Archive for October 2012
This is old news by now, but I love Turkish street animals (sokak hayvanları) too much to not comment on the controversies surrounding the proposed new animal control bill. Currently, there are very few regulations regarding stray animals in Turkey. The primary option available to local municipalities in dealing with their stray animal populations is to catch, spay/neuter and release. The law forbids the killing or torture of animals, but the vast majority of animal abuse cases go unpunished. Even if an animal abuser does face prosecution, punishment for such an offense only amounts to a misdemeanor fine, akin to property damage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that lacking fear of prosecution, some municipalities have resorted to poisoning street dogs in an effort to reduce their numbers.
Both the government and Turkish animal lovers agree new animal abuse laws and control regulations are desperately needed. The proposed new regulations would increase punishments for animal abusers, a measure which all parties involved support. However, the bill also contains a controversial measure for controlling existing populations of street animals. The bill would create “natural habitat parks” for stray animals, akin to permanent, outdoor animal shelters. Stray animals would be rounded up and given a home in one of these parks. Many Turks, especially residents of Istanbul, believe this measure is simply a redux of a 1910 Ottoman urban renewal campaign. The streets of late Ottoman Istanbul were ruled by packs of street dogs. In an effort to rid Istanbul of these menacing dogs and modernize (read: Europeanize) the city, Ottoman official rounded up the dogs and stranded them on a desert island in the Marmara Sea. Mark Twain reported that the pathetic howls of the starving animals kept residents of Istanbul awake at night for numerous days afterward. Opponents of the bill argue that the parks would amount to animal “concentration camps” and have dubbed the bill “the law of death.”
Protests against the bill were concentrated in Istanbul but broke out in other Turkish cities and towns as well. Protesting Turks and ex-pats living in Turkey alike voiced the opinion that Turkish street animals are well cared for and cherished by the residents of the neighborhoods which they haunt. From my observations of the life of Turkish street dogs and cats, I must politely disagree with the rosy picture painted by Finkel and others. It is true that is very common to see residents feeding street animals, especially cats. However, accounts of their overall health and well-being are greatly exaggerated. The vast majority are noticeably underweight and most have some sort of obvious health problem. Skin conditions dominate but it is not uncommon to see an an animal with an untreated injury or other medical condition. The quotidian nature of these sights did not make it any easier for me to pass a suffering animal and know there was very little I could do for it. Nor are Turkish street animals universally beloved. The majority of non-secular Turks I have met are afraid of dogs. This fear does not just extend to semi-feral street dogs, but to the tamest of leashed Golden Retrievers. I once witness a grown man jump a foot straight in the air after he was startled by a puppy. My experiences lead me to suspect that there is a silent majority of Turks who would be more than happy to see their city rid of street dogs. Bursa, the fourth largest city in Turkey, successfully implemented a system of animal sanctuaries analogous to the proposed parks. There are still street animals in Bursa but far fewer per capita than in other cities. If- and that’s a big if- a system like the one currently in place in Bursa could be implemented, Turkey’s street animals would be much better off. That said, the proposed legislation is still far from perfect. It fails to deal with the underlying problems that create populations of strays such as unregulated breading. Without addressing the root sources of Turkey’s street animal populations there will be no humane solution this centuries-old problem.
Turkey’s profile in international affairs has been growing over the past two years, largely due to the events of the Arab spring. Articles referencing Turkey usually belong in one of two categories: the “Turkish Model” as a template for new Arab democracies and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Last week, Turkey helped to negotiate temporary truce for the duration of the Eid al-Adha holiday. Unfortunately, this truce lasted only about a day and fell through Saturday with both sides renewing hostilities.
The now-broken truce is just the latest point of involvement for Turkey in the Syrian conflict. Near the beginning of the insurrection Prime Minister Erdoğan called the crisis in Syria “the equivalent of internal politics for Turkey.” Erdoğan and Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have spent significant time and effort to improve relations with Syria since the AK Party came to power. A free trade agreement, joint military maneuvers and what appeared to be a genuinely friendly relationship between the two heads of state made Turkey’s relations with Syria the show piece of its “zero problems with neighbors” foreign policy. However, years of diplomacy unraveled in a matter of weeks after the onset of protests in Syria. The Turkish government and ordinary Turks alike were repulsed by the Syrian army’s brutal attacks on its own citizens. Davutoğlu and Erdoğan were clearly offended that President Assad refused to listen to their council. The Turkish government severed relations with the Assad government in November of 2011.
The Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey began with a trickle soon after the crisis started. In early summer 2011 the number of Syrian refugees was estimated in the hundreds. Now it has topped 100,000 and has become a contentious domestic issue in Turkish provinces along the Syrian boarder. Efforts to isolate the refugees in camps and away from the local population have begun to break down. More and more resources in Turkey are being utilized or commandeered by the refugees and the Turkish locals have increasingly come to resent their presence.
Most critically, military incidents and tensions between Turkey and Syria have nearly come to a breaking point. Almost immediately after refugees began arriving in Turkey, rebel army activities were organized with the tacit approval of Turkey. More openly, Turkey hosted meetings of the political leaders of the opposition. Turkey’s passive support of the Syrian opposition has been instrumental in sparking a number of violent cross-boarder incidents involving members of the Syrian opposition and the Syrian military. The downing of a Turkish fighter jet in international airspace after it had allegedly crossed into Syrian territory marked time Turks became directly involved in the violence. Turkey held back on any direct retaliation after this incident, but did not show the same restraint after a mortar fired from Syria killed 5 Turkish civilians at the beginning of this month. Turkey retaliated with multiple days of shelling after the incident and moved weapons, planes and men to the border. Shortly after, in a largely symbolic show of power, Turkey forced a Syria-bound Russian jet to land in Ankara and searched it for weapons. This measure was justified by the arms embargo it had placed on Syria a year ago.
Turkey clearly has a huge stake in the outcome of the civil war in Syria. Despite this, the government has been hesitant to become directly involved without international support. Unilaterally intervening would give further ammunition to those who have accused the AK Party government of aspiring toward Neo-Ottomanism. More importantly, the vast majority of the Turkish public is against further military engagement in Syria. Turkey has reached out to, and criticized, the UN multiple times in an effort to persuade the international community of the need to take action on Syria. Erdoğan has also put great effort into building an alliance with the newly democratic Egypt. He visited Egypt over a year ago to promote “Turkish style” democracy and rode high on a wave of personal popularity. Soon after he predicted that Turkey and Egypt would become the two power centers of the region, an “axis of democracy.” Now, with the new Egyptian government in place, Erdoğan is trying to make this alliance a reality.
There are a few predictions that can be made about the Syria and Turkey in the months ahead. Violence in Syria will continue much as if the truce had never happened. Turkey will follow the path it has been on for the past year and a half, becoming more and more actively involved on the side of the rebels. Whether this involvement will eventually amount to Turkish forces being deployed in Syria depends on two factors: outside support and cross-border violence. If the UN (read: the US), NATO (again, the US) or Egypt can be persuaded to support Turkish military action, the Turkish government may very well go against public opinion and send troops to Syria. However, the government may not have to defy it’s own population if Syria continues to make violent breaches into Turkish territory. A number of small incidents or a single egregious one may persuade the Turkish public that intervention is necessary. Even if neither of these two scenarios comes to pass, Turkey may not come away from the Syrian conflict unscathed. If Syria perpetrates an egregious act of violence against Turkey, and Turkey fails to intervene militarily, they in effect acquiesce to breaches of its territorial sovereignty and the killing of its citizens. Such a passive responses to violations of sovereignty will inevitably damage Turkey’s reputation as a regional leader. In this scenario rather than becoming the “model” in a new era of Muslim democracy, Turkey instead may end up playing a secondary role to the Arab states.