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Kurdistan’s Big Chance

Every disaster creates opportunities for somebody. If the Kurds of Iraq play their cards right, they could finally end up with the borders they want, fully recognised by a government in Baghdad that has been saved by Kurdish troops.

The Kurds have this opportunity because the large but totally demoralised Iraqi army has fallen apart over the past week. The Sunni Islamist fanatics of ISIS are now less than an hour’s drive from Baghdad, and Peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government, is the only military force left in Iraq that could take the offensive against them.

It is very unlikely that the ISIS fighters can take Baghdad. There are probably no more than 5,000 of them in Iraq, and their stunning recent victories were achieved more by frightening the Iraqi army to death than by actual fighting. Most of those ISIS troops are needed to hold down their recent conquests, including the large cities of Mosul and Tikrit.

ISIS couldn’t spare more than a thousand or so of its fighters for a push into Baghdad, which has seven million people, most of them Shias. The Shia militias, which are taking in tens of thousands of volunteers a day, don’t have much in the way of military skills, but they would fight – and street fighting in a big city eats up soldiers’s lives.

Either ISIS will not attack Baghdad, or it will try and fail. However, what remains of the Iraqi army will certainly not be able to take the offensive and drive ISIS out of all the territory that has already been lost. Short of direct Iranian or American military intervention on the ground, the only force that might be able to do that is Peshmerga.

Peshmerga has advanced to take control of territories abandoned by the Iraqi army that were historically part of Kurdistan, most notably the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields, but so far it has not tried to stop the ISIS fighters moving south. “There is no need for Peshmerga forces to move into these areas,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Ministry of Pesh Merga Affairs.

But Peshmerga forces are close enough to the roads leading south from Mosul to Baghdad to cut the ISIS line of communications and stop the advance on Baghdad if they were ordered to. The ISIS fighters have significant support from the Sunni population in the area they have overrun, so trying to drive them out of Mosul and Tikrit would cost Peshmerga many casualties, but it’s the only force in Iraq that is even in a position to try.

So the Kurdistan Regional Government must now be considering what price it could charge Baghdad for that service. As an adviser to the KRG told the Washington Post, “The Iraqi government has been holding the Kurds hostage, and it’s not reasonable for them to expect the Kurds to give them any help in this situation without compromising to Kurdish demands.”

What would the Kurds demand in return? What they want most is to recover the territories that were taken from them by the Baathist regime in Baghdad between the 1960s and the later 1980s. Under Saddam Hussein, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed and hundred of thousands driven from their lands. He then changed the provincial boundaries, and the stolen lands were repopulated with Arab settlers whom he brought in from the south.

Peshmerga troops have taken back control of much of this land in the past week, but nothing will be settled unless Baghdad formally restores the old provincial boundaries. It would also have to accept that a lot of those Arab settlers will be removed to make way for returning Kurdish families.

Such a concession would be politically impossible in normal times, but if Baghdad wants Peshmerga to fight for it, that’s the price it will probably have to pay. And it should bear in mind that the Kurds also have another option. They could just hold those territories by force, and declare independence.

The Baghdad government could do little about it: the advance of the ISIS forces means that it no longer has a common frontier with Kurdistan. In the past, the Iraqi Kurds were deterred from declaring independence because Turkey threatened to invade them if they did – Ankara worried about the impact of Kurdistan’s independence on the large Kurdish minority in Turkey – but things have changed there too.

Turkey is now the largest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan, and regards the KRG as a reliable partner. In any case, the Turkish government will have its hands full dealing with the sudden emergence of a hostile Islamic caliphate along its southern border. Kurdish independence would still be a gamble, but the odds are that it could succeed.

One way or the other, Kurdistan is probably going to be a big winner out of this. But it will probably take the lower-risk course of trying to make a deal with Baghdad first.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“ISIS…lives”; and “So…demands”)

Spain: A Handsome Apology

By Gwynne Dyer

“In Spain, a clear majority realize we have committed a historical error and have an opportunity to repair it,” said Spain’s justice minister, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón, “so I am sure the (new citizenship) law will pass with an immense majority in parliament.”. And the law doesn’t just say that Spain is sorry for expelling its Jews 522 years ago. It lets their descendants get their citizenship back.

Spain’s Jews were given only four months in 1492 to choose between becoming Christian or leaving their homes forever. Most left, settling in Muslim-ruled North Africa and the Ottoman Empire or in other parts of Christian Europe. They kept their Spanish language in the form of Ladino, and became know as Sephardic (i.e. Spanish) Jews.

The Sephardim have retained their distinctive identity, and are estimated to number up to a third of the world’s 13 million Jews today. Spain’s planned new law potentially covers almost all of them.

Applicants for Spanish citizenship need not speak Ladino or even be religious. They need only be able to show a link to Sephardic culture (it could be as little as a Sephardic family name). In most cases, the simplest route to Spanish citizenship would be to have a local rabbi certify their Sephardic ancestry, or to get certification of their Sephardic heritage from a recognized Spanish-Jewish community.

Spain’s justice minister reckons that only about 150,000 Sephardic Jews will take him up on the offer (which will remain open for two years), and he doesn’t think that many of them will actually want to move to Spain. But he promises that the government will not be strict in deciding who qualifies as Sephardic – “We are opening the door,” he said – and he may be surprised by how many actually apply.

What Gallardón has not taken into account is the fact that Spanish citizenship is, for practical purposes, citizenship in all 28 member countries of the European Union. A Spanish passport-holder can enter Britain, France, Germany, Sweden or any other EU country without a visa, take up residence there, get a job or start a business there.

Almost half of Israel’s Jews are Sephardim, and Israel is a country where second passports are in great demand. The big Sephardic communities in the United States and Mexico will probably not be tempted, but the remaining Sephardic Jews in Muslim countries, including Turkey, certainly will be. Symbolism is important, but Gallardón’s offer will also have a real impact on many people’s lives.

Portugal, which expelled its Jews shortly after Spain did, is also trying to make amends: it now grants citizenship to Sephardim who can demonstrate a connection to the Portuguese Jewish community. How much further might this example spread? Not very far, alas.

Most of the great expulsions of history have occurred in the context of war, like the compulsory “population exchange” of the Greek minority in Turkey and the Turkish minority in Greece after the First World War, or the expulsion of ten million Germans from their ancestral homes in eastern Europe at the end of the Second.

It’s because the Jews of Spain and Portugal were entirely blameless and ruthlessly victimised that there is broad popular support in both these countries for this act of apology and belated recompense. All credit to Spain and Portugal for doing it – but it probably wouldn’t be happening even there if it seriously inconvenienced the majority.

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

14 April 2014

Seymour Hersh Strikes Again

Why would anyone believe Seymour Hersh? True, he’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who broke the story of the massacre committed by US Army troops at My Lai in 1968 during the Vietnam War, and revealed the torture and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by US military police at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004. But he’s getting old (77), and he’s a freelancer, and he won’t even disclose the name of his key informant.

Whereas the US government has hundreds of thousands of people working for it just gathering and analysing intelligence, and the American media are famed worldwide for their brave defence of the truth no matter what the cost. Besides, has the US government ever lied to you in the past?

So we obviously should not give much credence to Hersh’s most recent story. It alleges that the poison gas attack in Damascus last August that killed more than a thousand people, and almost triggered a massive US air attack on Syria, was not really carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical regime (which the US wants to overthrow)

It was, Hersh says, a false-flag operation carried out by the rebel Al-Nusra Front with the purpose of triggering an American attack on Assad. If you can believe that, you would probably also believe his allegation that it was the Turkish government, a US ally and NATO member, that gave the jihadi extremists of al-Nusra the chemicals to make sarin (nerve gas) and the training to carry out the mass attack in Damascus.

Hersh even says that it was General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, who told President Barack Obama just days before the American strikes on Syria were due to start that the evidence was not strong enough to justify an American attack on the Syrian regime.

The rest of the story we already know. Obama postponed the attack by deciding, quite suddenly, that he had to get Congressional support for it. Then he cancelled it entirely once the Russians gave him the face-saving alternative of getting Assad to hand over all of his chemical weapons for destruction. There is no chance of an American attack on Syria now. But could Hersh’s back-story be true?

Not one American paper or magazine was willing to print Hersh’s story, so it was finally published in the most recent issue of the London Review of Books. The US media are still studiously ignoring the story, and the Turkish government and various branches of the US government have naturally all issued indignant denials. But the official story never made any sense at all.
By last August it was clear that Assad’s regime would eventually win the civil war unless there was some radical change in the situation (like an American bombing campaign against it). So Assad’s survival depended on not giving the United States any reason to attack him.

Barack Obama had already said that any use of poison gas by the Syrian regime would cross a “red line” and trigger an American attack. In mid-August there were United Nations inspectors in Damascus to look into two much smaller attacks earlier in 2013 that seemed to involve poison gas. And we are asked to believe that at that precise moment Assad thought it would be a neat idea to kill one or two thousand innocent civilians in the city with poison gas.

So who did it? The obvious question to ask was: Who stands to benefit from this attack? – and the answer was certainly not Assad. He would not have done this unless he was very stupid, and being wicked does not make you stupid. Whereas the rebels had every reason to do it, in order to suck American firepower in on their side.

But I must admit that it felt very lonely making this argument at the time. I had no evidence that al-Nusra, or any other rebel group, had carried out the attack. I just said that motives matter, and that Assad had no plausible motive for doing it. And of course I couldn’t say where the rebels would have got their chemical weapons from, if they did it. Hersh says: the Turks.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister for the past eleven years, has backed the Islamist rebels in the Syrian civil war from the start, and he will be in deep trouble if they lose. They WILL lose, unless either Turkey or the United States comes to their aid militarily.  Erdogan would obviously rather have the US Air force do it rather than his own armed forces. So he had a good motive for giving the rebels the poison gas.

Hersh says that he has been told by a former senior official in the US Defense Intelligence Agency that that is what happened.  You can read the details on the website of the London Review of Books. And yes, he’s old, but that just means he has been getting it right about a lot of different things for a long time.

He’s just a freelancer, but that’s why people with a whistle to blow trust him to get the story out. And no, he hasn’t got confirmation from three separate named sources. That’s not how whistle-blowing works. But he is Seymour Hersh, and I strongly suspect that he is right.

To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 11 and 14. (“Not…all”; “But…Turks”; and “He’s right”)

Egypt and Turkey

3 July 2013

Egypt and Turkey: Democracy in Trouble

By Gwynne Dyer

Egypt and Turkey have the same basic political problem. Democracy can work despite huge ideological differences, but only if everybody is willing to be very tolerant of other people’s ideas and values.

Three weeks ago the streets of Turkish cities were full of protesters demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who won his third straight election in 2011. Why? Because, they say, he is shoving conservative Islamic values down their throats.

The Turkish protests have now died down, but this week the streets of Egyptian cities have been full of protesters demanding exactly the same thing for exactly the same reason. The Egyptian army has now intervened to remove the Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi, and the very survival of the new Egyptian democracy is in doubt.

Neither Erdogan nor Morsi could have come to power in a country that wasn’t fully democratic. Turkey has been a partly democratic country for sixty years, but if a politician with a religious agenda won, the army would remove him. It even hanged one prime minister in 1960.

In Egypt, three generals had ruled the country in unbroken succession since the mid-1950s. Latterly they allowed “elections”, but their party always won, and the main religious party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was always banned.

The Turkish and Egyptian generals were mostly devout Muslims themselves, but they were willing to kill to keep religion out of politics. Islamic parties were a vehicle for traditional and anti-modern values, and the generals’ goal was to modernise their countries so they would be strong enough to stand up to the West.

There was some cynicism in their policy, too. The secular political parties in Turkey (and in Egypt too, until they finally withered away under 60 years of military dictatorship) were too fragmented and disunited to pose any real threat to the army’s power, whereas a single Islamic party with broad popular support might do just that. So religion must be firmly excluded from politics.

In both countries, the generals’ modernising agenda had considerable success. Turkey is now a powerful middle-income nation, and at least half of its 75 million people are secular and “modern” in their political values. So they wanted the military out of politics, and finally the army withdrew – only to see the new Justice and Development (AK) Party, a “moderate” Islamist party led by Erdogan, win the 2003 election.

The Turkish generals let the AK rule because it didn’t try to impose its own religious values on the whole population. It refrained because even in its best result, in 2010, the AK only won 50.3 percent of the vote – and some of that support came from secular voters who saw it as the best hope for permanently excluding the army from politics.

Egypt is a much poorer, less educated country than Turkey, but at least a third of the 85 million Egyptians would also qualify as “modern” people with secular values. They were the ones who made the revolution happen in 2010 – but in the new democracy’s first free presidential election last year the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Mohammed Morsi, won 51.7 percent of the vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood promptly started writing its conservative religious values into the new constitution. More recently, Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey passed some laws that imposed its religious values too.

It wasn’t a wholesale assault on the secular society – in Turkey they just placed some restrictions on the sale of alcohol – but in both countries it greatly alarmed the secular part of the population. So it took only the slightest pretext – a demonstration over the destruction of a park in Istanbul, the first anniversary of Morsi’s election in Egypt – to bring huge crowds of protesters out on the street in every city.

At that point, both Islamist leaders stopped pretending that they governed in the name of the entire nation. “Let them go into mosques in their shoes, let them drink alcohol in our mosques, let them raise their hand to our headscarved girls,” said Erdogan of the Turkish protestors. “One prayer from our people is enough to frustrate their plans.” He blamed the protests on an international conspiracy by something called the “interest-rate lobby.”

In Egypt, Morsi vowed to “give my life” to defend the new constitution written by his Islamist colleagues last year, and blamed the unrest on a plot by remnants of the ousted Mubarak regime. The Egyptian army has now suspended the constitution, but it is a “soft coup” that will almost certainly leave Morsi alive. Perhaps even free.

The Islamists are to blame for this crisis in both countries, because their political programme does ultimately involve shoving their values down everybody else’s throats. But the secular parties are also to blame, because it is their inability to unite behind a single candidate and programme that has let the Islamists win power in both Turkey and Egypt.

It is hard for democracy to survive in a country where large parts of the population hold radically different ideas about the purposes of the state and the rights of its citizens. Urbanisation will ultimately resolve this conflict, for in one more generation most of the recent immigrants to the fast-growing cities will have adopted secular values. But in the meantime, Egypt will have a very rough ride. Maybe Turkey too.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7, 13 and 14. (“There was…politics”; and “At that…him”)