Commentary Magazine


Topic: Turkey

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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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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