So far the end-game in Syria has played out in an entirely predictable way. All of Aleppo is back in the Syrian government’s hands, that decisive victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers has been followed by a ceasefire, and the Russians are now organising a peace conference in Astana, Kazakhstan for later this month.
The one surprise is that Turkey, long the rebels’ most important supporter, will be co-chairing the conference. This means that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made a deal of some sort with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, for Astana is clearly going to be a Russian show. (The United States has not been invited, and Saudi Arabia probably won’t be asked to attend either.)
So what kind of deal has Erdogan made with Putin? The details may well have been fudged, for Turkey has not yet renounced its long-standing insistence that Assad must step down as the Syrian leader. But it’s pretty easy to figure out most of what is going to be on the table in Astana (assuming the ceasefire holds until then).
Assad has won the war, thanks largely to Russian and Iranian intervention, and the Syrian rebels are doomed. There is no point in their fighting on, because ALL their outside supporters are peeling away. Turkey is now cooperating with Russia, in three weeks Donald Trump will be US president and also cooperating with Moscow, and Saudi Arabia is hopelessly over-committed to its futile war in Yemen.
Even little Qatar, once one of the main paymasters of the Syrian rebellion, has now lost interest: it recently signed an $11.5 billion deal for a 19.5% stake in Rosneft, Russia’s largest oil producer. The rebels are completely on their own, and their only options are surrender or dying in the last ditch.
Syria’s rebels are almost all Islamists of one sort or another by now, but the less extreme ones will probably be offered an amnesty at Astana in return for signing a peace deal – which may contain some vague language about an election that MIGHT replace Assad at some point in the indefinite future. That’s as much as will be on offer, because Assad does not intend to quit and Moscow will not force him to.
The extreme Islamists – Islamic State, which controls much of eastern Syria and western Iraq, and the former Nusra Front, which controls much of north-western Syria – have not been invited to Astana, nor would they accept an invitation if it was issued.
The ex-Nusra Front (now renamed the Front for the Conquest of the Levant to disguise its membership in al-Qaeda) was refreshingly frank in condemning the ceasefire and the peace talks: “We did not negotiate a ceasefire with anyone. The solution is to topple the regime through military action,” it said. A political solution would be “a waste of blood and revolution.”
But a military victory over Assad is no longer possible, so these groups are destined to lose on the battlefield and revert to mere terrorism. In terms of what a post-civil war Syria will look like, the great unanswered question is: what happens to the Syrian Kurds?
They are only one-tenth of the Syrian population, but they now control almost all the Kurdish-majority areas across northern Syria. As America’s only ally on the ground in Syria, they have played a major role in driving back Islamic State. They are not Islamists, they are not terrorists, and they have avoided any military confrontation with Turkey despite President Erdogan’s war on his country’s own Kurdish minority.
Yet Erdogan publicly identifies the Syrian Kurds as Turkey’s enemy, and they have not (or at least not yet) been invited to the Astana peace conference. Was Erdogan’s price for switching sides a free hand in destroying Rojava, the proto-state created by the Syrian Kurds? Very probably, yes.
Assad would be content for that to happen, provided Turkey handed over the corpse afterwards. Putin doesn’t care one way or the other, and it’s most unlikely that Trump does either. The Turkish army will have its hands full fighting the Syrian Kurds, but it has the numbers and the firepower to prevail in the end.
So even if the current ceasefire holds, and even if the peace conference at Astana goes exactly according to Moscow’s plan, there is still some fighting to be done in Syria. Assad’s army, with Russian and Iranian support, will have to suppress both Islamic State and the former Nusra Front, and the Turks will have to subjugate the Syrian Kurds.
This will take time, but with no more weapons and money flowing in from outside (since Turkey has turned off the taps) it will probably happen in the end. Which means that Assad will probably one day rule once again over a united Syria.
That is a deeply discouraging prospect, but it is probably the least bad option that remains.
To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 12. (“The ex-Nusra…revolution”; and “Assad…end”)
“In Turkey, we are progressively putting behind bars all people who take the liberty of voicing even the slightest criticism of the government,” wrote author Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s first Nobel Prize winner. “Freedom of thought no longer exists. We are distancing ourselves at high speed from a state of law and heading towards a regime of terror” that is driven by “the most ferocious hatred.”
Pamuk wrote those words in Istanbul, but they were not published in Turkey. He sent them to Italy’s leading liberal daily, “Repubblica”, because no Turkish paper would dare to publish them. Indeed, almost the entire senior editorial staff of Turkey’s oldest mainstream daily, “Cumhuriyet”, was arrested last weekend, allegedly for supporting both Kurdish rebels and the Islamic secret society controlled by exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.
This is rather like accusing the Wall Street Journal of supporting al-Qaeda and the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Cumhuriyet always defended Turkey’s secular constitution from those who dreamed of creating an Islamic state (like the “Gulenists”), and it always condemned Kurdish separatists who resorted to violence.
But now its editorial staff is in jail, alongside 37,000 other people who have been arrested, often on equally implausible charges, since the attempted coup last July. (President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s government has amnestied 38,000 ordinary criminals to make room in the jails for the political prisoners.)
Erdogan’s govenment holds the “Gulenists” responsible for the attempted military coup last July, and they probably were. But he is exploiting the “state of emergency” (which he has just extended for another three months) to suppress all possible centres of opposition to his rule. Whatever their real views, they are all are accused of being either pro-Gulenist or pro-terrorist.
The Gulenist menace has been inflated to preposterous proportions. Erdogan’s deputy prime minister Nurettin Canikli, said in a recent interview with the BBC that members of the group have “practically had their brains removed. They’ve been hypnotised. They’re like robots. Each one of them is a potential threat. They could commit all sorts of attacks, including suicide bombs.”
“For 40 years this terror organisation has infiltrated the furthest corners of the country – ministries, all institutions and the private sector. It’s not just the judiciary, courts, the police, the military. It includes education. In fact, education is the field that they have entered best,” Canikli said. (Half of the 100,000 people who have been fired from government jobs
worked in education.)
Erdogan now even blames the Gulenists for shooting down a Russian combat aircraft on the Syrian-Turkish border one year ago – although at the time he proudly claimed that it was done on his orders. He also forgets to mention that he and Fethullah Gulen were once close allies dedicated to the task of “Islamising” the Turkish public services.
Their shared objective was to ensure that most of the jobs in the government’s grant – military officers, teachers, police, judges, the senior civil service – were held by pious Muslims. This was a huge task, since for almost a century these jobs had largely been the preserve of secular Turks who thought that religion had no business in politics.
The change was accomplished by giving Gulenist candidates the answers to entrance exams, by manipulating military and judicial appointments, or just by the naked exercise of political power, and by 2016 it was an accomplished fact.
But eventually Gulen and Erdogan had a catastrophic falling out – probably over which of them actually controlled these tens of thousands of deeply religious officials – and Erdogan belatedly realised that he had created a hostile force in the heart of his own government apparatus.
He showed as little foresight in his dealings with the Turkish Kurds. In an earlier, more responsible phase of his political career Erdogan actually engineed a ceasefire with the PKK, the main and most violent Kurdish separatist group. But when he lost an election last year and needed to win back the Turkish ultra-nationalist vote, he did it by breaking the ceasefire and re-starting the war against the Kurds.
His clandestine support for the Islamist fanatics of ISIS (now Islamic State) was equally foolish. In the end he came under such pressure from United States, from Russia, and from Saudi Arabia that he was compelled to break the link – and discovered that his erstwhile friends in Islamic State get very cross when they are spurned. Islamic State bombs now go off in Turkey all the time.
So he has alienated a lot of people, his plate is very full, and he urgently needs to thin out the number of his enemies. The failed July coup gave Erdogan an excuse for taking extreme action against them, and even against other domestic opponents who have always played by the democratic rules. He has seized the opportunity with both hands.
It is ugly and sad, for ten years ago Turkey seemed to be entering an era of stable democracy and growing prosperity. This tragedy was not bound to happen: one man’s ruthless ambition has derailed an entire country’s promising future. It’s not clear when, or even if, it will get back on track.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 13. (“For…education”; and “His clandestine…time”)
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”)