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Insights into Turkish Domestic and International Politics (February-March 2017 Edition)

10 MINS READApr 4, 2017 | 21:03 GMT
Insights into Turkish Domestic and International Politics (February-March 2017 Edition)

By John VanPool for the European Geopolitical Forum (EGF)

Key Points:

  • Aydin Dogan faces renewed pressure from the government following critical media coverage from outlets owned by his conglomerate, Dogan Holding. He faces a personal summons in a state case accusing him of orchestrating a fuel smuggling scheme in the early 2000s.
  • Turkey joins peace talks over Syria in Kazakhstan, serving as the most visible backer of rebel forces there as Russia and Iran support the Syrian Government of Bashar al-Assad.
  • The United States’ top military officer in Syria and Iraq says Syrian Kurdish fighters pose no threat to Turkey, possibly presaging a firm commitment of U.S. support for the People’s Protection Units that Ankara views as extensions of the outlawed PKK.
  • Russia certifies the Turkish Stream intergovernmental agreement, allowing Gazprom to move forward in having pipe laying and further construction start in late 2017. 

Dogan in the cross hairs… again

One of Turkey’s business elite stands in the crosshairs of the government again. In fairness, the case involving Dogan Holding honorary chairman, Aydin Dogan, has been in the court system for more than a year. The former head of what was once one of the country’s largest conglomerates stands accused of profiting from a fuel smuggling operation in the 2000s.

According to prosecutors, from 2001-2008 Dogan Holding and Isbank owned stakes in Petrol Ofisi, a Turkish gas station chain, which is alleged to have avoided paying taxes on customs.

While the case has been in the Turkish court system, Dogan has denied the charges and not appeared in many of the hearings surrounding it. Yet after a February 25 article in the Dogan-owned newspaper raised the possibility of discord between the AKP government and the military, his presence was demanded at the next hearing. (Toksbay, "Turkish media mogul Dogan summoned to court over fuel smuggling," Reuters, 1 March 2017.)

In a response to the article’s headline that could be read to show concern of the army at the government’s removal of a ban on headscarves, President Recep Tayip Erdogan challenged it in a combative tone.

“Everyone should know their place,” said Erdogan before adding, “Whoever tries to play us against ourselves will pay a heavy price.” (Kingsley, "Aydin Dogan, Turkish Media Tycoon, Is Ordered to Appear in Court," The New York Times, 1 March 2017.)

The summons for Aydin Dogan comes after a month where Dogan-owned outlets attempted to mollify some of the antagonism between them and the AKP government. The most prominent casualty was Hurriyet editor Sedat Ergin, who took the blame for the headline in the military article. In mid- February an interview with Orhan Pamuk, a noted Turkish author and critic of the AKP, was not run after an interview with Hurriyet’s Washington D.C. correspondent. Pamuk said that the interview centered on his opposition to the upcoming constitutional vote in April. A Kanal D anchor, Iran Degirmenci, was fired following his announcement that he was also opposed to the referendum, although Kanal D management claimed he had violated his role of neutrality as a journalist. 

The reigning in of the press by the government in Turkey is not a new development, as it has been happening for some time. Dogan Aydin faced a multibillion dollar fine from the government in 2009 in a case that was widely seen as retribution for the firm’s media outlets in print and TV opposing the AKP.

The country remains in shock following last year’s attempted coup. Yet the power of the government to silence or alter unfavourable media coverage is stark. The government’s moves to dispute reports of displeasure between the civilian government and military is understandable, not just because of last year’s putsch attempt but also because of Turkey’s long history of military coups.

Turkey, Russia and Iran move back towards peace talks on Syria

Amidst the uncertainty of the direction of the new Trump Administration towards the civil war in Syria, representatives from Turkey, Russia and Iran met in Kazakhstan in late January and early February to revive peace talks for the Syrian Civil War.

The three agreed to form a trilateral system that will monitor violations of cease fires there. If recent trends keep up, with violations taking place every hour, members of the trilateral grouping will be kept busy.

Turkey, represented the position of rebel forces, while Russia and Iran have long supported the military and government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One notable exception were representatives from the Islamic State, whose fighters have been rolled back on all fronts in Syria and Iraq. The meetings, while a step in the right direction, were largely inconsequential in halting the overall fighting that has driven millions of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border. An estimated 2.9 million remain there. Turkey already holds buffer zones along much of its frontier, partly to keep cross border traffic between supporters of the Islamic State and Kurdish fighters from crossing back and forth. After a months’ long siege, Turkey also announced that it would not hand over the border town of al-Bab to the Syrian government once Islamic State fighters withdrew.

Notably though, Turkey has dropped its once-vocal calls that al-Assad must leave. While Russian and Iranian counterparts noted that atrocities occurred on all sides in the multi-actor conflict, the fact remains that the rebels will remain distrustful while the individual who ordered the initial killings of peaceful protestors remains in power.

This much showed in the Kazakh capital where rebel representatives refused to sit down and talk with their Syrian government counterparts. Still, the talks have made progress with a new round scheduled to take place in mid-March. If and when they progress, Turkey will find that its toughest negotiation may come between it and the U.S., which under President Trump has signalled that it would not immediately withdraw support for the Kurdish fighters in Syria taking on the Islamic State.

Washington and Ankara at odds on the involvement of Syrian Kurds

The tumultuous first month of the Trump administration had many in Washington D.C. scrambling to get their bearings. Overseas, U.S. allies were doing their own assessment of the new American leader's view on their own corners of the world. While the formation of a concise Trump foreign policy - aside from 'America First' - has yet to emerge, the top leader of U.S. forces fighting the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq did have something to say on Turkey's concerns about the Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters there.

“Of those YPG fighters, I’ve talked to their leaders and we’ve watched them operate and they continually reassure us that they have no desire to attack Turkey, that they are not a threat to Turkey, in fact that they desire to have a good working relationship with Turkey,” said Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend.

“And I have seen absolutely zero evidence that they have been a threat to, or have supported any attacks on, Turkey from Northern Syria over the last two years,” he added. ("YPG no threat to Turkey, US top general argues," Reuters, 2 March 2017.)

The assertion flies in the face of what most Turkish security and political leaders believe, and given the spate of terrorist attacks carried out by Kurdistan Workers Party militants in Turkey over the last year, it’s an understandable concern. The PKK and YPG, though on different sides of the border and with ostensible differences in leadership, are at least in the eyes of Turkey, one in the same.

The confusion of allies and combatants is best exemplified in the recently liberated Syrian border town of al-Bab, which had been under control of the Islamic State. Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels, backed by Turkish military forces, finally entered the city after months of brutal fighting in mid-February. However, Syrian government forces under the cover of Russian air cover have also advanced on the town. At the same time, U.S. supported fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – a multi-ethnic force with significant numbers of YPG fighters - has also moved in, though none are supporting one another. The FSA fighters, backed by Turkish soldiers and armour, have threatened to attack the Syrian government and SDF forces. A similar situation is developing around the Manbij as Syrian government forces move closer to that town despite the SDF holding it since its fall in 2016.

Turkey will surely demand that the U.S. drop its ongoing support for the YPG. Yet Washington, which is in no hurry to put large numbers of American soldiers into the line of fire for a civil war in the Middle East, sees the Kurdish fighters as a true bulwark against the radical groups operating in Syria.

The YPG, while certainly ideological, are not, as the new American president would put it, “radical Islamic terrorists.” That, and their ability to stand and fight the Islamic State to a standstill, have endeared them to decision makers in Washington D.C., thereby making an American withdrawal of support unlikely.

As ISIL is rolled back, the greater threat now appears to be a resumption of combat between the regime and rebel forces which could potentially draw in the military personnel of their American, Turkish or Russian backers.

Turkish Stream moves ahead

In early February, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law the ratification of Russia and Turkey’s intergovernmental agreement on the Turkish Stream Pipeline Project. State-owned Gazprom followed up with an announcement of its own, reaching a pipe agreement with Allseas that will kick off construction in the second half of the year. (Sharples, EGF Gazprom Monitor, February 2017.)

As noted by Dr. Sharples, the construction will catch up where some pipeline infrastructure was halted after the diplomatic fall out between Russia and Turkey in November 2015 over the downing of a Russian jet by Turkish forces near the Syrian border. The new lines will connect with aspects of the now dead-South Stream project, but are scheduled to be complete in two years.

With the rapid change of geopolitics in the Black Sea region over the past five years, the project is certainly an expensive, though significant endeavour. Despite promises of renewed American commitment to Euro-Atlantic security from the Trump administration, the changes undergone in the Black Sea region appear to have Russia firmly on the front foot. It has managed to split Western-leaning Ukraine, retake Crimea, build-up its power and influence in the Caucasus, and reinvigorate its bid for the southern gas corridor, all in the past five years. The development of the southern corridor that will bypass a now divided Ukraine allows Russian supplies to cross a NATO country, Turkey, and deliver gas to European customers. For its part, Ankara will further cement its role as an important transit hub for supplies while likely getting a better price deal for the 55 percent of gas imports it receives from Russia.

Turkey, which feels little affinity for its EU partners after being spurned in its attempts at membership in the bloc, has an opportunity to leverage its geopolitical position in its Turkish Stream partnership with Russia, while demonstrating its ability to make deals elsewhere if it must. 

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