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Turkey

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Betraying the Kurds Again

Everybody betrays the Kurds. It’s an old Middle Eastern tradition. But given Donald Trump’s reputation for treachery, it’s astonishing how bad he is at it.

This particular betrayal got underway on Sunday night. After a telephone conversation with Turkey’s strongman president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump declared that he had started pulling American troops out of Syria. It’s time for US forces “to get out of these ridiculous Endless Wars, many of them tribal,” he tweeted.

Did Trump realise that he was effectively giving Turkey permission to invade northern Syria and expel the Syrian Kurds from their homes? His own officials patiently explained that to him last December when he tried the same stunt for the first time, but maybe he forgot.

So they reminded him again, and by lunchtime Monday Trump had changed his tune a bit. “If Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey,” he tweeted.

But Trump did not explain exactly what was ‘off limits’. Did the Turkish president have a green light to invade northern Syria, or not? Erdogan is going ahead with the operation anyway, assuming that Trump’s threats are just the usual empty belligerence and bluster. It’s a safe assumption.

The weird thing is that Donald Trump’s basic attitude to wars in far places is pretty sound. Don’t invade Iraq. (Wrong enemy.) Don’t have a war with North Korea over nuclear weapons. (Make a deal.) Get American troops out of the Middle East. (Duh.) The problem is in the execution.

We saw it two weeks ago when Trump, having decided to pull American troops out of Afghanistan and sell his Afghan allies down the river, changed his mind at the last minute and cancelled a planned meeting at Camp David to sign a deal with the Taliban.

We saw it last week when a US delegation met the North Koreans in Sweden for their first talks on nuclear weapons in seven months. Trump declared the meeting a great success, but the North Koreans accused the Americans of showing up “empty-handed” and said they would not engage in “such sickening negotiations” again.

Calling Trump ‘transactional’ is just a polite way of saying that he has no long-term strategy at all. He doesn’t even understand that his adversaries often do have such strategies, so they run circles around him.

Erdogan’s strategy is quite clear. He says he is going to create a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria by driving the ‘Kurdish terrorists’ out. It will be 480 km long and 30 km deep (three times the size of Prince Edward Island), and in this strip just south of the Turkish border he will ‘resettle’ 2 million Syrian Arabs, more than half of the Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

However, this plan sounds quite different when you translate it into plain English. The zone in question is already safe for the Kurdish people who live there and the Arab minority who live alongside them, because they defeated the Islamic State extremists who were trying to conquer it. There are no terrorists there now.

The army that destroyed Islamic State was an alliance between the Syrian Kurdish group called the YPG and some smaller Arab militias in the region. It fought in close alliance with the United States and lost more than ten thousand killed. (Only seven American soldiers were killed in action in Syria.) It has now restored peace throughout the area, and there were no attacks on Turkey at any point in the war.

Erdogan’s aim is to drive all the Kurds living within 30 km of the border out of their homes and replace them with Arabic-speaking Syrian refugees. Almost all of those refugees will be from elsewhere in Syria, but they won’t get any choice in the matter either.

Why is Erdogan doing this? Because it will greatly shrink the number of Arab refugees in Turkey and because, having falsely portrayed the Syrian Kurds to his own supporters as a security threat, he can then claim credit for having solved the problem. It’s brutal and immoral, but it’s sound politics.

What can the Syrian Kurds do to save themselves? They will have a brief opportunity in the next week or two, after US troops have left the ‘safe zone’ and before the Turks have established control.

If the Syrian Kurds can hold off the Turks for a few days, and meanwhile invite Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus to reoccupy what is, after all, sovereign Syrian territory, the Turkish invasion might actually stall.

It would only work if the Russians are willing to back that strategy, which is doubtful. But the Syrian Kurds have almost certainly been talking to Damascus about this idea already, because they could see Trump’s betrayal coming a mile off.

The Kurds could probably still get a fairly good deal on local autonomy from Damascus at this point – and Assad, for all his faults, is much likelier to stick to a deal once he makes it than Trump is.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 8. (“The weird…again”)

Turkey: The Empire Strikes Back

The Ottoman Empire, like many of its Middle Eastern predecessors, had the bad habit of moving entire peoples around if they were causing trouble. And sometimes, as happened to the Armenians during the First World War, what started as deportation ended up as genocide.

The empire collapsed a century ago, but old habits die hard. Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdoǧan (whose admirers often call him ‘the Sultan’) has a new plan: he’s going to move a million Kurds away from Turkey’s southern frontier with Syria, and replace them with a million Arabs.

And if his Western allies don’t like that, he’ll dump another million or so Arabs in Europe. “Either this happens (in Syria),” he said last week, “or we will have to open the gates (to Europe).” This is a blackmail threat with teeth: it was the sudden arrival of a million Syrian refugees in Europe in 2016 that energised extreme right-wing populists from England to Hungary.

Very few of those refugees ever wound up in either England or Hungary – the great majority of them were given shelter in Germany – but their arrival gave nationalists and racists all over Europe a stick to beat their opponents with. Erdoǧan, who is an accomplished nationalist rabble-rouser himself, knows exactly what he is doing, and he may well succeed.

All this is happening because Erdoǧan is obsessed about the Kurds – or at least he knows that a lot of other Turks are obsessed about the Kurds, and he’s in political trouble at home so he needs to feed their fantasies. You can never tell with the ‘Sultan’, who has a Trump-like ability to genuinely believe whatever he happens to be saying at the moment.

To be fair, the Kurds are a real problem for the Turks. They are about a fifth of the country’s population, concentrated mostly in the south-east, and they have been mistreated and their very identity denied by the Turkish state for so long that many of them would rather be independent.

Some of them have even taken up arms against Turkey in an organisation called the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party), which is now mostly based across the border in Kurdish-speaking northern Iraq. There was a ceasefire and peace talks early in this decade, but Erdoǧan started bombing the PKK again in 2015 when he had a tricky election to win and needed to appeal to Turkish nationalists.

Now he’s in trouble again: his party lost control of all Turkey’s big cities in the last election. Time to whack the Kurds again, and this time it’s going to be the Syrian Kurds, another fragment of the Kurdish people that lives in northern Syria, just across the border from Turkey’s Kurds. But not for much longer, if Erdoǧan has his way.

The Turkish strongman says that the Syrian Kurds are really ‘terrorists’ allied to the PKK, although there have been absolutely no attacks on Turkey from Syria during the entire eight-year Syrian civil war. What the Syrian Kurds were actually doing was defeating the real terrorists of ‘Islamic State’ in Syria, with strong air support and some ground support from the United States.

However, there is no gratitude in politics. Erdoǧan now wants to evict the Syrian Kurds from their homes and drive them south, away from the Turkish border. And to make sure they don’t come back later, he wants to settle a million Arabs there permanently instead.

There are four and a half million Syrian Arab refugees in Turkey. They’d like to go home, of course, but most of them are afraid of living under the control of Bashar al-Assad, the cruel dictator who has won the Syrian civil war. And here’s that nice Mr Erdoǧan, offering them homes in a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria.

That’s not where their real homes are, but maybe they’ll be happy there once Erdoǧan has driven the Kurds out. As he said recently in Ankara, “we can build towns there in lieu of the tent cities here.” The only hitch in the plan is that the United States may feel queasy about betraying the Syrian Kurds who fought alongside American troops to destroy Islamic State.

To solve that problem, Erdoǧan is threatening to send a million or so Arab refugees west into Europe. The Europeans will panic and make the Americans go along with his plan, or so he believes. He’s probably right.

The European Union promised Turkey 6 billion euros to keep the Arab refugees in Turkey in 2016, but Erdoǧan claims that half of it was never paid (which, if true, was very stupid of the Europeans). He doesn’t owe the EU any favours, and it truly will panic if he opens the gates and sends the Arabs west.

Donald Trump wants US troops out of Syria before next year’s election, so he’ll probably give in to Erdoǧan (and the Europeans). But the Syrian Kurds will probably fight to protect their homes.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 14. (“Very…succeed”; and “The European…west”)

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”)