Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkey

Erdogan Enhances Censorship Ahead of Snap Polls

As predicted, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had absolutely no intention of abiding by the results of the June 7, 2015 when, for the first time in more than 12 years, his Justice and Development lost its majority in parliament. Joining a coalition means compromising with opposition parties rather than continuing his own tyranny of the plurality.

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As predicted, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had absolutely no intention of abiding by the results of the June 7, 2015 when, for the first time in more than 12 years, his Justice and Development lost its majority in parliament. Joining a coalition means compromising with opposition parties rather than continuing his own tyranny of the plurality.

Hence, Erdoğan has called snap-elections for November 1. Erdoğan is no gambler, however, and he will not trust his fate to the voters determining their party pick on an even playing field.

While Turkish diplomats and perhaps their American counterparts as well seek to spin recent military operations as renewed Turkish seriousness in the fight against the Islamic State, they are anything but. Turkey’s military disproportionately targeted the Kurds who have been fighting the Islamic State, and they have launched repeated airstrikes as well at the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) presence in northern Iraq, never mind the ceasefire to which Erdoğan had earlier agreed. Indeed, it’s all well and good to suggest that Turkey is fighting a renewed insurgency but the renewed outbreak of insurgency was largely Erdoğan’s political decision. In reality, it would be just as accurate to say that Erdoğan’s regime has killed dozens if not hundreds of Turkish citizens since his party’s relatively poor showing in the June elections. Simply put, Erdoğan believes a crisis works in his favor and undercuts the electoral hopes of Turkey’s Kurds.

But fomenting crisis is only one mechanism by which Erdoğan will seek to cement his power. He has also taken censorship inside Turkey to new heights to prevent his opponents from pushing out their message online. “Radical Democrat” blogger Gürkan Özturan gives a chilling new report on Erdoğan crackdown on Internet news sites:

[The] Turkish government has been involved in ‘online security’ policies as far back as 2007 with the law numbered 5651, Law Regulating Digital Publications, which has very quickly expanded from its original aim and started targeting political dissent and criticism. The law originally had been designed to punish those involved in child pornography, yet was later expanded to also protect national symbols… An estimated number of more than 90,000 websites have been blocked due to this law and many keep getting added on a daily basis. Turkey still is by far the worst country in filing content removal requests from world Internet giants such as Twitter, Google and Facebook. Since the general elections that ended 13-year-governing AK Party’s single-party rule on June 8th… Over a hundred news agency and newspaper websites have been closed down by government’s telecommunications authority and decision of Gölbaşı courts in Ankara. The court mandates blocking access to websites do not even mention a reason of the decision. However, due to latest update of the law numbered 5651, based on the article 8, the prime minister may request blocking access to a website due to national security reasons, and there is no further questioning necessary for the court.

Most of the newly censored websites service largely ethnic Kurdish areas of Turkey. In effect, what is unfolding is not a fight against terrorism, as Erdoğan cynically pitches it, but rather a two-pronged assault on Turkey’s ethnic Kurds for the crime of not voting for Erdoğan when he demanded it. Erdoğan’s game plan now is effective to disenfranchise Kurds so that he can again gain the majority and to legalize the agenda he has already decreed through a rubber-stamp.

The United States should not allow itself to be used to further Erdoğan’s agenda. If Erdoğan forces a choice between a Turkish dictatorship and the Kurds, perhaps it’s time to turn America’s back to Erdoğan, just as the Israel, Egyptian, Libyan, Palestinian Authority, United Arab Emirates, and many other governments have. If Erdoğan seeks to drown Turkey in political sewage, there is no reason for American diplomats to swear they smell roses.

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Turkey’s Fifth Coup

Speaking at a ceremony to open a new mountaintop mosque in Güneysu, near his hometown of Rize, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared:

“There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one. The president should conduct his duties for the nation directly, but within his authority. Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution.”

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Speaking at a ceremony to open a new mountaintop mosque in Güneysu, near his hometown of Rize, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared:

“There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one. The president should conduct his duties for the nation directly, but within his authority. Whether one accepts it or not, Turkey’s administrative system has changed. Now, what should be done is to update this de facto situation in the legal framework of the constitution.”

In other words, while the presidency inside Turkey was once largely symbolic and above politics, Erdoğan has declared by fiat that Turkey has a new system in which he, as president, rules supreme no matter what powers Turkey’s Constitution imbues in the parliament and no matter what the laws of the land might say. The only job of the parliament, he suggest, which his party dominates is to alter the constitution and the legal code to reflect the new reality as Erdoğan sees it. It’s not the Reichstag fire, but in terms of illegal power grabs and consolidation of dictatorship, it might as well be.

The backdrop to this, of course, were the June 7, 2015 parliamentary elections in which, for the first time in nearly 13 years, Erdoğan’s “Justice and Development Party” (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) lost its parliamentary majority. While many diplomats and commentators celebrated the failure of the AKP to secure a majority as a sign that the structure of the Turkey’s system was strong enough to withstand Erdoğan’s abuses, their optimism was misplaced. As predicted here in Commentary, Erdoğan was able to stymie formation of a new government. By fomenting a crisis with Syria and targeting the same Kurds whose electoral support he once sought, Erdoğan hopes that he can suppress the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) in the next election that could come as early as November and rule once again as if in a one-party autocracy.

Simply put, what is unfolding is a coup. Erdoğan and his supporters have long railed against Turkey’s culture of coups: the military directly overthrew the Turkish government in 1960 and 1980, and pressured the Turkish government to step down in 1973 and 1997. Such anti-coup rhetoric and the re-legislation of the past was music to the ears of American and European diplomats, too many journalists, human rights activists, and civil society leaders who supported Erdoğan’s targeting of former military leaders and his efforts to unravel any military role as guarantor of the constitution.

U.S. diplomats should, for once, speak with clarity: They should consider Erdoğan’s remarks confirmation of Turkey’s fifth coup. Perhaps Secretary of State John Kerry and Congress can quibble about the implications of formally confirming a coup, but at the very least, the same public conversation needs to be had just as occurred in the aftermath of the 2009 Honduras coup or the 2013 Egypt coup.

Certainly, the White House and State Department will argue that they cannot formally classify what has occurred in Turkey as a coup, because to do so would cut off aid and assistance at the very moment the United States needs Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). The reality is, however, that Turkey is more an impediment to the defeat of the Islamic State than it is an asset. Out of political spite or racist hatred, Erdoğan would rather kill largely secular Kurds than the sex-slavers manning the would-be Caliphate. Turkey will suffer Islamic State and al-Qaeda blowback, just as Saudi Arabia faced, and Syria still faces, blowback for their own support of radical jihadists. When Turkish authorities decide they have no choice but to fight radicalism and Islamist terrorism on the home front, they will. Until Turkey’s concept of its own self-interest coincides with that of the West and, for that matter, moderates in the Middle East, coddling Turkey will achieve nothing. Turkey is not indispensable and, if there’s any lesson from the last decade, it is that indulging Turkey in the short-term will not bolster peace and security in the long-term; quite the contrary, it would be a recipe for disaster.

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Time to Grant Political Asylum to Turks

The United States has long served as a haven for those facing political oppression abroad. While critics of current immigration policy complain about the number of economic migrants which come to the United States, even the most strident immigration opponents tend to make an exception for dissidents targeted fleeing autocracies because of speech, religion, or democracy activism. Russian, Cuban, and Chinese dissidents have often sought refuge in the United States once the autocracies that they sought to reform sought to imprison or kill them. At the time, before the current age of moral equivalency and rationalization of repression, dissidents the world over understood the United States stood for freedom and liberty. Read More

The United States has long served as a haven for those facing political oppression abroad. While critics of current immigration policy complain about the number of economic migrants which come to the United States, even the most strident immigration opponents tend to make an exception for dissidents targeted fleeing autocracies because of speech, religion, or democracy activism. Russian, Cuban, and Chinese dissidents have often sought refuge in the United States once the autocracies that they sought to reform sought to imprison or kill them. At the time, before the current age of moral equivalency and rationalization of repression, dissidents the world over understood the United States stood for freedom and liberty.

While Iraqis, Afghans, Taiwanese, Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Colombians, Israelis, Syrians, and others now understand they should not trust America, freedom can be enticing. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2014, China accounted for 45 percent of asylum claims; India represented one-tenth of that, and Ethiopia, Nepal, and Egypt accounted for another three percent each. Other countries singled out by name were notoriously repressive Eritrea, the former Soviet Union, and a number of Latin American countries.

It may soon be time to add Turkey to the list. Diplomats may still pay lip service to a U.S. ally, but Turkey can increasingly be a deadly place for those opposing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s dictatorial tendencies and alleged corruption. U.S. diplomats believe that Erdoğan has siphoned money off into at least eight different Swiss bank accounts, and phone taps seem to suggest that Erdoğan has another billion squirreled away in his homes. A summary of the corruption allegations against Turkey’s strongman can be found here.

Erdoğan does not hesitate to use the powers of state to target those who resist his policies or who disagree with him ideologically. Take this case, for example, from 2005 in which Erdoğan imprisoned a university rector on laughably false charges because he refused to acquiesce to Islamization of his university. Then, of course, there were the paranoid and contrived “Ergenekon” and “Balyoz” conspiracies in which Erdoğan had his brown shirts roll up hundreds of real and perceived opponents. He has also targeted those who intercepted Turkish weapons shipments to an Al Qaeda-affiliate inside Syria.

Now, Erdoğan is targeting prosecutors who sought to pursue the corruption allegations, forcing them to flee first into Georgia and, with Turkey seeking their extradition, into Armenia.

It’s all well and good for diplomats to make nice noises about how Turkey is a partner, but if the United States truly wants to help Turks, perhaps it’s time to open up our doors to those fleeing persecution from an increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian leader. What complications that might cause in the short-term would be more than overcome in the long-term as Turks recognizes that in their hour of need, the United States stood with the people against their oppressor.

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Barzani Illustrates Why U.S. Shouldn’t Arm Kurds Directly

The Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, have put their lives on the line to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Whatever any American politician, diplomat, or analyst thinks of Kurdish nationalism or any particular Kurdish political party, there is unanimity in the desire that the Kurds defeat the Islamic State.

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The Kurds, both in Iraq and Syria, have put their lives on the line to fight the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh). Whatever any American politician, diplomat, or analyst thinks of Kurdish nationalism or any particular Kurdish political party, there is unanimity in the desire that the Kurds defeat the Islamic State.

While the Syrian Kurds (YPG) have, with very few resources, largely succeeded against the Islamic State, the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have struggled. Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga loyal to Masoud Barzani and commanded by his sons refused to send reinforcements to Mount Sinjar ahead of the Islamic State assault, refused to send supplies, and then largely abandoned the Yezidis to the Islamic State. Many Barzani family members fled Erbil a year ago as it looked the Islamic state might break through the lines; to this day, the Kurdish government refuses to release the flight manifests from those commercial planes and private jets that departed Erbil’s International Airport at the moment of crisis.

U.S. air power helped the Kurds avert disaster, and the Peshmerga have fought to a standstill since. They may not have scored the gains of the Iraqi Army at Tikrit and Beiji, but neither have they suffered the losses, such as at Fallujah. In short, the Kurds have fought to a standstill.

Ever since, Kurdish leaders have argued that if only the United States would supply weaponry directly to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and bypass the government in Baghdad, the Kurds could roll back the Islamic State further. Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in Washington, DC, has talked a good game and swayed many senators, most notably Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) who had sponsored an ultimately unsuccessful bill calling for the United States to ship weaponry directly to Erbil. Alas, Abdul Rahman played Boxer and Ernst: According to some Congressional aides who attended private meetings and/or public events, she falsely claimed to U.S. officials that Baghdad had blocked weapons shipments. There was certainly tension between former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Barzani, but Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has neither delayed nor hampered weapons shipments. Here, for example, is a list of recent deliveries of military equipment to the Kurdish Regional Government from international donors via Baghdad. This list, of course, does not include the military equipment delivered directly to the Kurds by Bulgaria, Germany, Hungary, or Iran.

One of the chief arguments against the direct provision of weaponry to the KRG is that the weaponry doesn’t get to where it’s needed. Take Kirkuk, for example, labeled the “Jerusalem of Kurdistan” by a succession of Kurdish leaders. It has been in the Islamic State’s crosshairs, and yet Barzani has not released donated weaponry to it because its Kurdish population regularly favors rival Kurdish parties.

Barzani had led Iraqi Kurdistan since he returned to the region against the backdrop of the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, the KRG parliament established the Kurdistan Regional Presidency, allowing the president to serve two consecutive four-year terms. Barzani is now in the tenth year of his constitutional eight-year mandate.

Because a new Kurdish constitution allowing him continuing leadership has yet to be ratified and Barzani’s extra-constitutional extension expires on August 19, in theory, Kurdistan could soon have a new president the next day, as Parliamentary Speaker Yousif Mohammed from the Gorran Movement would become temporary president until parliament could elect a new president. As usual, the Kurdistan Tribune has the best overview and explanation of the current predicament.

Barzani has responded to this possibility first with a long and rambling statement, demanding snap elections for the presidency, regardless of the constitution. Then, yesterday, he took a page from Arab autocrats and staged a display of force in downtown Erbil (the Facebook page is from a news agency run by Barzani’s nephew, the current prime minister). This does not surprise. Barzani has no intention to step down: He seeks to rule for life and then allow his son Masrour to succeed him. His partisans claim him to be indispensable while others argue that transition would be unwise against the backdrop of the Islamic State threat. This is disingenuous, because with this display of power in central Erbil, Barzani is reinforcing the fact that he treats the military as a personal militia, and that he would sooner turn it on his political rivals or Kurdish civilians than dispatch it to the front lines where it is needed. Like Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Qaddafi, Barzani has exposed himself less as a nationalist than simply an egoist. That’s ultimately a problem for the Kurds to resolve, but Boxer, Ernst, their Senate colleagues should think long and hard about how and why Kurdish representatives and lobbyists played them.

As for the defeat of the Islamic State, here’s a modest proposal: Whether equipment and aid is being sent to Turkey, the YPG, the Iraqi Army, or the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga, there should be far more verification as to its end use. U.S. advisors should be embedded in the war rooms and logistical centers of each group receiving American assistance to make sure it is not only delivered to the government or entity in question, but then actually gets to where it is needed. It should not be the job of U.S. taxpayers to subsidize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s murder of Turkish or Syrian Kurds, as he lets the Islamic State go largely freely, nor should Baghdad be trusted blindly given the political turmoil in Iraq. Critics accuse the YPG of ethnic cleansing, although there’s not much evidence to support such claims beyond the fog of war. Still, the YPG would certainly accept advisors and monitors if that were a condition of substantive aid. As for Iraqi Kurdistan, Barzani’s latest antics suggest a major reassessment is in order. The Kurds deserve U.S. support, but making sure cargo planes take off from Baghdad and land in Erbil is not enough. It’s long past time that the international community make aid to the Kurdistan Regional Government conditional on donor nation presence in war rooms and logistical centers to ensure that Barzani does not misappropriate the equipment to pursue political rather than military ends.

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Gülen Schools and Rule-of-Law in Turkey

Much has been written about religious thinker Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement. To many, it is the most promising example of a peaceful movement to tie Islamic modernism to Western notions of liberalism. To others, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I personally have often written quite critically of the movement. I have recently reconsidered some of my criticism, not because I support the movement — I do not — but, rather, because I accept that many of its followers were hoodwinked by their belief that Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was sincere in his desire to reform Turkey and end persecution of opposition, be they religious or otherwise. Once Erdoğan turned the machinery of state upon Gülen and his followers, they recognized that they had been had. In this, the Gülenists are really no different than European liberals, American diplomats, mainstream journalists, several neoconservatives, and the White House: They got Erdoğan wrong and for too long gave him benefit of the doubt.

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Much has been written about religious thinker Fethullah Gülen’s Hizmet movement. To many, it is the most promising example of a peaceful movement to tie Islamic modernism to Western notions of liberalism. To others, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. I personally have often written quite critically of the movement. I have recently reconsidered some of my criticism, not because I support the movement — I do not — but, rather, because I accept that many of its followers were hoodwinked by their belief that Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was sincere in his desire to reform Turkey and end persecution of opposition, be they religious or otherwise. Once Erdoğan turned the machinery of state upon Gülen and his followers, they recognized that they had been had. In this, the Gülenists are really no different than European liberals, American diplomats, mainstream journalists, several neoconservatives, and the White House: They got Erdoğan wrong and for too long gave him benefit of the doubt.

One of the backbones of Gülen’s movement has been its schools. Put aside the controversy over and FBI investigation of Gülen schools in the United States. This has more to do with alleged visa violations than curriculum content. Even if the Gülenist schools in America had a secret agenda or preached a deceptive ideology, they would be only a minor component of Gülen’s educational outreach that spans the globe. In sub-Saharan Africa, the Caucasus, and Latin America, Gülen-sponsored schools are often the best education available and many steer clear of religion. When Gülen passes, his worldwide educational network will be his primary legacy. The chief Gülenist investment has been in Turkey, however, in the guise of highly lucrative and effective darshanes, college preparatory schools. After all, in Turkey, career paths and socioeconomic status often depends on success in college placement exams. The pressure is immense, and students hit the books and seek additional tutoring to ensure that they have every advantage when they sit down for exams.

When Erdoğan precipitated his fight with his former allies in the Gülen movement, he did so by targeting the prep schools. In November 2013, he suggested that the schools should be closed because tutoring undercut equal opportunity, although such a complaint lacks factual basis. Nevertheless, on March 1, 2014, the Turkish parliament passed a law ordering the schools closed, a move which impacted millions of students. The government revoked licenses of many darshanes and converted others to private schools. Last month, however, in response to a petition filed by the secularist Republican Peoples Party (CHP), the Turkish constitutional court voided the government’s actions against the darshanes.

Whatever one’s attitude toward or assessment of Fethullah Gülen might be, the case of the preparatory schools is a barometer for the state of rule-of-law in Turkey. Gülen’s ideology is irrelevant; law should treat everyone equally. The simple facts of the case are that Erdoğan sought to close and in some cases confiscate the property of a movement he considered a political threat. The court determined such closure and/or confiscation to be illegal. So what has happened since?

For anyone who suggests that Turkey is a country that abides by law, Erdoğan’s actions will be an embarrassment. His regime has used all the mechanisms of state in order to avoid implementing the court ruling. There have been police raids at darshanes, as well as other forms of intimidation meant to suppress enrollment and hiring, and prevent the renting of facilities. The court ruling had forced many teachers to leave the college preparatory centers. These teachers were effectively the best of the best in terms of pedagogy, but they are now blacklisted by the Erdoğan regime. Finally, when the government sought to sever any Gülen affiliation to the darshanes, they forced many of the prep centers to transform officially into private schools. Despite the court ruling, they are not allowing these schools to revert back to the status they held before the Turkish parliament passed its now voided law.

Diplomats and analysts can continue to debate the Hizmet movement all they want, but whatever their attitudes, they should side with Gülen on this one. After all, Erdoğan has only been able to unravel freedom, civil society, and rule-of-law because he understood that he could conduct outrages against enemies, knowing that the world will not speak up for victims they disliked. The European Union, the State Department and, for that matters, many followers of Gülen were largely silent when Erdoğan targeted generals because, well, they didn’t like the generals. That was wrong. Journalists likewise remained largely silent when Erdoğan targeted rivals. Nationalists and Kemalists too often were likewise quiet when Erdoğan turned on Kurds. If Erdoğan is ever to be checked, then it is time to ignore the personality and philosophy of the victim and focus only on equal and fair application of the law. Otherwise, Turkey will remain Animal Farm, with Erdoğan effectively becoming Napoleon-the-Pig.

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Erdoğan is Right: Lift Immunity on Terror Supporters

The June 2015 elections in which his party lost an absolute majority of seats in parliament may have shocked President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but, like any dictator worth his salt, he’s not willing to go down without a fight. Indeed, it increasingly appears as if Erdoğan’s ruling party will not be able to form a coalition that, as explained in this piece immediately after the elections, ultimately means new elections until the impasse is broken. Read More

The June 2015 elections in which his party lost an absolute majority of seats in parliament may have shocked President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, but, like any dictator worth his salt, he’s not willing to go down without a fight. Indeed, it increasingly appears as if Erdoğan’s ruling party will not be able to form a coalition that, as explained in this piece immediately after the elections, ultimately means new elections until the impasse is broken.

It is against this context that Erdoğan has literally turned his guns on Kurds inside Syria. Now, he is seeking to do much the same thing within Turkey by lifting the parliamentary immunity of senior Kurdish leaders, with the goal of handicapping the largely Kurdish party ahead of new elections. From Hürriyet Daily News:

Parliament must strip the immunity from prosecution of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) lawmakers and make them “pay the price” for links to “terrorist groups,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said as the government increases its attacks on the Kurdish movement. “Those who exploit the people and the state’s tolerance and patience will receive the answer they deserve as soon as possible. Any step back is out of the question. This is a process and this process will continue with the same determination,” he said July 28 prior to a visit to China.

Many Kurds oppose lifting the parliamentary immunity of senior HDP leaders. Perhaps they have it wrong: Perhaps they should instead demand that Turkey lift immunity on any figure — even the prime minister or president — who have supported terrorist groups or, for that matter, been involved in corruption. HDP co-leader Selahattin Demirtaş, a man whom I’ve had the pleasure to meet, lives well within his means. Turks may disagree with his politics and I certainly disagree with his economic philosophy, but no one can accuse him of corruption. The same cannot be said for Erdoğan who, beginning as mayor of Istanbul (during which there were 13 separate corruption cases brought) and then through his premiership and now presidency, accumulated vast sums of money far beyond that which his salary would suggest.

As for terrorism, there is no greater terror sponsor in Turkey than Erdoğan himself. He has repeatedly embraced not only Hamas, the terrorist movement, but also its most radical leaders. Indeed, for all Erdoğan depicts himself as a patron of the Palestinians, he is decidedly unwelcome in Ramallah and the West Bank because of his support for a group just as lethal to more moderate Palestinians as Israelis. Troubling questions remain regarding Turkish weapons shipments to Nigerian Islamists against the backdrop of the Boko Haram uprising and evidence is now overwhelming that Erdoğan was not only passively complicit but also directly responsible for supporting the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) in Syria and Iraq. Just as Erdoğan has used his iron grip over deputies both to crush investigations of corruption and destroy evidence so he and his associates might never face trial for their alleged financial crimes, so, too, will he now use party minions in parliament to try to prevent any real investigation into his support for terrorism. But, many Turks — including Erdoğan’s inner circle — know privately that the crimes allegedly committed and the abuses of power are so evident mean that should Erdoğan ever lose his parliamentary majority, he will likely face life in prison if not meet the same fate as former Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Demanding the blanket lifting of immunity for crimes conducted while serving as elected officials suggests that justice will be blind to party affiliation. Even if the effort is unsuccessful in the short-term, forcing Erdoğan and his proxies effectively to defend immunity for their own corruption and terror sponsorship is important in the court of public opinion.

And as for Demirtaş? He has used exclusively peaceful means to promote greater rights and freedom for Turkey’s Kurdish minority. Erdoğan’s desire to target him is transparent and lacks credibility. In effect, Erdoğan continues to pursue an autogolpe, a self-coup, in order to consolidate power and eviscerate the opposition. If Erdoğan continues to target Demirtaş and Turkey’s Kurds for short-term electoral gain, he will accomplish nothing but precipitating a civil war that ultimately may prove fatal to the Republic of Turkey that Erdoğan now leads. So, strip parliamentary immunity for HDP figures? Let us hope they say, “Bring it on, Mr. Erdoğan. And if you want Turks and the world to see you as anything but a cynical hypocrite, lift your own immunity while you are at it. There’s no question as to who will be left standing in the end.”

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ISIS Picks the Wrong Fight

ISIS may well come to regret the day it chose to mess with Turkey.

A suicide bomber, believed to be an ISIS member, has killed at least 31 people in the southern Turkish town of Suruc near the Syrian border. The victims — including three beautiful young women who took a selfie together moments before they were killed — were members of socialist youth groups who had congregated to work on rebuilding the town of Kobani in northern Syrian, which had been taken by Kurdish fighters from ISIS in January after a bloody months-long fight. Read More

ISIS may well come to regret the day it chose to mess with Turkey.

A suicide bomber, believed to be an ISIS member, has killed at least 31 people in the southern Turkish town of Suruc near the Syrian border. The victims — including three beautiful young women who took a selfie together moments before they were killed — were members of socialist youth groups who had congregated to work on rebuilding the town of Kobani in northern Syrian, which had been taken by Kurdish fighters from ISIS in January after a bloody months-long fight.

Turkey has long had an ambivalent relationship with ISIS. Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is a Sunni Islamist who has called for the overthrow of Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime, which is backed by Shiite Iran. In the fight against Assad, Erdoğan has thrown in his lot with the al-Nusra Front, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. He has not exactly supported ISIS, at least not insofar as we know, but he has not done much to stop it either. He has been notoriously lax on border security, allowing many thousands of foreign recruits to cross from Turkey into Syria. And when the fight in Kobani was going on, directly visible from the Turkish border, he did nothing to help the Kurdish fighters because he doesn’t want to boost Kurdish separatism.

But in recent days, Erdoğan had ordered a roundup of ISIS activists, and that may have helped trigger this suicide bombing.

Let us hope that the Suruc suicide bombing will further awaken Erdoğan to the danger posed by ISIS. Because if Turkey gets serious about fighting ISIS, there is rather a lot it can do. It could, for a start, use its substantial army to create “safe zones” across the border in Turkey which could not be threatened either by ISIS or Assad — safe zones where the more moderate Syrian opposition could establish itself. If Turkey were really on the warpath, its army could probably destroy the entire caliphate, at least the part on the Syrian side of the border, in fairly short order. Turkish participation in the Syrian civil war could be a game changer, conceivably even leading to a peaceful resolution of the conflict as Syria’s own involvement in the Lebanese civil war in the 1990s did.

The problem, from Turkey’s perspective, is that as a Sunni state it is not going to fight ISIS if that redounds to the advantage of Assad. If the hints delivered from Erdoğan are to be believed, he has been looking for Washington to endorse a more balanced policy that is both anti-Assad and anti-ISIS. Under those circumstances, Turkey might be convinced to play a more active and positive role in Syria. But, of course, the odds of President Obama stepping up in Syria are scant — especially not when he is in the midst of a grand rapprochement with Iran which doesn’t care much about ISIS one way or the other, but that does desperately want Assad to remain in power.

Thus in all likelihood this opportunity to harness Turkish outrage will pass, allowing Iran and ISIS to continue dividing up Syria between them.

 

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Turkey and the Turkmen Militia Fallacy

According to the Lebanese news portal Now, Syrian Turkmens have announced the formation of a Syrian Turkmen militia to fight Syrian Kurds: Read More

According to the Lebanese news portal Now, Syrian Turkmens have announced the formation of a Syrian Turkmen militia to fight Syrian Kurds:

Syrian Turkmen military and political officials, who are close to Turkey, have been moving to form a unified army in northern Syria capable of confronting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which Ankara views as a terror group. “Turkmen fighting groups in Syria have taken the decision to offer greater support to each other and work to create a Turkmen army if conditions permit,” Syrian Turkmen Assembly chief Abdel Rahman Mustafa told Turkish Anadolu news on Monday. The Turkmen official’s comments came as the Syrian Turkmen Assembly held a meeting in southern Turkey’s Gaziantep that brought together Turkmen representatives from Aleppo, Tal Abyad, Jarabulus, Latakia, Idlib, Raqqa and the Golan.

It might be the stuff of headlines in Lebanon, Turkey, and Syria, but no one should take such Turkmen posturing seriously. Rather, by allowing themselves to be used as proxies of Turkish intelligence, not only do the Turkmen de-legitimize themselves, but they also show the depths to which Turkish policy continues to fall.

Take the example of Iraq: Prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, the State Department, Pentagon, and Central Intelligence Agency sometimes worked together and sometimes at cross purposes to bring order to the chaos of the Iraqi opposition. After the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, the U.S. government designated six parties as official opposition groups but, over the next five years and over a series of opposition conferences and meetings, a constant demand of Turkish diplomats was that the United States grant the same recognition to the Iraqi Turkmen Front, a political opposition group which Turkish diplomats insisted represented hundreds of thousands if not millions of Iraqi Turkmen, descendants from the initial Ottoman incursions into what is now Iraq, as the Ottoman Sultan often rewarded service with patronage offices and land grants.

There haven’t been accurate, apolitical censuses in Iraq or Syria for more than a half-century, and so no one knows for sure how many Turkmen there are. Some Turkish nationalists estimate that there are a couple million in Iraq, while others place that figure at no more than a half million. Likewise, while Turkmen say they number well over a million in Syria, the reality is probably less than 200,000.

By repeatedly claiming they represented millions, the Turkmen representatives became associated with bluster and hyperbole. While American officials had to tolerate meetings with them, none of the leadership took the Turkmen political leaders seriously.

Beyond numbers, however, there was a basic problem: Many of the Turkmen wanted nothing to do with Turkey. In Iraq, the Turkmen were divided almost evenly among religious sect: Many of the Shi‘ite Turkmen preferred to identify by sect than by ethnicity. They greatly resented the sectarian lens through which Turkish officials sought to filter policy. As for the Sunni Turkmen, many of them resented Turkey’s heavy-handed attempts to speak on their behalf. Turkish and Iraqi interests, after all, are seldom the same. The most ridiculous aspect of the Turkmen representation was that the Iraqi Turkmen Front’s representative to the United States actually came from a Kurdish family, and only seemed to find a Turkmen identity when he was salaried to do so.

When it comes to Syria, it’s déjà vu all over again. Turkish officials seek to promote the Turkmen not to protect their identity but rather as a useful wedge to prevent any other solution while at the same time manufacturing a crisis with the Kurds that Ankara cannot win. There is certainly much to criticize about the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Democratic Union Party (PYD) is not blameless, but the Syrian Kurds are simply not going to go away. Syrian Kurds, like their Turkish, Iraqi, and Iranian counterparts, value individual liberty, cultural expression, and freedom. Targeting them simply because of their Kurdishness is foolish, but that seems to be what Ankara wants. Not only will Ankara’s attempt to hijack Syrian Turkmen leadership backfire by undermining the legitimacy of the Syrian Turkmen within the Syrian political context, but it will also do little to resolve the major problems facing Syria today: The rise of an Islamic State, which the Turkish government appears to support in reality if not always in rhetoric, and an oppressive Assad regime, which slaughters civilians and increasingly finds itself under the thumb of Iran. In fighting these two enemies, there has only been one effective force to date, and that has been the Syrian Kurds that Turkey now hopes to have its own little ethnic Hezbollah fight.

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Is Erdoğan Preparing a Coup?

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no advocate of democracy, having once famously compared it to a street car: ‘You ride it as far as you need and then you step off.” But, he is a man on a mission. While he once parroted the rhetoric of economic reform and democracy, today it is apparent that self-enrichment trumps reform, and he has long since acknowledged that his goal is to “raise a religious generation.” That goal — and its fulfillment of a religious dream — trumps any sort of democratic legitimacy or accountability. Erdoğan will never allow voters to prioritize Kurdish identity or secularism to derail what his behavior suggests he sees as a divine mission. Read More

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is no advocate of democracy, having once famously compared it to a street car: ‘You ride it as far as you need and then you step off.” But, he is a man on a mission. While he once parroted the rhetoric of economic reform and democracy, today it is apparent that self-enrichment trumps reform, and he has long since acknowledged that his goal is to “raise a religious generation.” That goal — and its fulfillment of a religious dream — trumps any sort of democratic legitimacy or accountability. Erdoğan will never allow voters to prioritize Kurdish identity or secularism to derail what his behavior suggests he sees as a divine mission.

Over the last 12 years, Erdoğan has had an amazing political streak. With multiple secular parties dividing the vote but almost all failing to surpass the 10 percent threshold, Erdoğan was able to amplify a 34 percent vote into a supermajority. Through talent, constituent services, and perhaps a Gulf Arab-provided slush fund as well, he had an amazing political streak, not only winning successive elections, but also often adding to his majority.

That changed, of course, earlier this month when, despite his fierce and, given his supposedly apolitical position as president, illicit campaigning, Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority. Some journalists and pundits jumped the gun with their optimism. Here, for example, is Foreign Policy’s David Kenner calling it a “body blow for Turkey’s ruling party.” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp was equally effusive, not considering much the possibility of no government being formed with repeat rather than simply early elections.

The reality is, however, that Erdoğan will undercut any coalition. He has no desire to share power; if he did, it would be short-term and tactical in order to have a scapegoat. The question then turns to new elections. Erdoğan probably believes the most recent elections to be a fluke. Everyone else may know otherwise, but Erdoğan will never admit it. He has constructed such an alternate, conspiratorial reality; he cannot fathom honest rejection. That said he will ensure there are no more speed bumps in his quest to implement his transformative agenda.

Hence, his most recent comments about doing whatever it takes to prevent a Kurdish state in Syria. First, make no mistake, there already is a Kurdish federal entity in Syria. Turkey may have opinions about Syria and Kurds, but the Syrian Kurds are not Turkish and there is little Turkey can do about “Rojava” absent a full-scale invasion (and that would only bog Turkey down in guerilla conflict in Syria and insurgency in Turkey like nothing it experienced in the 1980s and 1990s). But, by hyping the Syrian Kurds as an enemy, Erdoğan hopes to foment a crisis domestically. After all, it was the triumph of the People’s Democratic Party (Halkların Demokratik Partisi, HDP) in the most recent elections that forced the AKP into defeat. The HDP makes little secret of its sympathy to Syrian Kurds. Both are essentially proxies of the broader Kurdistan Workers Party (Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê, PKK), a group that once waged insurgency inside Turkey and which the Turkish government considers terrorists, but with which it is now engaged in a peace process. If Erdoğan hypes the Syrian Kurdish threat and goes on war footing, then he can essentially use emergency powers to disqualify or dirty tricks to suppress the Kurdish vote in any re-count. Selahattin Demirtaş, the charismatic co-head of the HDP, better have good security. It is a Catch-22 for him. He knows threats against his life are real, but if he restricts his public appearances, then Erdoğan wins.

Erdoğan believes that by means of crisis and a new election, he can regain his majority, after which he can push forward his path to constitutional change that will formalize his role, essentially, as Turkey’s dictator. Call it what it is: a self-coup. It happened in Peru in 1992, it happened in Pakistan in 1997, and it may just well happen in Turkey in 2015.

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Will Recep Erdoğan’s Turkish Election Defeat Save Democracy?

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who brokers no dissent, went into Sunday’s elections hoping to win enough of a majority so that he could ram through a new constitution that would enhance the power of the president, now largely symbolic, over that of the prime minister and parliament. He was disappointed. But Westerners hoping that this signals an end to Erdoğan’s anti-democratic rule may also be disappointed.

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President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, a man who brokers no dissent, went into Sunday’s elections hoping to win enough of a majority so that he could ram through a new constitution that would enhance the power of the president, now largely symbolic, over that of the prime minister and parliament. He was disappointed. But Westerners hoping that this signals an end to Erdoğan’s anti-democratic rule may also be disappointed.

While Erdoğan’s Islamist-oriented “Justice and Development Party,” best known by its Turkish acronym AKP, has dominated Turkish politics since November 2002, he was expecting 330 seats in the new parliament but received only 258.

The Republican People’s Party (CHP) received 132 seats, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) won 81 seats, and the ethnic Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) won 79 seats.

Because the AKP lost its majority, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu — who is to Erdoğan what Dmitry Medvedev is to Russian strongman Vladimir Putin — will need to resign so that a new government can be formed. Since the AKP won the plurality, Davutoğlu — presuming Erdoğan gives him authority — will have 15 days to form a new government. But, if the CHP, HDP, and MHP hold firm on their pledges not to work with the AKP, then the AKP will fail.

The CHP and MHP, while on opposite sides of the spectrum, have worked together before — most recently fielding a joint presidential candidate for the 2014 presidential election — and they could in theory put together a minority government, with the HDP not joining in but tacitly supporting. This also may not occur, since animosity between the HDP and the Kemalist parties runs deep.

If no government can be formed, then there will be new elections in 45 days.

While some diplomats may say that the elections prove that democracy can overcome autocracy, even if a new government forms — whether or not the AKP is part of it — optimism that the damage done by more than 12 years of one-party AKP rule can be overcome may be misplaced. On key issues of concern to the United States — for example, Turkey’s indirect and even direct support for radical Islamist terrorist groups in Syria — Erdoğan has delegated authority to organizations like the Turkish intelligence service (Millî İstihbarat Teşkilatı, MİT) which do not answer to any democratic authority.

Erdoğan has also permanently altered the bureaucracy by maneuvering religious school graduates into key positions and even Turkey’s military, purged and cowed so that it is a shadow of its former self. Add into the mix a steady diet of anti-Americanism and conspiratorial incitement, and Turkey will remain one of the most anti-American countries on earth.

If the elections lead to gridlock and new elections, expect the would-be sultan to take his gloves off. There has been a bizarre undercurrent in recent weeks in Turkey threatening war with Syria. No one believes it, but it presents a useful excuse to suspend elections and rule by fiat. In new elections, he might also provoke extreme violence to keep the HDP below the threshold in any new election. Kurds will not believe the results should he do so, and tremendous violence would result, but if Erdoğan cannot rule without dissent, then he will be willing to send Turkey into the morass.

Turks are at the precipice. To suggest smooth sailing from here would be naivete of the same sort that brought us the “reset” with Russia, the notion that Bashar al-Assad was a reformer, or, for that matter, the idea that Iran could be a trusted partner.

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Reconsidering Fethullah Gülen

Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic thinker, has long been the subject of controversy in both American and Turkish policy circles. Born in Erzurum, Turkey, he taught and preached in Turkey for decades. His writings have focused on the interplay between religion, modernism, and interfaith tolerance, though his critics have suggested that his public and private statements were often at odds with each other. He came to the United States in 1999 seeking medical treatment for diabetes, among other ailments. While in the United States, videotapes surfaced which apparently showed Gülen suggesting his goal was to change Turkey’s system to make it more religious. Gülen and his supporters say the tapes were manipulated and his remarks twisted and taken out of context, but others suspected a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Gülen chose to stay in the United States rather than face prosecution in Turkey. After all, then as now justice was not the highest priority for the Turkish judicial system. He has since lived in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos town of Saylorsburg, at a small forested compound with houses and a meeting hall overlooking a small pond.

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Fethullah Gülen, the 74-year-old Turkish Islamic thinker, has long been the subject of controversy in both American and Turkish policy circles. Born in Erzurum, Turkey, he taught and preached in Turkey for decades. His writings have focused on the interplay between religion, modernism, and interfaith tolerance, though his critics have suggested that his public and private statements were often at odds with each other. He came to the United States in 1999 seeking medical treatment for diabetes, among other ailments. While in the United States, videotapes surfaced which apparently showed Gülen suggesting his goal was to change Turkey’s system to make it more religious. Gülen and his supporters say the tapes were manipulated and his remarks twisted and taken out of context, but others suspected a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Gülen chose to stay in the United States rather than face prosecution in Turkey. After all, then as now justice was not the highest priority for the Turkish judicial system. He has since lived in Pennsylvania, near the Poconos town of Saylorsburg, at a small forested compound with houses and a meeting hall overlooking a small pond.

Back in 2009, the Middle East Quarterly, a policy journal which I used to edit, published an article by Turkey expert and translator Rachel Sharon-Krespin about Gülen. The article ascribed malevolent motives to Gülen’s work. John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed Center for Muslim–Christian Understanding at Georgetown University, in contrast, embraces Gülen’s work and teaching and affirmed his sincerity. Several years ago, the New York Times reported on the controversy over assessments of Gülen, as has Der Spiegel.

In my own writing, I have often been suspicious of the Gülen movement, although as I reflect, I realize I may have been misread the movement. While this post will be lengthy, the topic remains relevant and may be interesting to those focused on Islam and reform, and so I hope to address why I was suspicious, and why I have slowly been changing my mind. Over time, the basis for my suspicion of the movement has been multifold, although much of it had little to do with Gülen himself.

My Ph.D. work was in Iranian history, and while my dissertation did not involve Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, I had long studied his life and writing. Whereas Khomeini today is remembered for his revolutionary radicalism both in the United States and Iran, many Americans forget how Khomeini and his supporters sold the ayatollah to the West. In the U.S.-based, Persian language journal Iranshenasi, Jalal Matini, the chancellor of Ferdowsi University in Mashhad between 1975 and 1978, chronicled some of Khomeini’s quotes about his philosophy and vision for the future. In short, Khomeini told Westerners what they wanted to hear about his disinterest in personal power or the imposition of religious rule, and gullible reporters and diplomats ate it up. There were no shortage of useful idiots. Here, for example, is Richard Falk, at the time a professor of international law at Princeton who had the ear of Jimmy Carter, singing Khomeini’s praises in the New York Times.

Khomeini was not alone in fooling the West. The Muslim Brotherhood co-opted the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt. They promised young Egyptians democracy, and there were many Western journalists, diplomats, and analysts who believed them. But the Muslim Brotherhood is a strictly hierarchical organization that does not tolerate internal debate and discussion. Their management philosophy is “listen and repeat.” Once in power, Mohamed Morsi like Khomeini eschewed his promises and any rhetoric of democracy and compromise and began to transform Egypt into an authoritarian, religious state. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi may not be a panacea to Egypt’s ills, and it may be impossible to gauge his true popularity given the repression that continues to exist in Egypt, but there is little doubt that his coup was extremely popular among Egyptians, including many disenfranchised youth who had once taken the Muslim Brotherhood at their word.

Perhaps nowhere has deception been as great as with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Diplomats and many former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey—Mark Parris, Morton Abramowitz, Ross Wilson, Robert Pearson, Marc Grossman—swore by Erdoğan and his alleged commitment to democracy (only Eric Edelman was an exception; he alone called Erdoğan correctly from the beginning as Wikileaks shows). They were not alone. President George W. Bush also praised the Turkish leader. “I appreciate so very much the example your country has set on how to be a Muslim country and at the same time a country which embraces democracy and rule of law and freedom,” he said. Erdoğan, of course, was no democrat. Rather, he was and is a bigot and a despot. Neither the White House nor any serious diplomat carry his water anymore; they recognize him for what he is.

So, the West has gotten burnt at least three times by embracing Islamists who preached democracy, only to see their rhetoric was empty. That does not mean, however, that all clerics and others who hold Islam dear are so cynical. To dismiss all such clerics or would-be reformers is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the West finds no partners nor can Muslims find leaders who can push a path which rolls back the hatred and radical interpretations spread by decades of Saudi and Iranian oil money.

That said, my suspicious understanding of Fethullah Gülen was driven by other considerations. Gülen has always emphasized education. This is laudable. The best schools in Azerbaijan, Iraqi Kurdistan, Africa, and elsewhere are affiliated with his movements. These schools do not proselytize, although they do embrace religious values. Regardless, they regularly turn out the best and brightest in their societies. These men and women in turn form networks, help each other with entry into governments or business, and often give back to the movement. Such networks can be secretive, and that secrecy can also breed suspicion. Suspicion can be justified, but it is not always so.

Another litmus test I use to judge movements is how forthright they are. Take the Mujahedin al-Khalq Organization (MKO): It regularly spins off front groups to try to entrap the greedy or naïve. If the MKO was open and honest, they would just say who they are instead of trying to launder their history the way they do. Now, every Gülenist movement I know does not hide its ideology or its belief in the teachings of Gülen, but the ever expanding network of names and groups created a whiff of confusion. Turkey-watchers knew what each group was, but many others who became involved had no idea they were working with a Gülenist group. Sometimes, Gülenist groups seemed to try to co-opt individuals in organizations that did not know Turkey or who wanted a free trip, in order to suggest some institutional links where none existed.

Also contributing to my suspicion has been the fact that so much of the outside scholarship dedicated to Gülen’s work has been funded by Gülen’s charities. Over the years, I have known a number of his followers, and too often came to interpret his views by their actions. One Turkish diplomat, for example, tweeted favorably about University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer and Harvard Professor Stephen Walt’s book The Israel Lobby, which basically argued that Jewish Americans who disagreed with Walt and Mearsheimer held dual loyalty, an anti-Semitic attitude which has found a following among some intellectuals.

Likewise, some writers for Zaman, a newspaper affiliated with the movement, also used terminology and cast aspersions with regard to U.S. policymakers that sometimes crossed the line into anti-Semitism, and other columnists close to the movement sometimes falsified quotations although, to be fair, they apologized. Also coloring my assessment were the frequent discrepancies between the manner in which Zaman covered stories versus how its English language edition, Today’s Zaman, sanitized the same stories to make them more palatable to the Western ear. Some of Gülen’s followers may be anti-Semitic or prone to conspiracy, but is it fair to judge a whole movement by a few bad apples? After all, while no political movement in the United States is as cohesive as those in Turkey, there are men and women among both the right and the left in the United States who engage in conspiracy, are cynically political and are frankly embarrassing to their political allies. Guilt by association is a favorite past time of some politicos, but engaging in it is unfortunate when it becomes a way to side step more serious debate. That said, even while there are some followers who are bigoted and unrepentant, what is also true of the movement is that whatever differences they have, political or religious, they do not hesitate to sit down and discuss them openly and with civility. At the height of my political spat with the Gülenists, their door was never closed to me (they were for a long time housed in the same building as my American Enterprise Institute office). That shows self-confidence and principle, something that, for example, Erdoğan’s followers don’t have. During a recent visit to Turkey, for example, a former AKP member who once headed the German Marshall Fund’s office in Turkey worked to ensure that AKP members not accept meetings with myself and others whom he considered critical; likewise, the Kurdistan Regional Government also regularly seeks to handpick audiences in order to ensure that every question is a softball. Such strategies reflect a political culture that stresses sycophancy and dictatorial control rather than one that embraces inclusion.

The major basis for my suspicion about Gülen and his movement, however, was how his followers appeared to carry water for Erdoğan. And, indeed, it long appeared to me and others that followers of Gülen were working in an unholy alliance with Erdoğan in order to transform Turkish society fundamentally away from its Kemalist past and to blur the line between mosque and state. And perhaps they were, although, I also recognize it is equally possible that Erdoğan fooled Gülen’s followers by depicting his ultimate goals as far more moderate and democratic than reality has now shown them to be. Many Turks also suspect the Gülenists as contributing to the false evidence used to purge secularists, military officers, and nationalists.

What cannot be disputed is that, approximately a year-and-a-half ago, Erdoğan turned on Gülen and his followers. He launched a purge throughout the bureaucracy which, while not bloody, would nevertheless make Stalin proud. Any one even suspected of supporting Gülen or his myriad charities and schools—thousands and thousands of people—could and did find themselves out of a job without due process and, in some cases, could find themselves in prison. These are men and women who are sometimes responsible for feeding and clothing numerous children and parents, all of whom are now cut off. Erdoğan now demands that Gülen be extradited to Turkey where, perhaps, it would be easier to serve Gülen some figurative or literal polonium tea. Extradition would be wrong. Under no circumstances should the United States give any credence to Erdoğan, an increasingly unhinged and unrestrained dictator.

One of the more interesting debates right now in Turkey involves when Erdoğan changed. I have treated Erdoğan and his inner circle with suspicion almost from the beginning, and was once in a small minority, even among so-called neoconservatives. Many others have come around, whether it was because of Erdoğan’s embrace of Hamas, his conspiratorial ravings, his increasing anti-Americanism, his corruption, his response to the Gezi protests, or now the crackdown on Gülen and his followers. A question which many liberals, businessmen, and one-time supporters of Erdoğan now consider is whether or not they should have spoken up sooner against Erdoğan. Then again, the important thing is that they have recognized Erdoğan for what he is. And the fact that Gülen is now critical of Erdoğan gives pause for thought.

But just as Erdoğan has changed with time—even if his ideology has been consistent, his tactics have become far less nuanced—so too might Gülen have changed. Sixteen years is a long time to live in the United States, and Gülen is not isolated. He has seen both the American judiciary at work as well as hospitals. It may sound trite, but seeing how Americans treat each other as equals in contrast to how Erdoğan acts as a sultan can wear off. And, movements learn from their mistakes. Even if Gülen’s followers once collaborated with Erdoğan and caused a lot of damage when they did so, now that they find themselves on the opposite end of Erdoğan’s wrath provides a lesson which many have learned.

Was I right to be suspicious of the Fethullah Gülen and his movement? To some extent, yes. But was I at times unfair to the group? Absolutely. I regret that I once speculated that Gülen’s return to Turkey could mirror Khomeini’s return to Tehran, a comparison which became headline news in the often polemical Turkish press. Indeed, for that comparison, I apologize. Would I want to be judged by the same standards by which I judged the movement? Probably not. Does that mean I endorse the movement? No, I do not. But I am willing to listen to them.

That said, I do believe that while Gülenists and myself have followed radically different paths, when it comes to Turkey today, Erdoğan’s radicalism, the importance of the free market and business, and well as the importance of tolerance in society, and education, there is room for consensus.

Aside from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his Republican Peoples Party (CHP), no political party dominated by a charismatic leader in Turkey has survived that leader’s death. After Adnan Menderes was executed after the 1960 coup, his Democrat Party disappeared. Likewise, the Motherland Party did not survive Turgut Özal death in 1993. While Erdoğan, as president, should theoretically be above Turkish politics, he remains as partisan today as when he was prime minister. He also remains as domineering of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) over which he is an authoritarian lord. When Erdoğan is gone—and he knows that if he ever steps down, he will likely die in prison or in exile in Saudi Arabia—then the AKP will not survive. It will fracture and fragment, and the politics of compromise amidst coalitions may return. In that future, the followers of Fethullah Gülen will likely play a positive role and they undo the system of fear and the cynical use of religion that defines the Erdoğan era.

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More Evidence Turkey Supports Al Qaeda

Turkey has become “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Its diplomats may say one thing to their American counterparts when they condemn terrorism and extremism or speak about the merits of democracy and economic transparency, but the action and behavior of the Turkish leadership is far different.

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Turkey has become “Pakistan on the Mediterranean.” Its diplomats may say one thing to their American counterparts when they condemn terrorism and extremism or speak about the merits of democracy and economic transparency, but the action and behavior of the Turkish leadership is far different.

Both the Iraqi government and the Syrian Kurds who have done more than anyone else to fight the Islamic State have long complained that Turkey was not only turning a blind eye to the most radical groups in Syria, but also actively supporting them.

First, there’s the passive support. If Turkey wanted to stop the flow of foreign fighters into Syria, it could simply tweak its visa rules for those countries that are the source to require visas for those under the age of 40. This wouldn’t impact most businessmen, but would stop the impulsive Jihadi. It could stop allowing thousands of foreign fighters to traverse its territory virtually unmolested. Stopping two dozen, when more than 100 times as many get a free pass, isn’t counter-terrorism; it is optics, equivalent to when Pakistan arrests a Taliban shadow governor, all the while supporting the rest. It could stop extending its medical services to wounded terrorists, all the while denying care to pro-democracy protestors beaten by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Brown Shirts.

Then, there is more active Turkish support, including allegations that Turkey has armed and supplied al Qaeda elements in Syria. These accusations are now more fire than smoke. One Islamic State commander, for example, has acknowledged Turkey’s material help. There is also documentary evidence about the relationship.

Last month, Turkey arrested 17 Turkish soldiers who intercepted an arms shipment destined to radicals in Syria. The arms shipment had been authorized by Turkish intelligence. Now, a Turkish judge has issued an arrest warrant for five more who sought to prevent the Turkish supply of weaponry to al Qaeda. So, here we have a titular NATO ally, which instead of arresting al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists instead throws the book at those seeking to stop their supply. Welcome to the reality of Turkey, an undeniable sponsor of terror and a force for instability and sectarian hatred throughout the region. Diplomats can put lipstick on a pig, but there’s no denying this pig.

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Erdoğan Versus Carmina Burana

Among the most popular classical music vocal performance pieces today is Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The cantata—a vocal arrangement with instruments sung by a choir—was written in 1935 and 1936, Carmina Burana’s roots are actually much deeper: it is based on a manuscript of 11th and 12th century poetry. Its sound is distinctive as it is sung mostly in Latin, and not Italian like so many other operas. Here, for example, is “O Fortuna,” although almost every song from the opera is well-known. “O Fortuna” has also worked its way into popular culture, played in the background of everything from the South Park movie to Glee to Cheaper by the Dozen to Jackass: The Movie. That’s not Orff’s fault, of course, and shouldn’t detract from the Carmina Burana as a musical masterpiece. Alas, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s mercurial strongman has now directed his animus toward Orff and his work. Working through his proxies, Erdogan  forced it off the stage in Izmir after Turkish pianist Fazil Say said that the opera mentioned sex and wine. Fazil Say is no prude; he has long opposed Turkey’s growing Islamism even at a time when U.S. ambassadors to Turkey were still denying Erdoğan’s true agenda, and so was simply goading a reaction out of the government to show how ridiculous Turkey’s politicization of the arts scene has become.

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Among the most popular classical music vocal performance pieces today is Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The cantata—a vocal arrangement with instruments sung by a choir—was written in 1935 and 1936, Carmina Burana’s roots are actually much deeper: it is based on a manuscript of 11th and 12th century poetry. Its sound is distinctive as it is sung mostly in Latin, and not Italian like so many other operas. Here, for example, is “O Fortuna,” although almost every song from the opera is well-known. “O Fortuna” has also worked its way into popular culture, played in the background of everything from the South Park movie to Glee to Cheaper by the Dozen to Jackass: The Movie. That’s not Orff’s fault, of course, and shouldn’t detract from the Carmina Burana as a musical masterpiece. Alas, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s mercurial strongman has now directed his animus toward Orff and his work. Working through his proxies, Erdogan  forced it off the stage in Izmir after Turkish pianist Fazil Say said that the opera mentioned sex and wine. Fazil Say is no prude; he has long opposed Turkey’s growing Islamism even at a time when U.S. ambassadors to Turkey were still denying Erdoğan’s true agenda, and so was simply goading a reaction out of the government to show how ridiculous Turkey’s politicization of the arts scene has become.

The irony, here, is that the Sufis who once called the Ottoman Empire home also talked about the same themes. Like many Islamists, Erdoğan is ignorant of Islamic history, transposing backwards his Saudi-inspired, Muslim Brotherhood-style radicalism without ever realizing how arbitrary and ahistorical they can be. Mention of wine can also be found in Shakespeare and pretty much every classic of western literature as well. The fact that this happened in the western city of Izmir is significant. Too many Turks have rationalized the rise of Erdoğan by suggesting that the Islamism which he has imposed throughout Anatolia, would be limited to rural Turkey and the more conservative cities of that region. In this there are parallels to the Pakistani intellectual, urban elite’s denial of just how expansive Islamism had permeated Pakistan, as the upper crust of Pakistani society, like ostriches with their head in the sand, continued to deny that Islamist radicalism was anything but a lower-class, rural phenomenon.  At any rate, even if Istanbul fell to Erdoğan’s brand of Islamism, Turkish liberals and traditional Kemalists convinced themselves they could always have refuge in the more European-oriented western part of Turkey. Well, the fact that Erdoğan’s Islamist censorship has now reached Izmir shows just how Erdoğan’s Islamist hold has consolidated over even those areas not traditionally part of his core constituency. Perhaps the Mediterranean resort of Bodrum–the last oasis for many traditional Turkish elites–will be next on Erdoğan’s hit list.

Erdoğan is as much a dictator as Vladimir Putin. Let there be no mistake: Turkey is no longer a bridge between East and West; it is a stronghold of the east, at least in its embrace of corruption and autocracy, and increasingly intolerant if not inimical to the West. Some diplomats and head-in-the-sand Turkish liberals may say ‘it ain’t over till the fat lady sings’ but, in modern Turkey, the fat lady would be lucky to be alive and, if she is, should be at home raising at least three children. Erdoğan may not be a fat lady, and he certainly disapproves of singing, so perhaps the Turkish version of the adage should be, “It’s not over until the small-minded dictator censors.” Alas, in Turkey, it’s been over for years.

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How Will Turkey Compensate Armenians?

I have written here previously arguing that historians, rather than the pope or other politicians, should be the ultimate arbiters about what is and is not genocide, whether it comes to the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Anfal, the slaughter in Darfur, or any other mass murder. It might seem quibbling, but the basic difference between genocide and mass murder is whether the state implemented a master plan to exterminate a people everywhere they existed (genocide), in certain locales (ethnic cleansing) or whether mass murder occurred against the backdrop of war. Granted, such a distinction doesn’t help the victims nor alleviate their suffering.

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I have written here previously arguing that historians, rather than the pope or other politicians, should be the ultimate arbiters about what is and is not genocide, whether it comes to the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide, the Anfal, the slaughter in Darfur, or any other mass murder. It might seem quibbling, but the basic difference between genocide and mass murder is whether the state implemented a master plan to exterminate a people everywhere they existed (genocide), in certain locales (ethnic cleansing) or whether mass murder occurred against the backdrop of war. Granted, such a distinction doesn’t help the victims nor alleviate their suffering.

That said, with the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide to be marked in just over a week, momentum is growing across the globe to confirm the World War I-era deaths of more than one million Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman state and Kurdish irregulars. One of the strongest motivations for political intervention in the historical debate has been the argument that the Armenian Genocide inspired Adolf Hitler’s desire to commit genocide. On this issue, Hannibal Travis’s recent article in Middle East Quarterly is a must-read.

In recent days, the Pope has called the events of a century ago “genocide,” as has the European parliament. And, on cue, the bombastic, over-the-top Turkish government reaction has only come off looking defensive and silly. Here, for example, is the Turkish prime minister looking silly accusing the Pope of being part of some vast anti-Turkish conspiracy, and here is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan doing likewise.

Peeling away Turkish bluster, there are a few reasons why the Turkish government is so dead set against recognizing Armenian genocide. Some Turkish historians genuinely believe that the Ottomans are falsely accused. They argue that the testimony of Western diplomats is colored by World War I anti-Ottoman fervor. Those who blame conspiracies to single out Turkey point to the ethnic cleansing of Turks and Muslims from the eastern Balkans in the years immediately before the murders of Armenians. But two wrongs don’t make a right. While there should certainly be more recognition of the ethnic or sectarian cleansing that occurred in the Balkans, that does not mean that atrocities perpetrated against Armenians should be ignored by historians.

The major reason why so many Turks object to recognition of the Armenian genocide is they fear the next step will be Armenian demands for restitution. Perhaps as Armenians mark the 100th anniversary, it is worthwhile moving this debate into the open: If the international community forms a consensus that the Ottomans conducted genocide against the Armenians—and that consensus may already exist—and if the Turks then acknowledge that Turkey was born upon the ashes of an Ottoman genocide, then perhaps the Armenian government and perhaps major Armenian Diaspora organizations should outline what compensation, if any, Armenians will seek from the government of Turkey. Does the government of Armenia, for example, expect territorial compensation—those lands in eastern Anatolia from which Ottomans and Kurdish irregulars cleansed Armenians? Will Armenia itself be the custodian of any monetary compensation, or is there a mechanism to divide that money among descendants of survivors? What historical proof will be required to determine which Armenians today had family members killed in the genocide, versus those who did not? As one debate appears to be ending, at least on the political level, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that another one must soon begin.

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Turkey into the Press Freedom Abyss

Much has been written here at COMMENTARY about the slow unraveling of Turkey’s democratic hopes as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and then as president, has consolidated power and rolled back press freedom. Against the backdrop events in Iran, Yemen, and Syria, however, how much of a self-parody Turkey has become has passed largely unnoticed in the West.

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Much has been written here at COMMENTARY about the slow unraveling of Turkey’s democratic hopes as Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as prime minister and then as president, has consolidated power and rolled back press freedom. Against the backdrop events in Iran, Yemen, and Syria, however, how much of a self-parody Turkey has become has passed largely unnoticed in the West.

Turkey, of course, isn’t North Korea and never will be, but the aftermath of the Kabataş incident might give pause. Basically, the background was that during the 2013 Gezi protests, a pro-regime journalist tweeted that he had witnessed more than one hundred men dressed in leather fetish outfits harassing a conservatively dressed religious woman in the central Istanbul district of Kabataş. This became a rallying call for Erdoğan, who proceeded to depict everyone protesting for their rights and against dictatorship as hooligans and terrorists.

The only problem with such a narrative, however, was it rested on a complete fabrication. Turkey is a police state. There are closed circuit cameras everywhere. And a review of the footage showed the veiled woman crossing the street completely unmolested. No one accosts her. And, for that matter, no one in the neighborhood appears to be dressed in leather, sadomasochistic gear. That seems simply to have been a homoerotic fantasy dreamed up by Erdoğan, but the president’s psyche will be a topic for another day.

What is truly striking—and, credit where credit is due, what the Turkish blogger “The Radical Democrat” pointed out to me—is that Turkey’s pro-Erdoğan columnists not only rallied around a complete falsehood, but also did so utilizing almost the exact same headlines on the exact same day. Does Turkey have a free press? If the behavior of these 14 columnists and newspapers means anything, then the answer is no, although perhaps the incident does reveal why so many relatively young and new commentators suddenly find themselves hosting talk shows on state-run TV and buying multimillion dollar villas on the Bosporus.

Then again, this is just the tip of the iceberg in what is now occurring inside Turkey and its media environment. A Turkish court recently sentenced two journalists to prison for satirizing Erdoğan’s animus toward journalists; apparently, Erdoğan was so busy worrying about leather-clad, whip-wielding gangs that he missed the irony. But don’t expect to read any of this in Turkey soon, as the Erdoğan regime—which has already blocked 100,000 Internet sites—moves to shut down any political discussion which does not conform to Erdoğan’s narrow view.

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Should Obama Mark Armenian Genocide Centenary?

Every year, the Armenian Diaspora marks April 24 as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Traditionally, senators representing states with large Armenian communities—California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, for example—seek to pass a formal resolution commemorating the genocide. Out of fear of angering Turkey, however, presidents and secretaries of State have traditionally avoided the word genocide.

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Every year, the Armenian Diaspora marks April 24 as the anniversary of the Armenian genocide. Traditionally, senators representing states with large Armenian communities—California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, for example—seek to pass a formal resolution commemorating the genocide. Out of fear of angering Turkey, however, presidents and secretaries of State have traditionally avoided the word genocide.

As senator, for example, Barack Obama was a vocal supporter of commemorating the genocide. In 2008, he declared, “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian Genocide and responds forcefully to all genocides,” and added, “I intend to be that president.” Once he won the Oval Office, he avoided doing so just as his predecessors had, instead using the formulation “one of the worst atrocities of the 20th century.” Likewise, as senator, John Kerry was solicitous of the Armenian community and its demands to recognize the mass murder of the Armenians as genocide, but upon becoming America’s top diplomat, let’s just say he was with them before he was against them. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was as hypocritical: Her claim to fame has been as a scholar of genocide and a moral voice castigating the United States for refusing to acknowledge genocide for diplomatic reasons. Prior to becoming an advisor to Barack Obama, she criticized American passivity with regard to the Armenian genocide and, as UN ambassador, she hasn’t hesitated to get on Twitter or issue statements that take a tougher line than Obama. But on the Armenian issue? Crickets.

The forthcoming anniversary is, of course, special: It marks the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide. For Turkey, which seeks to prevent formal recognition abroad, it is a perfect storm. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has shown himself to be an anti-Semitic and corrupt dictator. And parliamentarians from his Justice and Development Party as well as Turkey’s court journalists and access-craving intellectuals have, with their blind support, shown themselves equally culpable, if not supportive of Erdoğan’s noxious vision.

And while Turkey has long been able to count on a strong lobby in Washington, there is no real Turkey lobby anymore. Some congressmen may have kept their names on the Congressional Turkey Caucus roster but, as one congressman recently put it, “that’s a nothing burger.” Ankara and its paid lobbyists understand that when push comes to shove, few congressmen will stick their necks out for Turkey.

So what should Obama do? Here things are more complicated. Genocide studies has always been more a political discipline than an academic one. Few members of that field research in the primary languages or step foot in archives. Area specialists are a bit more divided on whether what transpired against the Armenians was state-directed or spontaneous, and whether it was directed against all Armenians or just those living in areas through which the frontlines of World War I passed. While no one denies the deaths of hundreds of thousands if not more than a million Armenians, Guenter Lewy, Edward Erickson, and Bernard Lewis have all questioned the popular narrative that assumes genocide. After all, more than fifteen million people died around Europe as a result of the war.

While there will be pressure on Obama to confirm genocide on the 100th anniversary of the arrest of 250 Armenian intellectuals in Istanbul on April 24, 1915, perhaps a better question is why politicians should be in the business of arbitrating history.

While Erdoğan’s offensive behavior in recent years means that few will shed tears if Turkey suffers a rebuke in a vote few care about outside of the Turkish and Armenian communities, the very fact that contemporary Turkish politics could influence such a vote underlines why politicians should not be the judges of history. Ultimately, liberated from facing another election and caring very little for his peers of either party, Obama may use the 100th anniversary commemorations to officially put the imprimatur of the president of the United States behind the idea that what occurred in the Ottoman Empire a century ago was genocide. But, ultimately, such a statement will be meaningless to the understanding of events or the facts of the case. For that, political grandstanding and polemic will always matter far less than careful historical research and debate.

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Whom Should the U.S. Train in Syria and Iraq?

The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

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The United States has begun vetting Syrian rebels to determine whom to train to fight Islamic State (ISIS) extremists inside Syria. It’s an effort that promises very little and comes extremely late. The goal is to train, in Turkey and with the cooperation of Turkish forces, 5,000 moderate fighters a year for perhaps three years. Actual training will begin within four to six weeks.

As currently conceived, the effort is doomed from the start. Including—and, indeed, relying upon—Turkey is a poison pill, given the growing extremism of the Turkish government and the sympathies of at least certain segments of the Turkish government to more extreme elements inside Syria.

At the same time, the United States has moved forward with training and assistance programs to the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga.

The irony of both efforts is that the United States continues to ignore the most moderate, religiously tolerant, and most effective fighting force in the region: the Popular Protection Units (YPG) of the Syrian Kurds. Without formal training, the YPG held Kobane in the face of a tremendous onslaught. But Kobane is only the tip of the iceberg: I visited portions of Syria controlled by the YPG last year. They have made tremendous sacrifices and brought a modicum of stability and security to northeastern Syria.

But it is not only inside Syria where the YPG has seen success. Despite billions of dollars poured into the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga, they at best have achieved little more than a stalemate. Prior to the Islamic State’s onslaught against the Yezidis of Mount Sinjar, Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani had turned down the Yezidis and local residents’ requests for reinforcements. Then, peshmerga and security forces commanded by his sons abandoned their posts, sacrificing thousands of Yezidis to the cruelty of the Islamic State. The YPG did not wait for coalition airstrikes before seeking to come to their rescue. At present, the YPG reportedly enjoys greater popularity than the Kurdistan Region Government’s peshmerga in Sinjar and those areas inside northwestern Iraq contested by the Islamic State.

The reason why Turkey objects to any training for the YPG is that they and their civilian political counterpart, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) fall under the general umbrella of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a group which aligned with Soviet interests during the Cold War and long waged an insurgency inside Turkey. That may be a problem, but it’s time to set priorities: Defeating the Islamic State is more important than paying heed to Turkey’s obsessions. If Turkey won’t play ball if the YPG are included in training, then it’s time to stop working through Turkey. They are, after all, not the only U.S. partner to border Syria.

The Islamic State presents a grave and growing threat throughout the region. If they are to be defeated, no moderates should be excluded. If moderates can be found among Syrian Arabs, that would be great, although they are, at this point, likely a chimera. But there are worthy forces to train among the Iraqi army and even some of the Iraqi volunteers who answered Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call to fight the Islamic State. Last fall, I stayed at a facility in which some of these volunteers trained in southern Iraq. While Iran has certainly tried to co-opt and control some of these volunteers, many more care only about defending their communities against the Islamic State and do not care an iota for geopolitics. The United States needs to support and help rebuild the Iraqi army, and those elements which survived their trial by fire. The Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga also are worthy of support. But the YPG complete the picture. If they can be as successful as they have been against the Islamic State without formal training, they might be the ace in the hole if they can hone their tactics and skills and actually receive the weaponry they need to do the job at hand.

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Is Turkey Hosting Hamas Training Camps?

I was on the set of a Turkish news talk show—maybe SkyTürk or CNNTürk—in Istanbul back in 2006 when news broke that the Turkish government would welcome the leader of Hamas in Turkey. Hamas had won Palestinian elections a few weeks previous, but Turkey’s decision to host the unrepentant terrorist group took both Turks and the West by surprise.

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I was on the set of a Turkish news talk show—maybe SkyTürk or CNNTürk—in Istanbul back in 2006 when news broke that the Turkish government would welcome the leader of Hamas in Turkey. Hamas had won Palestinian elections a few weeks previous, but Turkey’s decision to host the unrepentant terrorist group took both Turks and the West by surprise.

After all, in the wake of the Palestinian elections, the European Union, the United States, and other countries had demanded that Hamas first acquiesce to the basis of the Oslo Accords—that is foreswearing terrorism and recognizing Israel—before it would be a welcome player in the international community. This was good diplomacy, after all, because the precondition of the Palestinian Authority’s existence was the Palestinian abandonment of terror and recognition of Israel. It was not an optional aspect to the agreement. Should the Palestinian Authority cease respecting that aspect of the agreement, Israel would be justified legally in returning to the status quo ante.

The reason for the surprise at Turkish actions was that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had personally promised German Chancellor Angela Merkel just days before that Turkey would not invite the Hamas leader. Erdoğan thought he would be too clever by half, however, and explained that the invitation came not at the behest of Turkey but rather by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which dominated the Turkish government.

Over subsequent years, the relationship between Erdoğan and Hamas grew tighter. Erdoğan’s affair with Hamas had little to do with sympathy toward the Palestinian cause—after all, this was a cause he undermined by favoring Hamas over Fatah—but rather with Hamas’ Islamist and perhaps anti-Semitic vision. Hamas leaders inside Turkey planned recent terrorist plots against Israel.

Perhaps the United States was willing to turn a blind eye toward Erdoğan’s dalliance with a terror group. That might have simply been a factor of the man in the Oval Office. But, if the latest reports are true, then Erdoğan has gone far beyond the realm of plausible deniability. From Israel’s Ynetnews:

Relations been Israel and Turkey have been on a slippery downward slope in recent years; of late, however, the situation has led to grave consequences beyond the realm of politics: Turkey has become a Hamas hotbed, and members of the organization’s military wing are undergoing military training on Turkish soil, with the knowledge, support and assistance of the local authorities. The U.S. administration has appealed in recent months to the Turkish government to prevent Hamas military activity in its territory, arguing that Turkey is a member of NATO and that most NATO members view Hamas as a terrorist organization. The appeals have gone unanswered.

The idea that Turkey—a NATO member—would allow military training camps on its soil for a group designated by the United States and much the rest of the West as a terrorist organization is not something that can be diplomatically cast aside. Just as states—even allied states—are designated as deficient when it comes to combating human trafficking or money laundering on the logic that they work to rectify their status, so too it is time to designate Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism with whatever sanctions incumbent levied until such a time as Turkey rectifies its behavior. Such a designation might have financial implications in the defense sector and general investment, but quiet diplomacy simply has not worked. It’s time to hold Turkey to account.

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Two Simple Ways Turkey Can Undercut the Islamic State

It’s no secret that Turkey has become the weak link in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president, sees the world through an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist lens, and simply cannot conceive the Islamic State as a greater threat than Syria’s secular Kurds, his conspiratorial vision of Israel and Jews, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Alawis.

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It’s no secret that Turkey has become the weak link in the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist president, sees the world through an ethnic and sectarian chauvinist lens, and simply cannot conceive the Islamic State as a greater threat than Syria’s secular Kurds, his conspiratorial vision of Israel and Jews, or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Alawis.

Turkey has provided medical aid, safe haven, and perhaps even weaponry to the Islamic State. But its biggest contribution has been free passage. A huge preponderance of the foreign fighters flowing into Syria and Iraq have transited Turkey. It’s as easy as flying in on Turkish Air, transferring to a domestic flight to Gazientep or Hatay near the Syrian border, and then paying a taxi driver to go to the border. Turkish border guards at most charge a $40 bribe to turn the other way, according to journalists and analysts who have made the journey.

I spent much of the last week in Morocco for the Marrakech Security Forum, where I had the opportunity to speak to Arab security professionals. Issues relating to foreign fighters dominated conversations. For example, why is it that so many Moroccans fight for the Islamic State inside Syria and Iraq and yet are poorly represented in Boko Haram’s emirate or in Libya, where the Islamic State is also resurgent? Or, conversely, since Islamist radicalism is rife in Algeria, why is it that Algerians are relatively poorly represented in the Islamic State, but yet are ever present in the Libyan fight?

Sometimes, the answers are mundane. It comes down to the Turkish visa regimen. Turkey does not require visas for Moroccans, making Syria accessible to would-be Moroccan jihadists. Ditto for Libyans, Lebanese, Jordanians, and Tunisians. And yet, Turkey requires visas for Algerians, hence the relatively small number of Algerians fighting in Syria and Iraq. It’s simply much easier for Algerians to fight in Libya which has proximity in its favor.

Meanwhile, Moroccans have reported a shift over time in how their extremists travel to fight in self-conceived jihads. In the past, Islamist enablers would recruit young Moroccans and help facilitate their travel to the world’s hotspots. Today, however, most of the Moroccans traveling to join the Islamic State understand they need only fly to Istanbul and then they will easily find a facilitator inside Turkey. Whether in Istanbul’s airports or in regional cities, Islamic state spotters find young would-be jihadis exiting the airport and make themselves known. Picture pimps at the Port Authority bus terminal in New York approaching girls coming off buses from the Midwest in the 1970s; when you’re trained to spot the young and naive, it’s relatively easy work.

This raises two simple policy fixes which might cut off some of the oxygen from the Islamic State:

  • First, if Turkey is serious about the fight against terrorism, it needs to start requiring visas in advance from nationalities which today serve as the chief recruiting pool for the Islamic State. Businessmen and legitimate tourists won’t have a problem applying, and Turkish intelligence might benefit from the vetting as well.
  • And, second, if would-be Islamic State fighters have no problem finding Islamic State fixers in and around Turkey’s airports, then it’s curious that the Turkish intelligence service can’t identify and round them up. Here, the problem is likely less ability than desire on the part of the Turkish government. But that’s no reason to deflect diplomatic attention to a real problem. Once again, perhaps it’s time to designate Turkey a state sponsor of terrorism if only to pressure the Erdoğan government to do what a responsible member of the international community would have done years ago.

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A Russian Base for Cyprus?

The past few years have seen significant developments in the Eastern Mediterranean: Not only have significant gas reserves been discovered off the coast of Israel and Cyprus, but production has also begun in some fields. Turkey’s belligerence, an al-Qaeda and/or Islamic State presence in the Sinai Peninsula, civil war in Syria, Iranian shipment of anti-ship missiles to its proxies and its own declaration that the Eastern Mediterranean marks its strategic boundary, and Hezbollah openly declaring its drilling in underwater sabotage all add uncertainty to waters that had for decades been tranquil. The fact that Russia has dispatched a permanent naval task force to the Eastern Mediterranean highlights the fact that the waters will no longer be uncontested.

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The past few years have seen significant developments in the Eastern Mediterranean: Not only have significant gas reserves been discovered off the coast of Israel and Cyprus, but production has also begun in some fields. Turkey’s belligerence, an al-Qaeda and/or Islamic State presence in the Sinai Peninsula, civil war in Syria, Iranian shipment of anti-ship missiles to its proxies and its own declaration that the Eastern Mediterranean marks its strategic boundary, and Hezbollah openly declaring its drilling in underwater sabotage all add uncertainty to waters that had for decades been tranquil. The fact that Russia has dispatched a permanent naval task force to the Eastern Mediterranean highlights the fact that the waters will no longer be uncontested.

Against the backdrop of such changes and the Eastern Mediterranean’s increasing strategic importance, the United States has little permanent military infrastructure in the region. Hopefully, incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter will change that, but any augmentation of the U.S. presence wll take years, if not decades.

Alas, just as China has been filling the vacuum in Asia left by retreating U.S. power, and Iran has been doing likewise in the Middle East, so too is Russia making its move into the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent days, Cypriot papers have been awash with rumors that Cyprus might grant Russia use of its air and naval bases. Here, for example, is a report from Nicosia’s Cyprus Mail:

Local media reports on Tuesday [10 February] continued to suggest that Cyprus may grant Russia use of an airbase on the island as part of an updated defence agreement expected to be signed during President Nicos Anastasiades [Nikos Anastasiadis]’ visit to Moscow later this month… On Monday, Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported that the agreement to be signed in Moscow would allow the Russian air force to deploy from an airbase in Paphos, some 40km from the RAF airbase in Akrotiri. However RIA Novosti did say that the bilateral defence pact did not foresee creating a Russian military base here. “The issue of creating a Russian military base is not being discussed. We’re talking about providing the possibility of using an airbase in Paphos that other countries such as Germany and France use,” an Athens-based diplomatic source told the news agency….

Publicly, the question of access to the Paphos airbase and Limassol port has been raised only by Russian ambassador Nicosia Stanislav Osadchiy who has often expressed Moscow’s intention to reach a potential agreement with Cyprus for a military base on the island.

However, when Defense Minister Christoforos Fokaidis gave an interview to the Greek-language Cypriot paper Politis Tis Kyriakis, he pointedly avoided denying discussions about a Russian naval base, instead citing diplomatic sensitivity:

The president of the republic will soon visit Moscow and, according to information, will sign a military agreement. Will this agreement satisfy the Russian request for providing facilitations to the Russian Air Force and the Russian Navy with permanent presence?

[Fokaidis] You will allow me to not make any comment that may harm the ongoing diplomatic efforts. These issues are extremely sensitive and are being handled through the diplomatic channels within the framework of the government policy that wants Cyprus to be a credible partner in the European Union with whatever this entails but also a consistent friend with all the countries that consistently support the Republic of Cyprus.

Is there reaction by other countries about the military cooperation with Russia? I mostly refer to the EU and the United States.

[Fokaidis] It is well known that recently, because of the developments in Ukraine, a particularly negative climate toward Russia has developed. And it is even stronger in the former communist countries of Eastern Europe that see Russia as a threat. It would be wrong to disregard this element. We, I must tell you, work for the promotion of a dialogue between Russia and the EU. And this is not simply because Cyprus has traditionally close relations with Russia. Russia is a big country. And stability in Europe and the world cannot be ensured without Russia’s contribution. This is why it is in everyone’s interest that Russia comes closer to Europe and the Euro-Atlantic security system. The present circumstances, with the crisis in Ukraine, certainly do not help us approach this goal.

Turkish columnist Yusuf Kanli provided a bit more context:

Could it surprise anyone should someone come up with a claim that Greek Cypriots were offering bases to Russia? Will this be the first time such a flirtation will be in the cards? Was it not the Greek Cypriot Finance Minister Michael Sarris who visited Moscow in March 2013 to offer bases to Russia in exchange of much needed easy loans to overcome the worst financial crisis of south Cyprus in recent times? Did not those talks collapse when the Russians did not find Greek Cypriot offers juicy enough and ask for arrangements enjoyed by the British bases – that is to have sovereign bases on Cyprus…?

The latest euphoria over the Russian base on the Cyprus issue was because of a slip of the tongue of President Nikos Anastasiades. He did not even use the word “base” while briefing reporters about upcoming agreements with Russia. He said among the agreements to be signed, there will be one on “providing facilities for emergency and humanitarian operations to Russian aircraft carriers.” Of course there is a difference between “providing facilities” or “offering facilities to facilitate humanitarian operations” and “offering bases.”

So has Cyprus really offered the Turks a base or should Cypriot denials be taken at face value?

It would be naïve to discount the possibility that talks are underway. While President Obama and much of Europe approach diplomacy as an effort to compromise or find a win-win solution to problems, Russian President Vladimir Putin has always looked at international relations as a zero-sum game: For Russia to win, everyone else must lose. And it’s also beyond doubt that, under Putin, Russia’s military is resurgent. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy operated in the Mediterranean, and so it is natural that Putin would seek to restore that capability, as he restores the Soviet footprint elsewhere.

But what if the Cypriot deal is simply to provide the Russian navy with emergency services or other logistical support? Therefore, according to such logic, any agreement would simply be to provide facility access rather than a base. Here, however, it’s useful to remember that no matter how much Bahrain denies that its port is a U.S. naval base, it is, in effect, a U.S. naval base. Likewise, no matter how much the Chinese deny that Gwadar in Pakistan is anything more than a civilian, commercial project, it is being carefully designed to accommodate all the needs of the Chinese navy. Simply put, national security should not be sacrificed to semantics.

It is fashionable in diplomatic circles to deny that a new Cold War is underway. But there is something unfortunate about Obama administration policy in that it substitutes pronouncements about how it would like the world to be for any recognition of reality. The United States is in a new Cold War with Russia, and risks losing strategic ground every week it refuses to recognize Russian grand ambitions. Now, more than ever, the United States needs an Eastern Mediterranean strategy.

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