Atatürk's Republic

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Posts Tagged ‘Syria

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

Stunned Silence

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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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

June 13, 2014 at 4:02 am

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.

Written by ataturksrepublic

September 11, 2013 at 3:01 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