It has been a turbulent couple of weeks for US-Turkish relations with roller coaster type ups and downs. First, it seemed as if a full rapprochement was on the cards with Congress authorising the sale of US Patriot batteries and President Trump announcing that not only would US forces withdraw from Syria, but Turkey would also take over the fight against ISIS.
But then the US appeared to backtrack fearing that Ankara would use the opportunity to wipe out the US partners against ISIS, the YPG which Ankara considers one and the same as the PKK which both the US and Turkey list as a terror group. And most recently, Trump tweeted that if Turkey attack the Kurds, the US will attack the Turkish economy.
I recently wrote about the US withdrawal and the extent to which Turkey is a partner against ISIS in Haaretzand the full text of the article is below. My opinion hasn’t changed. The best cause of action for Washington is not to let Ankara pick up the pieces or to wage economic war against Turkey (what will that achieve?) but to stay in Syria until the job is done.
Trump made a fatal error. Turkey is incapable of taking on ISIS, even if Erdogan wanted to
Simon A. Waldman
Haaretz, 10 January 2019
Earlier this week John Bolton, chief foreign policy advisor to President Donald Trump, insisted that any withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria would be contingent on a Turkish guarantee that Kurdish YPG forces would not be attacked.
This inevitably angered Turkey’s firebrand President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who called the YPG, Washington’s main ally against ISIS, one and same as the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a terrorist group according to both Ankara and Washington.
This highlights one of the main problems of President Trump’s decision to pull-out from Syria. Contrary to what Turkey’s president may write in the New York Times, Turkey is not a suitable ally to finish off ISIS in Syria.
Although Turkey is a member of NATO and part of the international coalition against ISIS, Ankara priorities fighting the YPG despite it being the most effective indigenous force against ISIS. And unlike ISIS, the YPG poses no threat to the U.S. or the West.
Last year, Turkey together with its proxy, the Free Syrian Army, launched a large-scale invasion of the YPG-held Afrin enclave in the north of Syria. Concerns voiced by the U.S. and other anti-ISIS coalition members that the operation will disrupt the fight against ISIS, fell on deaf ears in Ankara.
During Turkey’s other intervention in Syria, the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, it took Turkish-backed forces over seven months to capture approximately 750 square miles, owing not only to tough battles, but also infighting and deadly internal squabbles. During the operation, Turkish special forces together with the Free Syrian Army did battle ISIS; however, Ankara’s real objective was to prevent the YPG from acquiring more territory.
Meanwhile, some of the factions that are part of that Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army are hardcore jihadists, such as Aurar al-Sham - which seeks to establish a sharia state in Syria - and are ideologically not far from ISIS and Al-Qaeda. In the past, Turkey has even been accused of recruiting former ISIS fighters into the Turkish backed Free Syrian Army.
What is more, these Turkish-backed forces have found it difficult to maintain law and order in the Afrin region. Since it took over the territory in March 2018, there has been an ongoing guerrilla campaign spearheaded by the shadowy Afrin Falcons and Wrath of Olives Operations Room groups. The violence includes bombings and assassinations, most notably the August 2018 videotaped assassination of Abu Muhammad Al-Shmali, a commander of the al-Rahman Legion, affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
Meanwhile, Ankara plans to settle some of the 3.5 million Syrian refugees it currently hosts in the Syrian territories it captures. It did so in Afrin while indigenous Kurds have been displaced. So far there is little to indicate that this policy of resettlement was carried out with due process and diligence to ensure property ownership and the validity of claims for repatriation. Instead it resembles an intention to tamper with the delicate demographic balance of northern Syria - which risks yet further displacement, resentment and despair.
It is also unclear whether Turkish forces are up to the job of fighting ISIS. In recent years Turkey’s military has taken hit after hit. Several years ago, there were prosecutions and convictions (now overturned) over alleged "deep state" plots within the military against the government. More recently, the armed forces have seen their ranks purged by the tens of thousands since the July 2016 coup attempt, blamed on followers of the Turkish preacher and Pennsylvania resident Fetullah Gulen.
And this purge is not over yet. As recently as 14 December Turkish prosecutors ordered the arrest of 219 military personnel for their part in the attempted coup. Last November arrest warrants were issued for 82 suspected Gulen members within the Turkish airforce.
This leaves the Turkish airforce in a tight position, especially seeing that the success of the U.S.-Kurdish partnership against ISIS consisted of Kurdish forces on the ground backed by round-the-clock U.S. air support, something that Turkey will find impossible to replicate for its own Syrian proxies.
Indeed, earlier this week it was reported that Turkey is seeking extensive U.S. support including airstrikes, logistics and transport in order to take over the fight against ISIS. Turkey’s demands are so extensive that it hardly makes a U.S. withdrawal worthwhile, because if Ankara's demands are met it would mean that the U.S. would in effect be increasing rather than reducing its involvement in Syria.
The White House is discovering that with few reliable regional partners against ISIS, the best course of action is to do what is responsible. That means not withdrawing from Syria now at all and staying at least until the job is done.
This article first appeared in Haaretzon 10 January 2019
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.
As some of you might know, I have been spending the past year working on a research project about British-Turkish relations. My pretty lengthy report will be ready very shortly and published by the IPC, but before it will be released I will be speaking at several events in the UK (and another in Germany which I will detail later). Please feel free to attend but do make sure you book a place for the House of Commons event in London:
Strategic Partners or Drifting Apart? British-Turkish Relations in the Age of Brexit
27 November 6-7:30pm
Committee Room 11, House of Commons, London.
The Foreign Policy Center and the Istanbul Policy Center
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, London is looking to develop bilateral relations with non-EU countries. Turkey has been identified as an important trade and strategic partner. British-Turkish relations are worth $16 billion and there are 3,000 British companies, which operate in Turkey. Both are NATO members and are part of the Global Coalition against ISIS, while the UK has traditionally been an advocate for closer collaboration with Turkey.
However, there are significant challenges to closer relations. These include deepening concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Turkey has been also been experiencing a significant economic downturn and is steadily rebuilding and strengthening its ties with Russia. While on the UK side opposition to Turkish membership of the EU formed a plank of the Leave campaign in the UK’s 2016 referendum, adding tension to bilateral relations.
The future of UK-Turkey relations poses a number of questions about the UK’s wider foreign policy objectives while it is in the process of leaving the EU. The UK will seek to strengthen its non-EU alliances but faces a major challenge trying to balance its strategic and economic priorities while advocating the protection of human rights and democracy.
This Foreign Policy Centre event, in partnership with the Istanbul Policy Center who are publishing a report examining British -Turkish relations, will bring together prominent scholars and policymakers to focus on the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls on the road ahead in British-Turkish relations.
British-Turkish relations after Brexit: Strategic partners?
28 November 5pm
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford: Seminar Room, European Studies Centre
European Studies Centre South East European Studies at Oxford
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, London is looking to develop bilateral relations with non-EU countries. Turkey was one of the countries identified as an important trade and strategic partner. British-Turkish relations are worth $16 billion and both countries have expressed the intension of increasing this figure to $20 billion. Both are NATO members and are part of the Global Coalition against ISIS. Just last year, a fighter jet deal was signed between Britain’s BAE Systems and the Turkish Aerospace Industries worth £100 million with the potential of additional contracts as the project develops. However, there are significant obstacles to closer relations. Turkey’s economy is in a downturn and there is heightened concern about Turkey’s human rights record and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. How can Britain balance its strategic and economic priorities while advocating the protection of human rights, democracy and civil liberties in Turkey? And as Turkey's economic trajectory is far from positive, have economic relations already peaked?
In a relatively recent post I commented that Iran and UNRWA were the two foreign policy positions that US President Donald J. Trump managed to get right. However, I have come to change my opinion slightly. When it comes to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees President Trump only gets half a point.
President Trump was absolutely right to label UNRWA a deeply flawed operation highlighting the damage it does to Palestinian school children by indoctrinating them about the so-called right of return and the way it counts the numbers of Palestinian refugees. He was also well within his rights, and even correct, to cut off US$364 million worth of US aid to the defective UN agency. However, Trump only gets half a point because the move was completely devoid of leadership (a subject I will return to in a future post). Having correctly identified UNRWA’s flaws, Trump did not lead an international campaign for others to follow America’s lead. Trump did not offer a new direction about how to either reform UNRWA or finance alternative operations more conducive to peace. He might as well have used the words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “screw you guys, I’m going home!” But this turns me to the real issue I want to address which is the opportunity that European countries are missing to change and reform UNRWA.
Following the loss of US finance, Germany, the UK, and the supranational European Union are now UNRWA’s top donors. Instead of using this opportunity to open a debate about the future of UNRWA, or at the very minimum make funding conditional on reform, European countries and the EU simply stated their intensions to increase their donations. It was as if Europe (and Canada) was making a knee jerk reaction to do the opposite of Trump, ignoring the fact that on this position Trump was right because UNRWA is indeed a mismanaged and over financed body whose functions serve as an obstacle to peace.
Europe’s decision to increase funding is a crucial mistake for several reasons. First, Europe has missed yet another opportunity to show leadership on the international stage. With the US funding cut, Europe –the EU and individual European states – now have greater influence over UNRWA which is now highly dependent on European support. This has the potential to translate into significant leverage over the future direction and current activities of UNRWA. Alas, by declaring that Europe will increase UNRWA funding squanders the opportunity.
Second, Europe is ignoring UNRWA’s continued outrages. Over the years there have been cases of Hamas or other militant groups storing rockets or weapons at UNRWA schools and the hosting of informal summer camps on UNRWA property where violence and extremism was taught. There have been cases of incitement (in person and online) and there are question marks about UNRWA’s transparency when it comes to funding and financial oversight. To make matters worse Hamas has overwhelming representation in UNRWA’s unions. And I haven’t even touched on the subject of UNRWA school alumni who have gone on to involve themselves in terrorism. Surely, it’s a no brainer that at an absolute minimum the EU, Germany and the UK should demand verifiable guarantees that European taxpayers’ money will not ever be used for nefarious purposes.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Europe’s continued funding of UNRWA contradicts the very tenets of the two-state solution, the policy of not only the EU as a member of the Quartet, the international body that also comprises of the US, UN and Russia, but also the official positions of European nation-states themselves, Britain and Germany the two largest nation-state donors of UNRWA. However, UNRWA openly advocates and campaigns for the implementation of the so-called Palestinian right of return, including the descendants of the 700,000 original refugees now entering their fifth generation. In other words, UNRWA works towards the influx of millions of Palestinians into Israel which would lead to the extermination of the Jewish state through an overwhelming demographic imbalance.
This defeat of Israel through the Palestinian right or return is a position that mirrors that of Hamas. Just since March 2018, Hamas has organised weekly violent and provocative “return” marches by the Israel-Gaza border. Far from peaceful, these demonstrations, which are often met by lethal force by the Israel Defence Force, seek to sabotage and infiltrate the border in order to kill Israeli citizens. Meanwhile militants lob enflamed kites into Israel in the hope that they start wildfires and kill people. This violence is then given a voice of respectability through UNRWA, a UN body no less, whose spokespersons condemn Israeli actions while emphasising the Palestinian so-called right of return and indoctrinate children to never let go of this so-called “right” thus perpetuating the conflict.
The fact that Europe continues to unconditionally support UNRWA despite its advocacy for the so-called right of return which is anti-peace, sympathetic to Hamas and contrary to the two-state solution is, quite frankly, unacceptable. European nations, especially Germany and Britain, should at the very minimum demand conditions before they agree to any additional UNRWA funding. The conditions should include:
These conditions should be the very minimum if Europe insists that it continue to fund UNRWA. It should be demanded that the organisation become a body that is conducive to peace rather than the perpetuation of violence.
A couple of days ago I had an op-ed published by Haaretzentitled, “Turkey: The One Place that Trump’s Bullying is Actually Working” and can be found here. In the piece, I argue that President Trump’s hard line against Turkey, mainly over the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson, paid off. Following US sanctions and tariffs, Turkey finally relented and a few weeks ago Brunson was released. In the period since, Turkey and the US seem to have advanced in other areas including progressing on their Manbij agreement with joint patrols in the city. Washington even offered a US$4-5 million reward for information about the whereabouts of leading PKK operatives.
It seems as if President Trump has taken a page out of Russia’s playbook. Back in 2015, Turkish-Russians relations hit an all-time low after Turkey downed a Russian SU-24 jet which was traversing northern Syrian into Turkish airspace. In order to get its apology and other Turkish concessions, Moscow ratcheted up the pressure and announced sanctions which hurt the Turkish economy ranging from banning Russian travel agencies from selling package holidays to Turkey and ending visa-free travel to the banning of Turkish fruit and vegetables. Finally, in June 2016, President Erdogan relented and issued an expression of regret while blaming the affair on the activities of the Gulen movement, the ultimate internal Turkish bogeyman. Soon, Russian-Turkish relations began to blossom with regular ministerial visits, cooperation in Syria and Turkey’s decision to buy Russian military hardware.
Although US-Turkish relations are far from where they were several years ago, I think what is happening is that the US is seeking a transactional relationship with Turkey, something I have actually long advocated. In other words, Washington is basing its bilateral relationship on specific areas of interest and working out respective arrangements based on a formula of give and take - a concession in one sphere for a concession elsewhere. For example, releasing Brunson in exchange for easing US sanctions (including allowing Turkey to purchase Iranian crude following the snapping back of US sanctions on Iran), US support for the Turkish position west of the Euphrates in Syria in return for expectations that Turkey hold back in the East of the Euphrates.
In some respects, Europe has also turned towards a transactional relationship with Turkey (although the ties are considerably deeper especially on civil-society, trade and human capacity levels). Following the very vocal and ugly bust-ups between Turkish leaders and several European countries over the last couple of years and Turkey’s seeming strategic about face towards Russia and Iran, Europe seems to have calculated that relations with Turkey are best worked out on a case-by-case transactional basis, the 2016 Migrant deal being the prime example of this – European aid and work towards visa free travel in exchange for Turkey ensuring that Syrian refugees remain in Turkey. Despite all the turbulence in Turkey’s relations with Europe and the West and strains in mutual relations, this example of transactional diplomacy has lasted to this day.
The reality is that shared values of democracy, human rights and rule of law are no longer factors that even from an aspirational perspective link Turkey with the West. Also, Turkey is under the centralised control of its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan who perceives himself as leader of a powerful international power which is not bound by any particular alliance. I would also argue that in terms of strategic priorities, Turkey’s threats are not the same as those of the West (with the more or less exception of ISIS since 2016) and there is therefore little interest for close strategic relations as was the case during the Cold War and post-Cold War periods. With this is mind, a transactional approach to Turkey is the West’s best bet, at least for the short to medium terms, and perhaps, in the not too distant future mutual confidence can be built to once again foster closer relations.
Turkey’s current monetary crisis is certainly not the first that the country has faced. There have been many. However, this recent crisis, which was made all too real during the collapse of the Turkish lira against the dollar and other major currencies in August 2018 (as much as 40%), highlights a stark contrast to the way in which the previous financial crisis was handled just over a decade and a half ago.
Back in 2001, Turkey was rocked by a financial disaster while still dealing with the tremors of the earlier 1994 crisis. The 2001 crisis was a result of the country continuing to run a financial deficit while also experiencing inflation and having to cope with the consequences of foreign divestment – a very difficult obstacle considering that the country was dependent on foreign investment. Add to the equation instability within the coalition government and you have a toxic mix that made an economic meltdown all but certain. The subsequent recovery of the Turkish economy was a result of an IMF $11.4 billion. Following the IMF loan, Turkey saw several years of stable Justice and Development Party (AKP) government which ensured, at least for a while, economic discipline. However, just as importantly, during the critical March 2001 to 2002 period, before the AKP swept into power, Turkey’s road to recovery was paved by Kemal Dervis who was appointed economy minister.
This is important. It is one thing to take an IMF loan and meet the DC headquartered international organization’s conditions geared towards economic restructuring (which isn’t easy – initially the IMF programme was hard to implement), but quite another to actually run a country’s economy during a period of turbulence. One of the most important things politicians must do is to create confidence both internationally and domestically. Perhaps the wisest decision of Bulent Ecevit’s political career was to appoint Kemal Dervis economy minister in March 2001. Later, their relationship deteriorated but that’s another story.
Why was the appointment of Dervis so critical? Well, for a start Dervis was a graduate of the London School of Economics and then went on to earn a PhD from Princeton University. For a while he was a faculty member at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, the finest higher education institution in Turkey. He then went back to the US to join the economics faculty at Princeton. Dervis spoke a bunch of languages including English, French and German. Now all this is impressive in and of itself, but Dervis then pursed a career at the World Bank. Soon he found himself Vice President of the MENA region and then vice-President for Poverty Reduction and Economic Management. He also had a network of contacts in the financial sector and his positions at the World Bank made him familiar with the inner workings of such organizations such as the IMF.
So what’s my point? It’s simple. When a country is faced with a financial catastrophe, this is the type of person you want at the helm of the economy. Someone who is academically accomplished and has 20 years or so experience at the highest levels of the financial sector. Someone who in a meeting with the CEOs of the world’s top banks, creditors, regulators, credit agencies and the so-called masters of the universe, is seen as an equal – a person who talks their language, commands their respect and can even teach them a thing or two. With Dervis at the helm the framework for the recovery of the Turkish economy was put into place, but following the 2002 general elections it was the AKP and Erdogan who reaped the rewards of Dervis and his team’s hard work.
Fast forward to today, and just before the looming economic crisis and just after the June 2018 Presidential and Parliamentary elections, who does President Erdogan appoint (without oversight as permitted by the new constitutional changes) as his economy minister? Does he choose a seasoned economist with academic and professional accomplishments? No. He didn’t even keep his previous economy minister Mehmet Simsek who had a pretty decent career in the financial services before entering politics and had worked hard to gain the confidence of international investors. Instead, President Erdogan appointed his son-in-law Berat Albayrak.
Now, one could argue that the choice of Albayrak has some merits. As the former CEO of Calik holding, a company sympathetic to the President, Albarak knows the inner workings of Turkish conglomerates and their relationship with government. Also, as the son-in-law of the President, Albayrak certainly has the ear of the most powerful man in the country. Foreign investors would hope that Albayrak would be able to gently steer his father-in-law to a positive economic path.
However, the positives of having the ear of the President is not enough for this sort of position at this particular turbulent time. Turkey needs a Dervis. Short of another IMF bailout, if the Turkish government were serious about putting the economy right they would enshrine the independence of the central bank. They would immediately take measures to release all foreign nationals under detention, especially those who could spark a diplomatic crisis with any country with financial clout. Pastor Andrew Brunson should have been released a year ago. The Turkish government should also create a bipartisan advisory group (a real one I mean) comprising of leading Turkish CEOs both in Turkey and abroad and meets regularly and has an influential advisory role. Turkey should also stop spending and being wasteful. This includes mega projects which have everything to do with vanity rather than real infrastructural development. Also, the idea that Turkey should seek the services of consultancy firms such as McKinsey, which the Turkish opposition lamented leading the government to call off the commission, was actually, in my opinion, a good one. Sometimes it takes an outside party for someone to heed good advice.
In 2001 Turkey was lucky enough to have someone at the helm of the economy who could lead Turkey out of its difficult mess. Today, it doesn’t and this is an important reason why this economic crisis is not going away anytime soon.
It has been a month since the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, and the story does not appear to be going away. Such lengthy news coverage is a rare thing in the 21stcentury. How quickly other overseas political assassinations were dropped from the news cycle. How many people remember the murder in the Netherlands of Ahmad Mola Nissi, a leader of a violent Arab Iranian separatist movement in November 2017? Back in February 2017, the murder in Malaysia of Kim Jong-Man, the half-brother of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un, who was killed by a chemical weapon no less, did not receive this much attention. Yet somehow the murder of Khashoggi remains in the news. This begs the question, why? Who stands to benefit and who stands to lose with the story remaining on the agenda?
Let’s face it, this kind of story doesn’t come around very often. Not only is this a political assassination, but it took place within a consulate and incorporates all the items of a TV drama – the forensic investigation, the secrecy and the tantalising prospect of a real-life conspiracy involving the most senior levels of a government. Also, the facts keep changing each day as more information comes to light. And what emerges is grizzly to say the least, which also appeals to some. Questions still remain unanswered - was Khashoggi, a former Saudi royal family insider and governmental advisor turned dissident journalist, tortured and then murdered or just murdered straight away? Or was he strangled and then dismembered? Was he injected with poison, and then mutilated? Or was his body dissolved in acid? Or perhaps it was some gruesome combination of the above. Add these questions together and you have yourself a news story that grips viewers and readers as would a TV boxset and a bowl of Doritos.
It is in the interest of Khashoggi’s home newspaper, the Washington Post, to keep the story alive. Khashoggi was the Post’s columnist and so the Post is absolutely right to demand answers from Saudi Arabia and push the US administration to do all in its power to ascertain the facts and take action. Credit to the Washington Postfor not relenting. Newspapers owe it to their staff to do everything in their power to support journalists and the freedom of expression. And I’m glad other news outlets have kept on following the story.
But there are some, of course, who want the Khashoggi story to go away. Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) obviously wants it to disappear. Also, the Trump administration. The White House was in a sluggish mood when the story broke, and President Trump’s comment that there will be consequencesfor those responsible sounded reluctant. If the story dissipates, Trump won’t have to follow through on this statement. Indeed, the US is loathed to take forceful action, save a few sanctions against a couple of individuals. Let us not forget that according to Trump, Saudi and the US have apparently agreed to $100 billionin arms deals (the reality is that this figure is not just a gross over calculation, but a manipulation as to how arms deals are normally calculated). The US also needs Saudi support to maintain the oil price at a reasonable rate especially while additional sanctions against Iran are going into effect.
Ditto Europe. There has been some (welcomed) criticism and condemnation of the Saudis and even pull-outs from MBS’ Saudi desert expo last month. However, most of Europe, Britain and France especially, would prefer the story go away. Very rarely do European governments condemn Saudi Arabia or dwell on its appalling human rights record. Arms contracts are highly lucrative and ensure employment. The steady flow of oil at an affordable rate maintains Europe’s economy and allows energy diversification from Russia.
Iran has been relatively silent on the whole affair. Tehran made a belatedcondemnation, an example of blatant hypocrisy considering the coming to light of a failed assassination attemptin September of a dissident Iranian political figure in Denmark. Perhaps Tehran figures that there is no need to meddle because Saudi Arabia seems to be digging itself in a mess by changing its story every couple of days. The belligerent MBS is seemingly losing his international respect and Saudi is on the back foot, giving Iran some reprieve, not wanting to draw attention to its own misdeeds in Denmark. Meanwhile, Russia is watching by as a US ally is embattled - good for Moscow’s ambitions to dominate the region.
Then we have Turkey. Vying for power in the Muslim world, Turkey is on the opposite end of Saudi Arabia in the post-Arab Spring regional divide. In Egypt, Turkey aligned itself with the Muslim Brotherhood, while Saudi Arabia lent its support to General Sisi. Turkey and Saudi Arabia backed different factions in Syria, and Turkey sided with Qatar during the GCC crisis. However, instead of giving Saudi the legendary Ottoman slap for the Khashoggi murder, Ankara has decided to let information drip out in a means to discredit the Saudi regime in the eyes of the international community. President Erdogan also managed to pen an article in the Washington Postpointing the fingerat Saudi officials who he claims premeditated the murder.
This is an interesting strategy. However, it is meaningless because in the eyes of the international community Saudi Arabia never really had any creditability anyway. Sure, MBS’s reform agenda had some plaudits, but they were limited to wishful thinkers, dupes and a certain New York Timescolumnist. It never really fooled strategically minded thinkers or informed policy makers. And the majority of those who did praise Saudi Arabia for reforms such as giving women the right to drive, did so while making it clear that they remained sceptical.
Put another way, the soap opera that is the Khashoggi murder is simply a big reminder that reform in Saudi Arabia is not about MBS, but rather a whole load of BS. But we knew that already. After this affair blows over, we will return to the pre-2015 status quo ante – an unchanged and unreformed Saudi Arabia, which continues to violate human rights and the international community being unable or unwilling to do anything about it.
Apologies for my absence. I have been working on a number of projects simultaneously and didn’t have much free time to write. This is just a brief post, but there will be plenty more to come in the days and weeks ahead.
I recently wrote an op-ed that featured in Haaretzabout the case of the missing Saudi journalist and recent critic of the Saudi regime Jamal Khashoggi. Turkish police have been granted access to the Saudi consulate where he went missing, but Turkish investigators believe he was killed on the premises. In this piece, I highlight that two of the world's biggest suppressors of freedom of expression are about to go head to head over Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance, while the West, keen to keep Riyadh's billions onside, will only muster a silent displeasure, a whisper in a thunderstorm:
Turkey, Jailer of Journalists, Now Slams Saudi Arabia - for Murdering a Journalist
Saudi dissidents don't just vanish into thin air. If anything, they are deliberately disappeared, as was the case with journalist and prominent media commentator Jamal Khashoggi several days ago. He entered the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul to sign papers relating to his forthcoming marriage but has not been seen since.
Turkish investigators are looking into the possibility that Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and chopped into pieces while still in the consular building.
Shocking? Certainly. Reckless? Absolutely. But the Saudi kingdom figured it could get away with it.
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