20/06/2011

On the Road to Hatay

So due to a last minute change in my work in Istanbul, I find myself enroleld in a two-week language course in the provincial town of Tarsus, a simple little town just tucked betweek Adana and Mersin.

Having been following the developments in Syria since February, I was compelled to take the opportunity to be somewhere close to the action in order to head down and see for myself. This has at least in part been because I need to witness for myself the human efects of the Arab Spring occuring driving distance to the south. But the main thing is trying to help in anyway I can. i don't think they need any English teachers down there, but any extra publicity lends a hand. If Jolie can do it I can.

This Saturday I visited a formidable gentleman named Cihat Gokdemir, whose son studies at Birikim and who is heavily involved in the IHH, the aid organisation leading the Mavi Marmara relief projects. Mr Gokdemir informed me that it was extremely difficult for non-government groups and individuals to access the camps as it was being run by Turkish Red Cresent and guarded by security forces. However, it seems that two organisations are represented by a hand-full of individuals at the camps and I hope to be in contact with one as soon as I get to Hatay close to the border. Mazlum-Der and the IHH are both present I suppose due to their own lobbying work, sympathy they get anyway from the government and the advantages they have as a non-state group: They can access both sides of the border.

The only pictures coming from the camps have been shot through the fence but journalists and photographers have not been able to access. I think this is because the Ankara has enjoyed warm relations with the regime in the time of Davutoglu by laying to rest conflicts arising from shared water sources, Kurdish armed groups and border controls, which would normally be open for citizens on either side. The election period put pressure on Erdogan to be the tough guy on a number of issues and a stronger humanitarian stance on Syria was one of them, yet I believe the frantic visits by Syrian officials have lead to the government wanting to downplay the existence of a crisis in order to retain influence in Damascus, and in the east as a peace-broker: Davutoglu's favourite image.

At least, all this was true until today, now i''m not so sure. Today's Zaman is a paper tied-up pretty well with the government which makes it a great way to see how the wind will flow in Turkish diplomacy (as an English-language daily it's audience, and a good share of part-time writers are in the diplomatic scene here). That said, nothing prepared me for the headline "Syria's Close Border Operation May Spark a Clash With Turkey". The headline derived from the fact of a high number of visits by "Top Turkish politicians and military officials", i'e' Davutoglu and Gen. Erdal Ceylanoglu. The words of Davutoglu himself were rather tame however, focusing on the need for a strong Syria, who was their "best friend" and who should concentrate on reform. In fact, the whole sensational headline was inspired by a one-off interview with professor Veysel Ayhan of ORSAM. The professor said that mass-killings in Syria were unacceptable as they recalled the time Turkey, along with the rest of NATO looked awful in the face of huge massacres in the Balkans in the early 90s, which reverberated greatly with Turks at the time.

Anyway, we live in hope that the headline was a double-bluff, or maybe i'm just exaggerating Zaman's political clout versus it's attempt to sell sensational stories. Either way I shall be in contact with Cihat's man in the inside in two weeks. Although I have no idea what the situation will be by that time.


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