Volkan Isbasaran – Informed Comment https://www.juancole.com Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Sun, 07 Jul 2024 04:31:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.8.10 Turkey-Syria Normalization Bid stirs Violent unrest in both Countries https://www.juancole.com/2024/07/normalization-violent-countries.html Sun, 07 Jul 2024 04:15:40 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=219421

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s proposal to engage with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marks a potential shift in a decade-long rift.

Istanbul (Special to Informed Comment; Featured) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan recently said “there is no reason” not to pursue normalization of diplomatic ties with Syria, and he said that he does not rule out a possible meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Erdoğan added that Turkey had no intention of interfering in Syria’s internal affairs.

Erdoğan was responding to a question about Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s recent comments. In late June, Assad expressed openness to restoring ties between Turkey and Syria.

The United Arab Emirates took the lead in restoring diplomatic relations with Syria in 2018, and last year Syria was readmitted to the Arab League. Saudi Arabia has also announced steps to reopen its embassy in Damascus.

As a quid pro quo for rapprochement, Ankara wants Damascus to take action against Syrian Kurdish groups that Turkey alleges are affiliated with the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the US also considers a terrorist group. Meanwhile, the Assad government has consistently demanded the withdrawal of Turkish forces from northern Syria and an end to Turkey’s support for rebel factions as a prerequisite for restoring relations.

Protests in Syria and Turkey

Just as Erdoğan signaled a possible rapprochement with Syria, protests erupted in rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria against the reopening of the Abu al-Zandin crossing near Al Bab city. The crossing connects rebel-held areas with Syrian government-held territories, and the protesters rejected the Turkish-Russian agreement to reopen the crossing.

Armed protesters, Turkish forces clash in north Syria • FRANCE 24 English Video

Then anti-Syrian protests broke out in Kayseri after a Syrian man was arrested for allegedly sexually abusing a minor. During the riots, angry mobs set vehicles and Syrian-run shops on fire. The riots spread to various cities in Turkey, with a 17-year-old Syrian boy being stabbed to death in Serik, Antalya.

Interior Minister Ali Yerlikaya announced that the police had detained 474 people involved in attacks targeting the Syrian community.

The unrest occurred amidst a recent increase in criticism of the government’s migration policies. According to UNHCR, Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees worldwide, most of them from war-torn Syria, and a recent Ipsos survey found that 77% of respondents in Turkey support closing the country’s doors to refugees, compared to a global average of 44%.

The riots in Turkey, coupled with Erdoğan’s conciliatory statements about Assad, fueled anti-Turkish protests in rebel-held northern Syria. The BBC reported that in Afrin, at least four people were killed in an exchange of fire between Turkish troops and armed protesters.

Syrian protesters attacked Turkish military vehicles, government buildings controlled by Turkey, and burned Turkish flags. According to AFP, some armed protesters also targeted Turkish trucks and military posts. They attempted to storm crossing points, resulting in clashes with Turkish border guards.

A border official stated that the Bab al-Hawa and Bab al-Salam border crossings and other smaller crossings were “closed until further notice.” It was reported that seven people were killed in the protests, which escalated into clashes.

Similar protests had occurred in rebel-held territory in Northwestern Syria in August 2022, following Turkey’s then-Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s call for reconciliation between the Syrian opposition and the Assad government.

Will the reconciliation efforts continue despite the unrest?

Pro-government media in Turkey accused different sides of the violent anti-Turkish protests. While Yeni Şafak (New Dawn) accused the Syrian fundamentalist militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Sabah (Morning) claimed the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) was responsible. Both HTS and PKK are designated as terrorist organizations by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States.

On Tuesday last week, President Erdoğan labeled the anti-Syrian protestors provocateurs. “Neither we nor our Syrian brothers will fall into this trap. I want to say that we will not bow to vandalism and racism. Just as we know how to break the filthy hands that reach for our flag, we also know how to break the hands that reach for the oppressed who have taken refuge in our country,” Erdoğan said.

He also signaled that the normalization attempts would continue, stating: “We don’t desire anybody’s land. The territorial integrity of Syria is a priority for Turkey, because we want a strong Syria, not one where terrorist organizations run rampant. To achieve this, we will not hesitate to meet with whomever it is necessary. Turkey is not a state that abandons its friends and will not become one.”

Erdoğan then traveled to Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, to attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. During the SCO summit, Erdoğan met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, al-Asad’s main patron. After their meeting, Erdoğan emphasized the importance of ending instability, including the unresolved aftermath of the Syrian Civil War, and stated that Turkey is ready to cooperate in finding a solution.

Before the Syrian Civil War strained Turkish-Syrian relations, President Erdoğan of Turkey and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria had notably close personal ties. Their relationship extended beyond diplomatic meetings and included personal interactions such as joint family vacations or attending football matches.

After the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Turkey began to support Syrian opposition groups seeking to overthrow al-Assad’s regime. Diplomatic relations between Ankara and Damascus were severed in 2012.

Erdogan Warns that Israel will come for Turkish Territory after Taking Gaza https://www.juancole.com/2024/05/erdogan-turkish-territory.html Wed, 22 May 2024 04:15:34 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=218676

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan asserts that Hamas is defending Turkey, opposition voices within the country challenge this narrative.

Istanbul (Special to Informed Comment) -On May 15, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that Israel will “set eyes on Turkish territory” after Gaza.

Erdoğan made these remarks during his ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) parliamentary group meeting, stating: “Don’t think that Israel will stop in Gaza. Don’t think that Ramallah will be safe. If this aggressive state, this terror state, is not stopped, sooner or later they will set their eyes on Anatolia with the delusion of promised lands.”

He added, “Israel is not only attacking Palestinians in Gaza. They are attacking us. Hamas is defending the front lines of Anatolia in Gaza.”

In his address, Erdoğan referred to Anatolia, the vast peninsula in Western Asia that largely encompasses modern-day Turkey.

The Times of Israel commented, questioning Erdoğan’s assertions: “Israel has never claimed any part of Turkey belongs to it, and it is unclear what Erdogan is basing his claims on.”

This isn’t the first instance of Erdoğan suggesting Israeli intentions to invade Turkey. In November 2023, he remarked, “Israel is testing our patience with threats of nuclear weapon use, fueled by delusions of promised lands that include our country’s territories.”

Concepts such as “promised lands” or “Greater Israel” have been used by various political parties in Turkey, including the AKP. These political notions suggest that Israel has secret plans to expand its territory far beyond its current borders. This theory often claims that Israel, driven by historical, religious, and strategic motivations, aims to annex large parts of the Middle East, including significant portions of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Turkey.

According to a survey by MetroPOLL, 34.5% of Turkish citizens surveyed want Turkey to stay neutral in the Hamas-Israel conflict, 26.4% want Turkey to act as a mediator between the two sides, 18.1% want Turkey to support the Palestinians but to remain distant from Hamas, 11.3% want it to support Hamas, and 3% want it to support Israel.

Prominent journalist Fatih Altaylı criticized Erdoğan’s statements on his YouTube channel and pointed out inconsistencies. He questioned why, during Erdoğan’s mentor Necmettin Erbakan’s tenure, projects involving tank and F-4 fighter jet modernizations were given to Israel if Turkey perceived a threat of Israeli aggression. Altaylı also highlighted past military cooperation, such as Israeli Air Force pilots training at Turkey’s Konya Air Base, suggesting Turkey wouldn’t engage in such partnerships if it perceived a genuine risk from Israel.

Hindustan Times Video: “Erdogan’s Big Prediction On Israel’s Next Move If It Defeats Hamas; ‘Will Set Sights On…’”

Erdoğan compares Hamas to Kuvâ-yi Milliye

In his speech, Erdoğan also criticized those who were uncomfortable with his comparison of Hamas to Kuvâ-yi Milliye, stating: “Those who label Hamas as a ‘terrorist organization’ today would have called Kuvâ-yi Milliye the same a hundred years ago.”

Kuvâ-yi Milliye was a Turkish nationalist militia during the Turkish War of Independence (1919-1923). Formed in response to the occupation and partitioning of the Ottoman Empire by Allied forces following World War I, Kuvâ-yi Milliye was composed of various local resistance groups and irregular fighters.

Kuvâ-yi Milliye was not a formal army but rather a loosely organized collection of local militias. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the leader of the Turkish National Movement, integrated the Kuvayi Milliye into the newly formed regular army in 1921.

Erdoğan repeatedly likened Hamas to the Kuvâ-yi Milliye. Besides Hamas, Erdoğan previously likened the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to the Kuvâ-yi Milliye in 2018.

This analogy was harshly criticized by the opposition, as the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) rejected such a similarity between the two organizations. CHP spokesperson Deniz Yücel said, “Have you ever heard of Kuvâ-yi Milliye killing civilians? Defending Anatolia is not Hamas’ concern as long as we are here.”

Örsan Öymen, a columnist for the secularist opposition Cumhuriyet, said such comparisons are completely contrary to historical facts and realities, and they constitute an insult to Kuvâ-yi Milliye and Atatürk because Kuvâ-yi Milliye adopted secularism as an ideology while Hamas is an Islamist organization.


How is Hamas perceived in Turkey?

The debate surrounding the comparison between the Kuvâ-yi Milliye and Hamas is mainly based on how Hamas is perceived by different political groups in Turkey. Turkey does not designate Hamas as a terrorist organization, in contrast to many Western countries.

Hamas is generally perceived positively by those with Islamist or conservative leanings. These groups often view Hamas as a resistance movement. President Erdoğan labeled Hamas as a group of freedom fighters and mujahideen who are striving to protect their lands and their citizens.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s secular opposition tends to criticize Hamas and instead praise leftist Palestinian organizations. Istanbul’s opposition mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu and CHP leader Özgür Özel labeled Hamas as a terrorist organization.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, numerous Turkish leftists, including notable figures like Deniz Gezmiş, Yusuf Aslan, and Hüseyin İnan, joined armed Palestinian organizations. This is the reason why the main opposition party CHP tends to mention the legacy of Deniz Gezmiş while expressing solidarity with Palestine.

Public opinion in Turkey is overwhelmingly supportive of the Palestinian cause. This support is influenced by a combination of political, religious, and humanitarian reasons. However, there are different views within the country, and some segments of the population and political opposition are more critical of Hamas, its armed wing Al-Qassam Brigades, and their methods.

Turkey Suspends Trade with Israel over Gaza: Solidarity or Politics? https://www.juancole.com/2024/05/suspends-solidarity-politics.html Tue, 07 May 2024 04:15:21 +0000 https://www.juancole.com/?p=218442 Istanbul (Special to Informed Comment; Feature) – On Thursday, Turkey announced the suspension of all trade with Israel, citing the “worsening humanitarian tragedy” in the Gaza Strip as the reason.

The Turkish Ministry of Trade said: “Export and import transactions related to Israel have been suspended for all products. Turkey will implement these new measures strictly and decisively until the Israeli Government allows an uninterrupted and sufficient flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza.”

This move follows a previous trade restriction announced last month, during which Turkey restricted exports in 54 categories, including iron and steel products, jet fuel, construction equipment, machinery, cement, granite, chemicals, pesticides, and bricks.

In 2023, trade between Turkey and Israel amounted to $6.8 billion, with 76% representing Turkish exports to Israel. According to the Turkish Statistical Institute (TÜİK), Israel ranked 13th on Turkey’s list of export destinations in 2023, with $5.4 billion in exports.

Turkish exports played a crucial role in Israel’s economy. Before the embargo, Turkey had been Israel’s largest steel and cement exporter. Azerbaijani oil and even barbed wire were shipped to Israel through Turkish ports. Additionally, Zorlu Holding, a Turkish company, produced 7 percent of Israel’s annual electricity.

A Move to Regain Domestic Support?

During the campaign for the elections held on March 31, Erdoğan’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) faced criticism for maintaining trade relations with Israel despite the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

TRT World Video: “Türkiye halts trade with Israel until Gaza ceasefire”

Meanwhile, pro-government voices were claiming that the shipments to Israel were actually destined for Palestine. In December 2023, Trade Minister Ömer Bolat stated: “Goods arriving in Israel are destined for Palestine. [On the shipments], the destination must be written as Israel. Unfortunately, trade with Palestine must necessarily be conducted through Israel.”

AKP’s former ally, the hardline Islamist New Welfare Party (YRP), repeatedly criticized the government’s Gaza policy, using the slogan “Trade with Israel is a betrayal to Palestine.”

Before the local elections, Erdoğan criticized YRP by accusing them of harming AKP by dividing their votes. In response, YRP leader Fatih Erbakan said, “We are not making you lose; continuing trade with Israel is what is causing you to lose.”

While Turkey’s economic problems, such as decreasing pensions and salaries amidst soaring inflation, were the main factors behind AKP’s electoral loss, Turkey’s ongoing trade with Israel also played a role among conservative voters. This was even acknowledged by Erdoğan himself during a party meeting discussing the election results, as reported by party insiders.

On April 7, a week after the elections, police violently dispersed demonstrators on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street who were protesting trade with Israel. Despite the peaceful nature of the pro-Palestine protests, police detained 43 people.

Economic Impact

Israeli-Turkish relations under Erdoğan have been characterized by significant fluctuations and tensions. In the early 2000s, relations between Israel and Turkey appeared to be warming until the Gaza flotilla incident in 2010.

Despite strained diplomatic relations since 2010, trade between Israel and Turkey has flourished. In 2022, the two countries restored diplomatic relations, but their relationship has been deteriorating again since October 7.

Turkish investigative journalist Metin Cihan has been highlighting Turkish shipments to Israel since the beginning of the war. After the Ministry of Trade announced the trade suspension, Cihan claimed that he identified ships in Turkish ports that reported their destination port as Israel.

And, on May 5, Good Party (IYI) MP Turhan Çömez shared port records from his X account, revealing that Turkon Istanbul, a cargo vessel, departed from Iskenderun port and arrived in Haifa two days after the trade suspension with Israel.

According to the Israeli financial newspaper Globes, Azerbaijani oil was still being loaded onto tankers bound for Israel at the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Azerbaijani oil is transported via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, and from Ceyhan, it is transported to Haifa.

Moreover, Reuters reported that Turkish exporters are exploring alternatives to resume trade with Israel by considering routes through third countries such as Egypt, Jordan, or Lebanon. Four owners of export companies said that Turkey’s decision to suspend trade with Israel caught them off guard.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz criticized Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision to halt trade with Israel, saying “This is how a dictator behaves, disregarding the interests of the Turkish people and businessmen, and ignoring international trade agreements.”

Katz also added that he instructed the Israeli Foreign Ministry Director General Yaakov Blitshtein to “immediately engage with all relevant parties in the government to create alternatives for trade with Turkey, focusing on local production and imports from other countries.”

In conclusion, Turkey’s decision to suspend trade with Israel amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza may be seen as a genuine expression of solidarity with Palestine. However, given the timing following an election loss and amidst protests, it’s plausible that this drastic policy change could also be interpreted as an attempt by Erdoğan to regain support from conservative voters.

Moreover, Turkey has stated that the trade suspension will continue until Israel permits an uninterrupted and sufficient flow of humanitarian aid. Whether Israel will reconsider its policies towards Gaza in light of international isolation remains uncertain.