Tag: turkey

A Covert Escalation of U.S. Involvement in Syria?

Officials often try to implement dubious or controversial initiatives over weekends or holidays, when journalists and the public are likely to be less vigilant than normal.  Three-day holiday weekends are especially popular candidates for such maneuvers.  It is perhaps unsurprising that there were indications of a significant change regarding U.S. policy toward Syria on the Sunday before Memorial Day.  Turkey’s foreign minister announced that his country and the United States had agreed in principle to provide air protection for some 15,000 Syrian rebels being trained by Ankara and Washington once those insurgents re-enter Syrian territory.

Granted, an agreement in principle could break down over the details of implementation, and the Obama administration has yet to confirm the Turkish account.  Nevertheless, there are hints of an impending escalation of U.S. involvement in Syria’s murky civil war.  A lobbying effort by proponents of U.S. aid to factions trying to unseat dictator Bashar al-Assad is definitely taking place.  The number two Democrat in the Senate, Dick Durban of Illinois, has openly endorsed establishing and protecting “safe zones” for insurgents, and he is hardly alone.  

In essence, the United States and its Turkish ally appear to be contemplating the imposition of a “no fly” zone over northern Syria to prevent Assad’s forces from suppressing the rebel fighters.  It is pertinent to recall that a fateful step in America’s disastrous entanglement in Iraq was the creation of such zones against Saddam Hussein to protect Kurdish and Shiite insurgents in the 1990s.  A similar measure should not be undertaken lightly in Syria.

Obama’s Hypocrisy Regarding Forcible Border Changes

In a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Obama stated that he was considering sending weapons to the government of Ukraine.  Noting that Russia had already annexed Crimea and was now backing separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, the president warned that “the West cannot stand and simply allow the borders of Europe to be redrawn at the barrel of a gun.”

Such sentiments might have more credibility if the Western powers, including the United States, had not engaged in similar conduct.  But Washington and its NATO allies have indeed redrawn borders, including borders in Europe, through military force.  Two incidents are especially relevant.  Turkey, a leading member of NATO, invaded Cyprus in 1974 and amputated some 37 percent of that country’s territory.  Turkish forces ethnically cleansed the area of its Greek Cypriot inhabitants and, in the years that followed, desecrated a large number of Greek historical and religious sites.

Ankara subsequently established a client state, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus in the occupied territories.  Turkey has steadfastly refused to atone for its illegal invasion and occupation, much less disgorge the land that it conquered.  Yet except for some token economic sanctions imposed shortly after the invasion, which were soon lifted, Washington has never even condemned the aggression that its NATO ally committed. 

One might assume that it would be awkward for U.S. leaders to excoriate Vladimir Putin’s regime for annexing Crimea or setting up puppet states in the occupied Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia (which Moscow did after a short, nasty war in 2008) when a NATO member is guilty of similar behavior.  But such flagrant inconsistency has apparently caused American officials little difficulty.

Update: Police Turn Water Cannons on Taksim Protesters

Looks like I spoke too soon: the six days of relative quiet in Taksim were broken today, Saturday, as Turkish riot police turned water cannons on thousands of protesters. Police used water cannons and teargas to break up similar protests in Ankara. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains defiant, blaming foreigners and the “interest rate lobby” for stirring up trouble, and undermining Turkey’s economy. Such lines appeal to Erdogan and the AKP’s base, but is likely to only anger the protesters even more.

Looks like standing man/woman won’t be enough to convince Erdogan to moderate his tone. Concessions to his opponents seem even less likely. It could be a long, hot summer in Turkey.

Business Is Booming in Gaziantep, but There Are Other Worries

Gaziantep, Turkey – Late yesterday, we traveled from Ankara to Gaziantep, a manufacturing and industrial city in southeastern Turkey, about 30 miles north of the Syrian border. 

It was an eye-opening experience. The city itself is modern and booming. It has several major universities, and is a central hub for commerce and trade. New construction was visible everywhere. The airport was modest, but the flights to and from Gaziantep were full. 
 
The best parts of the trip were the meetings with individual Turks, including business people, students, and teachers. Several families welcomed us into their homes over traditional meals. 
 
The cut off of trade and economic ties since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war has affected some businesses, but most appear to have adapted by finding new markets and new suppliers. Indeed, I and other of my traveling companions were surprised that there were not more outward signs of the brutal war that has raged for over two years, in this city less than 60 miles from Aleppo.
 
The city of Gaziantep, and the surrounding province of the same name, have welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria. Syrian refugees are allowed to work. This is a point of pride among the people with whom I met, even though they recognize the hardship that it causes for some already here. They would like more help for refugees from the international community.
 
They also would like leading powers, especially the United States, but also Russia and China, to play a role in resolving the crisis. But that end state could not include Bashar Assad. The sense was that he had to go. One gentleman told me that 40 years of rule by the Assad family was enough. And besides, “he has killed his own people,” he said, “How can he be allowed to remain?” When I explained to another gentleman that it might be hard to find someone who can fill the vacuum left behind, he replied that a Sunni Arab could do the job. Most Syrians are Sunnis, thus they would rally behind a Sunni. And other minorities will then come along. [I’m pretty sure that an Alawite would disagree, and I suspect many Christians would as well.]
 
These people were generally Erdogan supporters. Many worried about how the recent protests were undermining Turkey’s image abroad. They were concerned about the impact on tourism, and on the wider economy. Some, echoing the AKP’s standard line, saw evidence of nefarious foreign plots behind the protesters. Still others felt that the protests started out as a spontaneous expression of concern about Gezi Park, but had been hijacked by interest groups within Turkey, including far left parties, and vehement Erdogan opponents.
 
It is obvious that Erdogan taps into the sentiment among some of the people with whom I met–and arguably many Turks, given that he is the first Prime Minister to have been elected three times–that one shouldn’t be officially ostracized for practicing religion. And it certainly shouldn’t be a crime. In that respect, some Turks believe that the Kemalists went too far. They didn’t merely set up a secular state. They were anti-religious, sneering and dismissive of believers.
 
Others are enthused about the economic revival that has occurred under his watch. One of my hosts explained that many of the protesters were too young to remember the poor economic times, including a financial crisis in 2000-2001 that paved the way for the AKP’s rise to power. The implication was that if Erdogan and the AKP were to lose political control to the opposition, the economy would suffer. 
 
But there is an unsettling authoritarian streak in Erdogan’s behavior. Even strong AKP supporters worry that the party’s identity has become too wrapped up around Erdogan. The party lacks a firm institutional base, and too few voices from within the AKP who can or will challenge Erdogan, or at least help him moderate his ways. He has surrounded himself with sycophants and yes men, a closeted bubble increasingly isolated from reality. They say that in a democracy, the winners of elections have a mandate to govern. They are confident that the majorities that elected them, and returned them to power, are still with them. 
 
Are they? What is going on politically? Has Erdogan overreached? And will the opposition use the recent protests and a growing sense of frustration and unease among some Turks to cut into his power, beginning perhaps with next year’s municipal elections? I’ll write more about that tomorrow.

A View from Ankara

Ankara, Turkey — We arrived in Ankara this evening after some sightseeing on the Aegean coast, from the resort town of Kusadasi we traveled to the ancient city of Ephesus. These are the most impressive ruins from the Roman period that I’ve ever seen (excepting Rome).

The amphitheater (pictured below) seats over 24,000 people and is appropriately famous for its sheer size, but the city as a whole was impressive, boasting an estimated population of 250,000 people at its peak circa the 1st or 2nd century AD.

We took a one-hour flight from Izmir to Ankara, the capital. As in Izmir and Istanbul, I was struck by the sense of confidence and growth. Modern buildings are under construction everywhere, and there is an ebullient mood. We passed a large festival with carnival style rides. Cars speed along the main road through the center of town. It is an impressive place. But it will be interesting to see if this upbeat attitude can be maintained in the midst of widespread strikes.

When I first arrived in Turkey, a traveling companion helped me to understand its complexity. The society is characterized by multiple social and cultural divides and disparate identities. Some of the more obvious that I alluded to yesterday include the divide between secular and religious people, and between the military and civilian officials. There is also, of course, the divide between Muslims and non-Muslims. Among Muslims there are those who are very observant and conservative, and others less so. Most are Sunni, but there is also an Alawite community in Turkey, especially near the Syrian border. There are ethnic divisions, most prominently (and sometimes tragically) between the Turks and Kurds, but there are regional divides as well, for example, between the more laid back communities in the coastal cities, and the bustling cosmopolitanism characteristic in the mega-city Istanbul, or here in Ankara. Lastly, there is a traditional political divide between left and right, and various gradations along that continuum.

Consider, then, that someone can be a leftist, a Kurd, and a moderate Sunni Muslim. One can be a relatively conservative, practicing Muslim, and a supporter of the center-right AKP, but also respect a strict separation between church and state, and thus oppose regulations that would impose their beliefs on others. Other more religiously conservative Turks might want tougher laws restricting the use of tobacco or the consumption of alcohol, and be enthused about Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts in this regard. One can be a moderate leftist, a supporter of the main opposition party, the CHP, but also a practicing Muslim.

First Impressions from Turkey

Kusadasi, Turkey, on the Aegean Sea – My impressions from my first 24 hours in Turkey are decidedly personal and narrow–I’m observing Turkish society through a straw. So notwithstanding the images of protest and unrest that are prevalent on Twitter and the international media, the vibe generally is of a confident, vibrant society that is proud of its progress.
 
I arrived in Istanbul yesterday (Saturday), and we spent most of today in Izmir (the ancient city of Smyrna). Doug Bandow wrote a fine column on the political turmoil–I’m reluctant to call it unrest, which makes it sound more serious than it is. But I have begun to pick up on some of the currents of opinion in this complex country that might help to explain how a minor dispute over some trees in Gezi Park has let loose some long-simmering feelings about Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP).
 
I’ve seen lots of pictures on Twitter that prove the protests are not limited to a few hundred (or thousand) in Taksim Square. From my limited perspective on the first evening, at the Istanbul Gonen Hotel, and this morning at the airport, most Turks appeared to be completely oblivious. A wedding party at the hotel went well into the night (though I was too tired to care).
 

Istanbul is a massive, sprawling city, of at least 15 million people. There is construction going on everywhere, but also a fair amount left to do. The back streets are pretty much what you’d expect in a city like this (which is to say crowded and chaotic), but the dedicated bus lanes that operate in parallel with the main highway and elsewhere are popular and, I’m told by someone who uses them regularly, extremely convenient. The primary highways flow smoothly, including from and to the airport. 
 
Erdogan, the former mayor of Istanbul, is given credit for initiating a series of public works projects that will ease some of the traffic congestion, and various economic and governance reforms that have helped Turkey to achieve stunning growth over the past decade. Even during the economic doldrums in the United States and Europe, Turkey has done well. 
 
After a short flight this morning from Istanbul to Izmir, we met over lunch with Cevat Durak the mayor of Karsiyaka, one of the municipalities (about 325,000 people) adjacent to Izmir. Izmir, and Karsiyaka especially, is a stronghold of the main opposition party, the Republican People’s Party (CHP). The CHP is proud of Izmir. Proud, for example, of its ability to maintain a hold on municipal politics, despite AKP attempts to thwart them. More generally, Izmir is proud of being different from Istanbul, and the rest of Turkey. Residents who know a bit about the United States liken it to the more laid back west coast. Think of it as the San Diego of Turkey.
 
Turkish flags, the iconic red with a white crescent and star, are everywhere. In Izmir, however, I saw many flags with Ataturk’s picture superimposed. I had to have one (8 Turkish Lira in the market). I figure this will be a collector’s item when Erdogan bans them.
 
He couldn’t actually do that, of course. Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, is an icon here. His picture is ubiquitous. In some circles, however, and especially among some in the AKP, to be called a Kemalist would be an insult. Erdogan has risen to prominence by promising to push back on some of the excesses of Kemalism, which some see as being anti-religious as opposed to merely secular. Others welcome Erdogan’s assertion of civilian control over the military. 
 
But not everyone is entirely pleased. In the rally held down one of the main streets in Izmir, a little after 6 p.m. local time, there were quite a few Turkish flags with Ataturk. I also saw banners for the leftist parties, the TKP and DSIP. The message on many small banners Boyun Egme, translates roughly to “don’t give up” or “don’t bow down” (to Erdogan and the AKP).
 
Finally, we arrived here in Kusadasi, a beautiful seaside town popular with European tourists. A medium-sized cruise ship was tied up at the pier not far from a Byzantium-era castle/fortress. New and old reside comfortably side by side here in Turkey (except when a new construction project stumbles upon ancient artifacts buried deep below the surface, which apparently happens with some regularity). 
 
As I checked into my hotel, a little after 10 pm, another small rally (several hundred people, I’m guessing) walked just beneath my window. I didn’t see the same left-wing party banners as in Izmir, and most of the flags were traditional Turkish (i.e. without Ataturk’s picture). But the words Gezi and Taksim were obvious even to my untrained (i.e. non-Turkish speaking) eye. This wasn’t a pro-Erdogan rally.
 
Kusadasi, Turkey
 
We’ll be seeing more of the coast tomorrow morning by boat, and then off to Ephesus, an ancient town with both religious and cultural significance. I’ll have time to gather my thoughts, and I’ll try to write more about my impressions of the political winds after we arrive in Ankara.

A Libertarian Moment in Turkey?

What are the protesters in Istanbul upset about? Well, I noted last week that a survey by a Turkish newspaper gave us a partial picture. A headline from the Hurriyet Daily News in Istanbul reported: 

Protesters are young, libertarian and furious at Turkish PM, says survey

An online survey of 3000 protesters conducted by two academics found, among other things:

A majority of the protesters who completed the survey, 81.2 percent, defined themselves as “libertarian.” A total of 64.5 percent of the respondents defined themselves as “secular.”

And now the Washington Post tells us that one young protester, Aysun Yerlikaya, objects to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan because he’s, well, too much like Michelle Obama and Michael Bloomberg:

Erdogan “pokes into everything — what you drink, what you eat,” she said, referring to advice he gave earlier this year to eat “genuine wheat bread” with a lot of bran in it.