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.
The recent re-election of Benjamin Netanyahu underlines the persistence of what some call “populism”. Despite the Israeli Prime Minister facing imminent charges of corruption, the seriousness of which would have been the undoing of any normal politician, Netanyahu not only won the election, but his Likud party won additional seats in the Knesset.
In other countries, the persistence of populism remains as strong as ever. Despite the hype about the success of Turkey’s opposition in recent local elections, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan remains in steadfast control of the country and has significant support. US President Donald Trump also remains as strong as ever despite the release of the Mueller Report. Hungary’s Viktor Orban remains firmly in the helm and so does India’s NarendraModi and the recently elected Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Populists don't need to be right wing either. Just look to France and Emmanuel Macron holding steady in hisposition as President of the French Republic, and, despite facing a corruption scandal, Justin Trudeau still sits conformably as Prime Minister in Canada.
So let’s revisit the question of populism and try and understand what it is and why it persists.
Some argue that populism is an ideology, or, moreover, a “thin” ideology (like nationalism, Feminism and ecologism) and can therefore be hosted by other more defined ideological positions. I disagree. Populism does not have the same depth of so-called “thin” ideologies. However, the point that populism can latch onto the left or the right is an important one. I think the Australian academic Benjamin Moffitt gets it more or less right in his explanation of populism as a political style, a kind of repertoire. You might want to call it a performance (Max Weber also saw politics as a form of performance as well).
Indeed, one could certainly add that it's a form of political theatre where social media is the stage and soundbites within 140 characters are the actor’s lines. The populist leader, usually an archetype “charismatic” figure, likes to simplify policy and groups political life into “us” and “them” with appeals to “the people” against a particular group, nation or outsider. This may be the traditional elite, the supreme court, nefarious international forces or the hostile media. And as we have seen in numerous examples, it works.
But why does it work? Why do these messages resonate? Different scholars and commentators have offered a range of suggestions. Some say the rise of populist politicians is a reaction to economic recession. Similarly, others point to the spread of neo-liberalism, especially the discontent of those left behind. Others see it as a reaction to political correctness. Some attest that it is a result of the decline of ideological politics or the perceived failure of traditional elites to deal effectively with the problems of today, or perhaps ignoring it while it is plain sight to the general public.
My personal take is that populism emerges when large segments of a population feel that what was once familiar has become unfamiliar and strange, perhaps even unrecognisable. You might want to call it 21stcentury alienation. It is a very strong reaction to the speed of change which happens so quickly that people have had no time to adjust or pause for thought.
These rapid changes which make the familiar unfamiliar can be broad in range and can include urban regeneration and rapid demographical shifts within a given neighbourhood. They might include the pace of technological change and innovation or the closure of shops on the high street or the local factory or power plant. It might even be something as trivial as the imposition of metric units of measurements as required by EU regulation.
What happens when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and the political elite not only ignore your concerns but shut it out from mainstream discussion and instead insist that these changes are a good thing? Those who feel alienated develop a mythical nostalgia of the past and resent those who they perceive have contributed to their alienation.
When a charismatic figure emerges and purports to speak for the alienated, the resentment of this segment of the population is channelled into the support for the charismatic figure who claims to seek the rectification for the wrongs of the past. For Netanyahu supporters it is the error of the Oslo peace process, for Erdogan it is failures of the Kemalist elite to fully realise Turkey’s potential, for Trump it is anything Obama did. And the populist does this through performance in an appeal to the disenchanted for their support.
Populism emerges when the familiar becomes unfamiliar and a sizeable population becomes alienated from their own society. Is it any wonder that populism still persists today?
Following Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent election victory, his comments alluding to the annexation of Israeli West Bank settlements are more pressing now than ever. The possibility that Israeli law will be extended to the settlements, home to 400,000 Israelis but deemed illegal by almost all interpretations of international law, is very real.
As is typical in Israeli politics after an election, in the following days or even weeks Netanyahu will engage in a mammoth coalition building exercise. Netanyahu will play a four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle where the pieces argue back. His aim will be to cobble together smaller parties such as the religious Shas and United Torah Judaism and the radical right-wing United Right into Netanyahu’s Likud led coalition government.
In order to see through this process effectively, Netanyahu will no doubt offer cabinet and ministerial posts to leading cadres of these smaller parties. However, they will also seek assurances from Netanyahu that their policy goals will be if not implemented then at least put on the agenda.
This is why Netanyahu’s irresponsible announcement about settlements will not go away. Netanyahu’s words were music to the ears of ideologically inclined members of Netanyahu’s own Likud as well as the United Right whose 5 Knesset seats make them the guarantor of Netanyahu’s coalition. In return for joining Netanyahu’s government and supporting his attempt to make himself immune to indictments over corruption pertaining to no less than three different cases by legislating the so-called French Law which would prevent a sitting prime minister form being prosecuted, such parties might seek to press Netanyahu on his settlement pledge, or at least push him to make it part of his policy agenda.
Add to the equation the Trump factor, the issue of settlement annexation is no mere election bluster. It is on the table.
Indeed, the unpredictability of the Trump administration and the possibility that the White House may actually support such a move is very real. Within just two years the administration reversed decades old US policy by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and recognising the occupied Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
It is worth briefly reminding ourselves what is at stake if Israel were to extend Israeli law to the West Bank settlements.
In Europe, North America and the West, the perception of Israel as an international pariah would move from the fringe of the debate about Israel’s future to the mainstream. The BDS movement would gain unprecedented support. There will not be a campus on Earth (except maybe Ariel University) where students will not seek divestment. Parliaments across the globe will be lobbied to reconsider political and economic ties with Israel. Many will even be successful.
Attempts to exclude Israel from international civil society would gain momentum and accusations that Israel is an apartheid state would gain legitimacy as notable statespersons, public intellectuals and politicians will also adopt the same rhetoric and corporations would think twice about doing business in Israel. The Jewish diaspora will be split and many Jews outside of Israel will not only feel alienated from Israel, but they also will publicly campaign against the Israeli government in unprecedented numbers. Anti-Semitism across the world will skyrocket.
Even US support for Israel will be hurt as the emerging left-right split over support for Israel will turn into a gaping wound. Israel’s ties with the Arab world including Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf, which Israel has to done well to forge strong strategic understandings, will be undermined. It might even represent one step too far for these countries even though they share a joint fear of Iranian influence.
Just as troubling, if not more so, the threat to the viability of the Palestinian state would lead to a third Palestinian intifada in the West Bank and another conflict against Hamas in Gaza. This would overturn the security that has won Netanyahu much political success.
Netanyahu knows how to win an election, but in order to win this one he has put the future of the state of Israel in a precarious position, a dereliction of the state that he is tasked to promote and protect. Watch this space, the settlement annexation issue is not going away.
Following the results of the March 31 local elections in Turkey which saw Turkey’s main opposition, Republican People’s Party (CHP), win 4 out of 5 largest cities in Turkey, some commentators were quick to call the defeat of President Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) a victory for democracy.
But what do these commentators mean when they say victory for democracy? More of often than not they mean that the party they support did well. However, the real test of whether an election is a victory for democracy is not if the party you voted for wins, but the extent to which the elections were held under conditions considered free and fair, the incumbent’s willingness to concede defeat and the applicability of contestation to all parties who have a legitimate grievance.
Sadly, in all of the above counts Turkey failed. Firstly, just as previous elections over the past few years, they were neither free nor fair. Media coverage was overwhelmingly pro-government, there were incidents of intimidation and harassment, and the governing AKP had the benefit of using state resources for their campaign.
Secondly, although the ballots have been officially counted, the ruling AKP has refused to accept defeat in Ankara and Istanbul. Although they were very close races it is quite clear that barring some irregularities, the CHP won in both cities. Still, the AKP has insisted on recounts (there were even rumours that AKP had sought to nullify the vote in the entire city of Istanbul). One may object and say that the AKP has a right to do so. Fair enough, but at the same time the AKP has put up posters across Istanbul thanking voters for their victory. The recounts are taking a long time and there is extreme pressure being put on the Supreme Election Board.
Thirdly, when the ruling AKP demands recounts it usually (not always) gets its way, but when the liberal and Kurdish oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) demands the same by district and provisional boards in localities where it lost by the narrowest of margins, its appeals are rejected. In other words, there are clearly double standards.
Despite the victory of the CHP in several cities, this was not a win for democracy. If it turns out that the AKP concedes defeat to the CHP in Ankara and Istanbul, I have the following words which were published in a piece for Haaretzand have pasted below and can also be found here:
Erdogan wobbled. But can he really be toppled?
The polls should have been a sleepy affair. They were local elections for mayoral and municipal offices. And last weekend was the seventh time in five years that Turkey had held elections.
However, far from being dreary, the elections proved to be a rather lively affair as Turkey’s firebrand president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been at the helm of Turkish politics for 17 years, did not get his way. And that’s just putting it mildly.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost four of the country’s five largest cities to the opposition, including the capital Ankara and the commercial hub and largest city, Istanbul, albeit by the narrowest of margins.
What to make of these results? Do they mark the beginning of the end for Erdogan’s apparent invincibility? How significant a victory is this for the country’s beleaguered opposition, led by the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP)?
The CHP deserves some credit. Together with the Iyi Parti (Good Party) with whom it formed an alliance, the CHP campaigned hard and under very difficult circumstances, managing to not only win major cities and municipalities but also garner 30 per cent of the popular vote, a significant improvement on recent years.
The CHP’s successes in Istanbul and Ankara were also due to the strategic decision by the liberal and Kurdish-oriented Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) not to field candidates in these cities. Reportedly, HDP leaders urged its supporters to vote for the CHP instead. Thus, the HDP got in some retribution against Erdogan, whose government has mercilessly suppressed the party, even arresting and detaining its leadership under trumped up terrorism charges and removing elected mayors in the Southeast.
Unlike the AKP, which also benefitted from the use of government and state resources, the CHP had to fend off underhanded attacks by Erdogan and his followers who accused it of perfidy and siding with terrorists.
Mansur Yavas, the CHP Ankara mayoral candidate, was accused of forging a signature over a decade ago in a spurious attempt to delegitimize him. Erdogan even broadcast footage from the gruesome Christchurch massacre to boost his party’s chances.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s subdued media offered the government obsequious coverage. For example, Turkey’s state broadcaster TRT gave 135 hours of positive coverage to Erdogan and his allies but just 20 hours, most of it negative, to the opposition. It was therefore quite a feat that the CHP managed to attract additional votes.
Still, one should not write off Erdogan so easily. Far from being the beginning of the end, Erdogan and the AKP remain popular.
Despite voter fatigue, international isolation and an economic downturn that has seen inflation spiral and the lira tumble, prompting the government to sell its own subsidized fruit and vegetables, the AKP still managed to win over 44 per cent of the popular vote. This is about two percent more than last year’s parliamentary elections and a gain of 1.5 per cent compared to the last local elections of 2014.
In other words, the CHP has only managed to make a small dent in the AKP’s support base.
Meanwhile, Erdogan still enjoys the backing of his political allies, the far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Together they won over 51 per cent of the vote. Erdogan also controls all the state’s levers of power from the security forces to the judiciary and is not afraid to use them. This is especially ominous, as there are no more elections scheduled for the next four and a half years. A period of unaccountability looms.
If the opposition wishes to make further gains it needs to maintain the tacit CHP-HDP understanding which thwarted Erdogan’s plans in this election. This means the CHP will have to swallow its Turkish national pride and convince its followers that it is prudent to come to a tacit understanding with the Kurdish-oriented HDP.
And that’s just the easy bit. Despite all the talk of the economy and international affairs during the campaign, this was a local election.
If the opposition is serious about making this a turning point, it needs to knuckle down and dedicate itself to improving municipal services in order to prove to the electorate that it can be trusted with the country’s economy and positively steer Turkey’s political future. That is, of course, assuming that the AKP's attempt to stifle the loss of Istanbul by demanding recounts proves fruitless.
Either way, the opposition will no doubt face a relentless campaign of delegitimization and intimidation by Erdogan and the AKP, who don’t kindly to strong opposition. Pro-government media are already pushing the narrative that the results in Istanbul are an attempted "coup." Still, it’s an opportunity. The opposition best make the most of it.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 3 April 2019
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.
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