Weakened US sanctions threat lingers in wake of Turkish deal with Russia

23 October 2019

Two weeks after Turkey launched Operation Peace Spring in northeast Syria to expel Kurdish militants from its southern border and establish a so-called safe zone, fighting has largely ended as result of an agreement reached by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

Meeting in Sochi, the two leaders agreed to deploy their forces across most of the northeastern Syrian border and conduct joint patrols along a corridor 10 kilometers (6 miles) deep, while Kurdish-led forces supported by the United States have withdrawn from an area 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep. Meanwhile, the Operation Peace Spring area between the Syrian towns of Tell Abyad and Ras al-Ain will remain under the control of the Turkish military and Turkish-backed Syrian forces.

The Syrian regime stated Wednesday it would establish 15 observation posts in the region. Turkish officials will seek to reestablish terms set by the 1998 Adana agreement between Ankara and Damascus in which Turkish forces would be able to carry out security operations within a 5-kilometer (3-mile) band along the Syrian border.

“Adana more or less gives Turkey what it wants … [which is] to break the US-SDF agreement,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, using the acronym for the US-backed, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which Ankara considers a security threat.

“But the political cost of doing that was to de facto recognize [President] Bashar al-Assad,” Stein continued. “Now Turkey has been resisting this, albeit while engaging with the regime’s two principal allies, Russia and Iran. This just brings Turkey more squarely into the camp that the regime is the arbiter of security along its border.”

The developments come after US President Donald Trump removed about 1,000 US troops stationed in the region, greenlighting the Turkish operation with aims to disentangle Washington from the Syrian conflict, where American forces have coordinated operations to eradicate Islamic State militants since 2014. Prior to Erdogan’s agreement with Putin, US officials had secured a five-day cease-fire in northeast Syria during an Oct. 17 visit to Ankara.

Speaking on Wednesday morning, Trump said Turkish officials had informed him the cease-fire would be “permanent” and that he would lift economic sanctions in response.

“This was an outcome created by us,” Trump told reporters in a press conference.

Yet as Russian and Syrian regime forces take control of border areas not held by Turkish forces, the imposition of previously threatened US sanctions on Turkey looms large in Washington, where officials continue to debate a response to fast-developing dynamics in northeast Syria.

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/us-sanctions-turkey-threat-erdogan-russa-cease-fire.html

Turkish foreign minister: US-Turkey deal ‘not a cease-fire’

18 October 2019

In a surprise announcement, US Vice President Mike Pence said officials in Ankara agreed to a five-day cease-fire in northeast Syria to allow Kurdish militants to evacuate a 20-mile area that will become a “safe zone” along Turkey’s border.

Speaking at a press conference in Ankara, Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the plan following meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The Turkish side will pause Operation Peace Spring in order to allow for the withdrawal of YPG [People’s Protection Units] forces from the safe zone for 120 hours,” Pence said. “All military operations under Operation Peace Spring will be paused, and Operation Peace Spring will be halted entirely on completion of the withdrawal.”

Turkish forces began a military operation Oct. 9 in northeast Syria to eradicate US-backed Kurdish militants and create a safe zone to repatriate Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey.

At a separate press conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusolgu said, “We are suspending the operation, not halting it … We can halt the operation only after [Kurdish militants] withdraw from the region completely.”

He added, “This is not a cease-fire. A cease-fire is done between two legitimate parties.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/turkey-incursion-syria-pence-announce-ceasefire.html

Anger pushes sanctions in Washington as Pence, Pompeo visit Ankara

16 October 2019

A deluge of sanctions may be imposed on Turkey as a US delegation including Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sets off for Ankara to negotiate a cease-fire in Syria with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and other top officials.

Last week, US President Donald Trump gave the green light for a Turkish military operation in northeast Syria, where Ankara seeks to create a buffer zone between its border and US-backed Kurdish militants it views as security threat. The ongoing fighting has brought international condemnation as well as resistance within Washington, and now the Trump administration appears to be reversing course by threatening to impose severe sanctions if Turkey does not pull back its troops.

Following initial approval of the incursion, Trump introduced a sanctions package Monday targeting Turkish steel exports, trade talks and a number of Ankara officials. Yet built-up anger in Washington over an array of Turkish policies and actions in recent years appears to be driving a push for more severe reprisals on Ankara.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham stated he would introduce a bill Thursday with bipartisan support that could unroll the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanction Act (CAATSA), which has so far been deferred following Ankara’s acquisition of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system this summer, and would potentially hinder Turkey’s defense and energy sectors. On Wednesday, members of the US House of Representatives also said they would seek to impose sanctions through a separate piece of legislation.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department charged Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank on Tuesday with facilitating a multibillion-dollar scheme to evade US sanctions on Iran in a move that could impose crippling measures on the Turkish banking sector and further damage the nation’s already weakened economy.

Prior to Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria, both the CAATSA and the HalkBank sanctions had been delayed in an apparent effort to preserve US-Turkish relations. As the ongoing fighting displaces more than 160,000 civilians and disrupts unfinished operations against Islamic State militants in the region, the military operation appears to have “opened the flood gates” for long held resentment among Washington officials, said Howard Eissenstat, a nonresident senior fellow at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a Washington-based think tank.

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/pence-pomeo-visit-ankara.html

Turkish press reacts to pending Syria operation

07 October 2019

The Turkish media is lively with speculation following US President Donald Trump’s vow not to interfere with a much-anticipated Turkish military operation in Kurdish-administered northeast Syria and to pull American troops back from the area.

Unanswered questions over the depth of the operation, whether the United States will open the airspace to Turkish jets and the timing of Ankara’s third incursion into Syria dominate discussions in domestic broadcasts, print outlets and social media feeds.

More than 90% of the nation’s mainstream media outlets are pro-state and generally support operations against Kurdish militants in Syria — who are considered an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Ankara, the United States and the European Union designate as a terror group. Yet mixed reporting on fast-moving developments present a diversity of opinions and concerns as military forces make preparations on Turkey’s southern border.

As the operation will affect Syria’s Kurdish-majority region, currently administered by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the majority of Turkey’s Kurdish media outlets responded negatively to the news. Kurdish media reports focused on the work SDF forces had done to eliminate Islamic State militants from the region, as well as the possibility that IS detainees in the region could escape or pose a security threat as a result of the operation.

“That’s the main problem, what will happen with IS?” asked Mahmut Bozarslan, a Kurdish journalist based in Diyarbakir who writes for Al-Monitor. He said during an interview for this article, “People are afraid of this. If these detainees are released, what will happen if they come to Turkey?”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/turkey-media-reacts-syria-operation.html

Critics say Turkish government’s judicial reform package falls short

04 October 2019

Turkish laws and their application have changed dramatically since the 2016 coup attempt and a subsequent two-year state of emergency, which has been partially extended through presidential decrees.

To address systemic issues and lingering inconsistencies in Turkey’s penal codes, members of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) submitted the long-awaited first package of their Judicial Reform Strategy on Sept. 30.

The 39-article proposal aims to strengthen the independence of Turkey’s judiciary while fostering more transparency, efficiency and uniformity in legal procedures. Though human rights advocates and members of Turkey’s opposition parties support the attempt to reform the judicial system, many claim the provisions introduced this week will not achieve the government’s stated goals.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan launched the reform strategy in May 2019, stating that changes would be made to legislation covering judges, prosecutors, the length of pretrial detentions, counterterror laws and criminal codes.

“The judicial reform document will both increase the trust of our citizens in the system and help to create a more predictable investment climate,” Erdogan said in a speech unveiling the strategy. “With this document, we are putting forward new approaches in terms of reinforcing freedom of expression and carrying it a step further.”

Zuleyha Gulum, a lawyer and Istanbul deputy for the majority-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), said she agreed the reforms were introduced to subdue pressure from Turkish investors, who complained of a lack of legal guarantees in the country, which they felt had stymied the domestic business climate and worsened the ongoing recession.

Gulum said the package is also being presented to soothe rocky relations with EU officials and business partners, who have been critical of Turkey’s mass purges and widespread application of anti-terror laws on political dissidents in the post-coup period. Yet she criticized the package for under-delivering on key issues.

“It is not right to call this a reform because the package does not have the changes to meet the current needs,” Gulum told Al-Monitor. “There are no regulations that will eliminate the damage caused by the state of emergency decisions, pave the way for the use of democracy and democratic rights, and ensure the independence and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/critics-turkey-government-judicial-reform-package-fall-short.html

One year on, Turkish human rights advocates lament inaction on Khashoggi murder

02 October 2019

A vigil for Jamal Khashoggi began today with a moment of silence in front of the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul at 1:14 p.m., the time the journalist entered the building one year ago, never to be seen by the outside world again.

On the anniversary of his murder, details of Khashoggi’s disappearance remain unconfirmed. The prominent Saudi journalist turned Washington Post columnist in exile following his criticism of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s government continues to weigh on the kingdom’s foreign relations and discussions of international press freedom.

Now, as the perpetrators of the crime have yet to face justice, global leaders and companies are resuming relations with the Saudi government, which is widely believed to have directed the murder. Human rights advocates are concerned impunity would come to define the Khashoggi case, setting a dangerous precedent for press freedom worldwide.

“Our biggest fear is that the international community allows Saudi Arabia to be somehow rehabilitated in terms of its reputation and to go back to normal,” Scott Griffen, deputy director at the Vienna-based International Press Institute, told Al-Monitor.

Griffen added that the case “both shows the huge challenge we face in holding those who kill journalists to account and, unfortunately, I think it potentially emboldens violence against journalists. If a state like Saudi Arabia can get away with this kind of act openly, then this certainly sends a message that others could potentially do it, as well.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/10/turkey-jamal-khashoggi-one-year-saudi-arabia-human-rights.html

Ankara likely to use new charges to keep HDP co-chairs behind bars

23 September 2019

As the former leaders of Turkey’s majority-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) approach their third anniversary behind bars, the multiplicity of cases against them are becoming increasingly convoluted.

Former HDP co-chairs Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag were originally taken into custody for terror-related charges on Nov. 4, 2016, along with nine HDP lawmakers.

The pair has since been held in pretrial detention as dozens of court proceedings have been opened, most of which stem from past speeches that have drawn charges of “making propaganda for an armed terrorist group” and “membership of an armed terrorist group,” alleging illicit support of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group that has been at war with the Turkish state since the 1980s.

Despite assessments by a Turkish court and the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) supporting the release of Demirtas — a ruling that could eventually be applied to Yuksekdag — the former HDP leaders are likely to remain behind bars in pretrial detention due to the expansion of a new terror-related investigation on Friday. Lawyers representing the HDP leaders said the move was a way to adhere to the ECHR ruling in Demirtas’ main case while keeping both Demirtas and Yuksekdag imprisoned on separate charges.

Demirtas’ lawyers Aygul Demirtas, Mehmet Emin Aktar and Mahsuni Karaman complained in a joint statement Monday of an “attempt to make Demirtas’ captivity permanent by applying these illegal methods.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/09/hdp-chairs-face-new-charges-turkey.html#ixzz60NI3yBpS

Turkish regulator aims to hasten banking sector recovery as loan market remains weak

20 September 2019

This week, Turkey’s financial watchdog, the Banking Regulation and Supervision Agency, told the nation’s lenders to write off 46 billion liras ($8.1 billion) in bad loans by the end of the year to hasten a recovery in the banking sector.

The move comes more than a year after a currency crisis devalued the Turkish currency 30% against the US dollar, leaving banks with large foreign debts unable to repay obligations that have since strained the nation’s lending market. While analysts say the directive could help revive the Turkish banking sector, the delayed initiative may prove to be “too little, too late” to stimulate the nation’s lukewarm loan market.

“The move highlights, once again, that credit growth rather than a comprehensive package of structural reforms remains the government’s preferred approach to support Turkey’s ailing economy,” Wolf Piccoli, co-president and political risk analyst at Teneo Intelligence, wrote in a memo shared with Al-Monitor.

He added, “Sustained political interference in the banking sector — including pressure from the government to dismiss and/or sideline executives who are not perceived as “cooperative” — will continue to cloud the outlook for the banks for the foreseeable future.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/09/turkey-regulator-banking-sector-recovery-loan-market-weak.html#ixzz600dG0wdQ

Erdogan touts grand plans to resettle Syrian refugees in safe zone

18 September 2019

Having long pushed for the establishment a so-called safe zone in northeast Syria, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Wednesday that the area could be used to resettle two to three million Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey and Europe. The proposal is the Turkish leader’s latest attempt to accelerate joint safe zone plans with the United States. He said that if they are delayed, Ankara would advance on its own terms in two weeks’ time.

“By making east of the Euphrates a safe place, and depending on the depth of this safe zone, we can resettle two to three million displaced Syrians currently living in our country and Europe,” Erdogan told an audience of academics in Ankara on Wednesday.

“We want to see strong support from European countries, on both the issues of Idlib and the region east of the Euphrates,” he added. “We expect action.”

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees and leaders in Ankara have come under increasing pressure to manage the displaced population as anti-refugee rhetoric has risen sharply within the country. In recent weeks, Erdogan has emphasized his nation may not be able to host the refugee population within its borders unless it receives more financial aid from European Union nations and expedited US support in establishing a safe zone in Syria.

At the same time, Turkish leaders have expressed frustration regarding joint northeast Syria operations with US forces, which they accuse of foot-dragging in establishing a safe zone of yet-to-be-determined dimensions that would be free of Kurdish militants seen as a threat to Turkey’s security.

While joint US-Turkey patrols of the area have begun, Erdogan has continued to advocate for the safe zone following an Ankara summit on Syrian peace talks, exemplified today by his pitch that the area could provide a secure harbor to resettle Syrian refugees scattered throughout Europe. Yet the proposal has raised concerns over the feasibility of such an undertaking among those familiar with the area.

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/09/erdogan-three-million-syrian-refugees-return-safe-zone.html#ixzz5zu4fG0J5

More academics acquitted in Turkey, sparking cautious hope

10 September 2019

It’s been more than three and a half years since Ali Riza Gungen, an economics professor at 19 Mayis University in Samsun, Turkey, lost his job for signing a petition. He is one of the nearly 800 “Academics for Peace” who have faced charges of making terrorist propaganda for participating in the open letter calling for the end of military operations in southeast Turkey back in January 2016.

Like hundreds of other academics, Gungen was dismissed from his position, banned from working in public institutions and had his passport revoked, barring him from traveling abroad. Following a July ruling by the Constitutional Court, which found that the purged academics‘ freedom of speech had been violated, Gungen was among 27 defendants acquitted of all charges.

“It was a surprise for me because despite the Constitutional Court decision, I know we don’t live in a system adhering to the rule of law,” Gungen told Al-Monitor, saying he learned of his acquittal on Monday.

More acquittals are expected in the coming weeks as judges and prosecutors review ongoing trials. If the rulings stand, hundreds of academics could see their ongoing trials end, while those who have already been convicted could get their sentences overturned. Still, the Istanbul prosecutor’s office could challenge the acquittals.

“It’s not justice, but a temporary relief,” Gungen told Al-Monitor, saying he would follow developments closely. “They have no evidence against me whatsoever and … it’s a kind of torture, slow-motion torture. I might not be in prison, but I can say I have seen hell over the last three and a half years.”

The academics were accused of spreading terrorist propaganda for signing an open letter published on Jan. 10, 2016, titled, “We will not be a party to this crime!” The letter, which had more than 2,000 signatories including such prominent Western peace activists as Noam Chomsky, denounced an ongoing conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdistan Workers Party, a Kurdish militant group designated as a terror organization by Turkey and the United States.

Read the full story on Al Monitor: https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2019/09/turkish-academics-acquitted-hope.html#ixzz5z9ah7nLY


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    Ani Ruins

    Lost count of how many check points I passed on a road trip to the Ani Ruins, but I’d recommend a visit for anyone trying to understand Turkey and its region.

    Ani, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    2018 Anthony Lewis Prize for Exceptional Rule of Law Journalism

    I want to thank The World Justice Project for recognizing my reporting from #Turkey with an honorable mention in The 2018 Anthony Lewis Prize for Exceptional Rule of Law Journalism. Also, congrats to my colleagues, whose unwavering integrity leads us through challenging times.


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    The Case of an American Pastor Caught in a Geopolitical Fight

    Andrew Brunson will likely visit the White House today after being released from two years in Turkish custody. This is rare step forward for US-#Turkey relations, but many serious problems remain. My latest for The Atlantic with input from Ozgur Ozgur Unluhisarcikli and Nate Schenkkan:


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    Edward Hopper tribute from Diyarbakir

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Sur Street Scene

    Sur, Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Mars of the Middle East

    Nice to see National Geographic publish my photo from the Wadi Rum in Jordan. It’s one the most surreal landscapes in the Middle East and well worth a visit.


    Wadi Rum, Jordan - © Diego Cupolo 2017

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    President Erdogan’s Republic of Fear

    “For the few journalists that remain, it has not been easy…to direct critical questions to the government about their actions,” Cumhuriyet’s Cigdem Toker told me for my latest take on the ‘New #Turkey.’

    Full story: https://www.newstatesman.com/culture/observations/2018/07/president-erdogan-s-republic-fear

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    For Kurds in Southeast Turkey, the urban conflict continues: The fighting has ended, but fears that a culture will be erased remain

    24,000 people are still displaced two years after military operations ended in the Sur district of Diyarbakir. Homeowners were offered an average of 40,000 liras for property lost to the fighting. Now developers are building 400,000-lira houses on expropriated lands.

    This photo is part of my latest report from southeast Turkey:

    Sur, Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Turks Have Voted Away Their Democracy

    “First they ignored him. Then they laughed at him. Then they jailed him. Then he became perhaps Turkey’s most powerful leader in 80 years.” My take on ‘the oppressed’ and who’s claiming that status in a changing Turkey.


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    The Fate of Turkey’s Democracy Lies With the Kurds

    Over the last week, I reported from villages in southeast #Turkey, where paved roads are rare, security checkpoints are abundant and 1,090 ballot boxes are being relocated. This is what I saw ahead of the nation’s pivotal elections.


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    Turkey’s high-speed rail system highlighted in Monocle Magazine

    Just spotted the new transportation issue of Monocle Magazine. Inside, I wrote about Turkey’s fast developing high-speed rail network and plans to link Izmir to Sivas in 2019. The service already runs from Istanbul to Konya via Ankara, which will soon be the nation’s high-speed rail hub.

    Get the magazine here: https://monocle.com/shop/magazine/other/issue-114/

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    Three choices: Recep, Tayyip or Erdogan?

    Ankara, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Erdogan’s ‘pious generation’ goal drives Islam into education

    Over the years, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear his intentions to raise a “pious generation” that espouses Islamic values alongside Turkish nationalism. I took this photo of a father and daughter reading a Quran through a religious bookstore window in Fatih, Istanbul, to accompany a report on religious education by Fariba Nawa and Ozge Sebzeci in the Financial Times’ special insert on Turkey this week.

    Full story: https://www.ft.com/content/83328a4e-4317-11e8-97ce-ea0c2bf34a0b?sharetype=blocked

    Istanbul, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Financial Times Special Report: Turkey

    Pick up today’s FT special report on Turkey for an overview of big themes facing the nation ahead of its 24 June elections. Includes articles by Laura Pitel, Fariba Nawa and others - with my photos throughout.

    Link: https://www.ft.com/reports/turkey

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    Hamsi: The much sought-after Black Sea anchovy

    Samsun, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Election season is upon us

    Ankara, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Ankara Morning

    Ankara, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Turkey’s Female Opposition Candidate

    In Monocle Magazine’s latest Spring Weekly, I profile IYI Party leader Meral Aksener, who says #Turkey’s president “can’t handle losing to woman.”

    Order a copy here: https://monocle.com/shop/magazine/other/monocle-the-spring-weekly-issue-two/

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    Mardin Bazaar

    Mardin, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Saat Kulesi

    Izmir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Turkey‘s Dangerous Game of ‘Hostage Diplomacy’: How an American pastor became a political pawn for Erdogan

    Andrew Brunson, an American pastor, has been imprisoned in Turkey for the last 18 months. He has lost 50 pounds in jail and has passed long periods locked up by himself. This is my deep dive into his story, worsening US-Turkey relations, and talks of retaliatory sanctions on capitol hill.

    Full story: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/05/turkey-andrew-brunson-erdogan-coup-gulen-kurds/559748/

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    Mosque in Sur

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    As Ilisu Dam nears completion, Hasankeyf residents facing eviction

    Construction of the Ilisu dam is nearing completion. A new reservoir will soon begin to form in southeast Turkey that will submerge the ancient settlement of Hasankeyf, where some long-time residents and merchants will not get state relocation assistance.

    Full story: http://www.dw.com/en/facing-eviction-merchants-decry-turkey-dam-project/a-43318344

    Hasankeyf, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018

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    Refugee education in Turkey

    A breakdown of the good, the bad, and the innovative when it comes to refugee education in Turkey, a country hosting more than one million Syrian children - many of whom are likely to stay long-term.

    Full Story: https://www.irinnews.org/feature/2018/04/05/money-culture-language-barriers-turkey-s-bid-end-refugee-only-schools

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    Kurds protest Turkey’s Afrin offensive during Newroz celebrations

    Newroz festivities in Turkey’s largest Kurdish-majority city, Diyarbakir, were marked by anger and frustration over Ankara’s military operation in Afrin and the international community’s inaction.

    Photo Essay: http://p.dw.com/p/2ujvt

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018