Saturday, 11 October 2014

"We Have History"

Taking a taxi in Istanbul can be an interesting experience in the best of times. Sometimes the driver knows how to drive. Often the cab is his first experience with a motorized vehicle. Sometimes the driver knows where he is going. Other times you find that he only arrived in the city shortly before you did and knows very little.

            In theory the taxis are regulated. The reality is somewhat different. Take smoking. Removing a cigarette from many Turks is almost an act of war. Most cabs have stickers warning that smoking is not allowed. Most drivers, however, are busy working their way through at least two packs a day. If you’re brave or foolish enough to point out the no-smoking sticker they merely point to traffic mess around them and mutter the word ‘stress’ to explain their action. Given the total vehicular and pedestrian anarchy dominating the city’s streets they have a point.

The safest taxi in Istanbul?
             Then comes the tricky point of conversation. Most drivers are astute enough to recognize that you’re probably not Turkish. And they’re naturally curious. Who is this person in the back of my car? So while manoeuvring with the dexterity of a Formula 1 driver through speeding traffic as they constantly change lanes and run red lights they half-turn to you and utter the word ‘memleket’ – country—with head and hand gestures signifying a question. It’s a loaded question with uncertain consequences for the wrong answer. You, however terrified you may be with visions of instant death rapidly passing in front of your eyes, would be well advised to consider the answer carefully. Looking for tell-tale clues of the driver’s own political, sporting, or religious tendencies is a good start. These can usually be found hanging from the rear-view mirror or stuck to the windshield obliterating the view of oncoming death.

            One time I got this question from a driver who had a long beard and was wearing a white skull cap. Another clue was the fact that he was bobbing his head and muttering verses from the Koran propped up on the steering wheel. Given the state of his driving I thought this was an entirely logical thing to do. When he turned around with his fierce, challenging eyes and fired the question memleket? I had to do some fast thinking. The wrong answer might just land me bound and gagged in his trunk.

            My first reaction was to scroll quickly through my family tree to see if I could come up with a long-lost relative who was a companion of the Prophet Mohammed.  Failing that I concluded that admitting I was an American was probably not a great idea. British probably wouldn’t work either. Dutch? Risky. He might have a relative there and could speak a few words in Dutch, which was more than I could. Irish? Too obviously Catholic. Finally it dawned on me. Canadian. God bless the Canadians! No one in his right mind hates Canadians. Doubtful he’s ever seen one. And who has ever heard of Canadians getting stuck in trunks with gags and blind folds? Once I ventured that miraculous word Canadian he muttered something incomprehensible and focused on his driving.

            Another time I got this question and quickly searched for clues. Surprisingly there were none – no prayer beads handing from the mirror and no stickers proclaiming his allegiance to one football team or another. The driver seemed like a decent person and I admitted to being American. Instantly his face lit up into a huge gap-toothed smile. The only nervous moment was when he turned around to give me a high-five.

            “My friend, this trip is on me. Where can I take you,” he proclaimed.
            Stunned, I asked him where he was from. This being the Middle East, friends of America are a little thin on the ground. He thumped his chest proudly. “I am from Kurdistan,” he announced. It turned out his family was from northern Iraq and had been saved by the American no-fly zone after Saddam Hussein had killed thousands of Kurds with his chemical warfare. For him the Americans could do no wrong. He was far less charitable toward the Turks whom he accused of suppressing their own large Kurdish population. “We have history,” he said darkly as he spat viciously out the window. Indeed they do. And much of it is not pretty.

            And therein lies the problem we see played out today as the brutal  jihadi forces of ISIS threaten to take over the city of Kobani, just a few meters from the Turkish border. The world wonders why Turkey, with its huge army, does nothing to stop this assault. The Kurdish forces in Kobani may not even want the Turkish army. But Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan won't even let the Kurds get resupplied from Turkey. And he refuses to let anti-ISIS forces use air bases inside Turkey for more effective air cover. The simple fact is that Erdoğan and many of his acolytes see the Kurds in Kobani as a greater threat than ISIS. They see the Kobani Kurds merely as an extension of the militant PKK Kurds in Turkey that have caused so much trouble over the years. Any effort to help the Kurds in Kobani, they believe, could backfire on Turkey.

            No one knows for sure how many Kurds are inside Turkey, but various estimates put the number at 12 – 15 million – a sizable minority out of population of about 75 million. After years of brutal conflict with the PKK that has cost about 40,000 lives over the last two decades, Erdoğan had launched a highly publicized effort to end that conflict and give the Kurdish citizens more cultural rights.
A preview of coming attractions inside Turkey?
            Such cynical realpolitik of letting ISIS do his dirty work in Kobani carries two large risks. One is that it could risk alienating even the moderate Kurds in Turkey. Any future outbreaks of violence won't be limited to the traditional Kurdish homelands of south-eastern Turkey. The large cities are also extremely vulnerable. Whatever progress has been made to ease age-old tensions could be undone very quickly. The fragile alliance between Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the Kurds could quickly unravel. Among other things this could easily cost the AKP a lot of votes in the next election, ending whatever fading hopes Erdoğan has of changing the constitution to give himself even more power.

            The second major risk is that despite AKP's kind gestures ISIS will not stop at the border. The group has enough followers within Turkey to cause serious problems. 

            If he is going to stop to the looming Kobani massacre from igniting even greater problems inside Turkey he is going to have to act with great sensitivity and skill than we have witnessed so far. His usual bluster and bellowing will only intensify the problem.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Damned If You Do. Damned If You Don't.

Turkey is beginning to learn the very high cost of fighting wars by proxy. Unfortunately they never learned the lessons of the Americans or the Pakistanis who armed the mujahedeen in Afghanistan to fight the Russians 30 years ago. Both the United States and Pakistan soon learned at a very great cost that those heavily armed and well trained fighters had their own agenda – one that was viciously opposed to their former benefactors.

            After funnelling arms and money to radical Sunni groups in Syria opposed to the regime of Bashar al Assad Turkey now finds that those one-time allies are threatening to bite the hand that fed them. Welcome to the Middle East where alliances and loyalty are fluid at the best of times. What is interesting is that many of the same people in the United States who fervently supported arming the mujahedeen against the Russians in the 1980s now want President Obama to fall into the same trap in Syria. Good thinking, guys.

Exactly why Turkey is so vehemently opposed to its former best friend Assad is a matter of some speculation. President Tayyip Erdoğan would have us believe he is shocked, shocked at the violence and brutality that Assad has used against his own people. Others, less charitable, say he only wants to establish a strong Sunni belt on Turkey’s southern border to counter what he sees as the Shiite threat from Iraq and possibly Iran.

Whatever his reasons, this policy has left Turkey with extremely difficult choices, each of which has unpredictable and dangerous outcomes. Right now a heavily armed (thanks in part to Turkey) group of medieval jihadis (ISIS) has swept through large parts of Syria and Iraq. They have besieged a fairly large town right next to the Turkish border. If they take that town they will be right up against Turkey itself. What to do? From Turkey’s point of view it would appear to be the lesser of two evils.

The town in question, Kobani, is largely populated by Kurds who have pretty much established an autonomous region within Syria. Turkey doesn’t like that. It might give Turkey’s own large Kurdish population similar ideas.

On the other hand, Turkey has suddenly woken up to the dangers posed by ISIS. “Hey, these guys may be out of control and may not be our friends.” The Turkish parliament passed a motion allowing Turkish participation in the hastily formed anti-ISIS coalition. So far that participation has been limited to loud denunciations of terror and strident calls for more action -- by someone else -- against ISIS. But what action, and by whom are not clear. What is clear is Turkey’s ambivalence about the entire anti-ISIS project.

So far the Turkish army has provided great photo opportunities of its tanks lined up aggressively on the border across from Kobani. And there they sit. Turkey does not even allow coalition airplanes to use nearby bases in Turkey in order to provide more effective air power against ISIS.
Turkish tanks on Syrian border
Coalition commanders are frustrated and the Kurds are furious. Turkish leaders piously justify their do-nothing response by claiming that taking out ISIS without first taking out Assad would be pointless. The Turks also say they want a no-fly zone. Why, precisely? ISIS has no air force. But, for the Turks, the target is Assad, not ISIS. Therefore they will do nothing unless the coalition, i.e. the Americans, commit to regime change in Damascus. The Turks are silent on who or what might fill the power vacuum in Syria once Assad goes. Having, hopefully, learned the folly of regime change the Americans are in no mood to topple Assad, no matter how brutally he might treat his own people.

The Kurds are adamant that the Turkish lack of action is merely a pretext for eliminating the Kurdish population. If ISIS wipes out the Kurds, according to this logic, then that particular threat to Turkey is gone.

To be fair to the Turks, however, any action, or lack thereof, carries grave risks. Don’t attack ISIS and you risk inflaming your own large Kurdish population and ending whatever chance there was for reconciliation. Kurds in several of the country’s larger cities have already hit the streets in violent protests against Turkey’s lack of support. The cease-fire with the Kurdish militant group could end any day and plunge the country back into a brutal conflict that has cost about 40,000 lives over the past two decades. Soldiers are now patrolling the streets of major cities in an effort to stop the protests.

Kurdish protest in Turkey. A return to the bad old days?

Moving aggressively against ISIS, however, risks alienating a large part of the Turkish population that wants nothing to do with a war among Arabs that they believe was created by the Americans in the first place. “Let them stew in their own juice” seems to be the most popular attitude in Turkey. The government would also risk alienating that portion of the Turkish population that thinks ISIS is not such a bad thing.

The other serious risk of attacking ISIS is creating blow-back inside Turkey. I doubt that ISIS would challenge the might of the Turkish army directly. But it doesn’t have to. It could easily create problems using the 1.5 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey. ISIS could also ignite serious violence using its supporters already in Turkey’s sprawling major cities. A recent story in The New York Times about Pakistan’slessons for Turkey highlighted the problems the country could face with people it once thought were its allies.

"He (Erdoğan) is a fool," a Turkish friend fumed. "He wanted to be a big deal in the Middle East, the champion of the Sunnis, the new Caliph. All he did was to bring the problems of the Middle East inside Turkey."

The Turkish government is in a very uncomfortable place at the moment, condemned both for doing too little and possibly too much against ISIS. Sooner or later it will have to make a choice. And then the question is whether the Turkish leadership is wise enough to handle the consequences of whatever choice it makes.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Reality Is Beginning To Hit Home

I doubt very much that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan has had much time to read about Voltaire’s ever-optimistic character of Pangloss in Candide or to learn about the young girl Pollyanna in Eleanor Porter’s famous work of the same name. But if he did he would learn that he shares the same basic trait as these two characters. Everything is rosy and fine in Erdoğan-world where reality is seldom, if ever, allowed to penetrate.

            But now, cold, hard, unyielding reality is finally beginning to challenge Erdoğan’s rose tinted vision of Turkey’s unstoppable economic growth and rapidly developing political importance. And he, as usual, is not happy about this. Only the total sycophants and house-broken media can continue to maintain with a straight face that black is white – that the economy is still growing strongly or that the country’s erratic foreign policy has not created a huge problem on its southern border.

            Rather than focus on the reality of Turkey’s economic and political challenges the president prefers to focus on the superficial status symbols of his so-called ‘New Turkey.’  Forget the reality, how better to prove Turkey’s importance – at least to himself – than to buy a large new presidential plane or to build a 1,500-room presidential palace to the replace the more modest, historic presidential residence.

            Why grapple with difficult, real problems like rising unemployment, declining growth and an alarming increase in industrial fatalities when you can use mere symbols of power like a fancy plane and a new palace to disguise the darkening reality? It would have taken a very brave adviser to show him the story in Forbes about Turkey’s growing problems.

            As usual Erdoğan’s default response to any bad news is to blast the bearer of that news. When the rating agencies warn of looming problems for the economy and possible downgrades, the president yells that they are nothing but tools of Turkey’s enemies trying to ‘keep Turkey down.’ This type of school yard response used to play well in the hinterlands. But I wonder how it continues play when increasing numbers of young people can’t find jobs or prices in the market place keep spiralling upward?

            Despite the rapidly depreciating currency and the country’s continuing need for at least $200 billion of foreign inflows every year to cover debt service and the current account deficit, Erdoğan and the comical minister for industry continue to demand lower interest rates. They demand growth regardless of damage to the country’s delicate financial balances.   The president is annoyed with the semi-independence of the Central Bank and has proposed moves to make it subject to its political masters

            A friend in London put it very well. “Erdoğan has consistently mistaken favourable global financial conditions for his own supposed economic genius. Turkey is now one of the countries most exposed to potential changes in those conditions. For the time being we remain invested in Turkish debt. With global interest rates so low you can still make money borrowing dollars and buying that debt. But, my finger is on the trigger. At the first whiff of change I am out of there.”

            The New York Times is the latest to make his ever-lengthening enemies list with a story about the radical Islamist group ISIS recruiting in the middle of Ankara. In addition to presidential insults the author of the piece, who happens to be a Turkish woman, was subjected to vicious abuse from all the flunky media. One of the papers published her picture and encouraged ‘loyal’ Erdoğanites to teach her a lesson. I couldn’t figure out if they were challenging the accuracy of the story or simply angry that someone had the nerve to show what was really happening. The loyalist media also made a big deal out of Erdoğan’s refusal to meet with The Times when he was in New York. I’m not sure if the Times editors were upset or relieved with this development.

            The timing of the Times story was particularly delicate because it came shortly after another column in the Wall Street Journal suggested that Turkey is no longer much of an ally, and perhaps the United States would be well advised to move its large airbase in southern Turkey to friendlier places like Kurdistan.

            The whole sorry situation on Turkey’s southern border with Syria and Iraq has the feel of ‘chickens coming home to roost.’ Turkey bet heavily on the overthrow of the Syrian regime and did its best to supply the Sunni opposition with weapons and other logistical support. The fact that much of this support went to radical Islamist groups didn’t seem to bother too many people in Ankara. Refugees from the fighting poured into Turkey creating serious social problems in the south.

Syrian refugees desperate to enter Turkey

            Then the radical Syrian opposition morphed into a powerful armed group called ISIS that swept into Eastern Syria and Iraq like a fire-storm. The group even captured the Turkish consulate in Mosul and took 49 hostages. The Turkish government now had a real problem. Its supposed Sunni friends were running amok and exposing Turkey’s helplessness. Hundreds of thousands of additional refugees were pushed across the non-existent border into Turkey.

            Out of deference to its own hard-line Sunnis or genuine concern about the hostages Turkey refrained from joining the growing anti-ISIS movement led by the United States. Then the hostages were suddenly released for reasons still not clear. Was Turkey’s abstention from the anti-ISIS coalition the quid-pro-quo? Did Turkey agree to release a number of radicals held in its jails? What is clear is that Turkey’s far south is in complete turmoil, and the government has yet to decide just what to do about it – if anything.

            It is obvious why Erdoğan would love to continue denying reality and, like Voltaire’s Dr. Pangloss, convince his countrymen that ‘this is the best of all possible worlds.’ There is a critical national election next spring, and he needs his party to score an overwhelming victory. If he gets enough seats in the next parliament he can force a constitutional change to create the strong executive presidency he has always wanted. If reality continues to puncture his self-created dream world it will be difficult to secure that victory.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Time To Come Up With A New Idea On Cyprus

Cyprus is one of those issues that illustrates clearly the difficulties facing any well-meaning envoy trying to solve the long standing political/social problems in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

The envoy starts off by making one fatal assumption -- that either side actually wants any sort of a reasonable solution.That, in the immortal words of Sportin’ Life in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Ain’t Necessarily So. The key word here is reasonable, i.e. any solution that involves that dreaded concept of compromise. Neither side sees any need to budge. All parties to these conflicts are absolutely convinced of the ‘self-evident’ religious or political righteousness of their cause and the ‘obvious’ perfidy and heresy of their opponents. Sunni, Shiite, Palestinian, Israeli, Turkish Cypriot, Greek Cypriot. It makes no difference.

They will swear they want a solution and are perfectly happy to bury the hatchet – as long as that hatchet is buried deep in the head of their opponent. A compromise is where one or two of their opponents is left gasping for air in a ditch by the side of the road.

Cyprus has seen a great deal of conflict in its long history, and the latest chapter started in 1974 when Turkey landed troops and occupied most of the northern part of the island. The Turks maintain they were protecting the beleaguered Turkish minority against marauding Greek Cypriot gangs. The Greek Cypriots maintain this intervention was an invasion, pure and simple. You can be excused for thinking this sounds ominously like the current stand-off between Russia and the Ukraine. And there we stand, 40 years later. The Turkish troops are still there. And the island is still divided between the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus – recognized only by Turkey – and the internationally-recognized Republic of Cyprus in the south. It must be somewhat galling to the Turks that a hold-over from the Middle Ages -- The Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St. John of Jerusalem of Rhodes and Malta – that does not have one square meter of territory has diplomatic missions in more than 100 countries while Northern Cyprus has just one.

There was one abortive attempt at a settlement in 2004 with the much-criticized Annan Plan that the Turkish Cypriots overwhelmingly approved and the Greek Cypriots overwhelmingly rejected. Now that Cyprus, at least the Greek controlled part of Cyprus, is in the European Union, it has very little, if any, incentive to compromise on any point. And the Turkish Cypriots will accept nothing that treats them as a minority in a Greek Cypriot controlled island. However, the native Turkish Cypriots even now don’t have that bad a deal. Among other things, they can get Cypriot passports and are thus de facto members of the EU, something their cousins on the mainland see as a rapidly receding dream.

The United Nations has recently dropped a new envoy, a Norwegian with an impressive CV, into this mix. Good luck to him at squaring the circle. Actually, one of the best ideas I have heard on this issue came from a brilliant Greek friend of mine during a recent lunch in London. His plan was strikingly simple, and therefore most likely doomed at birth.

Under my friend’s plan the Turkish controlled part of the island would become a separate state with the full acquis communautaire of the European Union with full freedom of movement and settlement. In return the Turks would remove their remaining troops from the island. In addition the three guarantor powers – Turkey, Greece, and the United Kingdom – would give up those powers. In theory, a member of the EU does not need any external guarantees. Again, in theory, the Greek and Turkish Cypriots would be free to live and work anywhere on the island.

Britain, always nervous about a solution that changes the legal status of Cyprus and thus calling into question the legality of its bases on the island, would require separate guarantees protecting those bases. In addition, there would have to be agreement on the issues like the exact borders and the compensation for those members of both communities whose property was lost during the military intervention. Here I would anticipate typical EU legerdemain where there is quite a bit of EU money disguised in such a way to persuade the average German taxpayer that he is not footing the bill – again.

Before the Greeks throw up their hands and starting loudly whinging about ‘rewarding’ military intervention they should think carefully about the benefits of this plan. They get rid of the Turkish troops, both sides are governed by EU regulations, the threat of future Turkish intervention is removed, and the island’s moribund economy might start to grow. Furthermore it becomes much easier to develop whatever natural gas lies offshore. Instead of building a hugely expensive liquefied natural gas terminal on Cyprus they could take the easy route with a pipeline to nearby Turkey and then onto Europe.

The Turks should also welcome this. The isolation of northern Cyprus is ended, Turkey no longer has to provide hundreds of millions of dollars it doesn’t have to subsidize the Turkish Cypriots, and a major hurdle in its own EU quest is removed. Essentially it can bow out of the Cyprus quagmire with honour maintained.

Is something this simple in theory likely to happen? Very doubtful. Given all the history and entrenched attitudes I’m afraid the new UN envoy, Espen Barth Eide, will have his hands full getting the two sides to agree to a lunch menu much less a realistic solution. It would be nice, though, for once to see common sense prevail in a part of the world that sees precious little of that valuable commodity.

Monday, 11 August 2014

No, They Will Never Learn

Pathetic, simply pathetic. While Tayyip Erdoğan was giving a Master Class in politics on his way to victory in Turkey’s presidential race his opposition was AWOL (absent without leave.) Opposition voters had a golden opportunity to derail Erdoğan’s presidential plans, but their inability (unwillingness?) to capitalise on this opportunity means that the future of Turkey is completely out of their hands.

            Even with all his manipulation, public financing and suppression of the media Erdogan got in with just under 52% of the vote. One can only wonder what the outcome would have been if even half of the 13 million voters (out of 53 million eligible voters) who failed to vote had gone to the polls. Even the former president Ahmet Necdet Sezer refused to vote. Some couldn’t be bothered to get off their sun beds in Bodrum or leave the cocktail party circuit in Bebek to vote. Others, like a young columnist in the Daily Telegraph of London, justified their failure to vote on the grounds that the election was not ‘true’ democracy and that they didn’t want to participate in a sham election. Unbelievable! While they preserved their precious democratic scruples Erdoğan was busy tightening his iron grip over Turkey. They have only themselves to blame for the outcome.

            Of course he’s ruthless! Of course he plays hard ball and appeals to baser instincts of his followers! Of course he manipulates wherever he can! What did they expect? Politics in Turkey is a ‘full-contact’ sport. It is not a parlour game limited to polite discussions in beautiful homes along the Bosphorus.It’s about time they woke up to the realities of modern Turkey.

            If the opposition ever wants to beat Erdoğan it has to learn a few hard lessons.

1.      Come up with a message that means something to the mass of the people. What is your positive vision for Turkey's future? Simply focusing on Erdoğan’s obvious faults has failed over and over again. I have never heard any opposition candidate say something positive, give any hint on how he would improve services to the people. AKP candidates are masters at this, always focusing on services they provide for the people. Do something For the people rather than lecture To them about the failures of Tayyip Erdoğan. Essentially the so-called main opposition CHP has to ask itself a very serious question.  Why has it won so few elections since the introduction of multi-party politics in Turkey after World War II? What exactly does it stand for? Could it be that the mass of Turkish voters rejects everything it stands for? Instead of blaming the voters maybe it’s time to blame the message.

2.      Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, died in 1938. Let him rest in peace. Any political party that wants to be successful today has to do more than repeat ad nauseam pithy little phrases from his speeches. Atatürk set the general direction of Turkey, but it may come as a shock to most opposition politicians that the man himself is no longer that relevant to the vast majority of Turks. Maybe he should be. But that’s beside the point. He isn’t. And no one understands this better than Tayyip Erdoğan. Say what you will about the man, he understands his people. The opposition is lost in a time warp and hasn’t got a clue.

3.      Admit that AKP has a vastly superior political organisation. Learn from it. Copy it, if necessary. It’s much more than giving away free refrigerators or coal or any other gift. Effective politics is hard work. Without a strong grass-roots organisation in every town in Turkey and without a massive get-out-the-vote effort you will never win. You will always be seen as a creature of the so-called ‘elite’ – far removed from ordinary people who care much more about jobs than about vague threats that Tayyip Erdoğan poses for Atatürk’s legacy.

4.      Perhaps the CHP and MHP should merge, formalise the arrangement they had during the presidential election. CHP likes to pretend it is a social-democratic party. But the reality is that it is just as nationalistic as MHP. Of course such a move would alienate some CHP’s more effete members, but so what? They don’t bother to vote anyway. The genuine political left – the real social democratic movement -- in Turkey is minuscule and doesn’t count for much. So why shouldn’t the nationalists join forces?

      Will the CHP make any effort to change? More important, will it even recognize that its policies must change to meet the needs of today’s Turkey? Very, very doubtful. The early signs are that the party will be consumed by yet another sterile leadership battle rather than focus on  the obvious need for basic reform of the party. Erdoğan could not buy a better opposition party. He must be laughing all the way to the presidential palace.

Where does Turkey go now? Will Erdoğan be able to get his wish and replace the present parliamentary system with a strong executive presidency? Maybe, maybe not. While he won the presidency he didn’t get as many votes as his sycophants were hoping. It may be difficult for the Erdoğan-less AKP to get a large enough majority in the next general election to change the constitution.

What will the current president Abdullah Gül do? Will he fight for a senior position in the new AKP or will he retire gently into the night? It is no secret that the Erdoğan people would love to push him not-so-gently into the night. For one thing he has stated several times that he prefers the parliamentary system to the strong, executive presidency. He also presents a less strident, more amenable face to Turkey’s Western partners.

How will Turkey deal with the looming constitutional crisis when Erdoğan starts to act like an executive president instead of a figure head? Even with a puppet prime minister Erdoğan may have problems keeping the AKP together.

Turkey faces serious internal and external challenges in the next several months. Those people who piously abstained from voting in this election have to decide whether they are going to help the country through these crises or whether they will remain in the stadium seats as mere spectators.
Tercih onlarin. The choice is theirs.