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World’s Leading Demagogue

You can keep your Orban, your Netanyahu, your pathetic Boris Johnson. As for Donald Trump, he’s really an icon of democracy, just slightly shop-soiled. The coveted title of World’s Leading Demagogue has just gone to the Turkish President, Recep Tayyib Erdogan.

Erdogan may look like an ageing, disappointed post office clerk, passed over for promotion too many times, but he can take an ignorant remark from halfway around the planet and inflate it into an existential threat to Turkey’s future. He’s desperately trying to rally support for his AK party in local elections due at the end of the month, so what better theme than the threat of an invasion by New Zealand?

“Your grandparents came here,” he warned the savage New Zealand hordes, “and they returned in caskets. Have no doubt that we will send you back like your grandfathers.” Erdogan had already warmed the crowd up by showing them footage of the massacre of New Zealand Muslims in their mosques by Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant, so they cheered that line.

“They are testing us from 16,500 km. away, from New Zealand, with the messages they are giving from there. This isn’t an individual act, this is organised,” he explained, and then showed the crowd extracts from Tarrant’s 74-page manifesto on a giant screen. One of the killer’s many goals, it seems, was to ‘drive Turkey out of Europe’. (The country’s north-western corner, including half of Istanbul, is the southern Balkans.)

Erdogan also accuses the West as a whole of “preparing” Tarrant’s manifesto and “handing it to him.” New Zealand is presumably just the West’s chosen weapon. There are three times as many people in Istanbul alone as there are in New Zealand, so that may sound like an empty threat to you, but bear in mind that Erdogan’s electoral support mostly comes from the less well educated half of the population.

He was speaking at a rally commemorating the Ottoman empire’s victory over British and allied troops who landed at Gallipoli, 200 km southwest of Istanbul, in 1915. ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand) troops played a big part in that First World War battle, which is one of the founding myths of modern Turkish nationalism.

So Erdogan’s audience would not necessarily have giggled when he defiantly warned the evil New Zealanders: “We have been here for a thousand years and will be here until the apocalypse, God willing. You will not turn Istanbul into Constantinople.” There he stood, metaphorical sword in hand, turning back the New Zealand neo-Crusaders single-handed, and the world heavyweight title for demagoguery was his.

First, a couple of niggling details. Istanbul IS Constantinople; the name hasn’t changed. ‘Istanbul’ is just the Turkish pronunciation of the old Greek popular name for the city, ‘Stamboul’. (The Turkish language does not like words to start with two consonants.)

Second, the Turks have NOT been there for a thousand years. They conquered the city in 1453, five-hundred-and-some years ago. Before that it was Christian for rather more than a thousand years. But you don’t want to get caught up in the details when you’re holding a flaming sword.

And third, I have never met anybody in Europe who wants it ‘back’. It would be as ridiculous as somebody in the Muslim world wanting Granada or Seville back.

Oh, wait a minute. I HAVE met Muslims who want Granada and Seville back. They tend to be of the Islamist persuasion, but there is a quite widespread conviction in the Arab world that the original 7th-century conquests that gave Muslims control of half of the then-Christian world were legitimate, whereas the 12th-century European counter-offensive that tried to take some of them back (the Crusades) was illegitimate aggression.

It was really just the ebb and flow of empires, with religion mostly as cover. The Muslims (or at least the Ottoman Turks) were on the offensive again by the 15th century, almost reaching Vienna by 1688. Then the tide turned again and the British empire was almost at the gates of Istanbul in 1915. Nothing to get excited about – and now it’s over.

It really is over. Legally, it has not been permissible to change borders by force since the UN Charter was written in 1945, and in fact few have changed. Militarily, modern technologies and methods of political mobilisation have made it ruinously expensive to sustain the long-term occupation of people who do not want to be occupied.

So I think it will be hard for New Zealand to reconquer Istanbul even if it wants to. Turkey is safe. But the old tribal buttons are still there to be pushed, and there are plenty of populist demagogues willing to push them.

Trump has his border wall (‘criminal’ Mexicans) and his anti-Muslim immigration controls (‘terrorist’ Muslims). Orban has the Jews (the enemy within Hungary’s border) and Muslim refugees (the enemy without). Narendra Modi, now in election mode, has Muslims both within India’s borders (cow-killers) and beyond them (Pakistani nukes and terrorists).

And Erdogan just has New Zealanders. Must try harder.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“They…population”)

Trump and Erdogan: Bringers of Chaos

16 January 2019

“Where America retreats, chaos follows,” said US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Cairo last week. It’s not the sort of remark you’d expect from an American diplomat only three weeks after President Donald Trump declared that US troops were pulling out of Syria. Is it possible that behind Pompeo’s severe and even pompous exterior there lurks a secret ironist?

Probably not. Pompeo truly believes (like many American evangelical Christians) that the United States is engaged in a struggle of good against evil in the Middle East. “It is a never-ending struggle … until the Rapture,” he said three years ago. He may just be angry at Trump, in a passive-aggressive way, for abandoning Syria to the (evil) Iranian and Russian forces that back Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator.

At any rate, Pompeo is right about the chaos that will follow, but it would be wrong to blame it all on Trump. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is much better informed than the American president and probably a lot smarter too, but he is just as impulsive, just as ruthless, just as much a bringer of chaos.

It was Erdogan, in a telephone conversation in mid-December, who persuaded Trump that pulling all the US troops out of Syria would be a good idea. Turkey would be happy to take the strain instead.

Trump has always opposed America’s endless Middle Eastern wars, so he swallowed Erdogan’s suggestion hook, line and sinker – and tweeted his decision to pull the US troops out without discussing it with anybody. Only later did the remaining grown-ups in the White House explain to him that Erdogan planned to subjugate or kill America’s main allies in Syria, the Kurds.

To his credit, Trump hated the idea of betraying the Syrian Kurds, whose militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), suffered thousands of deaths while helping US forces to defeat the fanatical jihadis of Islamic State.

Trump still wanted to bring the US troops home, but now he had one condition. The Turks must promise not to invade north-eastern Syria and crush the YPG as soon as the US troops leave.

Erdogan replied that nothing Trump said or did could stop him from destroying these Kurdish ‘terrorists’ (who have never attacked Turkey). At which point, on Monday past, Donald Trump tweeted that the United States “will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds.”

All clear so far? Good.

You’d never guess, from the story thus far, that the United States and Turkey have been close allies for the past half-century, but the alliance is fading fast. Erdogan has been playing his own hand in the Middle East, and playing it quite badly.

The ‘Sultan’, as his admirers call him, wants to secure his own one-man rule and re-Islamise Turkey, which had evolved into a secular and democratic republic over the past eighty years. He also wants to promote Sunni Islam throughout the region. The two goals are not fully compatible, so he shifts position a lot.

When the revolt in Syria broke out in 2011 during the Arab spring, Erdogan supported it because Bashar al-Assad’s regime is dominated by Alawites, a Shia Muslim sect. He kept the border open and let supplies and recruits flow into the rebels, including even the Islamic State extremists.

When Russia intervened militarily to save Assad in 2015, Erdogan was so angry that he even had the Turkish air force ambush and shoot down a Russian bomber. But he was almost equally angry with the United States, which had made a an alliance with the Kurds of northern Syria to fight against Islamic State.

The Kurds gradually choked off the aid coming in to Islamic State from Turkey, and IS (aka ‘Isis’) has now lost almost all its territory. So Erdogan told Trump he could bring the US troops home now, and Trump believed him. But what Erdogan actually wants to do is crush the Syrian Kurds, which he can do once the US troops leave.

Erdogan thinks the Syrian Kurds are allied with the Turkish Kurds, who make up one-fifth of Turkey’s population, live just across the border from Syria, and are currently at war with Erdogan’s regime. (That’s why he calls them ‘terrorists’.)

The weird thing is that four years ago Erdogan was on the brink of making peace with the Kurds. There was a ceasefire, the Turkish Kurds were no longer demanding independence, and he was negotiating a compromise settlement that enhanced Kurdish rights within Turkey.

But then he lost a parliamentary election in 2015, mainly because the Kurds stopped voting for him. So he re-opened the war against the Kurds, wrapped himself in the Turkish flag, and won the next election on an ultra-nationalist platform. All Kurds are now the enemy, they are all terrorists, and they must be crushed.

Given Erdogan’s ruthlessness and Trump’s volatility, I have no idea how all this works out. Badly, I suspect. But I actually admire Trump’s refusal to betray his allies, once he realised what Erdogan was up to. You don’t see that much in the Middle East.

Of course, it probably won’t last.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 16 and 17. (“The weird…crushed”)

The Kurds: Betrayed Again

The Kurds are like Kleenex. You use them, and then you throw them away.

The Kurds of Syria are now frantically digging trenches around their cities and towns just south of the Turkish border, because Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said on Monday that President Donald Trump gave a “positive response” to his plan for an invasion of Kurdish-controlled territory in Syria. On Wednesday Trump confirmed it by announcing that he will pull all US troops out of Syria within 30 days.

Erdogan would have invaded long ago if the US army and air force were not protecting the Syrian Kurds, but at that time the United States depended heavily on the Kurds in its campaign to eliminate Islamic State. IS controlled the eastern third of Syria, and from 2015 on it was the Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’ (YPG) who provided most of the ground troops for that campaign.

There were some 2,000 US troops in eastern Syria too, but it was the Kurds who bore the brunt of the fighting and the casualties. Indeed, a principal role of the US forces was to deter Turkey from attacking the Kurds, because Turkey, at war with its own big Kurdish minority, strongly opposed the Syrian Kurds’ ambition for independence.

But now Islamic State has been destroyed (or at least so Donald Trump believes), and the US has no further need of the Kurds. Time to throw them away.

Deprived of US air support, the Syrian Kurds have little hope of resisting a Turkish invasion. As Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday: “They can dig tunnels or ditches if they want. They can go underground if they want. When the time and place come, they will be buried in their ditches.” So where can the Kurds turn?

Only to Damascus, where Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has sworn to recover “every inch” of Syrian territory from the various rebel militia forces that controlled different parts of the country. All that remains to fulfill that ambition is the recovery of Idlib province in the northwest, still held by Turkish-backed Islamist extremists – and of the Kurdish-controlled north-east of the country.

For the Syrian Kurds, reeling from the American betrayal, the urgent, unavoidable question has become: would you rather be conquered by the Turks or by Assad? There is no third option: the dream of independence is dead.

When Turkey conquered the much smaller Kurdish-majority enclave of Afrin in north-western Syria last February, almost every Kurd in the territory was driven into exile. Assad’s rule is unattractive, but the Syrian Kurds have carefully avoided fighting his forces (they only fought IS), and they might be able to cut a deal that left them some local autonomy. After all, Assad doesn’t want the Turks taking control of eastern Syria either.

The Kurds aren’t fools, and as the likelihood of an American defection grew in the course of this year they sent several delegations to Damascus to see what Assad would offer.

They came back disappointed, because Assad did not want to do anything that would open the door to a federal state in Syria, and he quite rightly thought that he had the upper hand. But now that the US pull-out from eastern Syria and the Turkish invasion of the same region have both become imminent realities, he may want to think again.

This is a part of Syria rich in oil, water and wheat. Assad needs its resources to rebuild the country, and a Turkish occupation could be a long-lasting affair. It’s therefore possible that he will make a deal with the Syrian Kurds to keep the region in Syrian hands.

The return of the Syrian army would be tricky to manage, since it would have to arrive in each part of the region after the Americans left (to avoid clashes) but before the Turks arrived. Moreover, the Syrian army is seriously short of manpower, and this operation would require a lot of it.

All the more reason to give the YPG a continuing role in the region’s security, the Kurds might argue, and it’s not impossible that Assad might buy that argument provided that the Kurdish militia became (at least in theory) a part of the Syrian army.

So the Russians may be right. When Trump revealed via Twitter that he was going to pull all American forces out of Syria, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded that the US decision could result in “genuine, real prospects for a political settlement” in Syria. And it’s true.

Turkey could be convinced (by the Russians) that letting Assad take control of Kurdish-majority parts of Syria is enough to end the alleged Kurdish ‘threat’ to Turkish security. Then only the single province of Idlib would remain beyond Assad’s reach, and that’s not really a critical issue.

In fact, the fix could be in already. We’ll know shortly. But no matter what, the Kurds lose again. Of course.
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For Kleenex use “tissues” if that is your usage. This article replaces the one that would normally be sent on Sunday.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 9. (“Only…country”; and “When…either”)

Syria: The Autumn Offensive

“Idlib Province is the largest al-Qaeda safe haven since 9/11,” said Brett McGurk, Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, so you wouldn’t think that the United States would object to the Syrian government reconquering it. Especially since US forces in Syria have no way of reaching Idlib, in the country’s northwestern corner, and neither do America’s Kurdish allies.

But you might be wrong about the US stance, because the Syrian regime’s troops attacking Idlib would have Russian bombers helping them. Turkey might also object, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan was surreptitiously helping the al-Qaeda rebels in Syria earlier in the war and has already posted Turkish troops at ‘observation posts’ inside Idlib province to protect the status quo.

We’re going to find out which way Turkey and the US jump quite soon, because Idlib is next on the list. Over the past two years Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime has recaptured first the rebel-held part of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city, then the eastern outskirts of Damascus, the capital, and most recently the areas down south near Israel and Jordan where the rebellion began. Idlib is next.

It has to be Idlib, because that’s where all the jihadi fighters who surrendered after those other defeats were sent. The influx of Islamist fighters and their families has virtually doubled the province’s population to two million in the past two years. Assad will want to finish the job while the Russian air force is still in Syria, so the offensive will probably start next month.

It will require intense bombing, as the Syrian army is short of ground troops, and there are bound to be anguished international protests about civilian casualties in the crowded province. That would provide an excuse for either Washington or Ankara to intervene and stop the attack if they want, but do they?

Erdogan would have to pull the Turkish troops out of Idlib if he wants to avoid a clash with the Syrian army, which would be rather embarrassing, and he hates to be embarrassed. He is already having to eat a good deal of humble pie in the financial crisis that is crippling the Turkish economy at home, and this would be a second helping.

On the other hand, Erdogan has already had to change his line once and accept that Assad will survive as Syria’s dictator. That makes it kind of hard for him to argue now that Syria cannot be allowed to take Idlib back, especially since the real power in Idlib is Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham, the many-times-renamed Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

Logically, Erdogan should not be getting involved in a foreign war when he is already in a shouting match with Donald Trump and the Turkish economy is in a nose-dive. But he is erratic, emotional and over-confident, so he might just dig his heels in.

As for Trump’s own decision on Idlib, national interest decrees that he should just sit back and let it happen. What’s not to love about an event that destroys al-Qaeda’s only territorial base in the Middle East at no cost in American money or lives?

But if Trump doesn’t intervene, America’s hard right will complain that he is allowing a further expansion of Russian power in the Middle East, while his Israeli allies will protest again at the use of ‘Iranian troops’ (really mostly Iraqi, Afghan and Syrian mercenaries paid by Iran) in the battle. And Trump, too, is erratic, emotional and over-confident.

If the Idlib operation goes off without a major hitch involving Turkish or American military intervention, it will be the last major battle of the Syrian civil war. There would remain the task of persuading Turkish and American troops to leave the country, but that should not involve fighting.

At that point, it will be all about the Syrian Kurds. Turkey wants to be sure that they do not get enough independence to set an example for its own Kurdish minority just across the border. It is especially concerned that an autonomous Kurdish region in Syria could become a base for attacks across the border by the PKK, the banned ‘terrorist’ organisation that seeks independence for Turkey’s Kurds.

The United States, on the other hand, has made the Syrian Kurds its main instrument for fighting ‘Islamic State’ in the eastern third of Syria. ISIS has been beaten by this alliance and the US army now effectively controls eastern Syria. It’s reluctant to just hand over the huge, sparsely populated region to Assad, and it doesn’t want to abandon its Kurdish allies to the tender mercies of the Turks either.

There is a deal that could work. The Turkish and US armies both pull out of Syria, and the Syrian army replaces them to ensure that is no comeback by ISIS and no base there for Kurdish separatists seeking to break away from Turkey. The Syrian Kurds are rewarded with limited self-government including control over education, language and local spending. And the Russians go home too, since Assad no longer needs their help.

That would be the sensible thing to do, but this is the Middle East. So nobody knows what will really happen.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“At that…either”)