Category Archives: Syria

Turkey turns to Russia amid allegations of US coup complicity

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Turkey is executing a dramatic change in foreign policy, aligning itself with Vladimir Putin’s Russia in part because of the US’s and the EU’s reaction to the purge that followed the 15 July coup attempt. Ruling party leaders say the state of emergency will not last more than three months and that the Kurdish-based HDP will not be left out of national unity efforts. We’ll see about that!

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Atatürk’s mausoleum behind minarets and Ankara rooftops Photo: Tony Cross

Ankara 27-28 July 2016

Accompanying the mayor I meet on Wednesday evening is someone who’s introduced as an advisor to Prime Minister Binali Yildirim – another one who doesn’t want to give his name, but for different reasons to the others I’ve spoken to – along with a couple of gentlemen who apparently have something to do with intelligence and defence.

They say that a key Gülenist, whom they name as Adil Öksüz, was captured at the nearby Akinci airbase during the coup attempt.

Other Gülenists have apparently come forward to confess, including another prime ministerial adviser, known as Fuat Avni, and are spilling a certain amount of beans on the movement.

Avni’s statements led to the arrest of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s military aide de camp Colonel Ali Yazici, they say, and that has led to other top aides, past and present.

However highly placed they are, the organisation’s cell structure means that defectors can’t name a lot of names, if the information I’m given is correct.

Cells are led by a “big brother”, who reports to a bigger brother, and they all use code names.

Given that the AKP worked with the Gülenists for many years, there must surely be many members in the party, I point out.

They agree and say that an “in-depth investigation” is taking place and that some have already come forward.

The party seems ready to forgive individuals who were attracted by the movement’s ideals but were not aware of the coup plot.

Gülenists ready to explain themselves to the media having always been in short supply – even more so at the moment – I am not in a position to say what those ideals really are.

AKP people say that Gülen claims to be the new Mahdi, who will redeem Islam, and that the movement is a threat wherever it has schools and other interests, ie a number of countries in central Asia, Africa and, as it happens, the United States.

Relations with US under threat

The government found that the US was slow to condemn the coup and this, combined with its criticism of the post-coup purge and its apparent reluctance to extradite Gülen from his Pennsylvania compound, has given rise to accusations that it was aware of and supported the coup attempt.

If Washington refuses extradition it will be taken as proof of involvement, the adviser says, and that will mean a complete change in relations between Turkey, a key member of Nato, and the US.

There were already accusations that Gülen is a CIA agent and my informants seem to believe them, one of them throwing in a claim of German involvement for good measure.

EU criticism of the Turkish government’s reaction to the purge have also been poorly received and there is already evidence of a major realignment of Turkish foreign policy, which would mean Turkey joining Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to establish a bloc to rival the West on the world stage.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Şimşek on Tuesday announced that Erdogan would visit Russia on 9 August, while he himself was on a visit to Moscow along with Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci.

Russia is, of course, strictly non-judgemental about the reaction to the coup and has lifted a damaging embargo imposed when the Turks shot down one of its jets over Syria last year.

Even before the coup attempt there were indications that Ankara may normalise relations with Bashar al-Assad, a prospect that stunned Syrian rebel groups.

Is military weakened? Will national unity last? The AKP line

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Ak party vice-president Mehdi Eker Photo: Tony Cross

AKP vice-president Mehdi Eker refuses to “speculate” on what will happen if Gülen is not extradited when we meet him at the party’s huge headquarters in Ankara.

“We know, and are very sure – we have a lot of evidence – that Fetullah Gülen is the leader of this organisation, as it has been confessed by many members who were involved in the military coup,” he says. “We have conveyed these files to the US. President Erdoğan called [US President Barack] Obama and asked for the extradition of Gülen, and PM Yıldırım also had a phone conversation with [US Vice-President Joe] Biden and asked him officially.”

So “an ally and friendly country” is bound to “act according to international law and according to bilateral relations on this issue”, he declares.

Eker is defensive on defence.

The 8,000-plus personnel dishonourably discharged is a small percentage of the huge Turkish armed forces, he points out, but has to concede that then over 40 per cent of generals and admirals fired could be damaging.

“The Turkish army is traditionally very strong and powerful,” he says with masterly understatement. “Of course, as far as they get the support from the people and administration, they will recover. I have no doubt whatsoever about it. In previous coup attempts, for example in 1971 there was again a coup attempt, it recovered. It will again recover. No problem!”

He confirms reports that responsibility for the gendarmerie and the coastguard will be transferred from the defence to the interior ministry and that the polie may be given heavy weapons.

The Kurds – the elephant not in the national unity room

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HDP co-vice-president Saruhan Öluc Photo: Tony Cross

Like the CHP’s Tezcan, he is enthusiastic about the post-coup spirit of national unity.

“The people are all together, hand in hand,” Eker declares. “All the people from different statuses, different backgrounds, different parties all stay together.”

But one party was absent from Erdogan’s meeting with opposition leaders on Monday – the left-wing, pro-Kurdish rights People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

When I met HDP vice-president Saruhan Öluc in Istanbul on Tuesday, he was worried that this meant the formation of a nationalist bloc against Kurdish rights.

To read my interview with Saruhan Öluc click here

But Eker, who is himself a Kurd and represents a constituency in Diyarbakir where the conflict with armed Kurdish groups rages on, insists that the HDP will be involved in future talks.

“As long as they take a firm stance against coups and any other anti-democratic affairs, we are together. They are elected by people so they are legitimate.”

The gendarmerie being deployed in rural areas, their transfer to the interior minister may mean more involvement in security operations in the south-east.

Torture hasn’t happened but, if it has, it will be punished

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Human rights lawyer Sercan Aran Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier today lawyer Sercan Aran told us that soldiers detained since the coup claims to have been abused, tortured and even raped.

Some had been deprived of food for three days, others housed in stables or kept in stress positions for the same length of time.

A general said he had been sodomised by a police truncheon – one suspects an element of resentment from the lower ranks – but refused to file a complaint because of the shame he would feel if his family knew.

There was evidence of other similar cases, Aran said, and lawyers had faced obstruction and physical assault while trying to represent detained soldiers.

To read my report for RFI on torture allegations click here

“Everything is done under the rule of law,” Eker insists, describing Amnesty International’s report on the torture allegations as biased.

But the charges will be investigated, he says, and if any cases come to light “of course they will be punished”.

Prosecutors have been given exceptional powers, including the right to search premises, including lawyers’ offices, without a judge’s warrant and the right to seize documents from lawyers.

Plotters, including officers who tried to assassinate Erdogan, are still on the loose, Eker says, so exceptional measures are justified.

But, he adds in reference to France’s eight-month state of emergency, Turkey’s will probably not last more than three months.

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War with PKK, assaults on media freedom and clampdown on dissent to continue after Erdogan’s win in Turkey’s election

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Turkey’s election this month may have been pushed out of the spotlight by the attacks in Paris and Bamako but the surprise result will have a long-term effect, not just on the country itself as an increasingly authoritarian president gathers more power into his hands by legal and illegal means but also internationally, since Isis is on its doorstep and active on its soil. You can’t ignore Turkey and you can’t ignore the Kurds, including the PKK – officially terrorists to Washington and Brussels – and its sister organisation the KYD – among the few effective allies in the fight against the armed Islamists.

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A woman votes in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir on 1 November 2015

Voxpops on polling day indicate a landslide for the HDP in Diyarbakir.

“And why? Because of the democracy of the HDP,” explains the first person we ask, a student called Suna, who is translating for international observers. “Because I find them serious about all of the problems of Turkey … Now I’m not happy to be in this country because of this government and I want them to go.”

‘’HDP, HDP, HDP, PKK, HDP, PKK!” chants Mehmetcik, a pensioner, at another polling station, going on to chide us for the duplicity of the great powers, who betrayed their promise of an independent Kurdistan after the breakup of the Ottoman empire.

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A statue of a weary traveller heading for Diyarbakir and a showcase of musical instruments at the city’s arts school, a polling station for the day Photo: Tony Cross

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Taner, an electrical engineer who has come back to vote from Iraqi Kurdistan, where he’s working, used to support the AKP. “Then we saw that they had a very exclusive way of governing. So we saw that the situation was very bad and we understood that this way of governing is very bad.”

True, a few people refuse to say how they are voting and some are reluctant to express their opinions because of police officers hovering near the entrance to polling station.

For my report on polling day in Diyarbakir for RFI click here 

The result is astonishing.

The AKP wins an absolute majority and, while the secular nationalist CHP’s vote has held up, the HDP’s has fallen, as has the right-wing national MHP. The AKP has gained a seat in Diyarbakir.

Police and special forces are everywhere as we make our way to the HDP’s Diyarbakir offices.

A roadblock looms ahead of us in the dark, forcing us to change our route. As we drive down a wide streets, a group of young men is lined up against a wall, special forces’ guns trained on them. Another special force members has his gun in the face of a driver, who is half in, half out of his car.

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Youths light a fire on the road outside the HDP headquarters in Diyarbakir Photo: Tony Cross

Groups of youths are hanging around the street, leading to HDP HQ. We park at a distance and, as we approach, they collect branches and rubbish and set it alight.

An excitable kid of no more than 16 berates journalists in Kurdish. He looks at my recording equipment and, although he seems unclear as to its function, says that I shouldn’t show it to the police.

Inside the offices no one wants to be interviewed. Young activists seem to be in shock at the result.

From a balcony we watch the youths outside drag rubbish and tyres onto the road and set them alight, creating a roadblock that doesn’t stop the traffic – the cars just drive around it – but does attract the police, which seems to be the purpose of the exercise.

A few rounds of gunfire echo through the surrounding tower blocks.

The police fire teargas, which floats into the building before people shut the windows, and a police water cannon arrives.

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A police water cannon retreats after being attacked by youths in Diyarbakir Photo: Diyarbakir

The kids, very young but apparently well-practiced in tackling these lumbering monsters intifada-style, scatter and then regroup behind it, coming up close where the water can’t reach, and stoning it.

They do this persistently and with some effect. Eventually it leaves, to cheers from the HDP office, then a special forces armoured car turns up and the police water cannon returns. Someone fires several rounds into the air from a dark corner just off the road.

As the kids disperse, some of them surround a photographer and start shouting at him. They believe he has photographed them with their faces uncovered – most of the time they’ve had scarves and hoodies hiding their identities – and are extremely unhappy about the prospect of them being published or falling into the hands of the police. An HDP activist goes out and places himself between them and the photographer, calming the kids down and bringing him into the building.

As we leave an HDP MP, Ziya Pir, does comment on the result. The rise in violence pushed some voters into the arms of the AKP, he believes, and the HDP leadership lulled their supporters into a sense of false security by predicting a rise in the vote.

The rest of the town is calm, if gloomy. Customers in restaurants watch PM Davutoglu deliver a triumphant victory speech at AKP headquarters in Ankara.

For my report on Diyarbakir after the result became clear click here 

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s gamble has paid off. His AKP doesn’t even have to find a coalition partner, although it doesn’t have a sufficiently large number of seats to change the constitution, as Erdogan would like, in order to transfer power from the prime minister to the president and, incidentally, let a number of AKP MPs and hangers-one off the hook in several corruption investigations.

The violence that has flared up with the end of peace talks with the PKK and attacks by Isis seems to have driven a substantial number of voters into the arms of the AKP, attracted by Erdogan’s tough-guy image and his increasingly nationalist and Islamist rhetoric. That would account for the MHP’s decline, the AKP has stolen its USP, while adding a dose of assertive Islamic identity. Maybe some HDP voters were demoralised or frightened by the revival of violence, although nobody indicated that was the case at the polling stations or on the street.

Erdogan and his acolytes waste no time in making the most of their triumph. The day after the vote police raid the premises of the weekly magazine Nokta, seizing all copies of the latest issue as it rolls off the presses.

The cover, which read “Monday, November 2: The Beginning of Turkey’s Civil War”, was deemed an incitement to crime.

A previous issue of Nokta was seized for insulting the president and making propaganda for terrorists because it published a montage of Erdogan taking a selfie in front of the coffin of a soldier killed fighting the PKK.

In the three months running up to the elections, according to media freedom campaigners, 21 journalists, three media houses and one printworks have been attacked by mobs, some of them including AKP activists, 61 people – 37 of them journalists – have been charged with insulting a public figure, 19 have been charged with insulting the president and 168 articles, 101 websites and 40 social media postings have been censored.

There can be little doubt that war and repression will continue in the south-east and that tolerance will not be the watchword when dealing with opposition throughout the country.

For all my reports for RFI on Turkey November 2015 election click here 

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Liberated areas, military repression and Kurdish politics in Diyarbakir before Turkey’s 2015 election

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Diyarbakir is the largest city in Kurdish-majority south-east Turkey. The region has seen the PKK’s guerrilla war and successive governments’ harshly repressive responses. I first visited the city during the 2007 presidential election and talked to political and rights activists who still had vivid memories of the dirty war, as well as the era when the Kurdish language and culture suffered severe discrimination. I returned in 2014, when a peace process was under way and the city seemed to be becoming a better place to live. Some of the improvements have lasted but this year the city has seen military repression of liberated zones and shootouts between police and the Islamic State armed group.

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Hasan Pasa Hani, Diyarbakir, a former caravanserai that now houses restaurants and coffee shops Photo: Tony Cross

Diyarbakir, 28 October 2015

My work in Diyarbakir gets off to a slow start. I get up at 4.30am to catch the flight from Istanbul, only to find that it has been put back an hour and the airline hadn’t bothered to tell me. My SMS to my fixer, Tayfun, fails to go through, so he has been waiting for an hour when I arrive … not a good start

We land at Diyarbakir’s spanking new airport, which isn’t actually quite ready yet. No problems on the runway but when we go to hire a car they can’t give me a receipt because there is no electricity to run their printer.

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The café in Diyarbakir’s market area where I met Abdullah Demirbas and Kevin Miller Photo: Tony Cross

Once we start work we wait for ages in a charming courtyard café for Tayfun’s contact in the left-wing, pro-Kurd People’s Democratic Party (HDP) to turn up. He is supposed to introduce me to the former mayor of this part of Diyarbakir, the historic centre, and that means even more waiting.

The café is playing distinctly unturkish music, accordions feature in some tracks, meaning that if I record an interview here listeners are liable to suspect I conducted it in Paris and am only pretending to be in south-east Turkey.

After chatting for a while it finally occurs that our contact would actually make quite a good interviewee.

He is a Kurdish-American who has a Turkish name but prefers to be known as Kevin Miller. He has served in the US military and is to stand for Congress, the first Kurd to do so, but has come to Turkey for the election and its aftermath.

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Kevin Miller with collaborators at the former Armenian house he is restoring Photo: Tony Cross

Kevin takes us to see a former Armenian house in the old city that he is restoring in order to establish a research institute. Concrete has been chipped off Diyarbakir’s dark basalt and lighter stone with Armenian inscriptions and traditional wood interiors are being constructed, although recent rainfall has done some damage.

Then we take a walk through Sur, Diyarbakir’s old city.

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A street in Sur where Kurdish youths dug trenches and erected barricades Photo: Tony Cross

A streak of rubble scars a narrow street that joins another one that is similarly disfigured.

This is where young Kurds dug trenches and erected barricades to keep police and other representatives of the Turkish state out of a two-kilometre-square “liberated area”, arming themselves with what weapons they could lay their hands on.

A Kurdish assembly was organised and sat in a historic building nearby.

Graffitied on the walls are the initials “PKK” for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party guerrilla movement that has been fighting first for a Kurdish state and later for autonomy since 1978 but also “YDG-H”, for the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement, which a PKK leader recently admitted has escaped PKK control.

The YDG-H seems to have taken seriously a change in the line of the PKK and its Syrian allies, the YKD, that has meant renouncing Maoist-influenced centralism and encouraging bottom-up “administrative autonomy” in defiance of the state, establishing self-administer areas as the Syrian Kurds have done in the region, known to the Kurds as Rojava, that they have liberated from the Islamic State armed group and Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The Turkish government responded forcefully.

Ten days ago it sent 4,500 special forces into Sur, deploying snipers and heavy weapons in the narrow streets and declaring a 24-hour curfew.

In five days of fighting 15 people are reported to have been killed and one wounded and dozens arrested.

The building where the assembly met is now a charred ruin, despite its Unesco-protected status.

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The former seat of the Kurdish autonomous area’s assembly after the military offensive Photo: Tony Cross

To read my account of my visit to Sur for RFI click here.

The government has used similar tactics, including the use of snipers who are alleged to have targeted civilians to enforce curfews, in the towns of Cizre, where 22 were killed, 21 of them civilians, and Silvan, parts of which are now reported to be in ruins.

We do finally get to meet the former mayor.

Abdullah Demirbas has been arrested three times, twice this year and once in 2009, and is late for the interview because he had to report to the police station.

He was in jail for eight months in 2009 and was finally released on health grounds. He spent two months in prison pending trial for “financing the PKK” earlier this year and was released after he suffered a stroke and a campaign for his release won the support of US Secretary of State John Kerry.

But he doesn’t know the reason for the latest one because it was declared a state secret.

About 1,000 HDP members and 18 mayors belonging to its municipal wing, the BDP, have been arrested in the government crackdown that followed the end of the peace process with the PKK.

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Former mayor of central Diyarbakir, Abdullah Demirbas Photo: Tony Cross

“The 7 June election result was a disaster for the government,” he comments. “They didn’t get what they wanted. Of course, there was a price to pay and the people have paid the price. It was the breaking of the ceasefire and the restarting of the military operation.”

Demirbas accuses the government of cheating when it agreed to join US-led airstrikes on IS because it also launched air strikes on PKK positions in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Anyway, Erdogan and his friends have aided and supported IS in the past, he says, and are terrified that the areas liberated by Kurdish fighters in Syria will inspire Turkey’s Kurds to emulate them.

“In Rojava the Syrian Kurdish people making democratic autonomy by themselves is not something that is wanted by this regime,” he says. “Because they don’t want this, everyone knows this regime is supporting [Al Qaeda affiliate] Al Nusra and IS. Many people are coming through Turkey from Europe and the rest of the world, everyone knows that they are joining this group. Despite the decision that they were going to bomb and make operations against IS with coalition forces, Turkey has attacked the PKK but not attacked IS.”

To read more of my interview with Abdullah Demirbas on RFI’s website, click here.

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Eyse Gokkan of the HDP-aligned women’s group KJA Photo: Tony Cross

Earlier we drove out of the city centre to meet two HDP activists, Cüneyt Aslam, a youth leader, and Eyse Gokkan, of the women’s group, KJA.

They, too, accused the government of complicity with IS, Gokkan stressing that the Islamists – from the AKP to Boko Haram in Nigeria – share an anti-women agenda.

“There are documents showing that the Daesh terror organisation is being supported by the Turkish government, that weapons are being sent to this organisation by the government,” saidAslan, referring to IS by the Arab acronym Daesh. “The government is making an environment for this group to expand and kill us.”

As we drive past one estate, I noticed Turkish flags draped on the sides of several blocks of flats, a bit of a surprise here.

These estates are occupied by police officers and their families, Miller explained.

More on my visit to Diyarbakir during Turkey’s October-November general election campaign to follow.

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