Turkey’s presidential candidate looks to mend relations in region

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Turkey will work to create a “basin of friendship” in the Middle East if presidential candidate Muharrem Ince wins the June 24 election, he has told Al Jazeera.

Ince, who opinion polls place as the closest rival to incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is standing for the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) in the race to become Turkey’s 13th president.

The campaign has largely focussed on domestic issues but Ince said Turkey should have a role in promoting harmony across the troubled region.

“Under our rule we will work hard to re-establish brotherhood between all Middle Eastern countries and peoples based on mutual trust and try to create a basin of friendship in the region,” Ince said.

‘Normalise relations with Assad’

In recent years, Turkey has become embroiled in disputes among its Arab neighbours, notably in Syria but also in backing Qatar after Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and economic ties.

In the year since the blockade began, Turkey has increased food exports to Qatar, boosted investment and reinforced military ties by sending troops to the Gulf state.

However, many in Turkey see this involvement in the affairs of neighbouring states as a retreat from the decades-old practice of avoiding regional squabbles – summed up in the “zero problems with neighbours” policy.

In Syria, Turkey initially backed rebel groups in a bid to oust Bashar al-Assad but is now more focused on battling the territorial gains of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), due to their links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

The PKK has waged a decades-long war against Turkey that has led to tens of thousands of deaths. The group is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU. However, the US has used the YPG as its on-the-ground ally in northern Syria and has provided it with air support and arms.

Ince reiterated his party’s call for Turkey to normalise relations with the Assad government and said the CHP would reopen an embassy in Damascus as well as focus on the “territorial unity and integrity” of Syria – a further indication of widespread opposition to creation of a Kurdish entity along Turkey’s southern border.

Turkey would support peace in Syria by backing a new constitiution and elections, allowing some 4 million Syrian refugees to return home, he added.

He noted that Turkey had “paid a heavy price” for its involvement in Syria – a reference to attacks carried out by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) inside Turkey as well as the military casualties in cross-border operations in northern Syria.

Dialogue and actions

Turkey’s Syria policy is one of several areas where Ankara’s relationship with the US has suffered, largely due to Washington’s support for the YPG.

Following a recent US-Turkey deal, the YPG has agreed to withdraw from the city of Manbij, which it took from the ISIL group, also known as ISIS, in 2016, although it still holds a large swathe of northeast Syria along the Turkish border.

Discord between the NATO allies goes further than Syria and includes the prosecution of Andrew Brunson, a US pastor accused of supporting terrorism within Turkey, and the US’ refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, an exiled religious leader and businessman based in the US. Ankara considers Gulen as the mastermind of the July 2016 coup attempt that killed more than 300 people.

The disagreements extend to Turkey’s purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia; President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem; the arrest of Turkish officials working at US consulates; and the jailing of a Turkish bank executive in New York for breaching sanctions on Iran.

Describing the extent of US-Turkey disputes as “quite a big dossier”, Ince called for “some reassessing and reevaluation” of the relationship.

“Both countries benefit from these relations,” the former physics teacher said. “We will develop our relations with the USA, which is a global super power, by providing new co-operation opportunities.

“Dialogue and actions must be carried out in a manner that is required between true allies.”

EU bans of Turkish politicians

In addition to the US, Turkey’s ties to the EU, which it aspires to join, have also suffered in recent years, particularly due to what Turkey has perceived as a lack of support over the failed coup attempt and Europe’s focus on human rights abuses in the subsequent crackdown.

During last year’s referendum on switching from a parliamentary to a presidential system, European states such as the Netherlands, Germany and Austria banned politicians from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) from addressing rallies to Turkish ex-pats, leading Erdogan to denounce “Nazi-like practices”.

These bans have remained in place during the current campaign for Turkey’s parliamentary and presidential elections, reducing the opportunity for politicians to speak directly to some of the 3 million Turkish voters that live abroad.

“The problem with Holland is one of the unnecessary problems that the current government has created,” Ince said.

“Of course, like any country, Holland has the right to decide whether another country can carry out election campaingns in its country or not. You have to respect this.

“If you are not happy with this decision you have to establish relations that will erase the worries of the opposite side. We have seen that nothing has been done in this direction.”

Talks for Turkey to join the EU – it applied in 1987 and discussions began in 2005 – are currently suspended amid European concerns for human rights and the rule of law in Turkey in the wake of the failed coup attempt.

Last year, during a German election campaign, Chancellor Angela Merkel called for an end to negotiations.

“Our fundamental problem with Germany is their approach towards our European Union membership,” Ince said. “We understand their worries but they are not worries that cannot be removed.”

Rule of law

According to the most recent opinion survey, Erdogan leads the race with 48.3 percent – not enough to avoid a second round in the presidential vote. Ince, who polled 31.4 percent, is therefore likely to face Erdogan in a follow-up vote on July 8.

During his campaign, the CHP candidate has emphasised the need for Turkey to return to the rule of law. According to the UN, 160,000 people have been arrested and a similar number dismissed or suspended from their jobs following the coup attempt.

Ince stressed that respect for the impartiality and supremacy of the legal system should also translate to foreign affairs.

Referring to the case of the US pastor Brunson, who is said to be one of several examples where Turkey is employing “hostage diplomacy” to further its objectives, Ince said: “Above all, Turkey will become firstly a state of law.”

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