Turkey has hailed a motion by French legislators to halt a bill criminalizing denials of Armenian genocide claims after they produced the 60 signatures required to stop the draft from becoming law.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan extended "wholehearted thanks" to the French senators who appealed the law, and voiced hope France's Constitutional Council would quash the legislation.

"I have no doubt the Constitutional Council will eventually make an appropriate decision," President Abdullah Gül said, adding that he was "not expecting the French from the very beginning to let their country be overshadowed" by the resolution.

Ankara had reacted furiously last week when the French Senate approved the law that penalizes anyone in France who denies the 1915 killings of Armenians amounted to genocide with jail time and a fine.

On Jan. 24, President Nicolas Sarkozy's office brushed off angry threats of retaliation by Turkey and vowed to sign the bill into law within a fortnight. But a left-wing group of senators said Tuesday that they had gathered 76 signatures from colleagues opposed to the law. A group from the Lower House of Parliament had also gathered 65 signatures and had formally requested that the Constitutional Council examine the law.

The move raises the possibility that the law will be dismissed as unconstitutional. The appeal was spearheaded by Jacques Mezard at the Senate and Michel Diefenbacher, the head of the Turkish-French Parliamentary Friendship Group. The groups said they each had gathered more than the minimum 60 signatures required to ask the council to test the law's constitutionality.
If the court finds the law unconstitutional, the legislation will be rejected.

"This is an atomic bomb for the Elysee [Sarkozy's office], which didn't see it coming," said Deputy Lionel Tardy, who added that most of the 65 signatories from the Lower House were, like him, from Sarkozy's Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, party. The council is obliged to deliver its judgment within a month, but the period could be reduced to eight days if the government deems the matter urgent.

Turkish officials were universal in welcoming the development.

"The fact that the application was made with over 60 signatures from both houses [of the French Parliament] is a significant development. I extend my wholehearted thanks to those French parliamentarians on behalf of myself and my nation. They did what they were supposed to do. I hope that the Constitutional Council will rectify this unjust process and bring it in line with the values of France," Erdoğan said.

Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu also hailed the French senators' move, saying that with this step France embraced its own values.

Turkish EU Minister Egemen Bağış, meanwhile, said that "freedom of expression is one of the most important features in the EU acquis." Bağış also noted European Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle's remarks about the French resolution in which Füle said illuminating history was the business of historians, not politicians.

France has already officially recognized the killings as genocide, but the new law would go further by punishing anyone who denies this with up to a year in jail and a fine of 45,000 euros. Around 20 countries have officially recognized the killings as genocide. Amnesty International has criticized the French law, saying it would violate freedom of expression.


Turkey Takes Iran to Arbitration Over Gas Price

Turkey has taken Iran to international arbitration over the price paid for gas imports, Turkish energy officials said on Tuesday, after Tehran rejected Ankara's complaint that the price was too high.

Turkey imports 10 billion cubic metres of gas each year from Iran, making it Turkey's second-biggest supplier after Russia.

"The expected discount was not made. For this reason, Turkey went to international arbitration," said one senior Turkish official.

Iranian officials, contacted by Reuters in Tehran, said they were unaware of Turkey's move.

"Both sides should remain committed to the contract, which has an article regarding arbitration," said Majid Boujarzadeh, spokesman for Iran's National Gas Company.

The dispute is unrelated to the growing international pressure Iran is facing over its nuclear program.

Officials did not specify where Turkey was seeking arbitration, but it was most likely to be through the International Chamber of Commerce in Switzerland, as Turkey had resolved a previous contractual dispute with Iran over gas supplies at the body.

In 2009, ICC awarded Turkey $800 million compensation related to gas purchases from Iran.

The European Union imposed a ban on imports of oil from Iran earlier this month, while lawmakers from the U.S. Senate Banking Committee are set to vote on Thursday on a new round of sanctions against Iran, aimed at choking off funds they suspect Tehran uses to develop nuclear weapons.

"This issue is not related to the sanctions imposed on Iran. Though America is trying hard to pressure Iran," Bourjarzadeh said.

Separately, a Turkish energy official said earlier this month Turkey was seeking a waiver from the United States to exempt oil importer Tupras from new U.S. sanctions on institutions that deal with Iran's central bank.

Turkey gets about 30 percent of its oil from Iran, and Tüpraş , the country's sole refiner, is the main buyer. Tüpraş has approached Saudi Arabia, a source with knowledge of the company's strategy told Reuters this month, in a move that could be aimed at lining up an alternative source of oil supplies in case the company has to cut back on purchases from Iran.


Turkish Prime Minister Defends Talks with Kurdish 'Representatives'

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Tuesday that he stands behind the idea of negotiations with "political representatives" of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, but military measures against the group would not be let up.

"I've said that we will fight the terrorist organization and negotiate with its political representatives. I stand by these words. But they should carefully keep to this framework," Erdoğan told the parliamentary group of his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

The remarks came in response to the Peace and Democracy Party's, or BDP, calls for dialogue to resolve the Kurdish problem and its accusations that the party was being "criminalized" as part of massive police operations.

Erdoğan renewed charges against the BDP, saying it was acting under PKK control and defended the judicial crackdown on the party.

"The judiciary will do what it must do if anyone acts outside the law and gets involved with a terrorist organization," he said.

The premier also categorically rejected BDP claims that he personally gave the go-ahead for the botched air raid at Uludere on Dec. 28, 2011, in which 34 civilians perished, calling them an example of "ignorance, enmity and slyness."

He explained the military was not required to seek specific authorization for each action.

"We give the security forces authority within a general framework and they use it within this framework. If necessary, they consult with us on some issues," he said. "We'll not allow anybody to demoralize the security forces. We will learn a lesson from what happened and fight terror with greater determination."

In a speech to her own parliamentary group, BDP Co-Chair Gültan Kışanak told Erdoğan: "The real ignorance is the idea that they can resolve the [Kurdish] problem through oppression."

Kışanak stressed the BDP had already revealed its proposal for a solution in the form of "democratic autonomy" and described the demand as "indispensible." Kışanak urged the resumption of talks with jailed PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as the only way to resolve the conflict.

In a separate attack on the government, Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader Devlet Bahçeli argued the BDP and AKP were eroding Turkey's unity. The speech that Agriculture Minister Mehdi Eker made in Kurdish at a ceremony in Diyarbakır last week "cannot be tolerated," according to Bahçeli.

Bahçeli also urged the government to promptly shed light on the human remains exhumed in Diyarbakır, saying that unexplained digs were damaging the anti-terror struggle.


Erdogan Denies Having Secret Middle East Agenda

Turkey has no secret agenda in the Middle East and does not intend to meddle in anyone's domestic affairs, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, adding that no country had "the luxury to stay indifferent" to unrest in another.

"We are neither against nor behind any sect. Those who perceive our well-meaning advice as interference should first engage in their own self-criticism," Erdoğan told lawmakers in a speech at Parliament Tuesday.

Although Erdoğan did not give names, his words targeted Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has frequently criticized Ankara for intervening in Iraq's internal affairs after a crisis erupted between Shiite and Sunni political groups.

"Sunni, Shiite, Nusayri, Alawite, Arab, Kurd, Orthodox, Catholic. We do not discriminate any ethnic root, religion or sect, and we are not making our politics based on these artificial elements," Erdoğan said in response to claims that Turkey was seeking to change the regime in unrest-laden Syria for the advantage of the Sunni majority.

"No problem remains local in this region," he said, recalling that Turkey's security has been seriously affected due to instability in the northern part of Iraq where the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, found shelter due to lack of autonomy. "Can one argue that the terror organization that is located in northern Iraq could be counted as an internal problem of Iraq? Can one call the ongoing tension between Sunni and Shiite groups, which has the potential of triggering a sectarian clash in the entire region, simply the internal affairs of Iraq?"

Erdoğan's words were indirect responses to United States Ambassador to Turkey Francis Ricciardone who, last week, said: "Their internal affairs are their internal affairs. We certainly respect them. We can't direct what they do."

"As Turkey, our efforts are for resolving the problems of this region with the efforts of all [actors] of the region. We are not, we cannot be, part of any of ongoing political disputes," Erdoğan said.

In the meantime, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, head of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, claimed Turkey has lost its flexibility in foreign policy and accused the government of being part of sectarian conflict in the Middle East.


Syrian Forces Reassert Control of Damascus Suburbs

With diplomatic pressure mounting on President Bashar al-Assad, Syrian government forces reasserted control of Damascus suburbs Tuesday after beating back rebels at the capital's gates.

Activists in eastern districts of Damascus said troops fired in the air as they advanced beyond areas from which the defector Free Syrian Army withdrew, capping three days of fighting that activists said killed at least 100 people in Damascus, and in raids around the central city of Homs.

Tanks also swarmed into the area, Reuters reported. Others said residents of some eastern districts were allowed to flee their neighborhoods in vehicles by advancing troops, but that security forces in the district of Irbin rounded up young men at gunpoint and detained them.

In the Damascus battles, an activist said armed defectors mounted scattered attacks on government troops who advanced through the district of Saqba, held by rebels just days earlier. Their forays near the capital follow a negotiated victory in Zabadani close to Lebanon after government forces pulled back under a cease-fire.

Some rebel commanders have spoken of creating "liberated" territories to force diplomatic action.


Syria's Fate Sealed, Turkish Preisdent Says

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has ignored repeated pleas from Turkey to reform, the Turkish president said, lamenting that Syria is now on a path of no return.

"Some think that we want war in Syria. Turkey has done everything in its power for a transformation under the leadership of the president. We did everything except beg for it," President Abdullah Gül told reporters in remarks published in Turkish newspapers on Tuesday. "We worked so hard [to convince Assad]. We told him that one day you will regret it, one day you will say, 'I did this and that, but it will be too little, too late.'

"We regret this, but Syria is unfortunately on a path of no return. The important thing is that this process is not dragged out. There is no [good] end for this. The end is certain. The question is how painful it will be," Gül said.

The president said authoritarian rulers in the Middle East have two options: to carry out reforms or face foreign intervention.

"If they do not do that, and do not bring order to their lands, foreign intervention will be inevitable," he said.

The president was also asked about the comments that the region has been dominated by Iran during the interview. He played down an alleged Turkey-Iran rivalry in the Middle East.

"Of course, the region has some realities. Iran's hinterland is so broad. Ignoring this means lack of historical knowledge. Just like we have [historical] ties [to some countries] in the region, Iran also has similar ties," he said.


U.S. Confesses to Using Drones

U.S. drones are regularly striking Taliban and al-Qaeda militants on Pakistani soil, United States President Barack Obama admitted for the first time, while also playing down the use of drones in Iraq.

"A lot of these strikes have been in the FATA," Obama said Monday in a chat with Web users on Google+ and YouTube in reference to Pakistan's semi-autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the Afghan border.

"For the most part, they've been very precise precision strikes against al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we're very careful in terms of how it's been applied," he said. "This is a targeted focused effort at people who are on a list of active terrorists, who are trying to go in and harm Americans, hit American facilities, American bases and so on."

He said many strikes were carried out "on al-Qaeda operatives in places where the capacities of that military in that country may not be able to get them," such as Pakistan's lawless tribal zone.

"For us to be able to get them in another way would involve probably a lot more intrusive military action than the [action] we're already engaging in," he said.

After Obama's comments, Pakistan acknowledged "tactical advantages" to U.S. drone strikes, but criticized the overall policy.

"Notwithstanding tactical advantages of drone strikes, we are of the firm view that these are unlawful, counterproductive and hence unacceptable," Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said Tuesday.

According to an Agence France-Presse tally, 45 U.S. missile strikes were reported in Pakistan's tribal belt in 2009, 101 in 2010 and 64 in 2011. The New America Foundation think tank in Washington D.C. said drone strikes in Pakistan had killed between 1,715 and 2,680 people in the past eight years.

At the same question-and-answer session, Obama played down the use of U.S. drones in Iraq, saying the program was very limited and focused mainly on protecting the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

The program has outraged senior Iraqi officials, The New York Times reported Sunday.

"The truth is we're not engaging in a bunch of drone attacks inside Iraq. There's some surveillance to make sure that our embassy compound is protected," Obama said. "I think that there's this perception that we're just sending in a whole bunch of strikes willy nilly."

Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, declined to address whether the U.S. government had obtained Iraqi permission to fly the drones. The acting minister of interior, Adnan al-Asadi, has said in interviews that they had not been consulted by the Americans.


Hamas Unlikely to Open Office in Turkey, Envoy Says

As long as Hamas sticks to armed struggle against Israel, then Turkey, Jordan and Egypt cannot host an office of Hamas on principle, Palestinian Ambassador to Turkey Nabil Maruf said Tuesday.

"You can't have an office for Hamas when they are saying they are going to demolish Israel. They cannot say these things from an office in Ankara or Istanbul. This is impossible. Logic states that it's not easy for these countries to accept having the headquarters of Hamas, because of the current political agenda of Hamas, which is completely different than the political program of Turkey, Egypt or Jordan," Maruf told the Hürriyet Daily News.

Those countries that have recognized Israel and the peace process and are in favor of peace and stability in the Middle East would only allow Hamas to open offices if the group changed its policy, the ambassador said.

"I did not put Qatar in this list. Because you can find a lot of different things there," he said.

If Hamas changed its political program, renounced armed struggle and opened an office in Turkey, the Palestinian authority would not be disturbed by that, the ambassador said.

"If we reach a point where Hamas changed its political views and strategy, this means there will be no division in Palestine. There will be a unity government," he said.

Official relations with Turkey and a unified Palestine would be conducted through the embassy and it would be unnecessary to open a separate office for Hamas, Maruf said. If a separate office were opened, "Fatah and other factions would also open offices. There is no need to open offices for Palestinian parties in Turkey," he said.

There was only a possibility of Turkey hosting families of Hamas members who had to leave Syria "if they had no place to stay […] But I'm sure Turkey is going to work politically through the proper channels […] It's a sensitive issue. You cannot deal with Hamas in a way that affects your official relation with the Palestinian authority," Maruf said.

Elaborating on the claims that Turkey promised $300 million in aid to Hamas, the ambassador said he did not think Ankara was giving cash to Hamas, but was financing humanitarian projects both in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

"It is financing projects for hospitals, clinics, schools or roads, but never paid cash money," he said, adding that Ankara promised $150 million to Palestine in a donors' meeting. After the war in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, Turkey also announced $50 million for Gaza reconstruction.


Turkish, Serbian Foreign Minister Meet in Belgrade

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu met his Serbian counterpart Vuk Jeremic in Belgrade on Tuesday.

Turkey-Serbia relations were high on the agenda of the meeting, which was closed to press.

Davutoğlu is in Serbia to attend an informal meeting of foreign ministers of Southeast European Cooperation Process member-states.

Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey, Croatia, Moldova, Montenegro and Slovenia are the members of the process.


Turkey's Official Trade Deficit Widens in 2011

Turkey's trade deficit widened by 47.7 percent in 2011 as both exports and imports increased, official data showed on Tuesday.

The gap reached $105.8 billion (80.2 billion euros) from $71.6 billion in 2010, the state statistics institute said.Imports rose by 29.8 percent last year, reaching $240.8 billion, while exports were up by 18.5 percent to $134.9 billion, it said.

Turkey, a country of about 75 million and the world's 17th-biggest economy, shows one of the highest growth rates in the world, with its economy growing by 8.9 percent in 2010.

Despite Turkey's breakneck economic growth, Turkish authorities predict a decline in economic indicators in 2012. The government forecasts growth of 8.0 percent for 2011 and 4.0 percent in 2012 owing to the eurozone crisis.

The Turkish lira has been losing value steadily against US dollar meanwhile, falling by around 20 percent in 2011, according to official figures.


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