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 hanging 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 greater 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.