There was more than a hint of groveling in Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s approach to his new “dear friend”, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
First came Erdogan’s carefully worded apology in June for ambushing and shooting down a Russian plane on the Syrian border last November. The Turkish economy was reeling under the ban on trade and tourism that Moscow had imposed after that ill-considered outrage, and Erdogan was trying (unsuccessfully, at that point) to get it lifted.
Then came the attempted military coup in Turkey on 15-16 July, when the Turkish president realised that he didn’t have a friend left in the world apart from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The US goverment almost certainly wasn’t behind the coup, but it was clear that it wouldn’t have minded terribly if Erdogan had been overthrown. Neither would the European Union or NATO, Turkey’s most important alliance.
All the governments of Turkey’s Middle Eastern neighbours, Iran, Iraq and Syria, see Erdogan as an enemy, and so does about half of his own population. (His fiercely pro-religious domestic policies have split Turkey right down the middle.) He is involved in an unwinnable war with Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, and the rebels he backed in Syria are losing the war there. This is a man desperately in need of friends.
Erdogan has only himself to blame for his isolation. It was his Sunni religious enthusiasm, not Turkish national interest, that led him to back the Syrian revolt aimed at overthrowing Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite (non-Sunni) leader. He kept the Turkish-Syrian border open to supply the Syrian rebels, including Islamic State and the local affiliate of al-Qaeda, thereby alienating the Western countries that are Turkey’s main allies.
Last July he re-started a war against Turkey’s big Kurdish minority, breaking a two-year ceasefire, in order to appeal to right-wing Turkish nationalists and win a close election. He has also bombed and shelled the Syrian Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, who are America’s most important allies in the ground war against Islamic State. And he deliberately shot down a Russian bomber because Russia was helping Assad survive.
In other words, Erdogan is an impulsive short-term thinker with no grand strategy who has put Turkey and himself in a very difficult position. That’s why he had to fly to St. Petersburg this week to visit his “dear friend” Putin – who, of course, greeted him with open arms.
Putin is always happy to score points against the West, and Turkey has Nato’s second-biggest army (although half its generals have just been jailed or dishonourably discharged). Restoring trade ties will help Russia too (although Turkey was hurting much more). But Erdogan was the supplicant here – so what will be the price of his “friendship” with Putin?
First and foremost, it will be an end to Turkish support for the Syrian rebels. No more missiles smuggled across the border from Turkey to shoot down Russian helicopters, and indeed no more arms, money or recruits crossing the border at all, particularly for the fanatics of Islamic State and the al-Qaeda affiliate (currently trading as Fateh al-Sham) who are doing most of the fighting against Assad’s regime.
At a slightly later date, Erdogan will be expected to downgrade his relations with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the revolt’s main Arab backers, and re-open contacts with the Assad regime. In the long run, Moscow hopes, the result will be a decisive Assad victory in the Syrian civil war. Even a month ago that seemed improbable, but Turkey is the only route by which money and weapons from the Arab Gulf states can reach the rebels.
There is inevitably a flutter of concern in Washington about this new “Turkish-Russian axis”, but none of the likely consequences in the Middle East will damage American strategic interests. Washington hawks still insist that the United States can destroy both the extreme Islamists AND the Assad regime, but the realists in the US military and the Obama administration now accept that Assad’s survival is the lesser evil.
And the hawks in Washington need not worry about NATO’s future: Turkey and Russia are not getting married. They are just getting into bed together for a while, until Erdogan feels less threatened.
Turkey’s fundamental strategy for the past two centuries, under sultans, elected governments and occasional military regimes alike, has been to have a powerful foreign ally to counter-balance the permanent threat from the great Russian power to its north.
For the past fifty-two years that powerful foreign ally has been the United States, and by extension the NATO alliance that America leads. The geopolitical calculations that drew Turkey into that alliance have not changed. Erdogan is not planning to break his country’s strategic ties with the US, and the humble pie he is being forced to eat may hasten an end to the killing in Syria.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 11. (“There is…evil”)
Turkey’s democracy is dead. It was dying anyway, as President Recep Tayyib Erdogan took over media outlets, arrested political opponents and journalists, and even re-started a war with the Kurds last autumn in order to win an election. But once part of the army launched a coup attempt on Friday night, it was dead no matter which way the crisis ended.
It wasn’t a very competent coup attempt. The first rule of coup-making is: arrest or kill the person you are trying to overthrow. The coup leaders should have been able to grab Erdogan, who was on holiday at the seaside resort of Marmaris, but they didn’t.
They didn’t shut down the internet and social media either, so Erdogan was able to use his cellphone to get a message out on FaceTime, calling on his supporters to defy the soldiers on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara. They didn’t even shut down the broadcast media that sent Erdogan’s call out to the public.
It was three hours before they occupied the offices of TRT, the state broadcaster, and they were chased out again by Erdogan less than an hour later. They didn’t ever try to shut down the private television networks, which have a much bigger audience.
The second rule of coup-making is: act as if you mean it. This usually means that you have to be willing to kill people – but the colonels behind the coup (the generals were all vetted by Erdogan’s people) were reluctant to use large amounts of lethal force.
This is laudable, in human terms, but if you are trying to overthrow the rule of a ruthless man who aspires to absolute control, it is a very bad mistake. They took control of Istanbul airport, but they were chased out again by Erdogan’s supporters because they were not willing to shoot them – and Erdogan flew back into the city.
Maybe the coup-makers were just too short of troops to grab control of everything they needed to make the coup work. Maybe, also, they were afraid to order their troops to carry out a massacre because Turkey’s is a conscript army, and many of its young soldiers – basically civilians in uniform for one year – might simply refuse to kill their fellow citizens in large numbers.
At any rate, they didn’t use massive violence in Istanbul, and so they were soon in retreat. But there can be no happy ending to this episode.
Democracy would obviously have been dead if the rebels had won. Almost exactly half of Turkey’s voters backed Erdogan in the last election, so a military regime would have had to stay in power for a long time. It would not have dared to hold a free election and risk Erdogan returning to power.
It would have been equally dead if the coup had partially succeeded and the army had really split, for that would have meant civil war. Mercifully that possibility has now disappeared, but democracy is dead in Turkey even though the coup has been defeated.
A triumphant Erdogan will seize this opportunity to complete his take-over of all the major state organisations and the media, and become (as his followers often call him) the “Sultan” of Turkey. That is a tragedy, because five or ten years ago Turkey seemed well on the way to being the kind of democracy, with free media and the rule of law, where a coup like this was simply inconceivable.
When Erdogan won his first election in 2002, promising to remove all the restricions
that pious Muslims suffered under the rigidly secular constitution, it seemed a reasonable step foward in the democratisation process. He kept his promises about that, but gradually he went further, trying to Islamise the country against the strong opposition of the half of the population that favours a secular state.
Luckily for Erdogan the Turkish economy was booming, so he went on winning elections – and he worked steadily to concentrate all power in his own office. He removed any officials who were not his avid supporters, attacked the freedom of the media, and committed Turkey to unconditional support for the Islamist rebels in neighbouring Syria.
The rebel army officers may have been trying to stop all that, but it was a terrible mistake for which they will suffer severe punishment. So will anybody who is even suspected of having sypathised with them, and Erdogan will emerge as the all-powerful “Sultan” of a post-democratic Turkey.
The coup leaders made the same mistake as the Egyptian liberals made when they asked the army to overthrow the elected president there in 2013. Egypt had a president whom they feared and hated, but they also had a democracy which provided a peaceful means of ousting him.
Erdogan’s popularity would have dwindled with time. The Turkish economy is stagnant, his Syrian policy is a disaster, and the flagrant corruption of the people around him is getting hard to ignore. Sooner or later he would have lost an election. But like the Egyptian liberals, the officers who led the Turkish coup didn’t trust democracy enough to wait.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 15 and 16. (“It was…audience”; and “The coup…wait”)
Early next week (April 4), the deal made between the European Union and Turkey to stem the flood of refugees into the EU goes into effect. It will promptly blow up in everybody’s face, for three reasons.
First problem: the EU won’t be able to “process” the arriving migrants as fast as new ones arrive. Migrants are arriving on the Greek islands of Chios and Lesbos at the rate of almost 2,000 per day, and as the weather improves even larger numbers will attempt the short sea crossing from Turkey.
Up to now the migrants have quickly been moved on to the mainland of Greece, but the Turkish-EU deal means that new arrivals will now pile up on the islands in detention camps while awaiting a decision on their asylum claims. Living conditions will become intolerable and there will be protests, some of them violent.
The EU has authorised a force of 4,000 security and migration officials and translators to register the new arrivals and investigate their claims for asylum. Even if these officials had all arrived on the islands (most haven’t), they wouldn’t be enough. It takes time to interview the claimants, write up the claims, make decisions to accept or reject them, and even allow appeals – and meanwhile another 2,000 will be arriving each day.
Second problem: within one or two weeks the time will come for the first rejected asylum claimants to be sent back to Turkey. Having spent all their money and endured great hardships to get this far, they will not go back willingly. It will require physical force to get some of them on the planes or boats that will take them back – enough force that there will be real casualties.
Third problem: by June, as part of this deal, Turkish citizens will have the right to visa-free travel to the European Union. Around one-fifth of Turkey’s population, some 15-20 million people, are Kurds. Since last summer, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, having broken a two-year ceasefire with the separatists of the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK), has been waging a pitiless war against them in the towns and cities of the southeast.
Some parts of Kurdish-majority cities in Turkey now resemble the war-ravaged cities of Syria. The Kurds, as Turkish citizens, will be able to enter most EU countries not as refugees but as tourists – and it would be very surprising if several million of them do not avail themselves of the opportunity. But the EU’s goal in this deal was to stop the mass migration, not to change it from Syrian Arabs to Turkish Kurds.
In practice, things will never get that far. Long before the EU negotiators agree on the details of visa-free travel for Turkish citizens the deal will collapse – because it will automatically be cancelled if the number of returnees reaches 72,000. That’s slightly more than one month’s worth of migrants at the current rate of supply.
The goal behind this weirdly dysfunctional deal was twofold: to cut the total number of migrants drastically – more than a million made it into the EU last year – and at the same time to end the deaths that happen during the sea crossing: 460 drownings out of the 143,000 who tried to cross so far this year. But it simply will not work.
The only way to really seal a frontier is to kill people who try to cross it illegally. After first few hundred deaths most people get the message and stop trying. (The Iron Curtain worked pretty well, for example.) But the EU isn’t ready to do that yet – so how can it discourage migrants from making the crossing?
What if we ship almost all those who make it to the Greek islands back to Turkey, but promise to take one legitimate Syrian refugee out of the camps in Turkey for every Syrian we send back? The Turks will go along with it if we give them $3.3 billion now, promise them another $3.3 billion later, and allow visa-free travel to the EU for Turkish citizens. The deal is win-win all round. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, there are around two-and-a-half million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and most of them are not even in camps. If they have a good legal claim for asylum, why should they wait in the queue? And if they are not Syrian – Iraqi or Afghan refugees or African migrants – where is their incentive not to get in a boat and try their luck?
To its credit, the EU has not yet deployed the ultimate argument: that refugees are already safe in Turkey, a country that is still technically a democracy with the rule of law, and therefore have no right to go asylum-shopping in greener pastures elsewhere. But after this new deal collapses, it will almost certainly come to that in the end.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 8. (“The EU…day”; and “In practice…supply”)
“We will defend Aleppo: all of Turkey stands behind its defenders” – Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Wednesday, 10 February.
“Turkey and Saudi Arabia may launch an operation (into Syria) by land” – Turkish Foreign Minister Mehmed Cavusoglu, Saturday, 13 February.
“There is no thought of Turkish soldiers entering Syria” – Turkish Defence Minister Ismet Yilmaz, Sunday, 14 February.
Between Wednesday of last week and Sunday night, the Turkish government, in league with Saudi Arabia, made a tentative decision to enter the war on the ground in Syria – and then got cold feet about it. Or more likely, the Turkish army simply told the government that it would not invade Syria and risk the possibility of a shooting war with the Russians.
The Turkish government bears a large share of the responsibility for the devastating Syrian civil war. From the start Turkey’s leader, Recep Tayyib Erdogan, was publicly committed to overthrowing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. For five years he kept Turkey’s border with Syria open so that arms, money and volunteers could flow across to feed the rebellion.
Erdogan’s hatred of Assad is rooted in the fact that he is a militant Sunni Muslim while Assad leads a regime dominated by Shia Muslims. Both men rule countries that are officially secular, but Erdogan’s long-term goal is to impose Islamic religious rule on Turkey. Assad is defending the multi-ethnic, multi-faith traditional character of Syrian society – while also running a brutally repressive regime. Neither man gives a fig for democracy.
Saudi Arabia has been Erdogan’s main ally in the task of turning Syria into a Sunni-ruled Islamic state (although 30 percent of Syrians are not Sunni Muslims). Together these countries and some smaller Gulf states subverted the original non-violent movement in Syria that was demanding a secular democracy, and then armed and supplied the Sunni-dominated armed rebellion that replaced it.
The US government also wanted to see Assad’s regime destroyed (for strategic reasons, not religious ones). So for years Washington turned a blind eye to the fact that its allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, were actually supporting the extremists of Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria.
Largely as a result of that support, these two extremist organisations now completely dominate the Syrian revolt against Assad’s rule, accounting for 80-90 percent of the active fighters. Turkey and Saudi Arabia finally broke their ties with Islamic State last year, but they still back the Nusra Front, which has camouflaged itself behind an array of minor “moderate” groups in the so-called “Army of Islam”.
When the Nusra Front, with strong Turkish support, overran much of northwestern Syria last spring, Russia finally went to the aid of its long-standing ally, the Syrian government. Russian air power helped the Syrian army push back the troops of both the Nusra Front and Islamic State. Erdogan pushed back, ordering Turkish fighters to shoot down a Russian bomber last November.
Even at the time, however, it was clear that the Turkish army was very unhappy about the prospect of a military clash with Russia. It doesn’t share Erdogan’s dream of an Islamist-ruled Syria either. Meanwhile the Russian bombs kept falling, the Syrian army went on advancing, and now it has cut the main supply line from Turkey to the rebels in and around Aleppo.
Erdogan is frustrated and angry, and he now has an equally reckless ally in Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the Saudi deputy Crown Prince and defence minister. Over the past week these two men appear to have talked themselves into a limited military incursion into Syria to push the regime’s troops back and reopen the supply lines to the rebels.
This would also have allowed the Turkish army to whack the Syrian Kurds, who are building a de facto independent state in the Kurdish-majority territory along Turkey’s southern border. (Erdogan is already at war with Turkey’s own Kurdish nationalists, having broken a four-year truce with them last summer.)
On Saturday the Turkish army began shelling Syrian Kurdish forces. On Sunday Assad’s government complained to the UN that about a hundred “Turkish soldiers or mercenaries” had crossed the border into Syria. But at that point the grown-ups took over, and the Turkish defence minister denied that there was any intention to invade Syria.
France publicly warned Turkey to end its attacks on Saturday, and there were doubtless secret but frantic warnings to the same effect from Turkey’s other NATO allies. Turkey (and Saudi Arabia) have almost certainly been put on notice that if they choose to start a local war with Russian forces in Syria, they will have to fight it alone.
So that is probably the end of that, and everybody can get back to the business of partitioning Syria – which is what all the talk of a “cessation of hostilities” is really about.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 12. (“Erdogan’s…democracy”; and “This would…summer”)