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Turkey

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Turkey: Seventeen Seconds

The key fact is that the Russian plane, by Turkey’s own admission, was in Turkish airspace for precisely seventeen seconds. That’s a little less time than it takes to read this paragraph aloud. The Turks shot it down anyway – and their allies publicly backed them, as loyal allies must.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared: “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our NATO ally, Turkey.” President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to assure him that the United States supported Turkey’s right to defend its sovereignty. But privately, they must have been cursing Erdogan. They know what he’s up to.

This is the first time in more than fifty years that a NATO plane has shot down a Russian plane, and it happened in very suspicious circumstances.

Even if Turkish radar data is to be believed, the two Russian SU-24s only crossed the bottom of a very narrow appendix of Turkish territory that dangles down into Syria. As Russian President Vladimir Putin said: “Our pilots, planes did not threaten Turkish territory in any way. ” What harm could they have done in seventeen seconds?

Moreover, the two Turkish F-16s that brought one of the Russian planes down had only seventeen seconds to get into position to fire their air-to-air missiles over Turkish territory. It would have been hard to do, in that confined space, without crossing into Syrian territory themselves.

According to the Russian radar data, it was the Turkish planes that crossed into Syrian territory. In this version of the story, the Russian planes were following a well-established route just south of the Turkish border, probably turning into a bomb run against Syrian rebels in Latakia province. How strange that there was a Turkish TV crew in northern Syria, positioned just right to film the incident. (The Russsian plane crashed 4 km. inside Syria.)

Either way, it seems quite clear that President Erdogan really wanted to shoot down a Russian aircraft, and that the Turkish pilots were under orders to do so if they could find even the slightest pretext. So why would Erdogan want to do that?

President Putin said bitterly that Erdogan and his colleagues were “accomplices of terrorists”. That’s hard to deny: Erdogan is so eager to see Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad overthrown that he left the Turkish-Syrian border open for four years so that recruits and supplies could reach the Syrian rebel groups, notably including Islamic State (IS).

Putin also observed that “We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from IS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving.”

Black-market oil is Islamic State’s largest source of revenue, and almost all of it goes to Turkey – which could not happen without the Turkish government’s active connivance. And when the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, was driving Assad’s forces back in northwestern Syria last spring, Turkey jammed the Syrian army’s telecommunications to help the rebels win.

Erdogan is utterly determined that Assad must go, and he doesn’t really care if Assad’s successors are Islamist extremists. But he also wants to ensure that there is no new Kurdish state on Turkey’s southern border.

That is a problem for him, because that state already exists in embryo. It is called Rojava, a territory that the Syrian Kurds have carved out in the far north of the country along the Turkish border, mainly by fighting Islamic State. Indeed, the Syrian Kurds are the US-led coalition’s only effective ally on the ground against IS.

When Erdogan committed the Turkish air force to the Syrian war in July, he explained it to the United States as a decision to fight against Islamic State, but in fact Turkey has made only a token handful of strikes against IS. Almost all Erdogan’s bombs have actually fallen on the Turkish Kurds of the PKK (who had been observing a ceasefire with the Turkish government for the past four years), and above all on the Syrian Kurds

Erdogan has two goals: to ensure the destruction of Assad’s regime, and to prevent the creation of a new Kurdish state in Syria. He was making some progress on both objectives – and then along came the Russians in September and saved the Syrian army from defeat, at least for the moment.

Worse yet, Putin’s strategy turns out to quite pragmatic, and even rather attractive to the United States despite all the ritual anti-Russian propaganda emitted by Washington. Putin wants a ceasefire in Syria that will leave everybody where they are now – except Islamic State, which they can all then concentrate on destroying.

This strategy is now making some headway in the Vienna ceasefire talks, but it is utterly abhorrent to Erdogan because it would leave Assad in power in Damascus, and give the Syrian Kurds time to consolidate their new state. How can he derail this Russian-led project?

Well, he could shoot down a Russian plane, and try to get a confrontation going between Russia and NATO.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“Moreover…themselves”; and “Putin…win”)

Terrorism: A Relatively Minor Issue

By sheer coincidence, a book I wrote called “Don’t Panic: Islamic State, Terrorism and Today’s Middle East” was published just before the terrorist attacks in Paris. So naturally everybody interviewing me about the book asked me if it is time to panic now. They couldn’t resist it. And of course I replied no, it is not time to panic.

If a train derailed in the Paris Metro, killing 130 people and injuring over 300, the story would dominate the news in France for around 24 hours, 48 hours tops. In other countries it would definitely be only a one-day story: just one more transport accident, in a world where trains collide, planes crash and ships sink from time to time.

But if it’s not an accident – if human beings deliberately caused those deaths – then the media feeding frenzy starts. The story is twenty times as big, and it can dominate the news schedules for a week. Most people in Europe, North America and the Middle East have watched at least several hours of coverage of the Paris events and their aftermath – as long as a feature film – and even in more distant parts of the world it has been the event of the week.

There is nothing puzzling about this phenomenon. It’s perfectly natural for people to be more interested in murder than in mere mechanical malfunctions. But the sheer volume of the coverage makes a terrorist attack feel like a much bigger event than it actually is. Even if you live a very long way from where the real action is.

If you live in Syria, the threat isn’t just terrorism. Islamic State is already a major threat to the many Syrians it hates (Shias, Christians, Druze, and even Sunni Muslims who have worked for the government or fought in the army). If IS gained control of the whole country, the number of Syrian refugees would double or triple.

If you live in Iraq, you are much less at risk, for Islamic State has little hope of expanding into the Shia-dominated parts of the country still under Baghdad’s control, or into the areas under Kurdish control.

If you live in Turkey or other Arab countries – indeed, in any other Muslim country – you may face a serious threat from home-grown extremists, but all they get from IS is encouragement and maybe a bit of training. It’s really a domestic problem.

If you live in France or the United States or China, your only worry is the occasional terrorist attack that may have been encouraged by Islamic State – but the people who carry it out are mostly locals. You deal with that sort of thing just the way you dealt with other terrorist threats in the past: border controls, enhanced security measures at public events, and good intelligence.

If Western air forces want to bomb Islamic State too, by all means do so, but they will be all alone in that job. The Arab states that are allegedly part of President Obama’s “coalition” have all withdrawn their air forces and are bombing Yemen instead. And the Turks are almost exclusively bombing the Kurds (including the Kurds fighting Islamic State), except when they shoot down a Russian plane.

The Russian and “coalition” (mostly American) bombs falling on Islamic State have stopped its expansion, at least for the moment, and the recent air attacks on the tanker-trucks that carry the black-market oil out have certainly cut into its income, but it is not about to fall.

As for “boots on the ground”, forget it. The only people fighting Islamic State on the ground are the Kurds and what’s left of the Syrian army after four years of war. The Syrian army was on the brink of collapse last summer before the Russian bombing campaign saved it, and it still lacks the strength to recapture much territory. Islamic State is going to be around for a while.

Stopping Western air attacks on Islamic State might save some Western cities from terrorist attacks, but even that is not guaranteed. Islamic State is competing with al-Qaeda for support in the Muslim and especially the Arab world, and spectacular acts of terrorism are good recruiting tools. Islamic State also thinks it is following a divinely ordained script, which makes it relatively impervious to normal calculations of strategic advantage.

Does this mean terrorist attacks inspired by Islamic State will continue for months or years no matter what the West does? Probably.

Within living memory Western countries have fought real wars that killed millions of
their citizens, and they didn’t buckle under the strain. The scale of the threat they face now is so much smaller that it is ridiculous to call it a war at all, and yet they flap about like frightened poultry.

If terrorist attacks on the scale of Paris are the greatest threat facing the West, then these are very fortunate countries.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 7. (“If you live in Iraq…control” and “If you live in Turkey…problem”)

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”)