Christopher Dickey reports: When Israel looks at the greatest threat to its long-term hopes for the future, these days it’s looking out to sea. The old issues are on the table, of course: Iran’s nukes, the Palestinians, the Syrian slaughterhouse next door and growing regional instability. But if there’s a place where a sudden, out-of-control war is likely to erupt, it’s probably not going to be called the Sinai, the Golan, the West Bank (or Judea and Samaria). It’s going to be called Leviathan, Dalit or Karish — the vast fields of natural gas and oil discovered in the deep waters between Israel and Cyprus over the last five years.
Who controls that wealth is likely to dominate the economic future of the region for generations to come. The Israelis know it. So do their allies, their rivals and their enemies. And tensions are mounting by the day.
“All the elements of danger are there,” says Pierre Terzian, editor of the oil industry weekly Petrostrategies: there is competition for huge resources, there are disputed borders, and, not to put too fine a point on it, “this is a region where resorting to violent action is not something unusual.”
The United States government is watching warily, trying to broker diplomatic settlements and, so far, failing. No longer inclined to be the region’s policeman on land or in the air, much less at sea, Washington is scaling back its presence in the Middle East while just about everyone else is increasing theirs.
Israel is rushing to create “the most technologically advanced fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean,” according to a report in Tablet Magazine. Turkey is flexing its maritime muscles with plans to spend as much as a billion dollars on a multi-purpose amphibious assault ship that will give its fleet blue water capabilities like never before. The Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, meanwhile, is known to have naval missiles, and has used them in the past, sinking a cargo vessel and holing an Israeli warship during the Lebanon war of 2006. Russia is expanding both its naval and commercial presence in Syrian waters, despite the Syrian civil war. It inked a $90 million, 25-year exploration deal with Damascus last Christmas Day. [Continue reading...]
Der Spiegel reports: Turgut Keles loved his premier. He maintained his support of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan through early summer, when demonstrators in Istanbul were protesting the redevelopment of Gezi Park. When Erdogan held a rally for tens of thousands of supporters, Keles was in the first row.
But just half a year later, everything has changed. “Erdogan must go,” the former fan now says, adding that the prime minister has “betrayed” millions of Turks. Keles long voted in favor of Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP). But his support of the party is exceeded by his admiration of Muslim preacher Fethullah Gülen, the leader of a powerful civic movement that is now at odds with Erdogan.
Keles attended a school founded by Gülen followers, and later studied at one of the movement’s universities. The organization helped him find a job, he says. Today, Keles works for a construction company in Istanbul and remains a devoted follower. “Anyone who insults Gülen, insults me,” he says.
For a long time, Gülen and Erdogan were allies. This fall, however, the prime minister announced that tutoring centers run by the Gülen movement would be shut down. Erdogan has accused the preacher’s supporters of creating a “state within a state,” and since then the two sides have been locked in a bitter power struggle. The conflict appears to confirm what many once dismissed as a conspiracy theory — that in many cases the Gülen movement controls the police and justice system.
Just before Christmas, police arrested more than 50 suspects, among them high-ranking AKP members, business owners and the sons of three ministers. They are accused of accepting bribes and involvement with illegal oil deals with Iran.
Gareth Jenkens, a Turkey expert from the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, suspects that Gülen supporters are behind the investigations. “The movement wants to intimidate Erdogan. It is desperately trying to prevent the closure of its tutoring centers,” he says.
A former justice minister with the AKP even says that one employee of the country’s top court sought the preacher’s advice before ruling on a case.
Afraid of being watched, Keles looks into a cafe on an Istanbul side street. He’s not actually authorized to speak about the Gülen movement, which is also why he doesn’t want to use his real name. He wants to set one thing straight: It wasn’t the movement, but Erdogan, who started the current conflict, he says. “He’s behaving like a despot.”
Fethullah Gülen, who is believed to be 72, lives in exile in Pennsylvania. He fled Turkey in 1999 when the government, which was secular at the time, accused him of attempting to Islamize the country. His some 8 million supporters run schools, media companies, hospitals and an insurance company in 140 countries, including Germany. It is the “most powerful Islamist grouping” in Turkey, according to US State Department diplomatic cables made public by WikiLeaks in 2010. The network “controls major business, trade, and publishing activities, has deeply penetrated the political scene — including AKP at high levels.”
Gülen got his start as an imam in Ederne and Izmir, and soon persuaded pious businessmen to make donations. With this he financed schools, and his supporters founded student housing known as “lighthouses,” which are a fundamental part of the organization. Keles lived in one of these facilities, which often offer free accommodation in exchange for loyalty. Dropouts say the tone inside is militaristic; residents study Gülen’s writings and sermons under a provost’s supervision.
The community recruits new supporters in its schools and tutoring centers, training them as “soldiers of light.” Their task, whether they become businessmen, politicians or judges, is to spread Gülen’s conservative vision of Islam and to expand his influence.
But despite the fact that it’s a huge organization, the Gülen movement has no address and no headquarters. Fethullah Gülen alone determines its structure and path, while the cleric’s trusted “brothers” are in charge of its most important businesses. Among these is Zaman, Turkey’s highest-circulation newspaper, along with Bank Aysa, the country’s largest.
More than two years ago, Gülen urged his followers to infiltrate the Turkish state in a sermon that was captured on video. “You have to penetrate the arteries of the system without being noticed,” he said. You have to wait for the right moment, until you have seized the entire power of the state.” Gülen says the video has been manipulated. [Continue reading...]
Vali R. Nasr writes: In sharp contrast to Israel and the Persian Gulf monarchies, which have been alarmed by the interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Turkey sees benefit in serving as a bridge between Iran and the West and in providing the gateway to the world that Tehran needs as it emerges from isolation.
The Iranian turn has come at an opportune time for Turkish foreign policy in other ways, too. Iran has influence with Iraq’s Shiite-led government and Syria’s Alawite elite. In Iraq, where a crucial oil deal hangs in the balance, Turkey needs Iranian cooperation. It also needs Iran’s help on Syria.
Turkey initially tied its policy to America’s demand that President Bashar al-Assad quit. It was disappointed when the Obama administration signed on to a Russian-brokered deal with Mr. Assad on chemical weapons. With violence menacing across the border, Turkey wants to see an end to Syria’s civil war. The new moderate government in Tehran is Turkey’s best hope for leveraging a settlement.
Economic ties between Turkey and Iran have been strengthening, with trade now estimated to be worth $20 billion. The real number may be still higher, since the recent corruption charges allege that Turkish officials and the state-owned Halkbank have been helping Iranian businesses dodge international sanctions. In any case, Iranian exports still reach Turkey, and the proceeds fund the purchase of gold and silver that flow back to Iran. In turn, Turkey’s economy depends on Iran’s oil and gas, its investments dollars and large export market.
If Iran does conclude a long-term nuclear deal with the West, it still cannot expect a warm welcome from the Sunni Arab world. With the region divided by a widening sectarian rift, the Persian Gulf monarchies will become only more fretful about Iran’s regional ambitions. That makes Turkey potentially a key strategic partner for Iran, especially if its economy starts to grow as sanctions are relaxed. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey said in comments reported Thursday that he believes he is the ultimate target of a bribery and corruption investigation that has plunged his government into one of its worst crises since he came to power a decade ago.
In remarks published in Hurriyet, a Turkish daily newspaper, Mr. Erdogan said that those who tried to embroil him in the investigation would be “left empty-handed.” He made the comments to reporters on a plane as he returned from a visit to Pakistan on Tuesday.
Mr. Erdogan reshuffled his cabinet late Wednesday, replacing 10 ministers, after three top ministers whose sons had been detained as part of the investigation abruptly resigned. One of the departing ministers shook the Turkish political establishment by calling for Mr. Erdogan to step down, a defiant move that underlined the growing fissures in Mr. Erdogan’s governing Justice and Development Party.
Turkey’s opposition on Thursday accused Mr. Erdogan of trying to rule via a secretive “deep state,” following the cabinet reshuffle in which he moved to cement his control over the police by installing a key ally at the powerful Interior Ministry. The term “deep state” has a sinister connotation in Turkey, and alludes to a murky group of operatives linked to the military who operate outside democratic structures.
The government has dismissed more than a dozen high-ranking police officials as part of a purge of those it believes are driving the investigation, prompting criticism of Mr. Erdogan from people both within and outside his party who accuse him of interfering in judicial affairs.
Mr. Erdogan “is trying to put together a cabinet that will not show any opposition to him,” Kemal Kilicdaroglu, the head of the biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, or C.H.P., said in remarks reported by Turkish media. “Erdogan has a deep state.”
The resignations on Wednesday, coming only hours after the ministers welcomed Mr. Erdogan at the Ankara airport as he returned from Pakistan, were enough to inspire new talk of a deepening crisis, which Mr. Erdogan has repeatedly denounced as a foreign plot.
But the call for Mr. Erdogan’s resignation by one of the departing ministers was considered stunning, coming from within a political party known for silencing dissent. That instantly raised the significance of the entire inquiry and left members of the Turkish public wondering if they were witnessing the collapse of their Islamist-rooted government of the last decade. [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s purge of the police command spread to other state institutions on Friday, widening a crackdown on what he described as a foreign-backed conspiracy to undermine him and create a “state within a state”.
The crisis, Erdogan’s biggest challenge in 11 years as Turkey’s leader, raised fears of damage to the Turkish economy and a fracturing in his AK Party, helping drive the lira to a historic low.
Erdogan ordered at least 14 senior police officers removed on Friday after the police launched a series of anti-corruption raids and detained senior businessmen close to Erdogan as well as the sons of three cabinet ministers.
The powerful Istanbul chief was sacked on Thursday following the dismissal of dozens of unit chiefs.
The vice chairman of the financial crimes investigation board, a unit of the finance ministry, was also removed on Friday, local media reported, as well as the editor-in-chief and news channel coordinator of state-owned TV channel TRT.
Erdogan has refrained from naming U.S.-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, a man with strong influence in the police and judiciary, as the hand behind the raids which shook the political elite. But Gulen’s Hizmet (or Service) movement has been increasingly at odds with Erdogan in recent months. [Continue reading...]
The New York Times reports: Mr. Gulen left Turkey in 1999 after being accused by the then-secular government of plotting to establish an Islamic state. He has since been exonerated of that charge and is free to return to Turkey, but never has. He lives quietly in Pennsylvania, though his followers are involved in an array of businesses and organizations in the United States and abroad, and some of them helped start a collection of charter schools in Texas and other states. He rarely gives interviews, and a spokesman recently said he was too ill to meet with a reporter.
But a lawyer for Mr. Gulen, Orhan Erdemli, said in a statement released to the Turkish news media and shared by Mr. Gulen on Twitter that “the honorable Gulen has nothing to do with and has no information about the investigations or the public officials running them.”
Huseyin Gulerce, who is personally close to Mr. Gulen and is a writer for a Gulen-affiliated newspaper, said Mr. Gulen’s followers have many of the same complaints about Mr. Erdogan that the protesters had this summer. They believe that Mr. Erdogan has become too powerful, too authoritarian in his ways, and has abandoned his earlier platform of democratic overhauls and pursuit of membership in the European Union. “This is not a group that Mr. Erdogan is not familiar with,” Mr. Gulerce said. “He knows all of us personally, from the time he was mayor of Istanbul. He has known Mr. Gulen personally for 20 years.”
“It was the Mavi Marmara crisis that created the first cracks,” in their relationship, Mr. Gulerce said. “Mr. Gulen’s attitude was very clear, as he always suggested that Turkey should not be adventurous in its foreign policy and stay oriented to the West, and that it should resolve its foreign policy issues through dialogue.”
Now, he suggested, their estrangement may be beyond repair.
As Mr. Erdogan has tried to contain the fallout, he is blaming domestic conspirators and foreign meddlers, just as he did during last summer’s protests, which began over plans to raze Gezi Park in central Istanbul and convert it into a shopping mall.
“Such accusations are only absurd speculations,” said Ersin Kalaycioglu, a political science professor at Sabanci University in Istanbul. “In Gezi, he accused the Alevis, interest rate lobbies, opposition powers and international power groups for organizing the protests. And now, he’s trying to build the same links with this corruption investigation. What kind of twisted logic is that?”
Hours after a series of dawn raids unfolded at the offices of several businessmen on Tuesday, Mr. Erdogan appeared before a crowd in Konya, a conservative town in the country’s heartland where he draws many supporters. “Some people have guns and weapons, tricks and traps,” he said, “but we have our God and that is enough for us.” [Continue reading...]
Reuters reports: Egypt said on Saturday it was expelling Turkey’s ambassador and accused Ankara of backing organizations bent on undermining the country – an apparent reference to the Muslim Brotherhood of ousted Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi.
Turkey, which had forged close ties with Egypt under Mursi, responded by declaring the Egyptian ambassador, currently out of the country, persona non grata.
“We are saddened by this situation,” Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement. “But responsibility before history belongs to Egypt’s temporary administration which came to power under the extraordinary circumstances of the July 3 coup.”
Turkey has emerged as one of the fiercest international critics of Mursi’s removal, calling it an “unacceptable coup”. Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has been staging protests calling for his reinstatement, has close ties with Turkish Prime Minster Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party.
Reuters reports: Iraqi Kurdistan has finalized a comprehensive package of deals with Turkey to build multi-billion dollar oil and gas pipelines to ship the autonomous region’s rich hydrocarbon reserves to world markets, sources involved in talks said on November 6.
The deals, which could have important geo-political consequences for the Middle East, could see Kurdistan export some 2 million barrels per day (bpd) of oil to world markets and at least 10 billion cubic meters per year of gas to Turkey.
Such a relationship would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when Ankara enjoyed strong ties with Iraq’s central Baghdad government and was deep in a decades-long fight with Kurdish militants on its own soil.
But Turkey imports almost all of its energy needs and growing demand means it faces a ballooning deficit, making the resources over its southeastern border hard to ignore.
Rami G Khouri writes: Observing the Middle East from the United States, where I have spent the last month, has been fascinating, because historic changes are occurring in some relationships between these two regions. This includes evolving American ties with the five key strategic players in the region: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Turkey and Egypt. The most important changes are taking place in the triangular relationship among the United Sates and each of Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Three simultaneous things are occurring here that are intriguing, but their permanent implications remain unclear because events are in their early days.
The first is the United States’ resumption of direct and serious talks with Iran in a more positive atmosphere that seeks to end the dispute over Iran’s nuclear capabilities while also addressing Iranian concerns about American policy toward Iran. Should the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 powers succeed, as I expect, this could mark a revolutionary new era when Iran would slowly resume normal ties with global powers and reshape its relations within the Middle East. This in turn could have major implications for Saudi Arabian and Gulf Cooperation Council policies, as well as conditions in Syria and Iraq, and the status of Hezbollah and Lebanon.
Washington’s evolving perceptions of Iran reflect the second change, which is a rare case of the U.S. pursuing policies in the Middle East that are not fully in line with Israeli fears or wishes. Israel and its influential American mouthpieces in Washington have lobbied overtime in recent months to prevent a U.S.-Iranian dialogue or serious negotiations that could lead to a rapprochement. They have failed to date in this. Washington has tried to placate Israeli concerns with the rhetoric that Israel expects to hear from its friends in the U.S., but President Barack Obama has ignored Israeli exhortations and moved ahead sharply to negotiate with Iran. We can expect major consequences from a U.S. foreign policy that is shaped by U.S. national interests, rather than by Israeli dictates, fears and manipulations. [Continue reading...]
News this week that eBay founder Pierre Morad Omidyar is ready to invest $250 million in a new media venture, should have come as unsettling news to staff at the Washington Post.
Jay Rosen says Omidyar “was one of the people approached by the Washington Post Company about buying the Post,” and since Amazon’s Jeffrey Bezos paid $250 million for the Post, it doesn’t sound like he outbid Omidyar. On the contrary, it sounds more like Omidyar felt like if he was going to spend that amount of money, it would be better spent creating a new organization than taking over an old institution.
Technology journalist David Kirkpatrick, describes the Post’s buyer like this: “Bezos is like a trickster. He’s like a very calculating, secretive genius.” Chances are, he views his purchase as a technologist and entrepreneur would: the acquisition of a platform and a strong brand. The bits inside that structure — traditionally known as journalists — must all be aware that they are each expendable.
So what’s a lowly blogger inside the newspaper going to do when afraid that he might seen get trimmed off like a piece of fat? Take new risks and try and stand out? Or curry favor inside the organization by flattering his superiors?
There is a social and journalistic taboo around speculating about motives. After all, since motives are inherently private, such speculation can easily be refuted — even if it happens to be accurate. Still, assessing motives is something that human beings do all the time, even if discretion usually dictates that those assessments, like the motives themselves, also remain concealed. Once in a while, though, it’s worth breaking the taboo.
On Wednesday, the Post’s associate editor and columnist, David Ignatius, revealed this:
The Turkish-Israeli relationship became so poisonous early last year that the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.
Opinion writers like Ignatius revel in their occasional ability to break news, since it underlines their privileged access to high-level sources. At the same time, they have a habit of making themselves a mouthpiece for such sources. Ignatius, for instance, has been branded as “the CIA’s spokesman at The Washington Post.”
On Thursday, Max Fisher, the Post’s foreign affairs blogger, took the opportunity to give Ignatius’s column an extra boost and suggested that it might have helped resolve an enduring mystery: why it had taken the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, almost three years to apologize to Turkey for the deadly attack on the Mavi Marmara in 2010.
That refusal to apologize is now “much more understandable” — at least in Fisher’s mind — now that (thanks to Ignatius) we know about Turkey’s “effort to slap the Israelis” by outing their Iranian intelligence assets.
Under the headline, “Now we know why Netanyahu wouldn’t apologize for the Gaza flotilla raid,” Fisher is nevertheless forced to concede that this “explanation” explains virtually nothing: “This does not explain, of course, why Netanyahu wouldn’t have apologized between the initial 2010 raid and this reported 2012 spy outing.”
Indeed. On the other hand, Netanyahu’s unwillingness to apologize may in fact answer what Fisher regards as a remaining mystery: “Why did the Turkish government out these Israeli spies?” Urrmmm… how about because the Israelis wouldn’t apologize for killing nine Turkish citizens. (Note, Turkey now denies the outing ever occurred and says Ignatius’s story is a smear campaign.)
Now if Fisher really wanted to dig into the bad blood between Turkey and Israel, he might want to make a less complimentary reference to Ignatius and look back at the 2009 row at Davos which the columnist seriously mishandled.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan took exception to a thundering address delivered by Israeli president Shimon Peres who claimed that the IDF’s conduct, while slaughtering hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza, was above reproach. Ignatius tried to hush Erdogan by insisting that everyone would rather get to dinner, after which the Turkish prime minister famously stormed off the stage.
Fisher wants to point out that “many developments in international relations happen in secret,” as indeed they do, and that only later are some of these mysteries unraveled by sage-like columnists.
But in this case, the columnist was no sage and the most important developments were highly visible.
CNN reports: Turkey’s top diplomat angrily rejected U.S. newspaper reports alleging the Turkish government leaked Israeli intelligence secrets to Iran.
“This is just a smear campaign. This is not true. It is dirty propaganda,” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said, according to a ministry spokesman.
Davutoglu was referring to a column published in the Washington Post on Thursday. Citing “knowledgeable sources,” the Post’s David Ignatius reported that in early 2012, the Turkish government revealed to Iranian intelligence “the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.”
The Mossad is Israel’s intelligence service.
The reported leak took place at a time when relations between Turkey and Israel were at an all-time low, after Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and an American activist during a botched 2010 raid against the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish aid ship seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
Until then, Turkey and Israel had enjoyed decades of close military, intelligence and economic ties. [Continue reading...]
David Ignatius writes: The Turkish-Israeli relationship became so poisonous early last year that the Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is said to have disclosed to Iranian intelligence the identities of up to 10 Iranians who had been meeting inside Turkey with their Mossad case officers.
Knowledgeable sources describe the Turkish action as a “significant” loss of intelligence and “an effort to slap the Israelis.” The incident, disclosed here for the first time, illustrates the bitter, multi-dimensional spy wars that lie behind the current negotiations between Iran and Western nations over a deal to limit the Iranian nuclear program. A Turkish Embassy spokesman had no comment.
Israeli anger at the deliberate compromise of its agents may help explain why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu became so entrenched in his refusal to apologize to Erdogan about the May 2010 Gaza flotilla incident. In that confrontation at sea, Israeli commandos boarded a Turkish-organized convoy of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza. Nine Turks were killed.
Netanyahu finally apologized to Erdogan by phone in March after President Obama negotiated a compromise formula. But for more than a year before that, the Israeli leader had resisted entreaties from Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to heal the feud.
Top Israeli officials believe that, despite the apology, the severe strain with Erdogan continues. The Turkish intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, is also suspect in Israel because of what are seen as friendly links with Tehran; several years ago, Israeli intelligence officers are said to have described him facetiously to CIA officials as “the MOIS station chief in Ankara,” a reference to Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security. The United States continued to deal with Fidan on sensitive matters, however.
Though U.S. officials regarded exposure of the Israeli network as an unfortunate intelligence loss, they didn’t protest directly to Turkish officials. Instead, Turkish-American relations continued warming last year to the point that Erdogan was among Obama’s key confidants. This practice of separating intelligence issues from broader policymaking is said to be a long-standing U.S. approach. [Continue reading...]
Like many of Washington’s leading op-ed writers, Ignatius has a habit of parroting his sources — part of the long-standing gentleman’s agreement that the privilege to talk to high officials tends to be reserved for the most sycophantic members of the press. Thus this piece raises no questions about the operations that Israel’s Iranian agents would have been conducting — most likely acts of terrorism targeting civilian Iranian nuclear scientists — nor acknowledges that Turkey might have perfectly legitimate political reasons for not wanting to be complicit in Israel’s secret war against Iran.
Hürriyet Daily News reports: A new regulation will allow Turkish police to detain those who possess the “risk of conducting a protest” from 12 to 24 hours without the demand of a prosecutor or a judge, prompting acute worries from opposition deputies.
The new regulations that will be conducted jointly by the justice and interior ministries will allow the police to detain a suspect who “may hold a protest” for up to 24 hours without any court decision while also increasing the penalties for resistance to police and damaging public property.
The move to strengthen police powers was precipitated by the countrywide Gezi Park protests, which began at the end of May.
Organizations which “tend to hold protests” will be monitored and their members could be detained by police if intelligence reports suggest they are planning to conduct a demonstration or action.
A judge will also be able to extend the 24-hour detention period if desired. Under the current law, a judge’s or prosecutor’s order is necessary to detain people in such cases.
The regulations will also increase the penalties for resistance to police and damage to public property. Those who possess Molotov cocktails might be sentenced to up to five years in prison under the new regulations. The draft also includes a board to regulate security forces, which will monitor malpractice within the institutions.
Criticizing the moves, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) deputy leader Semih Yalçın said the regulations were “signs of police state.” [Continue reading...]