Turkey has used humanitarian aid as part of a soft power play to extend its international influence during the COVID-19 outbreak, even though it has also been hard hit by the coronavirus, AFP said.
In recent weeks Turkey has supplied masks, personal protection suits and sanitiser gel to Italy, Spain, and Britain – all among the worst hit countries in Europe.
It has donated medical aid to several Balkan countries once under Ottoman rule, has agreed to sell medical supplies to Israel – while providing them for free to Palestinians – and has also said it would sell medicine to Armenia, a country with which Turkey has long had poor relations.
Jana Jabbour, a Turkish diplomacy expert at Sciences Po university in Paris, told AFP that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had always wanted to position Turkey as a humanitarian power that helps oppressed Muslim minorities and countries hit by natural disasters.
But, unlike Ankara’s usual humanitarian interventions, Turkey is now also keen to be seen supporting developed countries.
“It is a question of showing that Turkey is a strong power which has the means to offer aid to European states, now themselves ‘sick’, both in the literal and figurative senses,” Jabbour told AFP.
Each delivery to Europe is carefully staged, said AFP on Tuesday – with the take-off of planes carrying aid broadcast live on TV, and the gratitude to Turkey from the recipients covered widely in the media.
Turkey delivered 250,000 items of personal protective equipment to Brize Norton air base for medical staff in Britain; including 50,000 N-95 face masks, 100,000 surgical masks and 100,000 protective suits, the Oxford Mail reported on Tuesday.
The aid comes after a period of strained relationships between Turkey and the European Union over the migrant crisis, support for Syrian refugees, and spats over Turkey’s human rights record.
Erdoğan’s spokesman İbrahim Kalın pointed out that Turkey was the first country in NATO to send aid to fellow NATO members Spain and Italy, and that nearly 100 countries have asked for help from Turkey. He also linked the aid to Turkey’s EU accession standing.
“Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union is good for Turkey, but it’s also good for Europe. In fact, this pandemic has proved us right,” Kalın said.
The pro-government newspaper Daily Sabah has described Turkey as a “pioneer in humanitarian aid” during the pandemic, and reported that Erdoğan said on Monday that Turkish supplies had reached 34 states. “We will continue our support in the upcoming days as well,” he said.
Soner Çağaptay, of the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, told AFP that “there is a strategic angle in terms of the countries that Turkey has picked to send pandemic-related assistance”.
Anadolu news agency said around 20,000 masks, as well as sanitiser and disinfectant had so far been distributed in the Balkans.
The Turkish Cooperation and Coordination Agency, Turkey’s state-run aid agency, has donated sewing machines and necessary materials for the production of masks, soaps and disinfectants as part of the project launch by the Hatice Women’s Association in Novi Pazar, the largest city in Serbia’s Sandzak region.
Çağaptay told AFP that Turkey had sent medical supplies to five Balkan countries, a region once under Ottoman rule, to reinforce its image as a “generous uncle”.
Turkey also sent medical equipment to Libya, where a civil war between the Turkish-backed government in Tripoli and rebel forces supported by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Egypt have wreaked havoc on its ability to cope with a COVID-19 outbreak.
“Turkey is making sure that the Tripoli government doesn’t collapse under the burden of the pandemic. It’s part of the wider clash between Turkey and the UAE-Egypt axis,” Çağaptay said.
Meanwhile, the pandemic also provided an opportunity to reach out to countries such as Armenia and Israel, which have long had frosty relations with Ankara.
Daily Sabah reported that, since the coronavirus outbreak began, Turkey has provided medical aid to Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Britain, Bulgaria, China, Colombia, Georgia, Germany, Hungary, Indonesia, Iran, Israel, Italy, Kosovo, Lebanon, Libya, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Poland, Qatar, Serbia, Somalia, Spain, Tunisia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the United States, Yemen, and the Rohingya Muslims.