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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”)

 

 

Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013

5 June 2013

Paris 1968, Istanbul 2013

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s certainly not another version of the “Arab Spring”; Turkey is a fully democratic country. It’s not just a Middle Eastern variant of the Occupy movement, either, although the demands of the huge crowds who have occupied the centre of Istanbul and other Turkish big cties are equally diffuse and contradictory.

It’s more like the student uprising in Paris in May, 1968, although most of the demonstrators in Turkey are neither Marxists nor students. Like the Paris demos, it began over local issues and has rapidly grown into a popular revolt against an elected government that is deeply conservative, increasingly autocratic, and deaf to all protests.

The original issue was Prime Minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s plan to destroy Istanbul’s Gezi Park in order to build a new shopping mall in a city that already has far too many. The park is the only green space in the newer part of downtown, north of the Golden Horn, and covering it over with yet more shops was bound to meet with some resistance.

Erdogan, in cahoots with the developers as usual, assumed that the plan to include a mosque in the new mall would placate his own supporters, while the plan to make the exterior of the mall a replica of an old Ottoman barracks that had once stood on the site would assuage everybody else’s unhappiness at the loss of the park. He was wrong.

At the start of the protest, on 27 May, only a few hundred people occupied the park. It might all have petered out if the police had not attacked them with clubs and tear gas last Friday night, burning their tents after they fled. The protesters came back in far larger number the next day, and the same thing happened again. By the third night, city centres were being occupied all over Turkey, and it wasn’t just about Gezi Park any more.

Prime Minister Erdogan, leaving for a tour of several Arab countries on Monday, dismissed the protests as the work of “a few looters” and “extremist elements”, and said he’d sort it out after he got back on Friday. Unruffled, you might call him – just as you would have described French President Charles De Gaulle in the first days of the 1968 revolt in France.

It’s been a week, and the protesters have not quit. Meanwhile, in Erdogan’s absence, his closest colleagues have been conciliatory. President Abdullah Gul said “the messages sent in good faith have been received,” and Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said “The use of excessive force against the people who initially started this protest…was wrong.”

But what is it really about? After all, Prime Minister Erdogan has led his moderate Islamist party, the Justice and Development Party (AK), to three successive wins in national elections, each time with a bigger share of the vote. He has presided over a decade of high-speed economic growth that has lifted millions out of poverty, and he has finally forced the army out of politics. Why don’t they love him?

Some do, but many people think he has got too big for his boots. Erdogan retains the support of the pious and deeply conservative peasants and recent immigrants to the cities who make up the bulk of his supporters, but he wouldn’t have won without the backing of secular, urban voters who saw him as the best chance to expel the army from politics and put Turkish democracy on a firm footing. He has now lost their trust.

He won it by promising that his government would not shove conservative Islamic values down everybody else’s throats, and until recently he kept his promise. But his last election victory, in which he got 50 percent of the vote in a multi-party race, has emboldened him to believe that he can ignore his erstwhile secular supporters.

He has pushed through new laws restricting the sale and consumption of alcohol. Despite the misgivings of most Turks, he enthusiastically supports the Sunni Muslim rebels in Syria, as part of a broader strategy of re-establishing the political and economic dominance that the Ottoman Empire once enjoyed in the Sunni Arab world.

He even insists on naming the proposed third bridge across the Bosphorus after the 16th century Ottoman ruler, Yavuz Sultan Selim, who is notorious for massacring tens of thousands of Turkey’s Alevi religious minority. Around a quarter of Turkey’s population are Alevis, and they have not forgotten. Once Erdogan could play public opinion like a violin; now he is arrogant and tone-deaf.

So where does this end up? Not with the overthrow of Turkey’s elected government, and probably not in a military coup either. Most likely there will be apologies, and some government concessions, and the turbulence will subside. Erdogan will not even be removed as AK party leader right away, though some of his senior colleagues now clearly see him as a liability.

The protesters in Paris in May, 1968 didn’t get what they wanted right away either. Indeed, like the protesters in Gezi Park today, they weren’t even sure exactly what they wanted. But 11 months later Charles De Gaulle resigned, and France has never since had to cope with the problem of a Strong Man in power.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 7 and 12. (“Erdogan…wrong”; “It’s been…wrong”; and “He even…deaf”)

 

 

Kurds and Turks

24 March 2013

Kurds and Turks: End of the War?

By Gwynne Dyer

“We are at a point today when the guns will fall silent and ideas will speak,” declared Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the Kurdish insurgency in Turkey, on 21 March. “Turks and Kurds fought together (in the First World War), and launched the Turkish parliament together in 1922. The basis of the new struggle consists of ideas, ideology and democratic politics.” And with that, he declared a cease-fire.

Ocalan has declared cease-fires before, but the Turkish government made no substantial concessions on Kurdish rights so the fighting resumed. Nor is “democratic politics” a phrase you would readily link to Abdullah Ocalan, who tolerates no dissent in the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the organisation he created thirty years ago to fight for independence from Turkey. But this time really may be different.

After three decades of low-level guerilla war in southeastern Turkey (about a thousand deaths a year), both sides have concluded that they cannot win: the Kurds cannot win their independence, and Turkey cannot crush the armed Kurdish resistance to its repressive rule. So Ocalan has stopped demanding independence and now talks about local self-government, Kurdish language rights, and an end to repression.

The other thing that’s different this time is that Ocalan has actually been talking to Turkey’s prime minister, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, since last October. Not face-to-face, of course, but Ocalan has been held prisoner on Imrali island, about two hours south of Istanbul, ever since Turkish agents captured him in Kenya in 1999, so it has been easy for Erdogan’s intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, to go back and forth between the two men.

There is every reason to believe, therefore, that Ocalan’s cease-fire declaration, though apparently unilateral, was really coordinated between the two leaders. In which case the next steps that Ocalan promised – the release of prisoners by both sides and the withdrawal of the 3,000 PKK fighters in southeastern Turkey into the adjacent parts of northern Iraq – were presumably agreed in advance too.

This is not a process that will eventually lead to the emergence of an independent Kurdish state. That goal, promised to the Kurds by the victors at the end of the First World War, has been the dream of four generations of Kurds, but it is no closer than ever.

To bring all 30 million Kurds into a single, independent state would mean redrawing the borders of four major nations – Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria – and that is not going to happen. But Kurds already have full self-government (including a powerful army) in northern Iraq, and the Syrian Kurds have effectively thrown off Damascus’s rule in the east of that country, so a lesser Kurdish dream now seems almost within the realm of the possible.

That would be a large area, still divided by national borders but with free movement across them, where the Kurds of the whole region could live, work and teach their children in their own language. More than half that area would be in southeastern Turkey, so the deal that Ocalan and Erdogan may make, if things work out, is vital to this project.

There was never any real chance that a Kurdish state could be carved out of Turkey: the population in the southeast includes a large minority of Turks, and there are now millions of Kurds living in western Turkey (including an estimated three million in Istanbul). But Turkey is a democratic country, and full civil and language rights for Kurds would give them a very large say in how the Kurdish-majority parts of the country are run.

That is what is now on the table, and Ocalan seems content with it. Why would Prime Minister Erdogan (who quite recently said that he would have liked to see Ocalan executed) be interested in making the deal with the man?

Erdogan is currently trying to get a new constitution through parliament. He has two major aims: to prevent future military coups, and to remove the anti-religious elements in the document that have restricted any political expression of Islam since the founding of the republic ninety years ago. He also wants to strengthen the presidency, now a largely ceremonial office, since he plans to run for president next year.

Ocalan has no objections to any of that. All he wants in a new constitution is full equality for the Kurds and their language. Since the new constitution requires a two-thirds majority in parliament, and Erdogan will not have that majority without the support of the main Kurdish party, the Peace and Democracy Party, both men can only get what they want if the deal goes through.

Long-lasting marriages have been built on less promising foundations. This time, at long last, Turkey may finally get around to recognising the rights of the 20 percent of its people who speak Kurdish. If it does, a long war will end, Erdogan will gain enormous political credit – and a post-modern version of the traditional Kurdish dream will start to come to life.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“There was…man”)