Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkey

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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Interplay Between Turkey and al-Qaeda Revealed?

Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

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Over at the American Enterprise Institute website, I argue that the Turkish government has been the biggest hypocrite to send a representative to march against terrorism in Paris because, well, Turkey is pretty much a state sponsor of terror. An interlocutor in Turkey responds by pointing to new documents which appear to show a much more direct cooperation between the Turkish intelligence service (MIT) and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria.

Such documents—which appear to be legitimate and the leaking of which the Turkish government has responded to by trying to shut down accounts housing them, and perhaps Twitter and Facebook as well—are, according to initial reports, the statements of those questioned when the Turkish military raided trucks heading into Syria carrying arms and weaponry. The trucks, it turns out, were driven by employees of the MIT. The arms were apparently destined for more radical groups fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

When the police stopped the trucks, the Erdoğan regime was furious, and ordered the press not to report on the incident, declaring it “a state secret.” Alas, just as dictators in North Korea, Iran, Eritrea, or the former Soviet Union have learned, it is impossible to completely control news and the flow of information.

Turkey is not simply wrong on policy; it appears to be a full-blown sponsor of terrorism. Simply put, the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh) likely would not exist if it were not for Turkish assistance and Qatari financing. At the very least, the United States, every member of the European Union, and every Arab state should call Turkish ambassadors in and read them the riot act. If the documents are real, Turkey should no longer avoid designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. And it’s long past time the United States and its Canadian and European allies began a serious dialogue about Turkey’s role in NATO.

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Lynch Mob Attacks Turkish Newspaper

Over the years, I’ve chronicled the rapid decline in press freedom in Turkey.

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Over the years, I’ve chronicled the rapid decline in press freedom in Turkey.

For example:

I wish this was an exhaustive list, but alas it’s not and there’s far more available in the pages of COMMENTARY, easily accessible if you follow the tags “press freedom” and “Turkey.”

Alas, it seems that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Islamist Brownshirts are now willing to take the battle against the press and free expression to a new level. The Turkish broadsheet Cumhuriyet, traditionally a center-left newspaper, decided to reprint a four-page selection of Charlie Hebdo’s post-massacre edition. In response, Turkish police—firmly under Erdoğan’s control—earlier today raided the Istanbul offices of the paper. That’s bad enough, but par for the course in Erdoğan’s police state. Nor was it unpredictable that Erdoğan would take such a hard line against Charlie Hebdo and its drawings. After all, the assailants were still on the run when senior ministers in Erdoğan’s government and the Islamist press in Turkey—the only press which Erdoğan allows to operate freely—began to rationalize the murders in Paris.

Now, however, as I write this, interlocutors in Turkey tell me a mob has gathered in front of Cumhuriyet and is calling, quite literally, for blood, chanting, “Be prepared, death is coming all around.” They are also reportedly chanting their allegiance to the Kouachi brothers who carried out the massacre at Charlie Hebdo. This Twitter feed is worth watching as the situation develops.

Let us hope and pray that the journalists at Cumhuriyet remain safe, and that the international community makes clear to Erdoğan that he will personally be held responsible for their lives and safety. Meanwhile, it is worth reflecting just how bold is not only Cumhuriyet but also the Iranian newspaper Shargh which tweeted out some of the cartoons. Meanwhile, the New York Times refuses for fear of insulting someone. (That didn’t stop Dean Baquet from insulting those who pressed him on his decision to self-censor.) The lesson? Perhaps it’s true that people don’t appreciate their freedoms until they are taken away. Nevertheless, it’s about time we start recognizing the fragility of freedom and liberty.

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In Turkey, Will Corruption Kill?

Turkey has never been a particularly clean country when it comes to economic transparency and rule of law. One of the reasons why mainstream voters chose Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 elections was widespread disgust with the corruption of the established parties. Turkish voters basically gambled on the devil they didn’t know instead of the devils they did.

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Turkey has never been a particularly clean country when it comes to economic transparency and rule of law. One of the reasons why mainstream voters chose Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the 2002 elections was widespread disgust with the corruption of the established parties. Turkish voters basically gambled on the devil they didn’t know instead of the devils they did.

In hindsight it is clear they made the wrong decision. When Erdoğan became prime minister, he immediately set out to hijack the Turkish financial system, reportedly building a large slush fund with the assistance of oil-rich Persian Gulf emirates like Qatar. Over the course of his premiership, Erdoğan also became fabulously wealthy. Erdoğan explained his sudden good fortune as the result of wedding gifts sent to his son by his many friends and admirers. Still, U.S. diplomats privately suggested that Erdoğan has siphoned money off into eight different Swiss bank accounts. It is impossible to know for sure in the absence of transparency, but Erdoğan may very well be the most corrupt leader in Turkey’s history, and that’s a distinction for which the competition has been fierce.

The fact that Erdoğan is effectively above the law has led him to double down on opponents and answer corruption charges with impunity. A year ago, after a dispute erupted between Erdoğan and exiled Islamic thinker Fethullah Gülen, the Gülenists in the security services apparently leaked recordings allegedly depicting corruption in Erdoğan’s household and among senior ministers and advisors, like former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış. In the recordings, Erdoğan purportedly asks his son to dispose of $1 billion stashed in various family members’ homes. The next day, Turks say that the Erdoğans bought several luxury villas, paying with cash. Meanwhile, police had seized millions of dollars from the homes of Bağış and colleagues. Bağış defended himself by calling such gifts a Turkish tradition. And so they have become.

A parliamentary commission charged with investigating corruption and bribery charges against four Erdoğan ministers decided, however, not to send the ministers to a Supreme Court trial. This outcome surprised no one because Erdoğan’s party enjoys a parliamentary majority and maintains authoritarian control over his party and its affairs. What is surprising, however, is that the AKP went further; the parliamentary commission handling the graft investigation decided to destroy all evidence. This is to ensure that no future government or independent court would have original evidence at its disposal. While recordings of the phone calls are all over YouTube and other Internet sites, under Turkish law copies are not admissible in court. The lesson? In Turkey, corruption occurs with impunity. That may be tragic for Turkey itself, the Turkish middle class, and foreign investors unwilling to pony up cash; but embezzlement, bribes, and kickbacks don’t necessarily take lives.

Alas, corruption has become endemic in other ways that can have devastating consequences. In his efforts to depict Turkey as a great, emerging power, Erdoğan decided to go nuclear. In 2010, he signed a $22 billion agreement with Russia—not exactly the industry standard of nuclear safety—to build a nuclear power plant at Akkuyu along Turkey’s southern coast. (In 2013, Erdoğan finalized another $22 billion agreement with a Japanese and French concern to build a second nuclear plant in Sinop, on Turkey’s Black Sea coast). Now it’s emerging that signatures on the engineering assessment of the plant’s environmental impact were forged. But, why worry? It’s only a nuclear plant in an active earthquake zone. Alas, the right people might have benefited in the short term, but the long-term impact of such fraud can be devastating and impact not only Turkey, but southeastern Europe, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, and Israel as well.

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Turkey Rationalizes France Terror

There can be no rationalizing on excusing today’s terror attack on the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. To blame satirists for terrorism and murder is like excusing rape because the victim wore a bikini. And yet, that is just what the Turkish government did today, not once but twice. From Hürriyet:

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There can be no rationalizing on excusing today’s terror attack on the French satirical paper Charlie Hebdo. To blame satirists for terrorism and murder is like excusing rape because the victim wore a bikini. And yet, that is just what the Turkish government did today, not once but twice. From Hürriyet:

[Foreign Minister Mevlüt] Çavuşoğlu said terrorism is the first of two elements that Europe must fight. The second problem, he said, “is racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia, which is on the rise in many regions of Europe.” He suggested that terrorism and Islamophobia “affect and trigger each other.”

Nor was it just Çavuşoğlu who embraced a twisted moral equivalence. Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Ömer Çelik also condemned the massacre, but added “Muslims were also hurt” regarding the paper’s criticism of the Prophet Muhammad.

This is not the first time that Turkish officials have placed themselves on the wrong side of terrorism and its victims. Against the backdrop of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s rampage through Mali, Turkish Ambassador Ahmet Kavas wrote that Al Qaeda was not a terrorist group, and it was really the French who represented true terrorism. When the leader of Turkey’s secular opposition questioned Turkey’s relationship with the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Ahmet Davutoğlu, then foreign minister and now prime minister, blamed any linkage between jihadism and terrorism on the propaganda of “American neocons and Israelis.”

Turkey is no bastion of free press. For a journalist to stand up for religious tolerance, political pluralism, or the environment is to risk their job, their freedom, their bank accounts or all three. But Turkish outlets with which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agrees can publish unmolested. And so it is quite telling that two Turkish Islamist papers, which consistently and staunchly support Erdoğan’s agenda, appeared to justify the violence.

Turkey has long been described, as a bridge between Asia and Europe, and Turkey remains, in theory, an applicant to the European Union. Crises, however, can expose a government’s true character better than any polished diplomatic summit or position paper. As Erdoğan’s regime appears to justify, if not side with, terrorists then there should be no longer any question: Turkey has no place in Europe. Indeed, no country that justifies terrorism has any place in civilized society.

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Turkey Helps Russia’s Ambition in Georgia

Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, there was Russia’s invasion of Georgia. And, just as it was years later in Ukraine, part of the Russian strategy was to recognize the independence of separatist states wholly dependent on Russian largesse in territories Russian troops seized. In Ukraine, for example, there was briefly independent Crimea and, of course, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. And, in Georgia, Russia has set up the proxy states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Beyond Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island nation of Nauru recognize the independence of the breakaway states, although other Russian-backed breakaway states—Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria—also maintain “embassies” in the Russian puppet states.

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Long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea, there was Russia’s invasion of Georgia. And, just as it was years later in Ukraine, part of the Russian strategy was to recognize the independence of separatist states wholly dependent on Russian largesse in territories Russian troops seized. In Ukraine, for example, there was briefly independent Crimea and, of course, the Donetsk and Luhansk Peoples Republics. And, in Georgia, Russia has set up the proxy states of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Beyond Russia, only Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the Pacific island nation of Nauru recognize the independence of the breakaway states, although other Russian-backed breakaway states—Nagorno-Karabakh and Transnistria—also maintain “embassies” in the Russian puppet states.

Enter Turkey, a member of NATO, a defensive alliance created in order to resist Russian aggression. Sergei Kapanadze, director of the Tbilisi-based Georgia’s Reforms Associates and a former deputy foreign minister of Georgia, has an important article out in the latest issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly, the top journal of contemporary Turkish politics and studies, examining Turkish trade with Abkhazia.

What he finds is that while Turkish officials pay lip service to Georgia’s territorial integrity, Turkish trade with the Russian-backed breakaway state is booming. Senior Turkish Foreign Ministry officials have visited Abkhazia to discuss developing relations, and in June 2014, a delegation of Turkish parliamentarians visited Abkhazia as well. Kapanadze wrote that 60 percent of Abkazian imports come from Turkey, while 45 percent of its exports go to Turkey. In other words, Turkey’s willingness to make a quick buck on Abkhazia effectively subsidizes Russian aggression and the fiction of Abkhazian independence. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, Kapanadze estimates the trade volume between Turkey and Abkhazia in 2013 as $600 million. That might not seem like much, but that’s more than the total trade balance between the United States and Georgia ($425.8 million) the same year. Turkey, meanwhile, complains when the Georgian navy stops Turkish smuggling ships.

It’s imperative to stop and roll back Russian aggression wherever it occurs. NATO is the chief defensive alliance to fulfill that mission. How sad it is, then, that Turkey once again shows that when it comes to fighting aggression, taking money from dictators means more than principles such as liberty, democracy, and freedom. Turkey may be a NATO member, but it simply is on the wrong side of the fight.

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Erdoğan’s Willing Enablers

Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

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Over the past decade, I’ve written a great deal about Turkey and chronicled its turn from an aspiring if imperfect democracy back into an authoritarian, repressive regime. When I began writing on the issue back in 2004, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was still the toast of Washington policymakers who saw in the Turkish leader the perfect example of a man who combined religious conservatism with democracy, the type of Islamist who could serve as a model for the broader region if not entire Islamic world. He was embraced by a multitude of former U.S. ambassadors to Turkey and Clinton-era State Department policy planning staff members, and shepherded through Washington by former Reagan administration officials who, frankly, should have known better. Meanwhile, Erdoğan quietly moved to rework the bureaucracy, replace technocrats, build slush funds, and insert his own protégés in positions of immense power, even if still cloaked in shadows.

Erdoğan and his supporters, both within his Justice and Development Party (AKP) and among the followers of Islamist preacher Fethullah Gülen, crafted a false choice: To support Erdoğan and his agenda was to support democracy; to question Erdoğan was to support military fascism. Among diplomats, intellectuals, and academics, anti-military bias was a major factor: Certainly, no aspiring democracy should have such a prominent domestic political role for the military as pre-Erdoğan Turkey did. But to turn a blind eye toward persecution of officers simply because they served their country and abided by their mandate to protect the constitution was wrong. So too was the rush by Erdoğan’s external supporters to cheer his dis-empowerment of the military without first creating an alternate system of checks and balances to the constitutional order. Erdoğan had ambition, and took advantage of the naivete of Western diplomats, Turkish liberals, and businessmen who just wanted quiet while Turkey’s economy boomed.

Criticism of Erdoğan brought with it a flood of bile, if not ad hominem demonization. This itself should have been an indicator, for the ad hominem attack is often the strategy of choice for those unable to counter arguments on fact. At times, however, libel seemed to be a deliberate strategy. Mustafa Akyol, a columnist for the Hürriyet Daily News, often wrote favorably toward Erdoğan’s early agenda and criticized those raising questions about it. Here, for example, he suggested that I had labeled Erdoğan’s government as an “example of so-called Islamo-fascism.” I had done nothing of the sort and when I challenged Akyol or the Hürriyet Daily News to show any instance where I used that term, I got neither response nor correction. Akyol apparently wanted to dismiss criticism as rooted in anti-Muslim bigotry rather than have to address criticism head-on. He has since come around, but his writing is influential and the damage he did by holding water for the AKP helped blind Washington-area policymakers toward Erdoğan’s true agenda until it was too late.

Another prime example of Turkish journalists publishing outright propaganda in order to win access and privilege was this beauty, by Cengiz Çandar, a Turkish journalist who has a reputation for trading praise for access across Turkish administrations. Here, for example, is Çandar taking umbrage in The Guardian about criticism of Turkey’s crackdown on his fellow journalists. In the years since Çandar’s ad hominem response, press freedom organizations have declared Turkey “the world’s biggest prison for journalists.” Had Çandar used his pen to stand up for freedom and liberty rather than sweep abuses under the rug, Turkish civil society might not be in such a lamentable state today. Alas, no amount of indignation in papers like The Guardian can change reality. Even those on the far left care about imprisoned journalists and don’t buy into the notion that Erdoğan only punishes criminals.

Those spreading hate to ingratiate themselves to Erdoğan also paved the way for the West to turn a blind eye. Former Ambassador Mark Parris—while working at two Washington-area think tanks—started a whispering campaign accusing me and a number of Jewish Americans critical of Erdoğan of plotting a coup against him, a plot which his interlocutor, columnist Fehmi Koru (who also writes under the pseudonym Taha Kıvanç), unfurled in a series of Yeni Şafak columns reminiscent of Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Parris subsequently became a non-executive director in one of Turkey’s top oil companies. Parris’s colleague at Brookings was Omer Taspinar who would write with a moderate tone in English, but would lose all semblance of balance or scholarly detachment in Turkish. Here, for example, was Taspinar ranting in the Turkish press (Google translation here) about supposed “neocon” plots and unfair criticism of the Turkish leader. Qatar was not the only country to try to corrupt Brookings; such articles apparently came against the backdrop of fundraising inside Turkey for Brookings’ Turkey program.

There are others, of course, who helped Erdoğan complete his mission. Against the backdrop of a court case accusing Erdoğan of violating the law and breaching the constitution—a case that might have ended in the dissolution of his party—rumors swirled that a businessman seeking favor with Erdoğan and relief from constant AKP-led tax investigations against him allegedly bribed a judge who switched his vote which at the last minute, enabling Erdoğan and the AKP to survive.

Fethullah Gülen may now find himself the target of Erdoğan’s irrational anger, but Gülen and his allies also have much to answer for. After all, while allied with Erdoğan, they used their perch in the security services to spy on and sometimes frame their secularist adversaries. Years before the cases of imprisoned generals, professors, and civil society leaders were dismissed, Harvard scholar Dani Rodrik showed conclusively how the evidence upon which they were convicted was based on forgery. Why European or American diplomats treated Turkish proceedings as anything more than a farce is inexcusable and, if not intentional due to ideological hatred of Turkey’s generals, demonstrates complete incompetence on the part of journalists and diplomats both. To the credit of the Gülenists, they now acknowledge the error of their ways. The question is whether they ever would have come to terms with what they had done to their adversaries if they had not found themselves on the wrong side of Erdoğan’s animus.

Clearly, with so many critics of Turkey ending up in prison or facing charges (full disclosure: Erdoğan advisor Cuneyt Zapsu and disgraced European Union Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış also filed papers against me in a Turkish court, a process which Namik Tan, Turkey’s ambassador to the United States apparently aided; I ignored the Turkish case), many Turks and analysts also shifted course to maintain their access. Some Washington-based scholars who were once clear-eyed and critical of Erdoğan now consciously mute their criticism, either for fear of the safety of their family back in Turkey or to maintain access to the country. Either way, the knowledge that people will subvert a quest for truth to such career calculations have enabled Erdoğan’s rise from the very start.

Almost 20 years ago, author Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book which took to task the German public which argued that they were unaware of just what Hitler was doing as he did it. Erdoğan is no Hitler, but he is at a minimum a dictator who combines the ambition and egoism of Vladimir Putin with uncompromising Islamism.

While few now debate what Erdoğan represents and where he means to take Turkey, he need not have succeeded in his quest. Perhaps as Turkey enters a new year, it is time for Turkish liberals, ambitious businessmen, corrupt journalists, and frightened diplomats to look back and consider the consequences of the compromises they made. As Turks—not only Islamists but liberals as well—suffer under Erdoğan’s dictatorship, let us hope that they acknowledge that their new dictator is a product and reflection of Turkey’s own political culture, and not some conspiracy imposed by the outside.

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PKK Must Reform if it Wants Support

I’ve written several times recently to argue that the United States should review the terrorism designation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and consider removing the group from American terrorist lists. After all, the PKK—or its various proxy groups and affiliates—have never targeted Americans. Indeed, while the United States labeled them a terrorist group largely out of deference to Turkey at a time when Turkey was still an ally in both name and deed, the listing may have been unfair: the PKK arguably engaged more in insurgency than terrorism over the past quarter century. Regardless, the situation has changed significantly in recent years, both in terms of Turkish actions and PKK deeds. Turkey is now much more of a terror sponsor than the PKK ever was, turning a blind eye to if not directly supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) by enabling transit, providing medical care, and apparently offering resupply. Turkey also supports Hamas; Hamas operatives inside Turkey have planned several recent attempted Hamas terrorist strikes in Israel. The Turkish ambassador to Chad even went so far as to endorse on twitter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the wake of that group’s rampage in northern Mali.

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I’ve written several times recently to argue that the United States should review the terrorism designation of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and consider removing the group from American terrorist lists. After all, the PKK—or its various proxy groups and affiliates—have never targeted Americans. Indeed, while the United States labeled them a terrorist group largely out of deference to Turkey at a time when Turkey was still an ally in both name and deed, the listing may have been unfair: the PKK arguably engaged more in insurgency than terrorism over the past quarter century. Regardless, the situation has changed significantly in recent years, both in terms of Turkish actions and PKK deeds. Turkey is now much more of a terror sponsor than the PKK ever was, turning a blind eye to if not directly supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) by enabling transit, providing medical care, and apparently offering resupply. Turkey also supports Hamas; Hamas operatives inside Turkey have planned several recent attempted Hamas terrorist strikes in Israel. The Turkish ambassador to Chad even went so far as to endorse on twitter Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in the wake of that group’s rampage in northern Mali.

The PKK, meanwhile, has promoted and accepted a ceasefire with Turkey and is actively engaged in peace talks. Indeed, in these talks, it has been Turkey and not the PKK that has failed to deliver on its promise. The PKK did the lion’s share to liberate Sinjar from the Islamic State (ISIS) and it also has the best track record on the ground both against the Syrian regime and against ISIS. PKK affiliates control more ground inside Syria than the Free Syrian Army, and are far more moderate: When I visited “Rojava,” as the Kurdish-controlled zone in Syria is called, municipal services functioned, girls walked to school alone, and Christians, Muslims, and Yezidis; Kurds and Arabs lived and worshipped side by side with equal rights under the law.

Both PKK activists and many more Kurds at large believe that there should be no question about the United States coming around and embracing the PKK. But, re-evaluation should not be a one-way street. The PKK began as a Marxist organization, motivated as much by the fight against capitalism as it was by Kurdish nationalism. When, a year ago, I attended as an observer a PKK rally in Paris at the invitation of some Kurdish leaders, many marched under Kurdish flags, but other embraced the hammer and sickle, or visages of Che Guevara. Those embracing Guevara flags might think of him as a force of resistance against oppressive powers, but much of the world knows Guevara as a psychopathic mass murder. To embrace Che Guevara, or march under symbols of a movement responsible for the slaughter of tens of millions of people in the twentieth century, is not the way to win hearts and minds of mainstream American or European society. To their credit, Kurdish leaders listened to my concerns and responded—rightly—that such flags were in the minority and that they can hardly control who brings what banners and placards to a rally. But, still, if the fight is about Kurdish rights and cultural freedoms, then its association with radical leftism is only going to detract from an otherwise worthy agenda.

Many Kurds also look at imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan as a new Nelson Mandela. There are parallels: Both engaged in armed struggle and terrorism only to preach peace in their later career. Kurds expect that Öcalan will eventually be released from prison and can take up a mantle of leadership much like Mandela did. But where the two diverge is with regard to the cult of personality that surrounds them. South Africans embraced Mandela, but Mandela placed democracy and rule-of-law above his person. Indeed, his wife Winnie Mandela discovered that being the family of the president did not mean being above the law. It is unfair to judge Öcalan before his release from prison, but he appears to continue to encourage a personality cult which suggests disinterest in making good on rhetoric of democracy and individual freedom. Iraqi Kurds did not win freedom after Saddam’s fall; they simply replaced the Iraqi dictator’s portrait with one of their own. The Turkish and Syrian Kurds need not repeat that experience, and should realize that dictators’ portraits can be removed rather than replaced.

The PKK is still in crisis mode, and rightly so. It or its affiliates are under siege in Syria, Turkey, and Iran, and its leader in prison. But, not since the immediate aftermath of World War I have the stars aligned for a favorable resolution to the Kurdish cause as they do now. It is always easy to use crises as excuses not to reform, but if the PKK is serious about democracy, it must demand freedom and liberty not only for Kurds broadly, but it must also preach and practice democracy for Kurds within its hierarchy.

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Why Do States Choose to Kill Dissidents in Paris?

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

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

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

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

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

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Is the United States Complicit with ISIS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Time to Speak Out on Turkey Media Bans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Obama Should Correct Erdoğan on Women

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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