As an anxious public awaits the release of two Turkish journalists captured in Syria last week, the Foreign Ministry has denied it has any plans to hand over a number of recently defected Syrian generals in order to secure the journalists' freedom.
Turkish journalists Adem Özköse and Hamit Coşkun were reportedly captured by pro-regime Shabiha militiamen and handed over to Syrian intelligence forces near the opposition stronghold of Ildib on March 12. News of the two journalists' capture prompted assurances by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu on March 14 that the Foreign Ministry was "expending intense efforts to ensure that our journalists return home safely."
Although a story by the Hürriyet Daily News last week reported that the government is pondering swapping six defecting brigadier-generals who recently crossed the border into Turkey for the journalists, the Foreign Ministry told Today's Zaman on Sunday this is false.
Instead, diplomatic sources within the ministry told Zaman that ministry officials and their Syrian counterparts are discussing the matter, but have not come to an agreement. Last Thursday, the Anatolia news agency suggested that Turkey may have an unlikely ally in its search for Özköse and Coşkun with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, who reportedly told Davutoğlu in a phone conversation that Iran would help ensure the journalists' release.
Davutoğlu meanwhile told Salehi that Syria, a close regional ally of Iran, should "avoid making a mistake."
Journalist Sik Faces Probe Over Accusations Against Police, Judges
Journalist Ahmet Şık, who was recently released pending trial in a coup plot case, faces charges over his statements to the press after leaving prison, accusing police officers, judges and prosecutors involved in his case of conspiring against him, the Sabah daily reported on Monday.
Şık is among four journalists who were jailed pending trial in the OdaTV case, launched as part of a probe into Ergenekon, a clandestine criminal network accused of plotting to overthrow the government. Thirteen suspects are facing charges of involvement in the media wing of Ergenekon. Şık and three other journalists implicated in the case were released at the 11th hearing of the OdaTV trial at the İstanbul 16th High Criminal Court last week.
An angry Şık directed strong criticism against his trial as he was leaving the Silivri Prison last Monday and said the judges, prosecutors and police officers involved in his case will also be jailed.
"There are five people jailed in only my case. Some 100 journalists are still in prison. The issue of freedom of expression is not just the problem of journalists. There are some 600 students [in prison]. We will go ahead with our struggle. The judges, prosecutors, police officers who plotted and implemented this conspiracy will enter this prison. Those community-linked, gang-linked people will enter here. Justice will arrive when they enter here," he told reporters.
By "community" remarks, Şık was referring to members of the faith-based Gülen movement, whom he accuses of being behind the case against him. The Gülen movement is a group of volunteers engaged in interfaith and intercultural dialogue inspired by the ideas of Fethullah Gülen, whose teachings promote mutual understanding and tolerance between cultures. The group strongly denies Şık's accusations.
Sabah said the İstanbul Specially Authorized Prosecutor's Office has launched an investigation into Şık's remarks on charges of threatening judges and prosecutors and to point them as a target for terrorist organizations. Prosecutor Muammer Aktaş has reportedly requested video footage of Şık's remarks from the İstanbul Police Department as part of his investigation. The journalist is expected to testify in the probe in the days ahead.
In the OdaTV case, Şık is accused of being a member of a terrorist organization, inciting hatred and animosity among the public, and obtaining documents related to state secrets.
Freed Scribe Urges Debate On 'Fabricated Evidence'
Journalists in Turkey are being arrested on the basis of fabricated evidence, academic and OdaTV columnist Coşkun Musluk, one of four defendants released this week after a year in jail, said, noting that their trial reflects Turkey's "grave" political realities.
"People were arrested on the basis of evidence, which has been proved to have been fabricated. The critics wrote about press freedom, about the imprisonment of journalists. But they did not have the courage to openly say that people in Turkey are arrested on the basis of fabricated evidence or at least insufficient evidence. This shows how grave the situation is, and how far we are from being able to speak out about the realities," Musluk recently told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that their trial was not just an issue of press freedom.
Musluk was released pending trial, along with fellow OdaTV writer Sait Çakır and prominent journalists Ahmet Şık and Nedim Şener, whose imprisonment had sparked an international outcry, on March 12. They have been charged for belonging to the media wing of Ergenekon, a purported terrorist group that allegedly plotted to unseat the government.
Musluk, a research assistant at the Middle East Technical University, or ODTÜ, said his articles on the OdaTV Web site were cited as evidence in his arrest. OdaTV was implicated after a file was discovered on one of its computers allegedly linking the Web site to Ergenekon. Expertise reports have established that the file was planted there through a virus program.
"Civic groups cried out that journalists were arrested. In this way, they made it easier for the government to argue that the journalists are being imprisoned, not for what they write, but because they are terrorists. If they had said we were arrested on the basis of fabricated evidence or without concrete evidence, the government could not have responded that easily," he said.
Commenting on international attention on the OdaTV case, Musluk denounced the West for having long turned a blind eye to massive breaches of basic rights in other cases that preceded their trial.
The ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, "undertook a certain foreign policy mission and never faced criticism [on domestic issues]. We've never seen such EU and U.S. support for any [Turkish] government despite so many rights breaches and so much oppression. The EU began to criticize the government only when press freedom came under explicit threat," Musluk said.
He said infamous restrictive provisions in the anti-terror law or the code of criminal procedures are not the only reason for the violations and put the blame on how the judicial authorities implement the law.
Syrian Opposition Intensifies Calls For Buffer Zone Amid Fresh Violence
With an average 250 Syrians fleeing daily to seek safety in Turkey following a surge in attacks on civilians by pro-Assad forces, the İstanbul-based opposition, the Syrian National Counci or SNC, made an urgent plea for the establishment of a buffer zone within Syria to provide shelter for civilians as well as the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, in the fight against government forces.
Khaled Khoja of the SNC said that a buffer zone was urgently needed, telling Today's Zaman on Sunday: "We are calling for a buffer zone to be created immediately to protect the hundreds of thousands of refugees within Syria. Politicians are talking about this, but there have been no concrete steps or promises."
Ankara has recently come under increasing pressure to act amid the national and international outcry over atrocities committed by pro-Assad forces, yet it is reluctant to act alone, without a clear international mandate authorizing interference in Syria. Turkey has already signaled that it may intervene militarily to establish a safety zone within Syrian territory when it is faced with a massive influx of refugees from Syria.
"A buffer zone, a security zone, are things being studied," Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told reporters on Friday while his deputy, Beşir Atalay, said the move, which was considered but rejected last year, was again being contemplated.
The number of Syrian citizens who have crossed into Turkey reached almost 16,000 by Sunday and is expected to increase rapidly as clashes escalate in areas close to Turkey. The Syrian government forces widened their recent offensive in the border province of Idlib, a stronghold of the rebel FSA.
Turkey has said it has made contingency plans to accommodate as many as half a million refugees on its soil.
The only thing holding Turkey back at the moment is the lack of some sort of international legitimacy to sanction such an action. Ankara hopes that the fresh wave of violence may prod Russia and China to join the anti-Assad camp, allowing the United Nations Security Council to issue a strong resolution against Damascus. Last week, 200 human rights groups urged Russia and China to back UN action against Syria. Both countries have vetoed a UN Security Council resolution backing an Arab League plan to remove President Bashar al-Assad and have a new transitional government in place.
Turkish security experts seem to have formed a consensus on backing the idea of military intervention in Syria to establish a buffer zone and/or create a humanitarian corridor provided that Turkey is given a clear mandate from the international community and an unambiguous exit strategy.
"This [buffer zone] will be a temporary fix for the security of Turkey. You need to take precautions for emerging threats posed by the influx of refugees. There may be Syrian intelligence operatives who are attempting to infiltrate Turkey or Kurdish terrorists may use civilian refugees as a cover to stage attacks on Turkish targets" Mustafa Kibaroğlu, head of the international relations department at İstanbul's Okan University, told Today's Zaman. Kibaroğlu warned against speculation that Turkey is acting with imperial intentions, stressing that Turkey should be very careful in dealing with the Syrian issue.
Though ideas concerning "a security zone, a humanitarian corridor or a buffer zone" all aim to shelter civilians from violence, military protection would be necessary to provide such security. It could lead to clashes with Syrian government forces or provide sanctuary for the FSA to launch an offensive against pro-Assad forces. In any case, it would change the dynamics of the year-old uprising against the Assad regime.
The SNC already said it will use the buffer zone to encourage defections and mount attacks against government targets. Khaled, who said that the buffer zone should be extended to opposition cities like Homs and Idlib, which have been severely pounded by government forces, also reiterated the need to create a buffer zone to improve the odds of the badly outgunned FSA, a loosely coordinated group of military deserters who are the only armed opposition to Damascus.
"Currently, the FSA is severely outgunned, but there are larger and larger segments of the army that would defect to join them. However, defection is extremely dangerous because there are no safe zones for defectors to flee to; this is something that a buffer zone in Syria's north might provide." Khaled also stated that a militarily enforced buffer zone would help whole units defect at once, taking heavy weapons and armor with them.
Defections from Syria's Army have stepped up in recent months -- with over 50 officers and six brigadier-generals defecting to the FSA earlier in March -- but its lightly armed forces have proven unable to stand up against the army's tanks and artillery.
"There are a lot of unanswered questions on the idea of creating a buffer zone within Syria," said Veysel Ayhan, an expert on the Middle East from the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies, or ORSAM, and an academic at Abant İzzet Baysal University. "If Turkey decides to establish a buffer zone, this may be construed as a direct challenge to the authority of the Syrian regime and may even amount to a declaration of war. From the humanitarian perspective, it is a logical step to pursue a buffer zone. But that may not be a valid argument from the viewpoint of international law."
Serdar Erdurmaz, a lecturer in the department of international relations at Gaziantep's Gazikent University and a Middle East analyst from the Turkish Center for International Relations and Strategic Analysis, or TÜRKSAM, is one of those who support the idea of setting up a buffer zone.
"This would put more pressure on other countries to share the burden Turkey has been shouldering alone for some time now. Those who think that Turkey is already helping out refugees with 'an open door' policy will have to think twice. It will definitely get the attention of the UN," he told Today's Zaman.
In the meantime, the two main opposition parties in Turkey expressed reservations about a buffer zone. The main opposition Republican People's Party, or CHP, questioned the motives behind a possible incursion by Turkish military into Syria to establish a buffer zone.
"Where will this buffer zone be established? In Syria? Why are we to enter Syrian territory? How would we respond if some foreign country came into Turkey and set up a buffer zone, saying, 'You did the same in the past to Syria, now it is your turn?'" CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said on Saturday.
Kılıçdaroğlu accused the government of doing a "contract job" in the Middle East for what he describes as "Western imperial powers."
"This [Turkish] government, which does the bidding of one [foreign] country, does not fit the [stature of] the Republic of Turkey," he said.
In a phone interview with Today's Zaman on Sunday, Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, parliamentary group Deputy Chairman Mehmet Şandır said he opposed the buffer zone, saying that the only way to stop the bloodshed in Syria is through negotiation.
"The buffer zone will be perceived as a declaration of war by Damascus. This will not stop the bloodshed and will definitely not help contribute to bringing the two sides together," he said, adding that the only position the government should advocate is to "mediate between the opposition and the Assad government."
Turkish Prime Minister, Intel Chief Discuss Syria, Security Matters
The Turkish government is continuing to evaluate different options it could undertake to stop a potential influx over its borders as concerns about developments in Syria grow.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met with Hakan Fidan, head of the National Intelligence Organization, or MİT, in an unannounced meeting at his residence Sunday. He also invited Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ and Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin to the meeting.
Among a number of issues discussed during the meeting, the developments in Syria topped the agenda, according to sources wishing to remain anonymous. As the Syrian administration intensified its military operations against regime opponents, especially in the northern part of the country, the number of Syrian people crossing the Turkish border climbed to 15,900 today.
While the government has increased its efforts to host the increasing number of refugees, it is also considering ways to handle a potential exodus of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. According to Turkish intelligence, the violence between the Syrian administration and the Free Syrian Army could now have spread to Aleppo, whose population has strong connections with their relatives in Turkey.
Establishing a buffer zone along the border was among the options discussed in Ankara, but the lack of international backing to legitimate it is a major concern of the government. In addition, growing criticism from opposition parties over Ankara's Syria policy stands as another obstacle. Republican People's Party, or CHP, leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu continued his strong reactions against the government's stance concerning Syria on Saturday. Recalling that 12 troops were killed in Afghanistan, Kılıçdaroğlu said the tragic incident in Kabul should also lead the country to think about Syria.
"Someone is not invading Syria and is instead patting Turkey on the back, telling us to go into Syria. Syria is our neighbor; they are our brothers and sisters. We will not be subcontractors to imperialist powers, we promise you," he said.
In the meantime, another Turkish driver was killed in Idlıb, Syria, as he was returning home after unloading his truck. Mustafa Üçtaş was reportedly caught in the crossfire of the Syrian army and Free Syrian Army. Idlib is only 30 kilometers from Turkey's Cilvegözü border gate.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry warned all Turkish citizens in Syria to return home due to security conditions.
Turkish Military To Stay Course In Kabul
Despite the opposition's criticism against the government for maintaining troops in Afghanistan after the deadly helicopter crash in Kabul, Ankara is standing firm on preserving Turkey's continued military presence in the country.
A helicopter crash that killed 12 Turkish troops in Kabul on Friday will have no an immediate effect on Turkey's continued military presence in Afghanistan, the Turkish government said.
"This accident saddened all of us and experts are examining the causes of this incident. But it won't change our stance concerning Afghanistan," a diplomatic source told the Hürriyet Daily News over the weekend. The Turkish contribution to Afghanistan is a reflection of the Turkish people's gratitude to the Afghan people, the source said.
The deaths of the 12 soldiers represented Turkey's worst military disaster in Afghanistan since the country's mission began in 2002. Turkey will continue to command the International Security Assistance Force's, or ISAF, command in Kabul until Nov. 1. Alongside the deep sadness caused by the crash, the incident has also sparked questions about the Turkish army's functions in the war-torn country with the leaders of both the Republican People's Party, or CHP, and the Nationalist Movement Party, or MHP, criticizing the government for maintaining troops in Afghanistan, suggesting that the roughly 1,800 Turkish soldiers stationed in the country were merely serving U.S. interests.
Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç responded to the criticisms Saturday, saying: "We are not an isolated country, living all alone in an island like Robinson [Crusoe]. The Turkish army has peacekeeping and peacemaking responsibilities in the world, from Somalia to elsewhere. It will continue to have such [responsibilities]."
Echoing the comments of senior government figures, diplomatic sources said the Turkish military's mission in Afghanistan was limited to patrolling and did not include the fight against terrorism or demining operations.
"Apart from security-related missions, our troops are also helping Afghans rebuild their country," one source said, providing information about the activities of two provincial reconstruction teams, or PRT, in the eastern region of Wardak and the northern region of Jowzjan. Turkey is also training the Afghan army and sponsoring the Military High School in Kabul, the sources said. Some 12,000 Afghan troops have been trained so far by the Turkish army. In addition, around $500 million in assistance has been provided to Afghanistan by the Turkish International Development Agency, or TİKA, which has completed 21 of its intended 54 projects.
Following a massive ceremony at Bagram Airport in Kabul, the bodies of the 12 troops -- four majors, two captains, two first lieutenants and three non-commissioned officers -- were taken to Ankara late Saturday in a military plane.
The 12 fallen soldiers will be saluted during a large and high-profile ceremony at a military installation in Ankara. Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz said a technical delegation accompanied by a state prosecutor had been sent to Kabul to investigate the crash.
Fierce Clashes In Syrian Capital
Fierce clashes erupted on Monday between rebel troops and security forces in a neighborhood of the Syrian capital that houses many security buildings, activists said.
Rami Abdel Rahman, of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said 18 soldiers or security troops were wounded in the fighting that broke out at dawn in the upscale and heavily guarded Mazzeh district of Damascus.
"The clashes were the strongest and the closest to security installations in the capital since the outbreak of the revolt a year ago," Abdel Rahman told the AFP.
Mourtada Rasheed, an activist in Damascus, said blasts and heavy shooting could be heard in Mazzeh, as well as two other districts, Qaboon and Arbeen.
"We woke up at 3:00 a.m. (0100 GMT) to the sound of heavy machinegun fire and rocket propelled grenades (RPG)," said one resident of Qaboon who did not wish to be identified. "The fighting lasted about 10 minutes, and then eased before starting again."
The clashes in the capital took place after two car bombs ripped through two neighborhoods of Damascus on Saturday, killing 27 people, according to the Syrian interior ministry. Another car bomb exploded on Sunday in the residential neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria's second city, killing two people.
Turkey Commemorates WWI Gallipoli Victory
Turkey commemorated its martyrs Sunday on the 97th anniversary of the Ottomans' World War I victory over Allied fleets attempting to break through the Dardanelles Strait in the northwestern province of Çanakkale.
"Deprived of modern weapons of any kind, the people of Anatolia fought in unison against the best-equipped armies of the day to forge an unforgettable and glorious history. This victory also serves as a symbol and a source of inspiration for other nations waging a struggle for their independence and liberty," Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç told members of the audience at the official Martyrs' Day ceremony held in Çanakkale Sunday.
Many citizens, troops, combat veterans, government and opposition officials also flocked to martyrs' memorials and cemeteries across Turkey to mark Martyrs' Day, while a number of combat veterans were also awarded medals for their past efforts in the ceremonies.
The Allies in the First World War attempted a naval breakthrough in March 1915, through the Dardanelles Strait, with the aim of capturing the Ottoman capital of Istanbul and securing a much-needed sea route to Russia. After a number of British and French capital ships were either sunk or damaged, however, the Allies were forced to abandon the naval campaign.
Arınç was the highest-ranking official to attend the Martyrs' Day ceremony in Çanakkale, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was on an official visit to Germany. Other officials, including Interior Minister İdris Naim Şahin, Defense Minister İsmet Yılmaz and Forestry and Waterworks Minister Veysel Eroğlu, as well as other deputies and Rear Admiral Hasan Doğan, were also present at the ceremony.
The Ottomans' initial naval victory in March was soon followed by an amphibious landing on the peninsula. Better known in the West as the "Gallipoli Campaign," the ensuing land warfare lasted from April 1915 to January 1916 and ended with the Allies' complete withdrawal from the area.
Arınç laid a wreath on modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's monument to mark the start of the ceremony. Following a minute of silence and the raising of the Turkish flag, a naval frigate fired 21 rounds in memory of the fallen troops.
The Gallipoli battle also marked the rise of Atatürk, as he served there as an officer. Around 1 million troops, including many Australians and New Zealanders, participated in the trench warfare in Gallipoli, regarded as a defining moment in the history of the Turkish people.
Diyarbakir Marks Nevruz Amid Tension In Istanbul
Tens of thousands of people led by Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP, politicians gathered Sunday in the southeastern province of Diyarbakır to celebrate Nevruz, ignoring a ban on the festivities.
Police removed barriers surrounding the area where the celebrations were held as masses flocked to celebrate the holiday. A similar ban was imposed in Istanbul, where police fired tear gas and used water cannon to disperse thousands who gathered in Zeytinburnu's Kazlıçeşme neighborhood. More than 100 were detained.
BDP Deputy Sebahat Tuncel told the Hürriyet Daily News that one party member died due to injuries he sustained during the clashes. In Diyarbakır, BDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, BDP deputies Sebahat Tuncel, Ayla Akat Ata and Hasip Kapalan, and BDP Diyarbakır Mayor Osman Baydemir led crowds trying to breach the police barricade to enter the city's main square. Thousands managed to enter the area following minor clashes with police.
"This is the biggest civil disobedience action in history," Akat Ata wrote on her Twitter account. "The administrators cannot decide when people will celebrate a holiday."
The governor's offices in Diyarbakır and Istanbul rejected the BDP's demands to mark Nevruz earlier on Sunday, instead of March 21. But Demirtaş on Saturday called supporters to take to the streets while asking the police not to "leave your stations."
Thousands of protesters also gathered in Kazlıçeşme but tension rose when police intervened in an effort to disperse the protesters with tear gas. BDP Co-Chair Gültan Kışanak, as well as BDP lawmakers Sırrı Sakık and Sırrı Süreyya Önder, also arrived in Kazlıçeşme and spoke to police officials in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to convince them to allow people into the square.
Hundreds of people were affected by gas bombs while groups threw stones at police who had set up barricades to prevent people from gathering at Kazlıçeşme, the Anatolia news agency reported. Some bus stops and businesses were also damaged by stones while metro bus services were also briefly interrupted in the melee.
One demonstrator was severely beaten by shop owners whose businesses were attacked, the Doğan news agency reported. The protestor, who was rescued by the police, was hospitalized, the report said.
"We will not let those who want to turn the celebrations into something that would bear hatred," Istanbul Gov. Hüseyin Avni Mutlu told reporters today. "We made our announcement about this issue earlier this week. We mentioned the day on which the official celebrations will be made. Despite this, some groups want to turn this celebration into a provocation. We took our measures and continue to do so until the official celebration day."
According to police reports, seven people, including police officers, were injured in the clashes in two cities, while 106 people were taken into custody.
Erdogan Won't Receive German Rights Award
The organizers of a German prize for humanity and tolerance on Saturday said they will not honor Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan with an award because Erdoğan will not be in Germany at the time of the award ceremony, due to a canceled visit.
The plan to award Erdoğan the 2012 Steiger Award had been heavily criticized in Germany, where the Turkish authorities have been accused of human rights abuses, notably against the minority Kurdish population. The award's organizers said they changed their mind because Erdoğan did not travel to Germany to receive the award at a ceremony on Saturday evening in Bochum.
Erdoğan canceled his trip to Germany after the deaths of 12 Turkish soldiers in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. German police said some 25,000 people, mostly of Turkish origin, demonstrated on Saturday in Bochum. Among them were members of minorities such as the Kurds, who accuse Erdoğan of persecuting their community.
Erdoğan had originally been due to receive the prize "in the name of the Turkish people" on the 50th anniversary of a pact between Germany and Turkey to admit hundreds of thousands of Turkish workers to Germany.