Former Erdogan ally establishes new party in Turkey

12 December 2019

A new contender will join Turkey’s political landscape Friday morning, when former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu takes the stage at Ankara’s Bilkent Hotel to establish a breakaway conservative party.

Named Gelecek Partisi, or Future Party, Davutoglu will be joined by a group of to-be-disclosed founding members to announce his manifesto, which is expected to target center-right swing voters seeking an alternative to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

According to Future Party spokesperson Abdullah Adabas, Davutoglu will outline his party policies Friday in preparation for elections currently scheduled for 2023. Rumors have been circulating over the party’s formation since September, when Davutoglu resigned from the AKP, with which he served as minister of foreign affairs and then prime minister from 2014 to 2016 before falling out with Erdogan.

The former premier has criticized AKP policies in recent months and took formal steps Thursday in submitting his party application to the Interior Ministry. Along with former Economy Minister Ali Babacan, who is also expected to form a new party in the coming weeks, Davutoglu may draw votes away from the traditional AKP electorate, but will face an uphill climb in becoming a significant threat to Erdogan’s hold on power, according to political observers.

“The main criticism leveled against [Davutoglu] is he had turned a blind eye to the democratic backsliding that happened in the country partly under his watch,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor at Ankara’s Bilkent University, told Al-Monitor. “The fact that now he’s challenging Erdogan, it seems for many people disingenuous.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

As EU mulls response, Ankara doubles down on Libya accords

11 December 2019

Disputes over tracts of the eastern Mediterranean Sea continue to rattle the region as Ankara doubles down on plans to conduct gas exploration activities in areas claimed by Cyprus and Greece.

Following a Nov. 27 agreement between Turkey and the UN-recognized Libyan government in Tripoli that redrew maritime borders between the nations, European Union officials are weighing a response to fast-moving developments that have increased tensions among neighboring states.

Speaking to national broadcaster A Haber Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey would not stand idle as regional energy resources are developed without Ankara’s involvement.

Within our continental shelf, no one can conduct activity without our permission. If it happens, we will prevent it, of course,” Cavusoglu said in a televised interview.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Erdogan drops block on NATO defense plan as trust issues linger

04 December 2019

As a NATO summit defined by discord, name-calling and accusations came to a close Wednesday, an unexpected show of unity took shape as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reversed his stance on a previous threat to block resolutions during the meeting.

Ahead of the two-day London gathering, the Turkish leader said he would hold up NATO defense plans for Baltic states and Poland if allies did not designate the US-backed People’s Protection Units in Syria as a terror organization.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that Erdogan had withdrawn the ultimatum late Wednesday. In a joint statement, member states reaffirmed their commitment to the alliance, saying, “Terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

In a closing press conference, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said the Turkish leader did not impose any demands in return for his support of the NATO plan.

“No one demanded anything from us for this,” Nauseda said. “We all thanked President Erdogan for his solidarity.”

The development, along with the final communiqué despite earlier reports one may not have been released, were positive developments in an otherwise rocky summit marked by disagreements among allies. Still, as NATO leaders return to their nations, a myriad of unresolved issues will continue to foster distrust between Turkey and some member states.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

“My Only Crime Was That I Was a Doctor”: How the Syrian Government Targets Health Workers for Arrest, Detention, and Torture

04 December 2019
Proud to have contributed to the latest Physicians for Human Rights project, in which researchers interviewed 21 Syrian health workers who shared evidence linking their arrest, imprisonment, and ill-treatment to their medical work. 
Read the report here.

Erdogan to hold up NATO plan unless allies recognize terror threats against Turkey

03 December 2019

The points of disagreement between Turkey and NATO allies now run from weapons deals with Moscow to developments in northern Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and back up to the Baltic states — encircling the nation that long played a key role as the bloc’s southeastern flank.

Speaking as he departed for the NATO summit in London Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reaffirmed he would oppose a defense plan for the Baltic nations and Poland unless the allies classify a Kurdish militia as a terrorist organization.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Erdogan said, referring to the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) in northeast Syria against which Ankara launched a military operation in October.

The statements add to simmering tensions regarding burden-sharing and member states’ commitments to the alliance as it marks its 70th anniversary, and risk further unsettling relations in the face of growing threats from Russia and China.

Following conflicting reports of Turkish opposition to the defense plan, Erdogan doubled down, saying he had spoken with his Polish counterpart Andrzej Duda by phone and would hold meetings with him along with the leaders of the United Kingdom, France and Germany Tuesday.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said the attempt to secure the terror designation was unlikely to succeed in the short term, but it could help Ankara officials mitigate pressure during the two-day summit over Turkey’s unilateral operation in northeast Syria.

“I don’t believe that Turkey can realistically expect NATO to register the YPG as a terror organization at this point,” Unluhisarcikli told Al-Monitor. “The YPG is only important for Turkey so far, but the Baltics and Poland are important for several allies.” He added, “I think Turkey would take a very big risk by going forward with its threat of blocking the plans.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkey-Libya agreement shakes up eastern Mediterranean

02 December 2019

Ahead of this week’s NATO summit in London, fresh developments in the eastern Mediterranean Sea will likely add to a long list of tensions between Turkey and allied nations as the bloc celebrates its 70th anniversary.

On Nov. 27, Ankara signed an agreement with Libya’s internationally recognized government denoting new maritime boundaries between the two nations. The area spanning from southwest Turkey to northeast Libya cuts across a zone currently claimed by Greece and Cyprus, where plans for a future gas pipeline are in the works to link eastern Mediterranean gas fields with European markets.

The agreement comes as Turkish ships continue gas exploration and drilling activities within Cyprus’ territorial waters, actions Ankara claims are necessary to ensure gas revenues are shared between the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which is recognized solely by Turkey. The latest move further escalates tensions between the nations, which hold conflicting claims over the development of eastern Mediterranean energy resources.

Jalel Harchaoui, a research fellow specializing in Libya at the Clingendael Institute, said Turkish officials were likely reacting to their nation’s isolation from ongoing energy developments in the region following the establishment of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum earlier this year between the Republic of Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt and Italy.

“Turkey is deeply interested in defending its own interpretation of territorial-waters law,” Harchaoui told Al-Monitor. “For that, Turkey needs — in order to bolster its own legal and rhetorical discourse on the international stage — a partner other than Northern Cyprus. That is what Turkey expects of the Government of National Accord in Tripoli.”

Harchaoui said Ankara was seeking a precedent for future developments in the eastern Mediterranean, as Turkish officials have repeatedly signaled gas exploration activities would continue despite a growing threat of sanctions from the European Union regarding such actions.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

US sanctions on Turkey ‘inevitable’ after apparent S-400 radar test

26 November 2019

Turkish media broadcasts showed US-made F-16 fighter jets flying over Ankara Monday to test what appeared to be functioning Russian-made radars that are part of Turkey’s newly acquired S-400 missile defense systems.

The scene gave rise to speculation over whether the S-400s had been activated — a move that US officials have long threatened would trigger sanctions on Turkey. An unnamed Turkish defense official later confirmed the tests had taken place while speaking to Bloomberg News, and now Turkey observers expect lawmakers in Washington to punish Ankara for actions they say threaten NATO security systems.

The developments come less than two weeks after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his American counterpart Donald Trump in the White House during an effort to ameliorate strained relations between the NATO allies. Though the two leaders have expressed an affinity for one another and Trump has so far shielded Ankara from repercussions following its S-400 purchase — as required under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) — members of Congress have introduced a multitude of sanctions packages that may soon be unleashed on Turkey.

Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, said US sanctions on Turkey were “inevitable” after the radar tests.

“What President Erdogan managed to halt when he was in Washington will be reactivated,” Unluhisarcikli told Al-Monitor. “Turkey will be sanctioned and I don’t believe it will be limited to the CAATSA sanctions. Once the genie is out of the bottle, I don’t know where the US Congress will stop.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkish court defies higher ruling to uphold verdict in Cumhuriyet retrial

21 November 2019

ISTANBUL — More than three years after the prosecution of journalists and other employees of Turkey’s opposition Cumhuriyet newspaper began, a Turkish court upheld its conviction of 12 former staff members and acquitted one in a retrial Thursday.

The decision continues a legal saga that has seen defendants in and out of prison on various terror-related charges, and the case will now be sent to an appeals court despite a September ruling by a higher court overturning convictions against the former newspaper employees.

Journalist Kadri Gursel was acquitted in Thursday’s decision, while the other 12 journalists will face charges stemming from their reporting and contacts with alleged members of terrorist organizations ranging from far-left groups to Kurdish activists and supporters of the movement led by exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, which the Turkish state claims orchestrated a July 2016 coup attempt.

Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, attended the trial and said the reversal of a Supreme Court of Cassation verdict by a lower court revealed “inter-institutional fighting” in the Turkish judicial system.

“This is an outrageous decision, showing clearly that the Cumhuriyet trial is no longer concerning journalists but is now a part of a huge discussion and huge dispute in the Turkish high judiciary,” Onderoglu told Al-Monitor.

He added, “It is not about the obvious violations of media freedom in Turkey.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Monocle interview with Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu

21 November 2019

Pick up this month’s issue of Monocle to read my interview with Istanbul Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu, in which he outlines his political strategy and vision for the city, saying he sleeps no more than 5 hours a night:

“I open my eyes with work and close them with work,” he told me.

Amid growing crackdown, pro-Kurdish party calls for new elections in Turkey

20 November 2019

Following initial deliberations about withdrawing from parliament in protest over sustained state pressure, Turkey’s second-largest opposition party called for early elections during a meeting with its constituents Wednesday.

Officials from the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) reached the decision after dozens of party members and supporters have been sacked, detained or jailed in recent months. Since the municipal elections in March, 24 of the party’s mayors have been removed from office on terror-related charges and replaced by state-appointed trustees.

In response, party officials released a declaration calling on opposition parties to support its call for early elections “to rescue [the] people of Turkey from the tyranny” of the ruling government alliance between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Center for American Progress, said the move was “a rhetorical reminder” for the government that the HDP remains the leading party in the Kurdish-majority southeast and could get its sacked candidates re-elected in a new vote.

“The HDP statement also can be seen as a warning that the removal of mayors and appointment of kayyums [trustees] will only deepen local resentment of the government,” Makovsky told Al-Monitor. “In reality, as HDP surely knows, there is currently no prospect of early elections. Only the presidency and parliament — the latter requiring a 60% vote under the new executive system — can call for new elections, and Erdogan controls both.”

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