Commentary Magazine


Topic: Recep Tayyip Erdogan

Could Turkey Fall Below Iran in Press Freedom?

Even before the current protests, Turkey was already “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” its press freedom ranking had plummeted, falling below even Russia, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Burma. Since the protests erupted, however, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly aggressive toward the press. Not only have foreign journalists been attacked, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has turned his animus toward twitter, declaring the 140-character social network site to be “a menace to society.”

While I’ve written before about how Erdoğan has been confiscating television stations and media companies—including sending his Brownshirts to do the job as he stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden last month—he appears intent to actually accelerate efforts to close any media companies that dare report critically about him, his increasingly unstable personality, or the brutal crackdown that Erdoğan appears ready to make the new normal.

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Even before the current protests, Turkey was already “the world’s largest prison for journalists,” its press freedom ranking had plummeted, falling below even Russia, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, and Burma. Since the protests erupted, however, Turkish authorities have grown increasingly aggressive toward the press. Not only have foreign journalists been attacked, but Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has turned his animus toward twitter, declaring the 140-character social network site to be “a menace to society.”

While I’ve written before about how Erdoğan has been confiscating television stations and media companies—including sending his Brownshirts to do the job as he stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden last month—he appears intent to actually accelerate efforts to close any media companies that dare report critically about him, his increasingly unstable personality, or the brutal crackdown that Erdoğan appears ready to make the new normal.

He has, for example, used the media commission he controls to level outrageous fines against channels which reported events in Taksim Square or elsewhere as they were occurring. No longer is the sultan content to simply limit his jihad to Bart Simpson. The logic for the government fines was that the television channels showed violence which could harm children. The irony, of course, is that the violence was occurring on the street outside their homes, and children were breathing the gas that Erdoğan ordered fired. Fortunately, for those kids, Turkey has nearly exhausted its supply of tear gas, having fired well over 120,000 canisters, although the Turkish government has issued an emergency tender for 100,000 new gas canisters.

Now Turkish diplomats will insist that Turkey has a free press, and that is true so long as freedom is defined as being free to report all the news that Erdoğan approves and nothing more.

The question now, of course, is whether it is possible for Erdoğan to drive Turkey even lower in international press freedom rankings. It seems the answer is, unfortunately, yes. It is quite possible that, in the coming year, Turkey could find itself ranked below even Belarus, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain. Turkey will likely remain above Iran… for now. But after a few more years of Erdoğan, who knows? Erdoğan, however, will not care. His priority—it should be clear—is fealty to the sultan, not freedom or democracy.

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Why Do 135 Congressmen Endorse Turkey’s Crackdown?

It’s always risky when congressmen affix their names to organizations which sound both innocuous and harmless, because they seldom are. It used to be common practice, for example, for articulate and beautiful young ladies to ask congressmen (and European Union parliamentarians) to sign petitions calling for democracy or human rights in Iran. Few congressmen realized before it was too late that the sponsor of the petition was actually the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a creepy and authoritarian cult which at the time the United States still considered to be a terrorist organization.

Now, the same issue applies in a different way to Turkey: Take, for example, the 135 members of congress who count themselves as “members of Caucus on US Turkish Relations & Turkish Americans,” better known in Congress as the Turkey Caucus. The Turkish Coalition of America explains that the Turkey Caucus “is a bi-partisan platform for members of Congress to focus on US-Turkish relations and issues that concern Turkish Americans.” Now that sounds innocent enough and, indeed, as Turkey Caucus co-chair Gerry Connolly explained at a congressional hearing several years ago examining “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Direction,” Turkey hosts an American military base and the two countries cooperate in Afghanistan.

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It’s always risky when congressmen affix their names to organizations which sound both innocuous and harmless, because they seldom are. It used to be common practice, for example, for articulate and beautiful young ladies to ask congressmen (and European Union parliamentarians) to sign petitions calling for democracy or human rights in Iran. Few congressmen realized before it was too late that the sponsor of the petition was actually the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a creepy and authoritarian cult which at the time the United States still considered to be a terrorist organization.

Now, the same issue applies in a different way to Turkey: Take, for example, the 135 members of congress who count themselves as “members of Caucus on US Turkish Relations & Turkish Americans,” better known in Congress as the Turkey Caucus. The Turkish Coalition of America explains that the Turkey Caucus “is a bi-partisan platform for members of Congress to focus on US-Turkish relations and issues that concern Turkish Americans.” Now that sounds innocent enough and, indeed, as Turkey Caucus co-chair Gerry Connolly explained at a congressional hearing several years ago examining “Turkey’s New Foreign Policy Direction,” Turkey hosts an American military base and the two countries cooperate in Afghanistan.

The problem is this: While congressmen like Connolly may believe they are signing up to the Turkey Caucus to celebrate bilateral cooperation, the Turkish government looks at the Turkey Caucus in a very different way. Namik Tan uses the Turkey Caucus membership numbers to suggest American officials support if not endorse Turkey’s policies. That might not be a problem if Turkey’s policies included support for NATO or support for freedom of the press. Alas, however, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s current policies include arbitrary arrests, police violence, launching tear gas into hotels and consulates, attacking the free press, launching anti-Semitic diatribes, and ordering the arrest of medical personnel. Perhaps men and women like Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), John Lewis (D-GA), Virginia Foxx (R-NC), and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX)—to take four members at random—truly believe their membership encourages secularism and democracy. Or, more cynically, perhaps they enjoy the wining and dining Turkish authorities arrange on trips to Istanbul or Ankara as a reward for membership.

Either way, however, the price is not worth it. The Turkish government utilizes their names and faces to imply endorsement of noxious practices which the good men and women should condemn, not excuse. The White House may be relatively silent, but if the members of the Turkey Caucus truly believe in U.S.-Turkish relations, they should suspend if not resign their membership. They might still support partnership on a case-by-case basis, but no longer should they offer blanket support to Erdoğan’s government.

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Turkey’s Terrorism Confusion

One of the bedrocks of the U.S.-Turkey partnership has been U.S. provision of so-called counter-terrorism assistance to Turkey. In theory, the counter-terrorism assistance is meant to allow Turkey to counter its Kurdish insurgency, long led by the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. However, for the past three months, the Turkish government and PKK have been in active peace talks and the truce between them has held.

I have written before about how a lack of a universal definition of what terrorism is hampers the fight against it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will label the PKK as terrorists, but somehow say that Hamas is not a terrorist group. Indeed, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer pointed out, Erdoğan took time out from managing the state response to protests by liberals, secularists, trade unionists, educators, and others to meet with senior Hamas leaders today.

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One of the bedrocks of the U.S.-Turkey partnership has been U.S. provision of so-called counter-terrorism assistance to Turkey. In theory, the counter-terrorism assistance is meant to allow Turkey to counter its Kurdish insurgency, long led by the Kurdistan Workers Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym, the PKK. However, for the past three months, the Turkish government and PKK have been in active peace talks and the truce between them has held.

I have written before about how a lack of a universal definition of what terrorism is hampers the fight against it. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will label the PKK as terrorists, but somehow say that Hamas is not a terrorist group. Indeed, as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer pointed out, Erdoğan took time out from managing the state response to protests by liberals, secularists, trade unionists, educators, and others to meet with senior Hamas leaders today.

The problem has become even more striking in Turkey today. Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s minister for European Union affairs and a close Erdoğan aide, has said that anyone who protests against the government in Taksim Square should be considered terrorists.

It is clear that Erdoğan’s definition of “terrorist” has less to do with violence and true terrorism and more to do with political opposition to him personally. As such, the provision of any lethal assistance or other counter-terrorism aid, such as provision of drones to Turkey, is inappropriate and should be stopped. The damage to U.S. policy of appearing to side with Erdoğan’s crackdown is simply too great, and against U.S. interests.

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Obama’s Turkish Crucible

Turkish police stormed Taksim Square in Istanbul tonight, clearing the park of protesters in a brutal show of force. For those who hadn’t quite gotten the message that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had adopted authoritarian methods, the images of the massive use of force against peaceful demonstrators illustrates the way the Islamist government was prepared to suppress dissent. Erdoğan’s arrogant dismissal of criticism and willingness to both attack and delegitimize anyone who dares stand up against him may seem fairly familiar to those who have followed the protests that swept through the Middle East in recent years. But unlike previous chapters of this saga, this Turkish Spring is generating a confused as well as equivocal response from Washington.

We’ve previously noted the way the Turkish protests have highlighted President Obama’s hypocritical and often selective support for freedom abroad. While Obama pushed hard to force Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of power, his silence about the effort to stop Erdoğan’s culture war aimed at completing the Islamicization of Turkey has been conspicuous as well as ominous. But the difference between the two situations only highlights the importance of the administration’s willingness to give Obama’s friend Erdoğan a pass for his authoritarian behavior.

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Turkish police stormed Taksim Square in Istanbul tonight, clearing the park of protesters in a brutal show of force. For those who hadn’t quite gotten the message that the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had adopted authoritarian methods, the images of the massive use of force against peaceful demonstrators illustrates the way the Islamist government was prepared to suppress dissent. Erdoğan’s arrogant dismissal of criticism and willingness to both attack and delegitimize anyone who dares stand up against him may seem fairly familiar to those who have followed the protests that swept through the Middle East in recent years. But unlike previous chapters of this saga, this Turkish Spring is generating a confused as well as equivocal response from Washington.

We’ve previously noted the way the Turkish protests have highlighted President Obama’s hypocritical and often selective support for freedom abroad. While Obama pushed hard to force Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak out of power, his silence about the effort to stop Erdoğan’s culture war aimed at completing the Islamicization of Turkey has been conspicuous as well as ominous. But the difference between the two situations only highlights the importance of the administration’s willingness to give Obama’s friend Erdoğan a pass for his authoritarian behavior.

Obama has been blamed for Mubarak’s fall, but that conclusion was always more of a myth than anything else. Though the president could be said to have administered the coup de grace to the longtime dictator and U.S. ally when he pushed for his exit, Mubarak’s regime was doomed no matter what Washington did or didn’t do during his last days in power. Despite his desire to claim some influence on the Arab Spring, both the president and the United States were largely marginalized throughout the last two years in Egypt and events elsewhere in the region. Yet though Obama has sought to stay out of the drama unfolding in Turkey, he actually plays a far more important role there.

President Obama has claimed that Erdoğan is among his best friends in the ranks of fellow international leaders. The Turkish prime minister has reciprocated the president’s affection and, as the Associated Press noted today, Obama is understood to be the one foreign counterpart that has any influence on Erdoğan. That impact of that influence has been exaggerated as the so-called rapprochement Obama brokered between Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has not restored the old alliance between those two nations or in any way ameliorated the campaign of hate Turkey has been waging against Israel. So far it seems that the relationship between the U.S. and Turkey has been a one-sided affair, with Obama getting very little from his friend.

But this is the moment when Obama can redeem himself. Having posed as a friend of freedom for the past two years while actually facilitating the rise to power of Erdoğan’s Muslim Brotherhood allies in Egypt, the president can speak up at a crucial moment when Turkey’s future is still hanging in the balance.

Absent an American switch to a stance of vocal opposition to Erdoğan’s repressive tactics and bold imposition of Islam on a heretofore-secular nation, Turkey’s ultimate fate is not in doubt. Though Erdoğan was democratically elected, his policies to suppress freedom of the press and discourage opposition are making that distinction meaningless. If left unchecked, more than a historic park will be demolished by the time the prime minister is through. While it is true the U.S. is counting on Erdoğan to counter-balance the influence of Iran in the region, the conversion of this NATO ally into an Islamist state is a threat to American influence as well as the freedom of Turkey.

President Obama must understand that while speaking up against Erdoğan will not be without cost, keeping silent will be even more costly. Erdoğan’s Turkey is no role model for the region. American credibility is on the line in the wait for Obama to speak out on Turkey. If he keeps silent, neither the Turks who suffer under Erdoğan nor other nations looking to see if the U.S. really stands for liberty anymore will ever forget it.

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Erdoğan Doubles Down; To Destroy Botanical Garden

Protests continue across Turkey, with some violence reported overnight, and police brutality continuing. The Turkish police have begun to arrest those using Twitter to announce protests. And the government has been holding counter-rallies, sometimes using Photoshop to fill in the crowds.

Rather than cool tensions, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to throw fuel on the fire. The spark for the unrest was, of course, the prime minister’s determination to destroy a small urban park in order to build a shopping mall or, perhaps, a mosque. What started out as an environmental protest morphed into something far larger, largely in response to the prime minister’s arrogance and police crackdown.

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Protests continue across Turkey, with some violence reported overnight, and police brutality continuing. The Turkish police have begun to arrest those using Twitter to announce protests. And the government has been holding counter-rallies, sometimes using Photoshop to fill in the crowds.

Rather than cool tensions, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems determined to throw fuel on the fire. The spark for the unrest was, of course, the prime minister’s determination to destroy a small urban park in order to build a shopping mall or, perhaps, a mosque. What started out as an environmental protest morphed into something far larger, largely in response to the prime minister’s arrogance and police crackdown.

It’s against this backdrop that the announcement that Erdoğan will confiscate an eight-decade-old botanical garden and transfer it to the Istanbul mufti’s office seems like he is extending his middle finger to liberals, secularists, and the general public. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

On May 29, [Rector Yunus] Söylet wrote on Twitter that the Religious Affairs Directorate had been demanding the garden from the university for the past eight years following a question from a student. The university did not respond to the Hürriyet Daily News’ request for information on the issue. After Söylet’s remarks, a number of students, academics and activists gathered at a panel in Istanbul to discuss the significance of the garden for science and to voice their demands that the garden be maintained. Several academics are still waiting for a response from the rector’s office for an appointment in which they expect to express the importance of the garden to science. Istanbul University’s Alfred Heilbronn Botanic Garden was established near Süleymaniye Mosque in 1933, by Alfred Heilbronn and Leo Brauner, two Jewish professors who escaped Nazi Germany for Turkey. Erdal Üzen, an academic who has worked at the garden for many years, says the uprooting of such plants would cause damage to them. The botanical garden in Süleymaniye includes around 3,000 different plant species and 1,000 different tree species that function as a record of all the species found in Anatolia. The Turkey’s Biologists Association’s Istanbul bureau head, İlbay Kahraman, warned that the uprooting would cause great damage to the school and garden.

Once again, the Turkish prime minister demonstrates the confusion many Islamists and Middle East potentates hold regarding the difference between democracy and majoritarianism. As the spiteful Erdoğan doubles down, let us hope that the White House and State Department will dispense with the notion that Erdoğan’s Turkey is any longer a model once and for all.

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Why Do Academics Downplay Repression?

The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

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The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)—the NGO of the Society of Friends or Quakers—won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947, largely for its work with refugees, children, and prisoners of war during both World Wars I and II. The AFSC stayed neutral—a principle which it embraced strictly at the time—but by the 1970s, the AFSC had allowed leftism to trump pacifism. Perhaps nothing symbolizes the politicization of the AFSC and its moral unbearing than how it shilled for Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge—an episode discussed at length in Guenter Lewy’s Peace and Revolution, until evidence of that group’s murder of a million citizens became insurmountable. Why politics blinded AFSC officials to the brutality of the Khmer Rouge up until that group’s public exposure, however, is something that the Society of Friends has never adequately explained.

Another episode—albeit one not involving genocide—involves the many American foreign policy thinkers who were willing to give the Islamic Republic of Iran if not a pass on human rights prior to the 2009 post-election unrest than at least a blind eye. New York Times columnist Roger Cohen—who traveled to Iran and wrote many columns more critical of American policy than that of the Islamic Republic—only had his epiphany about the true rottenness of the Islamic Republic after he witnessed the 2009 unrest. Likewise, prior to 2009, anti-Iran sanctions activist Trita Parsi hardly even paid lip service to Iranians’ human rights and only after the elections did he decide he would no longer dine with Iran’s Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In reality, however, there has been no substantive difference between the Islamic Republic pre-2009 and post-2009. Evin Prison might be full now, but it was not empty in the 1980s, 1990s, or 2000s. While many liberals and progressives mark 2009 as the turning point in their assessment of Iran, there has been little introspection as to why they were willing until then to give such a repressive government the benefit of the doubt.

The current unrest in Turkey continues the pattern. The protests which have now spread to dozens of Turkish towns and cities have deeper roots than the destruction of a small urban park. Perhaps it’s understandable that so many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey pooh-poohed the erosion of basic freedoms in Turkey; after all, so many used their Turkish connections as golden parachutes after their retirement from the Foreign Service or, perhaps they feel more nobly, as sources to fundraise for various think tanks or academic programs in which they now sit. Others say quite openly—in private—that the need for access or worries about family remaining in Turkey leads them to temper criticism of the AKP. Some Turks self-censor out of fear for their jobs, while others cravenly act as propagandists, providing cover for the Turkish government’s war on the press in exchange for privilege and access.

When political Islamism is added to the mix, too many are willing to dismiss the erosion of liberty in order to stay on the correct side of political correctness. Here, for example, are two Turkey analysts a week before the nationwide protests began lamenting how analysts—with special snark reserved for yours truly—might utilize news of Erdoğan’s war on beer to promote the narrative (which they believed false) that Erdoğan might be trying to impose his social will and Islamize secular Turkey. Since the protests erupted, there has not been subsequent introspection about why they were so anxious to dismiss a repression which so many Turks so clearly felt and which so many now protest against.

It is a tragedy that so many American officials and analysts equate acquiescence to the erosion of liberty with sophistication and prioritize heeling to conventional wisdom with open and honest analysis of data. Too many countries—Iran, Turkey, China, Iraqi Kurdistan and Russia—use access as leverage to temper the criticism of analysts and academics.

When it comes to Iran and Turkey, there is also the bubble factor: Many of those traveling to Tehran remain in relatively cosmopolitan northern Tehran rather than Islamshahr or the Western neighborhoods in which so many Revolutionary Guardsmen live. And when it comes to Turkey, there is nothing more corrosive to good analysis than those congressional delegations or tourists that might visit central Istanbul or Ankara, but never visit Sultanbeyli or Kayseri where few tourists venture but Islamism is on full display.

Let us hope that after Cambodia, Iran, and Turkey, those enjoying Western freedoms will understand how tenuous such freedoms are. Whether motivated by some perverse form of Communism as in Cambodia or by political Islam as in Iran or Turkey, or by some other ideology, it does not take much for politicians to grow impatient with resistance to their ideology or agenda. The Khmer Rouge made no secret of their disdain for democracy, but both Ayatollah Khomeini—in the months before his return to Iran—and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan understood how powerful the rhetoric of democracy could be when trying to achieve the opposite aim and so cultivated a coterie of useful idiots along the way.

Perhaps if there’s any lesson, therefore, the default position for analysts should be skepticism: Analysts of Turkey, Iran, Egypt, or anywhere else should always assume liberty to be under threat unless the governments’ actions prove the opposite. Nor should analysts ever acquiesce to constraints against individual freedoms in the name of religion.

Iran and, alas, Egypt may now be too far gone, but the Turkish Spring provides hope that liberals will fight for their rights. Let us hope that they will have as much support for the cause of liberty as their opponents did when they sought to roll back freedoms.

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Erdoğan Threatens Vigilante Justice

Anger continues to rise in Turkey, where protests now rock more than 80 Turkish towns and cities. Like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before him, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears defiant in the face of the protestors’ demands. At its core, Erdoğan and his supporters justify their actions in the fact that he won 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. In his mind, therefore, he has a popular mandate for anything he does—from meddling in an essentially local matter like the paving over of Gezi Park, to imprisoning opposition parliamentarians, to confiscating newspapers and television stations.

Alas, while fellow analysts like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook argue that Erdoğan is likely to survive the protests (and I largely agree with him), Erdoğan’s own statements suggest the worst may yet be to come. While Erdoğan has pushed less volatile AKP members like President Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan’s radical but more polite deputy Bülent Arınç in front of the cameras in recent days, their attempts to mollify the demonstrators have been overshadowed by Erdoğan’s barely concealed threat that he was “barely holding back the 50 percent” that voted for him from coming onto the street to take on the pro-democracy protestors.

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Anger continues to rise in Turkey, where protests now rock more than 80 Turkish towns and cities. Like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh before him, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan appears defiant in the face of the protestors’ demands. At its core, Erdoğan and his supporters justify their actions in the fact that he won 50 percent of the vote in the last elections. In his mind, therefore, he has a popular mandate for anything he does—from meddling in an essentially local matter like the paving over of Gezi Park, to imprisoning opposition parliamentarians, to confiscating newspapers and television stations.

Alas, while fellow analysts like the Council on Foreign Relations’ Steven Cook argue that Erdoğan is likely to survive the protests (and I largely agree with him), Erdoğan’s own statements suggest the worst may yet be to come. While Erdoğan has pushed less volatile AKP members like President Abdullah Gül and Erdoğan’s radical but more polite deputy Bülent Arınç in front of the cameras in recent days, their attempts to mollify the demonstrators have been overshadowed by Erdoğan’s barely concealed threat that he was “barely holding back the 50 percent” that voted for him from coming onto the street to take on the pro-democracy protestors.

Indeed, it appears that some AKP members are already taking to the streets to confront violently those protestors who seek a more liberal and/or secular Turkey. After videos emerged in Izmir of police grabbing and handing protestors to others dressed in civilian clothes that would proceed to beat them, the governor of Izmir explained that the videotaped civilians were actually undercover police, but they had simply forgotten to bring their “police” vests which they are supposed to wear in such cases. Such an explanation does not seem credible, however, since those beating the demonstrators were not using batons, but crude wooden sticks, and many of them wielding the sticks and pipes against the protestors seemed to be no more than 16 or 17 years old. One of the so-called undercover police was further identified as a member of an AKP youth wing who had recently been ousted after tweeting, “One day we will bring down Ataturk’s Tomb, inshallah.”

Two years ago Cengiz Çandar, a pro-AKP journalist known to carry water for Erdoğan, criticized me harshly for referring to “Erdoğan’s Brownshirts,” and declared, “Freedom of speech is part of the daily routine in Turkey. Western attacks on the Turkish government smack of a dubious agenda.” Mr. Çandar, if you doubt Erdoğan’s Brownshirts exist, perhaps it’s time to hop out of the government car and turn on the television. In any dictatorship, there are—unfortunately—no shortage of journalists who will protect rulers who in turn privilege them.

Fortunately, such journalists often keep one finger to the wind to make sure they can ingratiate themselves. Çandar today is comparing the Taksim protestors to a “velvet revolution.” Let us hope that as the edifice of fear crumbles, other journalists will also prioritize truth over privilege. Not only will the Turkish people be better off, but so too will be the state of Turkish journalism.

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Turkish Spring Update: Erdoğan Doubles Down

One of the more interesting things about the Arab Spring protests in Egypt was that the protestors did not initially seek Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster: Rather, their chief demand was for Mubarak to fire the interior minister. It was only Mubarak’s ham-fisted response that caused both the crowds and their demands to grow.

Likewise, the protests in Taksim Square started small: Locals opposed the government’s desire to cut down a small park to erect a shopping center; after all, central Istanbul already lacks green space. As often occurs in Turkey, the government failed to solicit local opinion regarding its proposed redevelopment. That the prime minister had become so involved in a local building project also raised eyebrows, where such micromanagement is usually a sign of financial interest. (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased his wealth exponentially in ways that salary does not account for since he took office; his explanation that his new wealth came from wedding gifts paid to his son is risible.) The character of the protests changed, however, when the Turkish police attacked protesters with considerable violence, not only using excessive tear gas and water cannons on non-violent protestors, but wounding students, journalists, and even parliamentarians. What was a local protest quickly became national, with crowds gathering in Ankara and government thugs attacking protestors elsewhere. Erdoğan’s pronouncements that the protestors were marginal characters only added to popular outrage.

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One of the more interesting things about the Arab Spring protests in Egypt was that the protestors did not initially seek Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster: Rather, their chief demand was for Mubarak to fire the interior minister. It was only Mubarak’s ham-fisted response that caused both the crowds and their demands to grow.

Likewise, the protests in Taksim Square started small: Locals opposed the government’s desire to cut down a small park to erect a shopping center; after all, central Istanbul already lacks green space. As often occurs in Turkey, the government failed to solicit local opinion regarding its proposed redevelopment. That the prime minister had become so involved in a local building project also raised eyebrows, where such micromanagement is usually a sign of financial interest. (Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has increased his wealth exponentially in ways that salary does not account for since he took office; his explanation that his new wealth came from wedding gifts paid to his son is risible.) The character of the protests changed, however, when the Turkish police attacked protesters with considerable violence, not only using excessive tear gas and water cannons on non-violent protestors, but wounding students, journalists, and even parliamentarians. What was a local protest quickly became national, with crowds gathering in Ankara and government thugs attacking protestors elsewhere. Erdoğan’s pronouncements that the protestors were marginal characters only added to popular outrage.

While Erdoğan eventually had Turkish forces withdraw, like Mubarak he appears not to have learned the right lessons. Erdoğan has officially backed down from the mall project. So what to replace it? A mosque. Now that Erdoğan has banned alcohol sales within 100 meters of any mosque, it appears as if he is preparing to build mosques every 200 meters. His announcement is the equivalent of sticking up his middle finger at Istanbul’s secularists and liberals.

He also appears prepared to turn his animus toward Twitter, branding the communications tool “a troublemaker.” It may seem illogical to the American audience that Erdoğan could try to crack down on Twitter, but he may believe he has President Obama’s backing. After all, when Erdoğan visited Washington, Obama welcomed him with an op-ed not just in any Turkish paper, but in Sabah—a once-opposition paper that Erdoğan seized and handed to his son-in-law. And, as Obama stood beside Erdoğan in the White House “Rose Garden,” the Turkish prime minister’s henchmen were at it again, seizing more opposition media.

Erdoğan is arrogant, crude, and—at heart—an autocrat. He may believe himself invincible. If he is not careful and if he does not begin to respect the rule-of-law and recognize that he is accountable to the Turkish people, he might find himself going the way of Mubarak, Tunisian President Ben Ali, or Yemeni President Saleh.

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AKP Official: Annihilate Atheists

I’ve been traveling quite a bit and so this initially escaped my attention, but it does shed some light on why the Turks in Taksim Square are increasingly worried about intolerance and the increasingly open religious agenda of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, best known by its Turkish acronym, AKP.

Mahmut Macit, an AKP official in Ankara, raised hackles last week when he tweeted: “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” He continued to declare, “Insulting Islam could not be considered freedom of expression.”

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I’ve been traveling quite a bit and so this initially escaped my attention, but it does shed some light on why the Turks in Taksim Square are increasingly worried about intolerance and the increasingly open religious agenda of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party, best known by its Turkish acronym, AKP.

Mahmut Macit, an AKP official in Ankara, raised hackles last week when he tweeted: “My blood boils when spineless psychopaths pretending to be atheists swear at my religion. These people, who have been raped, should be annihilated.” He continued to declare, “Insulting Islam could not be considered freedom of expression.”

This, of course, comes against the backdrop of a tweet by Ahmet Kavas, Turkey’s ambassador to Chad (and a product of one of Turkey’s religious high schools) who declared, “al-Qaeda is not a terrorist organization.” On February 6, 2012, Erdoğan unleashed a furor when he declared, “We want to raise religious generations,” and, indeed, he has also counseled Turkish women about how many children to have and when. A number of earlier statements by Erdoğan from his tenure as Istanbul mayor should have raised eyebrows, for seldom do intolerant men suddenly find tolerance overnight.

All of this, of course, is open source and readily available. Turks may be religious, but many of them—including some in Taksim Square—consider Islam to be a personal choice, not something to be imposed by the government. When Erdoğan, Macit, Erdoğan bagman Egemen Bağış, and other aides counsel restricting free speech to avoid insult to religion, they are in practice seeking to muzzle criticism not of religion, but of their own politicized interpretation of it.

How disappointing it must have been for the Turkish liberals who today stand watch in Taksim that just last month, President Obama stood side-by-side Erdoğan, joking once again about how he solicited Erdoğan’s advice about how to raise teenage daughters, while keeping the erosion of their own human rights off the table.

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Turkey-PKK Peace Will Fail

On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:

And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.

Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.

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On March 21, 2013, the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan released a letter to his supporters in the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) calling on them to lay down their arms, and for PKK fighters to withdraw to Iraq. The first group of PKK fighters has now heeded his call, and other groups are on the way. At President Obama’s joint press conference last week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Obama praised the Turkish-Kurdish peace process:

And I want to take this opportunity to commend you and the Turkish people for your courage in seeking an historic and peaceful resolution of the PKK violence that has plagued Turkey for so long. And just as the United States has stood with you in your long search for security, we will support efforts in Turkey to uphold the rule of law and good governance and human rights for all.

Obama may be optimistic, but if the Turks believe that PKK withdrawal was the end-all and be-all of any peace process, they are sorely mistaken.

Over the past two weeks, I have had the opportunity to speak to a number of officials close to the PKK in both Brussels and some from the region who are visiting Washington, D.C. For many years, I had avoided contact with the PKK but, because the Turks now talk openly to the group and have thus legitimized them as the indispensable partner, it seems silly that American officials would also not engage with them, even if I have reservations about their internal organization and past activities. At any rate, all my interlocutors emphasize that Öcalan seeks not territorial readjustments or outright Kurdish secession from Turkey, but rather they expect to be equal partners inside a reformed Turkish state.

What would this mean in practice? Over the nearly 30 years of conflict, two Turkish institutions in particular have targeted the PKK and their sympathizers: The Turkish General Staff and the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. The questions Kurds and Turks must ask is whether the Turkish government is willing to enable PKK supporters to serve in decision-making capacities in both the Turkish military and MIT. If the answer to that is no, then the Turkish government is effectively asking the PKK to lay down its arms in exchange for no substantive reforms. After all, the Kurdish fight has not been simply to listen to Kurdish music on the radio or learn Kurdish in schools, but has been a battle for functional autonomy. And for those Turks who would say that the PKK are criminals—and do not represent Turkey’s Kurds—that may once have been plausible, but since Erdoğan has put the imprisoned Öcalan on a pedestal, he has made the PKK leader the pivotal man.

Whether the talks succeed or, more likely, fail, Öcalan is now the undisputed leader of Turkey’s Kurds. The reaction of his followers to the fact that Erdoğan is unwilling to implement all but the most superficial reconciliation will probably neither be non-violent nor limited to the traditional Kurdish cities of Diyarbakir, Van, or Urfa. Erdoğan may soon discover that the price of insincere talks is quite high indeed.

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As Obama Fetes Erdoğan, Turkey Seizes Opposition Press

While the scandal surrounding the government seizure of Associated Press records continues to percolate in Washington, such state intrusion on the press would seem positively mild inside Turkey where, today, most journalists assume they are being tapped. It is near impossible to talk politics with Turkish journalists before everyone at the table first takes batteries out of their cell phones. The judiciary has been tapped, as have newspapers.

Erdoğan has stacked previously apolitical bodies with his own party hacks, and transformed technocratic institutions to wield against the press. He has had them, for example, levy fines of billions of dollars to silence some outfits, and seized and sold at auction another. The sole bidder (after others dropped out because of political pressure)? Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Ironically, it was Sabah—the once-opposition paper confiscated by Erdoğan and given to his son-in-law—that President Obama chose to contribute a glowing op-ed to on the occasion of Erdoğan’s visit to Turkey.

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While the scandal surrounding the government seizure of Associated Press records continues to percolate in Washington, such state intrusion on the press would seem positively mild inside Turkey where, today, most journalists assume they are being tapped. It is near impossible to talk politics with Turkish journalists before everyone at the table first takes batteries out of their cell phones. The judiciary has been tapped, as have newspapers.

Erdoğan has stacked previously apolitical bodies with his own party hacks, and transformed technocratic institutions to wield against the press. He has had them, for example, levy fines of billions of dollars to silence some outfits, and seized and sold at auction another. The sole bidder (after others dropped out because of political pressure)? Erdoğan’s son-in-law. Ironically, it was Sabah—the once-opposition paper confiscated by Erdoğan and given to his son-in-law—that President Obama chose to contribute a glowing op-ed to on the occasion of Erdoğan’s visit to Turkey.

Now, against the backdrop of Obama’s glowing endorsement comes word that a financial body solely consisting of Erdoğan’s appointees has seized one of the last conglomerates which owns independent newspapers and television.

I have a bridge over the Bosphorus to sell anyone who still believes that the reforms that Erdoğan has implemented will push Turkey closer to democracy. Erdoğan cares little about democracy; he wishes domination, personal enrichment, and a complete transformation of Turkish society that is impossible to achieve if anyone can ask questions or expose his actions. That he uses a state visit to the United States as cover for his actions is truly shameful.

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Erdoğan to Bring Father of Flotilla Participant to White House

On Tuesday, I posted here about how Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was being two-faced in his dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu after the latter’s apology for the loss of life in the raid on the Mavi Marmara. The reason for the apology—part of a deal brokered by President Obama—was to allow Turkey and Israel to reconcile and renew their partnership.

Turkey appears to have violated that deal by seeking referral of the case to the International Criminal Court, litigation which Obama and Netanyahu understood Erdoğan would not support once he had his apology. Just as Erdoğan sought plausible deniability when he first invited Hamas to Ankara, telling Western officials that the invitation came from his political party (AKP) and not from the state, so too does the referral to the ICC come from a familiar proxy: a law firm where one principal has been a long-time AKP party activist and the other has been intimately involved in the IHH, the pro-Hamas organization that sponsored the Mavi Marmara. The proxy issue goes farther, of course, as the AKP had provided the ship to the IHH in the first place.  

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On Tuesday, I posted here about how Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was being two-faced in his dealings with Benjamin Netanyahu after the latter’s apology for the loss of life in the raid on the Mavi Marmara. The reason for the apology—part of a deal brokered by President Obama—was to allow Turkey and Israel to reconcile and renew their partnership.

Turkey appears to have violated that deal by seeking referral of the case to the International Criminal Court, litigation which Obama and Netanyahu understood Erdoğan would not support once he had his apology. Just as Erdoğan sought plausible deniability when he first invited Hamas to Ankara, telling Western officials that the invitation came from his political party (AKP) and not from the state, so too does the referral to the ICC come from a familiar proxy: a law firm where one principal has been a long-time AKP party activist and the other has been intimately involved in the IHH, the pro-Hamas organization that sponsored the Mavi Marmara. The proxy issue goes farther, of course, as the AKP had provided the ship to the IHH in the first place.  

Anyone who believes that Erdoğan seeks to bury that hatchet more than rub salt into the wounds of the last two years needs only to consider the special guest whom he has had join his delegation. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

The father of a victim of the deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound flotilla in 2010 is accompanying Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his US visit that kicked off on May 15… [Ahmet] Doğan said that he had written a letter to Obama requesting a meeting but Erdoğan had asked him to join the delegation. “I met with [Erdoğan] in Ankara before his departure to Washington. He said that he could give the letter to the U.S. President but that it would be better if I gave it him in person. So he asked me to join the delegation,” Doğan said….

It is actually quite amazing: Erdoğan has endorsed an Al Qaeda financier, embraced not only Hamas but the most militant faction within that terrorist organization, defended the Sudanese leader against charges of genocide, and has been the largest leak in multilateral efforts to sanction Iran. And yet, Obama will not only welcome him to the White House with the highest honors, but help fulfill the Turkish premier’s blatant desire to use the White House as the backdrop to follow through on  his pledge to bash Israel at every opportunity.

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Fethullah Gulen: Islamize or War

On March 21, 2013, after years of armed struggle, Abdullah Öcalan—Turkey’s imprisoned Kurdish leader—accepted a peace deal proffered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Erdoğan will claim credit for winning an agreement to have PKK fighters withdraw, the life expectancy of the deal remains in question because Erdoğan seems unwilling to implement the confederation which Turkey’s Kurds and Öcalan’s followers demand. Such a confederation would not only require political reorganization, but would also demand fundamental reform of Turkey’s arm forces and security services to enable Kurds to serve in the bodies which once oppressed them.

So what is Turkey’s motive for pushing a peace process which the Turkish leadership is not willing to see to the end? In my Kurdistan Tribune column, I cynically suggested two theories: First was Erdoğan’s desire to win the Kurdish vote for any constitutional referendum that could propel Erdoğan into a revamped presidency, offering him even greater powers. And the second was a desire to win the 2020 Summer Olympics, the award of which to Turkey could personally net Erdoğan’s family hundreds of millions of dollars since, regardless of what debt hosting the Olympics might incur to the Turkish people, seldom is there a large project which Erdoğan cannot direct to Çalik Holdings, a company run by his son-in-law.

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On March 21, 2013, after years of armed struggle, Abdullah Öcalan—Turkey’s imprisoned Kurdish leader—accepted a peace deal proffered by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While Erdoğan will claim credit for winning an agreement to have PKK fighters withdraw, the life expectancy of the deal remains in question because Erdoğan seems unwilling to implement the confederation which Turkey’s Kurds and Öcalan’s followers demand. Such a confederation would not only require political reorganization, but would also demand fundamental reform of Turkey’s arm forces and security services to enable Kurds to serve in the bodies which once oppressed them.

So what is Turkey’s motive for pushing a peace process which the Turkish leadership is not willing to see to the end? In my Kurdistan Tribune column, I cynically suggested two theories: First was Erdoğan’s desire to win the Kurdish vote for any constitutional referendum that could propel Erdoğan into a revamped presidency, offering him even greater powers. And the second was a desire to win the 2020 Summer Olympics, the award of which to Turkey could personally net Erdoğan’s family hundreds of millions of dollars since, regardless of what debt hosting the Olympics might incur to the Turkish people, seldom is there a large project which Erdoğan cannot direct to Çalik Holdings, a company run by his son-in-law.

In a recent speech, Fethullah Gülen, the controversial Turkish religious thinker in self-imposed exile in the United States, has suggested a third goal. According to Hürriyet Daily News:

Gülen has spoken out on the peace process, calling on everyone to “find religion as the common ground…” Gülen said groups should unite over what they hold in common, “our God, our prophet, our religion,” warning people against ignoring these common points, which would lead them to “disunity.”

That sounds good but, in effect, Gülen is arguing Kurds—who tend to prioritize ethnic identity over religious identity—should embrace more Islamist thinking in order to find commonality with their oppressors. It is worth noting where we have heard such thinking before: In 1971, after the Pakistani Army lost Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), the Pakistani military and President Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto sought consciously to promote religion as the identity which would unite all Pakistanis regardless of ethnic group. (Pakistan had been formed as a state for the Muslims but, in practice, ethnic identity remained as important if not more so among the Pashtun, Baluchi, and Bengalis). The result was a deliberate—and largely successful—attempt to radicalize the population.

Pakistan is a mess today largely because the Pakistani military and its component, the Inter-Services Intelligence–implemented Bhutto’s vision. It got worse: After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Pakistan was able to leverage its position as the only point of egress for the West into Afghanistan as a way to exclusively support the so-called Peshawar Seven, in effect transforming Pakistan’s religious obsession into their far more liberal neighbor, forever changing that land as well.

Make no mistake: It is long past time for Turkey to make peace with the Kurds. Let us hope that Turkey does not believe that the path to peace lies in promoting religious identity over righting historical wrongs.

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Play with Terrorism; Get Burned

There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

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There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.

Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.

Turkey may very well be the latest country to figure out that channeling al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers has a very high price at home. A car bomb in a Turkish border town has killed upwards of 40 people. While the Turks may point the finger at forces aligned with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad—a charge the Syrians deny—some Turks suggest that the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, a group which some in the Turkish government have supported, may be responsible and might have conducted the attack to try to frame Assad and goad the Turks into greater involvement. A gag order issued by a court in Hatay forbidding many journalists from reporting regarding alleged—though unconfirmed—Nusra Front claims of responsibility has exacerbated the rumors.

While the Turks will attribute responsibility to whichever group most merits Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s animus of the moment, beyond the speedy accusations lurk three major suspects:

1)      The Nusra Front: The bomb was—despite Turkish denials—the work of the Nusra Front. This suggests that the devil’s bargain the Turks made, in which the Nusra Front would limit its attacks to Kurds and other enemies of the Turkish government, has broken down.

2)      The Syrian Regime: The same blowback theory, alas, also applies to the Syrian regime which up to just a couple years was courted and supported by Ankara. Indeed, Erdogan’s government supported Syria against Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution, and Erdogan famously invited the Assads to vacation with him along the Turkish Mediterranean coast.

3)      Internal radicals: The most recent reports suggest that the suspects rounded up by Turkish security forces are actually Turkish citizens, not Syrian refugees. Such a scenario suggests that the internal rot in our NATO ally is deeper than many American policymakers realize, both in terms of Turkey’s growing radicalism and in the weakness and incompetence of the Turkish security service in the wake Prime Minister Erdogan’s repeated purges.

Make no mistake: The terrorists targeting civilians are fully to blame; terrorism is never acceptable, no if’s, and’s, or but’s. Perhaps, however, the Turkish government will reconsider its approach to counterterrorism, in which it now condemns all terrorism except that conducted for causes to which the prime minister is sympathetic. Every country engaging in such à la carte terror support sooner rather than later discovers that what goes around, comes around.

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Turkey Augments Iran Trade

It’s hard to believe that anyone—outside the White House—takes President Obama seriously anymore. It’s crystal clear that foreign leaders think that the U.S. president is a paper tiger. Enemies calculate that the former senator leading a team of former senators is heavy on rhetoric but light on action. And friends, too, understand that at best Obama is a nice prop around which to take a photo, but when push comes to shove they need not listen to him.

Put aside Obama’s willful abandonment of his Syria chemical weapons red line, an “I told you so moment” for hardliners from Pyongyang to Tehran to Caracas and perhaps Buenos Aires, who are likely now chastising any handwringing moderates who worried what crossing Washington might have cost. Friends, too, are getting in on the game. In just a couple weeks, Obama will be hosting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House, never mind that Erdoğan snubbed the U.S. request that he cancel a planned trip to the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders, a group which Erdoğan has long supported.

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It’s hard to believe that anyone—outside the White House—takes President Obama seriously anymore. It’s crystal clear that foreign leaders think that the U.S. president is a paper tiger. Enemies calculate that the former senator leading a team of former senators is heavy on rhetoric but light on action. And friends, too, understand that at best Obama is a nice prop around which to take a photo, but when push comes to shove they need not listen to him.

Put aside Obama’s willful abandonment of his Syria chemical weapons red line, an “I told you so moment” for hardliners from Pyongyang to Tehran to Caracas and perhaps Buenos Aires, who are likely now chastising any handwringing moderates who worried what crossing Washington might have cost. Friends, too, are getting in on the game. In just a couple weeks, Obama will be hosting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the White House, never mind that Erdoğan snubbed the U.S. request that he cancel a planned trip to the Gaza Strip to meet with Hamas leaders, a group which Erdoğan has long supported.

Key to Obama’s strategy on Iran is to simultaneously reach out to Iran and sanction the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, never mind that the most effective sanctions for which Obama now takes credit were passed against his objection. Turkey has long been the biggest leak in the sanctions regime, helping Iran bypass restrictions by exchanging gold (and ships) for oil. Despite this, Obama has consistently issued Turkey waivers, despite the fact that such waivers are only meant for governments making good-faith efforts to extricate themselves from dependence on Iranian crude.

While Turkish gold transfers to Iran declined slightly in January—something to which proponents in the White House of business-as-usual could point—the latest reports from Turkey suggest that the gold trade is again thriving. Reports Hürriyet Daily News:

Turkey’s gold exports Iran has rose more than twofold through March during a time its overall gold trade receded, suggesting the two countries’ trade of gold for natural gas has been continuing increasingly after a one-month halt in January. Turkey exported almost $381 million worth of gold to Iran in March, Turkish Statistics Institute (TÜİK) data showed, while the overall Turkish gold exports declined by 15 percent to $467.6 million. The exports to Iran and United Arab Emirates (UAE) have undertaken 92 percent of the country’s overall exports.

Erdoğan is visiting the White House later this month, a visit that Turks interpret as Obama endorsement of Turkey’s policies. Perhaps it is time for Congress to stand up where the White House won’t and offer the Turkish leader some pointed criticism so that he understands just what damage he does to the Middle East with his tacit support for terrorist groups and Iranian proliferation. Obama may shirk his responsibility to restore American credibility, but that is no reason for Marco Rubio, Rand Paul, Hillary Clinton, and other potential candidates for president in 2016 to do so.

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What is the Kerry Doctrine?

The record of any senator—be they Democratic or Republican—is often at contradiction with itself for a number of reasons: The sheer number of votes cast; the bundling of unrelated issues into a single bill; and the tendency of senators to vote more upon poll numbers than principle. John Kerry typified this in his 2004 presidential run when he explained he was for the Iraq war before he was against it.

As secretary of state, Kerry may already be defining his legacy. Alas, it appears to prioritize the superficial over the substantive. His early travels—which come despite demands for better management back home—suggests Kerry wants to set the record for secretarial travel, rather than craft–let alone preside over–a coherent strategy.

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The record of any senator—be they Democratic or Republican—is often at contradiction with itself for a number of reasons: The sheer number of votes cast; the bundling of unrelated issues into a single bill; and the tendency of senators to vote more upon poll numbers than principle. John Kerry typified this in his 2004 presidential run when he explained he was for the Iraq war before he was against it.

As secretary of state, Kerry may already be defining his legacy. Alas, it appears to prioritize the superficial over the substantive. His early travels—which come despite demands for better management back home—suggests Kerry wants to set the record for secretarial travel, rather than craft–let alone preside over–a coherent strategy.

Now, there are signs that when confronted with a diplomatic problem, Kerry would rather sweep it under the rug to preserve the optics of success, rather than tackling the substance of the problem. Hence, the “compromise” in which Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will delay his visit to the Gaza Strip until after he meets with President Obama at the White House on May 9.

“Erdoğan’s statement came a few days after he met U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Istanbul. Kerry advised the Turkish side to reconsider the timing of the prime minister’s planned visit to Gaza,” Hürriyet Daily News reported.

Erdoğan does not support the Palestinian Authority per se, but rather is a partisan of Hamas. While many U.S. diplomats are prone to describing Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as a moderate Muslim movement, the fact remains that the AKP and Hamas share the same Muslim Brotherhood roots. U.S. policy opposes bolstering Hamas, as Hamas’s rejectionism not only surpasses that of the Palestinian Authority, but also because Hamas refuses to recognize any of the diplomatic agreements with Israel which the Palestinian Authority have already signed. Erdoğan, however, seeks not peace but populism regardless of its impact on regional security.

Kerry—and Obama—might have told Erdoğan to decide whether he wants the meeting with President Obama, or if he wants to tour the Gaza Strip. He shouldn’t get both. Kerry’s compromise, however, is simply to ask Erdoğan to delay his rejectionism by a couple weeks so that the Obama team need not deal with the reality of their partner. So what is the Kerry doctrine? Alas, it appears it is to log as many miles as possible while simultaneously using slight-of-hand to avoid the tough work of diplomacy.

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Don’t Be Fooled by Kurdish Peace Process

Speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Standing beside Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he told a news conference, “We welcome the PKK’s commitment to lay down its arms. We discussed our work to combat terrorism in all its forms … including the violence that has plagued Turkey for three long decades,” he said, adding, “No peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination.”

Kerry would be foolish, however, to believe that Turkey’s current outreach to the PKK is about peace, or permanent reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, two other factors are at play, both of which suggest that political cynicism and greed rather than sincerity are at the root of Turkey’s rush to negotiation with the Kurdish group.

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Speaking in Istanbul on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry praised the peace process between Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Standing beside Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, he told a news conference, “We welcome the PKK’s commitment to lay down its arms. We discussed our work to combat terrorism in all its forms … including the violence that has plagued Turkey for three long decades,” he said, adding, “No peace process is easy. It always takes courage and determination.”

Kerry would be foolish, however, to believe that Turkey’s current outreach to the PKK is about peace, or permanent reconciliation with Turkey’s Kurds. Rather, two other factors are at play, both of which suggest that political cynicism and greed rather than sincerity are at the root of Turkey’s rush to negotiation with the Kurdish group.

The first factor that influences Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s behavior is the 2020 Summer Olympics. The announcement on Nowruz, the traditional Persian and Kurdish New Year’s celebration, came just days before a team from the International Olympic Committee came to survey Istanbul, one of three finalists for the 2020 games. Erdoğan seeks the games not only to propel Turkey—and himself—further onto the world stage but also because the Summer Olympics could provide him with a financial bonanza. Sponsoring the Olympic Games might be a money loser to many countries, but the prime minister has not been shy about directing major development contracts to a firm run by his son-in-law. Erdoğan has gone from being a humble politician with a humble salary to a millionaire, many times over. Explaining away his wealth as the product of gifts presented at his son’s wedding is not convincing. The International Olympic Committee will make its decision in September. Whatever they decide—and Istanbul is likely the frontrunner—as soon as the decision is made, Erdoğan no longer needs to pretend to pursue peace.

The second factor is Erdoğan’s own political future. Erdoğan is currently overseeing efforts to rewrite the constitution and convert Turkey to a presidential system in which the president, rather than the prime minister, will hold sway. This would give Erdoğan perhaps two more terms of perhaps five to seven years each. Erdoğan figures he needs Kurdish support to support a new constitution with a strong presidential system. As soon as the new constitution is approved, however, Turkey’s Kurds again become expendable.

Too often, American officials imagine that peace partners are sincere. Erdoğan has been quite vague about what concessions he will be willing to make to the Kurds, and whether any of the Kurds’ basic aspirations will be met. PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan, for example, seeks federation. That is not likely something Erdoğan could deliver, even if he were so willing. 

Let us hope that Secretary of State John Kerry recognizes that with insincere interlocutors, talk is more about the process than the peace, and often more about the money and personal power than achieving a final settlement. That was certainly the case with Yasir Arafat and it also appears to be the major factor at play with Turkey’s prime minister.

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Where Is Turkey’s Apology?

Whether or not it was wise, we can debate. But it’s hard not to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to Turkey as the diplomatic equivalent of a battered spouse apologizing to the batterer.

Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, tried to ameliorate the bitter taste left by the apology. “As we always said: only true friends apologize to each other,” he tweeted. So, is Turkey a true friend, then? After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month called Zionism “a crime against humanity.” Apologists suggested that Erdoğan’s slander was based on the Turkish understanding of Zionism, and should be seen in that context. Mustafa Akyol, for example, wrote, “Erdoğan is a very Turkish politician. He, in other words, thinks and speaks in very local terms, not international ones. Therefore when he speaks of ‘Zionism,’ what he has in mind is what most Turks have in mind, rather than what Ban Ki-moon, Netanyahu and Kerry have in theirs.” By such logic, of course, any and all incitement is permissible. Ahmadinejad, after all, is just a product of his society. That Erdoğan has systematically moved to crush any editor or journalist that did not parrot his world view has only augmented Turkey’s hatred. Nevertheless, if Turkey is a true friend, as Namik Tan suggests, then perhaps it is time for Erdoğan to apologize for his remarks.

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Whether or not it was wise, we can debate. But it’s hard not to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology to Turkey as the diplomatic equivalent of a battered spouse apologizing to the batterer.

Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States, tried to ameliorate the bitter taste left by the apology. “As we always said: only true friends apologize to each other,” he tweeted. So, is Turkey a true friend, then? After all, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan last month called Zionism “a crime against humanity.” Apologists suggested that Erdoğan’s slander was based on the Turkish understanding of Zionism, and should be seen in that context. Mustafa Akyol, for example, wrote, “Erdoğan is a very Turkish politician. He, in other words, thinks and speaks in very local terms, not international ones. Therefore when he speaks of ‘Zionism,’ what he has in mind is what most Turks have in mind, rather than what Ban Ki-moon, Netanyahu and Kerry have in theirs.” By such logic, of course, any and all incitement is permissible. Ahmadinejad, after all, is just a product of his society. That Erdoğan has systematically moved to crush any editor or journalist that did not parrot his world view has only augmented Turkey’s hatred. Nevertheless, if Turkey is a true friend, as Namik Tan suggests, then perhaps it is time for Erdoğan to apologize for his remarks.

That is only the beginning, however. After the Bulgarian Foreign Minister questioned Turkey’s position on the Mavi Marmara incident, a senior aide to notoriously caustic Erdoğan ally Egemen Bağış suggested the reason why the Bulgarian official had taken such a position was because he had Jewish roots. Would an apology from Mr. Bağış be too much to ask? Perhaps Ahmet Kavas, Namik Tan’s colleague as ambassador, should apologize to France, the United States, and all the victims of 9/11 for embracing al-Qaeda and denying it is a terrorist entity? Of course, no apologies will be forthcoming. That probably reflects the fact that diplomatic smoke-and-mirrors aside, Turkey simply isn’t a good friend.

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Should Bibi Have Said No to Turkey Talk?

Much of the commentary about President Obama’s brokering of a supposed reconciliation between Israel and Turkey has broken down into two categories: those extolling the president’s supposed diplomatic magic and those who have castigated Prime Minister Netanyahu for going along with the charade. I tried to pour some cold water on the former on Sunday when I wrote that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hasty backtracking on the agreement as well as the entire character of his Islamist government rendered the exercise pointless. Michael Rubin, who knows far more about Turkey than almost anybody you can think of who comments about it in the American press, is right to point out how dangerous Erdoğan is and the malevolent nature of his regime.

But I think it’s a mistake to portray Netanyahu’s decision to accede to Obama’s desire for the call as something that will materially harm Israel’s security, as some on the right have asserted. The apology over the Mavi Marmara incident is being portrayed in some quarters as a dangerous dereliction of duty on Netanyahu’s part that potentially opens up Israel’s armed forces to future legal attacks, as well as a sign that the prime minister is acquiescing to banana republic status with respect to the United States. While I share the cynicism about Turkey’s goals and Obama’s naïveté, Netanyahu doesn’t deserve the abuse he’s taking on this issue.

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Much of the commentary about President Obama’s brokering of a supposed reconciliation between Israel and Turkey has broken down into two categories: those extolling the president’s supposed diplomatic magic and those who have castigated Prime Minister Netanyahu for going along with the charade. I tried to pour some cold water on the former on Sunday when I wrote that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan’s hasty backtracking on the agreement as well as the entire character of his Islamist government rendered the exercise pointless. Michael Rubin, who knows far more about Turkey than almost anybody you can think of who comments about it in the American press, is right to point out how dangerous Erdoğan is and the malevolent nature of his regime.

But I think it’s a mistake to portray Netanyahu’s decision to accede to Obama’s desire for the call as something that will materially harm Israel’s security, as some on the right have asserted. The apology over the Mavi Marmara incident is being portrayed in some quarters as a dangerous dereliction of duty on Netanyahu’s part that potentially opens up Israel’s armed forces to future legal attacks, as well as a sign that the prime minister is acquiescing to banana republic status with respect to the United States. While I share the cynicism about Turkey’s goals and Obama’s naïveté, Netanyahu doesn’t deserve the abuse he’s taking on this issue.

As much as I share the sentiments of those who would prefer that Israel tell Erdoğan to stuff it, Netanyahu’s decision was not a craven collapse or merely the function of unconscionable pressure by Obama.

Israel had, after all, made several previous attempts to put the Mavi Marmara dust-up in the past. It’s not clear that the “apology” delivered last week went any further than previous expressions of Israeli regret. Nor was there anything new about offers to compensate families of those Turks killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the ship.

It bears repeating that Israel was in the right in defending the blockade of Gaza and that the Turkish supporters of Hamas who, with the connivance of their government, were staging this provocation were doing nothing to help the people of Gaza or advance the cause of peace. But that does not mean that Netanyahu was wrong to admit that the operation was “botched” or that his government was sorry that civilians, no matter how wrongheaded or malevolent their motives might have been, were killed. When Netanyahu ordered the seizure of the ship he did not intend for any of its passengers or crew to be killed, even if they did violently resist. There is a difference between asserting that Israel had every right to stop the ship and saying that the seizure went as planned, since it obviously did not.

The fears that this admission will open up Israel to lawsuits in international courts or undermine its right of self-defense are similarly mistaken. Israel was already under siege in such forums and Netanyahu’s limited measure won’t advance or retard any efforts to turn it into a pariah.

Nor did the phone call transform Netanyahu from a thorn in Obama’s side to the status of a client state lickspittle, as some of his critics would have it.

The phone call took place in the context of a state visit in which Obama went farther than any of his predecessors in making the case for Zionism and Jewish rights. As much as it is difficult for some of his critics to admit it, after years of acting as if he cared nothing for Israel, it was Obama who gave ground last week, not Netanyahu.

Obama virtually endorsed Netanyahu’s demands that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state and, in a major shift in U.S. policy from that of the previous four years, peace negotiations must come with no preconditions. No less a conservative critic of Obama than scholar Daniel Pipes noted that this “broke new ground and cannot be readily undone.” While many who have rightly assailed the president for his policies toward Israel during his first term focused on his foolish embrace of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and his call for Israeli youth to pressure their government to make peace, those empty words pale in significance when compared to Obama’s other comments while in Israel.

If, in exchange for these unexpected and important concessions on Obama’s part, Netanyahu had to suffer through a phone call with the likes of Erdoğan, that seems a paltry price to pay.

This sort of thing grates on the sensibilities of some Israelis who resent their nation’s dependence on the United States. Such feelings are understandable, but if some on the right think the country would really be better off on its own, they need to get their heads examined. As much as Israel prides itself on its right to defend itself by itself—an important phrase that was also echoed by Obama last week—that ability is based in no small measure by the strategic alliance with the United States.

Netanyahu has already demonstrated that he is not so intimidated by the need for U.S. support as to allow Obama to force him to give way on issues that were matters of principle or security. Contrary to the claims of some of its critics, Israel has the right to say no to Washington and has done so several times in the past.

But a leader has to be able to distinguish between those requests by its ally that ought to be rejected as dangerous and those which, however misguided, should be accepted for the sake of goodwill. Though I don’t disagree with the concerns being expressed about Turkey—whose efforts to bolster Hamas and to force a unity government on Abbas will undermine the already remote chances for peace—and think Obama deserves to be critiqued for his inexplicable friendship with the Turkish leader, I can’t agree with those who think Netanyahu made a mistake in going along on the Erdoğan call.

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Netanyahu Apology Short-Sighted

Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dampen optimism regarding the restoration of Turkey-Israel ties following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for the botched interception of the Mavi Marmara. Make no mistake, the apology is a disaster. Not only will it not lead to a revival of Israel-Turkey ties, but it will—in the long run—make them worse. Netanyahu has affirmed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy. Wishful thinking—be it Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza or Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon—does not bring peace so long as enemies believe that terrorism or, in Erdoğan’s case, its facilitation and his support, has paid dividends.

Erdoğan is a deeply ideological man who, at his core, does not believe Israel should exist. It is a mistake for Turkey-watchers to dismiss Erdoğan’s rants, most recently his description of Zionism as a crime against humanity, as merely posturing for his central Anatolian base. Projection is perhaps the most corrosive mistake in which any analyst can engage. Incitement is not simply a strategy; sometimes, it truly is heartfelt. Just as with Yasir Arafat. And Khaled Meshaal. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Mohammad Khatami. And Kim Jong-un.

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Jonathan Tobin is absolutely right to dampen optimism regarding the restoration of Turkey-Israel ties following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology for the botched interception of the Mavi Marmara. Make no mistake, the apology is a disaster. Not only will it not lead to a revival of Israel-Turkey ties, but it will—in the long run—make them worse. Netanyahu has affirmed Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy. Wishful thinking—be it Ariel Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza or Ehud Barak’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon—does not bring peace so long as enemies believe that terrorism or, in Erdoğan’s case, its facilitation and his support, has paid dividends.

Erdoğan is a deeply ideological man who, at his core, does not believe Israel should exist. It is a mistake for Turkey-watchers to dismiss Erdoğan’s rants, most recently his description of Zionism as a crime against humanity, as merely posturing for his central Anatolian base. Projection is perhaps the most corrosive mistake in which any analyst can engage. Incitement is not simply a strategy; sometimes, it truly is heartfelt. Just as with Yasir Arafat. And Khaled Meshaal. And Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And Mohammad Khatami. And Kim Jong-un.

Erdoğan’s temper-tantrums may make him look like a buffoon in Western eyes, but he is a man deeply consumed by a sense of grievance. This is why he has sued political cartoonists for little more sin than depicting him as a cat tangled in a ball of string. Stacked courts ensure he wins his cases, and bolster his sense of righteousness. Every time he engages in brinkmanship, he finds himself rewarded.

What’s next in Turkey-Israel relations? Certainly not rapprochement. By paying compensation to the families of those killed on the Mavi Marmara, Netanyahu is effectively funding terrorists. The Mavi Marmara had one purpose: supplying Hamas. After all, the health of Gazans is generally better than that of Turks. The Turkish press is arguing that the lifting of the Gaza blockade—irrespective of Hamas’ actions—is now looming.

What’s Erdoğan’s next step? He has announced that he will soon go to Gaza during which trip he will renew his calls for lifting the blockade and enjoy Hamas treating him like a conquering hero. Already, the Palestinian Authority is nervous over how Erdoğan might bolster its terrorist brethren. Make no mistake: It’s not just Obama to blame for what comes next. Netanyahu could always have said no.

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