opposition of some European Union states. Yet, until 2011, the Turkish government itself did not have a dedicated aid bureaucracy to plan its international development and humanitarian affairs.

The WHS is a validation of the Turkish soft power strategy, as Turkey seeks to wield greater regional and international influence, much like similar parallel initiatives to promote academic and trade relations by establishing new Turkish studies programmes and air agreements with Turkish Airlines around the world. Soft power accumulation is meant to thwart efforts to oppose Turkish nationalism and expose the country to inimical criticism. These soft power assets can be used in support of longstanding Turkish foreign policy objectives such as election to the UN Security Council and in pursuit of its European Union strategy.

The present AK Party government has decapitated its hard power assets by accusing ‘Kemalist’ generals of plotting against the government.  The alleged Ergenekon conspiracy, and the judicial process it gave rise to — albeit using some questionable legal suppositions and practice — supposedly involved both military and civilians plotting to overthrow Erdogan. Its impact has been to demoralize the army and relegate it to a subservient and more symbolic role. 

One should not be surprised to see that during the Mid-east regional consultations on the WHS involving a host of developed and developing countries, the theme of Islamic finance and banking, and how they apply to humanitarian thought and practice, came to the fore. Islamic banking forbids riba (interest) and sets apart two different economic systems upon which humanitarian aid is dependent.


The Islamization of the Syrian refugee crisis may well be a Turkish illusion, and if it is, it is a very costly one that will play itself out on the international scene.

The stage is being set for the WHS to bring East and West together on humanitarian issues – that is, the Christian West and the Islamic East. Until recently, the well-known Turkish religious and national figure in exile,  Fetullah Gulen was able to energize this vision by his worldwide appeal for multi-confessionalism and dialogue amongst religions. Fearful of a fifth column in the ruling AK Party and in the police and army, president Erdogan had a warrant issued for Gulen’s arrest in 2014 and later shut down Zaman, the English-language newspaper linked to Gulen.

Such is the future content of the Bosporus Compact, a new term that has gained in credibility as the anticipated result of the WHS and designed to englobe initiatives and projects arising from the summit. It is a term that takes its place in the chorus of metaphors making up current Turkish foreign policy and its concentration on soft power assets. The departure of Ahmet Davutoglu as Turkish PM will not likely change this direction of Turkish foreign policy, nor will it spell the end of Davutoglu’s political career.

Coming on the heels of Davutoglu’s departure, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) has decided to boycott the summit expressing grave doubts about whether the WHS will address weaknesses in the humanitarian system, especially in conflict areas or epidemic situations. According to MSF, which is interested in protecting the safety of humanitarian workers, the WHS lets nation states off the hook by making future summit commitments non-binding despite the articles of International Humanitarian law that they signed up to abide by.

Despite the departure of Davutoglu and the MSF, look for the Turks to fill the Bosporus Compact vacuum with foreign policy metaphors (mostly with religious and nationalistic overtones) and beware how they interpret them. In becoming a bridge to the West on humanitarian affairs, the Turks see their role as being a necessary intermediary, defining themselves as the only ones with enough legitimacy (Islamic legitimacy) to deliver humanitarian aid to Muslim populations. 

And this is exactly how they have acted in the case of the Syrian refugees by refusing to cooperate fully with the UNHCR, subjecting foreign humanitarian NGOs to complicated registration and legal hurdles and giving priority to logistical aid coming from Muslim NGOs like the Red Crescent and, more importantly, the Turkish IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation.  The IHH was implicated in the incident involving a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, and its famous attempt to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza in 2010. Many observers believe that the IHH is in the pockets of the Islamist government in Ankara.

The Islamization of the Syrian refugee crisis may well be a Turkish illusion, and if it is, it is a very costly one that will play itself out on the international scene. It is nevertheless one of the main foreign policy objectives of the ruling party which shows few signs of electoral weakness or lack of purpose. The WHS plays an important role in the pursuit of this and other current Turkish foreign policy objectives.

The WHS reveals a facet of the hidden face of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, a book whose main theme, at first glance, the new AK Party philosophy of foreign policy opposes. In fact, it may well be the price both the West and East are being asked to pay for Turkish nationalism and a greater regional role for Turkey and its Turkic allies.

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