Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Syrian Situation Just Got More Complicated

Besides clearly demonstrating the utter hypocrisy of both Turkish and Russian actions in Syria, the destruction of the Russian fighter plane by the Turkish Air Force demonstrates the complexity of forming any coalition to defeat ISIS. It is almost impossible to find a formula that fits everyone’s agenda, especially Turkey’s, in Syria.

According to Turkish sources the Russian plane was in Turkish air space along the northern Syrian border for all of 17 seconds. Given the uneven nature of the border at that point it is hard enough to stay on the Turkish side on foot let alone in a jet fighter travelling at more than the speed of sound. None less than Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan recognized this reality in July 2012 when Syrian forces downed a Turkish fighter plane. The BBC reported his comments then that “A short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.And now? What has changed?

Turkey has a great deal to lose by alienating Russia.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has many levers to use against Turkey if he chooses. For one thing, almost all of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia. And more than three million Russian tourists come to Turkey every year, almost filling the massive hotels along the southern coast. In addition, countless Turkish businesses operate in Russia which is also a key market for Turkish exports. Russia could also decide to use this incident as an excuse to annoy Turkey by helping the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

            So why did Turkey take such a risky step when it could just as easily have overlooked the temporary border violation and sent a sternly worded memo that the Russians would have filed in circular bin?
Dangerous Escalation In SyrIa
            The most obvious, and least credible, is that Turkey was defending its homeland. Scrambling a few fighters to ‘guide’ the Russian plane out of Turkish air space could have accomplished that. A more credible explanation is that this incident demonstrates the completely different objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria. Russia has committed money and military might to prop up Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Turkey demands that al-Assad’s departure is a requirement for any settlement.

            Rather than focusing on defeating ISIS, Russian planes, for their part, have been attacking those anti-Assad forces, mainly in the north western part of the country, that are friendly with Turkey. This annoys Erdoğan greatly, especially as he considers some of those anti-Assad forces to be distant cousins of the Turks. Therefore, shooting down a Russian fighter plane in that area could be seen as a warning not to attack the Turkmens. A dangerous step, because history has repeatedly shown that Russians tend to react harshly to threats.

            Conspiracy theorists, never in short supply in that region, go one step further and say that the attack is Erdoğan’s attempt to derail any grand coalition to destroy the barbaric ISIS forces by making it harder for Turkey’s NATO allies America and France to join forces with Russia against ISIS.

Turkey has a complicated relationship with ISIS, and so far has devoted much more rhetoric than military action against the group. This could reflect Erdoğan’s preference for ISIS rather than the Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, but it also reflects that fact that some of his political base views ISIS positively. Twice in the last month there have been ugly incidents at Turkish football matches when a moment of silence for victims of ISIS attacks in Ankara as well as Paris has been interrupted by a group of fans whistling abuse or shouting loudly “Allah-u Ekber.” Erdoğan’s criticism of this atrocious disrespect was muted at best.

Turkey will go to great lengths to prevent the Kurds in Syria from creating an autonomous region along its southern border even if the Kurds have been the most effective anti-ISIS force. Turkey is already annoyed at American support for the Kurds, and it would be doubly annoyed to see increased support from France and Russia in the name of an anti-ISIS coalition.

Add to this Turkey’s role as a transit point for refugees and you begin to see the volatile mixture that complicates any potential settlement of the Syrian issue. It is no longer just about the Syria we used to know or the future of al-Assad and his clan of Alawites. Now you have to include the contradictory agendas of several different regional and global players – agendas that include sharp religious differences, hopes for political autonomy, and national security.

Three years ago I wrote a post about Dr. Haitham Manna, one of the early opponents of the Assad regime, and how he was strongly opposed to foreign intervention into what he considered a Syrian civil war. His concern was that the foreigners would turn a Syrian conflict into their conflict. How right he was.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

War Alone Will Not Protect Us From Global Terrorism

We have seen and heard it too many times before – the wailing sirens, crowds gathered helplessly around scenes of carnage, words of solidarity with the victims, and the vows to chase the perpetrators to the ends of the earth.

And yet in response, more often than not, we wind up chasing our own tails. Even our successes in killing this or that terrorist leader soon degenerate into a deadly game of ‘whack a mole.’ Eliminate a terrorist in Syria, and his counterpart pops up in Yemen, or Sudan, or Libya, or Iraq.

An all-too-familiar scene
We also hear ringing declarations of ‘war’ – although it is not exactly clear just how and with what that ‘war’ is to be waged. Whose troops will be used? Where will they be used? And, most importantly, what happens after the military objective is won? Yes, a particular den of barbarians may be wiped out to everyone’s great – and temporary – satisfaction. But who will fill the vacuum? How can we be sure the same problem won’t crop up as soon as the troops return home in triumph with ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners waving in the air? In short, defeating the entity called ISIS will not, by itself, put an end to the larger problem of global terrorism.

Once you have ‘won’ such a war, how do you reconcile the ensuing conflict among the various local factions, each of whom has its own agenda. Olivier Roy, one of the leading scholars of political Islam, highlights this problem in an essay in The New York Times. The Kurds, for example, will fight to protect their area, but are not enthusiastic about fighting ISIS on behalf of the Arabs. The Saudis are in no rush to destroy their Sunni brothers in ISIS lest such action strengthen their main enemy, Iran. Israel, for its part, is delighted to see most of its enemies busy trying to destroy each other and relieve the pressure to do anything about Palestine.

So what can Europe do to protect itself against the outrages of global terrorism? A good place to start might be with far better defences. The Schengen agreement allows free travel throughout most of the EU member states. Once admitted into one of the Schengen countries people are allowed to travel to any other member state without worrying about visas. This attempt to emulate the United States where you can travel freely from California to Maine is admirable, but it omits one critical difference. The United States has a common policy for its external borders. As any foreign traveller can tell you, coming into the United States at any of the entry points is not that simple. Forms need to filled out before you get on the plane, the no-fly rule is checked, and you are finger printed upon arrival. These steps may not eliminate terrorists entering the United States, it makes it more difficult.

Europe, on the other hand, does not have a unified approach to its external borders. Some borders like the United Kingdom can be difficult to cross, while others are porous. Two of the weakest states in the EU, Greece and Bulgaria, have enormous pressure on their borders and the least amount of resources to deal with the problem. One problem is that low paid police and border officials are vulnerable to bribes from well organised people smugglers to turn a blind eye toward illegal entry. Many times these countries simply do not have the equipment or manpower to scrutinize ordinary travellers let alone vet and process the wave of immigrants coming from places like Syria and Libya.

This is not a problem for Greece alone
If the EU acted as a real union a common border policy would be imposed on all members. There would be one well-funded European agency with well-paid and well-trained personnel to handle security of external borders. The surge of migrants would no longer be just a Greek, Bulgarian, Italian or Spanish problem. Such a move would inevitably generate wails of protest about violating national sovereignty, but without such a solution the European Union is hardly a ‘union’, and remains easy prey to anyone seeking to create havoc inside the EU borders.

Obviously, solving the problem of external border control does not solve the issue of home-grown terrorism – be it deranged teenagers with high powered weapons in the United States or dissatisfied members of the Moslem communities across Europe. A threat in, say, Belgium can easily morph into a catastrophe in France. One would hope that seamless cooperation among the various intelligence agencies in the EU would ease this problem. But if the United States has problems coordinating activities of its several different intelligence agencies within its borders think how much more difficult it would be coordinate such activities across international borders. The Turks, for example, insist they warned the French about one of the attackers in Paris, but apparently nothing was done about this warning.

A longer term solution would be to restore a semblance of stability in Syria. Once people can be reasonably sure of going about their daily lives without getting shot they would be less eager to risk the trip to Europe. This alone won’t solve the problem of global terrorism, but it certainly would eliminate one of the contributing factors.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Protests Alone Will Never Win Elections

In retrospect no one should be surprised by yesterday’s election results. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proved once again that it is a formidable political machine with firm control over almost half the Turkish electorate. Once again the opposition learned the painful lesson that by itself protest against the increasing excesses of President Tayyip Erdoğan is not enough to win elections. The only positive note for the anti-Erdoğan forces is that AKP failed to receive enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and legitimise Erdoğan’s power grab.,

Over the next few days we will hear the tired old excuses of how the AKP didn’t ‘play fair’ or somehow manipulated the electorate – again. It is time to end the whinging and whining and get serious about the serial election defeats. Of course the AKP played the national security card and tried to frighten everyone about the ‘looming’ Kurdish problem. Politics in Turkey is a full contact sport. Domestic and foreign developments since the June elections played right into that theme. People willing to vote for the predominantly Kurdish party HDP in June had second thoughts in November. Many nationalists who voted for the MHP party in June also had second thoughts and decided to stick with the AKP as the best guaranty of Turkey’s security.

Different Election, Same Result
But these anti-Kurdish, national security themes do not explain the persistent failures of the opposition parties to mount a serious challenge to AKP’s dominance. This goes far beyond Erdoğan’s bombastic, divisive rhetoric. As things stand now the best they can hope for is getting enough votes to form a very junior partner in a coalition with AKP. Sadly, they would construe this as a victory. It’s more like calling the retreat from Dunkirk a victory.

            As long as the opposition parties remain divided the AKP, as the representative of Turkey’s overwhelming socially conservative electorate, has a fairly easy job. It is mathematically possible, but practically/politically impossible, for the opposition parties to unite and get more votes than the AKP. But egos and long outdated political ideologies make this nothing more than a pipe dream at the moment. It is nice to get the praise from worthy international organizations and from Turkey’s small but vocal intelligentsia, but neither of these can deliver enough votes to make a dent in AKP’s electoral armour.

            Furthermore, the opposition has to admit that in hundreds of large and small towns across the country the AKP municipal officials have done a decent job – not only in running the municipalities but in establishing solid, local AKP branches that deliver the votes in every election. It is this unglamorous groundwork, not censorious articles in the Economist, that wins elections.

            A useful first step might be to understand how the AKP can withstand the onslaught of serious issues like a declining economy, increasing unemployment, depreciating currency, and a very confused foreign policy. It’s almost as if despite all these issues the AKP electorate simply does not trust the opposition parties to represent its interests. “They may be corrupt. They be leading the country into a dangerous swamp. But they are OUR people. They know us and we know them. We don’t know you.” Demonstrably, very few people from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) are ‘one of us.’

            The CHP, for example, prides itself on being the party that Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, created. The party proudly symbolizes the reforms that Atatürk made as he rebuilt Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago. Yet, in my own time in small towns across Anatolia, I learned that a great many people in small-town Turkey did not share the elite’s reverence for Atatürk. Quite the opposite, they felt ignored and believed their time-honoured socially conservative traditions were being trampled under the wave of ‘Westernization’ imposed from the top down.

            Part of Erdoğan’s political genius is that he recognizes this reality and has built an enduring career by building on it. His speeches carry the same theme, familiar to demagogues around the world.  “Only I understand you and can represent you – not those people safely removed in their Istanbul villas or foreign capitals.”

            Harping on Erdoğan’s obvious faults will not change this. The only real threat I see to Erdoğan is from within the AKP itself. He has done a good job purging the party of many who do not share his extreme views. But a core of existing and former MPs is increasingly uneasy with some of his actions. But will they have the courage to act? Will they reach out to like-minded people in other parties to from a new political movement, free from the cant of the past and extremism of the present? Does their concern for the direction of the country outweigh their fear of retribution from the reis – the boss?

            Will the anti-Erdoğan forces follow the good advice that Benjamin Franklin gave to his fellow revolutionaries during the American War for Independence. “Gentlemen, we either hang together, or we hang separately.”

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Are The Elections Enough To Restore Stability In Turkey?

The election results this weekend in Turkey will resonate far beyond the borders of this country that finds itself at a critical fork in the road. Will Turkey continue to be a country aspiring to establish a real rule of law and a vital democracy with normal checks and balances? Or will it take the well-travelled authoritarian road used by most countries in the region, the road that tolerates no dissent and no challenge to unbridled power?

Most of the polls indicate that the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) will fail once again in its attempt to win enough deputies to form a single-party government, frustrating President Tayyip Erdoğan’s goal of creating an all-powerful presidency. Normally such an outcome would result in a new government being formed as a coalition of two or more parties. But these are not ‘normal’ times, and there is real doubt that Erdoğan would be any more amenable to a coalition now than he was in June. The personal and political stakes are too high for him to surrender easily the total control he has exercised for the past 13 years.

In large part the election hinges on the success of Erdoğan’s efforts to demonise the Kurds inside and outside Turkey as the main threat to the country’s stability. As Turkish journalist Cengiz Çandar noted last night in a lecture at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College Oxford, Erdoğan blames the Kurds for blocking an absolute AKP majority and thwarting his goal of a strong presidency. The Kurdish-based HDP party won 13% of the vote in June, capturing not just its base of about 8% but also much of the Kurdish vote that had previously gone to the AKP.  Analysts estimate that what’s left of the Turkish liberal intelligentsia added another 1% - 1.5% of the HDP total.

Since the June elections Erdoğan has done everything he can to blame Kurds in general for the dramatic increase in violence since then. Forget the inconvenient fact that two of the major atrocities killing more than 100 people in Suruç and Ankara were caused by ISIS elements within Turkey where Kurds were the targets, not the instigators. This strategy might not win him many more Kurdish votes but it might help him win back enough of the nationalist votes to attain his absolute majority.

Violence in Syria comes to Turkey
   As Çandar pointed out, the Turkish Kurdish problem is complicated by the coexistence of the legal, political HDP and the long-standing Kurdish guerrilla movement called the PKK. Until recently the Turkish government was engaged in a so-called peace process with PKK aimed at ending decades of violence. These negotiations fell apart when the HDP emerged as a serious threat to Erdoğan’s political goals. The PKK says it resumed its military activities in response to attacks by the state. Other analysts say the PKK’s resumption of violence is a message to the HDP as well as the Turkish state. “Don’t forget that the road to peace in this region goes through Kandil,” the mountain in south eastern Turkey that is the symbolic home of the PKK. This is just a hint of some of the intra-Kurdish issues frustrating anyone trying to understand the Kurdish problem, let alone resolve it.

The Kurdish question has been further complicated by the emergence just across the border of a strong Syrian Kurdish group receiving international support for its fight against ISIS. The Turkish state sees the potential development of an autonomous Kurdish region next door in Syria as a threat to the very concept of a unitary Turkish nation state because of its links to Turkey’s own Kurds. This fear of a large Kurdish autonomous region encompassing Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iraq causes many sleepless nights in Ankara and explains in part why Turkey is much more interested in stopping the Kurds than in fighting ISIS. This anxiety is only increased as Turkish leaders recognize that they may not have much say in the matter if an autonomous Syrian Kurdish region is accepted by the international community as part of any resolution of the Syrian civil war.

Sunday’s election has been played out in the context of this increasing instability with ordinary citizens avoiding large crowds for fear of another bomb. These incidents used to be limited to places like Baghdad or war-torn Syria. Now they are closer to home as the mess in Syria spills over into Turkey. Erdoğan has been successful in turning this election away from normal political issues and into a question of Turkey’s security and stability. The question is who will the voters blame for the widening divisions.

Erdoğan is doing everything he can to lay the blame at the feet of what he calls a cocktail of terrorist groups – the PKK, the Syrian Kurds and ISIS. The underlying message is that any vote for the HDP is a vote for this volatile cocktail, and that the only way to guarantee the safety and security of Turkey is to return AKP – and himself -- to absolute power.

The opposition lays the blame at the divisive, authoritarian figure of Erdoğan himself and blames the instability on AKP’s failed domestic and international policies – especially its muddled Syrian policy. The way forward, according to the opposition, is to create a more democratic, open Turkey that relies on a real rule of law rather than the rule of one man.

Sunday’s election might answer the immediate question of who is to govern the country. But resolving the longer term question of how to reconcile the diverse groups within Turkey will require far more statesmanship than the bombast we have been hearing for several years.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

Is Erdoğan Helping Or Hurting His Party In The Election Re-Run?

Something is missing from the early days of this re-run of the Turkish elections scheduled for Nov. 1. Maybe it’s the extended Islamic holiday, but the election seems somehow anti-climactic. All the polls indicate that, barring some major cataclysm or massive vote fraud, the results will not change very much from the first election in June.

            The ruling Justice and Development Party will once again fail to win enough deputies to form a single party government. The up-and-coming Kurdish-based Peoples’ Democratic Party will once again pass the 10% threshold to enter parliament. And the most likely coalition option remains as it was in June -- between AKP and the Republican People’s Party (CHP).

            So just why are the Turkish people being put through this trial yet again? Why have all key economic, foreign policy, and security issues been allowed to drift in a chaotic and dangerous fashion at a time when real leadership is required?

            Basically it’s because President Tayyip Erdoğan could not accept the fact that his fervent wish for a change of the constitution allowing him to become an all-powerful, unchecked president was simply not going to happen. No coalition government would ever allow that. Erdoğan could not accept this, and he scuttled all efforts to form a coalition in June. Better, he thought, to take his chances with a new election in November when the voters would be given a chance to correct the errors of their ways.

            But something strange is happening on the way to these elections. At one time it was unthinkable, but has Erdoğan’s once iron grip on the Turkish electorate  slipped a bit? Oh yes, he still rants and raves, and his house media still paints him as the modern equivalent of Suleiman the Magnificent. His circle of sycophants still lashes out at all dissenters. The large rent-a-crowds at his election rallies will give a misleading impression of deep support. But his Teflon coating seems to have become chipped. His version of reality was once unchallenged. No longer.

            If he is to have any chance at all he must push the HDP votes below the key 10% threshold. In the June elections the AKP was obliterated in the once-sure regions of the south-east and east as the insurgent HDP swept all the Kurdish votes that used to go to Erdoğan’s party. His tactic so far has been to whip up nationalist suspicion of all things Kurdish. He has tried to blame the HDP for the upsurge in violence that has cost dozens of lives.  According to Erdoğan’s rhetoric the HDP is merely a front for the outlawed PKK.  But according to the polls more people are holding him and the AKP government responsible for the violence. Funerals of slain soldiers and police officers are filled with people blaming the government, not the HDP, for this chaos. In this environment is hard to see AKP getting many of the vital Kurdish votes.

            His claims of a strong economy are also falling on deaf ears. The currency has depreciated almost 31% this year, growth is down, unemployment and inflation are up. Ayşe hanım may not grasp the finer points of macro-economic analysis but she knows very well when the prices of tomatoes and shoes for her kids keep going up. She also gets angry when her husband can’t find a job. Typically Ayşe and her friends take out their frustrations on the government in power.

            Erdoğan’s attacks on the few remaining independent media outlets have picked up steam. Thugs from the AKP attacked the daily Hürriyet building because of its alleged anti-Erdoğan stance. The leader of that mob was later elected to the ruling body of the AKP. Journalists critical of Erdoğan continue to be detained, and the hunt continues for anyone even vaguely associated with Fetullah Gülen, the Islamic scholar who was once close to Erdoğan but is now sharply opposed.

            Again, none of this so far seems to be having the usual impact of increasing AKP votes. Quite the contrary, many polls show declining support for the party. Not only has he lost the Kurdish vote, but an increasing number of anti-Erdoğan Turks are supporting the HDP. These polls may well be unreliable, but the widespread, uncritical popular support Erdoğan used to enjoy seems to be lacking.

            People are now starting to ask what happens after the election. Will there be a coalition? Will Erdoğan allow one this time? And what of the enigmatic figure of former president Abdullah Gül? So far he has disappointed those who had hoped he would take a stronger, more visible stance against Erdoğan and become an alternative leader of the party.  Cynics respond that such hopes are in vain because there is not that much daylight between Gül and Erdoğan, and that he never opposed Erdoğan when he had the chance as president.

Instead of taking an openly critical stance against his former colleague he has remained firmly on the fence by limiting his activities to almost dainty sentiments about how he would have done things differently, how he would have preferred to see more of an effort to bring people together rather than foster divisions. Nice words to be sure. But in the rough, hand-to-hand combat of Turkish politics they don’t count for very much. Will he abandon his Hamlet imitation and get directly involved to reclaim the party that has been taken over by the ‘Erdoğanistas?’

But the key question is how quickly after the election any new Turkish government can turn its attention to the country’s real problems of a declining economy, rapidly unravelling foreign policy, and restoring sustainable internal security.