Turkey's top military board reviewed the army's combat readiness Wednesday amid growing concerns that turmoil in its southern neighbor could spread further instability in the region.
"During the meeting, the Turkish Armed Forces' operations for the internal security and border security were discussed. The TSK's combat readiness has been examined and measures to meet the needs in this end have been evaluated," read a written statement following the bi-annual Supreme Military Council, or YAŞ, meeting.
Examining the army's combat readiness is routine work for the YAŞ, but its coinciding with the developments in Syria is significant. The YAŞ convened Wednesday as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned to Ankara after a 22-day period of convalescence following surgery on his digestive system. Back in Ankara, Erdoğan chaired the YAŞ meeting, which was also attended by Chief of General Staff Gen. Necdet Özel and top commanders.
Erdoğan attended both morning and afternoon sessions of the meeting. In the previous meeting earlier this year, Erdoğan had sat alone at the head of the table, in a symbolic show of growing civilian authority over the military. Traditionally, the prime minister and the chief of general staff would sit together at the head of the table during YAŞ meetings, but Erdoğan broke this custom after former Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner and the land, naval and air forces commanders resigned from their posts just before the annual YAŞ meeting on July 29.
The image was understood by many to signify Erdoğan's full control over the military.
As a part of the routine program, YAŞ members paid a visit to Anıtkabir, Atatürk's mausoleum, led by Erdoğan earlier that morning.
"Republic of Turkey, which is the holy heritage of our martyrs and war veterans, is proceeding stably towards its aims to be a regional and global power. Our Turkish Armed Forces is also continuing to be the safeguard of our country's security and our regions's peace and stability with its deterrence," Erdoğan wrote in Anıtkabir memorial book.
Unity of AKP is Crucial for Stability, MHP Leader Says
Maintaining the unity and integrity of the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, is crucial to Turkey's stability, especially at a time when the country is under the threat from its neighbors, the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, Devlet Bahçeli said.
"Even in the case of a division of the AKP, the composition of the current parliament will not allow the creation of a healthy political structure," Bahçeli said at a press conference held Wednesday.
Bahçeli's statement came on the same day Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan began his official work in Ankara, following 22 days of recovery time at his Istanbul's residence after serious intestinal surgery.
During his absence, senior cabinet members and AKP officials wavered on the party's political line, regarding a much-debated bill related to the penalty for match-fixers. This prompted discussions as to whether the party would be divided were Erdoğan's health conditions to prevent him from returning to office.
"We welcome Mr. Prime Minister's return to office following a medical problem. We wish him good health," Bahçeli said. However, Bahçeli's welcoming statement was not limited to Erdoğan's personal health status, but also to that of the AKP.
Recalling that the MHP's coalition partner, the Democratic Left Party, or DSP, passed through such dissolution in 2002, causing severe political consequences, Bahçeli said division of the AKP could affect stability in Turkey.
He underlined that the AKP had received nearly 50 percent of votes during the June 12 elections, and drew attention to the political parties engaged in writing Turkey's new charter. Bahçeli said protecting the country's stability was the most important issue.
"We are under threat of war with Syria, developments in the Middle East could be very dangerous," he said.
Criticizing the government for a foreign policy leaving Turkey as a target for its neighbors, Bahçeli urged the government that those imperialist powers who pushed Turkey into this minefield could try to do the same thing again in the future.
For Bahçeli, the most important political development was the consensus provided among four political parties over the establishment of the reconciliation committee; he disagreed with ruling party officials that the process should be ended in 2012.
"There is no need to set such deadlines for the constitution if we place Turkey's future ahead everything," he said.
Bahçeli reiterated that the MHP's red lines on the new charter will remain on the table during the process. On the issue of jailed deputies and long detention periods, Bahçeli blamed the AKP for what he called strangeness and hijacking of the people's will.
"There are two ways to solve this problem: The first one is the judiciary's use of its authority on the matter and release the jailed deputies from three different parties, and the second one is a legal move initiated by the ruling party. With their 326 deputies, they are responsible for getting rid of this problem," he said.
The MHP leader downplayed allegations an ultra-nationalist group was planning to assassinate him in a move to spark a massive conflict between Turks and Kurds in the country.
"I do not take this plot seriously," he said.
AKP in Conundrum over President's Term
The government has come out in favor of confirming a seven-year term for President Abdullah Gül, but differing views have emerged on how the tenure should be formally fixed.
Some senior Justice and Development Party, or AKP, members have said a constitutional amendment is required to end the controversy, but Parliamentary Speaker Cemil Çiçek has said it is up to the legislature to resolve the issue when it addresses a draft bill on presidential elections in the coming days. Others, meanwhile, believe Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will make the final decision.
"If Parliament fails to make a decision on such an important issue, then the Supreme Electoral Board [YSK] will have to sort it out. Will it be right to leave the decision on the top post of the state to the YSK?" Çiçek told daily Bugün newspaper.
He said a provision could be added to the draft law on presidential elections, which Parliament is likely to debate in January. Çiçek had previously suggested that the date of the next presidential election be added to the draft to effectively fix Gül's term.
Turkey's next head of state will be elected by a popular vote for the first time under 2007 constitutional reforms. Parliament elected Gül for a single seven-year term on Aug. 28, 2007. Two months later, constitutional amendments introducing a popular vote to elect the president for a five-year, once renewable term, were approved by referendum. The ongoing controversy stems from uncertainty on whether the amendments should be considered retroactive to affect Gül's mandate.
"There have been some individual statements. Deputy Prime Minister [Bekir] Bozdağ says the term should be seven years. Whether it is seven or five, Parliament is the place to discuss that. Parliament sets the rules. It would be inappropriate for me to reveal my personal opinion," Çiçek told Bugün.
Burhan Kuzu, the head of the Constitution Conciliation Commission, lent support to Çiçek's suggestion.
"You cannot reduce the term of someone who has been elected for seven years to five years. The length of the tenure could be added to the presidential election law that we are going to take up at the commission after the budget debates," Kuzu told the Hürriyet Daily News Wednesday.
AKP Deputy Group Chairman Nurettin Canikli had said the previous day that the controversy should be resolved through a constitutional amendment that would require a compromise with the opposition.
The opposition, however, insists that Gül is entitled to a five-year, once renewable term on grounds that constitutional amendments reducing parliamentary terms from five to four years, passed at the same 2007 referendum, had already taken effect.
"The parliamentary elections were held within four years' time [of the 2007 referendum], and lawmakers did not complain that they had lost a year. The president should act in the same way," Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, leader Devlet Bahçeli said. "The decision on whether it's five or seven years is up to the ruling party. We cannot do anything with 50 deputies."
Republican People's Party, or CHP, Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu also said: "Parliamentary elections were held in four years' time and similarly, the presidential elections should be held after five years" in 2012.
The CHP has frequently said the issue has been deliberately left in limbo to give Erdoğan time to decide whether and when he will run for the presidency, as is expected.
AKP, MHP Increase Their Votes, Poll Says
Evaluating the government's overall performance, 50.4 percent said they believed the government had been successful.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, has increased its support by 5 percent, while the main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, has lost nearly 6.5 percent since the June 12 elections, according to a recently released survey.
The survey, which was conducted by the polling company Sonar Research Corp. across 26 provinces and 30 villages in Turkey, indicated that the AKP's voter support had increased from 49.83 percent on June 12 to 54.83 percent in December, while the CHP suffered a serious setback, as its voter support fell from 25.98 percent at the June polls to 19.52 percent in December.
The Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, currently the third largest party in Parliament, also managed to boost its support from 13.01 percent on June 12 to 16.13 percent in December, according to the survey.
Evaluating the government's overall performance, 50.4 percent said they believed the government had been successful. By contrast, 27.6 percent said they did not find the government successful, while another 5.1 percent said they thought it had been partially successful.
Economic issues and the high cost of living together constitute Turkey's most pressing problems, according to 72.7 percent of survey respondents, up from 67.5 percent in September.
Unemployment was cited as a leading issue by 63.6 percent of respondents, while another 60.4 percent said "terror incidents" were a pressing matter. Both figures were down from 69.47 and 70.83 percent in September, respectively.
The survey also reflected a decline in the citizenry's confidence in Turkey's economic outlook, as 53.6 percent of the respondents said they expected the economy to worsen during the coming six months, up from 47.5 in September.
Another 18.2 percent said they expected the economy to improve, while 18.1 percent said it would remain the same as today, according to the poll.
Those figures are down from 26.17 percent and 19.1 percent in September, respectively.
Some 3,000 people were polled as part of the survey.
Turkey's Policies Made Israel Kneel Down, Davutoglu Says
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said Turkey's recent polices in the Middle East "have made Israel kneel down" in front of Turkey and isolated the Jewish country in the region.
Speaking during budget talks in the Turkish Parliament on Wednesday, Davutoğlu responded to claims by the opposition that Turkey's foreign policy is dependent on Western countries and that there is a shift of axis in Turkey's foreign policy toward the East.
Noting that Turkey has been acting independently with regard to recent uprisings against authoritarian regimes in Middle Eastern and North African countries, Davutoğlu said Turkey had never remained silent in the face of "oppression."
"It is our policies which made Israel kneel down in the region in front of us. We have always sided with people who demand democracy, not with authoritarian and oppressive regimes," he said.
Relations between Turkey and Israel, two close U.S. allies in the region, have soured since Israeli forces boarded the Gaza-bound Mavi Marmara aid ship in May 2010. Ankara downgraded ties and vowed to boost naval patrols in the eastern Mediterranean in the escalating row. Turkey has demanded compensation and an apology from Israel regarding the deadly flotilla attack, but Israel refuses to comply.
Stating that those who strongly criticized Turkey's "zero problems with neighbors" policy last year as being unrealistic now support this policy, Davutoğlu said the government is determined to go ahead with the policy. "But we cannot remain silent if one of our neighbors oppress its people," he added.
Turkey Plans to Freeze Paris Ties if 'Genocide' Bill Passed
Turkey will recall its ambassador and freeze ties with Paris if French lawmakers approve a bill punishing the denial of the "Armenian genocide" next week, the Turkish ambassador's spokesperson, Engin Solakoğlu, told the Hürriyet Daily News Thursday.
"There will be irreparable consequences in all bilateral relations," Solakoğlu said, adding that the ambassador is expected to be recalled to Ankara for an indefinite period on Dec. 22 if the bill is passed.
France's National Assembly is discussing whether to pass a law banning the denial of the 1915 incidents as genocide.
"Turkey considers this a hostile act by the French executive," Solakoğlu said. "All cooperation with the French government, all joint projects, will be frozen."
He said Ankara had already instructed the Turkish Embassy to France to freeze relations and leave the country if the bill goes through, adding that relations between the two states would be at their lowest level if this occurred.
He said he did not expect economic relations to freeze, however, while France said Turkey was an important ally and partner for France. French Foreign Ministry spokesman Bernard Valero told reporters Thursday that France attached importance to consultations with Ankara regarding regional and international matters, the Anatolia news agency reported.
Meanwhile, Valero did not comment on Turkey's statements that it would recall the ambassador in Paris, Tahsin Burcuoğlu, if the bill was adopted by the French parliament. Solakoğlu said Turkey knew the French Foreign Ministry was against this bill and that it would hurt relations, but added that the French president directed foreign relations and headed the executive organ.
Speaking via Twitter, Deputy Turkish Prime Minister Ömer Çelik said: "Instead of going for a wider vision, France is being pushed toward rigid nationalism because of [French president Nicolas] Sarkozy's line."
As Sarkozy falls behind in opinion polls "he creates crises to jeopardize the relationship between Turkey and France. The source of inspiration for the future of the Arab Spring is undoubtedly Turkey, not France," Çelik said.
Leading Turkish business organizations have joined Parliament's efforts to stop the passage of a French bill that would penalize anyone who refuses to term the mass killings of Ottoman Armenians in 1915 as genocide.
The Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges, or TOBB, and the Turkish Industrialists and Businessmen's Association, or TÜSİAD, will dispatch delegations to Paris on Dec. 19 as part of efforts to stop the adoption of the bill. The private sector's delegation will be in Paris on the same day with a parliamentary delegation that will urge French lawmakers to vote against the bill on Dec. 22.
"We, as TOBB and TUSİAD, are warning French [politicians] at the highest level through France's organizations in the business world, with whom we have constructive relations," a joint statement said Thursday.
TOBB and TUSİAD expressed concern that such an attitude could harm the Turkish-French business environment and added that they were in contact with French counterparts to follow the matter.
The French parliament recognized Armenian genocide claims in 2000, but the legislature is now seeking to adopt a law banning any denial of the claims. Deniers would be assessed a fine of 45,000 euros if the law is adopted.
The bill also calls for a prison term for those who reject the genocide claims.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu warned France that the bill represented a "medieval mindset" banning alternative thought.
"If this bill is passed, France will lead the return of medieval mentality to Europe," Davutoğlu said Dec. 14 during a budget debate in Parliament.
Davutoğlu said the bill targeted the clean history and record of Turks.
Syrian Opposition Groups Announce Alliance in Istanbul
Former Syrian diplomat Mohammad Bassam Imadi on Thursday announced the unification of a formerly unknown "grassroots" opposition movement with the anti-regime Syrian National Council, or SNC, a step the former diplomat said would help the cohesion of the country's nine-month-old protest movement.
Known as the National Alliance, or Al Leqaa, the group acts to coordinate Syria's vast "underground" civilian protest movement, the former ambassador said.
"The group comprises various groups of politicians and revolutionaries active on the ground all over Syria," Imadi told the press at a meeting in İstanbul. The formerly secretive council, the former diplomat added, is now seeking to coordinate future actions with other opposition groups, and will be operating "under the political umbrella of the Syrian National Council."
"This revolution started spontaneously, and it has spread quickly. Every area has a group. The National Alliance has tried to collect as many groups, as many coordination committees as possible under the same organization," Imadi stated, referring to the protest organizing "coordination committees" which sprung up in cities around the country in March of this year.
The former diplomat now believes that the cooperation of the "grassroots" power of the National Alliance will give the SNC, an opposition group which has sought to be recognized by the international community as the new government of Syria, a credibility boost in its quest for recognition.
"Perhaps the Syrian National Council represented the opposition on the ground in the past, but the revolution has grown quickly, and this agreement will now give us more ability to unify our acts," Imadi told Today's Zaman in an interview on Thursday.
The meeting, which was the first time the National Alliance announced its existence to the foreign press, comes just days after the former ambassador's flight from Syria, in which he and his family escaped regime security forces and crossed into southern Turkey.
"In Damascus we worked to coordinate civil resistance to the regime," the former Syrian official said in an interview with Today's Zaman. Resigning from his position as envoy to Sweden in 2009, Imadi began working with the opposition when the crackdown against protestors began in March. Thursday's announcement, however, was the first time Imadi has thought it safe to publicly denounce the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Answering questions from the press, he stated that the goal of the National Alliance was peaceful resistance and insisted that the group has not sought formal ties to the Free Syrian Army, a group of military deserters who organize armed opposition to the Syrian regime's security forces. The Free Syrian Army itself signed an agreement with the SNC this month, promising to make the council its legitimate political voice and vowing to limit future operations to strictly the defense of civilians.
"We feel sorry for every drop of blood wasted to keep the regime in power," said Imadi, reflecting on the Syrian Free Army's killing of regime soldiers, an action which he described as "tragic but legitimate" given the force of the regime's crackdown.
In a call which echoed the opinions of many within the SNC, Imadi declared the need for a buffer zone within Syria that would protect both protesters and security forces looking to defect.
"This would help those soldiers who want to abandon the regime but know that the security forces would destroy them," he told Today's Zaman.
The former Syrian official also answered questions about Turkey's role in the conflict, saying that "Turkey has done enough" to pressure the Syrian regime. Ankara must continue putting diplomatic pressure on the regime in the future and, most important, continue to urge the international community to impose UN sanctions on the regime as fast as possible. Such steps, he says, must be seen as critical while "blood continues to flow" on Syria's streets.