An implausible list of demands behind Turkey's medical aid campaign

Turkey's attempts to use the coronavirus pandemic to seek political and economic dividends through medical aid are likely to have a limited impact in the long run, experts say.

As Ankara sends medical aid to scores of countries, including European and African nations and the US, its declared and undeclared objectives are many. They include improving ties with NATO and European nations, which have soured over many issues including Turkey's aggressive policies in the Eastern Mediterranean, its efforts to blackmail the EU over migration flows and its dangerous military involvement in Libya.

With the US, too, the political gains sought by Turkey through medical aid are hardly a secret. Turkey wants Washington to acquiesce to Ankara's purchase of the Russian S-400  defence system while the US wants Erdogan's government to resolve a number of bilateral issues of contention and improve its human rights practices.

Ankara has been unabashed about the quid pro quo it is seeking. Last Saturday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked the European Union to improve its ties with Turkey in consideration of Ankara's medical aid. “I hope the EU now understands that we are all in the same boat,” he said.

In a letter to US President Donald Trump sent with a shipment of medical equipment, Erdogan said he hoped the “spirit of solidarity” which Turkey had shown would lead members of the US political establishment to “better understand the strategic importance of our relations."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said there is now "a positive atmosphere in the eyes of the (US) public too,” although he admitted that “the core problems with the United States still persist."

International relations experts are sceptical as to whether Turkish leaders can achieve their political and strategic aims through medical aid, especially that much of the heat felt Ankara in the international scene was caused by Turkey's own policies.

“No amount of goodwill, no amount of medical diplomacy will alter the negative repercussions that Turkey’s deployment of the S-400s has produced in Washington,” said Fadi Hakura, consulting fellow at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

“If Turkey wants to curry favour with Washington, it has to terminate the S-400s.”

Gonul Tol, founding director of The Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington, said "Ankara’s problems with its neighbours and Western allies are too serious to be resolved by a few symbolic steps."

In recent weeks destroyed much of the credibility of its medical aid drive by failing to see that military and humanitarian objectives can't mix. According to South African newspaper Daily Maverick, no less than six A400M Turkish military transport planes have flown to Cape Town since the beginning of the month with shipments of medical equipment on the way there, but returned to Turkey with military munitions. Each plane can transport 37 tonnes of cargo.

South African activist Terry Crawford-Browne said the country's National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC) "has failed in its responsibilities as it is suspected that the munitions were destined for use in Libya or Syria."

Turkish ambassador to South Africa Elif Ulgen confirmed the shipment transported from Cape Town contained military ammunition but claimed most materiel would be for "military exercises at home."

The military equipment originated from South African manufacturer RDM, which “specialises in the development, design and manufacture of large- and medium-calibre ammunition families and is a world leader in the field of artillery, mortar and infantry systems as well as plant engineering." The supplies are destined for a Turkish Defence Ministry contractor and can help the Turkish army in any of its missions abroad.

The case of Turkish planes carrying shipments of medical aid and military ammunition has caused major reputational damage for Turkey in South Africa and other parts of the African continent despite Turkey's soft power campaign as it has sent aid to 15 countries in pursuit of its political, business and military interests.

Doubts about the motives behind Turkish shipments, especially in times of conflict, were on the minds of Tunisian political activists when they protested the authorisation granted by their government for a Turkish aircraft, May 7, to land not far from Tunisia's border with Libya.  The planeload was said to contain medical equipment destined for Libyan authorities but doubts persisted despite Tunisian official assurances. The claims to humanitarian aid were quickly lost in the clamour of critics about the circumstances of the shipment and their suspicion that Ankara might be trying to drag Tunisia into the Libyan war.

This article was originally published in the Arab Weekly on May 11 and is re-printed by permission.