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Last Week in Turkey

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The start of a new year brings with it the alternately loved and loathed tradition of year-in-review listicles.  During the course of last week, the first full week of 2015 (Monday, January 5 to Sunday, January 11), the major events in Turkey provided a ready-made listicle of the political highlights of the previous year.

The December 13, 2013 Corruption Probe
Though this case broke in 2013, it continued to dominate headlines throughout 2014.  Over the course of last year, thousands of judicial and law enforcement officials were demoted, transferred and/or arrest as a result of their involvement in the case or connections with the Gulen Movement, which the government believes is the motivating force behind the corruption charges.

On Monday, a parliamentary committee voted not to pursue charges against four former government ministers indited in connection with the corruption probe.
Also on Monday, 20 police officers in districts across the country were arrested and accused of illegal wire tapping in connection with the case (much of the evidence in the case came from recorded phone conversations, transcripts of which may be soon slated for destruction).  Meanwhile, the central implicated figure in the case bought a new private jet for himself.

On Thursday, six private Turkish TV broadcasting companies were fined for reading the testimony of the ministers accused in the corruption scandal on air.

Suppression of Civil Society, Free Speech and Freedom of the Press
This has been an ongoing problem in Turkey, arguably going back to the founding of the Republic and beyond.  However, after the Gezi protests of summer 2013, the government has been quick to subject protests directed against them with liberal doses of tear gas and high pressure water.  Ordinary citizens, even children, have been brought to court for anti-government statements, particularly when these are posted on social media.  The targeting of citizen free speech has gone hand in hand with a crack down on freedom of the press, with Turkey ranking as the top jailer of journalists for the first half of 2014.

On Monday, a protest organized by civil society groups against the jailing censoring of journalists was tear gassed and water cannoned, despite the freezing temperatures, outside the Constitutional Court.  It is likely that these groups are connected to the Gulen Movement, who’s publications and journalists were particularly targeted throughout 2014.

On Tuesday, Dutch journalist Frederike Geerdink, the only foreign journalist based in Diyarbakir, the defacto capital of Turkish Kurdistan, was briefly detained and had her housed searched by the Turkish anti-terrorism police squad.  She was accused of spreading negative information about the Turkish state as well as PKK propaganda.

On Wednesday, another Dutch journalist was detained and released pending his appearance at court in relation to an act of journalism committed in 2013.

On Thursday, it was announced that Turkey had bought 1.9 million new tear gas canisters from a manufacturer in South Korea.

Environmental Degradation
The destruction of trees and the degradation of natural areas in the service of economic and industrial progress was a major source of controversy throughout 2014.  The start of construction on the new Istanbul airport, the ongoing work on the third Bosphorus bridge and the completion of the new presidential palace as well as smaller incidents like the cutting of olive groves for the building of a new power plant meant that hardly a week went by in 2014 without a story featuring a photo of muddy, clear-cut land.  Many infrastructure projects, including the ones mentioned above, went ahead despite court orders and civilian protests.

A large number of cedar trees in an old growth forest were cut over the previous weekend to make way for a marble quarry, triggering a protest by hundreds of locals on Monday.

On Friday, there was a rare victory for environmental activists when a court order suspended the sale of coastal land that was slated for development.  The land in question is a sea turtle nesting ground and beloved by locals and tourists alike.

Gender Equality
2014 was the year of President Erdogan and the AKP making decidedly illiberal and downright silly statements about relations between the sexes.

The proposals for maternal leave and parental accommodation in employment announced Thursday were greeted with skepticism as they came on the heels of many statements by the government encouraging a more maternal, traditional role for women.

The Kurdish Settlement
The ongoing dialogue between the government and the long-oppressed Kurdish minority population was on shaky ground for most of 2014.  A number of Kurdish civilians were killed by police and police and military personal were killed in attacks which likely linked to the PKK.  Little to no progress was made on allowing for greater cultural rights such as Kurdish-language primary schools.  Most notorious was the actions of the Turkish government after the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane was attacked by the Islamic State.  While Turkey did allow civilians to flee across the border in fits and starts, the Turkish government’s refused to let Turkish Kurds cross the border to join the fighting and made it clear that it had no interest in providing official military aid.  The Turkish government brought into question its commitment to the peace progress when President Erdogan equated the PKK (whose jailed leader was critical to starting and sustaining the peace process) with the Islamic State.  The situation in Kobane, and the widespread (mis)perception that Turkish government was secretly supporting the Islamic State, lead to riots in Kurdish majority areas.  Dozens of civilians and two police officers died and scores were arrested.  There were also deaths as the result of intra-Kurdish violence.

On Monday, a pro-government paper announced that there would soon be a new set of laws introduced that “will put an end to the country’s Kurdish issue.”  According to the article, the new laws will include measures to disarm, repatriate and reintegrate into society members of the PKK, though exactly how this will be carried out is unclear.  It was not announced when this legal package would be introduced in parliament.  Previous legal packages meant to reconcile previous legal discrimination of Turkey’s Kurdish citizens have been met with mixed reviews at best.

On Wednesday, a 14 year old boy was shot and killed by police during intra-Kurdish clashes in the town of Cizre.

International Diplomacy or Lack There Of
Turkey’s international relations continued on their downward spiral in 2014.  Relations were strained even with long-time allies such as the US and efforts to restart Turkey’s long idle EU ascension progress basically went no where.  True to form, Erdogan and members of the AKP made multiple un-diplomatic statements that only added to Turkey’s perception problem abroad.

After the attack last week in Paris on the staff of the Charlie Hebdo satire magazine, Prime Minister Davutoglu released an unequivocal condemnation while other members of the government, including President Erdogan, choose to try to shift some of the blame for the attacks to what they perceive as Europe’s widespread Islamophobia.  Other members of the AKP speculated that the attacks were staged and/or part of an elaborate conspiracy.

Terrorism
This is one of the few categories in which last week unfortunately stands out from 2014.  The major terrorism related incident of 2014 was the kidnapping but eventual safe release of the staff of the Turkish consulate in Mosul.  However, there had not been a major terrorist attack targeting civilians in Turkey since the attempted suicide bombing of the US Embassy in Ankara and Reyhanli car bombings in February and May respectively of 2013.

On Tuesday, a woman walked into a police station in the old city area of Istanbul and blew herself up, killing one police officer and seriously wounding another.  The Revolutionary People’s Liberation Front, the militant leftist organization that perpetrated the 2013 US Embassy bombing, initially took credit for the attack.  However, it was latter forced to retract its statements when it was revealed that the bomber was not a member of the group as originally thought, but likely a Chechen in Istanbul on a tourist visa.

On Saturday, two bombs were found in two different Istanbul shopping malls but safely removed and destroyed before they could explode.  It is unclear who planted the bombs and why.

What’s Missing
It is important to note that there were a few major issues and events of 2014 that was noticeably absent from the major stories last week, including the ongoing refugee crisis and the Soma disaster.

What’s in Store for 2015 
It’s likely we’ll be seeing a lot more of the same. Most if not all of the issues above, including suppression of the press, lack of environmental stewardship and failing foreign relations are chronic problems that will take years to fix.  Despite their absence from the headlines last week, both refugees and industrial safety problems are guaranteed to make an appearance multiple times in 2015 as well.  There is a general election coming up in June of this year, and due to the main opposition’s lack of organization, popularity and general political acumen, in all likelihood we can look forward to continued political domination by the AKP.

The serious new developments from last week were the bombings in Istanbul.  It is unclear what motivated the suicide bomber.  There are speculations she may have had connections to the Islamic State, though IS has not taken responsibility for the attack.  This may very well be an isolated incident but the second attempted bombing coming close on its heels makes it more worrying.  Unfortunately, we again don’t know what motivated the bomber or bombers in the second incident and no one has taken responsibility.   These two incidents mark a fairly ominous start to 2015 for Turkey and we can only hope that they are indeed an anomaly.  Istanbul has experienced and recovered from terrorist attacks in the recent past.

The possible involvement of IS, until ruled out, is deeply troubling.  The lack of credit for the bombings could be a deliberate strategy on the part of IS.  If they are indeed behind the attacks, the Islamic State might be trying to avoid drawing the direct wrath of Turkey.  IS’s territory shares long borders with Turkey and is reliant on foreign recruits and supplies being funneled through Turkey.  Turkey has faced harsh criticism for not doing more to stop the flow of foreign fighters, including those loyal to the Islamic State, across its southern border.  If IS has started targeting Istanbul, it may hard to thwart them.  Turkey would have to finally plug the leaks in its admittedly very long and hard to defend southern border.  Perhaps more dangerous are the IS sympathizers, both Turks and foreigners, already in Turkey.  As the attacks in Paris demonstrate, even terrorists already under suspicion by the state can manage to pull off deadly attacks.

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Turkey’s Options in Iraq

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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.

Clueless in Turkiye

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As I sat and watched a stream of the violent raid on Taksim square Tuesday night, I like many others wondered what the Turkish government could possibly be thinking.  What did they have to gain by repeatedly gassing demonstrators on the eve of promised talks with protest representatives?  Why would the governor lie to the people he governs?  Why would the Prime Minster set the stage for a showdown between two groups of his own citizens?  It was irrational.  It was insanity.

To an outside observer the Turkish government’s and PM Erdogan’s don’t appear to be acting upon any rational strategy aimed at resolving these protests.  What is their end game?  Perhaps the essential problem is that there is none.  According to an intriguing new approach to game theory, some actors are simply “clueless.”  Michael Chwe, who introduced this theory, was inspired by the interaction between two characters of unequal social status in the novel Pride and Prejudice.  The higher ranking character believes that she can control the actions of a lower ranking character simply by throwing around the weight of her social standing.  However, the lower ranking character refuses to be controlled and is actually able to manipulate the situation to her advantage because of the anger she elicits from her superior.  Despite her social advantage, the higher ranking character looses in the end.  She is “clueless” about other factors impacting the situation because her anger precludes her from approaching the situation in a rational manner.  In other words “calling your enemy an animal might improve your bargaining position or deaden your moral qualms, but at the expense of not being able to think about your enemy strategically.”  PM Erdogan is currently “clueless” and is allowing his anger to cloud his judgement, raising the tension in Turkey to a dangerous level.  Both Erdogan and his government stand to loose big if they continue to allow their real but tenuous popularity to convince themselves they have the upper hand.

Are Turks and Americans Friends: A Reconsideration

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On Friday a guest post by Alexander Slater on the blog Ottomans and Zionists explored the question Are Turks and Americans Friends?  This is a reconsideration of that question.  I am not calling this a rebuttal, because I can’t argue with the statistics on which the post was based.   I disagree with Slater that the White House’s statement emphasizing “the close friendship between the United States and Turkey” is essentially wrong.  However, it certainly should be accompanied by a number of asteriskes.

Far from being exceptional, the friendly relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan is typical of interactions between individual Turks and Americans.  As anyone who traveled to Turkey or spent time with Turks will tell you, Turks are extremely welcoming, friendly and even excited to meet Americans and are curious about American culture.  The lived experience seems to contradict the Pew Forum Survey which found that only 13% of Turks have a favorable view of the American people.  I agree with Michael Koplow and Steven Cook’s explanation, namely that Turks are able to separate American foreign policy from individual Americans.  The Pew Forum questions were simply not worded in a way that would discern the fine but important distinction between a nation as a whole and the individuals that comprise it.  In order to measure this distinction the survey should have included questions such as: Have you ever met an American?  If so, do you have a favorable opinion of him or her?  Do you have a desire to visit the United States?  Do you have favorable or unfavorable impression of everyday life in the United States?  I suspect questions such as these would elicit much more favorable responses from Turks than those in the original survey.

However, the fact remains that the vast majority of Turks have a negative opinion of the United States and its foreign policy.  This begs the question that Slater addresses in his post: Given the close relationship between the governments of our two countries, and a similar business and political culture, why do such negative opinions persist?  More importantly, what can be done to cultivate a more favorable and accurate image of America among Turks?  As I’ve written previously, Turkey has an ingrained suspicion of foreigners and their motives, often referred to as Sevres Syndrome.  This phenomenon goes far in explaining the fact that Turks not only report a dislike of Americans, but foreigners in general.  Slater rightly points out that the majority of Turkey’s population now lives in urban areas and that the urban vs. rural population split continues to widen.  However, I think it is incorrect to automatically expect Turkey’s city-dwellers to hold cosmopolitan world views.  Turkey’s urbanization was the result of a mass internal migration from the countryside to the cities in the mid to late 20th century.  While younger Turks may overwhelmingly be city-dwellers by birth, the majority of the older generations are transplants who spent their formative years in villages despite their current urban residence.  Therefore, many urban Turks still take a provincial view of the world, unlike the political and business elites with whom he interacted.

However, this perception problem goes both ways.  Turkey was not included in the list of countries in a recent Gallup poll gauging American perceptions of foreign countries.  However, I suspect that Americans’ opinions of Turkey would place it nearer Egypt or Russia rather than Germany or France, that is generally unfavorable.  Popular perceptions of Turkey in the United States are based largely on its geographic location, Muslim population and depiction in films. Slater calls for bilateral action emphasizing the numerous political, business and cultural commonalities between Turkey and the United States.  While I am unclear as to what this action might entail, I fear it would only be effective at the micro level.  I believe that the United States bears much of the responsibility for  effecting large scale changes in Turkey’s perception of American as well as American’s perception of Turkey.  Turks will always to view the United States in a negative light as long as our foreign policy continues to vacillate between violent disasters like Iraq and impotent attempts to secure peace, such as the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Turkey’s xenophobia is something that as a nation Turks must work to overcome.  However, Americans must also work to end our notoriously poor knowledge of the world and ever persistent Islamophobia.  Unfortunately, all of these changes will take a great amount of time and effort to come about and may in fact not be realized for many years.  In the short term at least we can take comfort in the fact that our respective leaders, and many lay individuals, share an open and friendly relationship.

Written by ataturksrepublic

May 20, 2013 at 4:59 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