TIME Syria

Kobani Struggles Amid Medicine and Food Shortages

Turkish Kurds watch smoke rises over Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, as seen from the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border
Turkish Kurds watch as smoke rises over the Syrian town of Kobani after an airstrike, October 18, 2014. Kai Pfaffenbach—Reuters

One local describes how some trapped residents have been forced to break into the houses of neighbors who have fled to take their food. He and others are eating whatever they had stored as well as that left behind by the tens of thousands of who fled

In some neighborhoods, the streets are littered with the bodies of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), said Mohammed, a 42 year old Kurdish fighter, describing the aftermath of days of U.S. airstrikes in and around the besieged Syrian city of Kobani, just a few hundred yards from the border with Turkey. “Normally, if we have time, we try to bury them, but now, because of the new clashes, we cannot,” he said on Friday, speaking to reporters over the phone from the city center. “You can now smell the carcasses.”

A fighter for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia defending Kobani, went on to describe the increasingly harrowing conditions inside the city, which has been holding out against an ISIS onslaught for more than a month. “We lack drinking water, milk for infants, and medicine,” he said. “We had three hospitals in the city, but ISIS destroyed all of them. Now we have one mobile clinic, but all it has is antibiotics.” Yet Mohammed, who asked that his last name not be made public, remained upbeat. “If the airstrikes don’t stop,” he said, “we will have victory in ten days.”

The YPG has received a big boost from the U.S. airstrikes but continues to fight with its back to the wall, said Ismet Sheikh Hasan, the city’s defense chief. Except for a single, now temporarily closed, border crossing with Turkey, Kobani remained cut off from the outside world, he said, while ISIS fighters are able to receive reinforcements from their strongholds inside Syria.

“The strikes are very good, but they’re not enough,” Hasan said, “because ISIS is hiding in the houses and in the streets, and we need heavy weapons to go after them and defeat them.”

In recent days, he added, even the narrow lifeline connecting the city to Turkey had come under threat, making it difficult to evacuate wounded fighters and several hundred stranded civilians. From a hill south of Kobani, ISIS tanks and artillery guns were shelling downtown neighborhoods and the Mursitpinar border crossing. Snipers were targeting the area as well.“They’re trying to control the main gate to stop our injured from reaching Turkey,” he said.

“We’ve prepared for such days,” said Luqman Ahmad, a civilian speaking to reporters by phone from Kobani. He and others inside the city center were eating whatever they had stored, mostly canned foods, he said, as well as livestock left behind by the tens of thousands of locals who fled to Turkey over the past month. “We’ve had to break into the houses of neighbors who’ve left, and to take their food.”

Artillery fire echoed on the Turkish side of the border as he spoke. Two coalition fighter jets circled above Kobani.

As night descended on Kobani on Friday, Hasan, the defense chief, sounded a glum note. Thanks to the airstrikes, the YPG was holding its ground, he said, but remained unable to make progress. “The balance is shifting in ISIS’ favor,” he said.

Minutes after he spoke, heavy clashes broke out to the east of the Kobani. In Caykara, a small Turkish village less than a mile from the border, locals crowded the roof of a mosque, listening to the unrelenting cackle of gunfire and the thump of artillery shells. Red tracer rounds dashed from the city center toward ISIS positions on the outskirts. A single fighter jet buzzed overhead, obscured by the darkness and the thick clouds hovering above Kobani. Rain started to fall.

TIME Syria

ISIS Retreats From Besieged Syrian City

Fire is seen after an US airstrike on ISIS positions in Kobani, Syria, on Oct. 15, 2014.
Fire is seen after an US airstrike on ISIS positions in Kobani, Syria, on Oct. 15, 2014. Ahmet Ozturk—Xinhua/SIPA

But Anwar Muslim, the head of Kobani's local government, tells TIME more than a thousand civilians are still trapped in the city center

The Syrian city of Kobani, just across the border from Turkey, breathed easier Thursday as U.S. coalition airstrikes helped dislodge jihadist fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) from several neighborhoods.

Speaking by phone from Kobani on Thursday, Anwar Muslim, the head of the local government, told TIME that the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish forces defending the enclave, were now in control of “65 to 70 percent” of the besieged city. In neighborhoods in the south and east, he said, ISIS fighters were in partial retreat. In the west, they remained about three miles away.

But he cautioned against premature optimism. ISIS had lost “many men,” he said, “but they keep sending car bombs, mortar shells, and yet more fighters into the area.”

He claimed there were “more than a thousand civilians” still trapped in the city center. With ISIS snipers and mortars targeting neighborhoods close to the border crossing with Turkey, “it’s too dangerous for the people to leave,” he said. “We are asking the U.S. and the U.N. to set up and operate a humanitarian corridor to Kobani.”

Turkish officials, however, insisted that only Kurdish and ISIS forces remained inside the city. “There are no civilians left in Kobani,” Bulent Arinc, the country’s deputy prime minister, told reporters on Wednesday. “All of them are in Turkey.”

The Kurdish forces were bolstered by heavy air assaults from U.S. jets. In a statement posted on its website, the U.S. Central Command said that American fighter jets had conducted 14 airstrikes around the city since Wednesday. The U.S. forces said they struck 19 ISIS buildings, two ISIS command posts, three ISIS fighting positions, three ISIS sniper positions, one ISIS staging location, and one ISIS heavy machine gun.

“We know we’ve killed several hundred of them,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday, referring to the ISIS fighters massed near Kobani. He noted, however, that the city “may very well still fall.”

“They are bombing the right targets,” Muslim said of the U.S. coalition. “At the beginning, ISIS had plenty of tanks and trucks, but that is no longer the case.” He declined to confirm, however, whether YPG forces were providing the U.S. and coalition partners with coordinates of jihadist positions around the city. “We are cooperating, and our actions have been complementary,” said Mr. Muslim. “There is contact.”

The YPG is widely believed to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which the U.S., the European Union, and Turkey all consider a terrorist group, making it difficult for the militia to open official channels with Washington.

With both sides exhausted by more than a month of clashes, desperation appears to be creeping in. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, Kurdish security forces have rounded up hundreds of people of fighting age in Kurdish strongholds east of Kobani over the past week, forcing them to join YPG ranks. The month-long siege has taken its toll on ISIS, too. The jihadists, said Muslim, have begun resorting to suicide attacks inside Kobani.

The role of U.S. and coalition forces in the battle for Kobani may now be more crucial than ever. Zuhal Ekmez, the co-mayor of Suruc, a Turkish town just a few miles from the Syrian border, said that it was only this week that the airstrikes had begun tilting the balance in the YPG’s favor. “Before, they weren’t effective,” she said. “They are now, but we need them to go on.”

On Thursday afternoon, following a morning of relative quiet broken only occasionally by the chatter of gunfire and the wail of a fighter jet, a series of loud explosions shook the air above Kobani. As columns of smoke grew from the ground, a small group of Syrian refugees began to gather in a field on the Turkish side of the border. Passing around a single pair of binoculars to better follow the fighting inside their hometown, they pointed to a hill to the east of Kobani, where ISIS fighters had earlier planted their black flag. The flag, they noted, was gone.

Read next: ISIS Retreating from Kobani, Says Kurdish Official

TIME Turkey

Turkey Decides to Hit Kurdish Rebels Instead of ISIS

Kurdish people wave Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) flags while attending a funeral ceremony for YPG (People's Protection Units) fighters in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on Oct. 14, 2014.
Kurdish people wave Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) flags while attending a funeral ceremony for YPG (People's Protection Units) fighters in the town of Suruc, Sanliurfa province, on Oct. 14, 2014. Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images

Airstrikes target the Kurdistan Workers' Party and not the Islamist militants fighting for control of Kobani, a Kurdish city in Syria near the Turkish border

Turkish fighter jets pounded positions held by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s southeast Monday, according to Turkish media reports, adding to the deadly fallout from the war raging in neighboring Syria and bringing a 2-year-long peace process to the verge of collapse.

The airstrikes by F-4 and F-16 jets took place after a military outpost near the Iraqi border came under PKK fire for three consecutive days, local news sources said. “In an immediate response, the terrorists were silenced through the military means available,” said a statement posted on the Turkish Armed Forces website.

The airstrikes were the first since a ceasefire took hold in March 2013, the result of peace talks between the Turkish government and the Kurdish rebels. The PKK and the Turkish army have waged war for thirty years over Kurdish demands for greater autonomy, at a cost of more than 30,000 lives.

Tensions between the two sides have simmered over the past few months as the peace process appeared to stall, but came to a head last week after Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) forces tightened their stranglehold over Kobani, a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria within sight of Turkish troops massed on the other side of the border.

Kurdish protesters, enraged by Turkey’s refusal to provide military assistance to the besieged city, clashed with police, nationalists, and Islamist radicals in several Turkish cities last week, leaving at least 30 dead.

In the wake of the violence, the PKK’s leadership announced that its militant forces, who partially withdrew from Turkey under the terms of the 2013 ceasefire, were now poised to return. “Because Turkey has continued to pursue its policies without any changes, we have sent back all our fighters that were pulled out of Turkey,” Cemil Bayik, a senior PKK commander, told a German news channel in an interview aired Friday. The group’s imprisoned leader, Abdullah Ocalan, warned earlier that the peace process would be as good as dead if Kobani was to fall to ISIS.

The People’s Protection Units (YPG), the outgunned PKK offshoot defending the city, has repeatedly asked the Ankara government to open the border with Kobani to Kurdish fighters from Turkey and Syria, as well as to heavy weapons needed to destroy the jihadists’ Humvees and tanks.

Turkish officials have allowed more than 180,000 refugees from Kobani to cross into Turkey, but insist on preventing volunteers from going in the other direction. “Turkey cannot actually give weapons [to] civilians and ask [them] to go back to fight with terrorist groups,” foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in an interview Saturday. “Sending civilians to the war is a crime.”

Turkey has also refused to consider pleas to take armed action against ISIS in Syria. “Turkey will not embark on an adventure at the insistence of some countries unless the international community does what is necessary and introduces an integrated strategy,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said Tuesday. Before ousting ISIS, he said, the U.S. and its allies ought to commit themselves to removing Bashar al Assad’s regime in Damascus.

Officials in Ankara denied reports that they had allowed the U.S. to use Turkish air bases, including Incirlik, a key installation within 100 miles of the Syrian border, to launch attacks against ISIS. “We are holding intense negotiations with our allies. But there are not any new developments about Incirlik,” Bulent Arinc, the deputy minister said Monday.

Turkey appears yet to decide which of its enemies, the Kurdish militants or the jihadists, might be the lesser of two evils. “For Turkey, the PKK and ISIS are the same,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week. “We need to deal with them jointly.”

But the airstrikes seem to give a more definitive answer. The bombardment of Kurdish rebels, says Cengiz Candar, a veteran columnist with Turkish newspaper Radikal, can be considered a “political statement” as the peace process begins to fall apart.

“To [PKK leader] Ocalan, it says that nothing is for certain when it comes to the future of the peace process, so keep on board, behave, and don’t raise the bar too high,” he says. “And to the U.S. and other coalition members, it says that the PKK is still a priority for us, and not ISIS, as much as you’d want it to be otherwise.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey Catches Fire as ISIS Burns Kobani

The Kurds are angry that Turkey isn't doing more to help the fight against ISIS, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won't budge

Tension over a peace process that has yet to deliver results, fear of a possible bloodbath in a besieged Kurdish enclave in Syria’s north, and frustration with the government’s unwillingness to confront Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) jihadists came to a boil in Turkey on Tuesday night, as clashes erupted across the country between Kurdish protesters, Islamist groups and police. What followed were scenes that reminded many here of the 1990s, when war between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish army engulfed much of the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast. At least 21 people were reported dead, with many more wounded.

In Diyarbakir, about 60 miles north of the border with Syria, members of Hizbullah, a local Islamist group allegedly sympathetic to ISIS, traded gunfire with Kurdish protesters, including PKK militants. Ten people were found dead by the morning. More clashes have been reported in a number of other cities across the southeast, as well as in Kurdish neighborhoods in Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul, with security forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters armed with rocks and Molotov cocktails. A curfew was imposed in six provinces, with soldiers patrolling the streets of several cities on Wednesday.

The unrest is largely due to allegations that Turkey’s government is turning a blind eye to, or even supporting, ISIS’s onslaught against Kurdish militants holed up in Kobani, a city in Syria’s north. A day after at least 24 people died in anti-ISIS protests across Turkey, jihadist militants continued to defy U.S. led airstrikes by pounding Kobani with artillery fire, all in plain sight of Turkish tanks deployed on the other side of the border.

Leaders of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia protecting the city, warned of a looming bloodbath. Desperately outgunned, they also continued to ask Turkey to open a corridor to deliver heavy arms — particularly antitank weapons — to Kobani.

Such requests have been falling on deaf ears, says Salih Muslim, head of the YPG’s political wing. Earlier this week, Muslim personally pleaded with officials in Ankara to allow Kurdish fighters from other areas of Syria — cut off from Kobani by swaths of ISIS-controlled land — to enter the city via Turkey. “They promised some things,” he told TIME. “But they have done nothing.”

Since late September, Turkey has opened its doors to 160,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS. It has also begun delivering humanitarian aid to the city, but has provided nothing, at least not officially, in the way of military assistance. The reason for Turkey’s inaction, analysts say, is its fear of empowering the YPG, widely believed to be the PKK’s Syrian affiliate. Although the Ankara government and the PKK have been holding peace talks for nearly two years — talks that have yielded a tenuous cease-fire, but little more — the bad blood between them runs deep. “What ISIS is to us, the PKK is the same,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Oct. 4. The PKK, in turn, accused Erdogan of supporting ISIS to fight the Kurds inside Syria, warning that its negotiations with Ankara were on the verge of collapse. “If this massacre attempt [in Kobani] achieves its goal, it will end the process,” the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan, said in a statement released on Oct 1.

In a recent speech, Erdogan offered to send troops to Syria, but only if the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS pledged to bring down the regime of Bashar Assad after doing away with the jihadists. Turkey’s policy towards Kobani, says Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Global Source Partners, is fueled just as much by fear as by opportunism. On the one hand, he says, Ankara knows that any move against ISIS would invite retaliation from jihadist cells inside the country. Security forces across Turkey were placed on high alert after the country’s parliament gave a green light to possible troop deployments in Iraq and Syria last week.

On the other hand, Ankara views Kobani as potential leverage against the Kurdish militants. “They want to bring the PKK down a notch, to teach them a lesson,” says Yesilada, “and to put an end to any aspirations that Syria’s Kurds might have for autonomy or independence.”

Even with the fallout from Kobani reaching Turkey on Tuesday night, some experts believe the peace process with the PKK can still be salvaged. “It’s an explosion of rage,” says Huseyin Yayman, a Turkish security expert, “but it can be contained.”

“The underlying dynamics are still there,” says Hugh Pope, of the International Crisis Group, a think tank. “But the rhetoric has to come down. Erdogan has to stop comparing the PKK to Islamic State, and the PKK has to stop doing the same,” he says. “It’s simply not true.”

The Ankara government gave no intimation that it would meet the Kurds halfway, however. “The same people who were silent in the face of the death of 300,000 people in the past three and half years, ignoring the use of chemical weapons, SCUD missiles and barrel bombs, are now trying to make it seem as if Turkey has to solve the problem in Kobani right away and all by itself,” Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said late Wednesday. “Those who cooperate with the Syrian regime,” he said, referring to the YPG, which Turkey accuses of siding with Assad, “have no right to accuse or to blame Turkey.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey Grapples With an Unprecedented Flood of Refugees Fleeing ISIS

Turkey has done a better job than most at accommodating refugees, but the burden is proving too large to bear

Even by the standards of Syria’s nearly four-year-long civil war, it is a refugee exodus of extraordinary, if not unprecedented proportions. In less than 72 hours, an estimated 130,000 Syrian Kurds have poured across the border into neighboring Turkey, fleeing an onslaught by Islamist militants near the town of Kobani in northern Syria.

“We are preparing for the potential of the whole population fleeing into Turkey,” Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said in Geneva on Tuesday. “Anything could happen and that population of Kobani is 400,000.”

Also on Tuesday, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish militia defending Kobani, called for the U.S. and its Arab allies to expand their air strikes to target positions being held around the city by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Turkey, which already hosts upwards of 1.3 million Syrians — about 220,000 of them living in tent and container camps near the border — has done a much better job of accommodating the refugees than any of its neighbors. But the burden of providing for those displaced by the most recent fighting has proved too large to bear.

Since Friday, some of the refugees have found a place in newly assembled tent cities, Turkish officials said. Some have stayed with family members. Others have not been so lucky. In Suruc, a Turkish town about 8 miles north of the border gate at Kobani, and all along the road connecting the two, thousands of Syrians sought shelter in public squares, mosques, and in dry, barren fields.

At the crossing itself, a group of perhaps a hundred or more men, most of them from villages around Kobani, pleaded with Turkish soldiers to let them back into Syria. They seemed surprised that anyone should ask why they thought of returning. “To fight Islamic State,” one of them said, using the name ISIS recently gave itself.

At a nearby village, police and riot vehicles squared off against dozens of Kurdish activists from Turkey. The Kurds were protesting the Turkish authorities’ decision, temporary as it turned out, to close the border. They were greeted with a barrage of tear gas and several arrests.

The fighting around Kobani, combined with the massive refugee influx and reports of new atrocities perpetrated by ISIS against Syria’s Kurds, has put Turkey under further pressure, both international and domestic, to review its policy options. Until last weekend, Ankara had insisted it could not play a bigger role in the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS for fear that doing so would put at risk the lives of 46 Turkish hostages captured by the jihadists in in June. But on Sept. 20, in an operation that likely included a prisoner swap, the hostages were set free.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has since suggested his government’s position towards ISIS might be ripe for a rethink. “What happens from now on is a separate issue,” he said Sunday. “We need to decide what kind of attitude to take.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has made it clear he now expects Turkey to make a tangible contribution to the alliance. The Turks “first needed to deal with their hostage situation,” he said Monday. “Now the proof will be in the pudding.”

Anyone who thinks Turkey is about to take part in armed operations against ISIS, however, should think again, says Henri Barkey, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania and former State Department official.

In practice, there are three areas where Ankara might be in a position to help the U.S., Barkey says. It could allow the Americans to use the Incirlik Air Base, in Turkey’s south, to stage strikes against ISIS; it could provide more intelligence cooperation; and it could start dismantling the jihadist-support network in Turkey, stopping people, arms and supplies from entering Syria, and stopping smuggled fuel, arguably the biggest source of ISIS’s wealth, from coming out. Anything beyond that appears to be out of the question. “I don’t think Erdogan can move militarily against ISIS,” Barkey says. “That would open up a huge scenario for him that he is not ready for.”

As it positions itself diplomatically, Turkey is also beginning to face the domestic fallout from the drama unfolding on its doorstep.

Although few of them are able to provide hard evidence, many Kurds on both sides of the border firmly believe that Turkey backs ISIS — and that it is using the jihadists as a proxy against the YPG, an offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Turks’ longtime enemy.

The longer the misery in Kobani lasts, Kurdish politicians now warn, the higher the chance that the political atmosphere inside Turkey will turn toxic, derailing a nascent peace process between the PKK and the government.

“They give us an olive branch in one hand, they support ISIS with the other, and they say nothing about the killing in Kobani,” said Mehmet Karayilan, a Kurdish politician from Gaziantep. “That’s putting the whole peace process at risk.”

TIME Turkey

Erdogan Promises ‘New Era’ After Winning Presidency

Winner of presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets public
Winner of Turkey's presidential election Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets the public in Istanbul on Aug. 10, 2014 Ahmet Dumanli—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Turkey's Prime Minister gets five more years of power

For a man who promised to be Turkey’s first “sweating President,” Recep Tayyip Erdogan won election on Sunday with barely a sheen of perspiration. With all votes counted, and with Turkey’s Prime Minister since 2003 having reportedly avoided a runoff with 51.8%, the country of nearly 80 million is bracing for at least five more years of Erdogan rule.

In his victory speech, delivered before a sea of supporters in Ankara, the usually unapologetic Erdogan struck a surprisingly conciliatory note, promising “a new era” and extending an olive branch to his opponents. “Today is the day we lift mental barriers, rid ourselves of old prejudices, and peel away fears imposed from the outside,” said the country’s first directly elected President. “Today is the day we open the doors to a new beginning, the day we establish a new Turkey.”

In his campaign appearances, Erdogan pledged to give Turkey a new constitution, presumably one that will formally give the presidency, and thus himself, new executive powers. That may have to wait; Erdogan does not currently have the parliamentary majority needed to force through a new charter. But the man who has spent more than a decade as Prime Minister and who now aspires to spend another decade as President might not need a new constitution to rule uncontested.

The current document, say some legal experts, already gives him enough power to do so. Enacted in the aftermath of an army coup, Turkey’s constitution allows the President to chair Cabinet meetings, veto laws, issue governmental decrees and decide on the internal rules of the national parliament, says Riza Turmen, an opposition lawmaker and a former judge of the European Court of Human Rights. “He can decide to call early elections, he appoints the head of the general staff, the members of the board of higher education, rectors of state universities, members of the Constitutional Court, and [some] members of the Supreme Board of Judges and Prosecutors,” says Turmen.

Turkish Presidents, including Abdullah Gul, Erdogan’s predecessor, have heretofore refrained from using the full range of these powers. “But Mr. Erdogan is a different case,” says Turmen. “One difference is that he will be the first directly elected President of Turkey. The other is character. He wants to control everything.”

It’s not as if voters hadn’t been warned. “When you look at our Constitution,” he said in a recent interview, “there is no article that limits actions of a President.” Ruling party officials have signaled that Erdogan will set up something resembling a presidential Cabinet. Last week, the progovernment press reported that Erdogan would enter his new office in Ankara accompanied by an army of 400 advisers.

Erdogan had made it clear throughout his campaign he would remain a partisan leader. He vowed to forge ahead with a number of controversial projects, including the construction of a third Istanbul airport, and to destroy what he refers to as Turkey’s parallel state. “I will not be an impartial President,” he recently said.

To Erdogan’s rivals, the odds in Sunday’s election had been stacked in Erdogan’s favor from the beginning. “It was never fair play from Day 1,” his main opponent Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said last week. “According to the regulations, candidates cannot get any financial support from public funds, but the Prime Minister uses [government] funds, he travels in the official planes, he uses all the official means, the support of the government, provincial TV stations, and inaugurates projects that have been implemented for long years,” he said. “He presents everything as a success of his candidacy.”

On Sunday, Ihsanoglu received 38.5% of the vote. The candidate of the People’s Democratic Party, Selahattin Demirtas, received 9.8%, a surprisingly strong showing for the first openly Kurdish politician to bid for high office in Turkey.

The question now on the minds of most Turks is who will succeed Erdogan to the premiership. A number of names are said to be in the hat, but most observers suspect Erdogan will end up playing puppet master. “He wants someone who’s slavishly loyal, who doesn’t have his own political aspirations,” Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Global Source Partners, says. It will likely be a weak candidate “who will channel his style, his wishes, and his objectives.”

Erdogan’s own aspirations seem clear. Come 2015, when parliamentary elections are due to take place, the new President is likely to make one final push for a new constitution and U.S.-like executive presidency. Otherwise, says Yesilada, he risks losing control over the state and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP.

“For now, senior members of the bureaucracy will be reporting to Erdogan just because they’re afraid, or because they see no other way out, “ he says. “But this is not formal power. [Without a new constitution] the possibility of rebellion for one reason or another is very real.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Erdogan Plans to Go From Premiership to Presidency

Turkey's PM Erdogan greets AK Party members at a meeting where he is named as his party's candidate for the country's first direct presidential election in Ankara
Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets Justice and Development Party members at a meeting, in which he is named as his party's candidate for the country's first direct presidential election, in Ankara on July 1, 2014 Umit Bektas—Reuters

The Turkish PM wants to transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial post into an executive seat of power, but some say he's overplaying his hand

It was fine pantomime, but it was also a sign of political things to come.

Back in May, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s famously irascible Prime Minister, lost his temper at an official function as a prominent lawyer berated his government. “This kind of rudeness is unimaginable,” he yelled. “You’re lying.” Turkey’s President, Abdullah Gul, tried to calm Erdogan but failed. The Prime Minister eventually made it known he was leaving the venue in protest. Then, in a gesture that seemed to be far less of an entreaty than a command, he motioned for the President to do likewise. Gul, obligingly, made his way toward the door.

On Tuesday, less than two months later, Erdogan confirmed what his body language had earlier suggested — that the key decisions about Turkey’s political future were his to make, that he would be the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) candidate in an Aug. 10 presidential election, and that Gul, his political ally, would head for the exit.

In an emotional speech at an AKP rally in Ankara in front of 4,000 party faithful, Erdogan pledged to transform the office to which he aspires from a largely ceremonial post into the main node of executive power. “This is no simple technical change,” he said, referring to a constitutional amendment that will see Turkey’s President elected by popular vote for the first time. “A President elected by the people and not by Parliament … is a turning point for democracy,” he said. “A popular election will invest the presidency with strong legitimacy and real meaning.”

To most Turks, Erdogan’s decision to enter the race did not come as a surprise. Earlier this year, the AKP decided to cap at three the number of terms that its members can serve in parliament, a rule that would have prevented Erdogan from returning as Prime Minister. Gul, meanwhile, confirmed that he would not run for re-election over the weekend.

Over the past year, Erdogan has had to contend with a series of antigovernment protests, a major corruption scandal, fallout from the deadliest industrial disaster in Turkish history and, most recently, a hostage crisis in Iraq. He appears to have weathered it all. Most opinion polls now give him over 50% of the vote, enough to defeat his main challenger, Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu, a former head of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, in the first round.

Ihsanoglu has practically “no chance” of stopping Erdogan’s march toward the presidency, says Turkish columnist Kadri Gursel, as the candidate of an opposition that is “incapable of managing political processes, perceptions and political communication.” The two main opposition parties waited until mid-June to unveil the septuagenarian Ihsanoglu as their joint candidate, ensuring that he would remain an unfamiliar, untested product by the time Turks went to the polls. Days later, several members of the secularist opposition made it clear Ihsanoglu was far from their preferred nominee.

Tuesday’s announcement may have put an end to the speculation about Erdogan’s political future, but it has left a number of other questions unanswered. Turks still have no clue as to who will replace Erdogan as Prime Minister should he win, and whether he intends to stay on in his current job should he lose.

But if Erdogan does win the presidency, says Gursel, it will only strengthen his iron grip over Turkish politics and his party. “It will be the continuation of his premiership,” he says, “and even in a more powerful manner”

“Erdogan will dictate the main lines of policy that should be followed and the [new] Prime Minister will apply them,” he says. “This will be one-man rule.”

Others think that Erdogan risks overplaying his hand. “He thinks he’ll get the majority in the 2015 parliamentary election, change the constitution and [implement] a presidential system, but I think it’s going to be difficult,” says Cenk Sidar, managing director of consultancy firm Sidar Global Advisors, based in Washington, D.C. In the end, “he may get stuck as regular President, a figurehead,” he says.

Erdogan himself appears confident he will remain Turkey’s de facto leader for the foreseeable future, constitutional changes or not. Across the country, his face beams from billboards proclaiming “Target 2023,” the year when Turks will celebrate the centenary of their republic. Erdogan plans to be master of ceremonies. Should he win the presidency, then repeat in 2019, he will get his wish.

“Today,” he said on Tuesday, announcing his bid for the presidency, “we are getting ready for a beautiful journey.”

TIME

Syrian Refugees in Turkey Begin to Wear Out Their Welcome

Syrian Refugees in Turkey
A Syrian refugee family from Aleppo stays under a shelter during a rainy day on March 8, 2014 in Uskudar, Istanbul. Bulent Kilic—AFP/Getty Images

Turkey was home to less than 200,000 Syrian refugees at the start of 2013, but the patience of many Turkish citizens is running thin as that figure hovers around 700,000. With no sign of the conflict in Syria abating, that number is expected to more than double this year

“We had work, we had a big home, four rooms, two floors,” Farid says, his wife, Ghada, and children sitting beside him. “Ghada used to make carpets. We lived side by side with a few other families. It was crowded, but not like this.”

“This” is what passes for Farid’s new family home: a small room in a dank, filthy basement in Eminonu, an Istanbul neighborhood, packed with two carpets, a single light bulb, four wafer thin mattresses and a shelf. Nine other Syrian families live in the same building, crammed into two floors. Farid, 27, a farm laborer, arrived here last summer, he says, his Aleppo neighborhood engulfed by fighting between anti-regime rebels and government forces, his old house devastated beyond repair.

Work in Istanbul hasn’t been easy to find. Occasionally, the odd construction job comes along, paying 20-30 lira ($10-15) per day. Ghada and the kids spend their days panhandling in the nearby tourist district. “We can afford food,” says Farid, “but not medicine, not diapers.”

For Turkey, the trickle of refugees that began in late April 2011, soon after the start of violence in Syria, has turned into a flood. At the start of 2013, the country was home to 171,000 officially registered Syrians. Today, that number has climbed to 736,000, according to Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency. By the end of the year the government expects to receive another 750,000 refugees.

Turkey’s border camps and container cities, accommodating about 220,000 Syrians, have been praised as some of the world’s best. The bulk of the refugees, however, live outside the camps, most of them in large cities, many of them in abject poverty. Officially, they number about 500,000. Some estimates put the figure at close to a million. A recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think tank, underscored their plight: 86 percent of Syrian children living outside the camps have no access to education. Many of them, much like their parents, are forced to work illegally with no social security and often for less pay than Turks, or to beg.

Amidst reports of rising crime and sectarian tensions in border areas, as well as competition for jobs, the refugees have started to wear out their welcome. In a January poll, 55 percent of Turks said their country should close its doors to fleeing Syrians. Of these, 30 percent insisted that it should send back those already here. Thus far, the mainstream political parties have not taken the bait, declining to indulge in any populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Though reports of open hostility are relatively few and far between, the potential for unrest is growing. Last May, after a car bomb attack in a Turkish town killed more than 50 people, angry locals clashed with Syrian refugees, sending hundreds fleeing.A man in Gaziantep, a large city near the border, recently told ICG analysts his neighbors were “sleeping with guns under their pillows” out of fear that Syrians would break into their houses. On Wednesday in Ankara, the country’s capital, a number of people were injured when locals set fire to a building inhabited by refugees after a street brawl.

Turkey never expected the war in nearby Syria to play out as it has. Three years ago, as peaceful protests gave way to an armed rebellion and as the first of the fleeing Syrians arrived, officials in Ankara predicted that Bashar Assad’s days were numbered. Today, with the war having claimed 150,000 lives, Assad still in power, and with no end to the fighting in sight, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan is facing a bitter reality: the refugees might be here to stay.

Ankara, says Kemal Kirisci, director of the Turkey Project at the Brookings Institution and the author of an upcoming paper on the refugee crisis, never had a long-term strategy for integrating the Syrians. To this day, he says, “these challenges are being addressed on an incremental basis.” Without a comprehensive plan to provide them with adequate shelter, food, education and work, he warns, Syrians living outside the camps risk turning into a permanent underclass.

It won’t be for lack of trying. Officials here point out that the government has extended healthcare access to all Syrians in Turkey, that work has begun on a facilitated employment system, and that a plan to put more Syrian children in school is in the pipeline. But they draw the line at citizenship. “Naturalization is not in our agenda,” says one. Foreign aid, he adds, “has been below all expectations.” Of the $3.5 billion that Turkey claims to have spent on helping the refugees, less than $200 million came from outside donors.

Inside Farid’s ramshackle Istanbul house, an older relative holds a child in one arm, an empty pack of pills in the other. The boy is visibly sick, his nose running, one of his eyes dimmed by fever, the other swollen shut. A fetid stench fills the air, so thick it seems to slow down the flies haloing above Farid and his family. One of the kids has diarrhea, says Ghada. She tucks her youngest son under her robe to breastfeed him.

I ask Farid if he ever regrets coming here. “No,” he says. “We’ve nowhere to go back to.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Erdogan Wins Big, Thinks Bigger

Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in Ankara on March 30, 2014.
Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters in Ankara on March 30, 2014. Kayhan Ozer—AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party (AKP) drubbed its secular rivals in local elections over the weekend, vindicating him from charges of corruption and giving him a mandate to settle scores with his enemies

For Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it wasn’t so much a vote as a highly anticipated verdict. It read, at least to his eyes: Acquitted of all charges by popular demand.

Since last summer’s Gezi Park protests, and even more so since a corruption scandal burned a hole through his government in December, Erdogan has fended off calls for his resignation by challenging his opponents to a showdown at the ballot box. The only authority entitled to deliberate the charges leveled against him, he has argued, is the court of public opinion.

On Sunday, with his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) drubbing the secular opposition in local elections by a roughly 15-point margin, Erdogan claimed vindication.

Shortly before midnight, with results still coming in, and with the AKP projected to win roughly 45 percent of the overall vote, Erdogan addressed a crowd of thousands from the balcony of his party’s Ankara headquarters. “Through the ballot box, the people have sent a message to Turkey and to the rest of the world,” he said to loud cheers. “We are here. You will not sidestep the Turkish people. We own this country.”

Erdogan, an exceptional orator, had campaigned relentlessly, everywhere, and to the point of losing his voice. Banners, billboards and posters emblazoned with his picture and the words “Iron Will”, in capital letters, lined the streets of each Turkish city. At the countless AKP rallies where the Turkish leader made an appearance, local candidates were the side dish. Erdogan was invariably the main course.

For the Prime Minister, the run-up to Sunday’s election has been arguably the most challenging, turbulent period of his twelve years at the top of Turkish politics. In December, four of his ministers resigned — one of them urging his boss to follow suit — after a sweeping investigation exposed copious evidence of corruption at the highest levels of government. Ever since, hundreds of files from the probe, as well as seemingly unrelated wiretapped conversations, have made their way onto the Internet, implicating Erdogan, his family, and his officials in yet more scandals.

Likening the allegations to a “coup”, Erdogan resorted to increasingly repressive measures to stifle them. In February, his government adopted a law allowing the national telecoms agency to block access to certain websites within hours. When that failed to stem the leaks, the authorities pulled the plug on Twitter. Less than a week later, and hours after a recording of a key national security meeting began making the rounds on the web, they blocked YouTube.

To judge by the election results, none of this seems to have fazed the AKP’s constituents. Corruption is to some extent programmed into Turkish politics. As long as the ruling party makes the economic pie bigger, says Asaf Savas Akat, a professor at Istanbul’s Bilgi University, Turkish voters don’t mind if it helps itself to a generous slice.

Erdogan has already made it clear that he intends to capitalize on his big win by settling accounts with his enemies, not least the Gulen movement, a powerful Islamic sect that he and many others in Turkey consider “a parallel state,” and the driving force behind the graft investigation.

“The time has come for the traitors to reckon with this country,” Erdogan said on Sunday, referring to the Gulenists. “Their plan was chaos. We will enter their caves. We will make them pay.”

The list of other potential traitors, fears Atilla Yesilada, a political analyst with Global Source Partners, might quickly grow longer. “The man who shuts down Twitter and YouTube is not going to stop at just that,” he says. A further clampdown on what Erdogan calls the “partisan media” might not be long in coming.

A renewed mandate has also made Erdogan the master of his own political destiny. Whether he has it in mind to rewrite the AKP’s internal rules and stay on as Prime Minister for a fourth term, or to run in August’s presidential elections, says Yesilada, the choice is entirely his. No one in the ruling party will be in any position to stop him. “You’ve got to remember,” says Yesilada, “these 320 AKP guys [in parliament] mostly owe their political careers to Erdogan’s long coattails.”

The Prime Minister himself remains ambiguous about his preferred option. Still, in his balcony speech he pledged that he would remain at the center of Turkish politics for the foreseeable future. “We will try to devote ourselves to whatever mission we are endowed with,” he said.

At a popular teahouse in Kasimpasha, the conservative Istanbul neighborhood where Erdogan grew up and where he now enjoys cult status, a few locals weighed in on what that mission should be.

“He shouldn’t have to stop being Prime Minister,” opined Ibrahim Sariturk, a caterer. The largely ceremonial role of president would take power away from him, he said. “The people need him,” he said. “They need him to keep on serving the nation.”

Gokhan Ulker, a young cargo worker sitting nearby, agreed. “Under the current system,” he said, “Erdogan would be too weak a president.”

“We need him to be strong,” he said, smacking his palm on the table for emphasis, “because we are a country under threat from agents, from foreign powers, from you, and from the parallel state.”

“It might not sound like a democratic solution, but this country needs one man rule,” he said. “We don’t need it for the sake of it,” he qualified. “We just need it for Erdogan. Because we are sure of him as our leader.”

TIME Ukraine

Russian Separatism Gains Ground in Eastern Ukraine

Pro-Russia supporters gather and wave Russian flags in Lenin Square in Donetsk, March 16, 2014.
Pro-Russia supporters gather and wave Russian flags in Lenin Square in Donetsk, March 16, 2014. Alessio Romenzi

After Russia's de facto annexation of Crimea, questions loom over the status of other parts of Ukraine where many remain sympathetic to Russia

Andrey Serdiuk, a miner, had set up shop about 16 km north of Donetsk, on the highway leading to Luhansk, right next to a traffic-police station. He and about a dozen other men, some of them clad in bright safety vests, some in track suits and some in military fatigues, had come here from nearby towns, he said, to stop Ukrainian army vehicles from reaching the Russian border. “If any of them come here, we’re ready to lie on the road to stop them from passing,” says Serdiuk.

But if tanks bearing the Russian tricolor were ever to come from the opposite direction, Serdiuk made clear, he and his men would be happy to see them through.

“We don’t want to live in one country with fascists,” says Petr Bogomol, another miner, using the slur frequently aimed at the interim government in Kiev, which has been running the country since the Feb. 22 ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych. “We want a union with Russia,” he says, “and we want federalization.”

“We don’t want bloodshed, but if need be we’ll do as our grandfathers did in the World War and we’ll defend our land,” Serdiuk says. “Western Ukraine has become a cancer.”

In and around Donetsk, a region where 38% of the population identifies as ethnic Russian and where only a minority considers Ukrainian their mother language, few people have any appetite whatsoever for war, but separatist sympathies are decidedly strong. In an opinion poll conducted in February, 33% of the region’s residents declared they would support joining Russia. What that number might be today — with Russian troops massing across the border, with Crimea in Russian hands and with the interim Kiev government struggling to win legitimacy in the east — is anyone’s guess.

In late February, the new authorities played right into the hands of Donetsk’s pro-Russian propagandists when parliament annulled a 2012 law allowing regions to use Russian as a second official language. The government has since tried to undo the damage, repeatedly making the point that it represents all Ukrainians. At the beginning of March, the interim President, Oleksandr Turchynov, vetoed the repeal of the old language law. On Tuesday, just as Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to sign a treaty annexing Crimea, Ukraine’s Prime Minister pledged to give regions like Donetsk new powers to determine their own education and culture policies and to run their own police forces.

It isn’t so much the Kiev government’s new charm offensive that resonates with Donetsk’s residents, says Igor Todorov, a pro-Western professor at Donetsk National University, as it is the threat of a Russian invasion. Instead of inspiring ethnic Russians in Ukraine to turn east, he reckons, “Putin’s aggression in the Crimea is backfiring.” Core pro-Russian supporters still dream of seceding from Ukraine, he says, but many others have grown wary of Moscow.

Kirill Cherkashin, an associate professor at the same university and one of Donetsk’s leading pro-Russian voices, believes the exact opposite. After the Crimean referendum, he estimates, local support for union with Russia has swelled to around 60%. “Ukraine isn’t going to take care of us like Russia will,” he says. In terms of culture, religion and language, he says, Donetsk has more in common with Moscow than Kiev. “Russia is like our mother. Ukraine is like our mother-in-law.”

Mother, he admits, has her flaws, but those pale in comparison with the perceived horrors that await Donetsk under a pro-Western, pro-E.U. administration in Kiev. Echoing the narrative aired by Putin and the Russian state media, many here see the events that forced Yanukovych from power as a takeover by far-right, fascist elements; the nationalists in the government that replaced him, they claim, are descendants of the Nazi collaborators who ran amok in western Ukraine during the World War II. Having to choose between Kiev and Moscow, Cherkashin says, is like “having to choose between Hitler and Stalin.” He frames his choice — Stalin — as not the lesser of two evils, but rather the good over the bad.

Meanwhile, Moscow is sending mixed signals. On Friday, following clashes between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian protesters in Donetsk, Russia warned that it reserved the “right to take people under its protection.” What it chose to ignore is that the previous night’s violence appeared to have been instigated by a large pro-Russian group, which attacked a smaller group of rival protesters. At least one man died in the fighting.

By Tuesday, Russia had appeared to backtrack somewhat, with Putin declaring that military intervention in eastern Ukraine was not on the table. Amid reports of clashes in Crimea and of Russian provocations inside Ukraine, however, the possibility of armed confrontation remained.

On Donetsk’s main square, less than a hundred yards from the spot where a 22-year-old member of a Ukrainian nationalist party was stabbed to death in Thursday clashes, a group of several dozen men huddled near a large statue of Lenin. Some of them had been camping out in the area for weeks, they said, protecting the statue from pro-Ukrainian demonstrators who might seek to topple it. The pro-Ukrainians, having decided to stop holding rallies after Thursday’s killing, were nowhere to be seen.

Several others among the group had embraced an additional cause. They were members of the so-called People’s Militia of Donbass, a local pro-Russian group that had been picketing and storming government buildings across the city, they said, and they were collecting signatures for a referendum on Donetsk’s future.

“In seven hours we got 15,000 signatures,” one of them tells TIME, pointing to a stack of papers that a gust of cold wind had blown across the square. They were planning to present them to the regional government. In the 15 minutes I spent with the men, this reporter did not see anyone sign up.

And what if the local government refused to entertain their referendum demand? “We’d ask for Russia to help,” Yevgeniy, a port worker, replies. What kind of help? “Military intervention in Donetsk.”

Miles away — past the luxury-shop-studded streets of Donetsk, past the marble palaces of the city’s notorious billionaire oligarchs, past potholed side roads and dilapidated, gray apartment buildings and an overpass on which someone had painted the words “The USSR lives,” in large white letters — the miners at the highway checkpoint have a similar answer. They have no reason to look forward to Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, they say, because they have no one to vote for. The new government “was a bunch of fascists.” The old one, they say, “turned out to be a bunch of traitors and thieves.” So who can they still trust? Bogomol laughs. “Putin!”

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