Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkey

Why Do States Choose to Kill Dissidents in Paris?

Over the past couple days, I have been in Brussels to attend and speak at a conference addressing the challenges Turkey and the Kurds pose to the European Union. One speaker, French lawyer Antoine Comte, provided an update into the investigation concerning the murders almost two years ago of Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as Kurdish activists Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, shot dead in their office in Paris. He noted the long history of political assassinations in Paris. In 1965, Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris, allegedly killed by the Moroccan security services. And a few years later, Chadian dictator François Tombalbaye apparently had exiled politician Outel Bono killed in Paris. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the Islamic Republic has assassinated at least 11 dissidents in Paris. Algerian, Syrian, Palestinian, South African, and Basque activists, politicians, and terrorists have all been killed in Paris.

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Over the past couple days, I have been in Brussels to attend and speak at a conference addressing the challenges Turkey and the Kurds pose to the European Union. One speaker, French lawyer Antoine Comte, provided an update into the investigation concerning the murders almost two years ago of Sakine Cansiz, a co-founder of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), as well as Kurdish activists Fidan Doğan and Leyla Söylemez, shot dead in their office in Paris. He noted the long history of political assassinations in Paris. In 1965, Moroccan dissident Mehdi Ben Barka disappeared in Paris, allegedly killed by the Moroccan security services. And a few years later, Chadian dictator François Tombalbaye apparently had exiled politician Outel Bono killed in Paris. According to the Iran Human Rights Documentation Center, the Islamic Republic has assassinated at least 11 dissidents in Paris. Algerian, Syrian, Palestinian, South African, and Basque activists, politicians, and terrorists have all been killed in Paris.

Back to Cansiz, Doğan, and Söylemez: At the time, I speculated the Iran might have been responsible. The preponderance of evidence which has emerged since the murders, however, makes it pretty clear I was wrong, and that Turkey’s security service was to blame. The most damning evidence is a leaked, ten-minute conversation in which the alleged assassin discusses the mission and targets with members of the Milli İstihbarat Teşkilatı (MIT), Turkey’s intelligence service. In addition, a leaked MIT document (consistent with MIT paper stock including watermarks) corroborates those who allege MIT complicity. The French daily Le Monde summarizes the allegations.

The French government, however, has gone silent on its investigation and the French Interior Ministry appears to be stopping its investigation so as not to antagonize the Turkish government. After all, should Paris pursue an investigation that might antagonize Ankara, contracts could be at risk. Alas, with France, the same story repeats.

And it will keep repeating—with Paris being ground zero for murders of dissidents and political opposition—until the French government recognizes that putting its own commercial interests above the rule of law makes it not a dream destination for honeymooners but rather a playground for regimes seeking to quiet their oppositions. Rather than deep-six the investigation into the three Kurdish activists, it is long past time for the French government to pursue the investigation quickly and publicly, wherever it may lead and whomever it might implicate.

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

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Is the United States complicit with the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daash)? The answer to that question is, of course, no, even though the accusation that the United States created ISIS is a staple of both Iranian and Russian propaganda. Frankly, responsibility for the rise of ISIS rests on Turkey, which may have supplied it directly and which knowingly served as a transit hub for jihadists going to and from the Islamic State; Qatar and Saudi Arabia which for so long have funded the religious radicalism which provides the basis of ISIS; and perhaps Syria itself which believed that ISIS’s growth would enable the regime to rally ordinary Syrians around Bashar al-Assad, arguably a less-noxious choice, much in the same way that lung cancer is “better” than pancreatic cancer. After all, the Syrian air force for the first years of conflict had a monopoly over the skies, but chose not to bomb the ISIS headquarters in Raqqa, preferring instead to slaughter civilians with barrel bombs and chlorine.

That said, through negligence or disinterest, the United States has done much to create a situation which disadvantages ISIS’s foes. Last year, I visited Rojava, the confederation of cantons (of which Kobane is part) which Syrian Kurds have created in northeastern Syria. What the Democratic Union Party (PYD) has accomplished is admirable: Rojava has absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees, Kurdish and Arab, Christian and Muslim. Freedom of religion and gender equality are respected. Beyond Kobane, within Rojava is security: men and women work, and go to the market; and children go to school and play in the streets unmolested.

But not all is well: Earlier today in Brussels, I had the opportunity to hear PYD co-president Salih Muslim speak and chat with him briefly. One point he raised is that Rojava still suffers under a complete embargo: Turkey, Iraq, and Syria all blockade it, and the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq often tries to strong-arm Rojava, making access to Rojava difficult across Iraqi Kurdistan. International aid organizations and the United Nations won’t help because they only work through organizations recognized by states. Hence, the UN channels aid through Turkey and Syria, neither of whom allow their respective Red Crescents or other NGOs to work with Rojava and its NGOs.

The United States need not be constrained by such policies. It has provided some aid to Kurdish fighters battling ISIS, but it could just as easily provide much needed support and relief to Rojava, the only stable and generally functioning region inside Syria. Talk about an easy step to win hearts and minds and promote moderation at the same time. The Rojava social compact—its proto-constitution—also provides a great model for more federated, local government inside the rest of Syria.

It’s hard to reconcile a desire to bring peace, democracy, and stability to Syria with a refusal to recognize and support the progress being made in the only secular, tolerant, and stable portion of the country. Often, American policy seems on autopilot, wedded to policies of the past that were crafted under radically different circumstances. Perhaps it’s time for a fundamental re-think and an embrace of a model that neither privileges the regime nor the Islamic State, but which provides an alternative to both. While the White House and State Department reconsider, however, it is crucial to do what the United Nations will not, and provide food and supplies directly to those who need it most, rather than relying on the good graces of the Turkish government or Syrian regime to take care of Syria’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens.

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Should Assad Stay or Should He Go? Obama Can’t Decide

The good news: the U.S. and Turkey are supposedly making progress on a deal whereby the U.S. would declare a small buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey in return for Ankara allowing U.S. aircraft based in Turkey to bomb ISIS in Syria.

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The good news: the U.S. and Turkey are supposedly making progress on a deal whereby the U.S. would declare a small buffer zone along Syria’s border with Turkey in return for Ankara allowing U.S. aircraft based in Turkey to bomb ISIS in Syria.

The bad news: President Obama won’t agree to a “far more extensive no-fly zone across one-third of northern Syria.” “That idea,” according to the Wall Street Journal, was “a nonstarter for the Obama administration, which told Ankara that something so invasive would constitute an act of war against the Assad regime.”

Would this be the same Assad regime that has killed some 200,000 of its own people? The same one that President Obama has said must leave office? Yup. That would be the one. So why on earth isn’t the U.S. willing to take actions that would constitute an “act of war” against this regime?

According to the Journal, the problem is that: “For the U.S., the risk in creating even a small de facto no-fly zone would be the possibility of a challenge by the Assad regime. The U.S. passed messages to the Assad regime not to contest coalition aircraft at the start of the airstrikes in Syria in September. So far, the regime hasn’t challenged U.S. aircraft, according to U.S. officials.”

It is hard, however, to accept this explanation with a straight face. Is the administration seriously pretending that the air defense network of the Assad regime—similar to that of the Saddam Hussein regime that the U.S. dismantled with virtually no losses on two occasions—would be a difficult, even insurmountable, challenge for the most sophisticated military in the world? Recall that this is the same air-defense network that Israeli aircraft have no trouble spoofing anytime they want to bomb a nuclear installation or Hezbollah arms shipment. Yet we are supposedly not willing to risk action against Assad?

The real explanation, one surmises, is that the Obama administration has quietly changed its policy on Assad without telling anyone: From calling for Assad to go, Obama has now decided that Assad must stay. And why? Part of the explanation is undoubtedly Obama’s desire to strike a deal with Assad’s patrons in Moscow. The other part of the explanation is probably Obama’s fear of the power vacuum that would occur after Assad’s downfall and the possibility that it would be filled by al-Qaeda-style jihadists.

The latter worry, at least, is a legitimate one but it is hardly a reason to allow Assad to go on using his air force to slaughter innocent civilians as well as the fighters of the Free Syrian Army that Obama is counting on to help fight ISIS and the Nusra Front. Yet it is perfectly possible, indeed morally and strategically necessary, to ground Assad’s air force without ousting Assad from power just yet while working feverishly with international powers to try to engineer a postwar settlement in Syria similar to the one in postwar Yugoslavia.

But Obama is doing none of this. Instead he is simply acquiescing in Assad’s continuing mass murder. This is a policy that is worse than immoral. It is stupid.

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Who Will Listen to Pope’s Call on Middle East Christians?

During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

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During his three day visit to Turkey, Pope Francis joined with the Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I to offer some words of solidarity with the Middle East’s fast vanishing Christian communities. The sentiments expressed here were valuable, not least because in their joint statement the two Christian leaders called for “an appropriate response on the part of the international community.” Yet one only has to look at the comments by Turkey’s president Erdogan to see just what they are up against.

The Pope’s comments no doubt went some considerable way toward adding moral clarity to this matter, while President Erdogan—in previous statements—has already been busily muddying the waters. So while on his flight back to Rome the Pope called for Islamic leaders to condemn terrorism and specifically linked the plight of the Middle East’s Christians to the rise of ISIS, Erdogan breathtakingly blamed the rise of ISIS on alleged Islamophobia in the West–a demonstrably absurd claim that was no doubt in part a desperate attempt to divert attention away from Christian suffering and to instead reframe the conversation around Muslim victimhood and the wickedness of the West.

For a sense of just how outlandish the Turkish president’s rhetoric on the subject has now become, in his speech just prior to the pope’s arrival Erdogan stated “Foreigners love oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world. They like the conflicts, fights and quarrels of the Middle East. Believe me, they don’t like us. They look like friends, but they want us dead, they like seeing our children die.” It is worth noting that Turkey’s own Christian population has diminished considerably. A century ago 20 percent of those living in what is now Turkey were Christian; today that figure stands at a pitiful 0.2 percent. The Greek Orthodox population has been whittled down to fewer than 3,000 while what remains of the Armenian Christian community lives in almost constant fear. Just a few years back Hrant Dink–editor of a leading Armenian newspaper—was murdered by Turkish nationalists.

An unrepentant Erdogan can blame an Islamophobic West for the rise of ISIS all he wants, but his country stands accused of allowing ISIS fighters to flow freely into Iraq and Syria where they have carried out the most unspeakable crimes of murder, rape, and torture against the Christian communities that they find in their path. Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of how unacceptable they find the prospect of a Middle East free of its native Christianity. And yet, if no one is willing to intervene seriously in the region, then that is precisely what is going to happen.

Knowing this, one has to wonder why Christian leaders have so far failed to create a serious campaign to pressure Western governments to back serious intervention on humanitarian grounds. After all, in the 1990s the West—led by the United States—intervened in Bosnia to stop the massacre of the Muslim population of the Balkans and thus prevent a genocide on Europe’s doorstep that most of Western Europe appeared ready to sit back and let happen. Shouldn’t Christians now be demanding the same kind of meaningful intervention on their behalf?

Christian groups have in recent years campaigned for all kinds of people and causes all around the world. Perhaps it is in some way an expression of the Christian virtue of selflessness that churches have promoted other causes over the welfare of their own coreligionists in the Middle East. Yet it is particularly striking how the denominations at the liberal end of Protestantism have so enthusiastically taken up the campaign against Israel, while almost ignoring the plight of Christians in the same region. From the American Presbyterians and the British Methodists with their boycotts to the annual “Christ at the Checkpoint” conference, it’s the same story. And then there is the Church of England’s flagship St. James’s church in London which, as Melanie Phillips recounted in COMMENTARY earlier this year, previously marked the Christmas festivities with their “Bethlehem Unwrapped” campaign featuring a nine meter high replica of Israel’s security barrier.

This Christmas can we expect to see “ISIS Unwrapped” at St. James’s? Of course not, just more events about the Palestinians. If these denominations focused even half the energy they put into demonizing Israel into instead campaigning in solidarity with Christians in the Middle East then we might see this issue receiving the kind of public attention it deserves. It was of course the former head of the Anglican Church, Rowan Williams, who insinuated that the West was to blame for provoking the persecution of the Middle East’s Christians. And so while it is encouraging that the Pope has decried what ISIS is doing to Christian communities, one wonders how many Christians in the West will actually be more sympathetic to Erdogan’s claim that the real culprit here is Western Islamophobia for having “made ISIS do it” in the first place.

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Time to Speak Out on Turkey Media Bans

Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on press freedom is now more than a decade old. The story is well-known: Upon taking office, he surreptitiously replaced all the technocrats at Turkey’s banking board with political hacks, all of whom had an Islamic banking background. He then used this board and others to levy exorbitant and arbitrary tax liens sometimes amounting to billions of dollars against his political enemies and any newspaper which reported critically about him.

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Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s crackdown on press freedom is now more than a decade old. The story is well-known: Upon taking office, he surreptitiously replaced all the technocrats at Turkey’s banking board with political hacks, all of whom had an Islamic banking background. He then used this board and others to levy exorbitant and arbitrary tax liens sometimes amounting to billions of dollars against his political enemies and any newspaper which reported critically about him.

While media watchdogs have chronicled Erdoğan’s reign of terror against journalists, famously labeling Turkey the “world’s biggest prison for journalists,” just as important to Erdoğan’s success has been his ability to co-opt journalists. Meeting with veteran Turkish journalists in Istanbul this past summer, most estimated that only five percent of Turkish journalists at most are professional; some within the newer generation of journalists have become multimillionaires simply because they parrot Erdoğan’s line and paint flattering portraits of his sublime wisdom.

Many of the authentic journalists who remain work at the Turkish daily Hürriyet. Certainly, that paper still self-censors and it is also home to some columnists who frequently toe the government line, but it still is willing to push the envelope in a way so many other Turkish outlets will not. One recent bold case was that of reporter Zeynep Gürcanlı who, after Erdoğan’s regime decreed no one should report on the massive corruption scandal involving former ministers and Erdoğan associates, compiled this list of ten topics on which the government has banned Turkish journalists from reporting. Her list is well worth reading.

Hürriyet soon followed suit with this declaration decrying the bans. Several newspapers subsequently issued statements that they would ignore the ban, a bold move which can result in fines, prison, or worse.

Interestingly, one newspaper that has apparently decided to go along with Erdoğan’s ban is Sabah. This does not surprise: That newspaper, once mildly critical of Erdoğan, was seized by the Turkish government and transferred to Erdoğan’s son-in-law. What makes Sabah’s refusal more meaningful, however, is that when President Obama hosted Erdoğan at the White House last year, Obama chose Sabah of all newspapers in order to laud Erdoğan’s Turkey. Its sycophantic behavior to Erdoğan was already well known, as was Hürriyet’s willingness to resist. To be fair to Obama, it is doubtful he personally knew about Sabah’s baggage. But certainly the Turkey desk at the National Security Council did, as would all the Turkey hands at the State Department, at the American Embassy in Ankara, and the American consulate in Istanbul. That the United States has so consistently turned a blind eye to the contraction of rights and freedoms in Turkey is a poor reflection of a litany of U.S. ambassadors in Turkey, with the clear exception of Eric Edelman, who regularly stood up and spoke out in favor of democracy and liberty and was not willing to paper over or rationalize Erdoğan’s abuse of power.

Mistakes happen, but they can be corrected. Once upon the time the White House valued moral clarity. How telling it is that as some Turkish journalists risk life and limb to expose the truth, Obama and so many handling Turkey affairs in the State Department remain as silent publicly on the subjects Turkey bans as Erdoğan’s in-pocket, bought-and-paid-for journalists.

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Obama Should Correct Erdoğan on Women

That Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not only believe but also state openly that he doesn’t believe women to be the equal of men should surprise no one after all these years. While Turkey was once one of the most enlightened majority Muslim populations when it came to women—being one of the first Muslim countries to elect a female prime minister, for example—in recent years, the plight of women has declined precipitously.

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That Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should not only believe but also state openly that he doesn’t believe women to be the equal of men should surprise no one after all these years. While Turkey was once one of the most enlightened majority Muslim populations when it came to women—being one of the first Muslim countries to elect a female prime minister, for example—in recent years, the plight of women has declined precipitously.

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, Turkey now ranks 125th out of 142 countries, in the bottom not only of Europe, but also of Central Asia, and below Russia, Tajikistan, Swaziland, and conservative Muslim societies like Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait.

Erdoğan has flushed women from top levels of the state bureaucracy; in the current cabinet, there is only one female minister. A few years ago, the Prime Minister’s Office of Personnel found no women among the 25 ministry undersecretaries, and only three women among the 85 deputy undersecretaries. Only one woman served among the 254 regional ministry directors. This is no coincidence: women found little support from Erdoğan, who told them they should have at least three babies and ideally more. It was upon this theme that Erdoğan doubled down in his comments yesterday, declaring, “Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women [in society]: Motherhood. Some people can understand this, while others can’t.”

Of course, the most damning statistic which also comes from within the Turkish government is that in the first seven years of Erdoğan’s watch, the murder rate of women in Turkey increased 1,400 percent.

Obama once praised Erdoğan as one of his most trusted international friends. American presidents—with the slight exception of Ronald Reagan—have traditionally been averse to bullhorn diplomacy, that is, using the podium of the Oval Office to lambast adversaries outside the confines of wartime.

But sometimes the most effective thing a president can do is speak with moral clarity from his bully pulpit. Just as Obama’s silence against the backdrop of Iran’s 2009 post-election protests forfeited an important opportunity to define the moral high ground, so too might Obama provide Erdoğan with a teachable moment about bigotry and the contributions women make to societies and have made inside Turkey when treated with equality. Women in Turkey are not willing to take Erdoğan’s slights sitting down; they should know they have support.

It is not only Obama, though, who should speak up and make Erdoğan realize that when he spouts nonsense, others will push back on him. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has had an honorable career. Under her tenure during the Clinton administration, U.S.-Turkey relations arguably reached their tightest. Since leaving government service, she has remained engaged in Turkey. Her word matters, and if she were to stand up and speak out, Turkish officials would notice.

Too many current officials choose to remain silent because they believe principle might get in the way diplomacy. But diplomacy absent principle is often not worth the paper on which it is written. Likewise, former officials bite their lips and remain silent for fear of undercutting business interests or access. That is a short-term approach, however; for if Turkey continues to unravel the progress its women long made and if Erdoğan continues to seek the late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s mantle of craziness, then such opportunities aren’t going to persist.

President Obama once solicited Erdoğan’s advice for raising daughters. Perhaps it’s time Obama returned the favor and offered the Turkish strongman some advice on how to treat women.

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Erdoğan’s Historical Truthiness

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

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Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s declaration that Muslims discovered America, speculation he read in a pamphlet which lacked supporting evidence, tells a lot about the Turkish president’s mind. After all, anyone who has traveled along the book stores of Beirut, or among the book sellers’ stalls in Cairo, will find dozens of similar pamphlets claiming that Islam was actually responsible for everything from the discovery of gravity to the moon landing. And let’s not forget that Shakespeare was really Sheikh Zubayr bin William, a Muslim Arab living in Britain.

Erdoğan, for his part, doubled down on his claim, demanding that his theory now be taught as reality in Turkey’s schools.

While Western officials might shrug and chuckle at Erdoğan’s declaration, it’s important to realize it’s no outlier for the Turkish president. A Turkish interlocutor (evidently paraphrasing this column by Yılmaz Özdil) noted how historians in Turkey have long chafed at Erdoğan’s theories:

In Antalya, Erdoğan explained how “the word Olympics takes its name from a mountain near Antalya, Mt. Olympus.” The mountain is in northern Greece, and nowhere near Antalya.

It’s not just geography that confuses Mr. Erdoğan. When discussing the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 CE, a battle in which the Muslim Seljuqs defeated the larger Byzantine army and captured the Byzantine emperor, Erdoğan declared, “Seljuq soldiers fought with their swords against the iron balls of the Byzantine artillery, raining on their heads.” Artillery and gunpowder didn’t come to the region for another three centuries. Oops.

Then, again, this wasn’t the only time he was publicly confused about the Seljuqs. In one speech, he described Ankara as “the capital of the Seljuqs.” In reality, though, Konya was the Seljuq capital. Ankara, at the time, was little more than a small town or large village.

Fast forward about 500 years, to the reign of the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent. Back in 2011, Erdoğan went on a rant about a popular Turkish serial depicting his life and times, complaining that it concentrated too much on his lavish life in the harem. Erdoğan explained that Suleiman had in reality spent 30 of his 46 years on the throne on horseback, running from battle to battle. During Suleiman’s reign, however, the Ottomans were at war for just ten years, and so were at peace for 36.

He has repeatedly become exacerbated by the constraints of facts. When some historians began using old documents and records, and historical artifacts to research old Istanbul churches, Erdoğan grew annoyed that anyone would record or discuss Istanbul’s pre-Islamic past. He chided, “They don’t know Istanbul’s history. They go around with magnifying glass in their hand like [the Byzantine Emperor] Romanus Diogenes.” He apparently confused Romanus IV with Diogenes of Sinope, a Greek philosopher who lived more than a millennium before, and who went around with a lantern, not a magnifying glass. Philosophers, however, have not been his thing. After all, he once said, “If the Germans have Goethe and if the Spaniards have Socrates….”

Now, it’s perfectly true that other world leaders can occasionally get history wrong. George H.W. Bush once mistakenly commemorated the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day on September 7 rather than December 7. When mistakes happen, however, leaders acknowledge them. President Bush corrected himself; he didn’t order textbooks re-written to make his error the new norm.

Erdoğan may sound foolish, but the importance of his errors extends far beyond himself. Rather, they reflect the future of Turkey. Erdoğan is a product of an İmam Hatip education, the Turkish equivalent of a madrasa. Prior to Erdoğan’s rise, İmam Hatip graduates would primarily become mullahs or perhaps work in family businesses. Their lack of grounding in liberal arts and science disqualified them from most university programs and the government service which might follow. But Erdoğan has bolstered and promoted the İmam Hatips, so that their graduates now dominate Turkey’s bureaucracy. Erdoğan may be no historian, but he has become the rule rather than the exception for the Turkish government he leads. He has ensured that there are thousands if not tens of thousands of protégés marching in lockstep behind him, all of whom treat fact with disdain and embrace mindless revisionism. Welcome to the future of Turkey.

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Training Free Syrians in Turkey Is a Bad Idea

In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

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In 1997, against the backdrop of U.S. diplomatic outreach toward the Taliban, John Holzman, at the time the number two diplomatic official at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan, suggested that the United States encourage engagement between the Taliban and “moderate Islamic states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and perhaps Indonesia.” Egypt and Indonesia were certainly moderate, but to suggest that pre-9/11 Saudi Arabia would be a great venue to encourage Taliban moderation illustrates perfectly both how too many diplomats turn a blind eye to Islamist ideology promoted by allies and also treat engagement and multilateralism as panaceas.

Fast forward 17 years. What Pakistan once represented vis-à-vis the Taliban, today Turkey represents vis-à-vis many of the most extreme factions among the Syrian rebels. President Obama has made the training of “moderate” Syrian rebels a central pillar of his strategy to take on ISIS inside Syria and a way to diminish the need for ground combat forces which he is loath to deploy back to Iraq and Syria.

Let’s put aside the fact that training such forces would take more than a year and that they would be inserted against an ISIS foe which is now battle-hardened and brutal. And let’s also put aside the fact that there haven’t been any serious lessons learned as to why the military training program implemented in Iraq by such military luminaries as David Petraeus and current chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey has proven such an abject failure.

In order to implement their free Syrian training program, President Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Secretary of State John Kerry have apparently decided to work primarily through Turkey:

Military officials from the United States and Turkey have met at the Turkish General Staff’s headquarters in Ankara for a third time to discuss equipping and training moderate Syrian rebels, and agreed on using the Hirfanlı military training center in Kırşehir for the training ground. Officials from both the United States European Command (EUCOM) and the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and high-ranking Turkish military officials agreed on a number of points about the training of Syrian opposition fighters in Turkey. Free Syrian Army (FSA) members, including Syrian Turkmens will be trained at the Hirfanlı gendarmerie training center in Kırşehir, sources told to the Hürriyet Daily News. U.S. officials will also take part in the training. The U.S. will primarily provide weapons and ammunition for the Syrian opposition, with the costs of the training also expected to be provided by Washington.

In other words, the United States will provide the money and the weapons, but defer to their Turkish counterparts the training. So, as Hagel seeks to implement Obama’s plan, he chooses to rely on a country that targets the secular, and promotes the radical. Rather than smother extremism inside Syria, such a plan will fan its flames.

When a similar plan was worked up before the Iraq war, Hungary stepped up to the plate. Whether or not that plan was effective—it was rushed by the time diplomats and lawyers hashed out its modalities—at least the Pentagon recognized that venues with a vested interest in Iraq and those which had a radically different vision from the United States should not be part of such sensitive missions. Training the Free Syrian Army at this point might be more symbolic than effective. But if that’s the path the Obama administration seeks to go down, let us hope that the end result would be better than Holzman’s plan to use Saudi Arabia, Al Qaeda’s original underwriters, to “moderate” the Taliban.

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Protest Against Anti-Semitism in Turkey

Turkey was once one of the most religiously tolerant majority Muslim societies in its attitude toward Jews. The reason wasn’t so much tolerant political culture, but rather a belief that the Jews were a tranquil, loyal minority. After all, Turkish school books taught that while Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs all rose up against the Ottomans, the Jews did not. Hence, Turkey boasted along with Iran either the second or third largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel itself.

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Turkey was once one of the most religiously tolerant majority Muslim societies in its attitude toward Jews. The reason wasn’t so much tolerant political culture, but rather a belief that the Jews were a tranquil, loyal minority. After all, Turkish school books taught that while Greeks, Armenians, and Arabs all rose up against the Ottomans, the Jews did not. Hence, Turkey boasted along with Iran either the second or third largest Jewish community in the Middle East after Israel itself.

In recent years, of course, this has changed. Just as President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan used his consolidation of control over state media to fan the flames of anti-Americanism, so too has he used it to stoke anti-Semitism far beyond the Islamist circles in which he grew and from which he emerged. Jews are now contemplating the end of their millennia-long presence in Anatolia.

Against the backdrop of Hamas’s missile strikes on Israel and the Israeli military response, Samil Tayyar, an AKP member and the head of constitutional commission, tweeted “may your ancestors perish, may your Hitlers be abundant” and, of course, a Turkish shopkeeper made headlines with the sign, “The Jew dogs cannot come in here.” This month has been particularly bad, as vandals attacked one of Istanbul’s most prominent synagogues on the anniversary of Kristallnacht, significant not only for that date but also because it was so close to the 11 anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the synagogue that in a different time and place Turks had condemned.

It’s important to recognize that not all Turks have succumbed to the hateful populism pushed forward by Erdoğan, the Turkish government, and even some members of the Turkish foreign ministry. This past weekend, a handful of Turks held a protest to condemn the anti-Semitism which has flourished inside Turkey. From “The Radical Democrat,” a blog which is also on the forefront of anti-censorship efforts inside Turkey:

In order to protest against the rising anti-Semitism in Turkey and commemorate the horrific events of the past, Say Stop has held a protest meeting with dozens of participants. When activists were gathering in Galatasaray Square in Taksim’s Istiklal, right next to the venue was placed ten times more policemen than activists as usual. The moment banner was opened, interestingly enough some people came to ask questions in English, thinking anyone protesting anti-Semitism would come from abroad and not from within Turkey….

Too often, American and European diplomats find it “sophisticated” to ignore incitement, human rights, and the hateful ideologies promoted by adversaries. Had they held Erdoğan accountable for his statements from the start, Turkey might not have descended to the point it is now. But whether in Iran, Venezuela, Russia, or Turkey, it should never been too late to lend a hand and give a platform to those within their respective countries who at great personal risk to themselves speak out in favor of tolerance, individual liberty, and freedom.

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Turkey: Beware the Jewish Olive Tree!

Because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarianism, Turkey has become quite an inhospitable place to be a religious minority, whether Jewish, Christian, Alevi, or Yezidi. Over the last several years, Turkish militants have murdered or attempted to murder priests in Turkey. Whereas the Turkish government has sought sympathy for the refugee crisis that has resulted from the Islamic State’s rise in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s treatment of refugees differs wildly based on their religion. Simply put, when Turkey distributed humanitarian aid, Yezidis need not apply. And, as for the Alevis—basically a Shi‘ite offshoot sect that accounts for at least one-fifth of Turkey’s population—Erdoğan has refused to recognize their places of worship and deemed their children should be educated only in Sunni doctrine. The Jews are facing unprecedented anti-Semitism to the point where the community has begun to pick up and leave, much as most of the Iranian Jewish community did during and after Iran’s Islamic revolution.

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Because of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s sectarianism, Turkey has become quite an inhospitable place to be a religious minority, whether Jewish, Christian, Alevi, or Yezidi. Over the last several years, Turkish militants have murdered or attempted to murder priests in Turkey. Whereas the Turkish government has sought sympathy for the refugee crisis that has resulted from the Islamic State’s rise in neighboring Syria and Iraq, Turkey’s treatment of refugees differs wildly based on their religion. Simply put, when Turkey distributed humanitarian aid, Yezidis need not apply. And, as for the Alevis—basically a Shi‘ite offshoot sect that accounts for at least one-fifth of Turkey’s population—Erdoğan has refused to recognize their places of worship and deemed their children should be educated only in Sunni doctrine. The Jews are facing unprecedented anti-Semitism to the point where the community has begun to pick up and leave, much as most of the Iranian Jewish community did during and after Iran’s Islamic revolution.

So just how bad has anti-Semitism become inside Turkey? Erdoğan has, of course, been no friend to Turkey’s environmentalist movement. The Gezi Park protests began as an effort to save one of the few remaining green spaces in central Istanbul against government-sponsored development but morphed into a wider opposition movement as a result of Erdoğan’s heavy-handed tactics. Over subsequent months, Erdoğan has accelerated development which has raised the ire of those seeking to protect Turkey’s green spaces. Now, it seems, Erdoğan’s supporters have found a new and creative way to justify the bulldozing of trees. From a Turkish column explaining a whispering campaign promoting the ideas that olive trees are ‘pro-Jewish’ and therefore should be destroyed. A Turkish interlocutor translates the key passage:

Close to the end of the World, a war will break out between the Muslims and Jews which will be won by the Muslims. The Jews will start to run away and hide behind trees. All such trees will yell “There is a Jew hiding behind me come and kill him/her.” Only the olive tree will not give away the Jews. Because the olive is a Jewish tree, that is why Israel is promoting the planting of olive trees.

Therefore, it seems, it is desirable to cut down olive trees. Hence, there should be no complaints as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) destroys thousands if not hundreds of thousands of olive trees in Western Turkey to clear land for mining and industrial development. It’s all meant simply to prepare the world for the end of days and the annihilation of the Jews.

Sure, Mr. Obama. Turkey belongs in Europe. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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Turkish Islamists Train Snipers in Syria

That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

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That Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is hostile toward social media, and harbors special animus for Twitter, is becoming conventional wisdom. But perhaps conventional wisdom is wrong. After all, Erdoğan seems far more concerned with the content of tweets and Facebook posts than he sometimes is with the actual platforms. Case in point is this recent tweet from Ribat Medya, a Turkish Islamist outlet. It shows sniper training on behalf of radical Islamist forces inside Syria, and directs users to this photo essay.

So what to make from this? Firstly, it’s an open secret that Turkey passively if not actively supports radical Islamist factions inside Syria, up to and including ISIS, whose members it has allowed to transit Turkish territory. Secondly, Erdoğan has assumed the power to shut down websites and Twitter feeds without so much as a court order. And yet, sites depicting the training of terrorist snipers inside Syria by Turks remain up. But should an environmentalist condemn the cutting down of trees in an urban park, Erdoğan labels him a terrorist and demands stiff jail terms.

Perhaps it’s time to recognize that for Erdoğan, the problem isn’t Twitter any more than the problem is newspapers or television stations. Rather, the issue is whether or not such technology adheres to Erdoğan’s agenda. And by nature of his silence on these tweets, it is clear once again that Erdoğan does not consider ISIS, Jebhat al-Nusra, or the İnsani Yardım Vakfı to be terrorist groups or feeders, but rather honorable organizations to allow to operate unmolested.

Welcome to the reality of the new Turkey, same as the old Saudi Arabia.

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Turks Again Attack American Sailors

Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

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Two years ago, I wrote about an attack on American sailors at a port call in Turkey. At the time, some in the Pentagon tried to sweep the incident under the rug, all the better to maintain the fiction that Turkey wasn’t as anti-American as it has become. Well, it’s happened again. Just after Veteran’s Day, how sad it is to see a video like this. Turkish protestors have attacked American sailors from the USS Ross which had made a port call inside Turkey. The American sailors did everything right: they had dressed down to be surreptitious, they sought to avoid conflict, and they sought to leave the area when confronted, all to no avail.

It’s time to recognize reality: Turkey may be a NATO member, but it is no ally. And while anti-NATO protests can happen in any NATO member, few members would tolerate violence or the targeting of individual American servicemen. The problem with Turkey, however, is that Turkey’s current regime has long promoted such anti-Americanism, as have other Turkish political parties, like the opposition National Movement Party (MHP) and even the left-leaning secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP). There is an atmosphere of impunity inside Turkey that violence in pursuit of certain causes is acceptable (see my previous posts about the plight of Turkish women, in this regard).

So what should the United States do?

Firstly, it’s well past time the U.S. Navy stop making port calls in Turkey. Port calls are a reward not only for sailors, but also for the countries which host the port call and derive significant financial benefit for doing so. There are many other countries and cities which would bend over backwards to host American sailors. Haifa, in Israel, is one. Various ports in Croatia and Montenegro are another. In recent years, Greece, too, has rolled out the red carpet for American ships.

Secondly, it is counterproductive and embarrassing that American congressmen lend their support to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s regime and agenda by signing up to be part of the Congressional Turkey Caucus. It is time to leave and treat Turkey as the regional pariah it has become, at least in any official capacity.

Thirdly, Erdoğan is fond of demanding apologies. Well, it’s our turn now. Erdoğan should personally apologize for the attacks on American servicemen and offer compensation to a charity of their choice. Let’s put aside the nonsense that the United States “started it” with the hooding of Turkish soldiers in Iraq on July 4, 2003 in Iraqi Kurdistan. As Turkish journalists have quietly pointed out, despite protestations of their innocence, none of those Turks was ever subsequently promoted, and most were quietly retired, as good a sign as any that they truly had gone rogue and were planning to assassinate public officials in Iraqi Kurdistan, as the information passed by Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan indicated.

Lastly, it’s well past time that the United States and other NATO members come up with contingencies for Turkey’s exit from the alliance. NATO is governed by consensus, and so a hostile Turkey—its past contributions notwithstanding—can undercut NATO’s governance and effectiveness. To keep Turkey inside the alliance is to condemn NATO to paralysis and irrelevance.

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How Lobbyists Reflect Countries They Support

In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

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In certain corridors of Washington, in smug discussions in university faculty lounges, and in the fevered conspiracies of the Middle East and Turkey, much is made of the “Israel lobby.” While broadly speaking, figures such as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Harvard Professor Stephen Walt, or former diplomat Chas Freeman use the term broadly in order to suggest dual loyalty on the part of those with whom they disagree in the policy debate, more narrowly, the idea of an Israel lobby usually surrounds the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which operates under the slogan, “America’s pro-Israel lobby.”

But AIPAC is hardly the only lobby in Washington. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC), the de facto lobby of the Islamic Republic of Iran, works tirelessly to reduce sanctions and alleviate pressure on the Iranian regime. Saudi Arabia and Qatar spread money around and successfully tempt many former ambassadors with lucrative golden parachutes. Turkey supports a multitude of organizations such as the American Turkish Council or the Turkish Industry and Business Association (TUSIAD).

It is easy to demonize lobbying in Washington, but it is not simply about money: many lobbyists truly believe in the cause they espouse and argue, and they advocate for those causes just the same as a paid member of Greenpeace, the Audubon Society, or the Human Rights Campaign might. If someone believes that a strong U.S.-Israel relationship benefits American national security and reflects American values more than, say, a strong U.S.-Iranian relationship or any U.S. relationship with Hamas or Hezbollah, than it makes sense to support AIPAC. If one would rather see normalized ties between Washington and Tehran, regardless of the Islamic Republic’s ideology and sponsorship of insurgencies and militias, then it makes sense to support a group like NIAC.

What is truly interesting about these foreign-policy lobbies, however, is just how much they have come to reflect the countries with which they seek greater U.S. strategic alignment.

Take AIPAC: At present, its president is Bob Cohen, elected in 2013. Before him, it has had well over a dozen presidents and executive directors, most serving just two or three years before the membership elected a new leader. As such, AIPAC has very much reflected the democratic nature of both the United States and Israel. As in Israel and the United States, its audience actively debates issues—there is seldom an easy consensus in AIPAC circles and contrary to the caricatures put out by some in more fringe circles, AIPAC remains a big tent, with its rank-and-file actually leaning toward the liberal and progressive within the American political context.

NIAC is a different animal entirely. Since its inception more than a decade ago, it has been led by a single leader, Trita Parsi, a dual Swedish-Iranian citizen permanently residing in the United States. NIAC has no regularly scheduled elections and so Parsi seems intent to remain his organization’s leader for life. Indeed, it’s a parallel not lost on Iranian-Americans, who often mock Parsi as the “rahbar,” or supreme leader. NIAC reflects Iranian political culture in other ways as well. While AIPAC tends to ignore criticism or simply argue back, NIAC has responded to criticism with ad hominem attack or by seeking to silence those it dislikes. Hence, it sued an Iranian-American journalist for defamation, a suit it ended up losing after also being sanctioned for seeking to surreptitiously alter its record and for failing to uphold discovery orders.

NIAC also reflects the Islamic Republic’s tendency toward conspiracy theories. The group has been fundraising off a non-existent threat of war with Iran for more than a decade, often aligning with fringe groups like Code Pink, Daily Kos, the Institute for Policy Studies, and WarIsACrime.org in joint letters or actions. While Parsi tones down his public rhetoric, his private writing embraces conspiracies. Hence, his comment “It is not unusual that Israelis run their business under the safety of an American flag.” At a time when it is now agreed that Iran was working on nuclear-weapons components, Parsi sought to defend the regime, answering one person raising concerns regarding Iranian activities, “There is no proof what so ever for Iran’s nuclear ambition. the IAEA just cleared Iran’s nuclear programme for the third time this decade last week. You have been reading too much AIPAC propaganda!” And while both members and leaders of AIPAC take pride in their assimilation into the United States, Parsi denigrates those who leave the Islamic Republic’s interests behind:

Our brothers and sisters did not die for us so we could marry an American and call our child Betty-Sue or Joey, they did not die so we could speak English to our children. WE OWE IRAN OUR LIVES…. There is no substitute for Iran!

The Saudi lobby, of course, like the monarchy itself, likes to operate in the shadows. Whereas AIPAC and NIAC seek to influence ordinary constituents, hence their frequent forums in cities across the country, Saudi lobbyists concentrate on those in the White House and Congress or by seeking to buy the support of prominent universities. Saudi lobbyists would no more hold a public forum in Indianapolis than would Saudi royals hold a public forum in Dhahran: The public is something to be tolerated and imposed upon, but not engaged. Those whose influence Saudi Arabia seeks can expect beneficence beyond their wildest imagination; those who Saudi Arabia deems independent or not useful are ignored.

Turkey may once have been an aspiring democracy, but in recent years, it has become hostile to political pluralism. The Turkish embassy in the United States has moved from representing all of Turkish society to instead substituting as an office for President Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and, according to former Turkish diplomats stationed there, actively maintains a blacklist of those critical of the AKP. Such blacklisting—which has become the norm inside Turkey—extends to the Turkish lobby. Groups like the American Turkish Council understand their access depends on the AKP, and so will seek to limit their interactions to those who embrace the AKP. When they cross the line, they know Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leaders will have no forgiveness. Hence, former Ambassador James Holmes, after long seeking to cozy up to the AKP and downplay changes inside Turkey, found himself ousted merely for the sin of including articles in a regular news roundup from a newspaper associated with groups disliked by Erdoğan. Such behavior has led to greater fracturing: just as Turkish society has divided along political and religious lines, so too have Turkey’s various lobby and business groups to the point where Turkey has dozens of lobbies, each ineffective, with only the president back in Ankara able to speak on Turkey’s behalf.

In recent years, paranoia about various foreign-policy lobbies has grown. And while pay-to-play is always wrong and should certainly be disclosed, many of the actual lobby groups for various countries do less to whitewash the nature of countries with which they wish the United States to partner, and far more to reflect those countries, whether open or closed, tolerant or intolerant, realistic or conspiratorial.

Lobbying will never go away, but let’s hope that one day all lobbies will be open, transparent, and governed democratically. That would be a sure sign that, finally, principle has triumphed over cash, and democracy really has taken root in the dark corners of the world.

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Erdoğan Aspires to Be Sultan Not a Putin

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has transformed Turkey from an aspiring democracy into the world’s largest prison for journalists, a graveyard for women, and an incubator for terrorism, has decided to take his personality cult to a new level by inaugurating a huge new palace that dwarfs the White House (see the side-by-side satellite photos provided by the Washington Post to see the relative scale). From the New York Times’s description:

Sprawling over nearly 50 acres of forest land that was once the private estate of Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a new presidential compound has nearly 1,000 rooms, an underground tunnel system and the latest in anti-espionage technology. It is larger than the White House, the Kremlin and Buckingham Palace. The reported price: nearly $350 million. Then there is a new high-tech presidential jet (estimated price, $200 million), not to mention the new presidential office in a restored Ottoman-era mansion overlooking the Bosporus, all of which have been acquired to serve the outsized ambitions of one man: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is little doubt that Erdoğan is both an ideologue and autocrat, and sees himself above the law. He targets those who vote against him, run against him, and criticize him. In Erdoğan’s mind, environmentalists who protest the cutting down of trees in one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces are “terrorists,” but those who place bombs on buses or behead journalists and aid workers in Syria are not.

The New York Times proceeds to compare Erdoğan to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, a comparison I made in the Wall Street Journal several years ago. At the time, it looked like that was what Erdoğan wanted, but the Turkish leader may actually want more. Much more. Despite a foreign policy which has managed to make Erdoğan persona non grata across much of the Middle East (Israel, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, anywhere Hamas does not control in the Palestinian territories, and perhaps Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as well), the Turkish leader still sees himself as a regional and Islamic leader. He is a Sunni sectarian to the core. He has declared his intention to remake Turkey along religious lines, and has pledged to “raise a religious generation.” And he is very astute with regard to symbolism.

Back in 2005, during his monthly television address, Erdoğan replaced the traditional backdrop of the Turkish flag and a portrait of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk with a photo of Atatürk’s mausoleum and a mosque. Turks understood the symbolism: Atatürk is dead, but Islam is the future.

By building his Versailles over Atatürk’s private estate, he is doing the same thing. Atatürk was the symbol of secularism, and Erdoğan seeks to bury secularism. If Erdoğan was not content to simply be prime minister, and is not content to be merely the president of Turkey, then to what else could he aspire? While it may once have seemed farfetched that anyone could aspire to revive the Ottoman sultanate and the caliphate which Atatürk ended, Erdoğan seeks to do just this. He differs less in ideology with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi than in tactics and ambition. For all his talk of restoring a pan-Islamic caliphate, al-Baghdadi concentrates on the Arab world; Erdoğan’s goals are broader. The Turkish leader may or may not succeed, but he likely believes God is on his side: After all, how else could anyone explain the meteoric rise of a relatively uneducated (at least in secular terms) former street vendor to the height of political power.

The United States and the West are in denial, much as too many left-liberal Turks were until recently. Erdoğan can rest assured, however. He can play his cards deliberately, for Western diplomats and journalists will as always ignore his game until it is too late.

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Democracy in Tunisia

This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

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This was a busy weekend for elections–a presidential race in Brazil (which saw the reelection of Dilma Rousseff) and parliamentary elections in Ukraine (which saw a victory for pro-European candidates) and in Tunisia (a victory for secularists over Islamists). From the American perspective it is tempting to see this as generally good news–Rousseff may be a leftist who has presided over a slide in the Brazilian economy but she is no threat to the U.S. The victory of pro-European parliamentarians is a welcome rebuke to Vladimir Putin’s attempts to fragment Ukraine.

And what of Tunisia? That’s where I spent the last few days serving as an election observer for the International Republican Institute, a foundation supported by the U.S. government (along with the National Democratic Institute and others) to promote democracy. I was heartened to see how free and fair Tunisia’s election was–the second held by that country since longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country in 2011.

It was actually his overthrow which triggered what became the Arab Spring and which elsewhere has turned into the winter of our discontent. Tunisia, along among the states in the region, has continued to make democratic progress even though it faces big problems from a stagnant economy and a worrisome security situation–a Salafist terrorist group known as Ansar al-Sharia has been held responsible for storming the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in 2012 and assassinating a couple of leftist politicians in 2013.

From what I could tell, as I visited polling places in the northwest of the country, Tunisia’s voting was transparent and honest. The problem is that voting is only one stage toward the blooming of liberal democracy. You also need a free press, freedom of assembly, free speech, an independent judiciary, an active opposition, and a general climate of peaceful resolution of differences. Tunisia has made some progress toward the independent press, free speech, and freedom of assembly–it is now possible to vent one’s public views without fear of a visit from the secret police. But much of the old corrupt bureaucracy which once served Ben Ali remains on the job, serving as a bar to further progress and stifling economic development with its heavy-handed, French-style socialism and cronyism.

Interestingly enough, the Islamist party, known as Ennahda, is more committed to free-market reforms than the big secular bloc known as Nidaa Tounes (Call of Tunisia), which bested it in Sunday’s voting. Ennahda shares this characteristic with the Turkish AKP party which, while Islamist, has also been more free-market oriented than most of its secular predecessors. And indeed Ennahda is trying to position itself as the “moderate” face of Islam, claiming it is committed both to Islam and to pluralistic democracy.

It tried to prove its bona fides by avoiding the kind of power grab that characterized Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. After winning power in the first post-Ben Ali election in 2011, Ennahda governed in cooperation with secular parties and gave up power altogether when it was criticized for not doing more to crack down on Salafist terrorists. But most secularists are not convinced–they think Ennahda is pursuing a policy of dissimulation and that, if granted power, it would try to create an Islamist dictatorship.

Now Ennahda won’t take power except possible as part of a ruling coalition and it will be up to Nidaa Tounes to reform a moribund bureaucracy and get the economy moving again. There is little reason to expect that Nidaa Tounes will be up to the task; its leaders appear to be united by little more than their opposition to Ennahda. Many of them have backgrounds in the Ben Ali administration, which they tout as evidence of their managerial experience–but keep in mind that it was the very stagnation of the country in those years that led to the revolution that toppled Ben Ali.

I came away from Tunisia cheered that democracy is functioning and happy that it is not leading automatically in an Islamist direction, but I also came away skeptical about the ability of Tunisia’s political class to address its deep-seated malaise. It tells you something that hope for change rests with the frontrunner for president in next month’s elections, the leader of Nidaa Tounes, Beji Caid Essebsi, who happens to be 87 years old. Can an octogenarian really shake a country out of its lethargy? We are about to find out.

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Connections Between Turkey’s AKP and ISIS?

When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

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When the Turkish parliament voted to authorize the use of force in Syria and Iraq, American and, indeed, most foreign media misconstrued the content of the resolution to suggest that Turkey would target the Islamic State (ISIS). In reality, if President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could rank his desired targets, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would be at the top of the list, followed by the Syrian Kurds such as those who live in Kobane, and ISIS would be a distant third. Indeed, there is much reason to doubt Turkish commitment to counter ISIS.

Alas, if recent reports out of Turkey are true, then the relationship between Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and ISIS are closer than previously known. There is a Turkish website called “Takva Haber” which Turks say serves as the mouthpiece for ISIS. It has been crucial in pushing out ISIS propaganda, and it has also helped ISIS recruit Turks to the degree that Turkey will be facing blowback from the radicals it has spawned long after Erdoğan is dead or in prison.

According to Turkish interlocutors, it now appears that the website is published from “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” or “Foundation for the Spread of Science [i.e. Islamic Theology].” For years, this foundation simply spread Islamist propaganda. What’s interesting, however, are its founders, among whose names can be found Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his son Bilal, and Ahmet Davutoğlu, who serves as Erdoğan’s Medvedev.

How strange it is that the organization which these AKP luminaries—and dozens of others founded—now seems to be working unabashedly for ISIS. Perhaps this explains why Erdoğan has been so reticent to call ISIS a terrorist organization in his various speeches.

Then, of course, there is this photo which appeared yesterday in the Sozcu newspaper and which purports to show prominent AKP figure Suat Kılıç having dinner with ISIS supporters in Germany. A witness to the gathering said they jointly handed out Korans before beginning dinner.

Given the trajectory of Turkey—a state which has now reportedly fired more than 1,800 journalists for insufficient political loyalty to Erdoğan—and the willingness of Erdoğan to use security forces and vigilante gangs against those who provoke his ire, perhaps the time is not long coming before Erdoğan decides to unleash his ISIS supporters in Turkey in a deadly show of force to demonstrate what happens when the sultan is disobeyed.

When it comes to Turkey in 2014, nothing can any more surprise—other than, perhaps, that so many congressmen, among them otherwise responsible and serious Democrats and Republicans—would lend their names to the regime Erdoğan dominates and the agenda he pushes.

UPDATE: The “Ilim Yayma Vakfı” has published a response to the original Turkish article in Sözcü Gazetesi whose report was cited in this blog post in which Ilim Yayma Vakfı deny any links between the foundation and the ISIS website. I will take them at their word. What is striking, however, is that the religious foundation founded by Islamist luminaries including now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu rushed to demand Sözcü Gazetesi take down its article, but the Turkish government which Erdoğan dominates and which has assumed the power to shut down websites refuses to touch the website of “Takva Haber” which continues to publish al-Qaeda and ISIS propaganda. So is Erdoğan serious about countering ISIS? I’d submit Turkey is as serious about shutting down the ISIS as Pakistan is about shutting down the Taliban.

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Has Obama Realized the PKK Can Be Allies?

Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

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Difficulties in the Turkish government’s relationship with Turkey’s Kurdish population continue to overshadow efforts to implement a coherent and comprehensive strategy to address the problem of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The problem is this: While to most American audiences the Kurds might simply be the Kurds, they are divided politically, linguistically, and culturally. In short, the United States now works closely with Iraqi Kurds, but labels the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) as a terrorist group. Herein lies the problem: Masud Barzani, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, may depict himself and may be considered by some American officials to be a Kurdish nationalist leader, but his popularity is largely limited to two Iraqi provinces: Duhok and Erbil. And even in Erbil, his popularity is tenuous.

The imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan remains the most popular figure among Turkey’s Kurds, enjoying the support of perhaps 90 percent of Syrian Kurds, whereas Barzani barely musters 10 percent popularity there. Whereas Turkey long sought to declare Öcalan irrelevant, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reconfirmed Öcalan as the paramount Kurdish leader in Turkey when he had his administration negotiate a ceasefire with the imprisoned Kurdish leader. This may not have been Erdoğan’s intention, but it was the result. The irony here for Turkish nationalists is that Erdoğan was likely never sincere about achieving peace with the Kurds, or at least with those Kurds who continued to embrace ethnicity rather than Sunni Islam as their predominant identity. After all, every Erdoğan outreach to the Kurds occurred in the months before elections, and was abandoned in the weeks following them, when Erdoğan no longer needed Kurdish electoral support.

Even as Erdoğan now acquiesces to some support for the besieged Kurds of Kobane, he seeks to limit the provision of that support to his allies among Barzani’s peshmerga, never mind that KDP peshmerga would be out of place in Syria and do not have the skill or dedication that the PKK’s Syrian peshmerga, the YPG, have exhibited. If Erdoğan thinks Barzani’s peshmerga can save him, he is kidding himself: As soon as those Kurdish fighters enter Syria, they will subordinate themselves to the YPG which know the ground and are, at this point, better motivated and more skilled.

Erdoğan continues to insist that there is no difference in his mind between the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and the PKK: To the Turkish President, they’re all terrorists. Evidently, however, the American position is shifting. Obama has insisted that he approve every military operation in Syria. This is why the recent airdrop of supplies to Kobane is so important: That airdrop directly assists the PYD, YPG, and the PKK. In effect, Obama is now aiding a group that his State Department still designates a terrorist group.

In reality, that designation is probably long overdue for a review if not elimination. The PYD governs Syrian Kurdistan better than any other group which holds territory runs its government. Nowhere else in Syria can girls walk to school without escort (let alone attend school) or is there regularly scheduled municipal trash pick up. And the YPG, meanwhile, has been the most effective force fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front. Given a choice between ISIS and the PKK, the United States should choose the PKK. The group may not be perfect—it retains too much of a personality cult around Öcalan and internally could become more transparent and democratic—but in this, it is no different than Barzani’s KDP. Indeed, the only difference between the two is that the PKK has not indulged in the same sort of corruption that has transformed Barzani and his sons into billionaires.

The most interesting aspect of the U.S. airdrop to the Kurds of Kobane is how muted the reaction has been. Turkey might like to think the nearly 150 members of the Congressional Turkey Caucus would hold water for Ankara and object to the provision of arms and aid to a group Turkey’s president considers to be a terrorist entity, but its members recognize that most American officials now consider the Hamas-loving Erdoğan to be more of a threat to peace than the PKK. Indeed, perhaps with this airdrop, the change so long denied by diplomats is now apparent: The Emperor Erdoğan has no clothes. It is too early to suggest that Öcalan trumps Erdoğan in the American mind but thanks to more than a decade of Erdoğan’s rule, when deciding between Turkey and the PKK, American officials no longer will automatically side with Turkey.

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Criticism to Become Crime in Turkey

I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

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I have written here many times about Turkey and its war on the media and free speech. Turkey is already “the world’s biggest prison for journalists,” according to Reporters Without Borders. President Erdoğan has, in recent months, been on the war path since Turks used online news portals and social media to report on and discuss tapes which suggest that he and his family had embezzled money to the tune of over one billion dollars. Alas, with Erdoğan secure in the presidency and the opposition largely cowed into submission, Erdoğan is now taking his campaign against media and free thought to the next level. As “the Radical Democrat,” a blog which follows press freedom in Turkey closely and often breaks news about new and real threats to free expression in that country, writes:

Draconian internet laws in Turkey are deepening yet once again with a new reform package that will bring by new measures against freedom of speech in Turkey. Previously, the government has already tried to silence masses through censorship measures, surveillance of netizens, blocking access to web sites, or even raids on online news portals’ headquarters. The most recent “development” on the laws against online free speech is the most recent law draft that foresees up to 5 years of imprisonment for tweeps that criticize the government online.

The issue goes beyond simply social media or print criticism, but rather will extend to slogans during street protests:

The new bill’s scope is not limited to digital public spaces but also makes opposition movements’ visibility on streets problematic. The slogans that have been adopted by critical groups on street protests had already drawn many frowning faces so far, and with the new bill they will be considered a crime. New law also breaches the diplomatic immunity of politicians, allowing them to be put on trial as well, in case of threats against public-officers, soldiers, police, governors etc. The prison sentence will possibly go up to 5 years depending on the intensity of the “criminal activity.”

To make matters worse, the new law restricts the ability of lawyers to defend those accused of criticizing the government. Welcome to the new Turkey, a country intent on falling below even Iran, Cuba, Belarus, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain in press freedom rankings.

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Turkey Demonstrates Why It Does Not Belong in Europe

It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

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It’s been the age-old dream of liberal Turks to join the European Union, and many American diplomats still repeat the mantra that Turkey as a member of Europe would be a good thing for both Turkey and for Europe. A decade ago, I certainly would have agreed with them. The thinking was that the Turkish workforce could have jump started Europe’s anemic economy, while European membership might have given Turkey that final shove into the liberal democratic camp.

While many Europeans saw the Turkish military as the impediment to Turkey’s democracy—and, to some extent, it was—undercutting its power also eviscerated the only check-and-balance the country had. Because Western diplomats and NGOs cheering the weakening of military influence did not simultaneously insist on building an alternate check to dictatorship,  President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was given an opportunity. “Democracy is like a street car,” he once quipped. “You ride it as far as you need, and then you step off.” European and American policy simply stopped the streetcar, so that rather than jump off onto hard tarmac, Erdoğan could step daintily onto goose-down pillows, his ego stroked, as he abandoned democracy.

But, however corrupt he appears, Erdoğan isn’t simply a megalomaniac motivated by greed: He is an ideologue. “We will raise a religious generation,” he declared. He is an unabashed Islamist, intent on imposing his interpretation and embrace of his religion upon others. Muslims—or at least Sunni Muslims—can do no wrong in his fevered mind. That is why he sought to exculpate Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s genocidal campaign in Darfur, and why he has embraced and defended Hamas and even those associated with al-Qaeda. For Erdoğan, there simply is no such thing as terrorism if the terrorist is a Muslim and the victim is not.

The latest example shows that if Erdoğan has a choice between law-and-order and religious solidarity, he’ll choose the latter.

Back in 2013, a young Danish citizen of Lebanese background attempted to murder Lars Hedegaard, a newspaper columnist who had been very critical of Islam. He subsequently fled Denmark for Syria, but was arrested in Turkey six months ago. Denmark had been seeking his return to face charges. Now, it seems, he has “gone missing” in Turkish custody. Rather than allow him to face charges in Denmark, it appears Erdoğan simply let him go, perhaps as part of the “prisoner swap” that Turkey pursued to win the release of Turks held by the Islamic State in Mosul. Here’s the story from Reuters. The British government has also indicated that Turkey has freed extremists wanted in the United Kingdom.

All of these extremists will kill again. Turkey’s apologists—or perhaps those who shift positions to maintain their access to Turkey—might say that Turkey was simply acting in its interests by making a prisoner exchange. This is nonsense: Turkey might have returned these extremists long before its hostages had been taken in the first place. For example, the man wanted for attempted murder in Denmark had been in Turkish custody for two months before the Islamic State seized the Turkish hostages in the first place. Erdoğan has, on several occasions, faced a choice—one without any cost to himself or Turkey: He could have upheld the rule of law or he could have shielded violent extremists bent on murder. He chose the latter. Turkey’s subordination of the law to a sectarian agenda should end forever the idea of the country as a member of the European Union.

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First Rule of the Anti-ISIS Club Is: You Do Not Talk About the Anti-ISIS Club

President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

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President Obama’s habit of self-consciously guiding public policy not according to the best plan but according to what will allow him to take veiled shots at George W. Bush has caught up to him–and America–on yet another issue. In explaining how the war against ISIS “will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” the president repeatedly emphasized that the U.S. will be “supporting partners on the front lines” in order to rely on a “broad coalition” of frontline allies taking the lead instead of American troops. Yet right away Obama began undermining that coalition.

It was not too surprising that Obama’s highly-touted “broad coalition” was in fact far less than meets the eye. After all, among Obama’s many weaknesses in foreign affairs, international diplomacy is arguably at the top of the list. And that’s how Obama has not only put together a coalition that has thus far struggled against ISIS but also bungled the coalition’s cohesion. In wanting to prove he wrangled a broad coalition of allies his administration has forgotten the first rule of the Anti-ISIS Club: Don’t talk about the Anti-ISIS Club.

As Foreign Policy reports:

The latest row concerns the key question of whether Turkey, which hosts a sprawling American air base, will let U.S. warcraft fly from it into Iraq and Syria to batter the militant group. U.S. officials said Sunday that Ankara had given the green light. Less than a day later, Turkish officials categorically denied that they’d agreed to allow their bases to be used against the terror group.

The conflicting versions of events from the two allies have one of two causes. One is political: The White House is eager to show a war-weary American public that the United States won’t be fighting alone, but many Middle Eastern countries don’t want to rile up their own populations by advertising their roles in the coalition. The other is a more basic and troubling one: that Washington may be consistently misreading its partners and overestimating just how committed they are to the fight.

Turkey’s behavior has been the subject of much debate. If they are an ally, they have an awfully funny way of showing it. As Jonathan Schanzer wrote in Politico Magazine last week, it may be time to kick Turkey out of NATO. Aside from Ankara’s unhelpful attitude toward the anti-ISIS effort, Schanzer notes that Turkey supports the Hamas terrorists of Gaza and even allows leaders of the group to operate out of Turkey; it has refused to take antiterrorism seriously, undermining NATO’s global efforts as well as regional stability; and it has helped Iran evade sanctions intended to curb its illicit nuclear program.

In addition, after waffling on the anti-ISIS coalition Turkey turned around and resumed bombing Kurdish militant positions, the first such strikes since the two-year-old peace process began in earnest. This comes after Kurds in Turkey protested Ankara’s refusal to help aid the anti-ISIS effort (thus further endangering their Syrian Kurdish brethren), resulting in riots and the deaths of more than thirty people.

As with the possible fall of Kobani to ISIS, which Max Boot wrote about yesterday, Turkey’s behavior is reprehensible but no excuse for American incompetence. Turkey may have had a more extreme reaction, but it is not the first country to be “outed” as part of Obama’s broad coalition that didn’t want to be identified as such. As the Foreign Policy report pointed out:

In September, when Foreign Policy reported details of a secret offer by the nation of Georgia to host a training camp for anti-ISIS fighters, the story prompted a strong public backlash in Tbilisi due to security concerns for the tiny Caucasian nation of 4.5 million. Within 24 hours, Georgian officials denied having made any such offer.

“I categorically rule out any military participation or training base in Georgia,” Georgian Foreign Minister Maia Panjikidze said.

Last month, Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said his government opposed terrorism, but expressed annoyance that his country was included in the U.S. government’s official list of anti-ISIS partners without being informed.

“I am bothered by the fact that we have been placed on the list without the government’s knowledge,” he said. “We will have to voice some sort of protest; it is not appropriate to consent to our country being placed anywhere without our knowledge and consensus.”

Placing European countries on an anti-ISIS list and hoping they wouldn’t notice is truly amateurish behavior. But it also demonstrates a recurring problem for this administration, which I’ve written about before: President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry, and the rest of those responsible for the conduct of American foreign policy simply don’t listen.

And they are far more interested in the sloganeering of bumper-sticker diplomacy and vapid politics than in actually accomplishing what they’re supposed to, causing an already shaky coalition to crumble further.

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