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Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category

Gezi Continues

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Yesterday a tragic incident provided proof that Gezi is far from over.  Many of the facts surrounding the event are still in dispute, but what is clear is that during the course of a protest in Antakya early Tuesday morning, 22 year Ahmet Atakan died.  His death triggered renewed protests across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara and the AKP stronghold of Bursa.  Istiklal Boulevard in Taksim was once again the scene of police intervention with tear gas and water cannons.

Though eyewitnesses report that the protests were smaller than those at the peak of the Gezi uprising this summer, the renewed clashes between police and civilians is an important and potentially dangerous sign.  Many reports state that Atakan died during a protest related to the previous death of a Gezi protester.  However, some also mention that the protest Atakan participated in was against Turkey’s involvement in Syria’s civil war.  Whether or not Atakan went out with the intention of protesting Turkey’s current and future involvement in Syria, his death is perfectly poised to exasperate an already tense situation.

Atakan’s hometown Antakya is located in a small peninsula of Turkish territory that sticks down like a thumb into Syria.  The area has a proud history of religious and ethnic diversity, even through the periods of ethnic cleansing that homogenized much of the rest of Turkey during the 20th century.  However, the Syrian civil war is putting a strain on both inter-communal relationships and the relationship between the citizens of the province and the Turkish government.  Potentially making this situation even more explosive, Atakan was apparently an Arab Alawite, the ethno-religious group to which Assad belongs.  Most Alawites both in and outside of Syria continue to support Assad’s government, if for no other reason than they fear the consequences for their community if the rebels prevail.  So far the Alawite community in Turkey has largely kept a low profile, but this death could energize the community to lash out against the Turkish government or even Sunni refugees and fighters from Syria.  Resentment of Turkey’s unofficial involvement in the Syrian civil war is not isolated to the Alawite community.  Polls consistently show that the majority of Turks are against further intervention in Syria.  The bombing in Reyhanli earlier this summer, which was assumed to be connected to the Syrian regime, already demonstrated the potential for retaliatory attacks against Syrian refugees in Turkey.

In addition to it’s involvement with the Syrian war, Turkey is also currently confronted with another extremely delicate internal situation.  A few days ago, the much hailed peace process between the Turkish government and the PKK broke down.  The Turkish government has claimed that the PKK has not withdrawn enough of its fighters from Turkish territory and now the PKK has stated that it will halt its withdrawal until progress is made on the issue of Kurdish cultural rights.  Ethnically Kurdish areas generally refrained from participating in the protests this summer.  However, there were representatives of the Kurdish BDP party at Gezi and the movement in general has shown itself to be sympathetic to the issue of Kurdish rights.  If the protests we witnessed on Tuesday result in a revived Gezi movement, Turkey’s frustrated Kurdish minority may find this an opportune moment to revive protests for their rights as well.

The Turkish government has a potentially explosive situation on its hands.  In the case of the Gezi protests of this summer, the repeated use of force by the police encouraged protesters to seek out creative non-violent ways to continue their resistance.  However, if the government chooses to meet minority protesters in Turkey’s south with violence, past experiences demonstrate the potential for prolonged, deadly conflicts to erupt.

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Written by ataturksrepublic

September 11, 2013 at 3:01 pm

The Fate of Minorities in Turkey

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The Old Greek Orphanage on Buyukada

Last summer when I visited Buyukada I briefly discussed the confiscation of properties owned by ethnic minorities by the Turkish State.  The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled in 2010 that confiscated properties must be returned.  Predictably, the Turkish government has made few efforts to ensure the former owners of properties in Turkey are given justice.  In August of last year the Turkish government passed legislation in order to comply with the ruling of the ECHR.  However, the majority of appeals by property owners have been rejected.

The once numerous Christian and Jewish minorities of Turkey have been the victims of discriminatory legislation dating back to the Ottoman Empire.  However, the large-scale exodus of these groups did not occur until the founding of the Turkish Republic.  Turkey and Greece exchanged the bulk of their Christian and Muslim minorities respectively in the early 1920s.  Throughout the 20th century, both countries have been guilty of official discrimination against the small groups of ethno-religious minorities which were allowed to remain.  In the case of Turkey, a series of crushing taxes directed specifically at minorities stripped Jews and Christians alike of their businesses, wealth and property.  Convinced of  the Turkish government’s animosity, many victims of these taxes left to rebuild their lives elsewhere.  Non-citizen Greek minorities, many of whom had family members with full citizenship,were subject to several waves of deportation.  These deportations aimed to force families to emigrate en mass with their non-citizen relatives.  This systematic persecution created the 99% Muslim Turkey we know today.  Outside of the property disputes, the Turkish government continues to show little concern for protecting the few minority enclaves that remain in Turkey.

As I discussed in my last post, Turkey’s Kurdish minority population has also been subject to official persecution at the hands of the state.  However, unlike the Greek, Jewish and Armenian populations in Turkey, Kurds are without the benefits provided by an ethnic nation-state.  However, the conflict in Syria has revitalized the movement for an independent Kurdistan.  Although the prospect of a greater, independent Kurdistan remains somewhat of a pipe-dream, in a post-Assad Syria Kurds could officially gain control over an autonomous region, similar to the situation in Iraq.  The power-vacuum left in the wake of the civil war in Syria has already de facto created a such a region.  A Syrian Kurdish autonomous region would certainly go far in ensuring the rights of Kurds in a post-Assad Syria.  However, Kurdish politics are bound to spill across boarders.  The current situation in Syria has arguably already negatively impacted the Kurdish community in Turkey and contributed to Erdoğan’s recent retreat from his previous support of greater Kurdish cultural rights.

Kurdish Syrians and Iraqis seem satisfied to remain in autonomous regions united to their respective countries for the time being.  However,  if either or both should gain true independence, I fear for the continued existence of the Kurdish community in Turkey.  For the past century, the Turkish government has failed to incorporate its Kurdish citizens into greater Turkey either through integration or autonomy.  If a “homeland” is created for them elsewhere, Kurds may face intense pressure to immigrate.  I do not envision it being as harsh as the cleansing of the Armenians from Anatolia, the Turkish government is far too sophisticated to engage in such open brutality.  However, policies similar to those that helped to drive out members of the Greek and Jewish communities (taxes, property confiscation, etc) could be employed to make life (even more) intolerable for Turkey’s Kurds.  At this point in time, it is hard to predict how the Kurds on both sides of the boarder will fare in the wake of the Syrian civil war.  However, I predict that the more power Syrian Kurds have on regions bordering Turkey, the harder life will become for Turkish Kurds.

Written by ataturksrepublic

November 27, 2012 at 8:02 pm

Syrian Intermission

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

October 29, 2012 at 1:51 am