How Turkey misreads Brexit

Atilla Yesilada writes: The predictive acumen of political scientists is pretty weak, but I daresay that Brexit is a critical threshold for world history, and Turkish politicians sorely misread it.

The EU will face increasing strains after the departure of the UK, which will reflect on Turkey’s relations with it through economic, political and social dimensions. While Ankara considers the EU a spent force, seeking her future and fortune in the Muslim world and the Shanghai Five, neither better democracy nor more prosperity is likely to occur without closer integration with the EU.

The Brexit vote was against globalisation, immigration and, strangely enough, against a very remote event, namely Turkish accession to the EU.

To the extent Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan nowadays associates herself with the leadership of the Sunni Muslim world, Brexit can be said to be a vote against Islam as well. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey says airport bombers were from Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan

The New York Times reports: The three suicide bombers who killed 44 people at Istanbul’s main international airport this week have been identified as citizens of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Turkish officials said Thursday.

Turkey, which has blamed the Islamic State for the attack, carried out raids across the country on Thursday, detaining 13 people, including three foreigners, in connection with the attack at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Tuesday night.

There were 238 people wounded in the attack, and 94 of them were still in the hospital, the governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin, said Thursday.

No group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack.

Although Russian-speaking units of the Islamic State have played an important role on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, if the preliminary identifications of the Istanbul attackers are confirmed it will signify the first time that such fighters have taken part in a major external operation on a Western target. [Continue reading…]

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What comes after the Istanbul airport attack?

Mustafa Akyol writes: On Tuesday night, just as millions of Muslims here were breaking their Ramadan fasts, three terrorists attacked the city’s busy airport. They fired randomly at passengers with automatic weapons before blowing themselves up. They killed 41 innocent people, most of them Muslims, supposedly in the name of Islam.

The assault on the airport is the latest in a series of horrible traumas in Turkey. In the past year, the country has endured almost a dozen major terrorist attacks. Some were the work of the Islamic State, which kills in the name of God; others were the work of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which kills in the name of the people.

This country was much more peaceful a year ago. It was only last summer that a two-year-old peace process between the government and the P.K.K. fell apart. Meanwhile, the Islamic State, which initially benefited from Turkey’s lax control of the Syrian border, began to carry its violence inside Turkey. Islamic State suicide bombers first aimed at secular Kurds, then Western tourists and finally random people at the airport.

Since last summer, the Islamic State has been condemning Ankara as the capital of an “apostate regime” that allies itself with “Crusaders.” The group’s Turkish-language magazine proclaimed: “O Istanbul, you have allowed disbelief in your avenues. You have filled your streets with sins, but surely you will be conquered.” [Continue reading…]

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Istanbul Ataturk Airport terrorists behaved like a special forces unit

Clive Irving writes: Three months after attacking Brussels airport, terrorists have shown in the attack on Istanbul’s international airport an alarming ability to stay one move ahead of the defenses put in place to stop them — an agility in planning that could present a new and serious threat to airports in the U.S.

Most experts agree that the Istanbul atrocity has the hallmarks of ISIS. Even then, the sophistication of how the attack was carried out has surprised them.

It was carried out in a way that suggests the kind of advance intelligence, careful study of a target, and cool execution that would normally be practised by Western special forces.

There were three phases. It began with an attack in a car park adjacent to the international arrivals terminal. The purpose was to draw security staff away from the terminal.

The attackers obviously knew that security at the terminal itself had recently been hardened, as a response to the Brussels attack, where the bombers had exploited the fact that, as in many airports, there was no security threshold before the check-in desks.

In Istanbul anyone entering the arrivals terminal faced screening and checks at the doors. The car park diversion achieved its aim of drawing police and security staff from the building’s first line of defense—and left vulnerable scores of people at the taxi and drop-off area waiting to go through security. [Continue reading…]

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The Algerian connection: Will Turkey change its Syria policy?

Aron Lund writes: April 8, 2016, the Francophone Algiers daily El Watan quoted an Algerian diplomatic source as saying that for the preceding several weeks his country had been running a secret mediation mission between the governments in Ankara and Damascus, who “want to have an exchange regarding the Kurdish question and the desire of the Syrian Kurds to create an independent state.” According to El Watan, Algeria’s involvement began as an attempt to calm tensions between Turkey and Russia following the downing of a Russian Su-24 jet by the Turkish Air Force in November 2015, but a second Syrian–Turkish channel later opened up via the Algerian embassies in Ankara and Damascus.

Though El Watan is a respected newspaper in Algeria and has good sources in the government, these claims are impossible to confirm. However there has been an intense exchange of Syrian and Algerian delegations this spring. For the first time since the Syrian conflict started in 2011, the country’s foreign minister, Walid al-Mouallem, traveled to Algiers on March 28–29. Intriguingly, this coincided with a visit by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault. Algeria responded by sending their minister of Maghreb, African Union, and Arab League affairs, Abdelkader Messahel to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus on April 24–25.

Syria and Turkey have been at daggers’ drawn since late summer 2011 when Turkey ended its previous support for Assad’s government and joined the coalition of states seeking to overthrow him. Since then, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most hawkish proponents of military pressure on Assad and his government has worked with a broad array of Sunni rebel factions, including hardline Islamists, to that end. But with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — a Syrian group linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, against which Turkey is waging a harsh counterinsurgency campaign — now rolling into the northern countryside of Aleppo, Erdogan’s priorities may be shifting. And that may in turn be part of a larger trend in Turkish foreign policy. [Continue reading…]

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Global violence worsens, driven by Middle East conflicts

Reuters reports: The world has become increasingly violent with deaths from conflict at a 25-year high, terrorist attacks at an all-time high and more people displaced than at any time since World War Two, the 2016 Global Peace Index showed on Wednesday.

The annual index, which measures 23 indicators including incidents of violent crime, countries’ levels of militarisation and weapons imports, said intensifying conflicts in the Middle East were mostly to blame.

But beyond the Middle East, the world was actually becoming more peaceful, researchers behind the index said.

“Quite often, in the mayhem which is happening in the Middle East currently, we lose sight of the other positive trends,” said Steve Killelea, founder of the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP), which produces the index.

“If we look in the last year, if we took out the Middle East … the world would have become more peaceful,” Killelea told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS members from the West seek help getting home

The Wall Street Journal reports: Westerners who joined Islamic State once enjoyed not only power and social status but also free food, housing and even cars. But that gave way to cowering in basements during air raids, dwindling food stocks and scant medical care, according to Syrians who have fled and diplomats who debriefed defectors.

“Father, help me,” a teenager from Europe said about six months ago in a text message to her father. “I want to get out. But I now have a small child.”

The father, who declined to be identified, said he had previously made several attempts to persuade his daughter to return from Raqqa after she left to join Islamic State in late 2013.

Speaking by phone and Facebook messenger from his home in Scandinavia, the father said he asked his government for help but that there is little authorities can do. She would first have to get to Turkey, according to government officials of her home country who corroborated the father’s story.

She remains in Raqqa, too scared to flee for fear of being caught, according to her father. [Continue reading…]

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Jihadist legacy still shapes Ahrar al-Sham

Hassan Hassan writes: Over the past five years in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has emerged as an important political and religious experiment. As one of the most powerful groups in Syria, Ahrar al-Sham has struggled to reconcile the legacy of many of its founders as jihadi veterans with the need for an acceptable political discourse in the war-ravaged country. As the group engages cautiously in the political process for a transition, it is also important to understand whether it has really broken away from Salafi-jihadism.

The ideology of the group is further muddled by the fact that it works closely with al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, though Ahrar al-Sham participates in political conferences and pacts that appear to deviate from the canons of jihadist organizations. After the death of its top leaders in an explosion that took place during a high-level meeting in September 2014, Ahrar al-Sham has also sought to present itself to the outside world as a moderate group and an indispensable fighting force on the ground.

Countries involved in the conflict in Syria are split about the organization. Some, primarily Russia and Iran, are pushing for its designation as a terrorist organization. Others, such as Qatar and Turkey, tried to present the organization as a moderate group and include it in the international funding scheme for nationalist rebel forces. The latter effort entailed the involvement of sponsors and clerics close to the group to steer it in that direction, combined with a public relations offensive to present the group as such.

But is Ahrar al-Sham merely a conservative Syrian faction immersed in an armed struggle against the regime of Bashar al-Assad? Or is it still a bastion of Salafi-jihadism, the movement to which its top echelon once subscribed? Ali al-Omar, the group’s deputy leader, answered some of these questions during an hour-long talk he gave on Friday, “The Place of Ahrar al-Sham Among Islamist Currents.” [Continue reading…]

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In Turkey, a Syrian child ‘has to work to survive’

The New York Times reports: When he was 9, Ahmad Suleiman watched his father die from a battlefield wound in Syria. Four years later, he now puts in 12-hour shifts at a damp and squalid textile factory in Istanbul as the primary breadwinner for his family, which fled to Turkey after his father’s death.

Over one million Syrian children live in Turkey, and thousands of them, like Ahmad, are in sweatshops, factories or vegetable fields instead of in a classroom, members of a lost generation who have been robbed of their youth by war.

Like many others in his situation, while he toils for his family, Ahmad is paying a steep price. “I want to send Ahmad to school because he doesn’t know how to read and write and can’t understand the bus signs,” said his mother, Zainab Suleiman, 33. “But I have no choice. He has to work to survive.”

Many of the children who arrive in Turkey have already lost years of schooling because of the war. Before the conflict, 99 percent of Syrian children were enrolled in primary schools and 82 percent in secondary schools, Unicef has reported. Today, nearly three million Syrian children are out of school, and for those in Turkey, the education gap has either grown longer or become permanent.

While more than a million Syrians have reached Europe, many more — three million in all, including Ahmad’s family — have been forced by poverty to stay in Turkey, where their prospects are bleak. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan warns Muslims against using birth control

Middle East Eye reports: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that Muslim families should refrain from birth control and have more children.

Erdogan said it was the responsibility of mothers to ensure the continued growth of Turkey’s population, which has expanded at a rate of around 1.3 percent in the last few years.

“I will say it clearly … We need to increase the number of our descendants,” he said in a speech in Istanbul.

“People talk about birth control, about family planning. No Muslim family can understand and accept that!

“As God and as the great prophet said, we will go this way. And in this respect the first duty belongs to mothers.”

Erdogan and his wife Emine have two sons and two daughters. Earlier this month, the president attended the high-profile marriage of his younger daughter Sumeyye to defence industrialist Selcuk Bayraktar.

His elder daughter Esra, who is married to the up-and-coming Energy Minister Berat Albayrak, has three children.

The Platform to Stop Violence Against Women, which campaigns to stop the killings of hundreds of woman every year, condemned Erdogan’s comments as violating the rights of women.

“You [Erdogan] cannot usurp our right to contraception, nor our other rights with your declarations that come out of the Middle Ages,” the group said in a statement on Twitter. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS advance traps 165,000 Syrians at closed Turkish border

Gerry Simpson, at Human Rights Watch, writes: There are two walls on the Turkey-Syria border.

One is manned by Turkish border guards enforcing Turkey’s 15 month-old border closure who, according to witnesses, have at times shot at and assaulted Syrian asylum seekers as they try to reach safety in Turkey – abuses strongly denied by the Turkish government.

The other is a wall of silence by the rest of the world, including the United Nations, which has chosen to turn a blind eye to Turkey’s breach of international law which prohibits forcing people back to places, including by rejecting them at the border, where their lives or freedom would be threatened.

Both walls are trapping 165,000 displaced Syrians now scattered in overcrowded informal settlements and fields just south of Turkey’s Öncupınar/Bab al-Salameh border crossing and in and around the nearby Syrian town of Azaz. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. military special forces pictured aiding Kurdish fighters in Syria

The Guardian reports: Elite US military forces have been photographed for the first time in Syria as they join largely Kurdish forces on an advance toward, Raqqa, the Islamic State terror group’s capital.

A photographer with Agence France-Presse captured US special operations forces with Kurdish forces known as the YPG, part of the US-mentored Syrian Democratic Forces, in a rural village less than 40 miles from Raqqa. Some US troops wear the insignia of the YPG in an apparent show of support.

Peter Cook, the Pentagon press secretary, resisted commenting on the photographs and would only describe the US special operations forces’ mission in generic terms.

“Our special operations forces in the past have, yes, worn insignias and other identifying marks with their partner forces,” Cook told reporters on Thursday. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: Turkey has hit out at the US over images said to show US special forces in Syria wearing insignia of Kurdish militia, during joint operations against so-called Islamic State (IS).

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the US “two-faced” and said the practice was “unacceptable”.

The images appear to show a US special forces soldier wearing the patch of the YPJ – a Kurdish militia group.

A Pentagon spokesman said troops often blended in with partners for safety. [Continue reading…]

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Behind the barricades of Turkey’s hidden war against the Kurds

The New York Times reports: On the morning of Oct. 29, 2014, a long convoy of armored vehicles and trucks rolled northward in the shadow of Iraq’s Zagros Mountains and crossed a bridge over the Khabur River, which marks the border with Turkey. As the convoy rumbled past the border gate, the road for miles ahead was lined with thousands of ecstatic Kurds, who clapped, cheered and waved the Kurdish flag. Many had tears in their eyes. Some even kissed the tanks and trucks as they passed. The soldiers, Iraqi Kurds, were on their way through Turkey to help defend Kobani, a Syrian border city, against ISIS. Their route that day traced an arc from northern Iraq through southeastern Turkey and onward into northern Syria: the historical heartland of the Kurdish people. For the bystanders who cheered them on under a hazy autumn sky, the date was deliciously symbolic. It was Turkey’s Republic Day. What had long been a grim annual reminder of Turkish rule over the Kurds was transformed into rapture, as they watched Kurdish soldiers parade through three countries where they have long dreamed of founding their own republic.

Some who stood on the roadside that day have told me it changed their lives. The battle against the Islamic State had made the downtrodden Kurds into heroes. In the weeks and months that followed, the Kurds watched in amazement as fighters aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K. — long branded a terrorist group by Turkey and the United States — became the central protagonists in the defense of Kobani. The P.K.K.’s Syrian affiliate worked closely with the American military, identifying ISIS targets for airstrikes.

By the time ISIS withdrew from Kobani in January 2015, the Kurdish militants had paid a heavy price in blood. But they gained admirers all over the world. The Pentagon, impressed by their skill at guerrilla warfare, saw an essential new ally against ISIS. There was renewed talk in Europe of removing the P.K.K. from terrorism lists, often in news articles accompanied by images of beautiful female Kurdish soldiers in combat gear. For many Turkish Kurds, the lesson was unmistakable: Their time had come. I met a 27-year-old P.K.K. activist in Turkey, who asked not to be named, fearing reprisals from the government, and who first went to Kobani in 2012, when the Kurds began carving out a state for themselves in Syria called Rojava. “I remember talking to P.K.K. fighters, and I thought, They’re crazy to think they can do this,” she said. “Now I look back and think, If they can do it there, we can do it here.”

Nineteen months after that convoy passed, the feelings it inspired have helped to start a renewed war between Turkey and its Kurdish rebels. Turkish tanks are now blasting the ancient cities of the Kurdish southeast, where young P.K.K.-supported rebels have built barricades and declared “liberated zones.” More than a thousand people have been killed and as many as 350,000 displaced, according to figures from the International Crisis Group. The fighting, which intensified last fall, has spread to Ankara, the Turkish capital, where two suicide bombings by Kurdish militants in February and March killed 66 people. Another sharp escalation came in mid-May, when P.K.K. supporters released a video online seeming to show one of the group’s fighters bringing down a Turkish attack helicopter with a shoulder-fired missile, a weapon to which the Kurds have rarely had access. Yet much of the violence has been hidden from public view by state censorship and military “curfews” — a government word that scarcely conveys the reality of tanks encircling a Kurdish town and drilling it with shellfire for weeks or months on end.

The conflict has revived and in some ways exceeded the worst days of the P.K.K.’s war with the Turkish state in the 1990s. The fighting then was brutal, but it was mostly confined to remote mountains and villages. Now it is devastating cities as well and threatening to cripple an economy already burdened by ISIS bombings and waves of refugees from Syria. In Diyarbakir, the capital of a largely Kurdish province, artillery and bombs have destroyed much of the historic district, which contains Unesco world heritage sites. Churches, mosques and khans that have stood for centuries lie in ruins. Tourism has collapsed. Images of shattered houses and dead children are stirring outrage in other countries where Kurds live: Iraq, Syria and Iran. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian refugee wins appeal against forced return to Turkey

The Guardian reports: The EU-Turkey migration deal has been thrown further into chaos after an independent authority examining appeals claims in Greece ruled against sending a Syrian refugee back to Turkey, potentially creating a precedent for thousands of other similar cases.

In a landmark case, the appeals committee upheld the appeal of an asylum seeker who had been one of the first Syrians listed for deportation under the terms of the EU-Turkey deal.

In a document seen by the Guardian, a three-person appeals tribunal in Lesbos said Turkey would not give Syrian refugees the rights they were owed under international treaties and therefore overturned the applicant’s deportation order by a verdict of two to one. The case will now be re-assessed from scratch. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s new PM makes top priority legalizing the executive power that Erdogan already wields

Reuters reports: Turkey’s incoming prime minister said on Sunday his top priority was to deliver a new constitution to create an executive presidency, giving President Tayyip Erdogan the broad powers he has long sought.

As delegates from the ruling AK Party unanimously elected Transport Minister Binali Yildirim as their new party leader, and therefore the next premier, Yildirim left no doubt that he would prioritize the policies closest to Erdogan’s heart.

An ally of Erdogan for two decades, the 60-year-old was the sole candidate at the special congress, called after Ahmet Davutoglu said he would step down this month, following weeks of public tension with Erdogan.

Yildirim said in a speech a new constitution was necessary to legitimize the existing situation, in what appeared to be a tacit acknowledgment that Erdogan has been gone beyond the presidency’s traditionally ceremonial role. [Continue reading…]

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