Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkey

Seymour Hersh’s Latest Conspiracy Theory

Seymour Hersh is gaining headlines again for a London Review of Books article in which he alleges that Turkey was behind the chemical-weapons strike in the suburbs of Damascus which led many American officials to demand that President Obama enforce his red line and retaliate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I’m not one to defend the Turkish regime—certainly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a terrorist sympathizer, if not sponsor—but Hersh’s allegations are problematic and, frankly, an embarrassment to the New Yorker.

While Hersh gained fame for his reporting of the My Lai massacre, he has largely been coasting on his reputation ever since. Did he blow the lid on the reprehensible abuses at Abu Ghraib? Not quite: the Pentagon had already investigated the abuses, was in the process of taking action, and Hersh simply published the leaked report.

Today, rather than personify responsible journalism, Hersh seems to embody a political agenda which leads him to fit square pegs into round holes, cherry pick what works, and discard what doesn’t. A 2007 article on jihadis in Lebanon was a real embarrassment to the New Yorker, as other analysts quickly tore it apart.

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Seymour Hersh is gaining headlines again for a London Review of Books article in which he alleges that Turkey was behind the chemical-weapons strike in the suburbs of Damascus which led many American officials to demand that President Obama enforce his red line and retaliate against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

I’m not one to defend the Turkish regime—certainly, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is a terrorist sympathizer, if not sponsor—but Hersh’s allegations are problematic and, frankly, an embarrassment to the New Yorker.

While Hersh gained fame for his reporting of the My Lai massacre, he has largely been coasting on his reputation ever since. Did he blow the lid on the reprehensible abuses at Abu Ghraib? Not quite: the Pentagon had already investigated the abuses, was in the process of taking action, and Hersh simply published the leaked report.

Today, rather than personify responsible journalism, Hersh seems to embody a political agenda which leads him to fit square pegs into round holes, cherry pick what works, and discard what doesn’t. A 2007 article on jihadis in Lebanon was a real embarrassment to the New Yorker, as other analysts quickly tore it apart.

The good thing about Hersh is that he is predictable: He often circles back to the same sources, with the same agenda, which by no coincidence happens to be his own. The current article seems to rely a great deal on a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. Who might this person be? There is no way to know for sure since Hersh protects his source with anonymity, never allowing the reader to assess whether the person is simply using his past affiliation to spin a tale or if he was even in a position to have the information he claimed to possess. In the past, Hersh has relied on one W. Patrick Lang, a former Defense Intelligence Agency official. Let’s hope the source isn’t Lang, because if it was, Hersh should certainly have noted (as he neglected to previously) that Lang had registered with the Foreign Agents Registration Act in order to work with a pro-Syrian Lebanese politician. Given Hersh’s previous mistakes in this regard, he cannot be given the benefit of the doubt.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Syrian opposition hasn’t, at times, sought to use crude chemical-weapons devices. Nor is it to deny that Erdoğan has single-mindedly sought to pursue a sectarian agenda inside Syria. But the international community seems to have conducted a great deal of forensic work about what happened in East Ghouta, and that evidence reportedly pointed overwhelmingly at the Assad regime. And if that information doesn’t coincide with whatever Hersh’s political agenda of the day is, tough.

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Is Turkey Next to Face Al-Qaeda Threat?

Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

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Over the last couple decades, a pattern has emerged: Governments tolerate if not encourage Islamist extremism, so long as the jihadists, takfiris, radicals, militants, or whatever the name of the day is understand the devil’s bargain: They can be as radical as they want, so long as their terrorism is for export only.

Hence, for decades, Saudi princes pumped money into the coffers of extremist groups and eventually al-Qaeda, immune to criticism from the outside world. Even after 9/11, the Saudi royal family was decidedly insincere in its approach toward terrorism. It was only after al-Qaeda turned its guns on Saudi Arabia itself that the king and his princes woke up to the danger that it posed.

Likewise, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while nurturing a reputation as a secularist, flirted with extremists. His father Hafez al-Assad may have crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama in 1982 but, contrary to Tom Friedman’s caricature of Assad and his so-called “Hama Rules,” he was not simply a brute with zero tolerance toward Islamism. Rather, Hafez al-Assad was a brute who almost immediately after his massacre began trying to co-opt the survivors. He and, subsequently, his son Bashar quietly began to tolerate greater Islamic conservatism. Bashar went farther and actively supported jihadists so long as they kept their jihad external to Syria. Hence, Syria became the underground railroad for Islamist terrorists infiltrating into Iraq to rain chaos against not only American servicemen, but far more ordinary Iraqi citizens. That Islamists co-opted the uprising against Bashar al-Assad should not surprise: There is always blowback.

Iraq experienced much the same phenomenon: Islamist extremism did not begin with the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003; it predated it. That “Allahu Akhbar” appeared on Iraq’s flag in the wake of the 1991 uprising was no coincidence. Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein established morality squads which, in order to appease Islamist feelings, conducted activities such as beheading women for alleged morality infractions. It was a short leap for some young radicals in al-Anbar in 2003 to start waging violence in the name of religion against Iraqi Shi’ites when, in the decade previous, Saddam Hussein encouraged them to do much the same thing.

So who is next? If I were a Turk living in Istanbul or Ankara, I would be very worried about al-Qaeda violence on my doorstep. Istanbul, of course, has already been subject to al-Qaeda attacks but nothing compared to what could be on the horizon. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has remained uncomfortably close to al-Qaeda financiers. Turkey has also been quite supportive of the Nusra Front and perhaps even the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), so long as they targeted Syria’s secular Kurds. Now, after months of denial, it now appears that a suicide bombing in Reyhanli, which the Turkish government blamed on the Syrian regime, was in fact conducted by Syria’s al-Qaeda-linked opposition.

The Turkish government may have thought—like the Saudis, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, and others before them—that they could channel al-Qaeda or that group’s fellow-travelers against their strategic adversaries. They were wrong. When al-Qaeda comes to Turkey, whether this year, next, or in 2016, Turks should understand that the man who effectively invited them was none other than Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

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Twitter and Turkey’s Slide Into Dictatorship

The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

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The government of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been gradually chipping away at every vestige of democracy in that country for years. Independent press outlets have been suppressed and more journalists are in prison in Turkey than in any other place on earth. Political opponents of his AKP and much of the secular leadership of the military have been jailed, and demonstrators have been brutalized. Despite this terrible record the West, and in particular the Obama administration, have largely turned a blind eye to Turkey’s excesses. But by trying to ban the use of Twitter, Erdoğan may have finally picked a fight that he can’t win in the long run.

The Turkish government is standing by an order issued by a judge who is friendly to the prime minister to block the use of Twitter in Turkey. The reason for the effort is that social media, such as Twitter and YouTube, is the vehicle for spreading evidence of corruption by Erdoğan’s son and other prominent scions of the country’s Islamist elite. While social media plays an increasingly critical role in the spread of news throughout the free world, it is especially critical now in a country like Turkey because the mainstream press in that country has been effectively silenced by the dictatorial policies of the AKP and its leader. That forced the flow of information elsewhere and Erdoğan’s courts have responded with demands that Twitter and other venues remove the embarrassing content from their sites.

But by adopting a stand that undermines the notion that Turkey is a modern state that is ready to be integrated into the international economy and the European Union, Erdoğan may have worsened his problems rather than solve them. After 11 years in power during which he has ruthlessly wielded influence, the Turkish leader may have finally crossed the line that separates a feared dictator from a laughingstock. By banning Twitter, Erdoğan has begun to resemble a parody of a despot rather than the strongman who has transformed Turkey from a secular state to an Islamist tyranny.

As the New York Times reports, his inability to suppress the incriminating information about his son and his regime has sent Erdoğan over the edge:

The shutdown, which Turks began to notice around midnight, occurred 10 days before local elections and came after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan lashed out at Twitter in an election rally in Bursa, a western town, on Thursday, saying that he did not care about international reactions if national security was at stake.

“Twitter, mwitter! We will wipe out roots of all,” Mr. Erdoğan declared in a campaign speech before the pivotal elections on March 30. “They say, ‘Sir, the international community can say this, can say that.’ I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the state of the Republic of Turkey is.”

Mr. Erdoğan had faced perhaps the biggest challenge in his 11 years in office when unidentified critics began using Twitter and YouTube to leak dozens of phone calls and documents that seemed to tie government officials and business circles close to the government to a graft inquiry that began last December.

One of the recordings purports to be of the prime minister himself telling his son to get rid of large sums of cash on the morning of Dec. 17, when the homes of three former ministers’ sons were raided. Mr. Erdoğan has repeatedly — and angrily — insisted that the recording was fake.

This is far from the first instance of Erdoğan’s dictatorial manner. He has run roughshod over all legal opposition and shut down journalistic outlets that were not in his pocket. But perhaps by taking on the popular social media in such an absurd and transparently self-interested manner, a turning point may be reached on international opinion of his regime.

This is, after all, the same man President Obama described as his best friend among foreign leaders. While other Western heads of state were not quite so fulsome in their praise for Erdoğan, the result was the same, as the AKP’s excesses at home and its support for Hamas in Gaza were ignored because of Turkey’s membership in NATO and its role in supporting opposition to the Assad regime.

While the United States has slowly started to edge away from Erdoğan, Washington needs to do more now than merely state its displeasure with the antics of the president’s friend. The same applies to Turkey’s bid for EU membership. Relations with this increasingly despotic Islamist state need to be put on hold until the country and its dictator come to their senses.

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Tape Suggests Turkey Supports Terror

This winter has been a turbulent one in Turkey, as a political dispute between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his former political ally, Islamist movement leader Fethullah Gülen has led to a series of revelations and leaks, each more embarrassing than the last. Initially, the leaks centered on corrupt ministers, like former European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış, who apparently enriched themselves on Erdoğan’s coat tails. Then they exposed how Erdoğan bullied the press. The latest leaks of recorded phone calls suggest something more nefarious afoot.

For the past several years, sectarian violence has escalated in Nigeria, and Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have conducted horrific massacres against Christian men, women, and children. Now, it seems, Turkey may have had something to do with that. The most recent leaked tapes record a conversation between an advisor to Erdoğan and the private secretary of the CEO of Turkish Airlines. The Turkish Airlines official, according to the tape, said that he does not feel comfortable with the (secret) weapons shipments to Nigeria, and he asks whether those weapons “are to kill Muslims or Christians.” The context of the conversation suggests he worries only after the former instead of the latter. The prime minister’s advisor, however, tries to assure him and says he will check with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkish intelligence and get back to Turkish Airlines with an answer.

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This winter has been a turbulent one in Turkey, as a political dispute between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his former political ally, Islamist movement leader Fethullah Gülen has led to a series of revelations and leaks, each more embarrassing than the last. Initially, the leaks centered on corrupt ministers, like former European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış, who apparently enriched themselves on Erdoğan’s coat tails. Then they exposed how Erdoğan bullied the press. The latest leaks of recorded phone calls suggest something more nefarious afoot.

For the past several years, sectarian violence has escalated in Nigeria, and Islamist groups such as Boko Haram have conducted horrific massacres against Christian men, women, and children. Now, it seems, Turkey may have had something to do with that. The most recent leaked tapes record a conversation between an advisor to Erdoğan and the private secretary of the CEO of Turkish Airlines. The Turkish Airlines official, according to the tape, said that he does not feel comfortable with the (secret) weapons shipments to Nigeria, and he asks whether those weapons “are to kill Muslims or Christians.” The context of the conversation suggests he worries only after the former instead of the latter. The prime minister’s advisor, however, tries to assure him and says he will check with Hakan Fidan, the director of Turkish intelligence and get back to Turkish Airlines with an answer.

Turkish Airlines, for its part, denies that they have smuggled arms, but it is a state company and no other state company has been able to stand up to the prime minister, nor has there been any indication that any of the telephone calls, while illegally recorded, are inaccurate in content.

There is already great evidence that Turkey has supported al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels in Syria, and the prime minister is quite open about his support for Hamas and, at times, Hezbollah as well. That Turkey appears to be supporting terrorism in Nigeria takes the problem outside the realm of the Arab-Israeli conflict and, if true, makes Turkey a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Why any congressman remains in the Congressional Turkey Caucus is beyond me. And why, so long as such allegations hang over Turkish Airlines, U.S. authorities continue to allow it to fly over American cities or handle baggage transferred onto American airlines is a question that more responsible congressmen should begin to ask.

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Where Were Mistakes Made on Russia, Turkey, and Iran?

One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

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One of the biggest patterns that became apparent in the course of researching the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that diplomats leading the engagement never set firm metrics ahead of time to judge whether diplomacy is successful, and seldom step back after the fact to determine, in hindsight, where they made mistakes and what the key points were where a different strategy might have altered the outcome.

By the definition of rogue regime (or backlash state) laid out by Tony Lake, Bill Clinton’s national security advisor, Turkey most certainly is not a rogue, Russia may have become one, and Iran certainly is. Nevertheless, all three have become increasingly problematic to U.S. national security and all may come to symbolize the failure of American diplomacy in the first decades of the 21st century. Clearly, the United States got Turkey and Russia wrong: Turkey is more a dictatorship than a democracy, and more an adversary than ally. Russia also is less a partner than a relic of the Cold War. As for Iran, recent reports that Iran is buying nuclear parts on the black market do not give confidence that Iran is negotiating in good faith.

While President Obama and his national security team react to events in the Crimea and to Russia’s bluster, there has been little or no introspection by the State Department or White House about where the mistakes were made with regard to Russia. It’s not simply a matter of partisan finger pointing, for there is enough blame to go around: President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and saw a soul. He responded with little more than rhetoric after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. Hillary Clinton pushed the reset button; Obama threw Poland and the Czech Republic under the bus to appease Russian concerns; and his hot-microphone moment conveyed a stronger desire to reduce American arms than even Congress was comfortable with. All the while, there was lower-level diplomacy and Russian actions which in hindsight might have provided warnings, had the State Department been ready to recognize them. Perhaps it is time for an independent committee to review the last decade of Russo-American diplomacy to determine, with hindsight, where the United States should have recognized the reality of Putin and his ambitions. Only by studying past mistakes can future diplomats hope to avoid repeating them.

The same holds true with Turkey: Warning signs extend back well over a decade, but the State Department refused to recognize them. In 2004, I researched a piece—based on a lot of leakage and documentary contributions from Turkish journalists and government officials who could not speak publicly—about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s money laundering schemes and slush funds. The piece upset the Turkish government. According to Wikileaks, the U.S. Embassy in Ankara assured that there was nothing to the report. How comforting, except that they did not apparently do anything other than ask government officials who had every interest in covering up the financial irregularities. The ambassador at the time blindly accepted the idea that Erdoğan was a reformer; he did not ask who the sources were and upon what the allegations were based.

Hindsight, however, shows the initial concerns warranted and the specifics of the article accurate. Likewise, Daniel Fried, a senior American diplomat, described Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) as little more than the Turkish version of a Christian Democratic Party. This, too, was nonsense but it would be useful to see how diplomats came to reach such a conclusion. Many other former ambassadors to Turkey, some of whom had long been cheerleaders for the Erdoğan experiment, have now come around to the recognition that there is rot in Ankara, and there is not a democratic bone in Erdoğan’s body. The question for the State Department is not about the fact that they were wrong—there is no shame in that—but, with the benefit of hindsight, what were the warning signs they missed? Where was trust misplaced? Where did sources mislead? Absent such introspection, it is unclear why anyone should expect more accurate reporting or analysis from the U.S. Embassy in Turkey or Bureau of European Affairs in the future.

Iran is a more politicized topic but, given what is at stake, a more serious one: It is wrong to suggest that there were no negotiations with Iran in the decades between Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama: There was plenty, but John Kerry and negotiator Wendy Sherman seem intent on reinventing the wheel without consideration to how the same people upon whom they now rely have in the past lied and cheated. That does not mean that history is bound to repeat, but repetition is much more likely if senior American officials do not care to learn from past mistakes.

Just as to a hammer everything looks like a nail, to the State Department everything seems a subject for talks. It should not surprise that Foggy Bottom does not want to consider its mistakes, because to do so might undermine the drive to dialogue. Introspection, however, does not diminish diplomacy; it simply makes it more effective. Perhaps, however, if the State Department is unwilling to do what’s necessary, it is time for Congress to exercise its oversight.

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Why Does the U.S. Call Kurds Terrorists?

Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

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Given how the Turkish government has both used its security services and judiciary to target the prime minister’s political enemies rather than those who contravene the law, and how Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has apparently developed close business relations with a designated Al Qaeda financier, the idea that anyone in the United States government should take the Turkish government at its word with regard to terrorism is risible.

And yet, successive administrations still do (and, admittedly, I once did as well) when it comes to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its offshoots, one of which now governs much of northeastern Syria, which under Kurdish leadership has become a remarkably placid and functioning region in sharp contrast to just about everywhere else in Syria.

That said there is reason why the United States might once have designated the PKK to be terrorists. The PKK certainly engaged in violence, and killed a number of civilians for their ideological transgressions.

Recently, the continued designation of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) as “Tier III” terrorist organizations under the Immigration and Naturalization Act has raised the issue again, although KDP leader Masud Barzani is not being truthful when he says he cancelled a recent visit to Washington because of the issue. (Rather, Barzani was upset that he did not get a meeting with President Obama and that his second son, Mansour Barzani, had trouble getting a visa; regardless, eldest son Masrour traveled to Washington against the backdrop of the supposed boycott on Washington so that his wife could deliver their baby at Sibley Hospital).

Regardless, the Tier III designation is wrong. The PUK and KDP—both U.S. allies—fought an insurgency and killed many civilians. But at its root, they were engaged in insurgency rather than terrorism. Lest anyone forget how violent the KDP insurgency could be, here’s a blast from the past: A young and svelte-looking Hoshyar Zebari—now Iraq’s Foreign Minister—narrating a propaganda video showing a KDP attack on what appears to be a civilian truck. Zebari seems to suggest that their goal is to disrupt Iraqi oil flow. In addition, both the KDP and PUK murdered several thousand civilians and captured opponents during the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war.

Most American policymakers understand the Tier III designation of the KDP and PUK to be a mistake, the result of a poorly worded law. But as the United States considers its terror designation of our Iraqi Kurdish allies, perhaps it is also time to reconsider whether the PKK’s activities differ considerably from those of the PUK and KDP, other than in the length and breadth of their insurgency that, at any rate, is now suspended as peace talks continue.

The PKK is certainly not non-violent, and its roots in hard left doctrine certainly were dangerous in the context of the Cold War. But the PKK—like much of its leftist brethren—has evolved with the recognition that communism was a failed ideology. The information at the root of the PKK designation certainly should also be re-examined to ensure that information contributed by Turkey is reliable and that the KDP’s corroboration of that information is based on subjective evidence rather than a desire to drag the United States into an intra-Kurdish tribal struggle.

Perhaps now is the time to reflect on a broader Kurdish strategy and policy, one that reflects the 21st century reality of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, and recognizes that the United States and regional Kurds have many mutual interests and can benefit from partnership.

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Do Turks Want Democracy?

While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

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While some statesmen believe it is sophisticated to downplay the imperatives of freedom and liberty, across the globe ordinary people are proving them wrong. Ukrainians refused to accede to now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s efforts to reorient Ukraine to the east. They stood up for their freedoms, and fought back when attacked. Ultimately, they triumphed—at least for now—as the parliament answered popular demands and impeached the president.

Egyptians, too, were unwilling to suffer President Hosni Mubarak’s continued corruption and increasing disdain for the ordinary public, nor were they willing to tolerate President Mohamed Morsi’s evisceration of his promises and increasing disdain for the democratic principles which he had espoused during the presidential campaigns. They returned en masse to Tahrir Square to demand Morsi compromise, and when he refused, he was ousted.

In Venezuela, as well, the people are saying no more to a government that has taken potentially one of the wealthiest nations in South America and transformed it into an impoverished backwater. While many Venezuelans may have become enamored by the rhetoric of democracy and social justice that came from the likes of late president Hugo Chavez and his successor Nicolás Maduro, their behavior makes clear any commitment to democracy is simply a façade in a quest for power.

In Turkey, too, an increasingly autocratic leader poses a challenge. While mayor of Istanbul, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan quipped that democracy was like a street car, “you ride it as far as you need and then you get off.” He has proven himself a man of his word, as he has moved to consolidate power, eviscerate the judiciary, crush free speech, curb the media, and imprison political opponents. While Turks rose up to protest Erdoğan’s decision to pave over one of central Istanbul’s few remaining green areas, protestors have not persisted to the degree their colleagues have in other countries.

Too many enlightened and educated Turks have preferred to keep silent, privately expressing dismay, but publicly keeping quiet. Many Turkish analysts in Washington D.C., whether out of fear for family members back home or perhaps in a cynical attempt to maintain access to a regime that punishes criticism, self-censor or, even worse, bestow false praise on Ankara’s new tyrants. A week’s protest was not enough to bring democracy to Egypt, Ukraine, or Venezuela, but rather a sustained movement, even in the face of tear gas and police violence.

Too often in the years following Atatürk’s secularist revolution, be it under İsmet İnönü, Adnan Menderes, or Erdoğan, Turkish liberals and progressives have allowed charismatic leaders to erode the foundations of democracy and set Turkey down a dictatorial path. Once again, Turkey has fallen over the precipice into dictatorship. If Turkish liberals are content to sit on their hands instead of defend their freedoms in every city and town square, perhaps it is time to conclude that despite their professions of embracing a European outlook, Turkish liberals simply don’t want democracy enough. Ukrainians are proving daily that it is they, and not Turkey, who deserve Europe.

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It’s Not Just Regime vs. Al-Qaeda in Syria

A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

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A false assumption that too often permeates Washington policy deliberation is that debate can continue endlessly without regard to the situation on the ground. Take Syria: There are two poles to the Syria debate. The first—most vocally represented by Sen. John McCain—seeks to support the opposition materially, while the second prefers to do nothing. The sides have not altered their positions over the past three years despite a radically changing situation on the ground. Three years ago it might have made sense to support the Syrian opposition, but that was before the influx of foreign jihadis radicalized the opposition. Those meeting U.S. diplomats in Istanbul or Geneva simply do not represent the power on the ground. To provide the Syrian opposition with a qualitative military edge would be to risk such capabilities falling into the hands of al-Qaeda. (That does not mean doing nothing, but rather considering direct action against Syrian air power, if neutralizing Syria’s Air Force becomes the goal of U.S. policy.)

The situation on the ground has changed in other ways. The violence in Syria has not been random; much has been conducted in pursuit of ethnic and sectarian cleansing. Three years into its civil war, Syria is as different from its pre-war self as Yugoslavia was three years into its civil war in the 1990s. Jamestown Foundation’s Nicholas Heras, for example, has published a study examining a potential Assad statelet in Syria.

Other changes provide new opportunities not recognized in a policy debate that seems stuck on repeat. Last month, I spent several days in Syria’s northeastern Hasakah province, home to Syria’s Kurdish minority, thousands of Syriac Christians, and many Arabs as well. While the United States refuses to deal with the multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian administration set up in this region largely out of deference to Turkey, which does not like the idea of another federal Kurdish region on its borders, the Kurds, Arabs, and Christians of Rojava have done a remarkable job ousting al-Qaeda-affiliated elements and other radicals, and putting in place a functioning administration. I described some of this in a Wall Street Journal piece last Friday.

It seems remarkable that with the disaster that is Syria today, the White House would not jump at a chance to support a stable, secular, and secure region that is relative pro-American. But that is exactly what President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have decided to do. The residents of Hasakah, or Rojava as Kurds call the region, don’t ask for much: just an end to the blockade imposed not only by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but also by Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan (whose president, Masud Barzani, sees Rojava as potential political competition) so that they can received donated medicine and rice. The region’s Popular Protection Units (YPG) and their Syriac Christian and Arab corollaries have successfully neutralized the regime and pushed by radical Islamist elements without international assistance. Should the West decide to support Syria’s secular elements even further, they might stabilize portions of Syria under a federal model, much like in Iraq. That isn’t a magic formula but, as in Iraq, perhaps embracing stability in some provinces can be a useful first step if achieving stability in all provinces is not immediately possible. Rather than simply regurgitate three-year-old talking points about arming the opposition, perhaps it would be more productive to look at the current situation on the ground and support Rojava.

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Dissolve the Congressional Turkey Caucus

Any congressman who remains in the “Caucus on U.S. Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans,” is either asleep at the switch or does not mind using their position as a shield for a government that:

  • Supports Hamas
  • Helps Iran evade sanctions
  • Turns a blind eye to jihadis transiting its territory
  • Finances and perhaps supplies al-Qaeda affiliates inside Syria
  • Peddles cheap anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracies
  • Systematically eviscerates the free press and seeks China-style censorship over the Internet
  • Undercuts NATO security by threatening to compromise software to the Chinese

The cherry on top now is a recording (start at 0:30) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that emerged on Friday that appears to show Erdoğan interceding with the mayor of Istanbul on behalf of the business interests of Yasin al-Qadi. Al-Qadi, of course, is designated by the U.S. government as an al-Qaeda financier. After reports suggested that both Cuneyt Zapsu, a top advisor to Erdoğan, and Zapsu’s mother had made donations to al-Qadi, Erdoğan shrugged off the matter saying he believed in al-Qadi as he believed in himself. Now, it seems that Erdoğan’s partnership with this apparent al-Qaeda-financier went much deeper.

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Any congressman who remains in the “Caucus on U.S. Turkey Relations and Turkish Americans,” is either asleep at the switch or does not mind using their position as a shield for a government that:

  • Supports Hamas
  • Helps Iran evade sanctions
  • Turns a blind eye to jihadis transiting its territory
  • Finances and perhaps supplies al-Qaeda affiliates inside Syria
  • Peddles cheap anti-American and anti-Semitic conspiracies
  • Systematically eviscerates the free press and seeks China-style censorship over the Internet
  • Undercuts NATO security by threatening to compromise software to the Chinese

The cherry on top now is a recording (start at 0:30) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that emerged on Friday that appears to show Erdoğan interceding with the mayor of Istanbul on behalf of the business interests of Yasin al-Qadi. Al-Qadi, of course, is designated by the U.S. government as an al-Qaeda financier. After reports suggested that both Cuneyt Zapsu, a top advisor to Erdoğan, and Zapsu’s mother had made donations to al-Qadi, Erdoğan shrugged off the matter saying he believed in al-Qadi as he believed in himself. Now, it seems that Erdoğan’s partnership with this apparent al-Qaeda-financier went much deeper.

Many congressmen joining the Congressional Turkey Caucus are well-meaning. They may believe Turkey to be a strong ally, a NATO partner, and a force for stability. They are wrong: that was the Turkey of a decade ago, not Turkey today. Given the Pakistani government’s support for terror groups, flirtation with China, and anti-American incitement, few congressmen would affix their names to a Congressional Pakistan Caucus, yet continuing in the Turkey Caucus has the same impact. If congressmen want to support a secular, pro-Western, Muslim majority state that seeks partnership with the United States, they might join the Azerbaijan caucus instead. But to remain in the Turkey Caucus affirms the worst behavior of Erdoğan and his cronies and ultimately undercuts U.S. national security.

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Should Abdullah Öcalan Be Freed?

On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.

Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.

That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.

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On February 15, 1999, a Turkish commando operation captured Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Öcalan in Nairobi, Kenya. Öcalan had been on the run since international pressure on Syria had forced Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad to demand Öcalan no longer call Syria his home. Michael M. Gunter, a professor of political science at Tennessee Technological University and a prolific author regarding the Kurdish issue, interviewed Öcalan at his Damascus residence shortly before the PKK leader departed Syria.

Öcalan was Turkey’s arch-nemesis. He had launched and personally directed an insurrection inside Turkey that ultimately claimed upwards of 30,000 lives, the majority Kurdish. Öcalan was not the only Kurdish leader in Turkey and, in the early years of his operations, brokered no dissent; he reportedly targeted rival Kurdish groups. Washington-based Turkey scholar Soner Çağaptay outlined the Turkish case against Öcalan and, by extension, the PKK, here.

That said, while Öcalan led the PKK, he was not always opposed to peace. Turkish President Turgut Özal and the PKK set the stage for some real progress on efforts to resolve the conflict, before a heart attack cut Özal’s life short just over two decades ago.

A decade ago, I considered the PKK to be an unrepentant terrorist group. Turkey was a strong and consistent U.S. ally and considered them to be, and generally speaking, I believe it is important for the United States to stand by its allies. Turkey, however, changed my mind. Western police and security agencies, as well as the United Nations, now use more than 250 definitions of terrorism. Consistency matters, however. In 2006, the Turkish government not only reached out to Hamas, but that bus-bombing, rocket-launching, kidnapping group’s most militant, Damascus-based faction. In subsequent years, Turkish diplomats—like Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States—argued that Hamas was legitimate and should be engaged. It is hard to suggest that Hamas is legitimate but the PKK is not. After all, the PKK has greater popular support among Kurds, not only in Turkey but also in Syria and perhaps Iran as well than Hamas has among Palestinians. And while both groups have engaged in violence, Hamas continues to target civilians while the PKK has long since constrained itself to a more traditional insurgency.

All this is moot, of course, since the Turkish government itself has opened peace talks not only with the PKK but more specifically with Abdullah Öcalan himself, who now resides in prison on İmralı island, in the Sea of Marmara. Whatever one thinks of Öcalan, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan transformed him into the indispensable man and confirmed him as the most important Kurdish politician when he chose him as his partner in the Kurdish peace process rather than any other Kurdish politician. And, with regard to the U.S. terror designation, it is unclear why the PKK should be considered a terrorist group when the State Department has de-listed the Mujahedin al-Khalq, a group which—unlike the PKK—actually targeted and murdered Americans.

There is much about the PKK which should concern the United States, and certainly the personality cult which surrounds Öcalan stands in sharp contrast to some of the PKK’s reformist rhetoric. At the same time, the Öcalan personality cult is little different from the Masud Barzani personality cult that permeates portions of Iraqi Kurdistan, and Barzani is a U.S. ally.

Erdoğan’s peace process has largely held, but the PKK’s ceasefire is not the end all and be all of the process. Ultimately, the Kurds seek more than just token television programming or some recognition of Kurdish culture, especially since Öcalan now pushes not for a Kurdish state but rather for confederation, the shape of which he has fleshed out in his recent writings.

Öcalan is in prison because of alleged terrorism. But if the Turkish government now treats him as a peace partner, then it is unclear how that peace process can continue with Öcalan in prison. The decision is similar to what once confronted South Africa. Nelson Mandela, now remembered as a peaceful hero, had embraced hardcore Communism and his African National Congress had engaged in terrorism. Mandela, however, evolved with time.

It seems that Erdoğan now has a choice: If he is serious about the peace process, then he has little choice but to free Öcalan, no matter how distasteful it might be to many Turks to see the world embrace a figure they consider to be a terrorist as some sort of Mandela reincarnate. At the same time, to keep Öcalan effectively ends, if not reverses, the peace process. The ball is in Turkey’s court, and is a decision point solely of Turkey’s making.

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Press Freedom Index Dose of Reality

Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

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Reporters Without Borders today released its newest press freedom index. While its website is still a bit quirky—they must have modeled themselves after Healthcare.gov—and so it’s difficult to get the simple list of rankings, there are some notable findings.

First, despite all the hope for change, a dispassionate look at the Iranian press found that there had been no change in Iranian press freedom under new president Hassan Rouhani. Iran still remains in the basement; journalists are still imprisoned or killed; and there is no right to free speech.

Turkey, whose leader President Barack Obama has described as one of his most-trusted foreign friends, remains an embarrassment, ranking 154th in terms of press freedom. That puts Turkey behind Afghanistan, Iraq, and Russia, and on par with Belarus. Frank Ricciardone, the U.S. ambassador in Ankara, continues to support Turkey’s European Union membership. Then again, Ricciardone once suggested Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was so popular, he could win elections in the United States and, according to declassified documents, Ricciardone once led the drive to normalize relations with that noted moderate and reformer, Saddam Hussein, so perhaps his cheerleading for dictators should be taken with a grain of salt.

Israel shot up in the rankings, after Reporters Without Borders penalized it last year for killing two Hamas operatives who were moonlighting as reporters. The NGO knocked several points off both the United States and the United Kingdom for their prosecution of whistle blowers, though there is a difference between prosecuting government officials who violated their oath to protect the secrecy of material versus targeting journalists who were simply doing their job. (Granted, the United States did a little of both.) Eritrea remained in the basement, behind even North Korea, which seems curious at best.

What does make interesting reading is to go down the list and compare the press freedom rankings of those countries the Obama administration coddles versus those countries Secretary of State John Kerry and Obama criticize; for example, juxtaposing China and Taiwan, or Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Here, it seems that the key to gaining praise from the White House is to imprison journalists, while granting citizens freedom and liberty seems a sure-fire means to find yourself in the White House’s diplomatic cross hairs. Perhaps the press freedom rankings can be a wakeup call to Obama and Kerry about how they judge and treat allies.

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Turkey’s AKP Should Be Diplomatic Pariahs

The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

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The Turkish-American relationship was once tight, and rightfully so. Whatever Turkey’s domestic problems and its democracy deficit, it was a strong ally. It fought beside the United States and against Communist aggression in the Korean War, and was one of only two NATO countries to share a border with the Soviet Union. Turkey was also a source of moderation in an increasingly immoderate region, and stood in sharp contrast to countries like Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Without any appreciable oil resources, Turkey also transformed itself into an engine of growth through innovation and free-market enterprise.

Alas, today, Turkey is no longer much of an ally. While its supporters cite its contribution to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, it has often operated at cross purposes with the rest of ISAF. Of greater concern is:

  • Turkey’s embrace of Hamas;
  • Turkey’s support not only of the Muslim Brotherhood but also of that group’s most radical factions;
  • Turkey’s efforts to help Iran bust sanctions, apparently, if recent revelations are to be believed, for the personal profit of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s inner circle;
  • Erdoğan’s support for al-Qaeda financiers such as Yasin al-Qadi; and
  • Turkey’s material support for al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and the free passage it gives international jihadists transiting into Syria.

There is, of course, much, much more, and these don’t even begin to touch Turkey’s domestic transformation into a police-state dismissive of basic freedom.

Many analysts, diplomats, and journalists privately recognized Turkey’s transformation, but whether because of a desire for access, cynical self-censorship as their think-tanks raised money from businessmen affiliated with the prime minister, or outright denial, many refused to declare publicly the change inside Turkey they privately acknowledged (the same holds true with Qatar, but no one has ever confused that state with a democracy). The ostrich-syndrome changed, of course, with the bombshell revelations of corruption and investigations that accompanied the divorce between Erdoğan and his one-time backer, powerful Islamist thinker Fethullah Gülen.

Whatever the motivations for making public the Erdoğan administration’s corruption, there are few who doubt the evidence regarding corruption is truthful. Perhaps that is why Erdoğan in recent weeks has redoubled his efforts to block any public discussion of the topic. In recent days, Erdoğan’s political party, which dominates parliament, has passed a law requiring all Internet providers to obey the government-appointed president of the State Communications Board or his state-appointed deputies to shut down any website or webpage they find objectionable within four hours. Because there is no longer a judicial process to seek a shutdown, Turkey now finds itself in the same category as China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. So much for liberalizing and moving closer to Europe.

In addition, social media will be subject to bans based on keywords. Mention “bribery” or “corruption” on Facebook or Twitter, and the state will delete your entire account. To the State Department’s credit, it has expressed concern regarding the new Internet regulations, although the message from the U.S. embassy regarding recent events has been decidedly mixed.

Erdoğan has gone even farther in recent days. It has now emerged in Turkey that, while traveling in Morocco last June, he called the television station Habertürk to demand the manager remove coverage of an opposition leader. Alas, this has become a pattern. Last Tuesday, the official Turkish state broadcaster TRT cut its coverage of parliament during a speech by the opposition leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. As soon as Kılıçdaroğlu’s speech ended, live coverage of the parliamentary session resumed.

Then, in order to quash coverage of the corruption allegations against several of Erdoğan’s hand-picked ministers, he changed procedure to prevent the case going to parliament, which addresses issues-based ministers’ immunity. The AKP-dominated parliament would not have allowed the prosecutions to continue at any rate, but by bypassing parliament, Erdoğan prevented publication of the details of the charges.

Nevertheless, the stories of corruption keep pouring in. In order to save an ailing media company owned by a close friend of the prime minister, Erdoğan reportedly had his minister of transportation ask several contractors doing business with his government to donate a total of $630 million to a pool. An armored car circulated to pick up the cash. Several businessmen had to take out loans from Ziraat Bankası, a government bank, to pay their shares.

What can be done? What happens in Turkey has never stayed in Turkey. When Turkey was liberalizing and developing as a democracy, successive U.S. administrations treated it as a model. Now that Turkey is reverting to a dictatorship, and a terror-supporting one at that, it is important to criticize its trajectory with the same vehemence with which the United States once supported it. Rather than supplicate to Turkey or provide bully pulpits for Erdoğan and ministers involved in corruption, it is time to treat them—and their representatives in the United States—as pariahs. Rather than meet senior U.S. officials, they should be offered face time only with desk officers or lower-ranking diplomats. Congressmen should re-think their participation in the Congressional Turkey Caucus, unless they really wish to endorse that for which Turkey now stands. And institutions and think-tanks which seek to profit off their partnership with Turkey should be shamed in the same way that those soliciting money from Iran, the Assad regime in Syria, or the Kremlin would.

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Has Turkey Become Pakistan on the Med?

Is Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism? Admittedly, that is a provocative question. Long ago, the White House and State Department corrupted the list of state sponsors of terrorism by allowing subjective diplomatic considerations rather than objective facts to determine who was on the list. The George W. Bush administration, for example, knocked North Korea off the list not because it had ceased supporting terrorism—according to the Congressional Research Service, it was in neck-deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah—but rather because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to entice North Korea to a deal which might benefit Bush’s legacy. Likewise, both Bush and Obama have kept Pakistan off the state sponsor of terrorism list despite that country’s support for the Taliban and protection of senior terrorists up to and including Osama bin Laden.

Recent events in Turkey certainly put Turkey in the same category as Pakistan. Indeed, increasingly, it seems that Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med. Early on Tuesday morning, anti-terrorism police raided six different locations around Turkey in order to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, including depots of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) at Kilis, near the Syrian border. The raids led to the detention of approximately 25 people, some of whom have faced trial for al-Qaeda support, and others who have been active recruiting volunteers to fight with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front inside Syria.

A normal government would celebrate the eradication of al-Qaeda support cells on its territory. Not so, Turkey: By the afternoon, the Turkish government had relieved the officers who had carried out the raids, putting them on mandatory leave. Likewise, when police stopped two buses in Gaziantep apparently headed toward Syria and found ammunition and anti-aircraft weaponry, the result was not prosecution of those on the buses but retaliation against the police officers who had carried out the raid.

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Is Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism? Admittedly, that is a provocative question. Long ago, the White House and State Department corrupted the list of state sponsors of terrorism by allowing subjective diplomatic considerations rather than objective facts to determine who was on the list. The George W. Bush administration, for example, knocked North Korea off the list not because it had ceased supporting terrorism—according to the Congressional Research Service, it was in neck-deep with both the Tamil Tigers and Hezbollah—but rather because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wanted to entice North Korea to a deal which might benefit Bush’s legacy. Likewise, both Bush and Obama have kept Pakistan off the state sponsor of terrorism list despite that country’s support for the Taliban and protection of senior terrorists up to and including Osama bin Laden.

Recent events in Turkey certainly put Turkey in the same category as Pakistan. Indeed, increasingly, it seems that Turkey has become Pakistan on the Med. Early on Tuesday morning, anti-terrorism police raided six different locations around Turkey in order to disrupt al-Qaeda operations, including depots of the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) at Kilis, near the Syrian border. The raids led to the detention of approximately 25 people, some of whom have faced trial for al-Qaeda support, and others who have been active recruiting volunteers to fight with al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front inside Syria.

A normal government would celebrate the eradication of al-Qaeda support cells on its territory. Not so, Turkey: By the afternoon, the Turkish government had relieved the officers who had carried out the raids, putting them on mandatory leave. Likewise, when police stopped two buses in Gaziantep apparently headed toward Syria and found ammunition and anti-aircraft weaponry, the result was not prosecution of those on the buses but retaliation against the police officers who had carried out the raid.

There have been reports in the Western press about how police stopped a truck apparently carrying weapons destined for the Nusra Front and other radical factions in Syria. The back story is interesting: after a local prosecutor ordered a search, the governor of Adana ordered police to stop their search and explained that the prime minister wanted the police search warrant canceled and the shipment to go through to Syria.

When the Turkish government is knowingly allowing its territory to be used to support al-Qaeda-linked factions in Syria and when, indeed, it seems to be directly supplying such factions with arms, money, and material, then it has become a sponsor of terrorism as directly as Iran is with regard to Hezbollah, and Pakistan should be considered with regard to the Taliban.

As a side note, several years ago I testified in the first full House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing dedicated to Turkey’s changing foreign policy. During the course of the hearing, Rep. Gerry Connolly, a Virginia democratic and co-chair of the Congressional Turkey Caucus, took umbrage toward all the witnesses, and made it clear that he did not see criticism of Turkey’s foreign-policy direction to be legitimate. He was wrong, but he was not alone. How unfortunate it is that rather than use its influence to keep Turkey from going so far off the rails, the men and women of the Congressional Turkey Caucus used their position to obfuscate and defend Turkey, even at the expense of American national security. It is tragic that they could have prevented real damage but, for the sake of some cocktails at the Turkish ambassador’s residence and some junkets to Istanbul, they chose not to do so. It should never be too late, however, for those who truly care about Turkey to demand real accountability for its actions, before it moves further down the path of Pakistan and terror sponsorship.

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Turkey: Between Deep State and Dictatorship

Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

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Turkey, at the beginning of 2014, looks remarkably different than Turkey just a year ago. Certainly, the luster has worn off Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who, just a year ago, looked on course to pass a new constitution which would enable him to lead Turkey as president for another decade, at least. Western supporters and many Turkish liberals described Fethullah Gülen as an enlightened force for religious tolerance and a man committed to reform and democracy.

Today, Turkey is moving toward one-man rule. How ironic it is that as so many Arab regimes swept out strong-man dictatorships, Erdoğan seeks to have Turkey become one. Perhaps Fethullah Gülen pushed him to it: Gülen’s minions permeate the security force and, once Erdoğan threatened Gülen’s revenue stream by seeking to close down his lucrative exam prep school enterprise, the police launched corruption probes against Erdoğan’s supporters, including his own son.

How ironic it is that while Western academics and liberals once railed against the deep state in Turkey, a reference to the shadowy networks of generals and intelligence officials who seemed to pull the levers behind the curtains, the past month’s events show that Gülen himself leads the deep state.

I spent the past week in Paris and Brussels meeting with Turkish parliamentarians. We were initially going to meet in Istanbul and Ankara, but they all believed they would be more free to speak candidly outside of Turkey, given how Gülen’s followers in the security forces now monitor the phone calls, tap the offices, and monitor the conversations in restaurants of parliamentarians, journalists, and foreigners. One parliamentarian made a good point: as critical as Turks are about Erdoğan, at least the prime minister was elected and, in theory, can be ousted in an election. No one, in contrast, ever elected Gülen, although the shadowy cult leader aspires to wield as much power as the prime minister.

The real danger now, however, has been Erdoğan’s reaction to the scandal. Whereas he once depicted himself and his party as anti-corruption crusaders, he now seeks to protect the corrupt and punish those questioning such corruption. In the last couple weeks, he has reassigned or displaced more than 2,500 police officers, and effectively frozen the corruption cases against his son, associates, and his friends. The Justice and Development Party (AKP)-controlled legislature passed an urgent bill to place the judiciary under executive control, enabling the minister of justice to appoint and remove both prosecutors and judges. The constitutional court will likely overturn that law, but the way Turkish law works, should the court strike down the law, it will have no retroactive effect: Any judge or prosecutor removed or reassigned in the past few weeks will remain in their new positions and will not win their old jobs back.

Now the AKP-dominated legislature is considering another bill that will allow the government to shut down any website immediately. Should that bill pass, the power of Internet censorship will shift from the courts to the government.

Turks say they will take to the streets on Saturday. If that demonstration moves forward, the reaction of the government will be perhaps the best indicator of what Turkey has become.

Perhaps it is time for some reflection in the White House and State Department, not to mention several think tanks and universities, about how it was that they got Erdoğan and Gülen so wrong. Too many American universities have taken money from Gülen-related institutions to organize conferences or publish books attesting to Gülen’s moderation and wisdom. Many think tanks—including some of those normally skeptical of Islamist movements—consciously moderated their assessments of the AKP in order to preserve access to the State Department. If think-tanks are to retain their value, however, intellectual integrity should trump the willingness to be yes-men. Most importantly, it’s time Congress or others lead an independent assessment of the past decade of State Department reporting to determine who got the AKP right, who got it wrong and, most importantly, why assessments about Erdoğan, his character, and the AKP were so inaccurate.

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Europe Should Say No to Turkey for Good

Not only does Turkey dream about being a member of the European Union, but the future of Europe depends on it. At least that is the narrative put forward by both American officials and many European diplomats for quite some time. In 2009, for example, President Obama said that European Union membership would “firmly anchor” Turkey in Europe.

Whether out of conviction or a desire for access, some U.S.-based Turkey analysts also push the line, and suggest that EU membership will further Turkey’s reform and bolster Europe’s economy.

Such sentiments may be politically correct, but they are nonsense. Rather than become more democratic or truly reform, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into a banana republic. In recent days, he has not only fired police chiefs across the country to ensure that his own personal cronies take their place, but has moved to punish Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor once embraced for targeting Turkey’s generals, but who now is a pariah for questioning those in the prime minister’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Öz released a statement detailing the threats he received. “Soon after the first wave of warrants,” he wrote, “I was called to a meeting by two people from the high judiciary. We met in a hotel in Bursa. They told me that Erdoğan was very angry with me. They asked me to write an apology letter to Erdoğan and stop the investigations. Otherwise I would have to suffer the consequences ….” Despite the constant threats he now receives, Erdoğan has stripped him of security. He is, effectively, a dead man walking.

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Not only does Turkey dream about being a member of the European Union, but the future of Europe depends on it. At least that is the narrative put forward by both American officials and many European diplomats for quite some time. In 2009, for example, President Obama said that European Union membership would “firmly anchor” Turkey in Europe.

Whether out of conviction or a desire for access, some U.S.-based Turkey analysts also push the line, and suggest that EU membership will further Turkey’s reform and bolster Europe’s economy.

Such sentiments may be politically correct, but they are nonsense. Rather than become more democratic or truly reform, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has transformed Turkey into a banana republic. In recent days, he has not only fired police chiefs across the country to ensure that his own personal cronies take their place, but has moved to punish Zekeriya Öz, the prosecutor once embraced for targeting Turkey’s generals, but who now is a pariah for questioning those in the prime minister’s inner circle. On Tuesday, Öz released a statement detailing the threats he received. “Soon after the first wave of warrants,” he wrote, “I was called to a meeting by two people from the high judiciary. We met in a hotel in Bursa. They told me that Erdoğan was very angry with me. They asked me to write an apology letter to Erdoğan and stop the investigations. Otherwise I would have to suffer the consequences ….” Despite the constant threats he now receives, Erdoğan has stripped him of security. He is, effectively, a dead man walking.

At its root, the reason for the corruption scandal targeting Erdoğan’s inner circle was the prime minister’s targeting of a network of lucrative test-prep centers run by adherent of Fethullah Gülen. That many Western-leaning Turks, diplomats, and journalists now place their hopes in Gülen, a shadowy religious cult leader whose about-face has been motivated not by democratic enlightenment but personal spite and greed, reinforces the notion that not only is Turkey not ready for Europe, but it never will be. Within Turkey, demography favors the conservative, Islamist-leaning followers of Erdoğan. Both Erdoğan and Gülen’s recent behavior show that real democratic culture has not accompanied the much-heralded reforms implemented by Erdoğan.

No matter who comes out in Turkey’s political struggle, it is time once and for all to put to rest the idea that Turkey will ever join Europe, nor should it. Enabling Turkish membership into the European Union would at this point be little different in effect than allowing Egyptian, Syrian, Lebanese, or Libyan accession. Policy must be based on reality, not wishful thinking. Erdoğan should go down in history as the man that ruined Turkey’s decade-long dream.

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No, Fethullah Gülen Isn’t a Savior

It’s hard not to applaud Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for apparently blowing the whistle on the massive corruption scandal that now touches several Turkish ministers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, and perhaps the prime minister himself. The prosecutor’s surprise raids have also shown light on financial dealings which—aside from enriching Erdoğan’s cronies—also apparently assisted Iranian sanctions evasion and helped al-Qaeda expand its network into Syria.

The problem is Gülen’s motive. Erdoğan is an arrogant man, and he has grown more arrogant with each election victory. He came to believe that he either no longer needed Gülen’s support or was strong enough to win a battle with Gülen and put the Hizmat movement leader in his place. Hence, his decision last November to close the Gülen movement’s test prep schools throughout Turkey. The schools are key to Gülen, not only because they are lucrative—and the Gülen movement is basically an international conglomerate—but also because they are useful for recruiting and indoctrination. They also fill a void and provide a useful service which Turks readily embrace.

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It’s hard not to applaud Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen for apparently blowing the whistle on the massive corruption scandal that now touches several Turkish ministers, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan, and perhaps the prime minister himself. The prosecutor’s surprise raids have also shown light on financial dealings which—aside from enriching Erdoğan’s cronies—also apparently assisted Iranian sanctions evasion and helped al-Qaeda expand its network into Syria.

The problem is Gülen’s motive. Erdoğan is an arrogant man, and he has grown more arrogant with each election victory. He came to believe that he either no longer needed Gülen’s support or was strong enough to win a battle with Gülen and put the Hizmat movement leader in his place. Hence, his decision last November to close the Gülen movement’s test prep schools throughout Turkey. The schools are key to Gülen, not only because they are lucrative—and the Gülen movement is basically an international conglomerate—but also because they are useful for recruiting and indoctrination. They also fill a void and provide a useful service which Turks readily embrace.

While it is good that Gülen appears to bless a new transparency in Turkish politics, it is important to remember both that his about-face is based not in principle but self-interest and that Gülen enabled the tremendous corruption and abuses of power in which Erdoğan engaged.

Gülen’s followers dominate the security forces which Erdoğan wielded without mercy against his political opposition and the press. Gülen professes tolerance, but his own past is checkered. And while he has his own media network with the daily Zaman at is head, there is a disturbing difference in tone between Zaman and its English version, Today’s Zaman. Diplomats who only read the latter may not be aware that anti-Semitic conspiracies infect if not Gülen, then those around him and his top supporters.

Transparency is necessary in Turkey if there will be justice and reform. It is naïve to believe that the enemy of an enemy is a friend, or that Gülen’s apparent acquiescence to pursuit of the corruption allegations against Erdoğan means a fundamental difference in Turkey’s future. President Abdullah Gül has kept largely quiet, but has seemed more willing to accommodate Gülen and has taken many of his adherents into his inner circle. Gül is far more polished than Erdoğan, and presents a more professional face, but the difference in style masks a similar disdain for the separation of mosque and state that once marked Turkey’s imperfect democracy. Let us hope that reform continues, but there will never be any true and lasting reform until Gülen opens himself to the same sort of investigation which he once encouraged against Turkey’s so-called “Deep State,” and now seeks against Erdoğan and his inner circle.

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Release the Ergenekon and Balyoz Suspects

The current crisis in Turkey should be cause for reflection on a number of fronts. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted with umbrage that the security forces who he had wielded against his political enemies have now turned against him. The reason for that split lays in the growing antagonism between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader whose followers dominate the security forces and for years had worked hand-in-glove with Erdoğan in their shared desire to breakdown the separation between mosque and state in Turkey.

Putting the reasons for their split aside, the current crisis shines a spotlight on Erdoğan’s concept of justice and the role of courts. To put it bluntly, Erdoğan believes not in impartial justice, but rather vengeance. Or perhaps he believes that he personifies justice and so that he personifies right and wrong without regard to law. Hence, it should not surprise that Erdoğan’s reaction to the corruption probe was to fire the investigator and threaten a wholesale upheaval of the courts.

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The current crisis in Turkey should be cause for reflection on a number of fronts. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has reacted with umbrage that the security forces who he had wielded against his political enemies have now turned against him. The reason for that split lays in the growing antagonism between Erdoğan and Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist leader whose followers dominate the security forces and for years had worked hand-in-glove with Erdoğan in their shared desire to breakdown the separation between mosque and state in Turkey.

Putting the reasons for their split aside, the current crisis shines a spotlight on Erdoğan’s concept of justice and the role of courts. To put it bluntly, Erdoğan believes not in impartial justice, but rather vengeance. Or perhaps he believes that he personifies justice and so that he personifies right and wrong without regard to law. Hence, it should not surprise that Erdoğan’s reaction to the corruption probe was to fire the investigator and threaten a wholesale upheaval of the courts.

Evidence of Erdoğan’s abuse of justice are multifold. Back in 2005, frustrated that Turkey’s constitutional court had deemed some of Erdoğan’s agenda unconstitutional, parliamentary speaker and Erdoğan confidant Bülent Arınç (since promoted to deputy prime minister) threatened to use the AKP dissolve the constitutional court if its judges kept allowing law to get in the way of agenda.

The real travesty has been with regard to two alleged coup plots—the Ergenekon and Balyoz conspiracies—in whose names Erdoğan has targeted journalists and political opponents. I had detailed the many problems involved in the Ergenekon case here, and most international analysts pointed out that the Balyoz evidence was not only fraudulent, but a sloppy fraud at that. It is a shame upon Western diplomats, human-rights organizations, and journalists that all were willing to turn a blind eye to the travesties of justice so long as the targets happened to be military or old guard politicians. Just because a figure is a general or a secularist does not make them automatically bad people.

There are dozens of former officials, journalists, and generals in prison right now, condemned to die behind bars simply because Erdoğan disagrees with their world view and seeks vengeance. Now that the emperor has no clothes, it is time for Western diplomats to pressure for Turkey to right its wrongs. It was a mistake ever to give Erdoğan the benefit of the doubt, or to provide the judiciary the benefit of the doubt based on its reputation after Erdoğan and former allies from the Gülenist movement had worked so tirelessly to undermine it. Every single Ergenekon and Balyoz convict should walk free, and should win millions of Turkish Lira in compensation. Perhaps the state might even pay them from the tens of millions of Turkish lira in ill-gotten wealth Erdoğan and his cronies have apparently amassed.

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Will Masud Barzani Become Iraqi President?

It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

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It has now been more than a year since Iraqi President Jalal Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke. And while Kurdish authorities have recently released another photograph showing that despite persistent rumors he is still alive, the refusal to allow visitors or release any video of Talabani speaking seems to suggest that concerns about his mental and physical abilities are warranted. It is understood across the Iraqi ethnic, sectarian, and political spectrum that Talabani will not return. And while Iraqis are willing to maintain the fiction that he is still president, they have been discussing for months his successor.

Visiting Basra, Baghdad, and Kirkuk last summer, I was surprised to hear a suggestion from a wide range of officials that Masud Barzani, the head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, might take over as Iraq’s president after next year’s elections.

While it might seem illogical that Barzani would move to Baghdad, it’s actually not so farfetched. Barzani might like to depict himself as a Kurdish nationalist leader, but that’s always been more a means to an end rather than the end itself. For Barzani, power, money, and title trumps Kurdish nationalism: How else to explain Barzani inviting Saddam Hussein’s hated Republican Guards to Erbil in 1996, or more recently his efforts to undercut Kurdish autonomy in Syrian Kurdistan, or his willingness to cooperate with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to undercut Kurdish officials inside Turkey. Being president of Iraq can be a lucrative position, and Masud—who lives in a former mountaintop resort he confiscated for his own personal use—likes the finer things in life.

The Iranian government, for its part, is also in favor of a Barzani presidency. Their reason, according to various Iraqi politicians, is more Machiavellian: If Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen as Tehran’s man in Baghdad (an exaggerated characterization as Maliki is an Iraqi nationalist, but he does listen and consider quite carefully what the Iranians say), then Nechirvan Barzani, currently the prime minister in Iraqi Kurdistan, is Iran’s man in Erbil, paying as much deference if not more to Qods Force chief Qasim Suleimani and the other powers that be in Tehran as Maliki does. If Masud Barzani goes to Baghdad, and the Kurds eliminate the presidency in favor of a stronger premiership, then the Islamic Republic figures it’s game, set, match in Iraq, with Masud Barzani shunted off to some honorary position. That U.S. officials also find Nechirvan (and Maliki) professionals seems to suggest that both have the support of the powers whose opinion still counts in Iraq.

Masud is being coy, but he seems to want the job. He is term-limited, and his second term as president should have ended several months ago. He has illegally extended his term to remain president for a couple more years, but that might simply be to wait until the spot formally opens in Baghdad. Certainly, Barzani’s rivals would be glad to have him out of Kurdistan, be it for selfish reasons or because Barzani’s tribal mentality has always held back more progressive forces.

There are problems with such a scenario. It’s bad for Iraq, for it confirms—in the word of one Iraqi official—the transactional nature of Iraqi politics, and sets Iraq down the path of the Lebanon model of confessional (and ethnic) politics. And Barzani does not have Talabani’s talent. He seldom sees the big picture and often exacerbates conflict rather than calms it. Many Sunni Arabs may be upset that they will not achieve the presidency, even if Usama al-Nujayfi wields more power as speaker of parliament. Masud’s eldest son Masrour might also cause trouble if left out: He sees himself as a natural successor to his father, and would object to the far more talented Nechirvan Barzani effectively becoming the kingmaker in Kurdistan.

It’s a game of thrones right now in Iraq, and it looks like Masud Barzani might win the title of which he’s always dreamed, even if the reason has less to do with his individual talents and more to do with others seeking to rise up in his place. While Maliki’s reelection remains uncertain (another sign that Iraq is not the dictatorship some claim; not too many autocrats have to fight for their political lives at the ballot box), Barzani’s new role at this point in time seems a sure thing. Whether the United States is ready for that scenario: well, that’s another question whose answer is far from clear.

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Turkey Scandal’s Al-Qaeda Angle

Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

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Turkey’s current corruption scandal has thrown Turkish politics into disarray. For the first time in more than a decade outside of the normal election cycle, ministers are resigning or being forced from office. Egemen Bağış, according to Turkish news reports an apparent target of the corruption probe, urged AKP officials to circle the wagons against the backdrop of a continuing investigation. For his part, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ranting once again about external conspiracies, although for once he is not blaming Jews, Washington think-tanks, or “the interest rate lobby,” focusing his ire instead on the followers of exiled Islamist leader Fethullah Gülen. Rather than root out corruption, Erdoğan seems more inclined to punish the investigators.

There may be more than one reason why Erdoğan seeks to muzzle the investigation, whatever the imagery of such actions and whatever the political cost. It’s not just the political embarrassment of presiding over such a scandal. The investigation has already touched Erdoğan’s son Bilal, and it also seems that Erdoğan’s appointees sought to cash in on the gas-for-gold scheme by which Turkey helped Iran avoid sanctions.

Now it seems that the corruption being exposed also has an al-Qaeda angle that harkens back to the Yasin al-Qadi affair. In that case, Cuneyt Zapsu, a close Erdoğan confidant, donated money to Qadi, a Saudi businessman designated by the U.S. Treasury Department to be a “specially designated global terrorist.” Rather than distance himself from Zapsu, the prime minister doubled down and lent Qadi his personal endorsement.

Fast forward to the present day: According to Turkish interlocutors, there are consistent irregularities in 28 government tenders totaling in the tens of billions of dollars, in which kickbacks and other payments were made, a portion of which Turkish investigators believe ended up with al-Qadi’s funds and charities. These funds and charities were then used to support al-Qaeda affiliates and other radical Islamist groups operating in Syria like the Nusra Front. Erdoğan thought he had his plausible denial, but it seems that Turkish government funds supported the growth of these groups, which are responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands and which subsumed the more moderate opposition.

President Obama has called Erdoğan one of the five foreign leaders he most trusted. Such trust was entirely undeserved and, given the snowballing revelations about just what Erdoğan and his close associates were doing, seems to increasingly symbolize the lack of Obama’s judgment in picking friends and confidants.

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The Problem of the Middle East’s First Sons

The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

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The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Moammar Gaddafi had Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, held by the new Libyan government and wanted by the International Criminal Court; and Hosni Mubarak had Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, both awaiting trial on various corruption charges (despite being acquitted in one case last week). Ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s eldest son Bafil is facing trial in Great Britain for defrauding investment partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, while younger son Qubad is neck deep in the family business. Iraqi Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour is, in theory, the intelligence chief for the autonomous Kurdish government. In practice, according to conversations with human-rights monitors, he uses his position and the security forces he has under his control to ensure businessmen understand that he and his family should get a piece of the pie. When Masud Barzani’s second son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million gambling in one of Dubai’s illegal casinos, the Kurdish leader quickly cut short an official visit and left the United Arab Emirates. The pattern continues: Iraqis resent the involvement of Ahmad Maliki, the son of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in businesses which benefit from his father’s position. Such business dealings and relationships go without saying in the monarchies of the Persian Gulf with the exception, of course, of Oman whose ruler Sultan Qaboos is unmarried and has no children.

It is true that such a pattern is not limited to the Middle East. While his father Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the United Nations, Kojo Annan sought to profit from UN deals. And both Africa’s dictatorships and its nascent democracies also see sons of presidents and rulers seeking to cash in on their fathers’ positions.

It may be fashionable to look the other way and pretend such corruption does not occur. Western universities go farther and happily welcome donations of questionable money to honor dictatorial dynasties. But building false images of such countries does no favors, nor does it reflect well on a new generation of rulers that they encourage their sons to accumulate as much money as possible rather than distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

Erdoğan has been fond of describing Turkey as a democracy and bragging for more than a decade about the reforms he claims to have implemented. If attorneys are allowed to question Bilal Erdoğan and, if warranted, force him to face justice as a man equal to any Turk or Kurd in Turkey, then he should be congratulated for standing on principle. If he wants his son to stand above justice, however, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirms the notion that Turkey is no democracy and  he himself is little more than yet one more self-important Middle Eastern potentate.

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