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Turkey: The Empire Strikes Back

The Ottoman Empire, like many of its Middle Eastern predecessors, had the bad habit of moving entire peoples around if they were causing trouble. And sometimes, as happened to the Armenians during the First World War, what started as deportation ended up as genocide.

The empire collapsed a century ago, but old habits die hard. Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan (whose admirers often call him ‘the Sultan’) has a new plan: he’s going to move a million Kurds away from Turkey’s southern frontier with Syria, and replace them with a million Arabs.

And if his Western allies don’t like that, he’ll dump another million or so Arabs in Europe. “Either this happens (in Syria),” he said last week, “or we will have to open the gates (to Europe).” This is a blackmail threat with teeth: it was the sudden arrival of a million Syrian refugees in Europe in 2016 that energised extreme right-wing populists from England to Hungary.

Very few of those refugees ever wound up in either England or Hungary – the great majority of them were given shelter in Germany – but their arrival gave nationalists and racists all over Europe a stick to beat their opponents with. Erdoǧan, who is an accomplished nationalist rabble-rouser himself, knows exactly what he is doing, and he may well succeed.

All this is happening because Erdoǧan is obsessed about the Kurds – or at least he knows that a lot of other Turks are obsessed about the Kurds, and he’s in political trouble at home so he needs to feed their fantasies. You can never tell with the ‘Sultan’, who has a Trump-like ability to genuinely believe whatever he happens to be saying at the moment.

To be fair, the Kurds are a real problem for the Turks. They are about a fifth of the country’s population, concentrated mostly in the south-east, and they have been mistreated and their very identity denied by the Turkish state for so long that many of them would rather be independent.

Some of them have even taken up arms against Turkey in an organisation called the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is now mostly based across the border in Kurdish-speaking northern Iraq. There was a ceasefire and peace talks early in this decade, but Erdoǧan started bombing the PKK again in 2015 when he had a tricky election to win and needed to appeal to Turkish nationalists.

Now he’s in trouble again: his party lost control of all Turkey’s big cities in the last election. Time to whack the Kurds again, and this time it’s going to be the Syrian Kurds, another fragment of the Kurdish people that lives in northern Syria, just across the border from Turkey’s Kurds. But not for much longer, if Erdoǧan has his way.

The Turkish strongman says that the Syrian Kurds are really ‘terrorists’ allied to the PKK, although there have been absolutely no attacks on Turkey from Syria during the entire eight-year Syrian civil war. What the Syrian Kurds were actually doing was defeating the real terrorists of ‘Islamic State’ in Syria, with strong air support and some ground support from the United States.

However, there is no gratitude in politics. Erdoǧan now wants to evict the Syrian Kurds from their homes and drive them south, away from the Turkish border. And to make sure they don’t come back later, he wants to settle a million Arabs there permanently instead.

There are four and a half million Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey. They’d like to go home, of course, but most of them are afraid of living under the control of Bashar al-Assad, the cruel dictator who has won the Syrian civil war. And here’s that nice Mr Erdoǧan, offering them homes in a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.

That’s not where their real homes are, but maybe they’ll be happy there once Erdoǧan has driven the Kurds out. As he said recently in Ankara, “we can build towns there in lieu of the tent cities here.” The only hitch in the plan is that the United States may feel queasy about betraying the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside American troops to destroy Islamic State.

To solve that problem, Erdoǧan is threatening to send a million or so Arab refugees west into Europe. The Europeans will panic and make the Americans go along with his plan, or so he believes. He’s probably right.

The European Union promised Turkey 6 billion euros to keep the Arab refugees in Turkey in 2016, but Erdoǧan claims that half of it was never paid (which, if true, was very stupid of the Europeans). He doesn’t owe the EU any favours, and it truly will panic if he opens the gates and sends the Arabs west.

Donald Trump wants US troops out of Syria before next year’s election, so he’ll probably give in to Erdoǧan (and the Europeans). But the Syrian Kurds will probably fight to protect their homes.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“Very…succeed”; and “The European…west”)

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.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Most…election”)

Turkey Joins the War – Sort Of

Last Friday, Turkey joined the war against Islamic State (IS), the terrorist-run entity that now controls eastern Syria and western Iraq. After four years of leaving the border open for supplies and recruits to reach IS, the Turkish government sent planes to bomb three IS targets in Syria.

At the same time, Ankara ended a four-year ban on its anti-IS “coalition” allies using the huge Incirlik airbase near the Syrian border. There was rejoicing in Washington, since coalition aircraft (mostly American) will now be much closer to IS targets in Syria, and Turkey will also presumably close its border with Syria at last. But there may be less to this change than meets the eye.

On Saturday, Turkey broke a two-year ceasefire with the PKK, a Kurdish revolutionary group that fought a 30-year war to establish a separate state in the Kurdish-majority southeast of Turkey. In fact, since then Turkey has carried out considerably more air strikes against the PKK than it has against IS.

The Turkish army has even shelled territory controlled by the PYD, the Syrian branch of the PKK, although the PYD has managed to drive IS troops out of most of the Kurdish areas of northern Syria.

So which war is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan really planning to fight, the one against Islamic State or his own private war with the Kurds? And why now?

The only person who knows the answers is Erdoğan, and he’s not saying. But you can work it out if you try.

Erdoğan has spent more than a decade subverting a secular and democratic system and establishing his own unchallengeable power. At first he was responding to real popular demands for equal civil rights for religious people and for an improvement in living standards. He delivered on his promises, and won three successive elections by increasing majorities.

But he reduced the once-free mass media to subservience, undermined the independence of the judiciary, and staged show trials of his opponents. He also allowed his own political associates to engage in massive corruption.

As his power grew, moreover, he began to indulge his obsessions. He is a deeply conservative Sunni Muslim who shares the widespread Sunni belief that Shia Muslims are not just heretics, but heretics whose power is a growing threat.

From the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, therefore, Erdoğan supported the Sunni rebels against the regime of Bashar al Assad, which is dominated by the country’s Alawite (Shia) minority – and he didn’t much mind if the Sunni rebels were head-cutting extremists like Islamic State or not. That’s why the Turkish-Syrian border stayed open, and the coalition didn’t get access to Turkish airbases.

At the same time, Erdoğan opened peace negotiations with the PKK, because conservative Kurds who voted for his party on religious grounds were an important part of his electoral base. But then his party lost its majority in parliament in last month’s election (7 June).

What cost him his majority was the new People’s Democratic Party (HDP), which seduced most of his Kurdish voters away. It’s liberal, pluralistic, all the things that Erdoğan isn’t. But conservative Kurds had already got the religious freedoms they wanted, and the HDP was also advocating equal political rights for the Kurdish minority. Of course they switched their votes.

So now, if Erdogan wants to form a coalition government (or even win a new election), he needs the support of the hard right – but they are ultra-nationalists who loathe his willingness to make deals with the Kurds. To win them over, therefore, he has started bombing the PKK.

He might be re-starting a Turkish-Kurdish civil war (the last one killed 40,000 people), but that’s a risk he’s willing to take. And on the side he has dropped a few bombs on Islamic State to make the Americans happy.

Erdoğan’s problem with Washington was that it finally had the goods on him. A US Special Forces raid in Syria last May killed Abu Sayyaf, the IS official in charge of selling black-market oil from IS-controlled wells into Turkey. The American troops came away with hundreds of flash drives and documents that proved that Turkish officials were deeply involved in the trade, which has been IS’s main source of revenue.

Turkey has now bombed a few IS targets to show willing – but if you look at the videos, the Turkish planes are launching missiles at single buildings out in open fields, not exactly where you’d expect IS to have weapons stores and command centres. It’s as if the Turkish forces were ordered to hit targets that wouldn’t do any real damage. But least the coalition gets to use Incirlik.

Is Erdoğan still in cahoots with IS? Maybe. Is he actively supporting the other big Islamist group, the Nusra Front, which dominates the battle in western Syria? Yes he is, quite openly, and the difference between these two terrorist groups is only skin-deep. So if you’re expecting a radical change in the military situation in Syria – don’t. Assad is still losing slowly, the Islamist extremists are still winning, and Turkey is still playing a double game.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 6 and 16. (“The Turkish…Syria”; “The only…try”; and “Turkey…Incirlik”)

Some Good News

22 August 2005

Some Good News

By Gwynne Dyer

Sometimes, just forcing yourself to say the right words can save thousands of lives. “The Kurdish problem is everybody’s problem, but above all mine,” said Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbekir last week. “We will solve all problems through democracy,” he added — and went on to admit that the national government, dominated by the Turkish-speaking majority, had long mistreated the Kurds who make up a fifth of the country’s people.

The rebel Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which resumed its separatist war in south-eastern Turkey last year after a five-year ceasefire, responded immediately by suspending all attacks for a month because Erdogan’s remarks had “created a positive atmosphere for a resolution.”

Can it be as simple as that? Well, no, but the words have to be said. Kurds suffered more than anybody else in the PKK’s 15-year separatist revolt in 1984-99, which killed 37,000 people. Most of them don’t insist on a separate state; they just want respect for their language and culture in a country that used to deny their very existence, calling them “mountain Turks”. But Erdogan had to convince them that he was truly committed to righting those past injustices, so they needed a public apology.

The trick now will be to turn the PKK’s one-month unilateral ceasefire into a permanent peace. That mainly depends on Erdogan persuading Turkish public opinion and his own armed forces not only to accept an amnesty for the estimated 3,000 PKK fighters who are still in the mountains, but also to let the PKK participate peacefully in legal, democratic politics.

The situation is remarkably similar in Indonesia, where the separatist rebels in Aceh province at the northern tip of Sumatra signed a peace deal with the government on 15 August after a 29-year war that killed at least 15,000 people. What opened the door to peace was the tsunami last December that killed over 200,000 of the 4 million Acehnese and gave both sides a new perspective on their long quarrel, but the words still had to be said there, too.

They were spoken first by the rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who announced last February that they would finally drop their demand for independence if only the Indonesian state would live up to its long-neglected promises of local autonomy for Aceh. The newly elected Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, had already been making conciliatory noises, so Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari’s Crisis Management Initiative offered its mediation services, and after five rounds of negotiations in Helsinki they came up with a peace deal that may actually work.

GAM’s 3,000 fighters will amnestied and disarmed, while its leaders will re-emerge as a legitimate political party. The local government will get a high degree of autonomy, including 70 percent of the income generated by the province’s rich oil and gas resources, and Jakata will withdraw more than half of its 53,000 troops and police from Aceh. The European Union and ASEAN will send monitors to settle disputes and oversee the process. And everyone will live grumpily ever after.

Even the deepest and most embittered conflicts over language, religion and ethnicity are soluble if there is enough patience and good will. In fact, the past month has seen another case where a peace settlement that almost fell apart was saved, at least for the moment, by people who simply refused to lose their heads or to jostle for political position. The Sudan peace deal is still holding, too, despite the unexpected death of its main architect, John Garang.

The 22-year civil war between north and south in Sudan has cost about two million lives, and the power-sharing deal to end it was very much the personal accomplishment of John Garang, the southern leader who became Sudan’s first vice-president in a north-south power-sharing government only last month. His sudden death in a helicopter crash early this month led to days of rioting by southerners who suspected foul play (though it was almost a certainly an accident), and hundreds of people were killed.

Garang had systematically crushed potential rivals for control of his organisation, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, but the southerners have managed to install his successor, Salva Kiir Mayardit, without falling into another internecine struggle. Moreover, the northern leadership has so far resisted the temptation to exploit the factionalism that has always been the curse of the southerners, who are deeply divided on tribal and religious lines. It’s enough to restore your faith in the concept of enlightened self-interest.

Once conflicts topple into organised violence, the rules of war generally force people to behave like intransigent fools. That doesn’t mean they really are, and given half a chance they will often behave much better and more sensibly. Democracy often gives them that chance.

Look around: rational behaviour abounds. Not just Turkey and Indonesia and Sudan. Sub-Comandante Marcos has just led his Zapatista rebels out of the Chiapas jungle with a view to influencing Mexico’s next election. The Irish Republican Army’s spokesman, “P. O’Neill”, declared late last month that the IRA “has formally ordered an end to the armed campaign. All IRA units have been ordered to dump arms.” And the incentive, every time, is the prospect that the rebels can achieve at least the more important of their goals through democratic political action.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“The 22-year…self-interest”)