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

Syria: Russia to the Rescue?

US Secretary of State John Kerry has just phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warning him not to “escalate the conflict” by increasing Moscow’s military support for the beleaguered Syrian regime. He stamped his foot quite hard, telling Lavrov that his government’s actions could “lead to greater loss of innocent life, increase refugee flows and risk confrontation with the anti-Isil coalition operating in Syria.”

What the Russians have actually done, so far, is to send an advance military team to Damascus of the sort that is normally deployed to prepare for the arrival of a much larger military force. They have also sent an air traffic control centre and housing units for its personnel to a Syrian airbase.

It suggests that Moscow is getting ready to go in to save President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has given Assad diplomatic support, financial aid and some weapons over the course of the four-year-old Syrian civil war, but it will take more than that to save him now. That would include at least an airlift of heavy weapons, but maybe also direct Russian air support for Assad’s exhausted troops.

They need it. Since the fanatical fighters of “Islamic State” (or Isil, as the US State Department calls it) captured Palmyra in central Syria in May, they have advanced steadily westward from their new base.

One month ago they captured the mostly Christian town of al-Qaratayn, north-east of Damascus. (The inhabitants fled, of course). And now IS forces are within 30 km. of the M5, the key highway that links Damascus with the other parts of Syria that remain under government control.

The jihadis captured Palmyra, by the way, because the “anti-Isil coalition” – the US Air Force, in practice – did not drop a single bomb in its defence. It made at least a thousand air strikes to save Kobani, the Kurdish city on the border with Turkey that was besieged by IS fighters, because the Kurds were US allies. Whereas Palmyra was defended by Assad’s soldiers, so the US let Islamic State have it.

One can imagine Kerry’s (and Obama’s) horror at the idea that by defending Palmyra they would be seen as protecting Assad’s brutal regime, but if Islamic State troops manage to cut the M5 it will be seen as a sign of the regime’s impending defeat. At that point, up to half the people who still live in government-controlled areas – around 17 million – may panic and start trying to get out of Syria.

They would obviously include the religious minorities (Christians, Alawites, Druze), some 5 million people who have good reason to fear slavery, rape and murder at the hands of Islamic State. The millions of Sunni Muslims who have served the Syrian government and its army would also be at risk. So let’s say 4 or 5 million more refugees pouring out across Syria’s borders, to join the 4 million who have already fled.

What they left behind would be a Syria entirely controlled by the extremists. The only remaining question would be whether the jihadis roll on through behind the refugees, overrunning Lebanon and Jordan as well, or whether they fall to fighting among themselves.

All three major Islamist groups – Islamic State (which Turkey and Saudi Arabia no longer support), and the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham (which they still do) – are virtually identical in their ideology and their ultimate goals. However, they have some tactical differences, and Islamic State and al-Nusra fought a quite serious turf war last year, so maybe they will get distracted again. But even if they do, Syria will be gone.

This is what the Russians see coming, and they may be willing to try to stop it. When asked on Friday if Moscow intended to get involved directly in the Syrian fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin would only say that the question was “premature”. Nobody, including the Russians, likes Assad’s regime, but it is the least bad remaining option.

Indeed, it is the only alternative left to a jihadi victory. Most of the “moderate” anti-regime rebels went home or fled abroad years ago, unable to match the jihadis in firepower, in money or in frightfulness. The notion that the US can now create a moderate “third force” able to defeat both the jihadis and the Assad regime is a shameful face-saving fantasy

Moscow used diplomacy to save the Obama administration from itself two years ago, when Washington was getting ready to bomb Assad’s forces in response to a (possibly spurious) allegation that they had used poison gas on civilians. The only way Russia can avert disaster this time, however, is to put its own air force into the fight – and maybe its own ground troops too.

If it does, the key question will then be whether the United States lets Russia do the job that it is too fastidious to do itself, or whether it gives in to the clamour of its Turkish and Saudi allies – and they would be clamouring – to “stand up” to the Russian intervention.

Since the United States doesn’t actually have a coherent strategy of its own, it’s impossible to predict how it will respond. For all Kerry’s bluster, they don’t know yet in Washington either.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10 . (“The jihadis…it”; and “All…gone”)

Reunification of Cyprus?

It was not so much a straw in the wind as a cheese in the wind. It’s a chewy, salty cheese that is delicious grilled: halloumi, as they call it in the Greek-speaking Republic of Cyprus, or hellim, as it is known in the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus.

This week, the island’s two rival governments jointly applied to the European Union to give halloumi/hellim “Protected Designation of Origin” status, like French champagne or Greek feta, so that no other producer can use the name. It was a small miracle.

Cyrus has been divided since 1974, when a bloody coup backed by the generals’ regime in Athens, intended to unite the island with the “mother country”, was answered by a Turkish invasion to protect the Turkish-Cypriot minority. Turkey ended up holding the northern third of the island, and Greek-Cypriots who lived in that part of Cyprus fled south while Turkish-Cypriots in the southern part of the island fled north.

When the dust settled, there were two Cypruses: the internationally recognised Republic of Cyprus, now almost exclusively Greek-speaking, and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), recognised by nobody except Turkey. Forty-one years later, Cyprus is still divided – but maybe not for much longer.

The Greek-Cypriots have done much better since the split. With a legitimate state that is now a member of the European Union, they can trade and travel freely, and per capita income on the Greek side is twice what that of the Turkish side. But it hasn’t all been roses: the Greek-Cypriot banks ran wild during the boom years, and the country is just emerging from an EU-backed bail-out that hurt a lot.

For the Turkish-Cypriots, time is running out. There are only 120,000 of them, and they are already outnumbered by the Turkish immigrants, most of them ill-educated and unskilled, who have flooded in since 1974. In the past ten years, with a conservative Islamic government in Turkey, they have also been facing the creeping Islamisation of their traditionally secular society.

So the Turkish-Cypriots have good reason to seek a deal that gives them their own state within a reunited, federal Cyprus. For Greek-Cypriots a deal is less urgent, but with 30,000 Turkish troops still on the island and neighbours whose identity is becoming more Turkish and less Cypriot their future is uncertain. The problem is that presidents come and go, and there are rarely presidents on both sides willing to make a deal at the same time.

Now there are. Mustafa Akinci was elected president of the TRNC in April, and immediately asked to start reunification talks with his opposite number, President Nicos Anastasiades – who immediately agreed. “The passage of time is not helping a solution,” said Akinci. “The more time passes, the more the division becomes consolidated.”

After three months of talks, including seven personal meetings between the presidents, the talks seem to be going well. Well enough, in fact, that they both showed up on Tuesday night, together with 700 guests from both sides of the divide, for an evening of Cypriot music performed by the bi-communal group ‘Kyprogenia’ at the Othello Tower in Famagusta.

There was a lot of symbolism in this, because Famagusta was a Greek-Cypriot city, famed for its beaches, that ended up empty and on the wrong side of the ceasefire line in 1974. It has been quietly crumbling away ever since, but the Othello Tower, a 14th-century fortress, has just been renovated by a group of Greek and Turkish Cypriots working together to restore the island’s shared heritage.

There is much optimism about these talks, because both leaders understand that there can be no going back to the good old days before 1974 (good for the Greek-Cypriots, at least, although many Turkish-Cypriots were living under siege in barricaded ghettoes). Most of the refugees of 1974 (or their descendants) will not be going “home” again. Too much has happened, and even now Turkish-Cypriots would not feel safe in a unitary state.

But a federal republic with two states, each largely but not exclusively communal, is perfectly possible. It would free Turkish-Cypriots from their long isolation, and expand economic opportunities for people in both communities. The Turkish army would go home, the barbed wire and entrenchments of the “Green Line” would vanish, and Nicosia, the world’s last divided capital, would be one city again.

It is just good sense, and Presidents Akinci and Anastasiades will probably make the deal – Akinci reckons they will be there before the end of the year. There is just one problem. A very similar reunification was negotiated in 2003-04 with the help of the European Union and the blessings of both the United Nations and the United States.

In the 2004 referendum, the Turkish Cypriots voted for it by a two-to-one majority, but the Greek-Cyriots rejected it by a crushing three-to-one majority. After all, they greatly outnumber the Turkish-Cypriots and they are far richer. Things are peaceful right now, so why should they compromise?

Because Cyprus lives in a very dangerous neighbourhood, and it’s a really bad idea to keep the old domestic hostilities going as well.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5, 9 and 10. (“The Greek…lot”; and “After…heritage”)