As Turkey struggles with the aftermath of a major earthquake that struck the southeastern part of the country and neighboring Syria in the early hours of Monday, emergency aid offered by the international community is accelerating. Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavusoglu said a total of 3,319 search and rescue personnel have arrived in Turkey from 36 countries. This number is expected to increase with the arrival of more foreign teams.
However, not everyone is happy with the humanitarian aid from foreign countries. Some ultranationalist and Islamist groups supported by the Islamist government have tried to discredit these efforts with a series of conspiracy theories on social media.
They also spread hatred of Syrian refugees in Turkey and claim that the Syrians, whom they accuse of participating in post-quake looting, have become a security problem.
The first conspiracy theory put forward in the initial hours after the earthquake concerns the coincidence of nine countries, including the United, States, the United Kingdom and Germany, temporarily closing their consulates in Istanbul and issuing security alerts warning about the possibility of a terrorist attack several days before the earthquake struck, and the arrival of American destroyer the USS Nitze in Istanbul.
Many pro-government trolls on social media claimed the United States is capable of causing an artificial earthquake, using HAARP, short for High-frequency Active Auroral Research Program, the world’s most powerful high-frequency transmitter for ionospheric research, and that an earthquake occurred in 1999 just after another US warship had dropped anchor in the Bosporus Strait.
HAARP has become a popular subject of conspiracy theories in Turkey through the efforts of former mayor of Ankara Melih Gökçek, a member of the ruling party.
He usually tweets that the US causes artificial earthquakes in Turkey with the use of warfare technology. Gökçek posted a message on Twitter saying he believed that the Izmir earthquake in 2020 took place because of this. His family-owned Beyaz TV also frequently broadcasts its support of this conspiracy theory.
Another conspiracy theory is about warships sent to Turkey by the US administration to join in aid efforts. The Pentagon on Wednesday announced that the USS George H.W. Bush, a Nimitz-class supercarrier, had started heading towards Turkey to assist in relief efforts in case Turkey requests additional assistance.
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s neo-nationalist ally the Homeland Party (Vatan Partisi) kicked off a campaign to prevent the ship from entering Turkish territorial waters, claiming that it was sent to invade Turkey. Özgür Bursalı, the general secretary of the party, which announced a campaign called “May your ships sink,” claimed that the US did not come to the earthquake to render assistance but to take Turkey captive.
“This ship is not an aid ship, it is an element of psychological warfare. The US is not only sending a war machine against us with this ship, it is also targeting Turkey’s self-confidence and is coming to take Turkey captive,” Bursalı said at a press conference yesterday.
Bursalı also recalled the remarks of Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu, who targeted the US ambassador in Ankara last week, telling him to “Take your dirty hands off Turkey” and calling for the government not to allow the entry of the US aircraft carrier to Turkish waters.
Another influential figure opposing the American warship is Cihat Yaycı, a former admiral who helped President Erdoğan purge most pro-NATO officers from the military in 2016 following a controversial coup attempt. Indicating that he was not talking about a conspiracy theory in a YouTube program, he claimed that the US army conducted an exercise for the possible invasion of a country following an earthquake in 2002, called Millennium Challenge. However, there is no information indicating that the war game involved military operations after an earthquake or natural disaster.
“According to the military exercise scenario, this occupied country had a problem with an island state. When there was an earthquake in the country, aid did not come, there was a housing problem and there was internal turmoil. The military was seizing the government, calling for international assistance. The US was coming to the region to help. Then it turns into a conflict. This exercise lasted 22 days. That country was occupied within 96 hours,” said Yaycı.
Yaycı also pointed out that there may be spies among the foreign rescue teams coming to Turkey and advised the government to be careful.
Most recently, Yaycı gave a special briefing on national security to the opposition IYI (Good) Party management.
Former officer Abdullah Ağar, a frequent guest on government-supported television stations, is among those who oppose the arrival of the American supercarrier.
In a post on Twitter Ağar wrote, “Even though it is for humanitarian purposes (or so it seems), there are many risks and handicaps of earthquake support to be provided through the US military.”
Ağar claimed that the arrival of American soldiers will have a negative effect on the public against the government officials as if Turkish soldiers were not enough, so they brought in US soldiers.
Ağar, like Yaycı, said the Millennium Challenge exercise should be taken seriously.
The Erdoğan government has been fueling anti-Western arguments and xenophobia with a number of television series it has long sponsored. It is often mentioned in these popular TV series that the West has created obstacles through its collaborators in the country to prevent Turkey’s rise.
On Wednesday former ruling party lawmaker Nursel Reyhanlıoğlu verbally attacked İstanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu, who was participating in rescue efforts in the disaster area, insulting İmamoğlu, saying “You are putting on a show. British servant, get out.” Reyhanlıoğlu, who ran after İmamoğlu and continued the insults, was heard repeatedly calling him a British servant.
Anti-immigrant groups led by Ümit Özdağ, leader of the far-right Victory (Zafer) Party, also argued that Syrians and undocumented migrants participated in looting in areas affected by the earthquake and suggested that orders should be given to the army to shoot them.
Özdağ has long been claiming that Syrians were forced to migrate to Turkey as part of a project. The powerful instruments of imperialism will change the demographic structure of the region in order to increase the dominance of different ethnic groups in line with their own strategy and drag the country towards a catastrophic civil war.
Some nationalist and Islamic users on social media also posted antisemitic remarks about the Israeli rescue team that arrived in Turkey on Tuesday.