Erdogan threatens Assad forces, seeks de-escalation in Idlib

05 February 2020

Amid an ongoing offensive in Idlib that has displaced half a million civilians, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to act against Russian-backed Syrian forces if they did not fall back from Turkish observation posts by the end of the month.

“We want the regime to immediately retreat to the borders stipulated by the Sochi agreement — in other words, to retreat behind our observation posts,” Erdogan said in the Turkish Parliament Wednesday.

He added that if the forces failed to pull back from 12 Turkish observation posts, two of which have been surrounded by Syrian troops, “Turkey itself will have to take over the matter.”

It is the latest development following Monday’s clashes between Turkish and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that left at least eight Turkish soldiers and 13 Syrian soldiers dead. The statement comes as a Syrian offensive has increased tensions on the ground in Syria while straining diplomatic relations between Ankara and Moscow, who have sought to de-escalate fighting Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave in the nation’s nine-year-old conflict.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Syria clashes, Ukraine visit test Turkey-Russia relations

04 February 2020

Turkish-Russian relations are reeling after clashes between Turkish troops and Syrian forces that left dozens dead and many more wounded Monday in Syria’s northwest province of Idlib.

The exchange took place as Russian-backed troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continue an offensive in one of Syria’s last remaining rebel enclaves, where Turkish forces have established observation posts to deter escalation in a conflict that began during the 2011 Arab uprisings.

“Those who are testing Turkey’s determination with this kind of treacherous attack will realize they’ve committed a big mistake,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said before departing for Ukraine. “We can’t remain silent as our soldiers are martyred. We will continue to make them pay.”

While Ankara and Moscow have supported opposing sides in the war, the two have also collaborated on establishing multiple cease-fire agreements through talks in Astana, Sochi and most recently in Moscow last month. Yet the ongoing Idlib offensive has posed new challenges for leaders on both fronts and despite the assertive rhetoric and a slew of negative Russian media reports on Turkey since Monday’s clashes, observers expect relations to stabilize moving forward.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Alarm as Turkey’s ruling party moves to empower night watchmen

30 January 2020

In 2016, the Turkish government reinstated a nighttime security force known as “bekci,” or watchmen, to support police officers in maintaining public safety in urban neighborhoods.

Tasked with patrolling streets and calling police officers when needed, the bekci forces have acted as a complementary security force and have grown to more than 21,000 male and female officers.

Earlier this month, a proposal submitted by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) sought to expand the bekcis’ powers to include authorities normally retained by police officers, such as conducting body searches and detaining suspects. The proposal is currently being reviewed by AKP and Nationalist Movement Party lawmakers who appear positioned to pass the bill in a move that has drawn protest from opposition politicians and civil rights advocates.

Ali Oztunc, a deputy with the main opposition Republican People’s Party, recently argued the proposal not only created insufficient entrance exams, requiring applicants have completed only a middle school education, but also gave bekcis powers that could easily be abused.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Erdogan slams Russia as regime offensive sends Idlib residents fleeing for Turkey

29 January 2020

An estimated 120,000 people have been displaced across Syria’s Idlib province in the last two weeks as Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad retook a key city Tuesday.

The displaced population joins hundreds of thousands of civilians who have fled fighting in northwest Syria despite a Jan. 12 cease-fire agreement brokered by officials in Ankara and Moscow who back opposing sides in a nine-year-old conflict that has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded to recent developments with frustration, saying Russia had failed to uphold prior accords to de-escalate the Syrian conflict.

“Unfortunately, Russia hasn’t abided by either the Astana or the Sochi agreements,” Erdogan said. “We have waited until now, but from this point, we are going to take our own actions. This is not a threat but our expectation is that Russia will give the regime the necessary warning.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkey sends philanthropist back to prison despite European ruling

29 January 2020

After 819 days in pretrial detention, Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala was sent back to prison Tuesday on terrorism charges despite a Dec. 10 ruling by the European Court of Human Rights calling for his immediate release.

The decision came after a tense court hearing in Silivri, in which about 50 defense lawyers staged a mass walkout in protest of the judges’ refusal to recuse themselves after allegations of legal misconduct.

Observers said the proceedings were evidence Turkish courts lacked independence and lengthy pretrial detentions continue to be used to punish human rights defenders, journalists and political dissidents.

“It’s shambolic. It’s farcical. It would be funny if it wasn’t this tragic,” Milena Buyum, a Turkey campaigner for Amnesty International, told Al-Monitor after attending the trial.

She added, “The charge he’s facing carries life imprisonment without parole and you’d expect the prosecution to be rigorous and to present evidence that sustains that allegation and they have failed to do so in the indictment and they have failed to do so in all the hearings.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkish state seizes foundation linked to Erdogan political rival

22 January 2020

Former Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu has come under an increased amount of pressure since resigning from the nation’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) last year to establish his own political movement.

On Jan. 21, Turkey’s General Directorate of Foundations took control of the Foundation for Sciences and Arts (BISAV), which Davutoglu co-founded in 1986 to support and bolster the nation’s conservative intellectual community.

“This arbitrary attitude is a grave step that could inflict great harm on our hundreds of years of foundation history and it is also a dangerous action that could affect not only the Foundation for Sciences and Arts, but all foundations in our country as well,” read the Jan. 21 statement of Mustafa Ozel, a founding chair of the BISAV board of regents.

In response, the General Directorate of Foundations defended its appointment of three officials to oversee the management of BISAV, stating on its website: “This is not a trustee appointment. This action is to protect the legal character of the Foundation for Sciences and Arts, its tangible assets and establishment objectives.”

The move comes after Sehir University, another institution spearheaded by Davutoglu, was turned over to the state-run Marmara University in December due to financial issues cited by the Higher Education Board.

Both state seizures coincide with Davutoglu’s establishment of the Future Party, or Gelecek Partisi (GP), last month. Through his new political platform, Davutoglu seeks to challenge longtime ally President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by appealing to conservative voters disenchanted with rising polarization and economic turbulence in Turkey after nearly 18 years of AKP rule.

The latest polls place support for the former prime minister in the single digits, and observers believe his path to becoming a formidable threat to Erdogan’s leadership will face many obstacles, as evidenced by the swift takeover of two institutions central to Davutoglu’s conservative vision.

“This sends a message to the entire Islamist camp that if they try to go against the regime, there’s a price to pay,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkey gains clout in Libya negotiations following Berlin conference

22 January 2020
The Berlin conference on Libya ended Jan. 19 with domestic and foreign actors agreeing on fragile proposals to enforce an arms embargo and to work toward de-escalating a conflict that has gripped the nation since the fall of Col. Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Though many of the conclusions set forth mechanisms for progress, including the establishment of a cease-fire committee that is to meet regularly, few expect short-term changes on the ground in Libya as a sustainable resolution remains elusive. Still, in the days following the summit, observers have said Turkey’s increased involvement in the conflict acted as a catalyst for the European and international community to revisit developments in Libya.

Ankara, through agreements with the Tripoli government demarcating shared maritime boundaries in November and then with parliamentary approval of Turkish troop deployment to Libya earlier this month, has expanded its diplomatic clout in the nine-year conflict and has positioned itself as a key broker in developments moving forward.

In recent months, Turkish officials have increasingly supported the UN-recognized Government of National Accord headed by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj in Tripoli against an offensive launched in April 2019 by eastern Libya commander Khalifa Hifter.

Sinem Adar, a research associate at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said Ankara has multiple interests in its logistical and material backing of the Government of National Accord, including territorial and energy claims in the eastern Mediterranean, political alignments and economic incentives in the form of prewar Turkish debt.

Adar told Al-Monitor that the summit has helped Ankara buy further time to keep the Government of National Accord intact, adding, “One can perhaps argue that the summit for Ankara is a short-term gain, in this respect.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkey-Egypt row escalates as Anadolu Agency staff detained in Cairo

16 January 2020

Four staff members of the Turkish state news wire, Anadolu Agency, were detained in Cairo and are being held in an undisclosed location in the latest escalation between the Turkish and Egyptian administrations.

The two governments have been at odds since the 2013 coup over former Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi by current leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Though few details have emerged regarding a Tuesday evening raid on the agency’s Cairo bureau, media professionals say the move may be linked to developments in Libya, where Turkey and Egypt are backing opposing sides in an ongoing civil war.

“These arrests have nothing to do with our journalistic activities,” Metin Mutanoglu, Anadolu’s editor-in-chief, told Al-Monitor.

He called for the immediate release of the staff members and said that Egypt’s Interior Ministry had identified the Anadolu Cairo office as a “cell house” for a terrorist organization, calling the statement “direct proof that these arrests are politically motivated.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Erdogan vows to defend Tripoli government after Libya talks fail

15 January 2020

After seven hours of indirect talks, the leaders of Libya’s rival factions left Moscow Monday without agreeing on a cease-fire deal.

Russian and Turkish officials — which back opposing sides — had led the effort but came away empty handed when Libyan National Army (LNA) commander Khalifa Hifter refused to sign a draft proposal he claimed did not satisfy his conditions.

In response, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Tuesday he would continue defending the internationally recognized Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA). Speaking before the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan said Hifter had “run away” from cease-fire deal and vowed Turkey would not refrain from teaching the eastern Libyan commander “a lesson” if his LNA forces proceed with their 10-month-long offensive on Tripoli.

“The coup-plotting Hifter first said yes but then fled Moscow,” Erdogan said. “We have completed our duty; the rest is the duty of Mr. Putin and his team.”

The next round of peace talks are scheduled for Sunday at a long-delayed Berlin Conference, where international leaders will attempt once more to end a conflict that has gripped Libya since the fall of former Prime Minister Moammar Gadhafi in 2011.

Though the Moscow talks ended without results, some analysts note that Russian and Turkish leadership in establishing a shaky cease-fire Sunday and bringing the Libyan opponents into negotiations has been a diplomatic victory for Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Years after coup, purged civil servants feel trapped in Turkey

14 January 2020

Leyla Simsek Rathke was acquitted of terror-related charges in September, but she continues to struggle to regain basic rights such as the freedom to travel, work and access social services.

Simsek Rathke, a former academic at Marmara University in Istanbul, was dismissed under a state of emergency in February 2017 in mass purges that saw more than 130,000 civil servants lose their positions following a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey.

Frustrated by the inability to get her job back or obtain a valid passport, Simsek Rathke joined a group of purged civil servants in the Kadikoy district of Istanbul Sunday to protest the ongoing restrictions on dismissed workers. Though the post-coup state of emergency ended in 2018, many of those accused of collaborating with terror groups on dubious evidence continue to find justice evasive in appeals courts. Throughout the process, they have remained ostracized from broader Turkish society, which they feel has cast them as criminals.

In recent months, the dismissed civil servants have ramped up efforts to draw attention to their dire situation.

“For three years now, I have been jailed in this country,” Simsek Rathke told Al-Monitor, referring to her travel restriction. “I got a job offer to teach at the University of Kassel [in Germany] and I couldn’t leave. … I didn’t want to try the illegal way. Some of our friends did that, but I didn’t want to escape like that because I am not a criminal.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

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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:

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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:

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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:

    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.


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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:

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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:

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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:

    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:

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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:

    Diyarbakir, Turkey - © Diego Cupolo 2018