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Turkish-German relations strained following spying revelations

Revelations about Germany spying on Turkey have heightened tensions between the two NATO allies.
Broken antenna covers of Former National Security Agency (NSA) listening station are seen at the Teufelsberg hill (German for Devil's Mountain) in Berlin, June 30, 2013. The United States taps half a billion phone calls, emails and text messages in Germany in a typical month and has classed its biggest European ally as a target similar to China, according to secret U.S. documents quoted by a German newsmagazine. The revelations of alleged U.S. surveillance programmes based on documents taken by fugitive for

ISTANBUL — Relations between Turkey and Germany, Ankara's key European ally, appear headed for a rough ride following revelations that the German Federal Intelligence Service (BND) has been spying on Turkey since at least 2009.

Asserting that “some principles” should always be respected in the international arena, especially between allies, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu demanded answers from Turkey's NATO partner on Aug. 18. “We are faced with a situation that must definitely be explained,” he said.

The alleged surveillance was made public by the German news magazine Der Spiegel on Aug. 16. While the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel has not publicly confirmed the allegations, German media have quoted government officials as justifying the surveillance, arguing that events in Turkey have implications for Germany’s national security given that roughly 3 million Turks and citizens of Turkish descent live in Germany.

Turkish media reported that the BND probably listened in to phone calls by Turkish officials via satellite. The reports speculated that German agents had been especially interested in details about efforts by Turkey to end the 30-year-old insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and about Ankara’s troubled relations with Israel. No official statement about the nature or the targets of the surveillance has been made available.

On Aug. 18, Davutoglu’s ministry summoned the German ambassador, Eberhard Pohl, to Turkey to tell him the BND’s actions were “not acceptable” between friends and allies. The Turks were not only angry about the eavesdropping itself, but also about comments by unidentified German officials suggesting that spying on Turkey was not as nefarious as doing the same to the United States or European Union (EU) partners, such as France or the United Kingdom. “Turkey is an ally but not a ‘friend,’” is how the Turkish daily Milliyet summed up the perceived German attitude.

Onur Oymen, a former Turkish ambassador to Germany, said the BND spying had significantly eroded trust between two countries that have close political, social and economic ties. “This is a very negative experience,” Oymen told Al-Monitor. “The lack of trust will decrease the level of cooperation and support.”

Germany is Turkey’s largest trading partner and a key country in Ankara’s bid to join the EU. Merkel has said she opposes Turkish membership but is willing to fulfill Germany’s obligations under a 2005 EU decision to conduct membership talks with Ankara. Relations between Merkel and Turkish President-elect Recep Tayyip Erdogan are said to be tense. Merkel criticized Ankara’s handling of last year’s Gezi Park riots, while Erdogan, prime minister since 2002, has accused Germany of meddling in Turkey’s internal affairs.

Oymen said the BND case would damage relations more seriously than spats in the past. He stated, “We have had our problems and disagreements, but there always was a basic trust in each other.” Oymen said that Germany should not have resorted to spying, adding, “Problems should have been tabled in talks.”

Other analysts were less certain about the fallout of the BND's spying activities. Nihat Ali Ozcan, an expert on security issues at the Ankara-based Tepav think tank, said that everyone in politics knows that countries spy on others “as much as their financial and technical capabilities allow them to.”

Ozcan told Al-Monitor that political tensions were to be expected after the BND revelations. “But relations are so multilayered that I don’t expect a serious crisis,” he said. “There will be problems, but people will move on.”

Ali Tuygan, a former high-ranking official in Turkey’s Foreign Ministry, agreed. “Countries spy on each other. That is not surprising,” he told the Turkish daily Cumhuriyet. The newspaper quoted unnamed Foreign Ministry officials as saying Ankara was anxious not to “blow up this crisis” with angry statements.

For Davutoglu, news of BND spying arrived at a critical moment. He is reported to be a front-runner in the race for the dual post of Turkish prime minister and leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) after Erdogan steps down to be sworn in as president on Aug. 28.

Davutoglu has had to be careful during the German crisis, avoiding any impression of being weak in the face of spying against Turkey, but at the same time not overdoing it with his criticism to maintain the impression of grace and statesmanship under pressure. When he commented on the case and called for an explanation from the Germans, Davutoglu was keen to stress that he had coordinated his response with Erdogan. The president-elect himself did not comment.

Oymen, the former ambassador, said Berlin should offer a formal apology to Turkey and give assurances that the spying would be stopped and not reauthorized. That way, at least some of the mutual trust between the two countries could be salvaged, he said. Ozcan, the Tepav analyst, also said a German apology would help to ease tensions, but also asserted, “The way things are between Merkel and Erdogan, an apology will be impossible.”

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