As Black Sea ‘boils,’ Ankara tries to strike balance between Russia, US 

The US decision to sail two warships through the Turkish Straits has sparked anger from Russia and may trigger a new standoff with Turkey. (File/AFP)
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Updated 10 April 2021

As Black Sea ‘boils,’ Ankara tries to strike balance between Russia, US 

  • In line with the convention, Washington notified Ankara about its future deployment of vessels to the Black Sea on April 9, 15 days before they are due to do so
  • The warships are expected to stay in the area until May 4

ANKARA: The US decision to sail two warships through the Turkish Straits has sparked anger from Russia and may trigger a new standoff with Turkey, amid talk of a possible revision of the 1936 Montreux Convention.
Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey is granted the authority to control its Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits, including the passage, the tonnage and the duration of stay of foreign warships.
In line with the convention, Washington notified Ankara about its future deployment of vessels to the Black Sea on April 9, 15 days before they are due to do so, in a move to support Ukraine against increasing Russian activity on the country’s eastern border. The warships are expected to stay in the area until May 4. 
“We are concerned by recent escalating Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, including the credible reports about Russian troop movements on Ukraine’s borders and occupied Crimea,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said last week. 
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Istanbul on Saturday to attend the ninth high-level strategic council meeting between the two countries. The pair have increased their defense cooperation in recent years, with Ukraine purchasing unmanned combat aerial vehicles and ground control stations from Turkey.
However, the passage of the US warships and the visit of Zelensky drew a negative reaction from Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin held a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to discuss developments in Ukraine.
A statement issued by the Kremlin revealed that Putin stressed the importance of preserving the current status of the Montreux Convention, and that he had also blamed Ukraine for carrying out “dangerous provocative activities” in the eastern Donbas region.
The presence of two warships might escalate tensions in the region, experts say. 
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Russia-Turkey relations, told Arab News: “The Biden administration made its Russia policy crystal clear: It wants to contain that country and consolidate NATO toward this goal, to restore transatlantic ties that were undermined during the previous Trump period.
“During Friday’s phone call, Putin reminded (Erdogan) of the bilateral commitments in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib region and the previous cooperation protocols. The tourism embargo is also significant as the Russian side knows that it is Turkey’s Achilles heel,” Sezer added. 
Turkey, which relies in tourism, was the most popular holiday destination for Russian tourists before the outbreak of the coronavirus disease pandemic, with over 6.7 million visiting the country in 2019. The pandemic severely disrupted global tourism, and on Monday Russia will reportedly restrict air traffic with Turkey for a month due to the virus. 
“In an ideal world, Turkey should remain neutral in this crisis, and it should also calm down NATO,” Sezer continued. “Otherwise, a serious crisis with Russia is likely to emerge, like … when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November 2015.”  
The future of the convention was brought into focus earlier this month, after 104 retired Turkish admirals released a controversial declaration on April 3 to warn the government over the artificial waterway project, dubbed Kanal Istanbul, to ease shipping traffic through the Bosphorus, claiming the project would open the convention to discussion and result in Turkey’s loss of absolute sovereignty over the Sea of Marmara.  
Erdogan said on April 5 that his government had no “intention to leave the Montreux Convention,” but added that it could be reviewed in the future in case of necessity.  
For Dr. Emre Ersen, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations from Marmara University in Istanbul, the latest developments in the Black Sea should be alarming for Ankara considering that Turkish foreign policy in this region has traditionally been based on striking a perfect balance between the West and Russia. 
“Even though it has become more difficult to maintain this balance after the developments in Ukraine and Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Montreux Convention still provides Ankara with the opportunity to implement the same policy,” he told Arab News. 
Ersen added that the Biden administration will exert more pressure on Turkey to actively cooperate with NATO in the Black Sea, considering the US president’s personal interest in Ukraine. 
“However, if Turkey decides to take action outside the framework of the Montreux Convention, this would inevitably create significant tensions with Russia which could spill over into vital issues like Syria and bilateral economic relations,” he said.


At NATO, Turkey hails its revival of dialogue with Greece

Updated 14 June 2021

At NATO, Turkey hails its revival of dialogue with Greece

  • Turkish President is holding a series of one-on-one meetings with NATO leaders, including U.S. President Joe Biden
  • Erdogan recently toned down his anti-Western rhetoric as he seeks foreign investments for his country

BRUSSELS: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Monday that a revival of dialogue with fellow NATO member Greece to resolve long-standing disputes will serve “stability and prosperity” in the region.
Speaking on the sidelines of a NATO summit, Erdogan also lamented what he said was a lack of support by Turkey’s NATO allies in its fight against terrorism.
It was a veiled reference to Turkey’s disappointment with US military support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, who Ankara argues are inextricably linked to a decades-long Kurdish insurgency in Turkey.
Erdogan, who is vying to mend Turkey’s battered relations with its Western partners, is holding a series of one-on-one meetings with NATO leaders, including US President Joe Biden.
The Turkish strongman has recently toned down his anti-Western rhetoric as he seeks foreign investments for his country, which has been troubled by a currency crisis and an economic downturn made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.
“Turkey is on the frontline in the fight against terrorism in all relevant international platforms, especially NATO,” Erdogan said, adding that some 4,000 Daesh group fighters were “neutralized” in Turkish cross border operations.
“Turkey is the only NATO ally which has fought face-to-face and gave its young sons as martyrs for this cause,” Erdogan said. “Unfortunately, we did not receive the support and solidarity we expected from our allies and partners in our fight against all forms of terrorism.”
Last summer, a long-standing dispute between Turkey and Greece over boundaries and rights to natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean flared anew after Ankara sent research vessels into waters where Greece asserts jurisdiction.
Diplomats from the two countries have held two rounds of talks in recent months for the first time in five years, while the foreign ministers of Greece and Turkey also held reciprocal visits.
“I believe that reviving the channels of dialogue between (Turkey) and our neighbor and ally, Greece, and the resolution of bilateral issues will ... serve the stability and prosperity of our region,” Erdogan said, in a video address to a think tank event on the sidelines of the summit.
Erdogan’s talks with Biden are expected to focus on US support for Syrian Kurdish fighters, as well as a dispute over Ankara’s acquisition of a Russian air defense system, which led to Turkey being removed from the F-35 fighter program and sanctions on defense industry officials.
Washington says the S-400 missiles, which Turkey purchased in 2019, pose a threat to NATO’s integrated air defense and has demanded that Ankara abandons the $2.5 billion system.
In April, Biden infuriated Ankara by declaring that the Ottoman-era mass killing and deportations of Armenians was “genocide.” Turkey denies that the deportations and massacres that began in 1915 and killed an estimated 1.5 million Armenians amounted to genocide.
In Brussels, Erdogan met with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis.
After his meeting with Erdogan, Macron tweeted that he wants to “move forward” with Turkey.
It was their first meeting since a dispute between the two countries reached its peak in October, after Erdogan questioned Macron’s mental health.
Both men discussed Libya and Syria issues, the Elysee said. Macron has accused Turkey of flouting its commitments by ramping up its military presence in Libya and bringing in jihadi fighters from Syria.
During the discussion with Johnson, the two leaders agreed to “work toward the resumption of travel between the UK and Turkey,” according to a Downing Street statement. Turkey has been pushing for a relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions to allow British tourists to come to Turkey this summer.


Macron says Turkey’s Erdogan wants foreign mercenaries out of Libya

Updated 14 June 2021

Macron says Turkey’s Erdogan wants foreign mercenaries out of Libya

  • Macron was speaking after his first face-to-face with Erdogan in more than a year

PARIS: French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday said he had received assurances from Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan that he wanted foreign mercenaries to leave Libyan territory as soon as possible.
“We agreed to work on this withdrawal (of foreign mercenaries). It doesn’t just depend on the two of us. But I can tell you President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference at the end of a summit of NATO leaders in Brussels.
Macron was speaking after his first face-to-face with Erdogan in more than a year as tensions between the two NATO allies worsened especially over the conflict in Libya.
Turkey deployed troops to Libya under an accord on military cooperation signed with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), helping it repel an assault by forces from eastern Libya. It also sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya.


New Israeli government approves nationalist march in Jerusalem

Updated 16 min 56 sec ago

New Israeli government approves nationalist march in Jerusalem

  • Jerusalem march by Jewish nationalists poses immediate challenge to the new coalition
  • March comes just weeks after devastating Israeli bombardment of Gaza

JERUSALEM: Israel’s new government on Monday approved a Jewish nationalist march in Jerusalem, a step that risks inflaming tensions with Palestinians hours after veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu handed over power to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
In the flag-waving procession, planned for Tuesday, far-right groups will march in and around East Jerusalem’s walled Old City, where tensions have remained high since 11 days of fighting between Israel and Gaza militants in May.
Palestinian factions have called for a “day of rage” against the Jerusalem march, with memories of clashes with Israeli police still fresh from last month in the contested city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound and in a neighborhood where Palestinians face eviction in a court dispute with Jewish settlers.
“This is a provocation of our people and an aggression against our Jerusalem and our holy sites,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said of the march.
After meeting with Israel’s police chief and other security officials, newly sworn-in Internal Security Minister Omer Barlev approved the march and said police were well-prepared, according to a statement carried by Israeli media.
“(Great) efforts are being undertaken to preserve the delicate fabric of life and public security,” Barlev was quoted as saying.
It was not clear whether participants would be allowed to enter the Old City’s Muslim quarter, on a route that Israeli police had previously barred. A police spokesman did not immediately provide comment.
An original march on May 10 was re-routed at the last minute as tensions in Jerusalem led Hamas to fire rockets toward the holy city and Israel responded with air strikes on Gaza. Right-wing Israeli groups accused their government of caving into Hamas and rescheduled the march after a truce took hold.
Hamas has warned of renewed hostilities if it goes ahead, and Israeli media reported the military had made preparations for a possible escalation.
The US Embassy in Jerusalem prohibited its personnel and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday “due to calls for a Jerusalem Flag March and possible counter-demonstrations.”
The march poses an immediate challenge for Bennett’s government, which was approved on Sunday by a 60-59 vote in parliament.
A route change or cancelation of the procession could expose the Israeli government to accusations from Netanyahu, now in the opposition, and his right-wing allies of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.
Suggesting that a route adjustment could be in store, Yoav Segalovitz, a deputy internal security minister, said past governments had stopped nationalists visiting Muslim sites in times of tension.
“The main thing is to consider what’s the right thing to do at this time,” he told Israel’s Kan radio.
Formation of Bennett’s alliance of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties, with little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, capped coalition-building efforts after a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth poll in two years.
Minutes after meeting Bennett, 49, on his first full day in office, Netanyahu repeated a pledge to topple his government.
“It will happen sooner than you think,” Netanyahu, 71, who spent a record 12 straight years in office, said in public remarks to legislators of his right-wing Likud party.
With any discord among its members a potential threat to its stability, Israel’s new government hopes to focus on domestic reforms and the economy and avoid hot-button issues such as policy toward the Palestinians.
Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.
Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition after capturing the area in a 1967 war, regards the entire city as its capital.
A key test for the new government and its stability will be how quickly it moves to pass a budget, said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute.
“If within 3-4 months this government will pass the 2021-22 budget then we can expect this government to serve for at least two or three years. Otherwise, the instability will continue,” he said.
Palestinians held out scant hope of a breakthrough in a peace process leading to a state of their own. Talks with Israel collapsed in 2014.
“We don’t see the new government as less bad than the previous ones,” Shtayyeh told the Palestinian cabinet.
Under the coalition deal, Bennett, an Orthodox Jew and tech multi-millionaire who advocates annexing parts of the West Bank, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a former television host.
Lapid, widely regarded as the architect of the coalition that brought down Netanyahu, is now foreign minister.


Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam

Updated 14 June 2021

Sudan says it is open to conditional interim deal on Ethiopia dam

  • Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam
  • Sudan and Egypt agreed last week to coordinate efforts to push Ethiopia to negotiate "seriously"

KHARTOUM: Sudan is open to a partial interim agreement on Ethiopia’s multi-billion-dollar dam on the Blue Nile, with specific conditions, Irrigation Minister Yasir Abbas said on Monday.
While Ethiopia is pinning its hopes of economic development and power generation on the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Egypt fears it will imperil its water supply and Sudan is concerned about the impact on its own water flows.
Sudan and Egypt agreed last week to coordinate efforts to push Ethiopia to negotiate “seriously” on an agreement on filling and operating the GERD.
Cairo and Khartoum had been aligned on the need for any agreement to be comprehensive, but Abbas’s comments mark a potential shift in Sudan’s position.
” conditions include the signing-off of everything that has already been agreed on in negotiations, ... provisions to ensure that the talks continue even after the filling scheduled for July, and the negotiations adhering to a definite timetable,” Abbas told a news conference, citing a time crunch.
Ethiopia has said it will begin a second filling of the reservoir behind the dam during the rainy season this summer.
Talks overseen by the African Union, aimed at reaching a binding agreement, have repeatedly stalled.


Bodies of 25 migrants recovered off Yemen after boat capsized

Updated 14 June 2021

Bodies of 25 migrants recovered off Yemen after boat capsized

  • Fishermen said the bodies were floating in the waters of Ras Al-Ara, an area so rife with human trafficking that local people call it the ‘Gate of Hell’
  • In recent months, dozens of migrants have died in the Bab Al-Mandab strait, a major route for international trade but also for human trafficking

HODEIDAH, Yemen: The bodies of 25 migrants were recovered off Yemen on Monday after the boat that was carrying them capsized with up to 200 people on board, a provincial official told AFP.

Fishermen who found the bodies told AFP that they were floating in the waters of Ras Al-Ara in the southern province of Lahij, an area so rife with human trafficking that local people call it the “Gate of Hell.”

“The boat overturned two days ago and was carrying between 160 and 200 people,” said Jalil Ahmed Ali from the Lahij provincial authority, citing information given by Yemeni smugglers. The fate of the other people on board was unclear.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration confirmed to AFP that a boat sank in the area but said it was still trying to establish the details of the incident.

The fishermen said the victims, found in the Bab Al-Mandab strait that separates Djibouti from Yemen, appeared to be of African origin.

“We found 25 bodies of Africans who drowned when a boat carrying dozens of them sank off the Yemeni shores,” said one of the fishermen.

“We saw the bodies floating in the water 10 miles from the shores of Ras Al-Ara,” added another.

Migrants often find themselves stranded in Yemen with the beaches of Ras Al-Ara being among the areas most targeted by smugglers.

In recent months, dozens of migrants have died in the Bab Al-Mandab strait, a major route for international trade but also for human trafficking.

In April, at least 42 migrants died off Djibouti after the capsize of their boat which had left from Yemen, according to an IOM report. They were likely among those who try to return home after finding themselves stranded or detained.

The IOM reported this month that 5,100 immigrants arrived in Yemen so far this year, while 35,000 traveled in 2020 and 127,000 in 2019 before the outbreak of the coronavirus which suppressed demand for labor in the Gulf.

The UN agency often sends migrants back to their home countries from Yemen. But it said in April that more than 32,000 migrants, mostly from Ethiopia, were still stranded in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country.