Turkey, US cooperate on aid to Syrian rebels

Turkey and the United States have intensified political and military dialogue for strategic planning to smoothly deliver U.S. weapons to the Free Syria Army (FSA), following Washington’s decision to supply military assistance to the Syrian rebels in their fight against the Bashar al-Assad’s army, the Hürriyet Daily News has learned.

On the political level, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and Secretary of State John Kerry exchanged two phone calls, one on Saturday and the other late Wednesday, to discuss recent developments in Syria on the eve of a crucial core group meeting of the Friends of the Syrian People on Saturday in Doha. Kerry and Davutoğlu are also expected to hold a tête-à-tête meeting in Doha, in their first encounter since relations between the two allies were strained over the Gezi Park protests.

On the military-intelligence level, technical experts from the two countries are in intense talks to explore the best ways for the delivery of American weaponry to the FSA. Some representatives of the rebels have also been present in these meetings.

One of the most likely potential routes for the transportation of this weaponry into Syria is through Turkey, which has a long border with its southern neighbor, diplomatic sources said. Syria’s northern parts are under the FSA’s control and Turkey has stood as the best logistical center for the Syrian opposition since the turmoil broke in the country in 2011.
The Kerry-Davutoğlu phone conversation late Wednesday mainly addressed developments in Syria, following Washington’s policy change regarding arms supplies to the FSA.

No-fly zone on the agenda of Doha

“After this change of policy, they sure want to be in close coordination with us,” a Turkish Foreign Ministry official told the HDN. “The change in the U.S. position has impacts on the ground and at the political level. Just after Washington declared this change in their policy, 73 senior Syrian army officials -including some four-star generals – defected to Turkey,” the official said.
Davutoğlu is now expected to hold bilateral meetings with some of his counterparts in Doha, including with John Kerry.

The Doha meeting of 11 foreign ministers of the core group of the Friends of the Syrian People follows recent Syrian regime successes, which intensified its attacks to re-take control of the northern town of Aleppo, the country’s economic capital. The conference follows a high-level meeting in Ankara last week between the Friends of Syria, during which FSA commander Salim İdriss discussed the provision of military aid, including heavy weapons, according to Reuters.

“We will discuss everything, including the implementation of a no-fly zone over Syria,” Foreign Minister Davutoğlu said in an interview with private broadcaster TGRT late on Wednesday. The use of chemical weapons, which has been proven by the Turkish and U.S. governments, will also be discussed, while participant countries will explore how to swiftly provide aid to the opposition groups.

Aleppo is key for the FSA and Turkey

The regime’s success on the ground is seen as an warning among the international community. Regime forces’ retaking of critical passage point Qusayir, and particularly its marching toward Aleppo, were important developments on the ground that could give hope to al-Assad that he is winning the fight.
“The message we convey to the core group countries is that it’s time to give more support to the opposition. Al-Assad should not be brought to the point where he is winning the victory militarily. Because in this case, he would never approach us for a political solution,” the Turkish official stressed. Al-Assad’s achievements on the ground would make prospects for the 2nd Geneva meeting almost meaningless, Ankara believes.

Keeping the control of Aleppo is very significant not only for the FSA, but also for Turkey, which is concerned about a massive refugee influx from this town of 3 million people. An increase in the number of refugees fleeing Aleppo has recently been observed, as the total number of Syrians seeking asylum in Turkey has reached 205,000.

HDN

Syria’s neighbors irked by U.S.-led intervention

Syria’s neighbors, wary of stirring a conflict that could spill back over their borders, would be reluctant partners in a U.S.-led intervention but are ultimately likely to support limited military action if widespread use of chemical weapons is proven.

The White House disclosed U.S. intelligence on Thursday that Syria had likely used chemical weapons, a move President Barack Obama had said could trigger unspecified consequences, widely interpreted to include possible U.S. military action.

Syrian neighbors Jordan and Turkey, their support key in any such intervention, have long been vocal critics of Bashar al-Assad. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, an erstwhile ally of the Syrian President, was among the first to call openly for his overthrow while allowing armed opponents to use Turkish soil.

But their rhetoric has been tempered by the changing circumstances of a war that has dragged on beyond their expectations and grown increasingly sectarian, as well as by the suspicion they will be left bearing the consequences of any action orchestrated by Western powers thousands of miles away.

For Turkey’s leaders, facing elections next year, talk of chemical weapons is an uncomfortable reminder of the wave of anti-U.S. sentiment which followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, justified by intelligence on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that turned out to be erroneous.

Turkey, which shares a 900-km border with Syria, has reacted cautiously to the U.S. disclosure while Jordan, fearful of the growing influence of radical Islamists in the Syrian rebel ranks, has voiced its preference for a political solution.

“The international community, and especially the peoples of the Middle East, have lost confidence in any report which argues that there are weapons of mass destruction or chemical weapons,” said one source close to the Turkish government.

“Right now, no-one wants to believe them. And if Assad uses chemical weapons some day … I still think Turkey’s primary reaction would be asking for more support to the opposition rather than an intervention.”

Turkey’s rhetoric on Syria, at least in public, has toned down markedly over the past six months, even as shelling and gunfire spilled over the border and the influx of refugees to camps on its territory swelled to a quarter of a million.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s push for a foreign-protected “safe zone” inside Syria gained little traction among allies and appears to have quietly slipped from the agenda. Even Erdogan, whose speeches were regularly laced with bellicose anti-Assad rhetoric, mentions the conflict less frequently.

But many analysts believe both the pro-U.S. monarchy in Jordan and Erdogan’s government in Ankara would toe the line should Washington seek their cooperation in military action.

Turkey’s relations with Washington have at times been prickly – notably in 2003 when it failed to allow the deployment of U.S. forces to Turkey to open a northern front in the Iraq war – but strategic cooperation has generally remained strong.

Turkish support and bases proved vital, for example, to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, while Turkey hosts a U.S.-operated NATO radar system to protect against any regional threat from Iran.

“Given the texture of the current government’s relations with the U.S. and given the history of its discourse on Syria, I think it would be not impossible but rather difficult for Mr Erdogan not to oblige U.S. demands,” said Faruk Logoglu, former Turkish ambassador to Washington and vice chairman of the main opposition Republican People’s Party.

RELUCTANT PARTNERS

Although Obama has warned Syria that using chemical weapons against its own people would cross a “red line”, he has also made clear he is in no rush to intervene on the basis of evidence he said was still preliminary.

Syria denies using chemical weapons in the two-year-old conflict in which more than 70,000 people have been killed.

Mindful of the lessons of the start of the Iraq war, aides have insisted Obama will need all the facts before deciding what steps to take. But acknowledgment of the intelligence assessment appears to have moved the United States closer – at least rhetorically – to some sort of action, military or otherwise.

Turkey and Jordan would be key to any such move, but they may prove reluctant.

From the outset, Turkey has felt slighted.

Before the crisis, Erdogan cultivated a friendship with Assad, personal ties which he tried to use after the start of the uprising in March 2011 to persuade the Syrian leader to embrace reform and open dialogue. He was rebuffed.

When his strategy changed, he began calling for Assad’s removal and allowing the Syrian opposition to organize on Turkish soil. Ankara felt it gained praise from Washington and its allies but little in the way of concrete support.

“Turkey feels lonely in many senses,” the Turkish source said, saying that a military intervention now would leave Turkey and Syria’s other neighbors reeling from the consequences.

“There is always the risk of creating more destruction and creating a failed state in Syria … This thing is happening next door. The flames are reaching us, starting to burn us, where they can’t reach the United States, Qatar, or the UK.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah said last year Assad should step down, but the kingdom is increasingly concerned by the growing strength in Syrian rebel ranks of Islamist fighters who view the monarchy with just as much hostility as they do Assad.

Further fuelling those fears is the presence of fighters from the Nusra Front, which has declared its allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri, among rebels who have taken territory across Syria’s southern province of Deraa, only 120 km (75 miles) from the Jordanian capital Amman.

Officials fear Syria has become a magnet for Islamist fighters who could one day turn their guns on Jordan – as Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi did during the sectarian conflict in neighboring Iraq. Zarqawi was widely believed to have been behind simultaneous attacks on Jordanian tourist hotels which killed dozens of people in November 2005.

SENSE OF URGENCY

Such fears could push the U.S. and its allies to act.

“The fact that the opposition is divided cuts both ways. It makes the logistics and even the politics of an intervention more difficult,” said Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM).

“But at the same time it reinforces the urgency of an intervention: the more the international community does not intervene in Syria, the more likely it is that the radical elements will gain the upper hand in a post-Assad Syria.”

Turkish officials and diplomats have expressed concern about the role Saudi Arabia may be playing in providing weapons which are going to the hands of radical Islamist elements among the Syrian rebel ranks.

U.S. intelligence agencies believes Assad’s forces may have used the nerve agent sarin on a small scale against rebel fighters. The fear is that an increasingly desperate Assad may use such weapons more widely the longer the conflict drags on.

An attack like that on the Iraqi Kurdish city of Halabja – where an estimated 5,000 people died in a poison gas attack ordered by former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein 25 years ago, the most notorious use of chemical weapons in the Middle East in recent history – could sway public opinion in the region.

“A major chemical attack would outrage the Arab and Muslim street … It would be difficult just to watch, then everyone would intervene,” said retired Jordanian air force general Mamoun Abu Nowar.

The role Turkey or Jordan would play in any military action will depend on Washington’s strategy, but logistical support for limited missile strikes or possible assistance in enforcing the sort of no-fly zone long advocated by Turkey appear more likely than sending in ground troops.

Turkey is home to NATO’s second-largest army and to the Incirlik Air base, which provided logistical support for U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is already hosting hundreds of U.S. soldiers operating part of a NATO Patriot missile system to defend against possible Syrian attack.

Washington meanwhile announced last week it was sending an army headquarters unit – which could theoretically command combat troops – to Jordan, bolstering efforts started last year to plan for contingencies there as Syria’s conflict deepens.

“A surgical strike to get the stocks of chemical weapons … or establishing air superiority through a number of strikes against Syrian air defenses, this is the type of scenario being contemplated in Turkey,” said EDAM’s Ulgen.

“Anything beyond that is much more difficult to see.”

Turkey Increases Civilian Power Over Defence Purchases

New rules on Turkish defense procurement that broaden the jurisdiction and procurement management powers of the country’s defense procurement agency are raising concerns over whether that power will be abused, analysts said.

The Turkish government on Oct. 7 launched a set of rules regulating the country’s procurement mechanism. Rules that would place more power into the hands of civilians have been expected since the Sept. 21 conviction of 325 military officers, which was widely viewed as the end of military dominance in Turkish procurement matters.

“We expect to gain more bureaucratic power enabling us to be quicker in start-up, assessment and finalization phases, as well as [providing] more flexibility in project management,” said a source with the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM).

Ceyhun Erguven, an Ankara-based analyst, agrees. “Whether these new powers will create an all-too-powerful SSM — and a one-man show in the personality of the prime minister — are to be seen in time. But ideally, the new rules should centralize the bureaucratic decision-making mechanism and create a more efficient system,” he said.

Under the old rules, programs were officially launched after lengthy back-and-forth negotiations between the SSM and the military, and then through further discussions at the Defense Industry Executive Committee. Now, once the user specifies a requirement, and the SSM approves it, the issue will go to the defense minister’s desk for final approval.

The SSM also will have powers to make sole-source purchases when it deems them necessary due to “national interest, confidentiality, monopoly of technological capabilities and meeting urgent requirements.”

One controversial article in the new rules states: “The SSM has the authority, without undergoing any legal responsibility, to accept or refuse bids or to assess them fully or partly or to scrap a bidding process entirely or partly or to award a contract to any contender it deems appropriate.”

This may create legal loopholes and disputes in the future, a second Ankara-based analyst said.

“Obviously, the SSM cannot make itself legally untouchable just because a Cabinet decree gives it powers to be as such,” he said on condition of anonymity. “That article can always be legally challenged.”

An industry source expressed fear that under the new system, the SSM, acting under orders from the prime minister, can decide to buy from company X without competition and totally at its own convenience.

Another rule in the 17-article plan states that any move to eliminate extraneous bidders — known as “short-listing,” which then requires remaining bidders to submit revised proposals — will be approved personally by the chief of the SSM, presently Undersecretary Murad Bayar. The undersecretary also has the authority to endorse final contracts after negotiations.

The new rules additionally empower the SSM to revise modernization programs within the budgetary limits and to agree or disagree to the acquisition of extra systems and services in return for contractors’ offset obligations. Previously, those revisions had to be discussed by the Defense Industry Executive Committee, which is chaired by the prime minister and includes the SSM chief, defense minister and top military commander.

An offset is an industrial payback offered by the selling country to the buying country in return for the purchase of defense equipment.

Government-to-government defense deals are exempt from the new procurement rules, but contracts in this category of deals also will be managed and signed by the SSM.

A new article regarding program management also gives the SSM full authority to determine company roles in multiplayer contracts and decide on division of work; examine complaints over bidding processes and decide on these complaints; inspect and examine individual programs and companies involved; and give final acceptance of systems.

The SSM official said that all contracts that had not been finalized before Oct. 7 will be subject to the new rules.

Industry sources said some of the competitions falling into the new jurisdiction include the purchase of long-range air and missile defense systems, valued at $4 billion; the purchase of a landing platform dock ship, valued at $500 million; acquisition of a batch of 119 utility helicopters, valued at $3.5 billion; and the upcoming light utility helicopter program, valued at billions of dollars.

Defensenews

Turkey’s Massive Military Trial Opens Old Wounds

Claims of procedural and evidentiary anomalies in a huge trial of coup plotters raise criticism of the Erdogan administration. Is the Prime Minister trying too hard to bury the military—and Turkish secularism?

It was meant to be a milestone for Turkish democracy. In a trial that ran for 21 months, more than 300 senior military officers — including two ex-generals — were accused of seeking to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan‘s Islamist-rooted government in 2003. Never again would hardline secularist generals — the arbiters of political life for decades by force of coups or behind-the-scenes coercion — be able to act with impunity. The trial — dubbed Sledgehammer — was to represent the end of an era when the top brass believed themselves beyond the reach of the law, justified in their actions because Turks needed protecting from radical Islam and could not know what was best for themselves.

On Friday a judge in a crowded purpose-built courthouse outside Istanbul handed down jail sentences ranging from 13 to twenty years against 325 officers. But instead of writing an epilogue to a divisive era, a nation already bitterly polarized over its future became even further divided.

The defendants –including two former generals and a former admiral–were accused of planning to bomb mosques at prayer time and to shoot down a Greek fighter jet in an attempt to stir public unrest and cause the downfall of Erdogan’s Islamic-rooted government, now in its third term in power. But the trial was dogged from the start by allegations of improper conduct, false evidence and apparent anomalies, such as dozens of officers nowhere near an incriminating war games exercise or CDs said to have been recorded in 2002-3 but using Word 2007 software. The defense repeatedly complained that its counter-evidence was not heard and key witnesses were not called to testify. Erdogan, critics charged, used the trial as a pretext to lock away his former opponents.

“I am not convinced by the verdict and I don’t believe it is fair because the court ignored much of the counter-evidence that emerged during the trial,” says Sedat Ergin, columnist at the top-selling Hurriyet daily. “From here on there is a process of appeals that could go all the way to the European Court of Human Rights. Far from closing a chapter, the Sledgehammer case has just become an even bigger issue on Turkey‘s plate.”

Sledgehammer was seen by many as the final installment in Erdogan’s long-running campaign to rein in the military–once an archenemy that made little secret of its disdain for him and his pious cohorts. Headscarf-wearing wives of politicians were not allowed to attend official functions. High-ranking commanders would often refuse to shake hands with Erdogan allies. For the Prime Minister, who served a brief prison sentence while mayor of Istanbul for inciting religious hatred, it is a wound that clearly still rankles.

Dethroning the military is a mission that has defined his rule. Re-elected for a second term in 2007 with an almost 50% majority, he used that mandate to launch a series of investigations into officers, lawyers, politicians, journalists and others that exposed several alleged conspiracies against the government. The plots were based on plans to cause upheaval, loss of faith in the government and thus pave the way for a military takeover. A second mammoth trial—this one called Ergenekon–is still ongoing. Some of its defendants have been behind bars for four years pending proceedings.

The allegations against the military are believable to many Turks. Turkey’s generals staged three coups between 1960 and 1980, while a fourth government, the first Islamist-led, was pressured from power in 1997. The country also has a long painful history of unsolved political murders and bomb attacks popularly ascribed to a sinister ‘Deep State’ motivated by nationalistic security concerns.

“Nobody denies that the military was in need of a clean-up,” Pinar Dogan, a Harvard professor and daughter of convicted ex-general Cetin Dogan, told me early on during the trial. “But this was done just to throw as many people as possible behind bars. It shouldn’t have been done in a spirit of political revenge.”

The power struggle between the military and Erdogan is also symbolic of a struggle over what a future Turkey will look like. Strict secularism was inscribed into the majority Muslim country by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Westernizing commander who founded modern Turkey from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. Under Erdogan, a devout Muslim, Turkey is changing. He has relaxed curbs on religious expression–such as a ban on headscarves at universities. Turkey now has one of the highest taxes in the world on alcohol and cigarettes. A radical recent change means schools now have to offer religion classes such as “The Life of the Prophet Muhammad.”

“The massive reckoning going on behind the scenes is over what kind of a country Turkey should be,” says Osman Ulagay, a respected journalist and author of Who Will Inherit Turkey? “Broadly speaking, Erdogan’s thesis is that by choosing Western-style modernization, Turkey made a mistake. He sees his government as more in tune with the people’s belief and envisages a wealthy country, more tied to its traditions… that also reclaims a place for Islam on the world stage.”

One final legacy of Turkey’s military-dominated past is its constitution, drawn up after a 1980 coup. It is currently being rewritten by a parliamentary commission and how Erdogan manages that process will be crucial to his democratic track record. He has made little secret of his aspirations to create a stronger office of the President—that he would presumably run for. Critics say that could turn him into a Turkish version of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Turkey’s future will depend to a large extent on whether he can forego his personal political ambitions and create a multi-cultural, inclusive document that enshrines tolerance and democratic rights.

By Pelin Turgut, Time

2016: Turkey’s defense purchases to reach $8 billion

Turkey will buy around 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II aircraft. EPA photo

Turkey will spend up to $8 billion in defense purchases as its exports will reach $2 billion in 2016, four years from now, according to a major estimation by the procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM).

The present figures are around half of that.

The expectations in the SSM’s updated 2012-2016 strategic program are realistic given the money Turkey would pay for expensive systems – such as the F-35s or the U-214 submarines from Germany – over the next few years, as well as the rapid increase in its exports mainly to Islamic countries, according to one defense analyst.

Turkey is in talks with four key foreign suppliers on a $4 billion Long Range Air and Missile Defense Systems project.

The country’s mainly exports armored vehicles of many sorts, rockets and other ammunition, as well as military electronics like radios, to more than 10 Islamic countries. It also sells aviation equipment as part of offset deals.

Fighter jet program delayed

Separately, Turkey has delayed a program to develop a domestic fighter aircraft for the Air Force nearly two years, the strategic document has revealed. “A conceptual design … for the fighter aircraft will be completed by the end of 2014,” the SSM’s program said.

The defense minister at the time, Vecdi Gönül, announced on Dec. 14, 2010, that Turkey would build a fighter aircraft, to be constructed together with a friendly country or fully by itself, by the 100th anniversary of the Turkish Republic in 2023.

Gönül told reporters after a meeting of the Defense Industry Executive Committee that the SSM would start talks with the Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the country’s main aerospace company, for a “conceptual design” of a fighter aircraft and a jet trainer to be built after the year 2020.

At the time, Gönül said the TAI would have two years for the conceptual design. He said Turkey’s newly designed fighter aircraft “would be a next-generation type, replacing the [U.S.-made] F-4Es and functioning well with the F-16 and the F-35 … This is effectively a decision for the making of Turkey’s first fighter aircraft.”

However, the new strategic document calls for the completion of the conceptual design by 2014. “The original timetable must be wrong. It’s impossible to complete the conceptual design of a new aircraft in two years. The estimate is more reasonable now,” said one senior procurement official.

Turkey will buy around 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II aircraft built by a team led by the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin, but Gönül said at the time that they were planning to develop the new fighter with a partner other than the United States.

Turkey previously had South Korea in mind, but one South Korean official in Ankara said South Korea was at a more advanced stage than Turkey, and was currently developing its KF-X model with Indonesia. “We can’t say at this point whether it will be with South Korea or not,” Gönül said.

Sex for military secrets

"The prostitute “accidentally” drives into the targeted officer’s car, seduces him, secretly films him in the act, and blackmails him"

How does a prostitute make an officer reveal military secrets? Rather easily, according to evidence assembled against a group of Turkish officers who allegedly ran a sex-for-secrets ring.

The prostitute “accidentally” drives into the targeted officer’s car, seduces him, secretly films him in the act, and blackmails him. At least 80 people, 60 of them serving officers, have been arrested in connection with the “escort girls” case. This was launched in 2009 after police in the western port city of Izmir were tipped off by an anonymous e-mail. (Because of the highly sensitive nature of the case the prosecution has refused to reveal all of the evidence and a formal indictment is still pending.) Arrest warrants for 50 more officers were issued this month, after the shooting down of a Turkish fighter jet by Syria, on the ground that the honey trap was aimed at army personnel working at radar installations. Nineteen prostitutes have also been arrested pending trial.

The army’s pro-Islamic critics have eagerly seized on the case as further proof of its decadence. At least 362 serving military officers are being held in a separate case called “Ergenekon” on charges of seeking to overthrow the government of the Justice and Development Party (AK). The army, NATO’s second largest, has toppled four governments so far. In 2007 it threatened to do so again when the AK nominated Abdullah Gul as president. The fact that Mrs Gul covers her head was deemed by the generals to pose a threat to Ataturk’s republic. AK refused to budge, Mr Gul was duly elected and the army’s hold has been weakening ever since.

Yet even the generals’ fiercest detractors are beginning to worry that efforts to bring them under civilian control may be degenerating into a vendetta. Western observers agree that, although the army almost certainly contains coup-plotters, overzealous investigators may have doctored some of the evidence against officers and that innocents are being caught in their net. Paradoxically prosecutors have shown little interest in well-documented atrocities committed by the army during its scorched-earth campaign against Kurdish separatist rebels. Ihsan Tezel, a defence lawyer in the “escort girls” affair, insists that the prosecution’s case rests exclusively on the contents of the hard drive of a computer seized from the home of a businessman who is accused of being one of the ringleaders of the gang.

Another ongoing sex-for-secrets case brought against 54 officers in Istanbul has run into trouble. At a recent hearing, a 52-year-old woman named as one of the prostitutes broke down in tears as she produced a medical certificate proving that she was a virgin. And there is no evidence to suggest that the defendants were selling secret documents. The presiding judge has called for all of them to be acquitted. A final verdict is expected by the end of July.

Gareth Jenkins, an expert on the Turkish army, says that the barrage of cases has had a devastating impact on army morale. “How can they function effectively when they live in constant fear of being arrested?” he asks. Amid Turkish threats of retaliation against Syria, the question is growing more pertinent by the day.

Economist

Turkey: A paradox of secular and Islamic

As a secular but predominantly Muslim democracy, Turkey straddles the east and west

Turkey is a paradox: it is secular and Islamic, modern and traditional, wants to be Western – yet tends to looks eastwards. But whatever Turkey is doing, it seems to be working.

Last year, Turkey emerged as a source of inspiration for countries in the Middle East during the Arab Spring; the country is now considered to be a regional superpower. Wherever Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan goes in the Arab world, he is mobbed by cheering crowds.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s dynamic economy is breaking records. In 2011, it became the fastest growing economy in Europe – and the second fastest in the world. Foreign businesses are queuing up to invest in Turkey.

Is it any wonder that the country is thus held up as “the model”, both for emerging economies and for Muslim-majority countries struggling with the transition to democracy? However, inside Turkey, some say liberal democracy and secular freedoms are under assault. There does seem to be a climate of fear in the country’s largest city. In Istanbul, I met nervous journalists and bloggers willing to speak only in hushed tones about the growing number of restrictions on free speech. Within 24 hours of our arrival, one of my Al Jazeera colleagues was detained by police officers, who went through his bag and rifled through one of our scripts. They loudly objected to a line referring to the country’s “increasingly authoritarian government”. Who says that Turks don’t do irony?

The Republic of Turkey now imprisons more journalists than any other country in the world; nearly 100 journalists are behind bars, according to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Yes, that’s right: modern, secular, Western-oriented Turkey, with its democratically elected government, has locked away more members of the press than the People’s Republic of China and the Islamic Republic of Iran combined.

But this isn’t just about the press – students, academics, artists and opposition MPs have all recently been targeted for daring to speak out against the government of Prime Minister Erdogan and his mildly Islamist Justice and Development Party, or AKP. In February, Nuray Mert, a columnist for the Milliyet newspaper, was sacked and her TV show cancelled after she was publicly singled out for criticism by the prime minister. In May, Ali Akel, a conservative columnist for the pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak, was fired for daring to write a rare critical article about Erdogan’s handling of the Kurdish issue. In June, Fazil Say, one of Turkey’s leading classical pianists, was charged with “publicly insulting religious values that are adopted by a part of the nation” after he retweeted a few lines from a poem by the 11th century Persian poet, Omar Khayyam, that mocked the Islamic vision of heaven.

Say’s trial is scheduled for October, and, if convicted, the pianist faces up to 18 months in prison. The irony is not lost on those Turks who remember how Erdogan himself was imprisoned in 1998, when he was mayor of Istanbul, for reading out a provocative poem.

Erdogan, re-elected as prime minister for the second time in June 2011 and now considered the most powerful Turkish leader since Kemal Ataturk, has become intolerant of criticism and seems bent on crushing domestic opposition.

“He is Putinesque,” says Mehmet Karli, a law lecturer at Galatasaray University, referring to reports that Erdogan plans to emulate the Russian leader’s switch from prime minister to president and thereby become the longest-serving leader in Turkish history. “Yes, he wins elections,” adds Karli. “But he does not respect the rights of those who do not vote [for] or support him.”

Let’s be clear: Turkey in the pre-Erdogan era was no liberal democratic nirvana. Since its creation in 1923, the republic has had to endure three military coups against elected governments: in 1960, 1971, and 1980. The AKP government is the first to succeed in neutering the military – and should be praised for doing so. Meanwhile, the ruling party’s paranoia is not wholly unjustified either: Turkey’s constitutional court was just one vote from banning the AKP in 2008, and a series of alleged anti-government plots and conspiracies were exposed in 2010 and 2011.

“I am concerned by the numbers [of imprisoned journalists] but they’re not all innocent,” the AKP MP Nursuna Memecan tells me. “Many of them were plotting against the government.” It’s a line echoed by her party leader. “It is hard for western countries to understand the problem because they do not have journalists who engage in coup attempts and who support and invite coups,” declared Erdogan in a speech in January.

Perhaps. But the AKP’s crackdown on dissent, on basic freedoms of speech and expression, has gone beyond all civilised norms. “We do need to expand free speech in Turkey,” admits Memecan.
Those of us who have long argued that elected Islamist parties should not be denied the opportunity to govern invested great hope in Erdogan and the AKP. But the truth is that Turkey cannot be the model, the template, for post-revolutionary, Muslim-majority countries such as Tunisia and Egypt – until it first gets its own house in order. To inspire freedom abroad, the Turkish government must first guarantee freedom at home.

Mehdi Hasan, Al Jazeera

Turkish president says downing of fighter cannot be ignored

Turkish President Abdullah Gul

Turkish President Abdullah Gül said today it was not possible to ignore the fact that Syria had shot down a Turkish fighter jet and said everything that needed to be done following the incident would be done, Turkish media reported.

“It is not possible to cover over a thing like this, whatever is necessary will be done,” Gul was quoted as saying by state news agency Anatolia. It was not immediately clear where he was speaking.
Gul said it was routine for jets travelling at high speed to cross borders for a short distance. He said an investigation into the incident would look at whether the plane was downed in Turkish airspace, media reported.

Gul also said Ankara had been in telephone contact with Damascus and that a search operation for the plane and missing pilots was still under way.

Israeli plane violates North Cyprus airspace

Turkey said on Thursday it had scrambled military jets to intercept an Israeli plane that violated northern Cypriot airspace this week, and demanded an explanation for the incursion.

An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on the accusation. But the incident marked a fresh source of tension between the former allies.

Relations between Turkey and Israel fell apart after Israeli commandos raided the Mavi Marmara aid vessel in May 2010 to enforce a naval blockade of the Gaza Strip and killed nine Turks in clashes with pro-Palestinian activists.

Monday’s reported air incursion coincided with tensions on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus over oil and gas exploration plans there, which could hinder U.N.-backed efforts to reunite wthe island.

“A plane belonging to Israel, the model of which could not be identified, violated KKTC (Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus) airspace (above its territorial waters) five times,” the Turkish military said in a statement posted on its website.

“In response to this situation, our 2XF-16 plane based at Incirlik was scrambled and our planes carried out patrol flights in KKTC airspace, preventing the said plane from continuing to violate KKTC airspace,” said the statement.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said it had contacted Israel’s mission in Ankara, seeking an explanation for the incursion.

In Jerusalem, an Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking the report.

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when the Turkish military invaded the island after a short-lived Greek Cypriot coup engineered by the military junta then in power in Athens.

Turkey still keeps about 30,000 troops in the north and is the only nation that recognises the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

 

ENERGY EXPLORATION TENSIONS

The internationally recognised Greek Cypriot government reported an offshore natural gas discovery in December but its attempt to exploit the reserves has been challenged by Turkey.

Ankara has in turn given approval for Turkey’s state-run oil firm to carry out oil and gas exploration in six offshore areas around northern Cyprus, drawing condemnation from the Greek Cypriot government, which lays claim to the territory.

Israel has separately reported two major energy finds offshore in the sea separating it from Cyprus.

Israel has worked to enhance ties with Cyprus and Greece as its relations with Turkey have frayed.

The eastern Mediterranean has recently seen joint Israeli military manoeuvres with its partners, as well as long-distance training by Israel’s air force for a possible strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Israel uses warplanes and pilotless drones, as well as naval craft, to patrol its offshore natural gas fields.

Turkey stirred fears of a possible confrontation at sea by saying last year it would boost its naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean.

But a senior Israeli military officer said that there had been no discernible increase in Turkish naval operations in Israel’s economic waters, which extend 187 km (117 miles) from its coast.

Past grievances no obstacle to better ties: Armenians

Gyumri, the second-largest city in northwestern Armenia with a population of approximately 160,000 people, is strongly seeking the reopening of the border with Turkey in order to resuscitate the local economy.

Although Armenian politicians in their initial statements about the possibility of normalization of this country’s strained relations with Turkey following the parliamentary elections last Sunday were not upbeat, most people continue to expect to see an improvement in the troubled relationship between the two countries, urging Turkey to open its border with Armenia.

Sagis, a 57-year-old lottery ticket seller in Yerevan, who didn’t want to give his last name like many people here, says his great grandfather came to Armenia from Turkey’s Muş province. He said, “Neighbors should be friends.” Azniv, an 85-year-old retired teacher, told us, “We don’t need enemies, we need friendship.” According to Arman, a 37-year-old businessman who is country director of Fedex in Yerevan, Turkey and Armenia have no choice but to normalize their relations because they are neighbors.

Most Armenians here say the symbolic step in that direction would be for Turkey to open its border with Armenia, which it closed in 1993 following the Armenian occupation of Azerbaijani soil, including Nagorno-Karabakh.

Tigren, 33, the co-manager of a Pizza Hut in Yerevan, says: “The border has to be opened. It will be good for us economically.”

The city that wants the border to be reopened most is Gyumri, the second-largest city in Armenia with a population of 160,000. Gyumri’s rundown streets and the visible poverty level of the city are in high contrast with the well-maintained streets of Yerevan.

Alexander Ter Minasiyon, a tourism agency operator in the city, says: “In Gyumri we know the difficulty of living in a border town near a closed border. To get to Kars, which is only 90 kilometers away, we travel 497 kilometers via Georgia. We lose about 10,000 tourists every year,” noting that the city of Kars on the Turkish border also wants the border to be opened. He added that there is a Russian base on the Armenian part of the border facing the Ani ruins [in Kars], and the soldiers don’t allow tourists to even look at the site across the border.

“The financial cost of the border being closed is huge. I don’t agree with the politicians who say we can get along without Turkey. We are losing a lot,” says Levon Barseghyan, who notes that Turkish products cost 30 times what they should cost because they are delivered through Georgia.

Vahan Khachatryan, a businessman who owns Gala TV, a network that broadcasts in the Gyumri region, says he has been looking for a Turkish partner for his soap manufacturing business, noting that the border being closed is causing delays in communication and transportation.

The irony lies in the Russian military units near the border that Gyumri wants to see open. The Russians are protecting the population from a “potential threat” from Turkey. There are also Russian troops and a radar unit inside the town.

Border towns on the other side are also suffering from the situation. “The illicit trade between Turkey and Armenia as of 2011 had reached a volume of around $280 million, according to unofficial figures,” says Noyan Soyak from the Turkish-Armenian Business Development Council (TABDC).

“It is possible to say that this figure can increase up to three times in a very short period. Opening the border would ensure that goods from the eastern and southeastern Anatolian regions arrive in Yerevan in four to five hours, shortening the time greatly,” Soyak adds. “We perceive the possibility of the trade volume between Turkey and Armenia reaching $1 billion, including tourism revenue, in three years if the border were open,” he said.

According to the TABDC, the most attractive sectors for Turkish traders and investors are textiles, machinery and the food industry, and, of course, there is great potential for untouched sectors such as transportation, energy and information technologies.

But Vartan Oskanian, a former foreign minister and an important figure in the Prosperous Armenia Party (BHK), which came in second place in the elections, points to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue as the main obstacle to opening the border. He said: “So our focus should be on Nagorno-Karabakh. If we can solve that problem, then Turkey will open the border.”

Gyumrian artist Aleksey Manukyan says: “The Karabakh issue is costing us dearly. We still have an eastern mentality; we can’t act pragmatically. People don’t voice this openly, but such is the situation.”

One person who can’t wait to see the day the border is opened is Karine Petrosyan, the chief of the Akhurian Train Station. She remembers that the last train from Turkey arrived in Akhurian in April of 1993. “I will retire 10 years from now. I want to see that train again before I retire.” She says the village of Akhurik, after which the station is named, has been affected negatively by the border closing. Many young people left the village. There are also people who say Turkey should first recognize the 1915 massacre of Armenians at the hands of the Ottomans in 1915 as genocide. One such person is Eleonora, a 25-year-old bank clerk. “We can’t possibly normalize our relations before Turkey admits the genocide.” Armen Pahlevenyan, a taxi driver in Gyumri, agrees. “Nothing can be described as normal unless Turkey recognizes the genocide,” said Pahlevenyan, whose great grandfather had to migrate to Gyumri from Kars.

Nana (19), a university student from Gyumri, says once Turkey recognizes the genocide, the past will stop haunting both countries.

Others, yet, prefer to look to the future instead of setting the genocide as a prerequisite for better relations. Smbat, a 55-year-old Armenian who didn’t want to give his second name, also has his roots in Kars. His family was forced to come to Yerevan during the 1915 incidents. “Whatever happened is in the past. We should now open the border. We want a better life for ourselves and for our children. We, as Armenians, aren’t after revenge. We want good neighborly relations. And Turkey should also want this.” Milla Kazanian (21) of Yerevan also agrees, saying: “The past is in the past. Now is the time to look forward. The border should reopen, and our relations should go back to normal.” Felix, an 18-year-old university student, said, “The past shouldn’t be an obstacle to the normalization of ties, but we would like Turkey to recognize the genocide.” On the Turkish side, there is concern that recognition would bring up the issue of reparations.

Galust Sahakyan, leader of the Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) parliamentary faction, meanwhile, indicated that Armenian leaders had their own red lines that will take priority over any form of reconciliation pact. He said at a meeting with a group of Turkish journalists on Friday, “For us, the Karabakh problem and the genocide issue are more important than a restart in relations with Turkey.”

“It is not enough to admit and then to apologize. Responsibilities such as returning land and paying compensation should also be fulfilled,” says Giro Manoyan, from the nationalist Armenian Revolutionary Federation (ARF), a socialist party that nevertheless is known for its staunch Armenian nationalism. The votes for the party fell from 12 percent in the 2007 elections to 5 percent in this year’s elections.

Gala TV owner Khachatryan says: “What’s important is that Turkey opens the border. When people can freely interact, they will say ‘we are sorry.’ The historical facts of the past should be accepted, and we should all look forward.”