Controversy over Turkish celebrities’ Syria border trip

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with singer and actress Ajda Pekkan, left, and actor Necati Sasmaz in the southern Hatay province

Istanbul (AFP) – Top Turkish celebrities have hit back at bitter criticism from the country’s opposition leader as a controversy intensified on Thursday over a border visit by the stars to boost the morale of troops fighting in Syria.

Around a dozen celebrities accompanied President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who donned full khaki military uniform for the first time for the occasion, to visit troops stationed in the Hatay border region of southern Turkey.

Musical legends like folk singer Ibrahim Tatlises, pop star Sibel Can and hugely admired actress and singer Ajda Pekkan were among those who made the trip.

Turkish actor Necati Sasmaz, who plays a secret agent in the massively popular TV show “Valley of the Wolves”, was also on the April 1 trip, as were sports figures Besiktas footballer Gokhan Gonul and ex-NBA star Hidayet Turkoglu.

They were visiting soldiers taking part in the “Olive Branch” operation against a Kurdish militia in northern Syria, which has seen Turkish forces take control of the key city of Afrin but also 52 troops lose their lives.

– ‘Martyrs’ blood not dried’ –

Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the leader of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), said the visit was incompatible with the values that Turkish artists should promote.

“The artists of a country should stand upright and honourable. Artists should not surrender to sovereign power, but defend rights, law and justice,” he told his party on Tuesday.

He said the “drums, clarinet and songs” of the meeting were not right when “the blood of our 52 martyrs has not dried”.

He challenged these “disgraceful people and the man who brought you there, if you dare, to sing these songs in the street where the family of an Afrin martyr lives.”

But the artists published an open letter on Wednesday condemning Kilicdaroglu and expressing bewilderment that he was disturbed “by our visit to our brave soldiers who have lost brothers-in-arms”.

“We do not understand why he is so in contempt of artists who went to the border to raise morale,” they said, asking why Kilicdaroglu had not made a similar visit.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin also lashed out at Kilicdaroglu over his comments, which he said do not “befit the leader of the opposition”.

Kalin said Turkish artists had always backed the state at wartime, citing the battle against Allied forces at Gallipoli in 1915 in World War I, the deployment of Turkish forces in Korean War in the 1950s, the 1974 invasion of Cyprus and the defeat of an attempted coup in 2016.

There had been speculation a Turkish soldier had been dismissed after he was pictured taking a selfie with Erdogan and the artists.

But Kalin said he had no such information, adding that it was “a very human image”.

Hundreds of people in Turkey have been detained for protesting against the operation or criticising it on social media, prompting critics to accuse the government of a new clampdown on freedom of expression.