I recently wrote a piece in Haaretz about the decision to rerun the mayoral elections in Istanbul, Turkey. Admittedly it is not a very sanguine outlook for the opposition. This is not to say that Ekrem Imamoglu, the main opposition candidate who won the original election, will not win. However, what I am saying is that it will be very difficult.
It must be added that it is not simply the case (as has been claimed) that international analysist tend to view President Erdogan as an undefeatable figure while Turkish analysts think differently. First, many Turks also see Erdogan in a similar light, and express it if not in public then certainly in private. Second, I can’t speak for others, but I think it is pretty clear that the Turkish President has amassed overwhelming power and won multiple elections. To ignore this fact, would be irresponsible. This does not mean that such a view cannot be held concurrently with the position that the term “strongmen” belies the fact that such political figures are often vulnerable from internal and external sources - the very reason for them to feel the need to grab power.
Erdogan won't let Turkey's opposition win Istanbul again
In August 2013, following the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey announced that, "Democracy's path passes through the ballot box and the ballot box itself is the people’s will."
Although he lambasted General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi for removing Morsi and touted the conspiracy theory that that Israel was behind it all, Erdogan was really taking aim at his domestic critics.
Demonstrators who had gathered at Gezi Park to protest government plans to destroy one of Istanbul’s last central open green spaces had just been violently dispersed. Erdogan’s message was clear: the only way to beat him and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) was through the ballot box.
That’s easy to say that when you are winning elections, but the real test is what you do when you lose. Nearly six years and seven elections later, Turkey’s opposition finally handed Erdogan a defeat.
On March 31, the AKP lost control of four out of the five largest cities in local elections. Instead of conceding defeat, Erdogan and his party put immense pressureon Turkey’s Supreme Election Board to announce a re-run of Istanbul’s mayor elections.
Erdogan and his AKP simply shrugged off the EU’s concerns about cancelling the election, while the U.S. response was subdued, to say the least. The victor, opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, only managed to enjoy 17 days in office.
If this was a surprise, it shouldn't have been. President Erdogan once infamously quipped that democracy is like a bus ride: when you come to your stop, you get off. He got to his stop after the July 2016 attempted coup which ushered in a two-year state of emergency. During this time adversaries were purged from state institutions, the armed forces and security services.
Erdogan, who called the coup a gift from heaven, also used the state of emergency to quickly pass constitutional amendments through an unfree and unfair referendum and bestowed on himself unprecedented power with only token checks to his rule.
Meanwhile, parliamentary immunities were lifted to deliberately target the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). To its eternal discredit, the Republican People’s Party (CHP), the man secular opposition, supported the maneuver, knowing full well that the HDP would be targeted.
Sure enough, HDP lawmakers were arrested, tried and/or imprisoned under trumped-up terrorism charges. Mayors and locally elected officials in the Kurdish southeast were removed and replaced by AKP appointed officials. Erdogan and the AKP didn’t care then that millions had voted for the HDP.
What should the Turkish opposition do now when their electoral success is effectively vetoed by an authoritarian leader who has got off the democracy bus?
Turkey’s opposition can’t boycott the election. That would simply hand Erdogan and the AKP an easy win and leave supporters feeling betrayed.
Taking to the streets is not an option. After the suppression of the Gezi Park protesters and the post-2016 restructuring of the security services, demonstrating outside of the staunchly secular neighborhoods of Besiktas or Kadikoy would be suicidal - and fruitless.
The opposition has no choice but to participate fully in the new elections scheduled for June 23.
But don’t think that the opposition’s chances have improved. Reports of President Erdogan’s political suicide are greatly exaggerated.
Yes, the economy is in a bad way and sure, there is growing discontent with Erdogan from both inside and outside of his party. There are rumors that former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu may break away and start a new political party, the impact of this would be negligible. There are whispers that former President Abdullah Gul, together with former Finance Minister Ali Babacan might also break away, which would have a more significant impact.
However, stories about key AKP members jumping ship have been in the air for years, and the likelihood of this happening before the new elections are slim.
If anything, the decision to re-run the mayoral race has decreased the possibility of an AKP split, as its leading cadres will calculate that it is better to wait and see. If the AKP candidate wins, they will stick with President Erdogan, especially considering that there will not be more elections until 2023.
Erdogan still remains highly popular and has amassed unassailable political power. There is little tangible evidence to suggest that AKP voters are leaving in droves, and those who do leave tend to vote for the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) who are Erdogan’s coalition partners in the "People’s Alliance" anyway.
This has little impact for the Istanbul rerun because the MHP and AKP share the same mayoral candidate. Those hoping that Erdogan critic Necdet Gokcinar of the Saadet ("Felicity") party, who won 1.2 per cent of the Istanbul mayoral vote, will drop out and his 100,000 votes will fall to Imamoglu are wishful thinking. The majority of Saadet supporters are pious conservatives and more likely to find affinity with the AKP than with Imamoglu.
Complicating the opposition's calculations is the timing of the vote. It will be summer and some CHP voters have already booked their vacations and will find themselves ineligible to vote.
The opposition will also face the full wrath of the AKP machine that includes a monopoly of the means of communication and state resources. That AKP machine will exploit religious rhetoric during the holy month of Ramadan to delegitimize the opposition.
While supporters of Imamoglu praise his positive campaign, this may not be enough this time around. As in other elections, the AKP will intimidate, smear, manipulateand try to divide Imamoglu’s disparate voter base of nationalists, secularists, liberals and Kurds. As we have just seen, it is no good winning by just a few thousand votes - that margin is too easily disqualified. The opposition needs to win big time.
Turkey’s opposition could highlight the AKP’s desperation and political bankruptcy. But so what? For Erdogan, democracy is just a means to an end anyway.
Still, the opposition owe it to their supporters to campaign as hard as possible. They need a clear and concise message that highlights their dedication to the improvement of services and the economy. While encouraging their voter base not to be disillusioned and to get out and vote, they also need to extend their campaign to AKP neighborhoods in order to at least try to pick up disillusioned voters.
The opposition has its work cut out. But it has nothing to lose.
This article first appeared in Haaretzon 12 May 2019 and can be found here.
It seems that no amount of reason can stop Turkey from its determination to purchase Russian S400s. I recently published an op-ed that appeared in The National that discusses the issue and what I believe are the underlying reasons why Ankara’s mind cannot seem to be changed.
Turkey's commitment to the Russian S-400 missile system is ideological, not practical
Turkey remains adamant that it will purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system. Ankara knows that the risks include US sanctions, isolation within Nato and exclusion from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. It has even rejected a potential compromise solution, whereby it sells its S-400s to a third party.
Is there something about the S-400 system that is vital to Turkish security? Is it that good?
Sure, S-400s are effective against non-stealth aircraft and, possibly, fifth-generation fighters. They are also less expensive than US Patriot batteries, which Washington has offered Turkey. However, they do not form a complete defence system and are more effective when part of an integrated multi-layered structure that would include other Russian hardware, such as medium-range SA-17 missiles. Turkey doesn't have these. Instead, it has British Rapiers and American MIM-23s.
The S-400 is incompatible with Nato hardware and risks security leaks. This means that in order to avoid a complete breakdown with Nato, Ankara would have to deploy S-400s far from bases used by Nato countries, hundreds of miles away from where they would be most effective. Put simply, S-400s do not serve Turkey’s strategic needs.
So why is Ankara insistent that the S-400s are a done deal? Why the disregard for relations with the US? Yes, it is infuriated by Washington’s support for the People’s Protection Units, which Turkey claims are affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both countries list as a terrorist organisation. And, yes, Ankara is angered that Fethullah Gulen – who it claims is the mastermind of the July 2016 attempted coup – is a permanent resident of the US. However, these are symptoms rather than the causes of the problem.
There are three underlying reasons for the decline in US-Turkish relations: first, the fact that the main threats to Turkey’s security come from within and are considered more important than external enemies; second, Turkey’s self-perception as a great international power; third, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s use of Islam to legitimise Turkey’s regional ambitions.
The PKK and the Gulen movement are what the Turkish government would consider its two greatest existential threats – it may even add that they are part of an international conspiracy against Turkey. The PKK has waged an armed separatist struggle for more than three decades, a conflict that has claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Turkey considers international powers friend or foe based on the extent to which they support its fight against the PKK and the Gulen movement.
Despite some attempts to find a political solution, this is unlikely to occur any time soon. Instead, peaceful elected members of the left-wing and pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) faced imprisonment and removal from office. Meanwhile, the Gulen movement remains the Turkish government’s public enemy number one. Since the attempted coup, hundreds of thousands of public officials have been either imprisoned or purged from state institutions, and the resurgence of the movement is one of the government’s biggest fears.
Turkey considers international powers friend or foe based on the extent to which they support its fight against the PKK and the Gulen movement. Russia was quick to back Ankara against the Gulen movement in 2016, and panders to Turkish concerns about the YPG in Syria. Turkey’s traditional allies in the West have failed to impress Ankara to the same extent. This is why US support for the YPG has left it seething.
Sometimes observers place Turkey into a specific area of influence: the western alliance, the Russian orbit or the Iranian axis. But from Ankara’s perspective, Turkey is a great power in its own right. In international affairs, Turkey finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, which often emanates from a selective and politicised memory of its Ottoman past, with its reality as a medium-sized power.
Mr Erdogan is on record calling for the United Nations Security Council to be reformed in order to reflect that “the world is bigger than five”, no doubt implying that he would like Turkey to have a permanent seat at the table. Reportedly, he had even suggested that the UN headquarters should be moved to Istanbul. Reconciling strategic interests with Turkey’s delusions of grandeur is a difficult task for policy makers.
Mr Erdogan sees himself as the leader of the Muslim world. This is clear not from the fact that he stood against US recognition of the occupied Syrian Golan Heights as Israeli territory and of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but in the way he chose to do so. In the case of Jerusalem, Turkey blasted the decision and convened a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
Back in 2016, King Abdullah II of Jordan told US congressional leaders that Mr Erdogan seeks a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East. In many respects, the Jordanian King was right. Turkey's government continues to support Hamas, side with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsor a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Mr Erdogan is also silent about Iranian interference in regional affairs.
In this context, how can Mr Erdogan back down against the US? It would be a setback for Turkey’s regional ambitions and his personal desire to lead the Muslim world. It would also do nothing to counter the country’s internal enemies. No wonder he considers S-400s a done deal.
This article first appeared in The National 6 May 2019
Last weekend saw a significant upsurge in violence between Israel and the Hamas run Gaza Strip. Sadly, since the 2008 Gaza War, also known as Operation Cast Lead, a significant conflagration seems to be a regular occurrence as the sides jostle for demands and attempt to either change the status quo by launching rockets into Israel or attempt terror attacks, or reinstall deterrence by targeted assassinations, air strikes and sometimes even ground incursions. 2014’s Operation Protective Edge was the last major conflict between Israel and the Gaza Strip. However, over the past year there has been significant violence marked by regular violent protests by the border.
Just like previous conflicts involving Israel, last weekend’s wave of violence highlights how international politicians, activists and commentators criticise Israel for using “disproportionate force” or warn Israel against doing so. For example, while the EU rightly condemned Palestinian rocket fire, calling for it to “stop immediately”, it also called on Israel to act with “restraint” and “proportionality”.
Restraint and proportionality are terminologies that seem to be used every time Israel is engaged in asymmetrical warfare. But what is a restrained response when hundreds of rockets are fired into civilian areas causing deaths, casualties and disruption, a war crime if ever there was one? What is a proportioned response? An explanation of what is a proportionate or disproportionate use of force is needed.
In cases where there have been a disproportionate number of Palestinian civilian casualties than those of Israel’s, often what is being noted is the number of Israelis wounded or killed by Palestinian rocket fire is few than Palestinian casualties resulting from Israeli retaliation. In other words, critics of Israel’s actions are noting that there is a disparity in the number of civilian casualties. The logic of the argument by those who claim that Israel’s use of force is disproportionate in this sense is that Israel’s operations are illegitimate because they cause mass Palestinian suffering and civilian deaths, so much so that Israel’s comparatively smaller death toll does not warrant such a large response or perhaps even one at all.
Although an understandable sentiment, it is a flawed argument. First, if risks letting Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) actions go unpunished. It is one thing to demand rocket fire end, but without a significant military response (I will discuss what is a proportionate response later) these are just empty words. Second, such arguments ignore the fact that the intension of Hamas and PIJ is to inflict the maximum number of Israeli casualties.
PIJ and Hamas rocket fire is also designed to disrupt Israel’s economy and to hurt the viability of Israel’s southern towns and neighbourhoods. Schools were obliged to close and 30 per cent of Israel’s residents in the south temporarily left their homes and stayed elsewhere. Hamas threatened to attack Tel Aviv during the Eurovision Song Contest and PIJ threatened to hit Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona. Don't forget that in 2014, Hamas targeted Ben-Gurion Airport, leaving passengers stranded for several days (I was one of them) and several airliners temporarily ceased flying to Israel. Therefore, a proportionate or restrained response to such a threat cannot be calculated by comparing civilian deaths, regardless about how tragic each one truly is.
When one thinks about what is proportionate or disproportionate, one needs to think in terms of military strategy, rather than simply highlighting the body count. We can illustrate this through analogy inspired by some of the stipulations contained within the Geneva Convention.
Let us imagine, for example, that in order to win a battle an army needs to destroy a railroad belonging to the nation of another army or militant group. It would make sense that destroying the rail track at key points would be a proportionate tactic. But what if this rail juncture could be repaired within hours, minutes even? It would therefore follow that not only would rail lines have to be destroyed but so would the train terminal and station. One may object and argue that this is not necessarily proportionate force because the civilian infrastructure of another country would be affected. However, one could counter that it would indeed be proportionate because alternative actions would be ineffective, even more so if this particular attack was considered vital for the success of the operation and the security of the citizens the attacking army is tasked to ultimately protect.
But what if the rail track and train station in question runs through a densely populated town or village full of non-combatants? This is when the question of proportionate force becomes tricky. In order to assess whether bombing rail targets in such a scenario additional factors need to be considered such as the choice of which munitions should be used to destroy targets while limiting civilian damage, warnings to non-combatants, the quality of intelligence, and, just as importantly, calculations over the consequences of not attacking the targets, especially if the opposing force were seeking to use rail infrastructure to launch their own attacks.
Now back to Israel-Gaza. Re-read the above few paragraphs and instead of railway, think of tunnels or rocket launching sites and the types of places where rockets are stored (mosques, the Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency, if not in schools and hospitals then areas very close to them). Now ask yourself, are the Israeli operations proportionate? Regardless of your answer, it should be understood that the question of proportionality in war, especially asymmetrical warfare is highly complex and goes beyond body counts and casualty numbers.
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