Turkey has inked a deal worth an estimated $5 billion to carry Azerbaijani gas to European markets via a pipeline to cross its borders, adding to the country's emerging role as a key energy supply corridor in its region.

Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Taner Yıldız and his Azerbaijani counterpart, Natig Aliyev, signed a contract in Ankara on Monday to construct a natural gas pipeline, named the Trans Anadolu Natural Gas Pipeline, to transfer gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz fields to Europe. The pipeline is designed to carry 10 billion cubic meters (cbm) of natural gas to EU markets.

With the deal, the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic, or SOCAR, the state-owned Turkish Pipeline Corporation, or BOTAŞ, and the Turkish Petroleum Corporation, or TPAO, will set up a consortium for the construction of the pipeline. Energy Ministry officials said third-party international oil and natural gas companies would be allowed to join the consortium later during the construction process. The consortium plans to start construction as soon as possible -- in 2012 -- in order to complete it by late 2017.

Providing project details, Yıldız said the Turkish side will have a 20 percent stake in the consortium, while Azerbaijan's share is 80 percent. Yıldız asserted that the Trans Anadolu pipeline is not an alternative to other planned pipelines to run through Turkish territories. Aliyev said SOCAR expects to finalize the feasibility studies next month before it starts construction of the pipeline.

The Azerbaijani minister said the volume of gas flowing through Trans Anadolu would be increased to 24 billion cubic meters in the medium term. Observers said this figure is important considering Azerbaijan's goal of increasing its gas production to 50 bcm per year by 2025 from the 25.3 bcm expected this year.

This is not the first energy supply deal between the two traditional allies. Presently, Azerbaijani natural gas is transported into Turkey via the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzurum pipeline, whereas its oil flows to its western neighbor via the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline. Observers argue future pipelines will allow Turkey and Azerbaijan to play a more powerful role in their region.

As both countries are currently enjoying an economic boom, mutual investments between Turkey and its kin neighbor have increased remarkably in past decade. Azerbaijani investments in Turkey have reached billions of dollars in size. The most recent of them was the Star Refinery, a joint oil refinery investment valued at $5 billion between SOCAR and Turkey's Turcas, or SOCAR-Turcas, the largest single private investment realized in Turkey.

Turkish-Azeri Partnership Challenge Russian Domination in EU

A promising market for natural gas providers, Europe's natural gas consumption -- production and exports combined -- was estimated at 522.7 billion cubic meters in 2010. Turkey and Azerbaijan have, in recent years, intensified cooperation to offer alternative routes to diversify energy supply – particularly natural gas – to a 'thirsty' EU market. Yıldız' remarks on Monday acknowledge such desire. The minister said at Monday's signing ceremony that Trans Anadolu would contribute to efforts to diversify west-bound energy supply routes." Azerbaijan and Turkey are known to have long been examining ways to diversifying energy supply routes and sources to Europe. This actually is also an EU priority and the union places heavy importance on energy security.

Turkey's gas-rich southern neighbor Russia is currently the major provider of natural gas to Europe; the country exports around one fourth of its annual natural gas production to EU markets.

Russia's Gazprom's reputation as a reliable partner was shaken following a crisis with one of the transit countries, Ukraine, in 2009, when the latter suspended Russian gas flow to Europe amid a conflict over gas tariffs. The supplier expects to maintain dominance in EU gas markets following a Nord Stream pipeline deal signed with majority of European countries this November.

Russia expects to increase its share in EU gas imports to 30 percent by 2013. Russian government is expecting Turkey to OK a South Stream pipeline project, which is designed to transport Russian natural gas to Europe by passing through Turkish territorial waters. The Turkish side, however, has not given a final word in what observers see as a policy to obtain extra time for the Nabucco pipeline project, which is seen as a rival to South Stream and is strongly backed by the European Union and the United States.

Geographical proximity and diversified transit routes were the major factors to strengthen Russian presence in EU gas markets. Although determined to act together in many fields, Turkey and Azerbaijan failed to cultivate a gas trade tie with the EU at a desired level in the past. Observers argued the latest deal in Turkish-Azerbaijani partnership is particularly eminent in that European consumers will have a single voice to address for their future gas orders.


Knesset Gives No Decision on 'Armenian Killings'

Over their prime minister's objections, Israeli lawmakers Monday began debating a proposal to recognize the "mass killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks," with no final decision.

The discussion was unusually held in the Knesset's education committee, described as the weakest committee in terms of its political weight as it cannot make any political decisions, but rather only give recommendations for educational issues.

In past years, the Knesset held hearings on the subject, but only behind the closed doors of its foreign and defense committees. This was the first time such a discussion was open to the public, mainly because all the discussions in the education committee are open to press coverage.

The committee did not make any decisions or issue any declarations, and will meet again on the issue in the future. Although the media reports said the Knesset debated to recognize "Armenian genocide," the word "genocide" was not used in the original Hebrew version of the proposal, Israeli sources said.

Committee Chairman Alex Miller of the nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu – the party headed by Foreign Affairs Minister Avigdor Lieberman – said the discussion would focus on the "educational and academic" aspects of the issue, such as the correct way to address it in schools and universities, rather than its security and diplomatic angles.

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin also stressed that the issue was not a political one, the Agence France-Presse reported.

"The subject has not arisen at the Knesset because things happened between Israel and Turkey, not because we want to exploit a political situation in order to settle accounts," he told the committee at the start of its debate.

But a foreign ministry representative at the discussion warned of the repercussions that an Israeli move toward recognizing Armenian genocide allegations could have on the already-strained relations with Turkey.

"Our relations with them are so fragile today, it is not right to push them over the red line," said Irit Lillian, director of the Europe Department in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. "Such recognition at this stage could have severe ramifications." The Foreign Minister's opinion on the issue is that "it is not political debate, it should be a historical or academically searched topic," she added.


Israel's Recognition of Armenian Genocide Could Threaten Turkish Ties

The Foreign Ministry warned that Israel's possible recognition of the Armenian genocide, which was discussed in a Knesset committee on Monday, could lead to the serious deterioration of Israel's ties with Turkey.

A Knesset committee discussed on Monday the possibility of setting a memorial day for the Armenian genocide by the Turkish people nearly 100 years ago, marking a first in Israeli history.
Several MKs expressed support for the move, saying that Israel, as a nation of the Jewish people who have experienced genocide, cannot ignore genocides in other countries.

However, the recognition of the Armenian genocide has long been a sensitive diplomatic issue due to the implications it has on Israel's relationship with Turkey, which denies it.

"This subject, given the current atmosphere, could deteriorate our ties with Turkey," A Foreign Ministry representative said during the discussion. "Our relationship with Turkey is very fragile and sensitive right now, and we cannot cross the line – we must approach the subject intelligently. Such a decision could have very serious strategic consequences."

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin (Likud) said the discussion did not arise because of the weakening ties between Israel and Turkey, maintaining that as a nation and a country, Israel cannot allow the denial of a disaster.

"For many years, Israel's government has refused to recognize the genocide for cynical, strategic and economic, reasons, connected to its ties with Turkey," said MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz), who has sponsored the call for recognizing the Armenian genocide. "Now, given the state of relations between the countries, I can't rule out the possibility that the Foreign Ministry is exploiting affairs and trying to goad Turkey."

Gal-On added that "our moral obligation transcends such cynical calculations, and I hope that the Knesset committee will reach a decision in favor of recognizing the genocide, in the Knesset's first public hearing on the matter. The education committee is the right place for examining the topic, which is omitted from school curricula."

National Union MK Ariyeh Eldad, one of the initiators of the discussion, said that "in the past, we were always told that we cannot discuss this subject because of our good relationship with Turkey. Now we are told we cannot discuss this because of our bad relationship with Turkey. We cannot erase a chapter in history. We cannot ignore this subject because of our interests."

Kadima MK Otniel Schneller was the only one who expressed outright opposition to an official recognition by Israel of the Armenian genocide.

"We cannot disconnect the discussion from the fact that we must rehabilitate our ties with Turkey – it's an existential necessity," he said. "We need to fit in the Middle East even if it is difficult."

Up to now, proposals for recognizing the Armenian genocide have been considered by closed sessions of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. That committee rejected the proposals a number of times.


Pressure Builds on Gul to Veto Pension Increase

Turkey's main opposition has said it will ask the Constitutional Court to scrap a controversial law hiking the lawmakers' pensions if President Abdullah Gül does not veto the bill.
Republican People's Party, or CHP, Deputy Chair Birgül Ayman Güler made the announcement Monday after the party disowned the bill. The CHP also set up a commission to find out how CHP signatures ended up on the proposal backing the hike during last week's debate in Parliament and decide disciplinary sanctions for those responsible.

Culture and Tourism Minister Ertuğrul Günay also issued a veiled appeal for Gül to veto the legislation, whose hasty adoption in Parliament triggered widespread criticism and squabbles among politicians in Ankara.

"It would be against my self-respect if I don't say that I feel resentment on the issue," Günay said Monday in comments on the legislation, which lawmakers rushed through Parliament Thursday before going into year-end recess.

Stressing that ordinary retirees have their pensions cut if they continue to work, Günay said, "It's against common practices for a deputy to receive pension without any stoppage. I think the president will take this into account."

The amendments, which raised lawmaker pensions from 4,980 to about 8,000 Turkish Liras, were passed without any debate around midnight Thursday. An initial proposal fixing the pensions to 40 percent of the president's salary was followed by a second one that raised the rate to 60 percent.

The bill also scrapped cuts from the lawmakers' salaries who simultaneously receive pensions for previous parliamentary terms, bringing the total sum they would get to 19,290 liras. All four parties in Parliament were initially said to have backed the amendments, but the CHP voiced indignation the following day, arguing that it had supported only the initial increase, which had been intended to equalize the pensions of lawmakers who went into retirement in different periods.

The party said Tanju Özcan and Ahmet Toptaş, the two CHP deputies who signed the second proposal, would face disciplinary sanctions. CHP deputy group chairman Akif Hamzaçebi said Monday they only supported the proposal that intended to make up the difference between the pensions of former and incumbent Parliament members, but opposed the second one which increased the pensions. He insisted he had instructed Özcan to withdraw his signature from the second proposal.

The other CHP deputy group chair, Emine Ülker Tarhan, explained that her party's members had even left the General Assembly in protest after the second proposal was lodged and later all CHP deputies, except one person, voted against the proposal.

Gül refused to answer questions on the issue when journalists sought his comment at an award ceremony at Çankaya Palace Monday.


Tanks Leave Homs as Monitors Arrive

An activist in the Syrian city of Homs said he saw at least six tanks leave the troubled district of Baba Amr on Tuesday as Arab peace monitors headed to the flashpoint city.

"My house is on the eastern entrance of Baba Amr. I saw at least six tanks leave the neighbourhood at around 8 a.m.," activist Mohamed Saleh said. "I do not know if more remain in the area."

Arab League peace monitors on Tuesday headed to the Syrian city of Homs on a mission to assess whether Syria has halted a nine-month crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad's rule, the head of the monitoring team said. Activists said at least 31 people were killed on Monday in the city, which has been under heavy attack in recent days by government troops and tanks.

"We are on our way to Homs, we are about to arrive," Sudanese General Mustafa al-Dabi, who is heading the monitoring mission, told Reuters by telephone.

The mission, which arrived in Syria late on Monday, is the first international intervention on the ground in Syria since the revolt broke out and the government cracked down on the protests, inspired by uprisings across the Arab world.

The mission includes 150 Arab observers; 50 so far are in Syria. They will split into five teams of 10 each. The monitors will determine whether the government is abiding by a peace plan that requires Syria to withdraw troops from cities, free prisoners and open dialogue with its opponents.


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