Atatürk's Republic

Following Turkish News, Politics, Arts and Culture

Archive for February 2015

The politics of Suleyman Shah

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Saturday night to Sunday the Turkish military carried out an operation into Syria to evacuate its remaining personnel at the tomb of the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Suleyman Shah.  Before they left, they removed the remains and destroyed the building.  These events came on the heels of rumors that the Turkish guards stationed there had been trapped by the Islamic State, rumors the Turkish foreign ministry denied Friday.  The Kurdish PYD forces which control a defacto autonomous region in northern Syria aided this operation by allowing the Turkish military to pass through their territory on the way to the tomb and after the operation was over set up a new Turkish enclave in their territory to house the recovered remains.

Much was written about the history and importance of the Turkish enclave in Syria back in the Fall when the area was first overrun by ISIS- you can read more here and here.  Certainly the tomb had/has symbolic significance for Turkey, especially fervent nationalists, and the decision to evacuate it may have political repercussions domestically.  However, the transfer of the enclave to another location inside of Syria seems to be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma of how to protect Turkey’s pride while also relieving a dangerous flashpoint.  What is most interesting and most consequential for the future policies are the specifics of how and when this operation was executed.

For long time Turkey watchers, one of the most striking elements of this story is the fact that not only did the Turkish military cross through PYD territory, and specifically the recently besieged town of Kobane, and that they are also allowing Turkey to reconstitute their enclave on their territory.  The Turks and the Kurds have a fraught history, to put it lightly.  During the siege of Kobane, Turkey was heavily criticized for not intervening on the side of the Kurds and the frustrations of Turkish Kurds boiled over into deadly riots.  This act of cooperation between the PYD and the Turkish military initially hinted at the possibility that Turkey is seriously changing its attitude toward what now seems like the inevitable reality of living with an autonomous Kurdish enclave on its southern border.  More cynically, the current Turkish government could use its cooperation with the PYD to try to win back the political support of Turkish Kurds, who in the past supported the AKP in significant numbers.*

However, the political posturing that has come in the wake of this operation complicates the picture significantly.  President Erdogan’s spokesman vehemently denied today that there was any cooperation with the PYD and called them a terrorist group.  The PYD has stuck to its frankly far more believable claim that they coordinated with the Turkish military and the operation could not have been a success without such cooperation. The PKK for its part has suggested that Turkey must have notified and coordinated with the Islamic State as well in order to have evacuated its troops so smoothly.  IS denies the PKK’s claims.

After official government communications showed and spoke of PM Davutoglu personally directing the Suleyman Shah operation on Saturday, today the President’s office claims that it was in fact Erdogan who personally oversaw it.  It was also announced today that Erdogan will be chairing the next Cabinet meeting, something that it is within the powers of the presidency, but was only done in extraordinary situations in the past.  This flexing of political muscle on the part of Erdogan could perhaps indicate a rift between himself, the Prime Ministry and/or the military.  The potential to convert this successful operation and its aftermath into political gains with Turkey’s Kurds seems high, and Erdogan’s instance on burning bridges strikes me as shortsighted.

Meanwhile, whether it was preplanned or not, Turkey’s parliament took advantage of the distraction provided by the Suleyman Shah operation to Wag the Dog. The AKP members of parliament pushed through 10 parts of the controversial and illiberal security bill in an all-night session Saturday.  As could be expected, the Turkish military incursion into Syria is top billing in the news today, rather than the legal encroachment on democratic freedoms.

*The upcoming June elections are a linchpin in the ruling AKP’s plans to amend the constitution to make President Erdogan the du jour instead of just the de facto head of state.  The Kurdish party in Turkey, the HDP, has decided to run candidates in the upcoming election not as independents, as it has done previously, but as officially affiliated with the party.  According to the election rules, if the Kurdish party fails to gain 10% or more of the total votes in the election, it will not be able to seat any of its members.  The seats that it theoretically did win will go to the runner up in any given election, most likely the AKP candidate.  Therefore, the future ambitions of Erdogan and the AKP are tied closely to how Turkish Kurds vote.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

February 23, 2015 at 7:56 pm

Erdogan’s Turkey: De-moderation or Consolidation of Power?

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My latest piece for ForeignAffairs.com, Dreaming of Russia in Ankara, argues that Turkish politics is drifting not toward Islamism but secular authoritarianism; in more concrete terms, the Russian rather than the Iran political model.  I have made similar arguments previously on this blog and wanted to take the opportunity to directly address the theoretical debate I am in conversation with, namely inclusion-moderation theory.  Inclusion-moderation or moderation theory holds that if groups holding extreme political positions are included in the institutions of governance they will be forced to moderate their ideological positions due to the demands of practical politics, namely attracting votes, working with other political groups and addressing practical issues of governance.  This theory was developed from the experience of religiously-based political parties in Europe but is most often discussed in the context of Islamist parties in Muslim-majority countries.

Needless to say, moderation theory and the mechanisms it describes have examined and re-examined by political scientists and I won’t subject you to the full debate here.  I will address just one element that is the subcontext of my Foreign Affairs, namely whether power can make an Islamist party de-moderate, ie revert to more conservative and religiously-influenced positions. One of the latest contributions to this debate , and one that my arguments directly relate to, is Shadi Hamid’s Temptations of Power.  Hamid draws on extensive fieldwork done in Egypt, Jordan and Tunisia with the largest Islamist political organizations in each respective country.  Drawing on his interviews and the historic trajectories of these parties, he argues that “Islamists are Islamists for a reason.”  We should take the religious roots of these parties seriously and not be surprised when, if and when they gain significant political power, they institute religiously-informed and illiberal policies, even if they had previously disavowed such policies.

Hamid makes a very convincing case and some commentators have suggested his analysis explains Turkey’s current political situation.  However, I argue that the phenomena he is describing is not de-moderation but continuation of the current (secular) authoritarian Arab political tradition and therefore rooted in an Islamism per se but in the institutions these Islamist groups inherit when they come to power.  In the case of Turkey, the AKP is succumbing to the “temptations of power” that are already embedded in the institutions and traditions of the Turkish Republic: state control of religion, media censorship and a reverence for strong and authoritative political leaders.

Ultimately, only time will tell whether it is Hamid, myself, or neither of us who are right about the motives and trajectory of Erdogan and the AKP.  The best case scenario, the one that I am holding out hope for, is that events intervene before it becomes clear who “won” this debate.

Written by ataturksrepublic

February 17, 2015 at 12:04 am