Turkey going through dire straits

Turkey going through dire straits

Turkey is currently going through dire straits - and not only due to ongoing tension with Russia over the downed jet on Nov. 24 near the Syrian border.

Take the case of journalists, who have started to appear at court one by one after the Nov. 1 election, which resulted in a clear win for the Justice and Development Party (AK Parti).

Can Dündar, the editor-in-chief of the center-left daily Cumhuriyet, and his Ankara bureau chief Erdem Gül are the latest in the chain, facing life sentences after being arrested on Nov. 26. Earlier in the week, eight years in jail were demanded for Bülent Keneş, the editor-in-chief of Today’s Zaman.

Keneş is accused of “insulting” President Tayyip Erdoğan (one of the most popular accusations filed by prosecutors these days) through his articles and social media messages. 

Dündar and Gül are accused of military espionage, being members of a terrorist organization, and revealing state secrets, after they reported and published documents about trucks full of material belonging to the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). The trucks had been stopped by gendarmerie forces on their way to Syria back in January 2014.

Indeed, this media trial case is also closely related to the civil war in Syria - the same cause of the most serious crisis between Turkey and Russia in years.

On Jan. 19, 2014, a convoy of trucks on their way to cross into Syira was stopped by gendarmerie forces upon suspicion that they were carrying military material to rebel groups fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime. The incident turned into a big news story when the gendarmerie forces detained the intelligence officers and confiscated the trucks.

President Erdoğan, who was prime minister at the time, reacted harshly over the case, accusing sympathizers of U.S.-based Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen in the judiciary and the security forces of undermining the government. He said the Gülen movement was responsible for the halting of the trucks, as well as the Dec. 17-25, 2013 corruption cases that he claimed had tried to bring down the government. Erdoğan and current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu started to use the term “parallel state” to describe the Gülenists, who had been among the closest allies of the AK Parti in probes against the military and also against the secularist establishment in the judiciary, the bureaucracy, the media and academia.

The government says the case of the halted trucks is evidence of the Gülenists’ “anti-national” behavior, as it claims that the trucks were carrying assistance to Turkmens fighting in Syria against both al-Assad and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). When Dündar and Erdem published their story as fresh evidence in the case, despite courts ruling to restrict media coverage of the incident upon the government’s request, they made President Erdoğan furious. Prosecutors soon opened cases against them.

Yesterday, Nov. 26, saw the two journalists’ first appearance at court - on the same day as major tension between Russia and Turkey continued to bubble away. A Russian jet was on Nov. 24 downed by Turkish jets - in the first example of a NATO country doing so since the Korean War in 1952 - after flying over a region on the Turkish border where Turkmen militia were fighting against Syrian regime (and apparently Russian) forces.

Turkey and the U.S. have been staging joint air strikes against ISIL positions in Syria and Iraq for some time. But after this incident flying in Syrian air space, where the Russians are flying as well, could pose a serious risk for the Turkish air force. That could also risk the joint operations being conducted against ISIL. There has been no confirmation of whether this issue was discussed between U.S. President Barack Obama and Erdoğan during their telephone conversation on the night of Nov. 24. 

Reciprocal statements by Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir on the downing of the Russian jet have yet to come to a halt, increasing worries in the Turkish business community - especially among those with investments in Russia and among those in the tourism and agriculture sectors, which rely on ties to Russia.

Indeed, it seems that developments on a number of fronts are not looking so bright.

When the AK Parti won its election victory on Nov. 1, many hoped it could bring relief after months of tension. But it seems the curse of the Syrian war will continue to affect Turkish politics, the Turkish economy and Turkish society for some time to come.