Ahead of meeting, Turkey expects Russia to help rein in Syrian forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watch demonstration flights during the opening of the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia, August 27, 2019. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via REUTERS

By Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan will seek steps from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to safeguard Turkish troops in the face of an offensive by the Syrian army in the country’s northwest when the two leaders meet on Tuesday, a senior Turkish official said.

Erdogan, who is making a one-day visit to Russia, told Putin last week that attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were causing a humanitarian crisis and threatened Turkey’s national security.

The official told Reuters that the security of Turkish soldiers in Syria would be one of the key topics at the meeting. The meeting is due to start at 1:30 p.m. (1030 GMT), with a joint statement to be issued at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT).

“We expect Russia to use its influence over the regime on this matter. If there is even the smallest attack on Turkish soldiers, we will retaliate against this,” the official said.

Syrian troops have encircled rebels and a Turkish military post in northwest Syria in an offensive to reclaim territory and towns the government lost early in the war. Turkey has supported some rebel factions in the northwestern Idlib region, while Russia and Iran back Assad.

The military observation post near the town of Morek is one of 12 that Ankara established in northwest Syria under a deal with Moscow and Tehran two years ago to reduce fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels.

“Any step or attack that would violate the agreement should be avoided, but unfortunately we see examples of these in recent times,” the official said. “We expect Putin to take steps that will alleviate the problem there.”

Erdogan and Putin hold frequent talks and have forged close ties focused on energy and defense cooperation. In July, Turkey began taking delivery of Russian S-400 missile defense systems – a move that strained ties with Ankara’s NATO ally the United States.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday that delivery of the second battery of the S-400 system would begin on Tuesday.

As well as putting Turkish troops in the region in the firing line, the advances of Assad’s forces have threatened Ankara’s hopes of preventing a fresh wave of refugees – including fighters – on its southern border.

The United Nations says more than 500,000 people have been uprooted since the Syrian army began its offensive in late April, most of them escaping deeper into the rebel bastion and toward the border. Turkey opened its border at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and now hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

“The necessary measures need to be taken to prevent a migrant wave from there to Turkey. Measures should be taken against any problems that may arise on this issue,” the official also said.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Erdogan says Turkey to turn elsewhere if U.S. will not sell F-35s

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting of his ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey, July 26, 2019. Cem Oksuz/Presidential Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Turkey would turn elsewhere for fighter jets if the United States will not sell it the F-35 jets, adding that a U.S. decision to cut Ankara from the program would not deter it from meeting its needs.

The United States said last week it was removing NATO ally Turkey from the F-35 program, as long threatened, after Ankara purchased and received delivery of Russian S-400 missile defenses that Washington sees as a threat.

Washington has also threatened to impose sanctions on Turkey, though Ankara has dismissed the warnings. It has instead put its trust in sympathetic comments from U.S. President Donald Trump, who has said that Turkey was treated “unfairly”. However, Trump has not ruled out sanctions on Turkey.

Erdogan, speaking publicly about the strained U.S. ties for the first time in 11 days, said he hoped U.S. officials would be “reasonable” on the question of sanctions, adding that Turkey may also reconsider its purchase of advanced Boeing aircraft from the United States.

“Are you not giving us the F-35s? Okay, then excuse us but we will once again have to take measures on that matter as well and we will turn elsewhere,” Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party.

“Even if we’re not getting F-35s, we are buying 100 advanced Boeing aircraft, the agreement is signed… At the moment, one of the Boeing planes has arrived and we are making the payments, we are good customers,” he said. “But, if things continue like this, we will have to reconsider this.”

Russia’s Rostec state conglomerate said Russia would be ready to supply its SU-35 jets to Turkey if Ankara requested them. But, Turkish officials said on Thursday there were no talks with Moscow on alternatives to the F-35 jets for now.

Ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained over a host of issues. Turkey has also been infuriated with U.S. support for the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria, a main U.S. ally in the region that Ankara sees as a terrorist organization.

Ankara has warned that it would launch a military operation in northern Syria to wipe out the YPG if it could not agree with Washington on the planned safe zone in the region, saying it had run “out of patience.”

However, Erdogan said on Friday that Turkey is determined to destroy the “terror corridor” east of the Euphrates river in Syria no matter how talks on the safe zone conclude, as Ankara ramped up its threats of an offensive.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Russian S-400s will be fully deployed by April 2020

FILE PHOTO: First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that the Russian S-400 missile defense system, parts of which have been delivered to Turkey over the past four days, would be fully deployed in April 2020.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system has raised tensions with its NATO allies, particularly the United States, which has warned Turkey that it will respond with sanctions.

Speaking at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on the third anniversary of 2016’s attempted coup, Erdogan said eight planes had already brought parts of the Russian system and more were coming, as he had repeatedly promised.

“With God’s permission, they will have been installed in their sites by April 2020,” he told the crowd.

“The S-400s are the strongest defense system against those who want to attack our country. God willing, we are doing this as a joint investment with Russia, and will continue to do so.”

U.S. officials have said that in addition to being hit with legislation aimed at preventing countries from purchasing military equipment from Russia, known as CAATSA, Turkey could be thrown off the F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

That would mean it would no longer make F-35 parts or be able to buy the jets it has ordered.

On Sunday, Erdogan said that U.S. President Donald Trump has the authority to waive sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian air defense systems and should find a “middle ground” in the dispute.

Tensions between Turkey and Western allies have risen in recent months over the purchase of the S-400 system, with a series of other actions taken by the NATO member state compounding the situation.

German and Austrian ministers said on Monday that the European Union would endorse a symbolic punishment for Turkey over what it calls “illegal” drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus and threaten harsher sanctions unless Ankara changes tack.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had said on Sunday that Turkey will continue drilling for gas in waters off Cyprus if the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government does not accept a cooperation proposal put forward by Turkish Cypriots.

After sacking the central bank governor this month, citing differences over the timing of rate cuts, Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey would make serious cuts to interest rates and aims to reduce inflation to single digits by the end of the year.

In his first remarks since taking office nine days ago, new governor Murat Uysal was reported as hinting at rate cuts, saying there was “room for maneuver” in monetary policy.

Turkey’s benchmark interest rate was hiked to 24% last September to stem a sharp fall in the lira and has remained there to prevent renewed losses in the currency as the economy tumbled into recession.

Ratings agency Fitch downgraded Turkey’s sovereign rating to BB- on Friday, saying the central bank chief’s dismissal heightened doubt over the authorities’ tolerance for a period of slower growth.

On Monday, agency S&P Global said Turkey’s credit rating is only likely to be affected by U.S. sanctions if they specifically target the country’s banks.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Turkey rejects U.S. ultimatums, says it will not back down on Russian S-400s

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo - RC1BFE102410

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not back down from its decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems despite U.S. warnings that it will lead to Ankara’s exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet program, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday.

In what has become the main source of tension between Ankara and Washington, the NATO allies have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s, which Washington has said could trigger U.S. sanctions.

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan last week sent his Turkish counterpart a letter warning that Ankara would be pulled out of the F-35 jet program unless it changes course from its plans to install the defenses.

In what was Turkey’s first direct response to the letter, Cavusoglu said no one can give Turkey ultimatums.

“Turkey will not back down from its decisions with these kinds of letters,” he said. “Turkey bought S-400, it is going to be delivered and stationed in Turkey.”

The S-400s are not compatible with NATO’s defense systems and Washington says they would compromise its F-35s, which Turkey also plans to buy. Turkey has proposed that the allies form a working group to asses the impact of the S-400s, but has yet to receive a response from the United States.

Cavusoglu on Thursday repeated Turkey’s call for the joint working group, saying experts from both countries should come together to evaluate U.S. concerns.

A day earlier, President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey had completed the deal with Russia and that the systems will be delivered in July. Russia has said it will begin the delivery of the systems in July.

Erdogan also said that Ankara would challenge its potential removal from the F-35 program on every platform and hold those who exclude Turkey accountable.

The United States has threatened to impose sanctions on Ankara under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the possibility of which has spooked investors and caused a selloff in the lira this year.

The lira stood at 5.8460 at 1029 GMT on Thursday, weakening from around 5.8320, where it stood prior to Cavusoglu’s speech. It was down some 0.7% from Wednesday’s close.

While Turkey has dismissed the U.S. warnings, Washington has said discussions are taking place with Ankara on selling Turkey rival Raytheon Co-Patriot defense systems. But, Erdogan has said the U.S. offer was not “as good as the S-400s”.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has said Turkey is working on a response to Shanahan’s letter and that it will be delivered in coming days.

The ministers later spoke by telephone on Thursday and discussed the letter, Turkey’s defense ministry said, adding that Akar had “emphasized the improper wording not in line with the spirit of the Alliance” in the letter during the call.

Israel’s deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said the strains between Turkey and the United States could help strengthen ties with Israel and boost the country’s participation in the F-35 program.

“It could also very much be that..the State of Israel will get another portion within the framework of the F-35 and additional things which, in part, were meant to have been transferred to factories in Turkey,” he told Army Radio.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Angus MacSwan)

Erdogan’s AK Party challenges Istanbul, Ankara election results

Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul, wait for him to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party has submitted objections to local election results in all districts of Istanbul and Ankara, party officials said on Tuesday, after results showed the opposition earned narrow victories in both cities.

The AK Party is on track to lose control of what are Turkey’s two biggest cities, its commercial hub of Istanbul and the capital Ankara, in a surprise election setback that may complicate Erdogan’s plans to combat recession.

In Istanbul, the mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ekrem Imamoglu, and his AKP rival, ex-prime minister Binali Yildirim, both said on Monday Imamoglu was around 25,000 votes ahead. Istanbul has an estimated total population of 15 million.

The AKP had previously said it would use its right to object to the results where there were voting irregularities, adding that the errors at the ballots had affected the outcome.

On Tuesday, Bayram Senocak, the AKP’s Istanbul head said that objections had been submitted by the 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) deadline for appeals, and added that legal action would be taken against electoral officials who made the errors.

“We have submitted all our appeals to the district electoral councils,” Senocak said, as he waved ballot records in which he said vote count irregularities could be seen.

An AKP deputy chairman later said the difference between Imamoglu and Yildirim was down to 20,509 votes and would keep falling as a result of their appeals. He said the elections were “the biggest blemish in Turkish democratic history.”

The CHP’s Istanbul head Canan Kaftancioglu said her party submitted objections in 22 districts, adding they expected to receive 4,960 more votes after the appeals were resolved.

“They are trying to steal the will of the people as it was reflected in the ballots,” she told reporters in Istanbul.

The CHP’s Imamoglu said on Tuesday he was saddened by the AKP failure to congratulate him after the election board count put him ahead.

“I’m watching Mr Binali Yildirim with regret. You were a minister of this nation, the parliament speaker and a prime minister,” Imamoglu said in Istanbul. “What could be more noble than congratulating?”

“The world is watching us with shame right now. We are ready to manage the big city of Istanbul. Let go and congratulate us with honor, so we can do our job,” he said.

“MOMENT OF BEGINNING”

Ahead of the elections, the CHP had formed an electoral alliance with the Iyi (Good) Party to rival that of the AKP and their nationalist MHP partners. The alliances nominated joint candidates in certain cities, including Ankara and Istanbul.

Imamoglu, who laid a wreath at the mausoleum of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, later went to CHP headquarters to meet Mansur Yavas, the opposition’s candidate in the capital. Speaking at the CHP building, Imamoglu said the elections marked a “moment of beginning” for Turkey.

In Ankara, Yavas received 50.9 percent of votes, ahead of his AKP rival and former minister Mehmet Ozhaseki in Sunday’s local elections by nearly 4 percentage points. The AKP said it had also submitted objections to results across Ankara.

Defeats in Ankara and Istanbul would be a significant setback for Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years. He had campaigned relentlessly ahead of the vote, describing it as a “matter of survival” for the country.

Erdogan’s political success has rested on years of stellar economic growth in Turkey, but an economic recession that has brought surging inflation and unemployment and a plunging lira currency have taken their toll on his popularity.

Uncertainty generated by the local elections has added to pressure on the lira, which weakened sharply last week as a lack of confidence in the currency among Turks led them to snap up record holdings of dollars and gold.

On Tuesday the lira weakened more than 2 percent against the dollar on concerns about tensions with the United States after it halted delivery to Turkey of equipment related to the F-35 fighter aircraft.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans. Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

U.S. sends message to Turkey, halts F-35 equipment shipments

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft is seen at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo

By Mike Stone and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States has halted delivery of equipment related to the stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday, marking the first concrete U.S. step to block delivery of the jet to the NATO ally in light of Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

In recent days, U.S. officials told their Turkish counterparts they will not receive further shipments of F-35 related equipment needed to prepare for the arrival of the stealthy jet, two sources familiar with the situation told Reuters on Monday.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down from Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system that the United States has said would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft.

“Pending an unequivocal Turkish decision to forgo delivery of the S-400, deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability have been suspended,” Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Mike Andrews, a Defense Department spokesman, said in a statement.

Turkey has said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters the next shipment of training equipment, and all subsequent shipments of F-35 related material, had been canceled. The aircraft is built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

The disagreement over the F-35 is the latest of a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey including Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran.

A Pentagon official had told Reuters in March that the United States had a number of items it could withhold in order to send Turkey a signal that the United States was serious about Ankara dropping its ambition to own the S-400.

Turkish officials in Ankara were not immediately available for comment.

NATO SUMMIT

The U.S. decision on the F-35s was expected to complicate Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu’s planned visit to Washington this week for a NATO summit. The latest development in the F-35 dispute came a day after Erdogan suffered one of his biggest electoral losses in decades in local elections.

Reuters reported last week that Washington was exploring whether it could remove Turkey from the production of the F-35. Turkey makes parts of the fuselage, landing gear and cockpit displays. Sources familiar with the F-35’s intricate worldwide production process and U.S. thinking on the issue last week said Turkey’s role can be replaced.

The United States and other NATO allies that own F-35s fear the radar on the Russian S-400 missile system will learn how to spot and track the jet, making it less able to evade Russian weapons in the future.

In an attempt to persuade Turkey to drop its plans to buy the S-400, the United States offered the pricier American-made Patriot anti-missile system in a discounted deal that expired at the end of March. Turkey has shown interest in the Patriot system, but not at the expense of abandoning the S-400.

Turkey has engaged with U.S. negotiators in recent days about buying the Patriot system, a person familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity. The system is made by Raytheon Co.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar in March said that despite some issues, Turkish pilots were continuing their training at an air base in Arizona on the F-35, each of which costs $90 million, and that Ankara was expecting the aircraft to arrive in Turkey in November.

U.S. lawmakers also have expressed alarm over Turkey’s planned purchase of the Russian system. Four U.S. senators last week introduced a bipartisan bill that would prohibit the transfer of F-35s to Turkey until the U.S. government certifies that Ankara will not take delivery of the S-400 system.

(Reporting by Mike Stone and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; Editing by Chris Sanders and Will Dunham)

Erdogan suffers major setbacks in local elections in Turkey’s big cities

Supporters of AK Party wave flags in Ankara, Turkey April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Orhan Coskun and Can Sezer

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan suffered stunning setbacks in local elections as his ruling AK Party lost control of the capital Ankara for the first time since the party’s founding in 2001, possibly complicating his plans to fight back recession.

Both the AKP and the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) claimed victory in Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city and economic hub. The AKP said it had “plenty of” evidence of voting irregularities in Istanbul.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics since coming to power 16 years ago and ruled his country with an ever tighter grip, campaigned relentlessly for two months ahead of Sunday’s vote, which he described as a “matter of survival” for Turkey.

But his daily rallies and overwhelmingly supportive media coverage failed to win over voters in the two main cities, as last year’s punishing currency crisis weighed heavily on Turks.

“The people have voted in favor of democracy, they have chosen democracy,” said opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, whose secularist CHP also held its Aegean coastal stronghold of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city.

The AKP and its Islamist predecessor have controlled Istanbul and Ankara for 25 years. The results, which were still being tallied and faced appeals, would likely bring personnel changes at the highest ranks of government, according to sources inside and close to the AKP.

IRREGULARITIES

In Istanbul, the county’s largest city, the CHP mayoral candidate was more than 25,000 votes ahead of his AKP opponent as the last votes were being counted, according to the country’s electoral board and CHP data.

But AKP Istanbul provincial head, Bayram Senocak, said voting irregularities had had an impact on the outcome and insisted that Erdogan’s party had won.

In Ankara, Turkish broadcasters said the CHP candidate had won a clear victory, but the AKP said it would appeal in districts across the city and expected to shift the outcome in its favor.

Erdogan’s ruling alliance, including the nationalist MHP, captured 51.7 percent of the nationwide vote with nearly all votes counted, according to state-owned Anadolu news agency. The turnout was a very high 84.52 percent.

Despite eking out majority support across the country, defeat for Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted party in Ankara was a significant blow for the president. The possibility of losing Istanbul, where he launched his political career and served as mayor in the 1990s, was an even greater shock.

The Turkish lira, which swung wildly https://tmsnrt.rs/2CEaO11 in the week ahead of the elections echoing last year’s currency crisis, weakened on Monday as much as 2.5 percent against the dollar before recovering early losses.

An AKP official and a source close to the party predicted a cabinet shuffle or other changes among those around Erdogan, especially given the loss in Istanbul.

“There will certainly be changes in some places, such Erdogan’s close circle in the party and the cabinet,” said the official, who requested anonymity. “Markets expect that there will be a change in the cabinet. This makes a change necessary.”

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Ece Toksabay, Tulay Karadeniz and Nevzat Devranoglu in Ankara, and Daren Butler, Ali Kucukgocmen, Behiye Selin Taner, Ceyda Caglayan, Ebru Tuncay and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, and Karin Strohecker in London; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Gareth Jones)

Erdogan fights to hold Turkey’s cities in bitter election battle

An election banner of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, with the Byzantine-era monument of Hagia Sophia in the background, is pictured in Istanbul, Turkey, March 28, 2019. REUTERS/Murad Sezer

By Dominic Evans and Ali Kucukgocmen

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Less than a year after Tayyip Erdogan celebrated election triumph with fireworks in Ankara, Turkey’s all-powerful leader faces the embarrassment of losing his capital in local polls marred by bitter campaign rhetoric and economic storm clouds.

Erdogan has ruled Turkey for 16 years with an ever-tightening grip and his June 2018 national election victory vastly expanded his presidential powers, alarming Western allies who fear Turkey is drifting deeper into authoritarianism.

But the 65-year-old president could be brought down to earth on Sunday when Turks vote in municipal elections which threaten to inflict the first defeat for his Islamist-rooted AK Party in Ankara or the country’s biggest city and business hub, Istanbul.

Erdogan has portrayed the vote as an existential choice for Turkey, blasting his domestic opponents as terrorist supporters and even invoking the New Zealand mosque killings as examples of the broader threats he says Turkey faces.

“It is a matter of survival against those who want to divide this country and tear it to pieces,” he told hundreds of cheering supporters at a rally earlier this month in central Istanbul’s Eyup Sultan district, next to a 19th-century mosque.

He has toured the country for weeks speaking up to eight times a day – a punishing routine which showcased the supreme campaigning skills that have made him the most popular and powerful leader since modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

It also highlighted, his critics say, Erdogan’s growing reliance on divisive rhetoric since a currency crisis in August ended years of strong economic growth which had helped deliver successive election wins for his AKP, attracting support from well beyond its conservative Muslim core.

A steep fall in the lira last Friday revived memories of last year’s meltdown, and provoked a flurry of stop-gap measures to halt a slump on the eve of voting which could erode support.

For many Turks, the vote is all about whether Erdogan can still deliver a decent standard of living.

“A crushing majority of people – including of course voters from the government party and its partners – think the economy is the number one problem in Turkey,” said political analyst Murat Yetkin.

Some polls give the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate in Ankara, Mansur Yavas, a lead over his AKP rival. In Istanbul, where the AKP is fielding former prime minister Binali Yildirim, the race appears close with the CHP.

Other cities may also be seized by the secularist opposition party.

REFERENDUM ON ERDOGAN

Analysts caution against reading too much into polling data – Erdogan won a first-round presidential victory last year, defying many expectations – and even if the AKP were to lose, it would not diminish the president’s official powers.

But those very powers that he assumed last year leave him increasingly exposed when things go wrong.

“The whole system has been so centralized around one individual that even a municipal election is a referendum on Erdogan himself,” said Wolfango Piccoli, co-president of Teneo political risk advisers.

Defeat in either city would bring to an end a quarter century of rule by Erdogan’s AKP and its Islamist predecessors, and deal a symbolic blow to a leader who launched his career in local politics and served as mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s.

For two months he has addressed rally after rally, repeating well-honed presentations that include campaign songs, gifts of tea to supporters and lists of AKP achievements from garbage clearing to home building and infrastructure mega-projects.

Overwhelmingly supportive media broadcast hours of live coverage. Campaign posters proclaim that Istanbul is “a love story” for the AKP, and municipal duties are a “labour of love”.

But Erdogan also promises his political opponents he will “bury them in the ballot boxes” just as Turkey’s armed forces have killed militants from the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which he regularly links to the pro-Kurdish HDP party.

In the speech in Eyup Sultan he said CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu, an election ally of the HDP, was “arm in arm” with a terrorist organization. “Who is behind him? Terrorists are behind him. Mr Kemal is walking together with them”.

The CHP and HDP deny any links to the PKK.

To his passionate supporters, Erdogan is speaking a self-evident truth. “I see, I hear, and I believe what I see and hear – not just what Reis (the chief) says,” Ismail Zeybek, a 40-year-old electrician, said at the rally.

Others say that by portraying the vote as a question of survival, the president is splitting his country. “What kind of relation could there be between local elections and existence? He is trying to win votes by polarizing,” said Mert Efe, a resident of Istanbul’s Besiktas district, a CHP stronghold.

When a lone gunman opened fire in two mosques in New Zealand a fortnight ago, Erdogan said if anyone tried to come to Turkey to do harm they would be sent back “in caskets” like Australian and New Zealand troops who fought Ottoman soldiers in Gallipoli a century ago.

He repeatedly showed extracts from the gunman’s manifesto, which he said threatened Turkey and Erdogan himself, as well as blurred footage from the shooting itself – even after New Zealand’s foreign minister flew to Turkey to ask him to stop.

“Looking at the rhetoric he is using, we have never seen this before on a municipal level. It’s unprecedented,” Piccoli said. “This concentration of power is running short of ideas, that is why he is pushing more and more this nationalist, religious agenda.”

In the final days of campaigning Erdogan also revived calls for Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia museum – the foremost cathedral in Christendom for 900 years and then one of Islam’s greatest mosques for 500 years until 1935 – to become a mosque again.

FOUR MORE YEARS?

After winning a 2017 referendum on his powerful executive presidency, and then last year’s hard-fought parliamentary and presidential elections, Erdogan could in theory enjoy the next four years free from electoral challenge.

A poor showing on Sunday, however, would strain his parliamentary alliance with the nationalist MHP party, raising the possibility that Erdogan could be back on the campaign trail sooner than the next scheduled national elections in 2023.

If the AKP suffers a “large-scale shock” involving the loss of both Ankara and Istanbul, or saw the share of the vote taken by the AKP/MHP alliance fall well below 50 percent, it would be a clear sign that Erdogan’s party is on the wane, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe.

“That would have consequences over time. It would make it more difficult to hold onto power through 2023, especially given that this perceived political weakness would be combined with the economic slowdown,” Ulgen said.

If the vote does not go the way Erdogan hopes, he will be faced with a more immediate decision on Sunday night.

Asked whether he plans to address supporters again as he did triumphantly from his AKP headquarters in Ankara last June, Erdogan said his balcony speech had become an election night tradition.

“We did this in every election. I think it would not be right if we didn’t do it at this election. But we have not sat down with colleagues to make this decision yet.”

(Additional reporting by Omer Berberoglu and Daren Butler; Editing by Pravin Char)

Turkish prosecutor seeks extradition of NBA’s Kanter over Gulen links: Anadolu

FILE PHOTO: Dec 29, 2018; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; New York Knicks center Enes Kanter (00) warms up prior to the game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish prosecutors are seeking the extradition of New York Knicks center Enes Kanter over his links to the U.S.-based cleric accused of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

Kanter, a vocal critic of President Tayyip Erdogan, was indicted by a Turkish court last year over alleged membership of an “armed terrorist group” after being contacted repeatedly by people close to Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen.

The Istanbul prosecutors’ office was not immediately available to comment on the report on Wednesday.

Anadolu said on Tuesday prosecutors had sought the issue of a “red notice” for Kanter, an Interpol request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.

It said the extradition request includes social media comments made about Gulen by Kanter, who has often declared his support for the cleric.

Kanter took to Twitter to deny any wrongdoing.

“The Turkish Government can NOT present any single piece of evidence of my wrongdoing,” he said. “I don’t even have a parking ticket in the U.S. (True)

“I have always been a law-abiding resident.”

He later added: “The only thing I terrorize is the rim.”

Turkey previously revoked Kanter’s passport and declared him a fugitive for his support of Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of being behind the attempted putsch of July 2016 – an accusation Gulen denies.

In May 2017, Kanter was refused entry into Romania because of the cancellation of his Turkish passport.

Earlier this month, Kanter said he would not go to London for a game with his NBA team because he fears he could be assassinated for criticizing Erdogan.

“If it’s for his own safety I don’t want to see a guy get harmed,” Washington Wizards Sam Dekker, who will be up against the Knicks in London, told Reuters.

“Hopefully it will get worked out with him but it’s a tough situation. It’s never a good thing to see a guy not playing for personal reasons.”

Since the putsch attempt, some 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 150,000 state employees including teachers, judges and soldiers have been suspended or dismissed in a crackdown on alleged supporters of Gulen.

Kanter holds a U.S. green card that allows him to live and work in the country on a permanent basis.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Daren Butler; Additional reporting by Martyn Herman, Editing by David Dolan, William Maclean)

Syrian surprise: How Trump’s phone call changed the war

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Orhan Coskun and Lesley Wroughton

ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a cross-border attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, U.S. officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation, Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly. To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, U.S. officials said. When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

On a visit to a U.S. air base in Iraq this week, Trump said that military commanders had repeatedly requested extensions for the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria – requests that he finally turned down because he said Islamic State was largely beaten.

“We’ve knocked them silly. I will tell you I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan who wants to knock them out also, and he’ll do it,” he told American troops.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

RISK FOR TURKEY

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Islamic State.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The U.S. withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of the border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government – which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria – and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack.

And if Turkish forces are to take on Islamic State in its last pocket of Syrian territory near the Iraqi border, they would first have to cross 250 km of territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute. “He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Erdogan has for years backed rebels who once hoped to topple Bashar al-Assad, but the Syrian president’s survival has been assured by support from Tehran and Moscow even though the north and east – including Syrian oilfields – remain beyond Assad’s control for now.

As it takes stock of the new challenge, Turkey is launching intensive talks with Washington and Moscow. Ankara expects U.S. military officials to visit within days, as well as Bolton and possibly the U.S. special Syria envoy, James Jeffrey.

Turkey’s intelligence chief and defense and foreign ministers are also due in Moscow on Saturday, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said.

“Of course it will be difficult. The whole issue needs to be planned again from the start,” a Turkish security official said.

A U.S. official said military planners were drafting plans that could see a withdrawal over the course of several months. One of the proposals under consideration is a 120-day withdrawal period, according to a person familiar with discussions.

Washington is also grappling with what to do with weapons it provided to the YPG militia and promised to take back after the campaign against Islamic State ended.

Turkey says the weapons must be collected so they are not used against Turkish troops, but U.S. officials say they cannot disarm their own allies when the fight is not yet over.

Erdogan announced last week Turkey is postponing its planned military operation against the YPG in light of Trump’s decision.

The Turkish military has already carried out two incursions into north Syria, backed by pro-Turkey Syrian rebels. In 2016 they targeted Islamic State and Kurdish fighters, and earlier this year took control of the YPG-held Afrin region.

But Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies alone do not have the capacity to take over the whole region which the United States is abandoning, Cagaptay said. Turkey’s priority, therefore, may be to secure its southern frontier.

“Distancing the YPG from the border and wiping out these elements is of critical importance,” the security official said.

He stressed the need for careful coordination over who should fill other areas which departing U.S. forces will leave, and warned of problems ahead if agreement could not be reached.

“Is it a big victory for Turkey?” another official said. “I’m not sure right now.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)