Ankara believes a meeting of Syrian dissidents Tuesya in Istanbul could become a watershed in the Syrian crisis if the divided opposition can unite to create a common vision for a new government, according to a Turkish official.
"If they agree on a document that puts forth a constitutional vision that endorses everybody ahead of the meeting of the Friends of Syria that will take place in Istanbul on April 1, then the Syrian National Council [could be recognized] as the sole legitimate representative of Syrian people," said the official, who asked to remain anonymous.
At the same time, the official said it would be difficult for the opposition to garner international support if it failed to achieve unity. The council has convinced the Free Syrian Army to cease behaving like an independent, gang-like group, but instead become an entity loyal to the opposition council, the official said while highlighting the need to foster relations between the council and the rebel army.
"We have been told that there has been progress between [the council] and the Kurdish National Council," the official said. The opposition has yet to outline the parameters of a new regime that would replace the rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the official said, adding that consensus on a document called the "national contract" could prove to be a turning point in the Syrian crisis.
"Stability in Syria depends on a democratic constitution that is in conformity with the multicultural fabric of Syria and enables different religious beliefs and ethnic groups to coexist under a constitutional guarantee," the official said when asked what kind of vision Turkey would like to see in its southern neighbor.
There is a difference in the military capabilities between the opposition and al-Assad's government, which continues to receive arms from Russia and Iran, even as the international community remains reluctant to even send medical help to the opposition, he continued.
"There are some facts based on Realpolitik, like uncertainties about what will replace the current regime in Syria, the fear of the establishment of an Islamic regime, as well as the concern of securing the Christians' rights in the country," the official said. "We are not insistent on a military intervention."
Turkey and the U.S. share the same view that al-Assad's regime will be toppled, he said, adding that Erdoğan would warn Iran about its stance of supporting Syria.
Timetable Unveiled For Turkey's Defense Boost
Turkey's Undersecretariat for the Defense Industry has disclosed a new five-year strategic plan that finalizes completion dates for key projects including Turkish-made tanks, aircraft, satellites, destroyers and helicopters, in a bid to lift the country's defense industry into a higher league.
Altay, the Turkish-made tank project, will be complete by the end of 2015, the plan says. The first Turkish destroyer will be delivered in 2016. Atak, an attack helicopter, and Anka, an unmanned aerial vehicle, will be delivered in 2013 and 2014 respectively.
More than 280 projects have been carried out since 2011, according to the new 2012-16 strategic plan. The total value of the contracts the undersecretariat signed last year was about $27.3 billion.
The plan envisages Turkey's defense industry entering the top 10 worldwide within five years. The total turnover target for defense and aerospace industry exports for 2016 is $2 billion, out of an overall industry turnover of $8 billion, according to the plan.
Turkey will establish liaison offices in the Middle East, the Far East, the United States, the Caucasus-Central Asia, and in Europe, or EU-NATO. The undersecretariat will encourage collaboration between prime contractors, sub-industries, and small and medium enterprises, with universities and research institutions improving the technological base.
The Turkish government will support the establishment of testing and certification centers that meet international standards, in order to meet non-military and non-public sector demands. A land vehicle test center, a high-speed wind tunnel, an aerial vehicle flight test field, a missile systems test field, a satellite assembly center, and an integration and testing center will be among these facilities, according to the strategic plan.
Turkey, South Korea Pledge Stronger Ties Via Free Trade Deal
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan signed a free trade agreement with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak Monday that aims to boost trade with the South Korean government in the next few years.
Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, Energy Minister Zafer Çağlayan and Energy Minister Taner Yıldız also took part in the negotiations with Lee, at the end of which the two heads of state signed the free trade agreement, the Anatolia news agency reported.
Erdoğan said the agreement on goods trade will facilitate cooperation between the companies of the two countries and that he expects to see the entire free trade deal finalized by June. He also called for boosting the bilateral trade volume with South Korea, saying the current level of $7 billion a year was too small given the economic power of the two countries. Turkey sells goods worth less than $1.5 billion a year to South Korea.
Erdoğan expressed hope for greater cooperation in energy, defense, automotive and shipbuilding industries, as well as cooperation in science and technology.
"South Korea and Turkey are traditionally friendly nations," Lee said during the ceremony. "Diplomatic relations between the two countries have been elevated to a strategic partnership this year and at the same time we have signed a trade pact. This will serve as a chance to drastically strengthen economic cooperation between the two countries."
Lee also called for stronger trade ties with Turkey, one of the world's fastest-growing economies. South Korea and Turkey have held three rounds of negotiations on a free trade deal since April 2010.
During a trip to Turkey last month, Lee and Erdoğan agreed to conclude their free trade negotiations by the end of the first half of the year. The envisioned free trade pact with Turkey would allow South Korean firms to export goods to other parts of Europe via Turkey at low prices, as Turkey and the European Union are linked by an agreement removing or lowering tariffs between them.
"For example, Turkish oranges will be sold to Korean customers with cheaper prices. With the agreement, bilateral trade will be boosted considerably," one South Korean official said. "The same is true for almost everything."
The Turkish ambassador to Korea, Naci Sarıbaş, said he hoped that the two countries' recent move from "blood brothers" to "strategic partners" will help strengthen ties in many sectors, according to the Korean Herald.
The close alliance between Turkey and South Korea dates back to the middle of the last century. Turkey was granted NATO membership in the early 1950s for its staunch fighting on the side of the United Nations against North Korea and China in the Korean War.
The two countries have had a strong defense industry relationship, but the free trade agreement between the two will only make use of the reduction-of-tariffs clause in the pact.
Turkey wants to sell to Korea the T-129 attack helicopters it is co-producing with Italy's AgustaWestland. South Korean officials said that the T-129 has been short-listed, along with four other companies seeking the deal.
Turkey produces howitzers under South Korean license and the two countries are together building basic aircraft trainers for the Turkish Air Force. South Korea's Hyundai Rotem advised Turkey on its main battle tank program. Turkey and South Korea may also build a fighter jet together in the 2020s.
Erdoğan was in Seoul to attend a nuclear security summit.
Two years ago, Turkey and South Korea failed to agree on a nuclear power plant in northern Turkey worth up to $20 billion. Korea is still considered a strong potential partner; the two countries have agreed to reopen their talks.
Energy is set to be a growth sector for the expanding Eurasian economy, with Ambassador Sarıbaş saying that nuclear power will supply five percent of electricity there by 2020.
"Within 15 years we foresee having an investment of $100 billion in our energy sector," he said.
CHP To Back Feb 28 Probe Conditionally
The main opposition has conditionally backed the government's suggestion to set up a parliamentary investigation committee to examine the Feb. 28 process, but also recommended that the committee look into all military coups, including the 1980 putsch.
"The AKP [Justice and Development Party] and the prime minister are not people who were pained or troubled by the coups. On the contrary, they are a product of the Sep. 12 and Feb. 28 coups. If they want to call the people [who staged the coups] to account, we should do it together," Muharrem İnce, deputy parliamentary group leader of the Republican People's Party, or CHP, told reporters Monday. "We would stand by this. Let's set up an investigative commission about all of [the coups]."
The military coups and military memorandums in Turkey had hindered the democratic progress of the country, İnce said, highlighting the need to "call everyone to account."
İnce said the CHP had been banned and that all of its assets were confiscated by the military junta in 1980, causing a lasting effect on the party.
"[Our assets] were expropriated, our party was shut down," he said.
Basbug Gears Up For Historic Coup Defense
Former Turkish Chief of Staff İlker Başbuğ is set to make a "historic defense" against the coup-plot charges against him, his lawyer said Monday, the same day the retired general made his first court appearance in the "Internet Memorandum" case.
"It will be more correct to evaluate the case after Başbuğ completes his plea. We think that his defense will have historic importance," said Başbuğ's lawyer, İlkay Sezer.
Başbuğ, who was arrested on Jan. 6, is on trial for allegedly directing the drafting of the Internet Memorandum, an alleged document calling for the General Staff's creation of 42 Internet sites to distribute propaganda against the ruling Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, the Greeks and Armenians.
Fifteen arrested suspects attended the trial in Istanbul's Silivri district, including retired Gen. Hasan Iğsız, Vice Adm. Mehmet Otuzbiroğlu, Lt. Gen. Mehmet Eröz, Lt. Gen. İsmail Hakkı Pekin, Maj. Gen. Hıfzı Çubuklu and retired Col. Dursun Çiçek.
During the trial, the court delegation rejected a request by Başbuğ's lawyer to rule both for a lack of venue and a lack of jurisdiction in the case of his client. Crimes committed against the state are regarded as crimes of terrorism in accordance with the Turkish Penal Code and the Anti-Terror Law and cannot be classified as military offenses, the court delegation said.
The court then decided to reject the defendants' claims of lack of jurisdiction and their related demand for the file to be passed on to the Supreme Council, the name assumed by Turkey's Constitutional Court when it oversees a criminal case. The court delegation also refused to rule for a lack of venue.
"The court decision is not based on legal grounds. We will continue to voice our demands regarding the lack of jurisdiction," Sezer said.
Meanwhile, a group of supporters appeared in front of the court Monday and held posters in support of Başbuğ saying: "We stand by our soldier against the injustice."
During the hearing, prosecutors read out the 39-page indictment before adjourning the trial until Tuesday. The prosecution has requested aggravated life imprisonment for the country's former top general, who stands accused of orchestrating propaganda efforts on the Internet to provoke political unrest in the country, in accordance with the aims of the alleged gang.
An Istanbul criminal court accepted the indictment against Başbuğ on Feb. 15. The indictment also implicates Başbuğ for allegedly attempting to stymie the government by means of force and violence, according to reports.
The former general flatly denied having issued any directives in relation to the memorandum and has rejected all charges leveled against him.
Reopening Of Halki' Not A Threat To Turkey, Minister Says
European Union Minister Egemen Bağış said Monday that the re-opening of the Halki Seminary on Istanbul's Heybeliada Island would not pose a threat to Turkey, adding that he hopes Greece would also take positive steps forward while keeping their responsibilities in mind.
"I don't see the re-opening of the Halki Seminary on Heybeliada Island as a threat to Turkey. I believe that it will enrich Turkey," Bağış told reporters following a meeting with the Turkish Contractors Union.
"Turkey has taken very important steps in this matter," Bağış said, pointing out that 10 years ago it would have been unimaginable to re-open the seminary, return property to minorities, or hold a meeting with Greek Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew in Parliament.
"It is time for Greece -- a democracy by EU standards -- to take their responsibilities into consideration in their actions. Even if it isn't on the principle of reciprocity, it would be significant if Greece took steps of good will," Bağış said, emphasizing that neither Greek President Karolos Papoulias, nor Prime Minister George Papandreou, have kept the promises they have made to Turkey.
Gul Orders DDK To Investigate President Ozal's Cause Of Death
President Abdullah Gül recently ordered the State Audit Institution, or DDK, to launch an investigation into the root cause of the death of former President Turgut Özal, who, according to official reports, died of a heart attack in 1993, as allegations mount and claims by his family suggest the former president may have been killed, a Turkish news Web site has reported.
On Gül's order, the DDK has formed a scientific team of seven experts to investigate all aspects of Özal's death. With backgrounds in pharmacology, chemistry, cardiology, biology and forensic medicine, the experts will investigate a claim by his family that Özal was killed, ntvmsnbc.com reported on Monday. Ntvmsnbc.com explained that the team's aim is to clarify whether Özal died of a natural heart attack or as a result of chemicals and drugs that triggered a heart attack.
Moreover, inconsistencies and unexpected problems that arose following Özal's heart attack will be investigated. The facts that on the day of his death his in-house doctor and nurse were both out, house staff were not able to start the ambulance due to a technical problem, there was no first aid equipment at the presidential residence and other similar issues led to suspicion surrounding the death of the former president. The team is expected to complete its report in May, the Web site reported.
Northern Iraq's Prime Minister To Make First Official Visit To Turkey
Turkish officials said on Monday that Nechirvan Barzani -- Massoud Barzani's nephew and a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP -- will make his first diplomatic visit to Ankara after being elected prime minister of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government for the second time.
Nechirvan Barzani took up the position for the second time on Feb. 17, after Berham Salih resigned earlier in the month. Barzani is scheduled to have meetings with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and security officials in Ankara, where they will discuss the activities of the PKK.
During the talks, Nechirvan Barzani is expected to make positive remarks about the Turkish government's renewed anti-terrorism strategy. Within the scope of that strategy, Turkey will increase dialogue between the BDP and regional actors, especially with northern Iraq's autonomous administration, over solving the Kurdish issue.
Barzani's nephew also said the Kurdish administration is ready to increase pressure on the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, but ruled out the use of military means to achieve that end. He is coming to Ankara with an offer to embark upon a joint course of action with the Turkish government against President Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, on the condition that the status of the Kurdish population in the conflict-ridden country is safeguarded.
On Jan. 28, Massoud Barzani initiated a conference to rally Syrian Kurdish groups in Arbil, in order to formulate a policy of coordination within the Syrian opposition. The Conference of Syrian Kurdish Groups and Communities was strongly condemned in an official communiqué from the PKK, which considered it "an unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of Syrian Kurds and an attempt to divide the Kurds."
Turkey has tried having talks with the PKK, but the efforts have been fruitless, as escalating terrorist attacks by the group have proved. The government is adopting a new strategy based on tougher anti-terror measures and support from regional leaders.
Meanwhile, Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region is expected to hold a long-planned conference in June in Arbil that would bring together various Kurdish groups based in Europe and neighboring countries. The conference, which has been delayed for three years due to escalating violence by the PKK and its Iranian wing, the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan, or PJAK, is back on agenda.
Fuad Hussein, Southern Iraqi Council president and chief of staff to President Barzani, was nominated to chair the conference's steering committee, which will also include a member of Turkey's pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, or BDP. Hussein is also lobbying Iraq, Iran and Syria to persuade them to attend the conference, as well as attempting to convene Europe-based pro-Kurdish political parties and civil society organizations at the event.