The last few years have seen Ankara's regional role in the Middle East become severly diminished as its relations with one neighbor after another went downhill. But could the current war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel offer Turkey a chance to reassert its regional relevance?
The promise of that happening is certainly there, especially after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was included in a mini-summit this past Saturday in Paris that brought him together with Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Qatar, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. in a failed effort to create a ceasefire in Gaza.
The inclusion of Turkey made certain sense, since -- like Qatar -- it is has been a strong supporter of Hamas in recent years and is considered to have an open line to the organization's leadership. Ankara has also been showing its support for Gaza in material terms, recently sending some 17 tons of medicine to the besieged area and also providing funding for fuel for Gaza's only power plant.
Perhaps the most prominent recent trend in Turkish winemaking is producers complaining about how much new regulations on the sale and marketing of their product is hurting their industry's growth.
The complaints are not unwarranted. As previously discussed on this blog, new regulations enacted last year severely limit how and where alcohol producers can promote their beverages, to the point that wineries have had to cancel wine-tasting events for fear that they will somehow go against the new rules.
In spite of this development, wineries in the Thrace region -- one of Turkey's best winemaking areas -- have joined together to create what might be the country's most developed wine route. The trail covers some twelve wineries, some of them quite promising. A detailed review of some of the route's stop can be found here and a downloadable guide with maps here.
In a blog post in May, I described the "urbanization" of Turkey's Syrian refugee population -- which now numbers over one million -- and the potential problems this development poses for Ankara, especially in economic terms, with the potential for conflict as struggling Syrians moving into Turkish cities start competing with locals for work.
In recent days, this kind of potential conflict appears to have become a reality. On Sunday, some 1,000 people in the southeastern Turkish city of Kahramanmaraş marched against the presence of Syrian migrants in their city and then reportedly went on to remove Arabic signs from stores and attack a car with Syrian license plates. And today in Adana, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast, a group of masked men armed with knives and sticks attacked Syrian-owned businesses and shattered their windows.
Writing for the Al Monitor website, Turkish journalist Mehmet Cetingulec provides statistics from southeast Turkey that give some context for the growing tension:
Unemployment is rising faster in provinces where Syrians congregate. Employers prefer to employ Syrians, who make half the average Turkish wages and cost them about a third as much as a Turkish worker overall.
As he had long suggested he would do, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday announced his candidacy for the presidency in a splashy ceremony in Ankara. Expected by most observers to win (the question for now is really whether he does it in the first or second round), Erdogan would become Turkey's first directly elected president, a move his supporters say is a natural step for a man who is the country's most powerful leader since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and which critics say will only lead towards a more authoritarian government. Either way, while the road towards the office of the president appears open for Erdogan -- despite the opposition's intriguing candidate choice -- the PM faces some major challenges in his quest to turn the presidency into an even more powerful position than it already is.
Up until now, Turkey's president has been chosen by Parliament. Like in many other parliamentary systems, the Turkish president is something of a figurehead, with the Prime Minister wielding the real power. But the Turkish presidency, as defined by a constitution written by the military after the 1980 coup, has been something of a hybrid office, with the president wielding some important powers designed to make him a kind of ultimate guardian of the state (that is secularist and Kemalist) structure. For this reason, there has long been a demand in Turkey for a new constitution, one which redefines and limits the powers of the president, making it one that's more in line with other parliamentary systems.
On August 10 Turks will for the first time have the opportunity to directly elect their president, a mostly ceremonial position (though one that has some notable hidden powers) that was previously earned through a parliamentary vote.
Perhaps it's an indication of what Turkish parties think of their voters or of their country's political system that up until earlier this week, none of them had declared who their candidate would be for an extremely significant election only a few weeks away. Although it is widely expected that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will run as his party's candidate, the fact that he has yet to make it official only makes the situation odder.
On June 16, though, the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (CHP) joined forces and announced a consensus candidate: Ekmeleddin İhsanoglu, the former Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and, until last year, someone considered to be close to Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Ekmeleddin who, you might ask? That's certainly the question many Turks asked when his candidacy was announced. A mild-mannered academic with an old world demeanor, İhsanoglu is far from a household name and has not had any previous experience with domestic Turkish politics. Still, the surprise choice is an intriguing one, a move that doesn't necessarily spell victory for the opposition, but that will certainly force Erdogan and his party to rethink their strategy and which tells an interesting story about the AKP's own evolution over the last decade.
Fehmi Ozsut is a true Istanbul original. Owner of a small shop in the waterside that specializes in dairy dishes, Ozsut (the name, fittingly, means "pure milk") has had all kinds of previous lives, including a five-year stint as a security guard at the Waldorf Astoria in Phoenix, Arizona, where he says he wrestled out of control rock stars and even met Ronald Reagan.
Ozsut today, though, spends most of his time with a herd of water buffaloes, who produce the rich, fatty milk he used to make the kaymak (clotted cream) he sells in his shop. Considering the difficulty involved in raising the buffaloes and making kaymak, it's not surprise that Ozsut is likely the last of the water buffalo herders and small-scale kaymak makers left in the Istanbul area.
Ozsut's fascinating story is the subject of a new post on the Culinary Backstreets website, written by Roxanne Darrow. From the piece:
Back when Özsüt’s grandfather started his kaymak business, water buffaloes were raised in the forests around Istanbul. The animals flourished in the shade of those trees, and shepherds didn’t need to buy feed for the animals. Each muhallebici would buy fresh milk from nearby producers to make its yogurt, kaymak and desserts. Now, the few small forests left around Istanbul are for recreation.
In 2002, Özsüt started his own water buffalo farm in Sarıyer, 45 minutes north of Istanbul, because he could no longer buy high-quality milk at a reasonable price. In 2005 he had to move further afield, to Kemerburgaz near the Black Sea, because his buffaloes were destroying the palm trees in the new luxury compounds popping up near his farm. In 2011, he moved to his current location near Tekirdağ, which has rich soil and an abundant water supply but is an hour-and-a-half-long drive west of Istanbul.
Turkey's recent approach to regional Kurdish issues has been highly contradictory. In northern Iraq, in an effort to diversify its energy supplies and further establish itself as an oil and gas hub, Ankara has entered into energy deals with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), something which has infuriated the central Iraqi government in Baghdad but which has helped the Kurds further build a foundation for their independence.
In northern Syria, on the other hand, Ankara has been so alarmed by the growing Kurdish autonomy there that it reportedly has provided support for radical Islamist groups (including the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)) in their fight against the the Kurdish militia that controls the region, which is affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
The rapid advance by militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) in northern and central Iraq and their takeover of the Turkish consulate in the city of Mosul is presenting Ankara with a host of new political, diplomatic and security challenges.
After ISIS fighters took over Mosul yesterday with barely a shot fired, members of the previously al Qaeda-linked group stormed the Turkish consulate, taking 49 people hostage, including the consul general and three children (this is in addition to 31 Turkish truck drivers detained earlier by ISIS). The Turkish consulate in Mosul, the only foreign diplomatic presence in the city, a former Ottoman provincial capital, has been a source of pride for Ankara, which saw the mission as an important reflection of Turkey's growing political and economic presence in northern Iraq and its growing outreach to Middle Eastern neighbors.
As the Wall Street Journal explains, the fall of Mosul into ISIS's hands and the capture of the consulate dramatically changes Turkey's position and ability to operate in that part of Iraq. From the WSJ:
[ISIS's] capture of the mission also fuels mounting threats against Turkey's interests across its southern border, with diplomatic hostages joining about 30 Turkish truck drivers who were kidnapped Tuesday while carrying diesel from Turkey's southern port of Iskenderun to a power plant in Mosul.
"There is an emergency situation right now," a senior government official said. "(ISIS) is a very worrying organization and we can't be sure about how they're treating people and we don't know what to expect from them."
Last October Amnesty International released a report looking at the summer's Gezi Park protests, concluding the government's harsh response resulted in "gross human rights violations." Today, the organization released a followup report, one that looks at the situation in Turkey a year after the Gezi events. Like the first report, this one also finds much to criticize regarding the government's actions, suggesting its "approach to demonstrations is as abusive as ever while impunity for police violence is rampant."
To get a better sense of the report and its findings, I spoke today with Andrew Gardner, Amnesty's Turkey researcher, about some of the main points raised in the document. An edited version of our interview is below:
What led to Amnesty creating this report?
It was really to do a follow up on the last report. What we found in the first Gezi report, which covered the events of the protests themselves, was there was really unnecessary, abusive use of force by the police, not to disperse people but to directly injure and punish people for going on the streets. The government’s policy for people taking to the streets was extremely restrictive and very much about keeping people from taking to the streets in any way they can.
The annual Washington conference of the American-Turkish Council (ATC), perhaps the best-known group lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests in the United States, is usually an occasion for both sides to boast about the strength and importance of the Turkey-US relationship. This year's conference, though, turned out to be a showcase for the deep divisions and political dysfunction gripping Turkey.
On June 1, the day the annual conference started, the ATC's long-time president, former US ambassador to Turkey James Holmes, submitted his resignation along with several other top executives. As reported in the Turkish press, Holmes -- whose organization counts among its members numerous corporations, especially in the defense industry -- had been feeling some heat from Ankara in connection with the political divisions currently gripping Turkey. In particular, it appears supporters of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) were upset that the ATC had sent out a news bulletin which included articles from Today's Zaman, the English-language newspaper affiliated with the Gulen movement, which is currently locked in an intense political battle with the AKP.