Some very harsh light has been cast on Turkey and its malignant neglect of its ISIS problem over the past week. Turkey joined the US led coalition against ISIS only to almost immediately backtrack. Whether or not this was the right decision for Turkey to make, and in the long term I believe it is not, is complex and the subject for another blog post. In addition, investigative reports, in Newsweek by A. Christie Miller and Alev Scott and in the New York Times today by Ceylan Yeginsu, have made it clear that ISIS has successfully convinced thousands of vulnerable Turks and Turkish Kurds to join their nascent state. Miller, Scott and Yeginsu’s reporting has not only proven that Turkey’s boarders remain dangerously porous but also reveal that despite Turkey’s notorious internet censorship and surveillance the Turkish government has neither been able to identify potential ISIS recruits nor stop ISIS propaganda. Why Turkey has not stopped virtual ISIS infiltration is again the subject for another blog post.
Turkey’s undoubtedly serious ISIS problem has diverted attention from the fact that is still also facing a serious, and continually growing, refugee crisis. In addition to the more than a million Syrian refugees already residing in Turkey, ISIS’s rampage through northern Iraq has driven yet another wave of refugees into Turkey, the Yazidis.
The vast majority of Syrian refugees in Turkey are outside of the highly lauded refugee camps, living mostly in Turkey’s southern cities or in Istanbul. Syrian refugees have swelled the population of cities like Reyhanli, Killis and Gaziantep. Despite the largely welcoming attitude of the Turkish population toward the refugees, recently tensions have been rising. In August there were violent anti-Syrian protests in Istanbul and riots targeting Syrians went on for several days after a Turkish landlord was murdered by his Syrian tenant in Gaziantep. In order to try to prevent even more Syrians from entering the country, Turkey has encouraged the building of refugee camps just inside the Syrian border. The conditions in these camps are decidedly worse than the camps located inside of Turkey.
After Kurdish fighters pushed back the ISIS invaders which had displaced and killed thousands of Yazidis, members of this religious minority began fleeing over Turkey’s southeastern border. Official estimates put the number of Yazidi refugees at 16,000. Camps are being set up for this new refugee group but like the Syrians many find themselves living either in ad-hoc shelters or in camps inside Iraq.
Yazidis are an ethno-religious minority whose religious beliefs are widely misunderstood. Yazidis follow a syncretic religion that is based on pre-Islamic, Pre-Christian Zoroastrian beliefs. They speak Kurdish dialects and most (but not all) consider themselves to be ethnic Kurds. Muslim Kurds for their part appear to embrace Yazidis as their ethnic kin, fighting heroically to allow trapped Yazidis to escape from the barren Sinjar mountain and even training Yazidis who volunteered to fight against ISIS. Kurds inside Turkey have gathered donations and personally delivered necessities to Yazidi refugees.
The Turkish government is already overwhelmed trying to manage the Syrian refugees inside its borders. It needs a new strategy in order to effectively manage and accommodate a vulnerable refugee group like the Yazidis. I wrote an unpublished policy paper last fall addressing the issue of Turkey could better accommodate other ethno-minority refugees, specifically the Alawite and Alevi refugees from Syria. The data is somewhat dated, but the essential argument I make still stands. In brief, I assert in this paper that the most productive and efficient plan of action for Turkey regarding minority urban refugees is to work with Turkey’s own indigenous Alevi and Alawite minority communities to provide services to these refugee groups. This proposal is doubly beneficial. It not only addresses the problem of these under-served refugee groups who are hesitant to ask for assistance directly from the Turkish government but also, in working together to address the needs of refugees, it also would build trust between the Turkish government and its long marginalized Alevi and Alawite citizens.
This proposed plan of action can be directly translated for the current situation of Yazidis, who have taken refuge in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast provinces. Kurdish municipalities and individuals have been providing aid independently but do not have the resources to deal with a crisis of this scale in the long term. The Turkish central government on the other hand has the resources but not the contacts on the ground. In order to address this crisis effectively, the two need to work together. Additionally, the Turkish-Kurdish peace process, while not yet broken, has stagnated. Partnering with local Kurdish authorities and civil society organizations to asses and address the needs of this latest group of refugees would be just the kind of good-will initiative that the peace process so desperately needs right now. The Turkish government needs to set aside its phobia of everything Kurdish (read: anything with the remote possibility of being affiliated with the PKK) and directly engage with all willing partners in order to both manage this crisis and demonstrate that there can be a lasting peace between Turks and Kurds.
However, I can almost without a doubt predict that Turkey will continue its current plan of action, or lack there of, regarding both Iraqi and Syrian refugees. Over the past year Turkish efforts to address both Sunni and minority Syrian refugees have flatlined. The only discernible change stems from disconcerting reports that urban refugees, particularly those begging on the streets, have been rounded up and sent to camps against their will. I have yet to see any investigative reports regarding these camps, if they do indeed exist. I certainly hope that when the current crisis cools down that both the Turkish government and the media will realize that the Syrian refugee crisis is turning into a permanent population displacement. Sending refugees to camps is not a long term solution, no matter how good the conditions in said camps may be. Major policy changes, such as issuing work permits for refugees, need to be paired with creative grass-roots based solutions in order to prevent Turkey’s refugee population from becoming a major, and likely long-term, social, economic and political burden.
In an article yesterday, Claire Berlinski commented on the eerie and depressing similarities between the Gezi protests last year in Turkey and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, MO. Indeed, there is a trend in the images produced by protest movements- clouds of tear gas, police in armor and choking but defiant citizens. The post 9/11 world have given rise to the nearly universal militarization of police forces. Whether recent protests have taken place in an autocracy, democracy, or one of the many semi-democracies, police have again and again erred on the side of excessive force.
Both Ferguson and Gezi are examples of a dangerous world-wide trend in law enforcement. However, the demands and demographics of the protesters in these two cases actually have little in common. A more apt comparison to Ferguson in the Turkish context would be the intermittent and chronic protests by Kurds against government repression, particularly the building of gendarme outposts, in Turkey’s Southeast. Both involve an ethnic and socio-economic underclass that largely inhabits marginal areas. Both groups have been the target of brutal police repression but are often ignored by the mainstream media.
Of course comparing these two very complex and very different cases of minority repression is dangerously reductive on many counts. That being said, at this particular moment in Turkish history, Turkish politicians would be wise to take a broad lesson from the history of African-Americans in the US, of which Ferguson is only the latest manifestation. Turkey is in the midst of a much heralded attempt to finally reach a settlement with its indigenous Kurdish armed movement in return for increased cultural rights for Kurds. Even if this process reaches the ideal outcome of granting equal cultural and legal rights to Kurds, the residual social and economic discrimination faced will not be erased. The Turkish government cannot drop its focus on Kurdish issues and concerns once the settlement process is deemed complete. Even if a formerly second-class group group of citizens is recognized as having full legal parity with the majority, in all likelihood discrimination will continue in practice for many decades to come. Leaders on both sides of Turkey’s settlement process need to realize that the current legal negotiations are only, and should only, be the beginning. In the decades to come, social, educational and economic inequalities will have to be addressed in order to truly reach equality between ethnic Kurdish and ethnic Turkish citizens of Turkey.
Prime Minister Erdogan’s recent announcement of his candidacy to be Turkey’s first popularly elected President was, despite the AKP’s best efforts, utterly unsurprising. Erdogan and his party had been all but discussing it as a done deal for months prior. Now that his candidacy is official, commentators across the spectrum have largely been assuming that Erdogan’s electoral success is all but inevitable. Though Erdogan’s chances of winning are undoubtedly high, the effect that his two challengers will have on the August election, as well as how he will use the powers of his office if and when he does win, make the results of this election more unpredictable than it may first appear.
Erdogan’s rivals in this election are Ekmeleddin İhsanoğlu, the joint candidate of the CHP/MHP parties and Selahattin Demirtaş, the candidate of the Kurdish HDP party. Ihsanoglu’s nomination was as surprising as Erdogan’s was predictable. Ihsanoglu is not a politician per se, let alone a member of either the CHP or MHP. Instead, he is a career diplomat and intellectual who most recently was the Secretary-General of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. His endorsement by the two largest opposition parties, and three smaller ones, caught the Turkish political community and its followers off guard. As far as I know, he was not on any analyst’s list of probable candidates.
In certain respects Ihasnoglu is a solid choice for a Presidential candidate. Both his academic and professional work have centered around Islam, giving him the potential to appeal to Turkey’s pious majority. His diplomatic career, as well as his statements since beginning his campaign, indicate that Ihsanoglu would confine his role as president to the traditional, a-political figurehead role. His short campaign has already had some ups and downs, one low point being the bizarre campaign slogan announced yesterday, but Ihsanoglu has made a good faith effort to reach out to a variety of underrepresented groups in Turkey, including Alevis and supporters of the Gezi movement. Though Ihsanoglu is certainly no match for Erdogan, arguably there are no current CHP or MHP politician that would potentially make a better candidate or draw more votes. Ihsanoglu has little chance of making a dent in the AKP base, but will likely collect the disaffected voters from the former AKP block- youth, liberals and possibly others.
The Kurdish candidate, Demirtas, was a bit of surprise as well. There had been speculations that the Kurdish party would back Erdogan’s candidacy, in part because of Erdogan’s role in the ongoing Kurdish-Turkish peace process. Demirtas will certainly take votes away from Erdogan in the first round of voting; Kurdish voters are unlikely to support any CHP or MHP candidate because of both parties’ historic (and present) nationalism.
This brings up the first major question: Will Erdogan win a majority in the first round of voting?
If no candidate wins a majority in the August 10 ballots, then a second round of voting will be scheduled. Analysts agree that if Erdogan were to not receive a majority in the first round, but then presumably go on to win in the second round, his mandate would be diminished.
This leads to the related question: What percentage of the vote can each candidate expect to receive?
While Turkish polls are notoriously unreliable and often purposely biased, the recent local elections can provide us with a rough prediction. The AKP received about 43% of the vote, the CHP and MHP a combined 43% of the vote and the Kurdish parties 6% of the vote. This breakdown corresponds roughly with some poll results. Other polls, notably trumpeted by the pro-government media, show Erdogan getting a majority in the first round (here, here and here) but these same polls are cited in the international media as well.
Erdogan may or may not win in the first round of voting, but barring some political disaster on his part (there are still Turkish diplomats being held for ransom by terrorists after all) it is safe to assume that one way or another Erdogan will get his wish to become president. However, if voting goes to a second round, Erdogan’s mandate to rule may very well be diminished.
This leads to the next question: How will Erdogan use his power as President?
He has notoriously promised to use all his constitutionally given powers, something that current President Gul has refrained from doing, and generally continue to maintain his tight grip on Turkish politics. However, it is still not clear if Erdogan will be able to gather power and centralize it as he clearly wishes to. His efforts to change the constitution to create a strong, central and basically unchecked presidency have been thwarted in the past and, despite Erdogan’s change of office, there is no indication that the current political situation will allow Erdogan and the AKP to successfully relaunch their constitutional initiative.
Despite efforts to bring the judiciary under executive control, local courts and most notably the Constitutional Court have exhibited a remarkable level of independence and commitment to the rule of law. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Constitutional Court challenges Erdogan if and probably when he tries to overstep the constitutionally constrained bounds of the Presidency.
Finally there is the wild card of the next Prime Minister. Current President Gul had initially denied the desire to fill this position, but rumors have been circulating lately that he may have changed his mind. If Gul does eventually become PM (he would have to run and be elected to parliament first) some believe he may actually use the powers of the office to keep President Erdogan in check. This would be constitutionally possible, but given Gul’s track record I remain skeptical. However the fact remains that the next Prime Minister, whoever he may be (and it will be a he) will be able to challenge Erogan’s power if he so desires.
I have previously waxed optimistic about Turkey’s political future, probably overly so. However, the future remains too uncertain to declare the end of Turkish democracy and assume that this election marks the beginning of Erdogan’s term as President for Life. The political opposition remains divided and disorganized, but also makes up at least 50% of the population. There is enough political discontent to keep Erdogan on his toes and, if there is a will in Parliament and the courts, make him fight for every inch of power.
The ongoing crisis in Iraq has led to an explosion of op-eds and policy pieces discussing the future, or lack thereof, of the Iraqi nation-state and the implications this has for foreign policy-makers. Steven Cook echoes many thinkers when he warned that Iraq is on the verge of breaking apart. As he and Nick Danforth rightly point out, the international borders created by Western powers a hundred years ago were largely arbitrary, more so than elsewhere. Cook sees the eventual break-up of Iraq as practically inevitable given the disunity of it’s various factions and compares it to the former Yugoslavia. However, as Danforth points out the involvement of ISIS in particular creates the possibility of alliances and shifting borders outside of the confines of ethnic and religious allegiances.
As many have also pointed out, the most likely “winners” in this situation, and the most likely to successfully create their own breakaway state, are the northern Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdish para-military forces, known as peshmerga, took advantage of the chaos and successfully gained control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Kurdish leaders have declared that this is not a temporary security measure and they plan to hold on to the city even if the threat of ISIS subsides. The Kurd’s ascending power, coupled with their record of stable governance of northern Iraq, has resulted in a number of calls for greater international support of and recognition for the Kurd’s claims of sovereignty. Dov Friedman and Cale Salih argued that if the US wants the Kurds to help defeat ISIS, instead of simply defending their own territory, the US government needs to pull back on their support of Maliki and all but recognize the Kurds as sovereign in their territory (though, crucially not independent). Developments today indicate that the Obama administration is taking at least the first half of Friedman’s and Salih’s advice and may be orchestrating the ouster of Maliki. Similarly, writing in regards to Turkey’s policy options, Michael Koplow suggested that it is “Time for Turkey to Support an Independent Iraqi Kurdistan.”
The foreign policy options for the US regarding Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan are much more numerous and complicated and, frankly, lay outside my area of expertise. Turkey, bordering both ISIS and Kurdish controlled regions of Iraq and having much less influence over Baghdad has a limited number of routes it can chose. Koplow’s proposal is bold and well-intentioned but I don’t think it’s an idea whose time has yet come. It is only a week into the crisis and it is much too early to declare the death of the Iraqi nation-state. As Danforth points out, ISIS brought a number of parties who were formerly at odds together in the fight against the invasion. Even if Kurdistan does manage to gain it’s independence as a result of this incident (and I do believe Iraqi Kurdistan has a very good chance of becoming its own state sooner or later) Baghdad will likely remain in control of most of the rest of Iraq in the short to medium term. As Danforth also states, despite the media’s new found interest in discussing the potential for a plethora of new states in the Middle East, the idea that there are “natural” and homogeneous enthno-religious nation-states waiting to be born is a myth. The idea of the nation-state is surprisingly tenacious, even in states where it was imposed from the outside. Breakups in the model of Yugoslavia are rare. If Iraq were to split, I foresee an outcome more akin to either the break-away provinces in Georgia or the bi-lateral split in Sudan. Ankara should not risk cutting its already stressed relations with the Iraqi government over a pre-emptive declaration of Kurdish independence. Turkey should of course continue to build ties with the KRG, but its current wait-and-see approach is the best way to keep it’s long term options and political ties open.
This wait and see policy should not be applied to the ongoing ISIS hostage crisis however. As I wrote earlier, the AKP and Erdogan are at a loss as to what to do and therefore have resorted to their tried and true blame and divert tactics. Erdogan has even managed to impliment an official media blackout regarding the hostages, even as credible reports claim that 15 more Turks have been captured by ISIS. The longer the hostages are held, the more likely there won’t be a happy ending to this story. ISIS is no friend of the Turkish government, despite what pro-government talking heads on Turkish TV may think. ISIS is ruthless, brutal and stubborn. Treating them with kid gloves may keep the Turkish hostages alive for now, but does nothing to guarantee their ultimate safe return. Turkey needs to draw on its ties with Kurdistan and work with the peshmerga, how ever distasteful that may be, to locate and recover their citizens. This is both the best of the bad political options for the AKP and the best chance for the captured Turks to return home.
Update: Since writing this post last night, Erdogan has finally addressed the Mosul crisis publicly. The context and content of his speech only reinforce my main points below. It took him two days to speak publicly about the kidnapping of Turkish diplomatic staff but his speech lacked the depth and details you would expect at this point in the crisis. He briefly reassured the public that every effort is being made to free the hostages, a statement that should have been made immediately after the kidnapping, then went on to slam the CHP for criticizing the response of AKP officials to the crisis. He accused them of being allies of Assad and claimed that their criticism of the government would “provoke” ISIS. Erdogan now only has one mode: blame and distract. He and his government’s policies have failed and he is doing everything he can to avoid addressing the justified criticisms of the opposition. Erdogan, his government, and Turkey are in an extremely vulnerable position at the moment, a situation of their own making. Distraction may work for now, but if (God forbid) the hostages are harmed or killed it will be very difficult to shift the blame for such a blow to Turkey’s honor to a weak and divided opposition (which is what he is setting up to do). Mosul, like Soma, is another sign of the slow decline of the power of Erdogan and the AKP both at home and abroad.
Erdogan is known for his fiery and frequent speeches. Since last year’s protests, his conspiracy-laced pontifications have become nearly a daily occurrence. However, the crisis in northern Iraq has literally left Erdogan dumbstruck. Since ISIS stormed into Mosul, taking several dozen Turkish truck drivers hostage Tuesday and 49 Turks affiliated with the consulate hostage Wednesday, we have heard nary a peep from the Prime Minister. Instead, Erdogan reached out to the United States government Thursday. I am sure it is an understatement to say that he must have felt slighted to be connected with Vice President Biden and not President Obama.
The weaknesses of the AKP government in general and Erdogan in particular are being bared in quick succession. Just as Soma revealed the shallow and inhumane nature of the AKP’s neo-liberal domestic policies, the crisis in Iraq is the consequence of Turkey’s poorly managed foreign policy. Though Turkey never directly supported ISIS and its activities, the Turkish government’s all but open boarder policy for anti-Assad militants allowed many foreign fighters to enter Syria and swell ISIS’s ranks. ISIS was always open with its hostility toward Turkey, declaring Erdogan an apostate, despite Turkey acting as as rear base for their fighters. The fact that ISIS’s recent hostility toward Turks and Turkey seems to have taken the Turkish government off guard demonstrates a frightening level of naivete on the part of officials.
The Iraq crisis is another event in the series of Turkish foreign policy breakdowns that began with the Arab spring. The beginning of the Arab spring marked the height of Turkey’s influence in the region and their neo-Ottoman ambitions. As Syria and then Egypt descended into political chaos, Turkish power became all but illusory. Some pro-government news outlets continue to publish fantastical, Turko-centric visions for a “new” middle east. However all but the most delusional in the Turkish government must see that the loss of stability in northern Iraq, a region that was key to Turkish trade with the region, puts Turkey in its weakest international position since the rise of the AKP. The AKP will not be resurrecting the Ottoman Empire. They will be lucky, and smart, to maintain their one solid relationship with a Middle Eastern neighbor, namely Iraqi Kurdistan (but that’s another blog post).
Erdogan’s stunned silence in response to this crisis speaks volumes. Over the past year, he has been doing everything possible to stir up domestic crises, involving the Gulen movement, Gezi protesters, foreign journalists and many others, which he can then go about “solving” through ministerial purges, police crackdowns and repressive laws. Erdogan didn’t even shy away from tackling the Soma disaster head on, though his approach left something to be desired to say the least. Now, when Turkey faces a real threat with citizen’s lives on the line, he cannot even find the time to reassure the public that the government is working to resolve the crisis. Though some AKP ministers have tried, Erdogan’s usual tactics are not sufficient to address this serious of a situation. Mosul is a real test of the political meddle of Erdogan and the AKP and thus far they have been found wanting.
The anniversary of last year’s Gezi protests has reopened the lively debate regarding what if anything these events say about the changing nature of Turkish society. The political impact of the protests is highly debatable but there is no doubt that Gezi marks a turning point in the relationship between the AKP government and it grass-roots opponents. The Gezi movement initially caught the government off guard and put them in a defensive position. In Turkey, with its history of strong-man politics, being put in a defensive and weak position can spell death for a political party. The AKP’s need to maintain its aura of power doomed the chances of a peaceful and productive ending to Gezi from the start. The AKP sprang back with an offensive campaign designed to crush Gezi physically and politically and reassert its power.
Unfortunately for opponents of the government, this offensive campaign hasn’t ended. The AKP has allowed and probably encouraged the police to adopt a shoot first ask questions later strategy when dealing with any government opposition groups. It is this kind of reckless behavior that has led to the vicious cycle of protests and deaths, particularly in Alevi towns and neighborhoods. The government did not even bother to take a more nuanced approach to the understandably angry crowds that gathered in the wake of the Soma disaster. Many outside observers were shocked by these tactics, but most Turkey watchers have come to expect nothing less from the current government. Erdogan has made it clear in his nearly daily speeches that all opposition or discontent will be considered traitorous. Grief over the preventable death of a loved one is no excuse for lashing out against the AKP or its leadership.
Soma proved that no one is immune from the AKP’s offense against opponents, but those with any association with Gezi, however tenuous, have been the target of an organized government legislative and propaganda campaign. The AKP’s strategy for preventing another Gezi is to eliminate all places of refuge for protesters, whether they be physical, legal or social.
The government eliminated physical refuges by outlawing the emergency treatment of injured citizens without authorization. Part of the impetus behind this law is to force injured protesters into state owned hospitals where the police can document and arrest them. Erdogan has also done his best to discourage private or religious institutions from offering protesters shelter during clashes with the police. The Koc conglomerate, which owns the hotel off Taksim square which allowed protesters to take shelter in its lobby, was hit with an unexpected audit. One of Erdogan’s favorite antidotes regarding Gezi is the instance where protesters turned a historic mosque into a shelter and triage site. Erdgoan has accused these protesters of not only desecrating the building but also drinking inside the mosque. The muezzin of the mosque, who had reportedly invited the protesters to take shelter there, was soon after exiled to a small town. The protesters themselves are also facing criminal charges.
Desecrating a mosque isn’t the only crime Gezi protesters have been charged with. The AKP has used every legal maneuver and thrown every criminal charge they can at protesters, from creating an illegal organization to wearing inappropriate clothing. The Turkish government has also prosecuted dozens of people for “thought crimes,” prosecuting or suing twitter users who dared criticize the government.
The social offensive against Gezi protesters and their supporters may be the most damaging in the long term. Erdogan has ensured the continued political domination of the AKP by characterizing “Gezi People” as the ultimate “other” from good Turkish citizens. They are traitors who burn the Turkish flag. They are terrorists. They are guilty of murder and assault. No one in their right mind would support the goals of such people.
Despite this multifaceted attack on grass roots opposition in general and protesters associated with Gezi in particular, Erdogan has failed to eliminate the serious undercurrent of discontent in Turkey. Instead, he has created a dangerously polarized society, with supporters of the AKP convinced of evil of government opponents, and opponents of the AKP (correctly) convinced that the government is out to get them. This is unfortunately the contemporary legacy of Gezi: a government which is determined to reinforce its power through the persecution, prosecution and demonization of the opposition. The good news is that grass-roots opposition to the AKP has not been crushed and barring a catastrophic crackdown, most likely will remain active. The AKP and Erdogan in particular have compromised their moral and politically authority in the process of undertaking this blanket offensive against opponents. Soma starkly highlighted that the government has overstepped the boundary of who and what they can legitimately include in their smear campaign. As I stated previously, Soma will not bring down Erdogan. However, it would be ill-advised for Erdogan to repeat the performance he put on for the crowds gathered at the mine. Telling mourners that certain people are simply fated to die tragically, then kicking and punching members of the angry crowd that subsequently gathers is not the way to win votes; and Turkey is (still) a democracy.