Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met with a group of Syrian National Council, or SNC, members late Sunday in an urgent meeting, a development that came on the heels of Saturday's attacks against a number of foreign missions in Syria.
An angry mob of around 1,000 pro-regime demonstrators, incited by the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria's membership in the league and impose economic sanctions, assaulted the missions of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, France and Qatar with stones and bottles, and chanted slogans in praise of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Although the mob waged an assault on a number of other missions, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said it was "significant" that the attacks targeted Turkish missions in "a more intensive and stronger fashion," and that the attacks coincided with the Arab League's decision to take away Syria's membership privileges in the international body.
The ministry also noted that Turkey issued a note to Damascus through its envoy in Ankara, saying that "it is a matter of duty and honor" for Syria to protect foreign missions in its territory, and requesting that those responsible for the attacks be found and brought to justice.
Following the diplomatic note, Syrian Foreign Minister Waled al-Moallem apologized for the attacks, saying he was sorry for what happened. Nevertheless, the apology seems unlikely to halt the momentum of the SNC, which has claimed increasing prestige and visibility in the international arena since the Arab League announced that Syria has failed to fulfill its promises and stop its bloody crackdowns again citizen protestors.
In light of growing agitation between the League and the Syrian administration, the SNC is now waiting to be formally recognized by the Arab body in what is perceived to be a threshold decision that could give the green light to other countries, like Turkey, to follow suit and recognize the council.
For now, Turkey formally falls short of officially recognizing the council. Members of the SNC believe Sunday night's meeting with Davutoğlu is a strong sign that Turkey considers the council an addressee for diplomacy in the midst of the Syrian unrest.
The SNC is looking to establish a representative office in İstanbul, where they frequently gathered until they were officially unified in September, but diplomatic sources have not disclosed the details of the prospective SNC mission.
"Although it [Sunday's meeting between the SNC and Davutoğlu] is not an official recognition, when you meet with the opposition twice, and when you give them a message of cooperation, this is the first step toward recognition," a SNC member and Syrian dissident, Khaled Khoja, told Today's Zaman on Monday, noting that in the meeting Davutoğlu assured the council that Turkey was committed to supporting the council "as it continues to provide a legitimate alternative to al-Assad's regime."
Khoja also expressed that the council was now expecting Turkey "to cut ties with the old regime" as a second step, but feels that "what [Turkey is] doing now is very encouraging," and constitutes a clear sign that Turkey will back the council in the future.
Although Turkey has provided a platform for the council to gather, and pushed for reunification among various voices in the ranks of the opposition, Turkish officials in the past have consistently denied they were intervening in the council's activities. Nevertheless, Turkey has drawn the ire of al-Assad, who has explicitly expressed his anger with Turkey for its support for the council.
Even though Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi said that the Arab League would be meeting with the SNC on Tuesday, he also noted at a conference in Libya that it was somewhat too early to recognize the opposition as Syria's sole authority. The Arab League is also lingering over a call from Syria's government to gather for an emergency meeting with the league, a request the SNC hopes will be turned down by al-Arabi.
"Now, no move by the Syrian regime will be accepted by the Arab League," Khoja said, expressing his belief that Syria has used up its opportunities in that direction. "The Arab League is sure that the regime must go."
Encouraged by the increased support the council has received in the past few weeks, the SNC is hoping that the league will be recognizing the council soon after Tuesday's meeting.
"If the Arab League accepts the SNC as the legitimate representative of Syria, then Turkey will accept it as well," Khoja also added, speculating that Turkey would not want to be on the frontline of acknowledging the council, but would support steps from Arab countries to do so and cooperate with them.
Confirming Khoja's words, Turkish experts agree that while Turkey has extended support to the oppositional council for months now, it will refrain from decisive action before the Arab League solidifies its position and grants the council legitimacy.
"Turkey is trying to bring the opposition to the Arab platform, whose latest decision over the weekend was a heavy blow to Syria," Ali Semin, a Middle East expert from a Turkish think-tank, the Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies, or BİLGESAM, told Today's Zaman in a phone interview, highlighting the importance of cooperation between Turkey and the Arab League in defining the fate of the SNC.
"The best possible strategy for Turkey would be to move with the league as the SNC strives for recognition, but regardless of the oppositional forces, Turkey and Syria have crossed the line and the ties are now severed," Semin said, commenting on the apparent breakdown of contact between the countries.
Despite the current antagonism, the Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on Sunday that it was going to keep its embassy operational and its ambassador stationed in Damascus, while recalling the families of embassy staff to protect them from the "deteriorating security conditions" prevailing in the country.
Although Syrian police forces managed to control the mob on Saturday after a one and a half hour stampede, Turkey employed its own security measures in Damascus and increased protection around the embassy building, the Cihan News Agency reported on Monday.
Turkey also continues to host thousands of Syrian refugees and defected soldiers in refugee camps in Hatay, a city on the Turkish-Syrian border, as close to 20,000 Syrians fleeing their country in fear for their lives sought refuge in Turkey when al-Assad's security forces began storming cities in May.
Turkey Eyes Official Apology from Syria
Turkey has called on Syria to deliver a formal apology over attacks on its diplomatic missions in the country over the weekend, stressing that it will maintain "the most resolute attitude" toward Damascus.
"Turkey is expecting a formal apology through diplomatic channels," Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç said Monday after a Cabinet meeting, playing down an apology that Syrian's foreign minister offered a press conference earlier in the day.
Arınç condemned the ongoing crackdown on anti-regime protestors in Syria as "state terror," which "the whole world is following with feelings of hatred."
The statement made Syria the third country after Israel and Armenia that Turkey is expecting an apology from over tensions in bilateral ties.
Earlier, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said Ankara would adopt "the most resolute attitude" against Damascus and would continue to "stand by the just demands of the Syrian people."
He also played down the apology that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem offered to Turkey, as well as to France, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, whose embassies were also attacked, during a press conference in Damascus.
"I'm aware of the statement made through the media. I'll make a detailed comment later," he told reporters.
Speaking during a debate on his ministry's 2012 budget at Parliament's Planning and Budget Commission, Davutoğlu warned that "those in the Middle East who are not at peace with their people and cannot satisfy them will go."
He lent support to the Arab League's decision to suspend Syria and said he would discuss the issue with Arab counterparts when they meet in Morocco's capital Rabat on Wednesday for the Turkey-Arab Forum.
Turkey is not planning any immediate unilateral sanctions against Syria in the absence of a United Nations Security Council resolution, diplomatic sources told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that the Arab League's decision could pave the way for a fresh initiative to sanction Syria at the Security Council.
Ankara has decided to keep Ambassador Ömer Önhon and Turkish consuls in Syria "until the last moment" even though the families of diplomats and non-essential personnel were evacuated, the sources said.
At the meeting in Rabat, Davutoğlu and his Arab counterparts are expected to discuss how civilians could be protected against the bloody crackdown of Syrian forces, Erşad Hürmüzlü, a foreign policy advisor to President Abdullah Gül, told private channel NTV Monday.
Asked whether Turkey might consider setting up a "buffer zone" on the Syrian border, Hürmüzlü said: "The protection of civilians is certainly very important. But what matters is an international resolution on the issue. It seems out of the question for us to do that on our own."
Following the embassy attacks, Davutoğlu met late on Sunday with opposition leaders from Syria's National Council who reiterated a request to open an office in Turkey. The issue remains on the agenda, but it is not yet clear when and where such an office could be opened, sources said.
Thousands of protesters carrying knives and batons attacked Turkey's diplomatic missions on Nov. 13, furious over Ankara's support for the Arab League decision to suspend Syria. Diplomatic sources highlighted the fact that the protestors did not target other embassies in the vicinity, implying that the attack was orchestrated with the apparent involvement of the regime.
Ankara expressed outrage after the attacks and summoned the top Syrian diplomat in Ankara to deliver a note of protest.
Replying to criticism over the sharp shift in Ankara's policy toward Syria, Davutoğlu said they had tried to use the once-flourishing ties as a leverage to cajole President Bashar al-Assad into reform as early as 2005.
"Whatever happens, the Turkish and Syrian people will be close friends," he said.
'Turkey Must Put an End to Syria's Threats'
Turkey's main opposition has called on the government to stop "threatening" Syria over a deadly crackdown on anti-regime protestors, arguing that President Bashar al-Assad should be unseated through democratic means and not foreign meddling.
Speaking to reporters Monday, Republican People's Party, or CHP, Deputy Chairman Faruk Loğoğlu condemned weekend attacks on Turkey's diplomatic missions in Syria and warned that such action against premises considered as Turkish territory could lead to "very heavy consequences" for Syria.
He also denounced al-Assad for going down the "wrong path" and wasting "numerous opportunities" to introduce reform and end the bloodshed.
Loğoğlu, however, warned that Ankara's policy of "taking sides" in the turmoil was exacerbating the tensions and might eventually plunge Turkey into a conflict with its southern neighbor.
"Turkey must stop being a country that is constantly threatening Syria. Turkey must stop taking sides in Syria's internal unrest. If we continue with such statements, one day we could be forced to carry out these threats and may come easily to the point of conflict with Syria," Loğoğlu said.
"If you follow Europe and the United States in making al-Assad's removal a policy by itself, then you are dooming Syria to internal conflict. You are telling the people of Syria to solve the issue through violence and bloodshed. If the internal conflict grows in Syria, Turkey's interests, its national security, and the entire region will face very serious problems."
Opposition lawmakers also questioned the government's policy on Syria at Parliament's Planning and Budget Commission, which convened Monday to debate the Foreign Ministry's 2012 budget.
CHP deputy Osman Korutürk likened Turkey's close ties with the Syrian opposition to the support that Damascus had given in the past to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. He also questioned whether agreements inked with Syria during the two countries' recently flourishing bilateral ties were still valid.
Mehmet Günal of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, urged the government to explain how it "has come to a position of interfering in Syria's domestic affairs [so] soon after joint Cabinet meetings were held."
The MHP's Tuğrul Türkeş, meanwhile, said Ankara was neglecting the plight of the Turkmens in Iraq, claiming that a spate of abductions of Turkmen doctors, teachers and businessmen had cost the community a total of $4 million paid in ransom since August.
"I'm afraid the situation will get even more dramatic in January" after the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, he said.
Turkey Should Get Over Flotilla Raid, Ayalon Says
Turkey should not get "caught up in details such as the Mavi Marmara incident" as the two countries "have to look at the bigger issues," Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Ayalon said, adding that the aggressive rhetoric between Tel Aviv and Ankara should end.
In May 2010, six ships led by the Turkish Mavi Marmara were intercepted by Israeli commandos as they steamed toward Gaza. Israeli commandos killed eight Turks and one Turkish-American on the lead boat, sparking diplomatic fury in Ankara.
"But all this is left behind. We should think of the Mavi Marmara as an isolated incident, and we should look to the future," Ayalon said. "The situation in the Middle East shows that Turkey and Israel should have good relations. I think we can find a solution [to the Mavi Marmara conflict] that can be accepted by everyone. And Israel has mentioned its regrets. We should avoid an exchange of aggressive discourses."
Relations between the two had already plummeted to new lows before the Mavi Marmara incident after Turkey's former ambassador to Israel, Oğuz Çelikkol, was humiliated by Ayalon during a meeting in Israel.
The deputy Israeli foreign minister said at the time that he wanted to send a strong message to Turkey over a disagreement between the two countries and intentionally made Çelikkol sit on a low chair and refused to shake his hand.
Çelikkol was subsequently recalled from Israel following the Mavi Marmara incident. Ayalon said some of the Mavi Marmara passengers were armed and added that allies prevented such flotillas from setting sail, unlike Turkey, which disappointed Israel since "responsible governments do not send people in arms."
Ankara Gives Double-Barrel Anti-PKK Fight
Turkey will raise the pressure on both Arbil and Baghdad to further cooperate in its fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, the Turkish foreign minister said Monday.
"While launching an intensified and deep relationship with all segments of Iraq, we have also intensified our contacts with the Iraqi central government and northern Iraqi regional government for the full elimination of the terror organization from Iraq," Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said. "We will continue to increase our demands and pressure on them."
Masoud Barzani, leader of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, recently paid a three-day visit to Istanbul on Turkey's invitation to discuss possible means to jointly fight the PKK. Barzani, himself a Kurd whose fundamental political goal is to establish an independent Kurdish state, did not promise much but acknowledged Turkey's concerns.
The fight against terror is among the top priorities of Turkey's foreign policy, Davutoğlu said, vowing to prevent the PKK from raising funds in European countries.
"It is not just the physical existence of the terror organization in northern Iraq, but the financial support coming from these EU countries that makes these terror acts happen," he said.
Cooperation between Turkey and the United States was also strengthened by fresh steps taken during Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's meeting with President Barack Obama in New York, following the allowance of a transfer of four Predators to Adana's İncirlik Base.
"We will not allow any vacuum in Iraq during the U.S. withdrawal process from the country," Davutoğlu said
Pentagon Shifts Drone Operation to Turkey from Iraq
A United States Predator drone operation that gathers intelligence to help Turkey in its struggle with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, in northern Iraq has shifted its base to southern Turkey from Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday.
The mission, which involves four U.S. Predator unmanned aircraft, was moved to İncirlik Air Base at Turkey's request as all U.S. forces are being withdrawn from Iraq by the end of the year, Captain John Kirby said.
The drones have been flying reconnaissance missions against the PKK from İncirlik for a couple of weeks, he said. But Kirby declined to discuss where the aircraft was conducting surveillance and whether the drones were still flying across the frontier into northern Iraq.
The shift will help provide intelligence support to the Turkish military "to deal with the specific threat posed by the PKK there on their southern border," Kirby said.
The PKK is listed as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. It has fought for Kurdish self-rule for more than 27 years in a conflict that has killed 40,000 people.
Kirby said the United States had a longstanding operation using Predators to help Turkey develop intelligence about the PKK's activities in northern Iraq.
"They had previously been flown out of Iraq, and as you know we're coming out of Iraq. So this was an arrangement to deal with that," Kirby said.
The United States has some 1,500 military personnel based at İncirlik.
Van Governor Asks for Aid Assistance
As search and rescue operations in the eastern province of Van draw to a close, falling temperatures and extreme weather conditions in Van have already taken their toll on the quake victims.
Van Gov. Münir Karaoğlu on Monday called for more aid to be sent to Van immediately, saying the city needs an urgent supply of food and clothing.
"No public institution in the city can be used now. There is immense damage. We need urgent aid from people, especially packaged food and supplies," he said.
Meanwhile, authorities have begun turning to new alternatives for problems now emerging in the wake of two deadly earthquakes in the last month.
Upon Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay's comments over the weekend that quake survivors could be hosted in social facilities and guest houses of public institutions, hundreds of people in Van applied to use such facilities.
"The Mersin Governor's Office, for instance, said they could shelter 2,000 families," Atalay said. "The Ministry of Family and Social Policies will conduct a survey within this framework. Facilities [normally] used in the summer will be allocated to Van residents through the governor's and district governor's offices."
The Education Ministry also posted a statement on its Web site, indicating that students from Van will be allowed to continue their studies in schools in other provinces, provided their guardians make a formal appeal to the ministry before Dec. 31, 2011.
Falling temperatures and extreme weather conditions in Van have already taken their toll on some survivors. A 7-year-old handicapped girl, who had survived unscathed from both tremors, died of pneumonia, allegedly because her family was not given a tent by the authorities.
"My daughter's murderers are those who denied us a tent," said Enver Olgun, 57, the girl's father.
Deniz Olgun, 7, the physically and mentally disabled child of a couple with 12 children in the district of Erciş, the epicenter of the tremor, was being transferred to the southeastern province of Batman for treatment when she died en route.
The family reportedly appealed to both the governor's and the district governor's offices to obtain a tent after their home was damaged in the quake. When their appeals were turned down, the family set up a make-shift tent made of nylon. Enver Olgun said he reiterated his request for a tent when his daughter first fell ill, but to no avail.
Deniz Olgun was first brought to a field hospital on Nov. 11, where her condition was registered as an "upper respiratory infection of the lungs." She was then taken to the Bitlis State Hospital, where she received treatment for a short while, after which she was sent to Batman due to a lack of space in the emergency services.
Turkey's Disaster Agency Struggles in Van Quake Test
The consecutive 7.2 and 5.6-magnitude earthquakes have subjected Turkey to a major test in disaster management in the last month.
With more than 640 people losing their lives, and thousands migrating from the quake-hit southeastern city of Van, the earthquake has become the most damaging disaster Turkey has faced in the last 10 years. Yet some civil defense experts and rescue workers say Turkey failed with flying colors.
"Civil defense is not just about rescuing people from the rubble. There needs to be a major disaster management plan that can be applied easily. However, in our case, everything stays on paper," Suat Özçağdaş, a psychologist who has been running support programs in disaster areas, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
He said the authorities could not even predict the results of the disaster.
"If they could, they would accept foreign aid offers in the first place. The first few days were extremely important," said Özçağdaş, who has worked with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, or IFRC, and the Turkish Red Crescent before launching Sosyal İnovasyon Merkezi.
Turkey's current authority for dealing with such disasters is called the Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency, or AFAD, an institution established in 2009 to replace the Civil Defense General Directorate.
Although AFAD's central administrative office remains in Ankara, the institution has teams of 100-120 rescue workers in 11 metropolitan cities in Turkey, whose only job is to intervene in the case of disaster.
An AFAD rescue specialist in İzmir, who preferred to remain anonymous, said AFAD's general directorate in Ankara had even failed in transporting its workers to Van.
"We had to drive to Van by our own means because the plane carrying rescuers to the quake-hit city only had a few places. It took us 30 hours to drive there and we were all tired. The first 24 hours are critical and we lost that time," the rescuer said.
Unfortunately, AFAD directors in Ankara are not experts in disaster management, they are just bureaucrats, he said.
U.S. Congress Clears SuperCobra Helicopter Sale to Turkey
Congress approved the sale of three AH-1 SuperCobra attack helicopters to Turkey on Monday.
President Barack Obama's administration formally notified Congress on Oct. 28 of an unusual proposal to sell three AH-1 Super Cobra twin-engine attack helicopters to Turkey from the U.S Marine Corps inventory.
According to U.S. law, the administration needs to notify Congress of the sale of arms to other countries and seek authorization. If the proposed sale is to a NATO-member country, Congress has 15 days to reject the sale or it will be automatically authorized.
Turkey has a long-standing request for SuperCobra helicopters. It has a shortage of such aircraft, which it has been using in its ongoing fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK. The PKK has recently increased violent attacks.
The process of securing Congressional approval for the sale of the $111-million helicopters to Turkey was successfully completed as no motion to block the sale was brought to the agenda in Congress. The attack helicopters are to be delivered in a couple months after a technical screening.
World Turkish Entrepreneurs Congress to Take Place in Istanbul
The World Turkish Entrepreneurs Congress, organized by the Foreign Economic Relations Board, or DEIK, of Turkey, will take place in the northwestern province of Istanbul on November 18 and 19.
More than 2,500 Turkish entrepreneurs from 90 countries will attend the Congress to take place at the Lutfi Kirdar Congress and Exhibition Center.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is expected to attend the Congress on its second day.