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Turkey

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Principled Realism

The media mostly missed it (or chose to ignore it as a piece of meaningless rhetoric), but Donald Trump proclaimed a new doctrine in his speech to the assembled leaders of the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. It goes by the name of Principled Realism, although it didn’t offer much by way of either principles or realism. In practice, it mostly boiled down to a declaration of (proxy) war against Iran.

After rambling on for twenty minutes about the wonders of Islam and the evils of “extremism” and “terrorism”, Trump finally got to the point: “No discussion of stamping out this (terrorist) threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists…safe harbour, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment….I am speaking, of course, of Iran.”

No mention of the fact that every single terrorist attack in the West from 9/11 down to the bomb in Manchester Arena on Monday night was carried out by Sunni fanatics, most of them of Arab origin, whereas Iran’s population is overwhelmingly Shia and not Arab at all.

No mention either of the fact that it was Sunni-majority allies of the United States, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, that enabled the two most powerful Sunni extremist groups, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to seize large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave the extremists direct and indirect financial aid, and Turkey kept its border open so that weapons, money and recruits could reach them in Syria.

And no mention of the fact that the only approved form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, is almost identical to the version of Islam espoused by the terrorists. Bringing up such awkward subjects would have upset his audience, and the last thing Trump wants to do is hurt people’s feelings.

Iran, to hear Trump tell it, is the source of all the region’s problems. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region….It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many nations and leaders in this room….”

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a parter for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

Trump delivered this remarkable farrago of lies and half-truths two days after Iran, the only Middle Eastern state apart from Israel and Turkey to hold relatively free elections, re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, who has worked hard to reduce the influence of his hard-line opponents. He also signed the deal freezing Iranian work on nuclear weapons for ten years, and he clearly has popular support for his policies.

The “militias” Iran trains and supports include those in Iraq that are fighting to free the city of Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State (they also have tacit American support), and the Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon, which has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. There is no evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite frequent allegations to that effect by Arab and American sources.

The Iranian goverment does not “speak openly about mass murder”, and the one Iranian leader who spoke about the eventual destruction of Israel (although he did not promise to do it personally) was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was defeated by Rouhani in the 2013 election, and was banned from running again in the one just past. “Death to America!” was a nationalist slogan popular in the 1980s.

Iran, like most large countries, has many conflicting political trends, and with careful selection and enough ill-will you can find enough extreme and ignorant comments to demonise the country. (You could certainly do it with Trump’s America.) But the Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded anybody, and it certainly does not support terrorist attacks against either the West or the Arab world.

Trump has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has bought into a partisan Arab narrative whose theme is an inevitable (and ultimately military) conflict between Iran and the Arab world, and has all but promised that the United States would fight on the Arab side in that putative war.

This is probably the stupidest foreign policy commitment any American administration has made since the decision 60 years ago to take France’s place in fighting the “Communist menace” in Vietnam. Iran has almost as many people as Vietnam, it’s five times as big, and it’s mostly mountains and deserts – plus some very big cities.

Maybe it is inevitable that Sunni Arab leaders will see Shia Iran through the lens of their own fears and stereotypes, and start making self-fulfilling prophecies of apocalyptic conflict. Trump has no such excuse – and ‘Principled Realism’ really is the wrong slogan. How about ‘Reckless Complicity’?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“No mention either …feelings”)

The Turkish Referendum

“The office of the President of the Reich is unified with the office of the Chancellor. Consequently all former powers of the President of the Reich are demised to the Führer and Chancellor of the Reich Adolf Hitler. He himself nominates his substitute. Do you, German man and German woman, approve of this regulation provided by this Law?”

Adolf Hitler’s 1934 referendum, abolishing the office of prime minister (Chancellor) and concentrating all power in his own hands, was the final step in consolidating his control of Germany. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has just won a referendum abolishing the office of prime minister and concentrating all power in his own hands, is not another Hitler, but he is starting to look like another Putin.

He didn’t win his referendum by Hitler’s 88% majority, of course. He didn’t even win it by the narrow 52%-48% majority that decided the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum last June. He only got a hair’s-breadth 51.3% of the vote, against 48.7% for keeping Turkey’s existing parliamentary system. But it’s still a victory, and if Erdogan can go on winning elections, he could have almost absolute power in Turkey until 2029.

He can certainly go on winning elections for a while, because his support is rock-solid among the half of the population who felt oppressed by the secular state created by Ataturk almost a century ago. His Islamism is the main source of his political support, and the devout will go on voting for him no matter what he does. You almost wonder why he bothered with this referendum.

He already has almost absolute power in practice. Since the attempted coup last July (whose origins are still murky), the country has been under a state of emergency. The government controls almost all the mass media. 150 journalists, 13 members of parliament and at least 45,000 other people are under arrest, and upwards of 130,000 – academics, judges, police, teachers and civil servants – have been fired from their jobs on suspicion of disloyalty.

With those who urged “No” to the constitutional changes being publicly denounced as coup-plotters, traitors and terrorists, it’s remarkable that almost exactly half the population still dared to vote against Erdogan’s plan. But that doesn’t really help: Erdogan wanted to have the law underwrite his power, and now it does.

He can dismiss parliament whenever he likes. He can enact laws by decree. He can declare a state of emergency. He can directly appoint senior officials and judges (handy, given the evidence of massive corruption in his inner circle that emerged in 2013). He can be a democratic leader if he wants, but he can also be a dictator if he likes. All the checks and balances are gone.

It is a great pity, for Turkey was turning into a genuinely democratic country. Five years ago there was still a free press, civil liberties were generally respected, the economy was thriving (highest growth rate among the G20 countries year after year), and the country was at peace. And much of this was at least partly due to Erdogan’s own efforts.

However, democracy, as Erdogan once famously said, “is like a train. You get off once you have reached your destination.” He was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Now the few remaining free media outlets are under siege, civil rights are a joke, the economy has plunged into recession, and the country is at war. And this is mostly Erdogan’s fault.

The wars in particular are his own fault. He re-started a war against the Kurdish minority in the east to win over nationalist Turkish voters after he lost an election in June 2015. (He won the re-run in November.) He intervened in the Syrian civil war and eventually alienated Islamic State (for whose members he once left Turkey’s borders open), so now both IS and Kurdish terrorists are attacking Turkish cities.

At least 2,000 people have died in the war against Kurdish separatists in the past year, and 500 have been killed in terrorist attacks in the big cities. Ordinary Turks are shaken by all the violence, and at least half of them clearly don’t buy Erdogan’s explanation that evil foreigners who hate Turks are to blame for it all. Unfortunately the other half, mostly pious, rural, and/or ill-educated, believes it all and sees him as the country’s saviour.

Erdogan is unlikely to last until 2029: the failing economy and the wars will gradually drag him down. But he has divided the country so deeply with his determination to “re-Islamise” Turkey that an attempt to oust him, even by democratic means, could easily end in a civil war. What has happened to Turkey is a tragedy, and it’s hard to see a safe way back.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraph 11. (“The wars…cities”)

Choose a Side: Trump and the Sunni-Shia War

The Sunni-Shia civil wars in Iraq and Syria are both nearing their end, and in both cases the Shias have won – thanks largely to American military help in Iraq’s case, and to a Russian military intervention in Syria. Yet Russia and the United States are not allies in the Middle East. At least not yet.

President Trump may get in bed with the Russians and the Shias eventually, but he doesn’t seem to have given the matter much thought yet. So for the moment US policy follows the line laid down by Barack Obama.

Ex-president Obama was determined not to send American troops into another Middle Eastern war. Even as the Sunni extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda under another name) expanded their control in Syria and then seized much of Iraq, Obama restricted the US intervention to training local troops and deploying American air power.

In Iraq the local government’s troops were mostly Shia (as is most of the population), and US support was sufficient without committing American troops to ground combat. The Iraqi army is now in the final stages of reconquering Mosul, Islamic State’s capital in Iraq and an almost entirely Sunni city. Yet there have been no massacres of Sunnis, and only a handful of American casualties.

In Syria, the United States strongly opposed the Shia-dominated regime of President Bashar al-Assad, but it did not fight him. Obama found local allies to wage a ground war against Islamic State in the form of the Syrian Kurds, who are Sunni, but more interested in a separate Kurdish state than a Sunni-ruled Syria.

That collaboration worked well too. With US training and air support, the Syrian Kurds drove Islamic State steadily back, and are now closing in on Raqqa, its capital in Syria. And in all that time, Obama avoided taking sides between Shias and Sunnis in what most Arabs now see as a Shia-Sunni war.

Obama even managed to maintain America’s traditional alliances with Saudi Arabia and Turkey despite the fact that those two countries, both ruled by devout Sunni regimes, were sending money and arms to the extremists of Islamic State and the Nusra Front. He successfully walked a fine line in the Middle East for six whole years.

It’s doubtful that Donald Trump has the skill, knowledge and patience to go on walking that line. His instinct is to treat Iran as America’s most dangerous enemy in the Middle East, which would certainly please Saudi Arabia. But Iran is Russia’s close ally in the Syrian war, and Trump’s instinct is also to get very close to Vladimir Putin.

There’s a similar problem with Turkey. On one hand, Turkey is an important NATO ally and it has now sent its army into Syria, ostensibly to help destroy Islamic State.

On the other hand, Turkey is ruled by the authoritarian and impulsive President Recep Tayyib Erdogan, a mini-Trump who sprays abuse at anybody who crosses him (he recently called the Germans “Nazis” and the Dutch “Nazi remnants and fascists”).

In 2015 Erdogan deliberately re-started a war against Turkey’s own Kurdish minority in order to attract right-wing votes and win a close election. Now he has sent the Turkish army into Syria, allegedly to help destroy Islamic State but in fact mainly to smash the embryonic state that the Syrian Kurds have been building across northern Syria. Those Syrian Kurds have been America’s closest allies against Islamic State for years.

There are even Turkish troops in northern Iraq (without permission), and Erdogan has threatened to use them if the Iraqi army abuses Sunni Muslims during the reconquest of Mosul. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi replied (in November): “We do not want war with Turkey…but if a confrontation happens we are ready for it.”

Erdogan has gone rogue, and Turkey’s recent, quite fragile reconciliation with Russia is not restraining him. The two countries, together with Iran, are jointly supervising the shaky ceasefire in Syria, but they do not share the same goals and they are not really allies.

Into the midst of all this vicious complexity wanders the boy-man Donald Trump, with his full-spectrum ignorance, short attention-span and shorter temper. His appointee as National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, doubtless advised him to support Turkey’s ambitions, but then it was revealed that Flynn was in the pay of the Turkish government and he had to resign.

If Trump cosies up to the Russians instead, he will have to accept a close relationship with Assad’s brutal regime in Syria (no problem there) and also with Russia’s main ally in the Syrian war, Iran (potentially big problem there). But various latent conflicts are likely to burst into flame as the big civil wars in Iraq and Syria stagger to an end. Trump will have to jump one way or another quite soon.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 12 and 13. (“Erdogan…resign”)

Turkey Referendum

Reasonable people have long believed that the first person in a conversation to mention Adolf Hitler or the Nazis loses the argument. Turkey’s President Recep Tayib Erdogan does not subscribe to this view, and he has no intention of losing the argument.

The argument – the referendum, more precisely – is about whether Erdogan should be given absolute power in Turkey for the indefinite future. He was seriously annoyed when various German municipalities dared to doubt his rendezvous with destiny.

Their crime was to withhold permission for Erdogan’s government to hold referendum rallies in German cities. Germany is home to 1.4 million Turkish citizens, and in a tight referendum their votes matter, so Erdogan was quite put out.

“Hey, Germany,” he said last week in a rally in Turkey. “You know nothing about democracy. Your practices are no different from those of the Nazis.” The German government was astonished and rebuked him publicly.

Erdogan’s devout supporters only grow more enthusiastic when foreigners criticise him. And with 140,000 Turkish officials, judges, soldiers and journalists arrested, dismissed or suspended since last July’s failed coup attempt, most of his domestic critics have fallen silent: Reporters Without Borders now ranks Turkey 151st out of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.

And yet, the referendum that is supposed to grant Erdogan virtually unlimited power could go either way. It will certainly be close, because the country is still split right down the middle – and it’s no longer left vs. right. It is primarily secularist vs. Islamist.

When Erdogan first appeared on the Turkish political scene as mayor of Istanbul in 1994, he was an openly religious politician in a country that had suppressed any public expression of Islamic values for decades. He even did four months in jail for reciting a religious poem in public.

In 2003, Erdogan became the country’s first devout prime minister, and many secular Turks welcomed him in power. “Kemalism”, named after modern Turkey’s secular liberator Kemal Ataturk, had become corrupt and oppressive, and Erdogan spent his first two terms in office dismantling the secularists’ stranglehold on the state apparatus.

His main ally in this exercise was Fethullah Gulen, an Islamic preacher whose followers
were appointed to tens of thousands of positions in the civil service, the judiciary, the police and the army. But Turkish liberals also supported his attempt to negotiate a peace deal with the militant Kurdish separatist movement PKK, and all the while the Turkish economy grew at a highly satisfactory 5 percent a year.

Things began to turn sour in 2013, when protests grew at Erdogan’s increasing authoritarianism and there was a bitter split between him and the “Gulenist” movement. His policy of keeping the border with Syria open for Islamists fighting the Syrian regime (including Islamic State) drew strong criticism both at home and internationally, and secularists began to suspect that his ultimate goal was an Islamic state in Turkey.

These suspicions deepened when Erdogan gave up the prime ministership in 2014 and got himself elected president instead. The presidency was a ceremonial non-political office, but he planned to turn it into a powerful executive post that concentrated all power in his own hands. That required a referendum – but his ambition may have played a big part in his loss of the parliamentary election in early 2015.

In order to win back control of parliament he had to make an alliance with the hard-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP). To get their support he had to break the ceasefire with the PKK and reopen the war against the Turkish Kurds. Then Russia and his own NATO allies forced Erdogan to close the border to Syrian Islamists, and Islamic State terrorists started bombing Turkish targets as well.

Erdogan narrowly won the second parliamentary election in 2015, but he almost lost power to a military coup last July. He calls the coup attempt a Gulenist plot, but it was so badly organised that it was probably a panicked last-minute response to a secret government plan to purge all Gulen’s followers in state institutions, including the army.

Since last July Erdogan has used the coup attempt to whip up support for the planned referendum in April that would grant him untrammelled power as executive president. Turkey has been under emergency rule, with mass arrests and government by decree. Nasty, but not necessarily effective.

His default mode is outraged anger, so incidents like his “Nazi” accusation against Germany are ten a penny. Nobody in Turkey is even surprised – but the Turks may yet surprise him.

The Turkish economy is crashing, internal and external wars are multiplying, and there are far too many people in jail for months on end without being charged. Despite a reign of terror in the Turkish media, Erdogan’s victory in the referendum is still not assured.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 15. (“When…public”; and “His default…him”)