Following the decision of US President Trump to withdraw forces from Syria, I penned an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading daily.
Around 100 years ago, the Arab Middle East was carved into spheres of influence by Britain and France, the imperial powers of the day. In the period after the First World War, the only country strong enough to challenge the two was the United States – but while it managed to insist that League of Nations mandates be established for Syria, Palestine and Iraq, the United States declined to join the League itself, turning instead toward isolationism. Washington declined to take control of a mandate, and allowed the colonial powers to dominate the region. It wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that the United States would assert its influence in the Middle East, and it carried that out through regional alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and, until 1979, Iran.
Looking at history is instructive, not just to reaffirm that this is all in the past now, and even more so after Donald Trump’s surprise and abrupt decision to send the 2,000 U.S. special forces stationed in Syria home because he felt the war against the Islamic State was complete. But it also provides the context that actually, this is well-charted territory. By exiting the country, the United States is effectively allowing Syria to be divided up again, but this time by the region’s new non-Arab imperialists – namely Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Iran has a long imperial history dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. Even after the demise of the Qajar dynasty and the ascendancy of the Pahlavi dynasty of the late Shah, Iran considered itself to be a regional superpower. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic set up regional proxies in places such as Lebanon – where Iran funds the powerful military and political force Hezbollah, through which the regime props up the Assad government – and Yemen, where Iran arms the Houthi rebels contributing to the prolonging of the country’s bloody civil war. Tehran also wields considerable influence over Iraq through its links with Shia militias and politicians, while Iran’s Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is believed to be active in Syria, along with an array of Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting for the Assad regime. Iran has also set up military bases in Syria to entrench its position permanently.
U.S. forces were a check on Iranian influence in Syria. Tehran will now relish the opportunity to expand its influence in Syria and beyond.
Turkey is also looking upon that power vacuum with interest. Turkish politicians, most especially the country’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seek to emulate their imperial Ottoman forefathers. Not only does Turkey dominate the Kurdistan Region of Iraq economically and politically, but the government has also established military bases in Qatar and Somalia while leasing an island from Sudanlocated strategically on the Red Sea, which Turkey claims to be developing into a tourist hub.
In the case of Syria, Turkey has launched two interventions. The first was the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkish special forces supported the Free Syrian Army in its march to capture the northern Syrian city of al-Bab. The second intervention took place earlier this year when the Free Syrian Army, again backed by Turkey, invaded and took control of the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. In both incidents, the primary foe was the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey claims is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s. The YPG, however, is also the dominant party within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most significant partner on the ground of the international coalition against the Islamic State.
Despite Mr. Trump’s insistence that the Islamic State is defeated, the vast majority of experts beg to differ. Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw forces effectively means that the largely Kurdish SDF and YPG are being abandoned and left to the mercy of Ankara, which just last week threatened to launch another attack against those groups. If Turkey follows through on its threat – which is now a very real possibility – it will destroy the only effective indigenous force against the Islamic State and cement Turkey’s influence in Syria and the region.
And then there’s Russia. After 1917′s October Revolution, Russia’s Bolshevik leaders ended their country’s disastrous role in the First World War and forfeited any real say in the peace conferences that followed. However, a century later, Russia has managed to cement its foothold in the Middle East to an extent greater than even the heyday of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s steadfast support of the Assad regime, through measures such as prolonged military investment, has paid off. Moscow is now the indispensable arbiter in the future of Syria and has managed to win permanent influence in the region – and that only looks set to increase.
Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria enables two regional non-Arab states, with the support of Russia, to dominate Syria and the Middle East. So say goodbye to Uncle Sam – and hello to the new imperials.
This article first appeared on 21 December 2018 in The Globe and Mailand can be found here
I recently published an op-ed piece in Haaretz about antisemitism in Turkey which can be found here. This is the second such piece I have authored about antisemitism in Turkey, only this time I provide different examples and offer a more contemporary context.
Unfortunately, these pieces are just too easy to write. Conspiratorial notions of world Jewish power are not intimated in Turkey, they are overtly pronounced by public intellectuals and political figures especially by those who identify with the religious-nationalist and conservative camps (left wing antisemitism is also present albeit somewhat differently). As my recent article highlights, every time there is a political, economic or social crisis in Turkey, it almost goes without saying that there will be at least one public official or so-called intellectual who will point the finger at the Jews. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed George Soros “the famous Hungarian Jew” for being the secret puppet master behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
The case of anti-Semitism in Turkey is a rather paradoxical phenomenon when you consider that the once thriving Jewish population of Turkey today barely stands at 20,000. Turkey, in other words, is one of those countries where there is a significant presence of antisemitism but with very few actual Semites. This is not unlike antisemitism in the contemporary Muslim world where conspiratorial notions of world Zionism are rife, but the Jewish population virtually nil. This of course stands in stark contrast to the antisemitism of Russia and Europe in the centuries leading up to World War II where the notion of world Jewish conspiracy was born.
When faced with accusations of antisemitism, Turkey’s political elite like to respond by declaring their affection towards Turkey’s small Jewish community and remind anyone who will listen that it was the Ottoman Empire which welcomed the Jews of Spain after they were expelled in 1492, forgetting that when Sultan Bayezid II commented of the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that “You venture to call Ferdinand [of Spain] a wise ruler…he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" In other words, the Ottoman Sultan had an economic motive for opening Turkey to Jews rather than a benevolent one.
Regardless, with a community that barely stands at 20,000 souls, less than 0.1% of the population, it shouldn’t be difficult for a country to have good communal relations with such a small minority, especially when one considers that the Jewish community is barely distinguishable by looks, language or nationality to the rest of the population and are law abiding, integrated and quiet. And still this tiny community has faced terrorist atrocities such as the 1986 Abu Nidal attack where Palestinian gunmen burst premises to slaughter 22 people while a service was taking place. There was also the 2003 Istanbul bombings in which two synagogues were bombed (including the Neve Shalom), this time by a home grown Turkish al-Qaeda faction which killed 23 people. Let’s not even get to threats against Jewish targets and violence and insults against individuals.
Still, the idea of a global pernicious Jewish conspiracy against Turkey remains as strong as ever, begging the question why do such notions continue to resonate within Turkish society, especially among ultra-nationalists and religious conservatives?
Leaving aside purely religiously inspired antisemitism, my answer to this perplexing question is that the Jewish scapegoat works in the Turkish context because of the of prevalence of religious-nationalism which emphasises that Turkey is predestined to be a both a great nation and the leader of the Islamic world. This is the view of leading cadres of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and also members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and also has roots in the thinking of the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) tradition from which leading members of the AKP, Erdogan included, emerged. This was an Islamically rooted political movement which emphasised that it is Turkey’s natural place to lead the Muslim world and that the Turks are the warriors of Islam. Therefore, it would follow on that just like it Ottoman forbearers Turkey will once again have a powerful position in the world and it is currently in the process of achieving this aim.
But if Turkey is predestined to be a leading world power, the question looms why has this still not been realised? What is holding Turkey back? It is here that the international Jewish conspiracy makes a fine answer which allows the government and its supporters to point towards an easy scapegoat and avoid the difficult (but more constructive) path of self-criticism and accountability. This is why international Jewry is blamed for anything from the Gezi protests and the current financial crisis to Kurdish nationalism. What a pity.
I have recently authored a full-length report about British-Turkish relations. Not to give too much away, I argue that although both British and Turkish politicians call bilateral ties a “strategic partnership”, in reality there is little that is strategic about the relationship. The report is due to be released in a couple of weeks so please watch this space.
However, let me address an aspect of British-Turkish relations which I allude to in my report, a factor for why there are closer ties between Britain and Turkey: Britain is not Germany! Allow me to explain what I mean.
After Germany, Britain is Turkey’s largest trading partner in Europe. Like Germany, Britain excels in the automotive, pharmaceutical, chemicals and arms industries. And just like Germany, Britain is a significant world economic power and there are thousands of UK companies which operate in Turkey and is an important source of foreign investment.
However, unlike Germany Britain does not link relations with Turkey with human rights or democratization (or even pay lip service to such lofty ideals). British policy makers prefer to voice concern about Turkey’s decent to authoritarianism, lack of freedom of expression and the erosion of checks and balances in private. Unlike their German counterparts, British officials seldom criticise Turkish policies or actions in public. This works for the Turkish government which is tired about hearing such criticism.
In contrast to Germany, Britain does not have a strong of a presence of members of the Gulen movement or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This is important because the Turkish government considers followers of Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and accused of masterminding the July 2016 attempted coup, an existential challenge. The Turkish government remains in an all-out war against the movement and not only seeks to purge them within Turkish state organs and eradicate their presence in civil society, but Ankara also seeks the extradition of leading members who reside or fled abroad. This means their activities in Germany is a significant source of tension.
Similarly, the PKK which has waged an on and off separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s is considered by Ankara a significant challenge to the Turkish Republic. The current Turkish government is in no mood to negotiate with even moderate Kurds as evidenced by the arrests of members of the largely peaceful parliamentary Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Both the Gulen movement and the PKK activities in the UK, although present, are far less prolific than in Germany. Sure, there was a recent extradition request against a Gulen member which a British court rejected, but overall this is small fry compared to other European countries. In other words, while Turkey is seething because Germany’s insistence on due process and fairness when it comes to PKK and Gulenist activities, Britain gives Turkey much less cause for anger.
Britain is also different from Germany because of the make-up of citizens of Turkish origin. The British-Turkish population stands at around 500,000 which is certainly not an insignificant number. However, this is nowhere near the size of their German counterparts where the population of Turkish origin Germans is about 4 million or 5% of the total population. Unlike Germany two-thirds of British Turks are from Cyprus rather than Turkey proper. This is an important distinction because the Mediterranean island was a protectorate of the British Empire and then a crown colony for much of the previous century. This meant that the population who migrated to the UK were familiar with British customs and practices.
Although not perfect, the integration process of Turks in Britain was comparatively easier than Germany for numerous reasons that many scholars have already addressed. Also, the other Turks who migrated to the UK came during different periods. Some were intellectuals who fled the 1980 coup, others were Kurds seeking a better life away from the conflict in the Southeast. Others were students at British universities or businesspersons with a financial stake in Britain’s future prosperity.
So, when Turkish politicians such as President Erdogan say that Turks abroad should not assimilate and see Turks outside of Turkey as part of their jurisdiction, it strikes a chord with Berlin, but doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact in London.
However, the fact that Britain is not Germany is, as my report argues, not enough to cement a strategic partnership between Britain and Turkey. In fact, it is a weak basis for relations to develop into anything significant. Germany’s relations with Turkey has more depth, meaning and engages broader segments of Turkish society. In the long-term this will be beneficial to Germany as its relations with Turkey is one which is not just with the governing party.
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