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.

Absent new agreements, Trump-Erdogan meeting ends with pledge to work together

13 November 2019

As the public impeachment hearings opened against US President Donald Trump, the embattled American leader hosted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the White House today.

The much-anticipated meeting was their first since Turkey’s incursion into northeast Syria and though no new agreements were announced, the two presidents said they would work to restore strained US-Turkish relations.

“Turkey’s acquisition of sophisticated Russian military equipment, such as the S-400, creates some very serious challenges for us and we are talking about it constantly,” Trump said during a press conference following the meeting, saying his staff would work on resolving the S-400 issue.

Erdogan said Turkey remained a dedicated partner in the fight against terrorism and highlighted his nation’s role in hosting more than 3.6 million refugees. Before and after the press event, Trump also signaled he was open to expanding US-Turkey trade, stating the countries’ annual trade volume of $20 billion could reach $100 billion.

Asli Aydintasbas, a senior fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who wrote about the poor timing of the meeting in The Washington Post, said the event was a “huge win for Erdogan.”

Erdogan “has projected power at home and got a major audience in the US, including congressional Republican leaders and media,” Aydintasbas told Al-Monitor. “Erdogan was able to reiterate some of his key talking points, such as YPG being terrorists,” she added, using the initials for the majority-Kurdish People’s Protection Units in northeast Syria.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Turkish judge refuses to throw out trial of student Pride marchers

12 November 2019

ANKARA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – A Turkish court on Tuesday rejected calls to throw out the trial of 19 people for participating in an LGBT+ Pride march on a university campus.

Most of the 18 students and a faculty member from the Middle East Technical University (METU) were charged with “refusing to disperse” after being arrested at a May 10 Pride march by police using pepper spray, plastic bullets and tear gas.

The trial highlights ongoing limits on LGBT+ events in Turkey. After a 2016 coup attempt, local governments were given the power to ban public gatherings, which authorities across the country have used to outlaw Pride marches.

Defence lawyer Oyku Didem Aydin demanded the immediate acquittal of the defendants while standing before colored case files arranged to create a large rainbow on her desk.

“The images in the indictment only show students using their basic rights and freedoms,” Aydin told the court. “There’s no resistance to police.”

“The defendants are on trial for freedom of expression, for their freedom of assembly. No one should face such a thing.”

Read the full story on Reuters.

Seeking to restore relations on Capitol Hill, Erdogan to visit Trump in Washington

07 November 2019

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed he will visit Washington on Nov. 13 following an overnight phone call with US President Donald Trump.

The announcement ended speculation the Turkish leader might cancel the trip after the US House of Representatives passed legislation recognizing the Ottoman Empire’s mass killing of Armenians between 1915 and 1923 as genocide, a move that was highly offensive to Turkish nationalist sentiments.

Now, as members of Congress have introduced a myriad of sanctions packages that would target Turkish officials and the broader economy, Erdogan’s visit will likely focus on restoring damaged US-Turkey relations following Ankara’s military incursion into Syria and the acquisition of Russian-made defense systems that pose security risks to NATO military equipment in Turkey.

“The important aspect of the summit is whether or not Erdogan is able to meet some of the influential [senators] who may still have some sympathies for Turkey,” Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst at Global Source Partners, told Al-Monitor. “He needs to persuade them that sanctions are completely counterproductive.”

Penalties loom as lawyer for Turkey’s Halkbank delays US court proceedings

06 November 2019

A legal saga involving high-ranking officials in both Washington and Ankara continues after lawyers representing Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank refused to recognize criminal charges brought against the institution by the US Department of Justice on Tuesday.

Following an indictment released on Oct. 15, the bank faces six counts of fraud and conspiracy to evade US sanctions on Iran between 2012 and 2016 in what became known as the “gas for gold” scheme. This week, Halkbank lawyer Andrew Hruska of the King & Spalding law firm said the institution would seek dismissal of the case without recognizing the charges, while also requesting the judge recuse himself for having allegedly exhibited bias in prior media interviews.

Halkbank also asked for permission to make a “special appearance” in the Southern District of New York court where the trial is being held to fight the charges without entering a plea. The dismissal request might draw additional fines for contempt of court. Hruska did not respond to requests for comment.

Sources familiar with the case said the legal maneuvers were highly unusual and were likely efforts to delay court proceedings that could trigger heavy sanctions from the Justice Department, along with separate sanctions packages currently being considered in Congress.

“The penalties could be equivalent to the proceeds of the sanctions scheme, so we’re talking tens of billions of dollars,” Nate Schenkkan, director for Special Research at Freedom House, told Al-Monitor.

He added, “Halkbank is thinking, ‘Let’s just keep on kicking the can down the road and see if we can talk this out with the president.’ I have to say I’m skeptical of that [because] once the indictment has been brought, the president has very limited powers to do anything about it.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Ankara in quiet negotiations to buy Russian Su-35 fighter jets

31 October 2019

Turkish-Russian relations are entering a new stage as they prepare to start joint patrols of a strip 10 kilometers (six miles) deep inside northeastern Syria Friday following Ankara’s incursion into the region this month to expel US-backed Kurdish forces.

As the two nations coordinate operations on the ground, negotiations are taking place between state officials over Ankara’s possible purchase of Russian-made Su-35 warplanes. Turkish President Recep Erdogan expressed interest in the jets following Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 missile defense systems in July, which riled long-time NATO allies and may result with sanctions for violating regulations meant to deter purchases of Russian military technology.

While such sanctions have yet to be imposed on Turkey — partly due to resistance within the White House — the S-400 purchase did lead to Ankara’s expulsion from the Western bloc’s F-35 fight jet program. Though the Turkish state has already spent millions on the production and development of next-generation F-35 warplanes and the nation’s economy is expected to lose $9 billion due to its exclusion, NATO officials claim the move was necessary to safeguard the F-35’s security features, which could be compromised if the jets were operated within the range of S-400 radars.

Left with few options to modernize Turkey’s aging fleet of F-16s, Ankara officials are now considering Russia’s Su-35 jet as a viable option, though its acquisition would risk further damaging Turkey’s already troubled relations with Western and NATO allies.

“Turkey wants to have an alternative in case it cannot acquire new F-16s and maintain its current fleet,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, director of the German Marshall Fund in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “This should not be seen as a mere gesture, as the S-400 negotiations were seen. These negotiations fit a pattern in which Turkey turns to a welcoming Russia whenever it fails to get what it wants from the US.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Ankara grapples with security, repatriation in Syria as cease-fire deadline expires

29 October 2019

An air of volatility hangs over the newly created “safe zone” in northeast Syria following a two-week Turkish incursion to eradicate US-backed Kurdish forces from its southern border.

Hours before a cease-fire negotiated between Turkish and Russian officials — allowing for the withdrawal the People’s Protection Units (YPG) element of Kurdish-led forces that held the area since 2014 — was set to expire at 3 p.m. GMT today, Syrian regime forces clashed with the Turkish military, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Initial reports indicate at least six Syrian soldiers were injured and a dozen were taken captive in the exchange, the first such event since the Turkish incursion began on Oct. 9. The clash took place near the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain, highlighting the looming security challenges for Ankara as plans to maintain a Turkish troop presence in the area and eventually repatriate Syrian refugees currently living in Turkey remain in place.

US President Donald Trump greenlit the Turkish incursion, known as Operation Peace Spring, during an Oct. 6 phone call with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in which he agreed to pull back American troops stationed in the region. Since then, YPG forces seen as security threat by Ankara have largely withdrawn from the border area, as required by back-to-back US and Russian cease-fire agreements, after initially resisting an offensive by Turkish troops and Turkish-backed Syrian forces.

Read the full story on Al Monitor.

Crackdown on Kurdish mayors raises pressure on Turkish opposition

24 October 2019

As Turkish forces entered northeast Syria to expel US-backed Kurdish forces, seven mayors with the nation’s pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) were arrested and replaced by state-appointed trustees.

The developments bring the total number of HDP mayors detained and removed from office to 12 since the March 31 municipal elections, increasing pressure on the party and raising concerns democratic representation is being suppressed in the nation’s Kurdish-majority southeast.

“Turkey is waging a war on both sides of the Turkish-Syrian border,” Hisyar Ozsoy, deputy co-chair of foreign affairs for the HDP, told Al-Monitor. He went on, “While they are attacking Kurds in Syria, trying to undermine the possibility of autonomous Kurdish self-administration, they are simultaneously increasing the pressure on Kurdish politicians at home here in Turkey, so these are two sides of the same coin.”

The detained officials have been charged with making propaganda for and membership of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which state officials claim is closely linked to the HDP political structure. While most allegations stem from the prosecuted mayors’ past activities, human rights advocates have questioned the timing of their detention as Turkish forces conducted an offensive on PKK-linked groups in Syria.

“No doubt the Turkish authorities will claim these are all individualized processes, each one is being considered separately, but the fact that you do this all at once raises the concern that this is politically motivated, that there is one intent behind this to get rid of democratically elected mayors,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, Turkey director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor.
Read the full story on Al Monitor.

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.