Thursday,23 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)
Thursday,23 November, 2017
Issue 1274, (10 - 16 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

In Russian crosshairs

Tension between Ankara and the Kremlin shows no sign of abating, spurring fears among the Turkish elite about the long-term consequences of the decision to shoot down a Russian jet, writes Sayed Abdel-Meguid

Al-Ahram Weekly

Leaders from a host of countries, most recently Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, have been vying with one another to mend the rift between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but without success.

The break appears resistant to efforts to mend it, at least for the foreseeable future. Fearful that gangrene might set in, Ankara has desperately tried to narrow the gap. That was the point of the meeting between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Belgrade a week ago on Wednesday. The effort had no success in getting the Kremlin to budge.

Patience was still the order of the day, as were some face-saving gestures. Following the meeting, Cavusoglu issued some vague remarks to the cameras, to the effect that the meeting took place at his request, that the two countries had no wish to escalate tensions, and that sound thinking will win the day in the end, after the time of emotions has subsided.

He expressed the hope that the Kremlin would stop levelling accusations against the Turkish government without furnishing proof.

This was echoed by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. Speaking at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy on Friday, Davutoglu said that if the Russian president’s charge that Ankara was supporting Islamic State (IS) was correct, then why had it not surfaced earlier?

There was a certain logic to this. But suspicion continued to gnaw at the minds of a large segment of Turkish public opinion. It gnawed more persistently after the arrest of three military officers, including a general and a retired colonel, as part of investigations surrounding the “false claims” that lorries belonging to the Turkish Intelligence Organisation (MIT) were caught transporting arms and ammunition to Syria last year through the border towns of Adana and Hatay.

At the time, Cumhuriyet newspaper featured photographic and video footage of Turkish gendarmes uncovering weapons in a MIT truck allegedly destined for Syria. Cumhuriyet Editor-in-Chief Can Dündar and the director of the newspaper’s Ankara office, Erdem Gül, were taken off to prison to join Turkey’s growing population of incarcerated journalists.

Meanwhile, officials in Ankara have yet to offer a clear argument to refute claims that it is arming terrorists or, for that matter, the claim that it has been buying oil from IS. The opposition, naturally, wants the truth.

Zeynep Altiok, the Republican People’s Party parliamentary representative from Izmir, demanded a parliamentary inquiry. The government, she said, should be required to answer a number of questions, such as: Is Turkey the number-one purchaser of oil from the takfiri organisation?

If reports to this effect are not true, then why has no official from the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) offered definitive answers corroborated by documentation so as to eliminate any doubt? Are there government officials or politicians who are facilitating or involved in these suspicious activities?

This question was probably a veiled reference to Erdogan’s son Bilal, whom the Russians mentioned in connection with these illicit activities. Are security forces protecting the deliveries of IS oil? Was the oil paid for in cash or in kind, with arms and ammunition?

And lastly, is there a connection between the decision to open the Incerlik military base to US forces and these activities? The implication is that Washington was aware of the dealings and used them to blackmail its ally, which had long resisted allowing NATO forces to launch attacks against IS from Turkish territory.

Then there is that interview by a former Turkish foreign minister and former ambassador to Cairo, Riyadh, Damascus and other Arab capitals, that just fell short of implicating the government in trading in IS oil but nevertheless opened the door to considerable conjecture.

Yasar Yakis, an MP from the ruling party, appeared on a journalistic television programme aired by an opposition television network. The interview was picked up by the opposition press the following day.

In the interview, Yakis describes at length the mechanisms for transporting crude oil, under the supervision of IS experts, to northern Iraq and from there to Zakhu, close to Mosul and near the border with Turkey. At Zakhu, convoys of trucks belonging to Iraqi and Syrian smugglers await the consignments. These smugglers also sell arms to IS and the Free Syrian Army. It makes no difference to them which.

More importantly, the oil trucks are changed as they approach the Turkish borders. After they unload their shipments they return to where they came from to repeat the cycle. The smuggling gangs pay huge bribes to the border guards.

But IS oil reaches Turkey through other routes. According to Yakis, one is via the Israeli port of Ashdod and from there to the Turkish ports of Cihan and İskenderun.

Concluding his presentation, Yakis said that the illicit trade extends beyond oil to other goods. For example, cigarettes from the cigarette factory in the Mersin free trade zone find their way into northern Iraq in exchange for generous commissions on the way.

At the very least, Turkey is navigating some very murky grey areas, adding to the current climate of uncertainty. In Turkey there has been talk of an influx of Gulf banknotes to shore put the Turkish lira, to avert its collapse due to Russian sanctions and the drop in Russian tourists. But how long can that work?

Also, it appears that some influential people in the business sector, including some close to the top decision-maker, are quite anxious. Losses due to the crisis with Russia could well exceed $10 billion, and if a solution is not found within two years they could reach $30 billion.

Natural gas supplies clearly top officials’ concerns and they have begun to take urgent measures for fear that the tap might be turned off from the other side of the Black Sea. BOTAS, the state-owned crude oil and natural gas pipelines and trading company, will soon announce tenders to undertake construction of a natural gas pipeline from Irbil in Iraq to Turkey, where it would be linked up to the gas distribution network.

But what will happen until that pans out? This explains Erdogan’s ninth visit to Doha, last week, to sign a deal for Qatari liquid gas, despite the huge costs of transporting it, plus the problem of storing it.

Perhaps such repercussions could have been avoided. But how, after ten years in which JDP foreign policy has produced nothing but tensions with most, if not all, its neighbours? It will be left with no alternatives should Russia take the decision to turn off the gas tap.

Against the backdrop of the furious pace of developments in the aftermath of Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet over Syria, headlines suddenly homed in on a lawsuit against a former chief of staff for having allegedly warned the JDP against nominating Abdullah Gul as president a decade ago.

There can be only one explanation for this latest kerfuffle. Somebody wants to distract public opinion away from the looming spectre caused by the deteriorating relationship with the Russian bear by perhaps producing another Ergenokon (the alleged clandestine, ultra-nationalist group with possible ties to the Turkish military and security forces), whose defendants were ultimately acquitted after serving long prison sentences.

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