The Syrian government protested loudly when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last August that his government doesn't view what's happening across the border as a foreign problem but rather as a "domestic" one. A year later, Erdogan's words are ringing true, although perhaps not in the way the PM meant them. With the conflict in Syria dragging out and becoming more bloody, the crisis is quickly becoming a domestic issue for Turkey, although not because of what's happening in Syria as much as because of what Syrians are doing inside Turkey.
With the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey approaching 100,000, Ankara has said it is approaching the limit of how many it can accommodate, leaving thousands of Syrian fleeing the violence in their country stranded on the other side of the border. But the Turkish government is now also facing mounting questions about how its dealing with the Syrians already in camps inside the country, particularly those in one called Apaydin, which houses a large number of defected Syrian generals and other high-ranking members of the Syrian army and which has been kept off limits -- not only to journalists but also to Turkish elected officials. A recent delegation of parliamentarians from Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) was turned back at the gates of the camp after trying to visit it on Sunday, prompting the party's leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, to accuse the government of using the camp to secretly train Syrian opposition forces and to claim that Apaydin is filled with "agents and spies."
Recent weeks have seen the Kurdish issue in Turkey intensify and become more violent, in many ways marking a return to the kind of activity seen in the 1980's and 90's, at the height of the conflict between the Turkish military and the guerillas of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK).
In late July, PKK militants essentially took over a chunk of territory surrounding the town of Semdinli, near where Turkey's border meets those of both Iran and Iraq, and then fought a 20-day battle with the Turkish military before finally being dislodged. Last week, a PKK unit operating in eastern Turkey kidnapped a member of parliament from that region, releasing the MP -- Huseyin Aygun from the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) -- after 48 hours. And although there has been no claim of responsibility, the Turkish press has been quick to blame the PKK for a large car bomb explosion that occurred today near Gaziantep in southern Turkey, in which at least eight were killed and 60 injured.
Meanwhile, the growing violence is starting to put a strain on Turkey's already polarized domestic political scene, pitting the country's major political parties against the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). Several senior members of the party are being investigated by a prosecutor after they were seen in a recent video chatting with and hugging PKK members at a roadblock in southeastern Turkey.
It's been a given for quite some time now in Turkey that charismatic Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's next political act will be that of serving as the country's president, albeit only after influencing the legislative process so that the office becomes a more powerful one, akin to that of the American or French executive.
Short of retirement, moving over to the presidential palace is the only move Erdogan could make, since the bylaws of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) prevent members from being elected to parliament for more than three terms and the PM is currently serving his third. With what will be Turkey's first direct presidential elections (up until now the choice has been made by parliamentary vote) set for 2014, there are indications that Erdogan's plans are becoming clearer. From a recent report in The National:
Mr Erdogan has not said publicly whether he wants to become president, but Huseyin Besli, one of his closest advisers, told a television interviewer last month that "Erdogan will be president in 2014".
The fact that Mr Erdogan has called on a parliamentary committee working on a new constitution to give the president new executive powers is also seen by political observers as an indication that he will seek the position.
Metropolitan Timotheos Samuel Aktas of the Tur Abdin region
A court ruling that allows the state treasury to seize a large chunk of the land belonging to an ancient Assyrian monastery in southeastern Turkey is being described by critics of the decision as a major setback for Ankara's efforts to reform the way non-Muslims and their property are treated in the country.
The ruling, by the Supreme Court of Appeals in Ankara, allows for close to sixty percent of the land belong to the centuries-old Mor Gabriel monastery to be expropriated by the state, on the grounds that the property belongs to the treasury rather than to the monastery, which has been in existence since the year 397 and has been a major center for Assyrian Christians since that time. The Bianet website has a quick rundown of the case:
Although the the Turkish fighter jet downed by Syrian forces on June 22 has been found and the Turkish military is analyzing the wreckage, the questions regarding how the jet was brought down and what its actual mission was continue to linger and are now leading to a heated political debate in Turkey.
For now, Ankara is sticking to its version of events, which is that the unarmed reconnaissance airplane was shot down without warning by a Syrian missile over international waters while on a mission testing a domestic radar system. Damascus, meanwhile, insists the Turkish F-4 was mistakenly shot down by fire from an anti-aircraft gun after suddenly appearing flying fast and low just off the Syrian coast.
The Syrian version of events was given something of a boost by a June 30th Wall Street Journal article that quoted unnamed American defense sources as saying that US intelligence indicates the plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire inside Syria's airspace. The article led to an angry response from Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who called it a "lie" and criticized several Turkish media outlets for publishing material based on the WSJ's reporting. But the Turkish military itself has also created some confusion, with a brigadier general telling the Milliyet newspaper that Ankara doesn't have any evidence of a missile striking the plane.
Are armed drones the answer to Turkey's continuing fight against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)? That certainly seems to be the signal coming out of Ankara, which has been pushing Washington to provide it with American-made Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be armed with air-to-ground missiles.
To a large extent, Ankara's military strategy regarding the PKK fight seems to be evolving in a direction that mimics that used by the United States in Pakistan and Yemen, where drones have become a central weapon in Washington's counterterrorism efforts. Like the US has learned in Pakistan, though, Turkey has recently also discovered that relying on drones can lead to trouble. As described in this previous post, the use of UAV's has become a topic of intense debate in Turkey after the Turkish military last December killed 34 Kurdish villagers that were mistakenly thought to be PKK militants. The deadly attack on the 34, part of a convoy of smugglers heading towards the Turkish border from Iraq, came as a result of intelligence provided by an American drone on loan to Turkey that first noticed the convoy.
In a highly illuminating article, Turkey-basd analyst Aaron Stein takes a look at Turkey's efforts to develop its drone fleet and some of the politics behind it, asking the important question of whether Turkish policymakers have really thought through the implications of introducing armed UAV's into their country's military strategy. From Stein's article:
Is the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) trying to undermine nascent efforts to solve the decades-old Kurdish issue? Is the militant organization itself split between a moderate leadership and a more hardline wing that's trying to undermine these reconciliation moves? These two questions are being asked in the wake of Tuesday's brazen and well-coordinated attack by a large group of PKK militants on a military outpost in eastern Turkey, which resulted in the death of eight Turkish soldiers and has led to retaliatory strikes against PKK strongholds in northern Iraq.
The timing of the attack struck many as curious, coming right on the heels of recent conciliatory messages given by Kurdish political leaders in Turkey and by one of the PKK's top leaders in northern Iraq. In an interview published on June 14 in Hurriyet, veteran Kurdish politician Leyla Zana -- who was recently sentenced to ten years in jail on charges of "propagandizing" on behalf of the PKK -- told the paper she does not believe an armed struggle can solve the Kurdish issue and that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan should be supported in his efforts to solve the conflict. Meanwhile, in a recent interview with veteran Turkish journalist Avni Ozgurel, PKK leader Murat Karayilan gave what many interpreted as positive messages, expressing his support for a now suspended process that brought together representatives of the PKK and the Turkish government for secret talks in Oslo, Norway.
The demolishing of Sulukule, a historic Roma neighborhood inside Istanbul's ancient walls, has been one of the most egregious examples of the destructive nature of the numerous "urban transformation" projects that have been enacted in the city in recent years. In general, this "transformation" has meant evicting or relocating lower-income residents from neighborhoods in newly-desirable locations, tearing down their homes, and replacing them with soulless new buildings that appeal to Turkey's fast-growing middle class.
This has certainly been the case in the plan to "transform" Sulukule, which started in 2008, when the local municipality started evicting Roma families from a large part of the hardscrabble neighborhood in order to make way for the construction of 640 "Ottoman-style" homes that none of the area's original tenants could possibly afford to buy or rent. Although the construction project is already well on its way, with most of these homes built, a new court ruling is giving Sulukule residents and their supporters a sense of limited hope. From the Hurriyet Daily News:
A transformation project in Istanbul’s predominantly Roma neighborhood of Sulukule is “not beneficial to the public,” Istanbul’s Fourth Administrative Court ruled yesterday, adding that construction of new villas “must be stopped.”
The ruling comes after a four-year court case launched by the Istanbul Architects Board, Urban Planning Board and the Sulukule Roma Association.
All the new buildings in Sulukule are illegal and must be torn down, Mücella Yapıcı of the Architects Board said in the wake of the ruling. “Justice when it comes late is not justice,” she added.
A prison fire last week that led to the death of 13 inmates and a string of subsequent fires -- all set by prisoners protesting the conditions they are living under -- have led to a debate about the state of Turkey's jails and just why the country has such a fast-growing prison population.
Saturday's fire, which took place in the southeast Turkey's Sanliurfa, was apparently set by a group of prisoners protesting their overcrowded conditions. Since the fire in Sanliurfa, prisoners in at least three other jails started protest fires. According to Turkish reports, dormitory-style cells in the Sanliurfa prison that were built for 12 were housing 18 prisoners, forcing the inmates to sleep in shifts. The prison itself, which has a capacity of 350, was holding over 1,000 inmates at the time of the fire.
As the Hurriyet Daily News reports, the overcrowding is indicative of Turkey's rapidly-rising prison population:
The number of prisoners has increased to 132,000 from 69,000 over the last 10 years even though Turkey’s penitentiaries only had a total capacity of 125,000 people as of April 2012, according to information provided by Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin.
Over 36,400 prisoners are detainees awaiting trial while over 95,600 have been convicted. The legal process of one-fourth of the convicted has not been concluded as their appeals are being heard at the Supreme Court of Appeals, according to statistics.
At the Şanlıurfa prison, only 200 of the 1,000 inmates have been convicted.
Along with his suggestion that abortion may soon be banned, the other bombshell that mercurial Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently dropped was that his government is planning to build a massive mosque up on one of Istanbul's highest hills, designed so that it could be seen from almost every part of the city. Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
“We are going to build a mosque over 15,000 meters square next to the broadcasting tower in Çamlıca. The planning work is nearing completion. I believe the bulldozers will begin working within two months. This giant mosque in Çamlıca was designed so as to be visible from all parts of Istanbul,” Erdoğan said late May 29, while speaking at the opening ceremony of a traditional handicrafts center in the nearby district of Kandilli.
Foundations General Director Adnan Ertem, Istanbul Governor Hüseyin Avni Mutlu, Police Chief Hüseyin Çapkın, Üsküdar Mayor Mustafa Kara and Emine Erdoğan, the prime minister’s wife, also attended yesterday’s ceremony.
The mosque complex will also include facilities underneath the building for traditional crafts, such as “hat” (Turkish calligraphy) and gilding, Erdoğan said. “In other words, just as there used to be madrasahs next to [mosques] in the past, our architects have undertaken to design something similar in this contemporary setting.”