[Opinion] Controversy and criticism mounting as wildfires rage in Turkey

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Türkmen Terzi 

Soaring temperatures and powerful winds have caused destructive wildfires to break out across the Mediterranean, including in Sicily, Italy, western Greece, Syria, Cyprus and Lebanon. Turkey has been the most severely affected as wildfires have raged across 32 provinces. The Turkish government is now facing mounting criticism over a lack of vigilance as well as an inadequate response, in particular for failing to use Turkey’s firefighting aircraft. As a result, Ankara was forced to lease costly Russian planes.

Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Spain, Croatia and Iran have also sent their own firefighting planes and crews to help their Turkish counterparts.

Fires in Turkey began last Wednesday in the southern coastal town of Manavgat. The wildfires have since spread to more than 180 other locations across the country. Speculation has been rife since the fires broke out simultaneously in Turkey’s popular tourism and agricultural regions along the Mediterranean and Aegean coastlines.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has admitted that the Turkish Aeronautical Association (THK), a nonprofit organization with the aim of increasing public awareness in aviation-related activities, does not have a fleet of usable firefighting aircraft to help put out the most devasting fires in the country’s modern history.

The Turkish public as well as several media outlets have been harshly critical of Erdoğan’s statement since he owns a 300-room summer palace in Marmaris, a town that has been badly affected by the fire. Erdoğan has come under fire for a 13-plane presidential fleet while the country does not own a single firefighting aircraft.

A Twitter user criticized Erdoğan’s government in a video that was later shared by actor Altuğ Yüce. In the video he states that Erdoğan appointed Minister of Customs and Trade Cenap Aşcı as one of the trustees of the THK board in 2019. Asci has neither education nor experience related to aviation. The trustees reportedly put the THK’s immovable assets up for sale in eight cities, and they sold THK’s 14 M-18 Dromader and CL-215 firefighting planes. The new management also fired 11 firefighting pilots and 15 aircraft technicians. He claimed in the video that the Erdoğan government will still not appoint experts to the organization but will continue to sell the THK’s remaining 1,200 valuable properties across Turkey.

Popular actor Emre Kınay accused Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) of not extinguishing the wildfires in a video message that has received millions of hits across various social media platforms. “Turkish public broadcaster TRT is misleading people. Why is it that the Turkish gendarmerie, which would usually help to put out fires, is not helping this time? Instead, a meagre 100 Azerbaijani soldiers are the only ones assisting. And why are Turkish-owned firefighting planes not being used?” Kınay argued that the response from the Turkish government has been poor and inadequate and the fires have raged on with a huge impact on the environment, while the ruling AKP, a party consisting of members who act with neither sense nor shame, have busied themselves designing housing projects to sell to and profit off of people who have lost everything.

Turkish authorities have yet to make an official statement regarding the cause of the fires, but ultranationalist Patriotic Party leader Doğu Perinçek has blamed the US for the fires, saying Washington is waging a new kind of war against Turkey. Columnist Deniz Sipahi of Hürriyet, one of Turkey’s major newspapers, targeted the Kurds by proclaiming in his column on July 31 that “Fires of this magnitude are no coincidence. … I think the possibility of arson is high.” Turkey’s ultranationalist newspaper Aydınlık carried a headline on July 30 that read, “Majority of people suspect arson to be the cause of the fires.” Considering the conflict between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that has been involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces since 1984, it is likely that inflammatory remarks and accusations against Kurds such as these could lead to attacks on the Kurdish community by the general public. A nationalist Turk killed seven members of a Kurdish family in the Central Anatolian city of Konya on July 30, just two days after the fires started. The incident has further increased ethnic tensions.

Pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) Co-chairperson Pervin Buldan rejected the nationalists’ claims, saying to party members in Istanbul on Sunday that “our forests are burning, our lungs are burning. … Whoever is responsible for these fires must be arrested and held accountable for their actions.”

Pro-AKP Yeni Şafak daily writer Ibrahim Karagül has gone so far as to accuse the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) of working hand-in-hand with the PKK. “The PKK and the CHP acted together in the case of the wildfires. While the PKK initiated the fires in the forests, they [the CHP] took advantage of it. This is a very dirty coalition. Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu [chairman of the CHP] is a threat to national security. They also burned down Marmaris that way,” he said. Kılıçdaroğlu has subsequently filed a defamation lawsuit against Karagül on allegations of “slander, insult and provoking the people to hatred and enmity.”

President of the Agriculture Forest Service Union Şükrü Durmuş commented that while it is easy to blame the terrorist PKK for the blazes, it is important to note that the fire in Antalya’s Adrasan town broke out because of power lines owned by the CLK Electricity Distribution Company, a Cengiz-Limak-Kolin partnership, but they managed to conceal the incident to avoid paying compensation. These companies have won numerous public tenders from the government in recent years. Durmuş lamented the fact that these are the worst fires Turkey has seen in more than 100 years, with in excess of 100,000 hectares of forests destroyed in Manavgat alone; yet the Turkish state has no clear plan to handle or remedy the situation. Eight people have already been confirmed dead with more than 1,000 people injured and many of them hospitalized. Durmuş also revealed that instead of utilizing its budget to protect forests, Turkey’s General Directorate of Forestry used its available funds to buy 32 luxury vehicles for its managers last year.

In the past few years Turkey’s AKP spent billions of dollars on the presidential palace, bridges and İstanbul Airport, one of the largest airports in the world. Turkey has also pursued its military ambitions in Libya, Azerbaijan, Syria and Iraq with domestic drones, but as devastation sweeps across Turkey the Erdoğan regime has surrendered to the flames. Whatever the reason, the Turkish government has failed to control the spread of the fires, and just as these fires have spread quickly and ferociously across the country, anger and frustration against the government are spreading just as rapidly. Wildfires and devastation sweep across Turkey, and Erdoğan’s response is to call on the victims to take out home loans while throwing packets of tea at them as he drives by.

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