What’s Happening in Turkey?

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The Galatasaray-Fenerbahçe derby, postponed from 20 March 2016 amid security concerns following deadly blasts in Istanbul, was rescheduled for 13 April, 2016 on 28 March, 2016. As a football fan, I hope they get a chance to play it. Amidst an interesting string of events in the past few days, however, it seems the future of Turkey is more unclear than it has been since, arguably, the 12 September 1980 military coup. In order to better understand the procession of events I present a timeline below in the fashion of “connect-the-dots”:

  • The first domino to fall, if you will, was Reza Zarrab—an Iranian-Turkish businessman arrested on 19 March, 2016 in Miami, Florida of all places. Mr. Zarrab was implicated in the December 2013 corruption scandal that hit Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP); he has also now been indicted by the United States for much more: “For Zarrab and his two alleged accomplices, the charges carry maximum sentences of five years in prison term for defrauding the United States, 20 years for violating the International Emergency Powers Act — which regulated the sanctions against Iran — 30 years for bank fraud and 20 years for money laundering. The district attorney is also calling for all of Zarrab’s assets to be confiscated.” Given that Mr. Zarrab had been cleared of wrongdoing in Turkey and released following the corruption scandal means his recent visit to—and arrest in—the United States may well be more than meets the eye. As Al-Monitor states: “Many believe that Zarrab had to have known he would be arrested the minute he landed in the United States, and that he wouldn’t have made the trip without a deal worked out in advance. His potential disclosures to the US federal prosecutor will surely implicate Turkish officials and, as such, may well be an instrument of pressure on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.”
  • Indeed as if answering Al-Monitor, just days later on 24 March, 2016, Newsweek published an interesting opinion piece posing the simple question “Will there be a coup against Erdoğan in Turkey?”. While the question posed is simple, the implications are more complex. That Michael Rubin—a member of a Washington D.C. think tank—should voice such a rhetorical question itself begs another question: Is such a rumor floating around Washington and, if so, where did it come from? Such rumors do not just materialize out of thin air and this too could be construed as an instrument of pressure on President Erdoğan…
  • On 28 March, 2016, there was another flurry of events concerning the United States and Turkey. A meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavuşoğlu and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was reportedly concerning “Peace talks in Cyprus”. A seemingly downbeat quote from Mr. Cavuşoğlu sums it up—in fact, the sarcasm is all but bleeding off the page: “’We have also some good news from the eastern part of the Mediterranean, I mean Cyprus’ Cavuşoğlu said ahead of their [His and Mr. Kerry’s] meeting.” On the same day—in an interesting “coincidence”—the Turkish military announced that they would soon be receiving six CH-47F (Chinook) helicopters from the United States. With “peace” on the horizons, one would be forgiven for asking why the military build-up? And why on earth are the headlines about Cyprus when—it seems—both Turkey and the United States have more pressing concerns when it comes to Middle Eastern Geopolitics…
  • Just one day later on 29 March 2016, after talk of “good news in the eastern Mediterranean”, the United States took the unprecedented step of forcibly evacuating all families of defense personnel and diplomats out of Turkey. The evacuations included not just parts of southeast Turkey near the Syrian border but western cities such as Izmir and Muğla as well. The move seems to be setting the table for something…
  • On 30 March 2016 Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan arrived to a cool reception in Washington D.C, and even some U.S. news media openly criticized the Turkish leader. Bloomberg View asked “how the U.S. got Turkey’s dictator so wrong” in reference to U.S. President Obama’s 2013 comment that Mr. Erdoğan was one of his closest friends. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal noted that Turkish journalists were on trial for allegedly undermining the state as Mr. Erdoğan visited the United States. As someone who watched CNN’s live coverage of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and heard CNN call the protesters “anti-American” I couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry at one of my countries’ complete and utter failure to understand the other. But the ability of any S. media outlet to utter the word “dictator” is an interesting turn.
  • On the same day, the head of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee said that “a ‘covert counterterrorism operation’ is underway to halt an extremist plot in Turkey”; Michael McCaul’s warning is cited as the rationale behind evacuating military and diplomatic families but—at least to me—it doesn’t hold up. In fact, the United States also decided to issue a travel warning for Turkey as well, putting it in the same league of dangerous destinations as the tourist hot spots of Iran, Algeria, and Yemen. Indeed Conde Nast traveller picked it up immediately, something that will undoubtedly hit Turkey’s tourist industry hard.

Ok…so what does it all mean? To be honest, when dealing with a country as complex as Turkey—that is situated in a region as complicated as the Middle East—and has such a convoluted relationship with its main ally the United States, nothing is easy to interpret or predict. Despite this, observers of the region should have reason to feel uneasy. The fact that a Washington-based pundit should even breathe the word “coup” in relation to Turkey is thought provoking. The fact that major U.S. media outlets should describe the Turkish leader Mr. Erdoğan—previously a darling of the Obama administration—as a “dictator” is startling. The fact that the U.S. should forcibly evacuate military and diplomatic families from Western Turkey a day after the Turkish military announces the imminent receipt of new military hardware and a day before the Turkish leader arrives in Washington is telling. It seems that something is in the air.

Those who care about Turkey and the United States should keep an eye on developments; given a global security situation where Pentagon-funded militias are fighting CIA-funded militias just across the Turkish border in Syria, the fortunes of both countries are, undeniably, intertwined. Only stability in Turkey can stem the rising tide of violence that threatens to engulf a region stretching from the Tigris to the Seine.


A Spring Thaw in Relations Between Turkish Cyprus and Greek Cyprus On and Off the Field

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On March 30, 2015 the president of the Turkish Cypriot Football Association (CTFA) made a statement that breaks from the usual rhetoric heard from the leadership of the breakaway Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC). According to the ABC News report the President of the football association, Hasan Sertoglu, has already sent a letter to FIFA secretary general Jerome Valcke informing him that “that the Cyprus Turkish Football Association is bringing its statutes in line with international norms” in order to join the already recognized Cypriot Football Association. To his critics, Mr. Sertoglu had this to say: “This is not a political issue. We’re doing it for the future of our youth . . . You can scream at me all you want, you won’t be able to stop us.”


Cyprus Turkish Football Association President Hasan Sertoglu (L) and Cyprus Football Association President Costakis Koutsokoumnis shaking hands on November 5, 2013 in Zurich. Image Courtesy Of: http://sports.yahoo.com/news/cyprus-football-eyes-reunion-60-divorce-192036218–sow.html

Unfortunately, his critics are many. Last week Serdar Denktas—the son of former TRNC President Rauf Denktas–reportedly broke off relations with the CTFA and last week sent letters to the presidents of Turkish Cypriot football clubs “condemning the decision as ‘suicide’ for the Turkish Cypriot political cause”. ABC News also reports that a move to by the Turkish Football Federation’s President Yildirim Demiroren to open a branch in the TRNC was rejected by FIFA.


The island of Cyprus has been divided between Turks in the north and Greeks in the south since 1974, when Turkish forces invaded in response to a coup in Greece due to fears that Cyprus would be united with Greece under the plan of enosis. Since Turks and Greeks had been living on Cyprus since Ottoman times the invasion changed lives on the island forever. Even after the fall of the Berlin fall, Nicosia is Europe’s last divided city. Even if Cyprus’s European Union accession was, arguably, not in line with international law (as it is a divided island), it went through and has resulted in vastly different fortunes for those living on either side of the UN ceasefire line. The Greek side in the south has flourished both economically and in football terms; the Turkish side has languished in both, mired in an international no-man’s land and recognized only by Turkey.

In 2004 there were hopes for unification when 65% of Turks voted positively for the UN backed referendum, but when 75.8% of Greek Cypriots rejected the plan the status quo continued. The rejection by the Greek side was predictable, given the economic disparities between the two communities at time. While the TRNC has experienced healthy growth since the failed referendum, geopolitics still reigns supreme: Turkey does not want to face encirclement by Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean. Given Greece’s Aegean islands on Turkey’s west coast, a fully Greek Cyprus would threaten Turkey in the south as well, creating a potential blockade scenario.

While it is clear that the politicians on both sides of the island—and on the mainland—are mostly opposed to furthering the unification, some other important news concerning the island came out on the same day that Mr. Sertoglu rebuffed his critics in the footballing world. On March 30, 2015 the TRNC’s foreign minister Ozdil Nami announced that the TRNC would halt their search for gas off the coast of Cyprus in order to resume peace talks. Back in October of 2014 the Turkish search for offshore hydrocarbons, in response to similar actions by the Cypriot government, provoked Cyprus to suspend peace talks with Turkey. It was posited that the energy search was just an excuse to end the talks, of course, but the end result was firm.

Just five months later it seems that relations have thawed, and Mr. Nami, speaking to state-run TV channel BRT, said that they had decided to withdraw the Turkish ship searching for gas off the TRNC coast as a “display of good-will” in response to the Greek Cypriot side’s similar withdrawal. While it does not seem that these two events are related—the CTFA’s letter to FIFA was sent earlier—Mr. Sertoglu’s confidence to voice such a harsh response to his critics was most likely born out of this relative thawing of relations.


If this “spring thaw” is not part of an April Fool’s day joke then it would seem that the seemingly innocuous world of football may yet prove to be one of the first concrete forms of cooperation between the hitherto opposed communities on the island. Even so, much more will have to be done to assuage the geopolitical concerns of both sides for a lasting reconciliation—and possible reunification—to take place on the island. Even in the footballing world, an agreement will not come easily. Mr. Sertoglu stated that either side could walk away from any potential deal: “The CFA [Cyprus Football Assocition] will not be the boss in the north. We have the right to abandon the agreement, but we have no such intention . . . We want to be FIFA members for the benefit of our people.” His counterpart in the CFA, Costas Koutsokoumnis, himself noted that it will “take some time” for Greek and Turkish Cypriot sides to play in a unified league.



Barbed wire on a wall near the soccer pitch inside the United Nations controlled buffer zone separating the dived capital of Nicosia. Image Courtesy Of: http://abcnews.go.com/Sports/wireStory/turkish-cypriot-soccer-president-back-deal-30001361