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Turkey: Next Stop Civil War?

“You may deceive all the people part of the time, and part of the people all the time…”, begins Abraham Lincoln’s famous aphorism about democracy – but in a multi-party democratic system, that is usually enough. In a parliamentary system like Turkey’s, 49 percent of the popular vote gives you a comfortable majority of seats, and so Recep Tayyib Erdogan will rule Turkey for another four years. If it lasts that long.

There will still be a Turkey of some sort in four years’ time, of course, but it may no longer be a democracy, and it may not even have its present borders. In last Sunday’s vote Erdogan won back the majority he lost in the June election, but the tactics he employed have totally alienated an important section of the population.

Kurds make up a fifth of Turkey’s 78 million people. Most Kurds are pious, socially conservative Sunni Muslims, so they usually voted for Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party – which consequently won three successive elections (2003, 2007, 2011) with increasing majorities.

Then the Kurds stopped voting for Erdogan, which is why he lost last June’s election. In this month’s election he managed to replace those lost votes with nationalist voters who are frightened of a Kurdish secession and simple souls who just want stability and peace – but he had to start a war to win them over.

Erdogan threw Turkey’s support firmly behind the rebels when the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, mainly because as a devout Sunni Muslim he detested Bashar al-Assad’s Alawite-dominated regime. He kept Turkey’s border with Syria open to facilitate the flow of volunteers, weapons and money to the Islamist groups fighting Assad, including the Nusra Front and ISIS (which eventually became Islamic State).

He even backed Islamic State when it attacked the territory that had been liberated by the Kurds of northern Syria. That territory extends along the whole eastern half of Turkey’s border with Syria, and in the end, despite Erdogan’s best efforts, the Syrian Kurds managed to repel ISIS’s attacks. But this was the issue that cost Erdogan the support of Turkish Kurds.

His solution was to restart the war against the PKK, the armed separatist movement that is based in the Kurdish-speaking northern provinces of Iraq. A ceasefire had stopped the fighting between the Turkish government and the PKK for the past four years, but Erdogan now needed a patriotic war against wicked Kurdish separatists in order to lure the nationalists and the naive into backing his party.

He duped the United States into supporting this war by allowing US bombers to use Turkish airbases and promising that Turkish planes would start bombing Islamic State too.
(In fact, Turkey has dropped only a few token bombs on IS; the vast majority of its bombs are falling on Kurds.)

The pay-off came on Sunday, when the votes of Turks who fear Kurdish separatism replaced the Kurdish votes that the AK Party lost last June. The problem is that the election is now over but the war will continue.

Indeed it will get worse. The Turkish army is already shelling the Syrian Kurds, and warning that it may invade if the Syrian Kurdish proto-state (known as Rojava) tries to push further west and shut down the last border-crossing point that links Turkey to Islamic State.

At home, the independent institutions of a normal democratic state have been subverted one after another: the media, the police, and the judiciary now generally serve Erdogan. State television, for example, gave 59 hours of coverage to Erdogan’s campaign in the past month. All the other parties combined got 6 hours and 28 minutes.

So Erdogan’s AK won the election, but Turkey is no longer a real democracy. And since the half of the population that didn’t vote for Erdogan utterly loathes him, it won’t be a very stable authoritarian state either. In fact, it is probably teetering on the brink of civil war.

The people who loathe Erdogan because he is destroying Turkey’s free media, perverting its criminal justice system and robbing the state blind – he and his AK colleagues have been enthusiastically feathering their nests – will not turn to violence. The poor will not turn to violence either, even though the economic boom is over and jobs are disappearing.

But some of the Turkish Kurds will fight, and they will have the support of the Syrian Kurds just across the border. That will probably draw the Turkish army into invading northern Syria to crush the Kurds there – and once Turkey is fully involved in the Syrian civil war, all of southeastern Turkey (where Kurds are the majority) also becomes part of the combat zone.

When Mustafa Kemal Ataturk rescued a Turkish republic from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, he was determined to make it a European state. It was a fairly oppressive state at first, but over the decades it gradually turned into a democracy that operated under the rule of law.

That’s over now. It took Erdogan a dozen years in power to demolish that European-style democracy, but the job is done. As one despairing Turk put it recently, Turkey is becoming a Middle Eastern country.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 11 and 12. (“He duped…Kurds”; and “At home…civil war”)

Erdogan’s War

The death toll from the twin suicide bombs at a peace rally in Ankara on Saturday has reached 128. The Turkish police were not present to provide security (they never are at “opposition” events), but they did show up to fire tear gas at the mourners afterwards.

Who did it? Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu offered three possibilities: the Kurdish separatist organisation PKK; anonymous “extreme leftists”; or Islamic State. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the pro-Kurdish HDP party that organised the rally, offered a fourth alternative: people trying to advance the interests of President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) party.

The atrocity certainly served Erdogan’s strategy of creating an atmosphere of fear and impending calamity before the elections on 1 November, in which he hopes to get back the parliamentary majority he lost in the June elections. But it’s hard to believe that the AK Party has suicide-bombers at its disposal: it is an Islamic Party, but nothing like that extreme.

It’s equally unlikely to have been the work of the PKK, because a very large proportion of the people at the rally were Kurds. Moreover, the PKK is a secular organisation, which makes it an improbable source of suicide-bombers. The suggestion that “extreme leftists” were responsible is ridiculous: what would be their motive? Which leaves ISIS, aka Islamic State, as the probable perpetrator.

ISIS uses suicide-bombers as a matter of course, and it is certainly angry at President Erdogan. He treated it quite well in the early years of the Syrian civil war, keeping the Turkish border open for its volunteers to flow across by the thousands. He even closed the border to Kurds who wanted to help the defenders of Kobani, a city in the northern, Kurdish-majority part of Syria – a siege that lasted four months and ended in an ISIS defeat.

Erdogan is a deeply religious Sunni Muslim. He wanted to see the overthrow of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (Shia) ruling a mostly Sunni country, and he didn’t much care who the opposition were so long as they were Sunnis. He also didn’t want to see a Kurdish mini-state appear just across Turkey’s southern border, so he preferred an ISIS victory over Syria’s Kurds.

But his priorities changed after he lost the June election. Now his own power was at stake, and to keep it he needed a crisis. In fact, he needed a war.

Assuming that the AK Party would not only win its fourth straight election this year but gain a 60 percent majority of the seats in parliament, Erdogan moved on from ten years as prime minister and got himself elected president last year. The presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but with a 60-percent “super-majority” he could change the constitution and make it all-powerful.

But his party didn’t get 60 percent of the seats in the June election. It didn’t get a majority at all: only 258 seats in the 550-seat parliament. The main reason was that the HDP, a party demanding that Turkey’s one-fifth Kurdish minority be treated as equal citizens in every respect, including language, managed to get into parliament.

Most of the HDP’s voters were Kurds, including many conservative and religious Kurds who had previously voted for Erdogan’s party, but its secular and liberal values also persuaded many ethnic Turks to vote for it. It only got 13 percent of the vote, but that was above the 10-percent threshold a party must exceed to win any seats in parliament at all.

The arrival of the HDP changed the parliamentary arithmetic and deprived the AK of its majority. Erdogan could have opted for a coalition, but he was stranded in the powerless presidency, unable to change the constitution, and could not even personally be part of such a coalition government. So he decided to gamble on another election.

The Kurdish votes were not coming back to the AK Party, and the only other possible source were the ultra-nationalists who had been alienated by his peace talks with the PKK. (The talks began and the shooting stopped four years ago, although the official ceasefire was only declared in 2013.)

Now he needed to re-start the war against the PKK, and that would be most unwelcome to his American allies. He solved the problem by saying he would attack ISIS and other “terrorists”, which got Washington on board – but since the Turkish air strikes began in July, they have hit twenty PKK targets for every strike against ISIS. It’s not even clear that Turkey has finally shut its Syrian border to ISIS volunteers.

The PKK is fighting back, of course, but ISIS has not been appropriately grateful that Turkey is only bombing it (quite lightly) for diplomatic reasons. It is almost certainly responsible for all three mass-casualty attacks using suicide-bombers in Turkey this year.

There is only one consolation in all this: Erdogan’s electoral strategy doesn’t seem to be working. A poll last month showed that 56 percent of Turks hold him directly responsible for the new war. The polls also show AK’s share of the vote falling, and that of the HDP rising. Erdogan is facing defeat, and he richly deserves it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Most…election”)

Russia Goes to War in Syria

It all happened very fast, in the end. On Monday Russian President Vladimir Putin was at the United Nations in New York saying that the United States was making “an enormous mistake” in not backing Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in his war against Islamist rebels, notably including “Islamic State” (or ISIS, as it used to be known).

On Tuesday the upper chamber of the Russian parliament unanimously voted to let President Putin use military force in Syria to fight “terrorism”, in response to a request from the Syrian government.

And on Wednesday morning the Russian warplanes started bombing rebel targets in Syria. Moscow gave the US embassy on Iraq one hour’s notice, requesting that US and “coalition” warplanes (which are also bombing Islamic State targets in Syria) to avoid the airspace where the Russian bombers were in action.

And Donald Trump, bless his heart, said “You know, Russia wants to get ISIS, right? We want to get ISIS. Russia is in Syria — maybe we should let them do it? Let them do it.”
And for once, Trump is right. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day.

If you want to stop ISIS, you have to do it with troops, and the only ground troops fighting ISIS in Syria are the Syrian army and the Kurds along the northern border with Turkey. But the US has been duped by Turkey into betraying the Kurds, and it will not use its airpower to help the Syrian army, which is now on the ropes.

That’s why Palmyra fell to Islamic State forces in May. Despite all the other American airstrikes against ISIS forces in Syria, it made not one to help the Syrian forces when they were desperately defending the historic city, and so they eventually had to retreat. It was more important to Washington not to be seen helping Assad than to save the city.

This is a fine moral position, as Assad’s regime is a deeply unattractive dictatorship. Indeed, the great majority of the 4 million Syrians who have fled the country were fleeing the regime’s violence, not that of ISIS. But if you don’t want the Islamist extremists to take over the country (and maybe Lebanon and Jordan as well), and you’re not willing to put troops on the ground yourself, who else would you help?

Washington’s fantasy solution to this problem has been to create a ‘third force’ of rebels who will somehow defeat Islamic State while diplomacy somehow removes Assad. But the other big rebel organisations in Syria, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, are also Islamists, little different from ISIS in their ideology and goals. In fact al-Nusra is a breakaway faction of ISIS, now affiliated with al-Qaeda. (Remember al-Qaeda? Chaps who did the 9/11 attacks?)

If Assad goes down, it is Islamic State, al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham who will take over Syria, not the pathetic little band of fighters being trained by the United States in Turkey. In fact the first group of them to cross back into Syria were immediately annihilated by ISIS, who had probably been tipped off by America’s not very loyal ally, the Turkish government.

If the Russians believed that the United States was willing to do the heavy lifting needed to defeat the Islamists and save the Assad regime, they would probably be more than happy to stand back and let America do it. It was the American invasion of Iraq, after all, that created ISIS, and almost all of Islamic State’s leaders are veterans of the resistance in Iraq.

But Putin hears only high-minded rhetoric utterly detached from reality when he listens to Barack Obama. Russia has a large Muslim minority at home, and it is very much closer to the Middle East than the United States is. So if the Americans won’t do what is necessary, he will.

Putin does not make the same meaningless distinctions between Islamic State and the other Islamist groups that the United States insists on. The first Russian air strikes were on territory held by al-Nusra, not Islamic State. But the Russians will hit ISIS too. In fact, the first big operation will probably be an attack by a re-equipped Syrian army to retake Palmyra, heavily backed by Russian air power.

Putin has said that he will not commit Russian ground forces to combat in Syria, for the Russian public doesn’t want to see its soldiers involved in another war against Islamists after their miserable experience in Afghanistan in 1979-89. But the resolution in the Duma didn’t make any promises about that, and we may yet see Russian ground troops fighting in Syria too.

Whether Putin’s intervention will be enough to save Assad remains to be seen. The carping commments in the Western media about how he wants to distract attention from Russia’s involvement in the Ukrainian civil war and restore Russia’s position as a great power are true enough – indeed, he is probably shutting down the fighting in Ukraine mainly to clear the decks for Syria – but that is not his primary motive.

He is just doing what needs to be done.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 10, 11 and 13. (“If…will”; and “Putin has…too”)

Will Turkey Stop Backing the Islamists in Syria?

For Turks, the burning question after last weekend’s election is whether they will now get the fully democratic, pluralist country that so many of them want. The defeat of President Tayyip Recep Erdogan’s AK Party does open that prospect, although translating it into reality will be very difficult. But for everybody else, the question is whether Turkey will stop backing the Islamist insurgents who are on the brink of winning in Syria.

Compared to the head-choppers of ISIS and the only slightly less extreme Al Nusra Front that now dominate the military campaign against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, Erdogan – the “Sultan”, as his devoted supporters often call him – is a very moderate Islamist. But his support for those two organisations is the main reason that they have been winning so many battles recently.

Turkey shares a 800-km border with Syria, and for four years Erdogan’s government has left it open for arms, supplies and foreign recruits to flow to the Syrian Islamists. When Al Nusra seized most of the strategically important Idlib province last March after three years of trying, Damascus claimed that a major reason for its loss was that Turkey had jammed the Syrian army’s telecommunications.

In March, according to reports by the pro-rebel Al Jazeera network, Erdogan even made a pact with Saudi Arabia to coordinate assistance to the Syrian rebels – most of which flows through Turkey. But all that could change quite quickly if Erdogan’s party cannot form a government that supports this policy – and the signs are that it cannot.

The Turkish election was not about Erdogan’s policy in Syria. It was, above all, about his ambition to become a mini-Putin who would dominate Turkey into the foreseeable future. In order to achieve that goal, he gave up the prime ministership and got himself elected to the relatively powerless and ceremonial office of president in 2014. But his intention was to transform the presidency into the all-powerful centre of political power in Turkey.

Changing Turkey from a parliamentary system to a country ruled by an executive president would require a constitutional change, which can only be done by a “super-majority” of three-fifths of the votes in the 550-seat parliament. Since 2002 Erdogan’s party had won three successive elections with ever-increasing majorities, so he was confident that he could pull it off. He was wrong.

Turkish voters didn’t even give him a majority of the seats in parliament. Too many people had turned against this always angry and abusive man who condemns his political opponents as “terrorists, marginals, gays and atheists,” and who now wanted to consolidate his position as the unchallengeable “Sultan” of Turkey.

Erdogan began as a reformer whose entirely reasonable and legitimate goal was to end the Turkish state’s open hostility to the more pious members of its overwhelmingly Muslim population. It was an historical leftover from the time, some 90 years ago, when Kemal Ataturk trying to build a modern, secular state in the face of huge opposition from religious conservatives, but it had no place in a 21st-century democracy.

Erdogan broke the power of the army, which had repeatedly carried out coups in alleged defence of the “secular” state, and deeply conservative and religious Turks who had felt excluded from that state rewarded him with their votes in three successive elections. But as his confidence grew he stopped bothering to accommodate the views of the younger and mostly urban half of the population whose values were liberal and secular.

The Turkish media, once relatively free, came under such concentrated attack that by 2012 there were more journalists in jail in Turkey than anywhere else in the world. The government’s response to public protests became more and more violent, and Erdogan’s determination to gather all power into his own hands became more and more evident.

More than one-fifth of AK Party’s voters abandoned the party in this election. They weren’t abandoning their religion; they were just still committed to the party’s original aim of a democratic Turkey that respected everybody’s rights (including their own). Most of them migrated to the new People’s Democratic Party, which also welcomes Kurds, gays, and non-Muslim religious minorities and strongly promotes gender equality.

Erdogan will find it hard to form a coalition with any of the three big opposition parties in parliament – none of which support his policy of backing Islamist extremists in the Syrian civil war. He will have 45 days to try to form a government, and if that fails Turkey will probably face another election before the end of the summer.

It is unlikely that the AK Party can improve its position in a second election: once the illusion of invincibility has been shattered, it is very hard to rebuild. What follows may be a coalition government made up of opposition parties that find it hard to agree on most things – but none of them share Erdogan’s fondness for ISIS and its friends. If Assad can hang on in Syria until the end of the summer, he may yet survive.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“Erdogan…evident”)