23 September 2012
No More Coups in Turkey
By Gwynne Dyer
In my trade you get used to it after a while, but the first time you wake up to find a military coup has happened overnight where you live is quite alarming. That was in Turkey back in 1971, when the army seized control of the country after months of political turmoil. It was not as bad as the 1960 coup, when the military authorities tried and hanged the prime minister, but it was bad enough.
There were two more coups in Turkey: in 1980, when half a million were arrested, tens of thousands were tortured, and fifty were executed, and 1997, a “post-modern” coup in which the army simply ordered the prime minister to resign. But there will be no more coups in Turkey: the army has finally been forced to bow to a democratically elected government.
On 21 September a Turkish court sentenced 330 people, almost all military officers, to prison for their involvement in a coup plot in 2003. They included the former heads of the army, navy and air force, who received sentences of twenty years each, and six other generals. Thirty-four other officers were acquitted.
Five years ago, nobody in Turkey could have imagined such a thing. The military were above the law, with the sacred mission (at least in their own minds) of defending the secular state from being undermined by people who mixed religion with politics. Making coups against governments that trespassed on that forbidden ground was just part of their job.
This was the duty that the 330 officers thought they were performing in 2003, according to the indictments against them. The Justice and Development Party (AKP), a moderate Islamic party espousing conservative social values, had come to power after the 2002 election: the voters had got it wrong again, and their mistake had to be corrected.
With public opinion abroad and at home increasingly hostile to military coups, a better pretext was needed than in the old days. So the plot, “Operation Sledgehammer”, involved bomb attacks on two major mosques in Istanbul, a Turkish fighter shot down by the Greeks, and an attack on a military museum by Islamic militants. The real attackers, in every case heavily disguised, would actually be the military themselves.
The accused 330 claimed that “Operation Sledgehammer” was all just a scenario for a military exercise, and the documents supporting the accusations (probably leaked by junior officers opposed to a coup) have never been properly attributed. But given the army’s track record of four coups in fifty years and its deeply rooted hostility to Islamic parties, the charges were entirely plausible, and in the end the court believed them.
The army has no choice but to accept the court’s judgement. The AK party has been re-elected twice with increasing majorities, the party’s pious leaders have not tried to shove their values down everybody else’s throats, and the economy has flourished.
A new constitution, ratified in a referendum in 2010, has finally made elected civilian governments superior to the army. It even removed the legal immunity that those who carried out the bloody 1980 coup wrote into the previous constitution to protect themselves. As a result, the leaders of that coup, retired generals Kenan Evren and Tahsin Sahinkaya, have also been brought to trial. And about time, too.
Even now, many secular-minded people in Turkey do not trust the motives of an Islamic party in government. They still think that the army is there to protect them from the dark oppression of the religious fanatics, and that any attempt to curb its power is a conspiracy against the whole principle of the secular, neutral state.
But the Turkish secular state has never been neutral. From the time when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his companions, all military officers, rescued Turkey from the wreckage of the Ottoman empire after the First World War, the state was at war with religion.
Ataturk began by abolishing the religious schools, the Sultanate, and the Caliphate (religious authority over all Muslims) that Ottoman sultans had traditionally claimed. He banned forms of headgear, like the fez and the turban, that had religious connotations. He replaced Islamic law with Western legal codes, and declared the equal status of women and men (including votes for women).
It was understandable, because Ataturk had always argued that Turkey must Westernise its institutions and write off the non-Turkish parts of the empire if it wanted to survive in a world dominated by industrialised Western empires. But that was 75 years ago. Today’s Turkey is modern, powerful, and prosperous, and there is no external threat.
It’s high time for the Turkish army to stop waging a cold war against the part of the population who are still devoutly religious. They are entitled to the full rights of citizenship too, although they are not entitled to force their beliefs and values on everybody else.
That was the significance of AK’s victories in the past three elections, and of the trials that have finally brought the army under control. The head of the Turkish armed forces and all three service chiefs resigned in July in protest against the trials of military personnel, but President Abdullah Gul promptly appointed a new head of the armed forces – who tamely accepted the post. It’s over.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 8 and 9. (“With…themselves”; and “The army…too”)
23 January 2012
Sucking Up To Armenians
By Gwynne Dyer
I go to France quite often, but after this article is published, I may be liable to arrest if I set foot in the country.
The French parliament has just passed a bill, proposed by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s party, that will make it a crime to question whether the Armenian massacres in eastern Turkey in 1915 qualified as a genocide. Sarkozy will doubtless sign it into law next month, just in time for the presidential elections.
It won’t just be a crime in France to deny that hundreds of thousands of Armenians, perhaps as many as a million, were killed in eastern Anatolia in 1915, and that it was the responsibility of the Turkish state. That is a historical fact, and only fools, knaves and Turkish ultra-nationalists deny it. It will also be a crime, punishable by one year in prison and a fine of up to 45,000 euros ($58,000), even to question the use of the word “genocide.”
“Genocide” doesn’t just mean killing a lot of people, even a lot of civilians. If it did, then the United States would be guilty of genocide because of Hiroshima. Genocide is a deliberate attempt to wipe out much or all of a specific ethnic, linguistic or religious group.
Words matter. The descendants of the Armenians who were killed in 1915, most of whom now live in Lebanon, France, or the United States, desperately want what happened to their great-grandparents to be defined as a genocide and not just a calamity of war. They have even been accused of “Holocaust envy”: the belief that they are being short-changed if the Armenian tragedy is not given the same status as the Nazi genocide of the European Jews.
The state of Israel, interestingly, has never been comfortable with this claim, and avoids the word “genocide” when discussing the massacre of the Armenians in 1915.
Of course, this might just be a Jewish desire to ensure that no other group’s tragedy is seen as comparable to that of the European Jews. But there are concrete reasons for the Israeli unease with the simple equation: Jewish holocaust = Armenian genocide.
About half of the Jewish population of Europe in 1939 was dead by 1945; about half of the Armenians living in eastern Turkey in 1914 were dead by 1918. But what distinguishes the Holocaust from most other atrocities is not the number of deaths, or even the proportion of the population that was killed. It is the motivation behind the killings.
The European Jews were killed as an act of deliberate German policy: a peaceful civilian population was rounded up and transported to camps where they were systematically murdered. What happened to the Armenians of Turkey was less systematic, and probably unplanned.
There is no equivalent in Turkish history to the Wannsee conference of January, 1942 at which the Nazis planned the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” The mass deportation of Armenians in the First World War, during which hundreds of thousands of them died, took place as Russian troops invaded eastern Anatolia and Armenian revolutionary groups staged uprisings in support of them.
The Armenian uprisings of 1915 were tiny and ineffectual, but the Dashnak and Hnchak revolutionaries had indeed been conspiring with both the Russians and the British to support planned invasions of eastern Anatolia. The British attack was switched west to the Dardanelles quite late in the planning process, but the Russian offensive actually happened.
The Turkish government was panicked by the uprisings behind the front and ordered the mass deportation of the civilian Armenian population to Syria. Regular Turkish troops could not be spared from the fighting, so most of the job of “guarding” the columns of Armenian deportees marching through the mountains to Syria was given to Kurdish tribesmen, who proceeded to rob, rape and murder them in huge numbers.
But Armenian civilians living in the cities of western Turkey were not massacred or deported in 1915. Many Armenians in eastern Turkey who were rich enough to buy train tickets to Syria only had to walk where the tracks had not yet been laid. Most of the Armenians who made it to Syria alive were held in camps there, but they were not murdered and burned in ovens. It was horrible, but does it qualify as a case of genocide?
Successive Turkish governments have undermined their own case by insisting that it didn’t happen at all. That is dishonest and stupid. There were certainly horrendous massacres, though the exact numbers of dead cannot be known. However, the use of the word “genocide” remains open to question – but it will soon be a criminal offence in France to say so.
Have the French politicians gone mad? Not at all. It’s election time, and there are half a million voters of Armenian descent in France.
The Armenian massacres were officially recognised as a genocide in France just before the 2001 elections. A law criminalising any questioning of that definition was passed by the National Assembly just before the 2007 elections, but narrowly rejected by the Senate. This time it made it through the Senate, too. So if you’re in France, watch what you say.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 9. (“The state…genocide”; and “The European…unplanned”)
26 November 2011
Progress Report: The Arab Autumn
By Gwynne Dyer
The “Arab Spring” was fast and dramatic: non-violent revolutions in the streets removed dictators in Tunisia and Egypt in a matter of weeks, and similar revolutions got underway in Libya, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen. The “Arab Autumn” is a much slower and messier affair, but despite the carnage in Syria and the turbulent run-up to Egypt’s first democratic elections, the signs are still positive.
Demonstrators in Bahrain were driven from the streets by massive military force, and Libya’s revolution only triumphed after Western military intervention in support of the rebels. In both Syria and Yemen, originally non-violent protests risk tipping into civil wars. But there is still more good news than bad.
In October Tunisia held its first-ever free election, and produced a coalition government that is broadly acceptable to most Tunisians. Some worry that the leading role that the local Islamic party, Ennahda, gained in the new government bodes ill for one of the Arab world’s more secular societies, but Ennahda’s leaders promise to respect the rights of less religious Tunisians, and there is no reason not to believe them.
Last weekend, elections in Morocco produced a similar result, with the main Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party, gaining the largest share of the votes but not an absolute majority. It will doubtless play a leading role in the new government, but it will not seek to impose its views and values on everybody else.
This Moroccan party took its name from the ruling Justice and Development (AK) party in Turkey, an Islamic party that has won three elections in a row and presided over the fastest economic growth in Turkey’s history. Like the AK Party, the Moroccan version is socially conservative, pro-free market, and fully obedient to the secular constitution.
These parties are “Muslim Democrats”, as one AK Party member in Turkey put it, comparing them to the Christian Democratic parties of Western Europe. They have nothing to do with radical Islamist groups like al-Qaeda. They are simply the natural repository for the votes of conservative people in a Muslim society, just as the Republican Party automatically gets the votes of most Christian conservatives in the United States.
There was no revolution in Morocco: the new constitution that was approved by referendum last July was an attempt by King Mohamed VI to get ahead of the demands for more democracy that are sweeping the Arab world. It obliges the king to choose the prime minister from the party that wins the most seats in parliament, rather than just naming whomever he pleases, and restricts his freedom of action in several other ways.
Similar changes are underway in Jordan, where King Abdullah II is also trying to ward off more radical demands for reform. And even the deeply conservative monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula all supported the Arab League’s decision last weekend to impose sanctions against the brutal Assad regime in Syria, including an asset freeze and an embargo on investments.
Syria may yet drift into civil war, but its fellow Arab states are taking their responsibilities seriously: only two Arab countries voted against the sanctions. And Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, resigned on 23 November after months of prevarication and 33 years in power, giving that country at least a chance of making progress towards a democratic future.
Egypt, by far the biggest Arab country, this week sees the start of parliamentary elections that will roll across the country region by region until early January. Demonstrators have re-occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, claiming that the army wants to hold on to power, but things are not quite what they seem.
The army has already conceded that the new president should be elected by next June rather than six months later, but the demos on the square were not really about that. They were an attempt to force the postponement of the parliamentary elections.
The newly formed liberal and secular parties tacitly back the demonstrators because they fear that the Muslim Brotherhood will win these elections. It may well do so, because it continued to operate in a semi-underground way during the Mubarak dictatorship while the old liberal parties just faded away. But the fact that some parties are not as ready as others for the elections is not an excuse to postpone them: Egypt urgently needs an elected government.
It will soon have one, and if the Muslim Brotherhood plays a major role in it, why not? It has long outgrown its original radicalism, and you can’t postpone democracy forever just because you don’t fully trust your fellow citizens.
That leaves Bahrain, the one Arab country where the “Arab Spring” was comprehensively crushed. But in Bahrain last week, the king received the report of an independent commission which concluded that there was no Iranian plot behind the demonstrations, and that many detainees had been “blindfolded, whipped, kicked, given electric shocks and threatened with rape to extract confessions.”
Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa expressed “dismay” at the findings and vowed that “those painful events won’t be repeated.” That may be a little disingenuous, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction. Bringing democracy and the rule of law to the Arab world was always going to be a difficult and tortuous process, but progress is being made on many fronts.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“This…States”)
9 September 2011
By Gwynne Dyer
The Indian Navy revealed recently that one of its vessels, the amphibious assault ship INS Airavat, was hailed by a Chinese naval officer demanding to know why it was in Chinese territory – while it was actually off the Vietnamese coast heading for the Vietnamese port of Haiphong. And last week it was reported that a Chinese spy ship was discovered in India’s Andaman Islands earlier this year.
A quarter of a world away, in the eastern Mediterranean, the consequences of Israel’s seizure of a Turkish aid vessel heading for Gaza in May of last year continue to unfold. Israel steadfastly refuses to apologise for the deaths of nine Turks who were killed by Israeli commandos in the attack, and on 8 September Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that future aid vessels to Gaza would be escorted by the Turkish Navy.
If this sort of thing goes on, it is plausible to imagine a point at which countries with real military power – Israel and Turkey, or India and China – start shooting at each other. Moreover, all these countries except Turkey have nuclear weapons, though it is hard to imagine them being used in a conflict at sea. On the other hand, it is the sea and its slippery boundaries that makes such confrontations possible.
The thing about maritime frontiers that makes them so much more dangerous than land borders is that they are often ill-defined, and almost always invisible. There are lots of disputed land frontiers in the world, but everybody knows where the actual line of control is, and there are usually troops or border police around to make sure that everybody observes it.
You can attack a land border if you really want to, but it is a very big decision with incalculable consequences: a declaration of war, in effect. Even the most arrogant or paranoid governments will think long and hard before embarking on such an action, and generally they end up by deciding not to do it. Whereas at sea you can easily drift into a serious military confrontation that neither side intended.
Turkey recognised Israel in 1950, and in recent decades the two countries have been major trading partners and closely linked militarily. Only two or three years ago Israeli warplanes were still conducting military exercises in Turkey, and the latter was a major customer for Israeli weapons. But relations have cooled rapidly since Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister of Israel, and the attack on the aid flotilla last year was the last straw.
Early this month Turkey expelled the Israeli ambassador, and Prime Minister Erdogan’s announcement that the Turkish navy will escort future aid convoys raises the prospect of actual military clashes between the two.
Erdogan cannot stand by and let any more Turkish citizens be killed, nor can he stop future convoys from seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Israel’s refusal to apologise for killing Turkish citizens makes it politically impossible for him to defy Turkish public opinion on this. And yet if Turkish warships escort the next convoy, it’s easy to imagine an outbreak of shooting.
All Israel’s wars hitherto have been with poorly armed and badly led Arab armies in non-industrialised countries; a war with Turkey would be a very different matter, even if it remained a purely maritime conflict. But Israeli politics will not let Netanyahu back down either – and because it’s at sea, nobody really knows where the red lines are.
Israel attacked last year’s aid flotilla well beyond the limits of the blockade zone it had declared around Gaza, and might do so again. Israel would have local air superiority, but the Turkish warships would be on hair-trigger alert for an attack. This could end very badly.
Even that is small potatoes compared to the potential for a naval conflict in the South China Sea. China insists that virtually the whole sea is its territory, with claimed boundaries that skim the coasts of all the other countries that border the sea: Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
China bases its claim on its historic sovereignty over the clusters of low-lying islands in the middle of the sea, the Paracels and the Spratlys. But Hanoi says that Beijing never claimed sovereignty until 1940, and that the islands had actually been controlled by Vietnam since the 17th century. They were certainly under Vietnamese control until 1974, when China seized them by force, killing several Vietnamese soldiers in the process.
The Philippines also claims some of the islands, and all four Southeast Asian countries reject China’s claim to own the seabed rights practically up to their beaches. To make matters worse, there are now believed to be enormous reserves of oil and gas under the sea’s shallow waters.
Worst of all, the South China Sea is a maritime highway connecting Europe, the Middle East and South Asia with East Asia, and none of the other major powers is willing let it fall under exclusive Chinese control. That’s why an Indian warship was visiting Vietnam last July, and why the United States is selling more warships and helicopters to the Philippines.
It’s a slow-burning fuze, but this is the most worrisome strategic confrontation in the world today.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 6. (“The thing…it”; and “Turkey…straw”)