Syrian refugees becoming scapegoats for Turkey’s troubles

11 July 2019

A crowd of Turkish nationals descended on the Kucukcekmece district of Istanbul on June 29, ransacking Syrian-run stores. False rumors had spread that a Syrian male had harassed a local girl. The incident grabbed national headlines, fueling debate on the long-term status of Turkey’s 3.6 million Syrian refugees. But it was just one of many attacks against the Syrian refugee community in Turkey.

On the night of July 15, 2016, as a violent coup attempt faltered, a mob of young men vandalized and looted more than 30 Syrian-run shops in Ankara’s Onder neighborhood. The neighborhood is home to one of the highest concentrations of refugees in the capital, and its Syrian residents recall the attack clearly, hesitating to speak ill of their Turkish neighbors.

“They broke the glass on our storefront,” Zakaria Baraket, a 52-year-old Syrian from Aleppo and co-owner of al-Nakmeh restaurant in Onder, told Al-Monitor. “Thankfully, they did nothing more than that.”

Baraket said similar incidents have not occurred in Onder since, but he exhaled deeply when asked about the recent Kucukcekmece episode. “It’s not 100% safe here, it’s 50% safe. There are some things going on,” Baraket said, without elaborating.

Down Selcuk Street, where many Syrians have opened businesses in Ankara, another store owner said the welcome mat for refugees was wearing thin.

“In the beginning they would welcome us, donate clothes and furniture to families arriving from Syria, but now they don’t want to give us even a cup of tea,” said the store owner, who withheld his name for personal safety.

“Syrians are hard workers,” he continued. “Turks watch us open businesses and see us succeed, and then blame us for taking away their business. The main reason all this is happening is because the economy has been turning sour.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Pro-state think tank targets foreign media in Turkey

08 July 2019

Since a failed coup in 2016, critical journalism and press freedom have been severely curtailed in Turkey, and foreign media operating in the country have once again come under increased scrutiny.

On Saturday, the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA), an Ankara-based think tank with close ties to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), published a 200-page report detailing the work, social media activity and employment history of journalists with international news outlets providing Turkish-language services.

Titled “The extensions of international media outlets in Turkey,” the report accuses numerous media organizations and journalists of exhibiting “bias” against the Turkish state, sparking outrage among free speech advocates who say its contents could be used as evidence to indict individuals named in the document.

In response, the Journalists’ Union of Turkey and the Media and Law Studies Association said they would file a criminal complaint against SETA for “blacklisting” journalists and alleging foreign media was conducting propaganda operations in an effort to change “perceptions” among Turkish audiences.

The report looks like a “form of intimidation and an attempt to discredit the growing effect of international media coverage,” Erol Onderoglu, the Turkey representative for Reporters Without Borders, told Al-Monitor.

Read the full report on Al Monitor:


New Turkish mayors weaponize transparency against wasteful spending

03 July 2019

The Ankara municipality livestreamed a public tender for the purchase of steel pipes to be used in the city sewage system on June 24, and reports indicate that 160,00-300,000 people tuned in to watch the routine government function.

The broadcast was the first of its kind in Turkey and comes as part of a pledge for greater transparency from newly elected mayors with the nation’s main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), which won a string of victories in recent municipal elections and the Istanbul election do-over.

“It is something very rare, not only in Turkey but also in the world, that people instead of watching movies or TV series are watching a steel pipe tender,” said Oya Ozarslan, chair of Transparency International in Turkey. She told Al-Monitor, “I think people realized they matter, that they have a voice in these processes.”

“Ordinary people on the street are asking, ‘What is the government doing with my taxes?’ and ‘How are they using the resources of the country?’” Ozarslan said. “This is a very good, very promising development.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Libya’s Hifter frees Turkish sailors

01 July 2019

Six Turkish sailors were released by forces loyal to the east Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter Monday following a cascade of events that have both changed dynamics on the nation’s front lines and highlighted Ankara’s growing role in the ongoing conflict.

Hifter, who leads the Libya National Army (LNA) and controls much of the country’s eastern and southern regions, launched an offensive in April on Tripoli, the seat of UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Following months of intense fighting, a surprise defeat on Wednesday forced Hifter’s troops to retreat from a key front-line position on the outskirts of Tripoli.

Furious, Hifter ordered a “harsh response” to the loss while accusing Turkey of supplying his rivals with armed drones, weapons and military vehicles. The LNA imposed a ban on commercial flights from Libya to Turkey as well as a blockade on Turkish ships docking in the country. Then on Sunday, LNA forces destroyed an armed Turkish drone stationed in Tripoli’s Mitiga airport and detained six Turkish citizens in an unprecedented escalation between Hifter and Ankara.

By Monday afternoon, the Turkish citizens were released, but only after the Turkish Foreign Ministry warned Hifter his forces would become “legitimate targets” if the sailors were kept hostage. Now observers are monitoring the rising tensions between Hifter’s forces and Ankara, with many pointing to the recent events as more evidence of a growing proxy war being carried out Libyan soil, with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates backing Hifter in the east, while Turkey and Qatar back the UN-recognized government in the west.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Opposition candidate wins Istanbul mayor’s race in blow to AKP

24 June 2019

In a country that has been in perpetual campaign mode for the last five years, the sudden end of the Istanbul election do-over came as shock few could have predicted. Cheers and car horns echoed through the streets of the central Beyoglu district as the Binali Yildirim, the candidate of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), conceded defeat in a televised speech, ending his party’s long dominance over Turkey’s largest city.

“As of now my rival is leading,” Yildirim said minutes after the initial results were released, showing Ekrem Imamoglu, the candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), with 54% of the vote. “I congratulate him and wish him all the luck. My wish is for Imamoglu to serve Istanbul well.”

Preliminary results reported by the state news outlet Anadolu Agency showed Imamoglu with 4.7 million votes to Yildirim’s 3.9 million votes with more than 99% of ballots counted at 9 p.m. Sunday night.

The election do-over came after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling AKP contested the initial March 31 municipal vote in which Imamoglu won by a slim margin. Following the original defeat, AKP officials brought forth a succession of vote recounts and appeals until Turkey’s top election board annulled the results, citing irregularities due to the credentials of some ballot box observers.

Preliminary results indicate Imamoglu significantly widened his margin in Sunday’s election, which saw a voter participation of roughly 84%. In a televised speech, the Istanbul mayor-elect warned party officials and ballot box observers not to leave their posts until all ballots had been officially registered, and to avoid early celebrations.

“This victory will pave the way for the democratization of Turkey,” Tuba Torun, a CHP official, told Al-Monitor. “We have a government that is ready to do anything to keep its power. As you know, we won last time and they didn’t accept the results, but this time the voting margin is so wide that they can’t deny the defeat here.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Gezi Park detainees to finally get day in court

20 June 2019

This weekend, the Istanbul election do-over will provide a vital test for Turkey’s democratic institutions. The assessment will continue on Monday, when the nation’s judiciary will be put in the spotlight with the start of the much-awaited Gezi trials.

Sixteen people are facing life imprisonment without parole for allegedly organizing and financing the 2013 Istanbul Gezi Park protests. Among them are the philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been in pretrial detention since November 2017, and Yigit Aksakoglu, an early childhood education advocate who’s been jailed for more than seven months.

657-page indictment issued on Feb. 20 charged the defendants with orchestrating a plot to overthrow the Turkish government through the Gezi protests, which spread across the nation after peaceful demonstrators tried to preserve a green space in central Istanbul in 2013. The defendants have denied the allegations and human rights advocates have criticized the indictment for containing evidence they claim does not amount to reasonable grounds for incrimination.

“It seems to be a politically motivated trial,” Emma Sinclair-Webb, the Turkey director for Human Rights Watch, told Al-Monitor. “The prosecutors provided all these phone calls, photographs and hundreds of intercepted conversations whose significance isn’t clear. … So you get this mass of evidence that’s not evidence at all.”

Read the full story on Al Montior:

Greek Cyprus calls for arrest of Turkish drilling crew

12 June 2019

Tensions are escalating between Greek Cypriots and Ankara after international arrest warrants were issued for crewmembers aboard a Turkish drilling ship in disputed waters off the coast of Cyprus.

On Monday, authorities in Greek Cyprus sought the arrest of 25 individuals, including workers on Turkey’s Fatih drilling ship, which has been conducting gas exploration activities in territorial waters claimed by Cyprus, as well as several officials from companies working with the Turkish Petroleum Corporation. The rebuke to Turkey’s ongoing gas development projects in the eastern Mediterranean Sea, or EastMed, was condemned by officials in Ankara, who have vowed to move forward with energy exploration activities near Cyprus.

“We will continue our efforts to achieve regional peace by distributing the riches of Cyprus Island and the Mediterranean in a fair manner,” said Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Donmez on Tuesday, stating the territorial energy rights of Turkish Cypriots in Northern Cyprus were being violated. “Our extensive and long-term exploration and drilling activities in the region will resume as planned without making concessions to our legitimate rights on license areas.”

The spat comes as officials in the United States and Israel have increased cooperation with Greek Cypriots to develop energy resources in the EastMed, which is believed to hold enough gas to meet regional needs and potentially serve as an alternative energy source for European markets, which largely rely on Russian gas imports. Despite repeated appeals for Turkey to stop its “provocative” gas exploration activities near Cyprus, officials in Ankara are pressing ahead, risking a wider confrontation with not just Greek Cypriots but also regional stakeholders, which include the United States.

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Istanbul mayoral candidates to debate in rare TV face-off

11 June 2019

In healthy democracies, a candidate’s willingness to participate in a televised debate ahead of elections is not newsworthy. In Turkey, where the last major political debate took place in 2002, such a decision can be seen as a watershed moment.

On June 16, Binali Yildirim, the Istanbul mayoral candidate from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), agreed to take part in a debate with his rival, Ekrem Imamoglu of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), ahead of the do-over elections scheduled for June 23. In March, Imamoglu surprised many when he narrowly won the Istanbul mayoral seat — long held by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s AKP and its ideological forerunners — but his victory was revoked after Turkey’s electoral board ruled some ballot box committees had violated electoral laws and a redo was set in motion.

With less than two weeks before voting day, Yildirim continues to trail behind in opinion polls and is now set to face off against the charismatic Imamoglu on live television in a much anticipated political event that some observers see as a rare sign of weakness from the AKP. For nearly two decades, the party has governed Turkey and most of its largest cities, setting its own terms on public discourse as opposition leaders and media outlets have been increasingly silenced. Yet after losing most major metropolitan areas in the March 31 municipal elections, the AKP has been forced to alter its campaign strategy at the risk of losing Istanbul a second time.

“Given that Binali Yildirim already has state support, government support and name recognition, I think he is doing this because he’s trailing behind Imamoglu,” Berk Esen, an assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Ankara, told Al-Monitor. “[The AKP knows] they are running out of time and options to close the gap.”

Read the full story on Al Monitor:

Rohingya refugees prepare camps for monsoon season: Part 3

09 June 2019

Though Cyclone Fani spared the camps, the first major rainfall to hit Cox’s Bazar this season affected 170 shelters, displacing a number of families, according to Gemma Snowdon, a communications officer for WFP. In addition to the SMEP preparations, constant work is needed to maintain reinforcement walls and humanitarian workers have been setting up storm shelters, as well as, providing cyclone preparedness training courses.

In recent months, Navin Karki, a site management officer for IOM, has also been distributing “tie-down kits” to help secure rooftops and minimize storm damage. He expressed fears financial support for such measures would diminish with time as the initial emergency response turns into a protracted crisis.

“If there is a lack of support from the international community, then it will be very difficult for everyone to continue their daily activities because these projects require constant upkeep,” Karki told DW. “The need here is huge.”

Rohingya refugees prepare camps for Monsoon season: Part 2

08 June 2019

Alshalabi oversees the many construction crews that are chopping hills in half, making graded terraces of their slopes and reinforcing them with treated-bamboo retention walls. Native vegetation is then planted on the terraces to help hold the soil together. In recent months, several new camps have been built in this manner, allowing Rohingya families to relocate to safer shelters than those initially built as the crisis unfolded.

“We call it ‘decongesting the camps,'” Alshalabi told DW. “Almost 25,000 people have been relocated into the camp 20 and camp 4 extensions. But the old camps are so densely populated that it doesn’t seem like that many people moved.”

Taken together, the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar are the largest refugee settlement in the world. A report by Human Rights Watch published in August 2018 found the camp to be severely overcrowded, with an average usable space of just 10.7 square meters per person. The report called for Rohingya refugees to be relocated to safer areas outside the camps, but the long-term prospects of hosting the displaced community has become a contentious subject in Bangladeshi politics.

Government officials continue to put pressure on Myanmar to repatriate Rohingya refugees and, in viewing their stay as temporary, have banned the use of permanent construction materials in the camps, compounding existing infrastructure problems.

Yet for the time being, earthmoving projects continue and, in the process, provide much needed employment for camp residents, who are neither permitted to work nor attend schools. Several thousand Rohingya refugees have signed up to participate in the program and are paid roughly $5 (€4.5) for an eight-hour workday, the minimum wage in Bangladesh. Among them is Mohamed Elias, a 35-year-old refugee who has been living in the camps since 2017.

“During the rainy season, it gets very wet here,” Elias said as he worked to level out a terrace. “The soil breaks down easily and the hills collapse, so what we are doing now will protect our homes … it also feels good to work.”

Rohingya females also take part in the infrastructure projects and compose about 30% of the total workforce. Roshida Begum, a mother of four whose husband was killed in Myanmar, said she waters vegetation on the terraces in the morning, carries soil to construction sites in the afternoon, and cooks meals for her children during breaks.

“The salary has helped me buy many things like cooking oil, rice and additional food to supplement the food aid we are getting,” Begum told DW.

“In Myanmar, the security situation was not good for Rohingya, but in Bangladesh they are quite good at keeping us safe,” she continued. “The food rations go up and down, but security is good.”

Read the full story on Deutsche Welle:

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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