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
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.
It has been weeks since the falling out between the US and Turkey over the continued detention of pastor Andrew Brunson, a symptom of many problems between the two countries. Just to briefly recap, some of the other outstanding issues between the sides include Turkey’s anger at US support for Kurdish forces affiliated to the PKK in Syria; the violation of the Iran Sanctions Act by a Turkish state-owned bank, possibly with the full knowledge or even behest of the highest levels of the Turkish government; Turkey’s intent to purchase Russian S400 surface to air missiles; and the residence in the US of Fetullah Gulen who Ankara blames for the July 2016 attempted coup.
Despite the US sanctions which wreaked havoc on the already vulnerable Turkish economy, and the threat of more to come, Turkey is still resisting US pressure. All Ankara has to do is drop the charges against Brunson, so why is Ankara resisting so much? Why not find a face-saving measure and fall into line, just like Ankara did after tensions with Russia?
In an earlier post, I explained how Turkey and the US might overcome some of their differences. And if I can think of a way, I am sure the brilliant minds in Washington and Ankara can do better. I also wrote a post about the underlying symptoms for the breakdown of relations in which I factor Turkey’s internal security threats, Ankara’s delusions of grandeur and Turkey’s authoritarian turn. But there is an additional factor, namely, President Erdogan’s version of political Islam.
Faced with ongoing Magnitsky Act sanctions and high tariffs on aluminium and steel, as well as being excluded from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme after the passing of the 2019 defence spending bill, Turkey is experiencing a continued strain on its economy, an ongoing currency crisis and uncertainty about future military hardware. If President Erdogan truly cared about the Turkish economy, he would have appointed representatives from the business community to establish an economic advisory council, increased interest rates by guaranteeing the independence of the central bank, and, of course, immediately released American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Instead, Erdogan chose his son-in-law to be the country’s economy minister, maintained his position that high interest rates leads to inflation and pressured the central bank to reframe from raising rates. Not only did Erdogan not release Pastor Brunson, but he responded to US sanctions with some of his own, which practically amounts to a trade war against the biggest economy on Earth.
“They have their dollars but we have the Quran”, declared Erdogan, not just once but on countless occasions over the past couple of weeks. This is typical of religious fanatics everywhere; when they don’t have the answers, they double down on God. When asked about the dismal economic performance of the Islamic Republic of Iran, for example, Ayatollah Khomeini responded that, “the revolution was not about the price of watermelons”. Indeed, how can it be when Khomeini promised that Islam was the solution? This is why Erdogan continues to resist increasing interest rates which he has described as “evil”, no doubt a reflection of Islam’s abhorrence to usury. If it is not proscribed by God, it cannot be part of the answer.
Erdogan adds that there is no need to fear, the world is bigger than the United States. Never mind the fact that the US accounts for 25 per cent of the world’s economy, Turkey, Erdogan insists, can turn to other countries for economic support and arms purchases. Qatar and Russia, or, in the case of F-35s, Turkey’s own military aviation industry (ignoring that the TF-X project, for example, is currently dependent on the expertise and intellectual property of UK firms).
It appears that President Erdogan and his sycophantic band of advisors believe the hype about America’s demise and the rise of the rest. But unlike serious observers who write about America’s inwardly looking trajectory and the rise of China and other developing nations, President Erdogan and his cohorts seem to think the time is nigh. They appear to have missed that for the time being at least, the US is still the most powerful nation on earth, and that remains the case whether we are talking about hard power, soft power, smart power or any other kind of power.
President Erdogan once commented that there is no such thing as moderate Islam. His foreign policy reflects this. President Erdogan’s government continues to support Hamas. It sides with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and sponsors a range of Islamist militants in Syria. Erdogan himself earned his political stripes with the openly Islamist Welfare Party of the one-time Turkish Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan who was anti-western to the core and talked about forming an Islamic currency and uniting the Muslim world against US and Zionist conspiracies. Although Erbakan was ousted following a military intervention, his thinking inspired a generation of Turkish Islamists, and President Erdogan was his (wayward) protégé who is beginning to act more and more like his old mentor. “The attack on our economy has absolutely no difference from attacks on our call to prayer and our flag,” Erdogan recently stated, showing his inability to separate religion from economics and international relations. Just last March, Yeni Safak, a pro-Erdogan newspaper and government mouthpiece if ever there was one, talked about creating an Islamic army of millions of soldiers to fight Israel. Erdogan didn’t distance himself from the piece. It also reflect the apparent statements of King Abdullah II of Jordan who told US congressional leaders back in 2016 that the Turkish head of state believes in a “radical Islamic solution” to conflicts in the Middle East.
Erdogan sees himself as the head of a country that leads the Muslim world. The most recent example was when President Erdogan used Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital as a means to speak on behalf of the Muslim world by convening a special emergency summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Erdogan used this pulpit to lead the Muslim world’s condemnation of the Trump Administration in the most visceral terms imaginable.
In this context, how can it be possible for Erdogan to back down against Trump? It be a setback for Erdogan’s attempt to lead the Muslim world legitimized by Turkey's Ottoman past, Islamic credentials and the Turkish president’s ability to stand up to Israel and America. Of course, the losers will be Turkey’s long-suffering population who are seeing their money devalued, their savings hurt and their businesses on the brink. But they needn’t worry, they always have God.
Following the downturn in US-Turkish relations and the recent re-election of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as President of the Turkish Republic, only this time with enhanced powers, some have begun to ask what happened to Turkish democracy?
But the question is misplaced. Sure, Turkey has certainly drifted from liberal democratic politics in recent years; however, the reality is that Turkey was never, ever, a democracy. It is worth having a brief historical recap in order to remind western journalists, politicians and wonks as well as some of their self-deluded Turkish counterparts of this fact.
The idea that Turkey is a democracy is a western construct. It is an invented and artificial idea based on the hopes of western policy makers (and some wishful thinking Turkish intellectuals) who, in the post 9/11 war on terror, thought they needed an example of a modern, western friendly and democratic Muslim country in order to convince the Muslim world that they were not at war with Islam. This construct was given additional impetus after the misnamed Arab Spring of 2011. Again, the international community wanted to point towards a model or example of a Muslim democracy. They pointed to Turkey, but they shouldn’t have.
Following Turkey’s establishment in 1923, Turkey was under the one-man rule of its principle state-builder and first president Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Secularist, reformist, revolutionary, moderniser and visionary, Kemal-Ataturk was, however, no democrat. There were a couple of short periods when he experimented with a two-party system, but when the politics of the opposition drifted in a direction not to his liking, he swiftly did away with it. Following his death in 1938, Kemal-Ataturk’s successor Ismet Inonu took over the mantle. Elections took place in 1946 which the ruling party won in a landslide because, quite frankly, they were unfree, unfair, and undoubtedly rigged. It was not until 1950 that free and fair elections finally took place and even brought about a change of government. Adnan Menderes of the Democrat Party became Prime Minister. However, ten years later the military ousted him in a coup. Incensed by Manderes’ handling of the economy, his creeping autocratic nature and his popular appeals to Islam, they decided he needed to be gone for good. One year after the coup Menderes was hanging by the neck.
And like a kid with an open packet of Oreos, the military just couldn’t help itself. It staged another intervention in 1971 and another in 1980 after urban political violence was tearing the country apart. Until 1983 Turkey was led by a military junta. In addition to arresting hundreds of thousands of citizens, executing dozens and the many incidences of torture, the men in uniform oversaw the drafting of the 1982 constitution. They also vetted political candidates ahead of the 1983 elections. Even after return to “normal” civilian politics, the military retained control of nearly all institutions of state through informal networks and by heading supervisory bodies. Nothing could happen from foreign policy to television broadcasts if it were against the will of the generals.
The main challenge to the military’s grip over power was the rise of Welfare Party and its leader and Necmettin Erbakan who became Prime Minister in 1996 and advocated an openly Islamist foreign policy. No problem for the boys in uniform. In 1997 they gave Erbakan an ultimatum which made him obliged to resign. He was then banned from politics and so was his party.
But hold on a minute. As far removed from democracy as the above might sound, it doesn’t relate to the whole of the country. While all this was taking place, the southeast was a different case altogether. The 1920s and 30s were marked by insurrections and brutal crackdowns by the full arm of the state. The 1980s and 1990s were particularly dreadful as insurgency and counter insurgency claimed the lives of 40,000 citizens. Death squads roamed southeastern cities assassinating Kurdish leaders. Thousands of villages were destroyed and perhaps millions displaced. There were many instances of extrajudicial killings and torture which still remain uninvestigated let alone punished. So when you hear people talk of Turkish democracy, they are usually talking about only part of the country, the places where people go on holiday and policy makers and businesspersons visit rather than the southeast which resembled a war-zone.
It was not until October 2001 that Turkey entered a period of democratization with the first of a series of reforms geared towards EU accession. Not long after, in 2002, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government. The following year, after his ban from politics was lifted, Recep Tayyip Erdogan became Prime Minister.
This was perfect timing for the West which was in the early stages of the War on Terror. Running the show in Turkey were outwardly pious politicians whose political careers emanated from Islamist parties. They had covered wives, reframed from drinking alcohol and talked about piety, and, yet, Turkey still appeared to be pro-western and friendly. These Turkish politicians even talked the talk about democracy.
But it was all nonsense. Throughout this period, Erdogan and the AKP worked hard to undermine Turkey’s opportunity at democratization. Just a few examples to illustrate the point. In 2005, Erdogan sued Musa Kart and the Cumhuriyet newspaper for a cartoon that “insulted” him. This was while 60 academics, journalists and publishers were already in prison or facing prosecution. The onslaught against freedom of expression which would go full speed ahead ten years later had already begun. Meanwhile, the infamous article 301, which banned the insult against “Turkishness” was also in full sway and used against novelists Orhan Pamuk and Elif Safak. Also, in 2004, there were serious discussions by the AKP government to criminalize adultery. Yes, you heard right – criminalize adultery! To make matters worse, the AKP got into bed with the Gulen movement who had infiltrated the judiciary and police force and laid fraudulent charges on hundreds of military officers in what turned out to be a successful bid to ouster the military’s ability to interfere in politics. It was also designed to make room for the rise of Gulenist ranks within the armed-forces. Although the military was by far an anti-democratic force, these means to supress it were contrary to the rule of law. They made a mockery of the courts.
In 2008 there was an attempt through the constitutional court to shut down the AKP for anti-secular activities. Ultimately it failed (although it did slap the party with a fine and a warning). However, in response, the AKP spearheaded the 2010 constitutional changes which began the process of eroding Turkey’s fragile system of checks and balances.
All the while, politicians and liberal intellectuals in the West and Turkey were heaping praise on Turkish democracy, and, by extension, Erdogan and the AKP. In reality, democracy in Turkey was barely in existence. And I haven’t even gone beyond 2010 when things got even worse. The myth of Turkish democracy should be understood as just that, a piece of fiction.
Last week the US re-imposed sanctions on Iran. This was a direct result of the bold decision by US President Donald J. Trump to cease signing off the flawed Joint Comprehensive Plan of action (JCPOA). Negotiated under the Obama administration, the JCPOA sought to put a halt to Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons in return for sanctions relief and the opening of the Iranian economy to the international community.
I am no fan of Donald Trump. I don't like his politics and I don’t like his style or approach. I also didn’t particularly enjoy watching The Apprenticeeither. So far, his presidency ranks as one of the worst; however, there are some important exceptions where his policies have been more or less right. The first was his decision scale back financial support for UNRWA (more about that in another post) and the second is his policy towards the Iran nuclear deal.
Trump was right to conclude that the JCPOA was a bad deal. It was significantly flawed for several reasons including the sunset clause which would allow Iran to restart its nuclear programme in less than ten years, the lack of unfettered and on the spot access for inspectors to enter top secret Iranian military facilities without prior approval, and the no mention of Iran’s ballistic missile programme. We also saw from the Israeli seizure of Iran’s nuclear archive that even though Tehran was more or less keeping to its obligations, it had failed to disclose its intricate and extensive research into developing a nuclear warhead. This in itself could be a breach of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, making the JCPOA worthless.
Just as importantly, the JCPOA made no reference to Iran’s foreign policy. This gave the Islamic Republic the financial lifeline it needed in order to spread its influence in the region, including its support for Bashar al-Asad, the butcher of Damascus who had no qualms about using chemical weapons against his own people on multiple occasions and whose torture chambers are a disgrace to humanity in the 21stcentury.
Meanwhile, recent reports of anti-regime protests and disturbances in Iran that trickle into the international news over the past few months do not do justice to the momentum growing against the Islamic Republic. Across Iran, from Mashad to Tabriz, many Iranians are voicing their anger at the regime which has crippled the prosperity of a whole generation of Iranians. Even at a crowded football stadium in Tehran fans chanted anti-regime slogans. The ongoing protests represents what can only be described as a revolutionary period. If there was ever a time when the regime was at its most vulnerable, it is now and is why the sanctions can be either effective in bringing down this heinous regime or at least temper Iran’s nefarious ambitions in the Middle East.
And what is the European Union’s reaction to all this? Brussels has been actively working against US sanctions and is, in effect, supporting one of the most nefarious regimes on Earth. The EU, which was never a party to the JCPOA (negotiated by the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany), Brussels has decided to join ranks of Russia, Turkey and China, hardly the beacons of the world liberal order, to obstruct the effectiveness of the sanctions. Not only has Federica Mogherini, the EU’s foreign policy chief, publically and loudly encouraged firms to defy the sanctions, but the EU has even launched the blocking statute, an attempt to shield European companies from US sanctions and limit the damage to their interests and dealings in the US. Also, the EU wants European companies who have contracts with Iranian firms to apply to the EU before halting operations.
In other words, the EU is actively working with some of the world’s worst human rights abusers in order to protect a theocratic autocracy which violates almost every article of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights from US sanctions, hampering and the dreams of ordinary Iranians who are risking their lives to protest the regime. All this so mega European firms such as Siemens, Total, Peugeot and Airbus can make profit. Shame on Brussels, shame on Berlin, shame on Paris, and, yes, shame on London.
Despite being in the process of leaving the EU, the UK has sided with the EU on this matter. This is despite the fact that unlike France or Germany, the UK’s trade with Iran only stands at a mere US$1.15 billion. Also, despite supporting the JCPOA and practically pleading the Iranian regime to release Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Iran has still not complied. This, if anything, is a reason why the UK should be supporting its great transatlantic ally. However, London has elected to side with the EU which has chosen the JCPOA as its causes belli against the US administration. If ever there was a morally dubious foreign policy decision of the EU and UK, this is it.
In my last post, I wrote about the underlying reasons for the decline of US-Turkish relations. I identified three main factors and a related forth. In brief I made the following points: 1) Turkey needs to be understood as a weak or fragile state because its internal threats are more of a priority than its external enemies, 2) Turkey considers itself to be an international power in its own right, but finds it difficult to reconcile its image of greatness with the reality that it is a medium sized power, 3) increased authoritarian rule means that the government and especially President Erdogan cannot blame shift when matters arise between Turkey and another state, 4) Turkey is no longer part of the western camp in the same way that it was before the rise of the ruling AKP.
It is far easier to identify the causes of the breakdown in US-Turkey relations than it is to find solutions. Nevertheless, I am going to give it a try. I will focus on solving the bilateral tensions associated with the detention of Pastor Andrew Brunson and Turkey’s desire to purchase Russian S400s. There is a road map of sorts on the Manbij issue in northern Syria, so I will allow others to assess the efficacy of that arrangement, although I may mention it briefly.
But first, a question. With the exception of war or the threat of war, can you think of a case when a superpower power was able to make a smaller power do something which the smaller power considered detrimental to its national interest? This question was posed to me by one of my professors when I was an MA student. The answer is no. And if so, very rarely. If a country considers it against its national interest, there is little the stronger power can do. More often than not, the use or threat of force is inappropriate. Therefore, the trick is to convince the smaller power that it is in its national interest to comply with the policy of the more powerful state.
Recent reports have indicated that US and Turkish officials are in talks. The job of Washington’s officials is to convince Ankara that it is in Turkey’s national interest to release Pastor Brunson from house arrest as well as other US citizens and consular employees.
This is why the Magnitsky sanctions were a good start. Although symbolic, it demonstrated that Washington means business. Already the Turkish economy has taken a hit. The US must show that it is not going to back down, but even ready up the ante by highlighting that it is very serious about implementing additional sanctions. These new sanctions include those stipulated in the Turkey International Financial Institutions Act, which, if passed by Congress, would instruct the US directors of the World Bank International Finance Corporationand European Bank for Reconstruction and Development to vote against extending loans to Turkey. Also, the US should move ahead with legislation pertaining to the 2019 defence budget which would shut out Turkey’s involvement in the F35 Joint Strike Fighter programme. Collectively, these are incredible tools because they pertain to both Turkey’s economic and security interests.
But there are more tools at Washington’s disposal. First, the US should not rush into a deal, but wait until Ankara feels the looming pinch of the sanctions. Time is on Washington’s side. Second, the US should make it clear in no uncertain terms that President Trump is an unpredictable figure. And just as he recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he could support Congressional attempts to recognise the Armenian massacres of World War I as a genocide. Thirdly, playing to the internal security threat in Turkey, the US could kindly point out that they might not accept Turkey’s position that the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria are related organisations (Washington currently insists that its support for Syrian Kurds is only through the SDF – an umbrella organisation dominated by the YPG). There are additional measures the US could take such as restricting Turkish participation in NATO operations and training exercises, reducing intelligence sharing, and taking measures against Turkey’s trade with Iran. However, I think these measures should be left off the table for now as they would do more harm than good.
The US should use the above as leverage to demand that Pastor Brunson and all other US citizens and consular officials are immediately released. But the White House can and should offer a few incentives to sweeten the deal. It could propose that it put in a word to the New York District Attorney and US court in order to allow Mehmet Hakan Atilla, an executive of the Turkish state owned Halkbank, who was found guilty of breaking the Iran Sanctions Act, to serve out the rest of his sentence in Turkey. Also, perhaps the Treasury could be convinced to slap Halkbank with just a medium sized fine – enough to deter other banks from violating Iranian sanctions, but not too high to hurt the Turkish economy.
As already mention, Turkey is a country where its internal security concerns are seen as more important than its external. Washington might want to play into this by offering to “look into” the activities of the Gulen movement in the US. Couched in vague terms, this will be enough for Ankara to be placated and able to publically save face, but not enough for the US to obligate itself. Also, to further sweeten the pill, Turkey could be offered an additional discount on Patriot missiles if it were to forgo the Russian S400 deal. Ankara would save billions of dollars on Russian hardware that has no compatibility with most of Turkey’s own equipment, let alone NATO’s.
Underlying all this is a message that Ankara needs to receive from Washington - it is in Turkey’s interests to be on good terms with the US and is most secure and economically prosperous when ties with the west are strong. Once this impasse is solved, the sides can move towards a transactional relationship, which, if played right, could be a harbinger of even closer ties in the future.
Just as the ink was drying on my last post about US-Turkish relations, the White House announced sanctions against Turkey based on the Global Magnitsky Act, targeting the justice and interior ministers over the continued arrest of Christian pastor Andrew Brunson. Turkey has announced retaliatory measures with some sanctions of its own. It’s rather unprecedented that mutual sanctions have been imposed on fellow NATO allies. The question on many minds is how did it come to this?
There are several symptoms of the low ebb in bilateral relations. They include the presence in the US of the alleged 15 July attempted coup mastermind Fetullah Gulen, the continued detention of Pastor Brunson and other US nationals and consular workers, Turkey’s intention to purchase the Russian S400 SAMs which are incompatible with NATO hardware, and US assistance to the YPG Kurdish militia in Syria against the so-called Islamic State which Turkey says is affiliated to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).
However, these are all symptoms rather than the root causes of the problem. In terms of the actual underlying reasons for the downturn in bilateral relations I contend there are 3 main reasons and a related fourth. Let me explain them one by one.
Firstly, the nature of the Turkish state is often misunderstood by both Western and Turkish officials alike. Turkey should be understood as a weak or a fragile state. Turkey has many of the attributes of a weak state. For example, the internal threat in Turkey is greater than the threat posed by its external enemies. Ankara’s two greatest existential concerns are the PKK and the Gulen movement. Sure, both have international branches and are influenced by international affairs, but they are, by and large, internal challenges to both state security and the institutions of state. Turkey also resembles a weak state because for many citizens the primary threat to their personal security is the state itself, the body which is supposed to protect them. This is the case for many Kurds in the Southeast of the country as well as those affected by the recent post 15 July 2016 purges. Let’s not also forget the marginalisation of the remnants of the Gezi movement and progressives in general, all considered fifth columnists by President Erdogan and his government. There are other factors as to why Turkey is a fragile state including the economy which often runs along patrimonial lines and is marred by corruption and nepotism.
The reason why understanding Turkey as a fragile or weak state is important because the US, or any other country for that matter, will have difficulties finding common cause with Turkey over an external enemy. Quite frankly, an international threat will always be less of a concern for Turkey which has to prioritise internal threats, or view international affairs through the lens of domestic security matters. Meanwhile, internal developments in Turkey, if not understood and acknowledged by other countries, leads to anger and recriminations. We saw this take shape after the attempted coup two years ago. Such wounds will be slow to heal.
The second factor is that Turkey does not consider itself part of the western orbit. It doesn’t see itself in the Russian orbit. Nor part of the Iranian axis either. Turkey sees itself as a great power in its own right. Whenever I read news reports about developments in US-Turkish relations and the comments of Turkish officials, I can’t help but think, “does Turkey think it is the superpower in this relationship?” The answer is yes, actually it does. Turkey suffers from delusions of grandeur when it comes to international affairs and finds it difficult to reconcile its self-image of greatness, often emanating from a selective and politicised memory its Ottoman past, with the reality that Turkey is not even a regional hegemon, let alone an international power. Turkey is a medium sized power at best, albeit one with potential if it effectively harnesses its human capacity. Sometimes Turkey needs a shock in order to recalibrate its self-image with reality. This is what happened with Russia after Moscow announced sanctions in 2015 following Turkey’s shooting down a jet hovering over its airspace. Following this wake-up call, relations between Turkey and Russia were soon back on track. Some advice to Ankara, if you live with a lion, don’t pull its tail!
The third factor is increasing authoritarianism in Turkey. Sure, President Donald Trump doesn’t exactly behave like a liberal democratic gentleman and leader of the free world either, but Turkey is on a completely different level when it comes to strongman politics, so much so that nothing of note happens without the blessing of President Erdogan. This gives the US a firm address to point the finger. These latest sanctions are a warning. Washington knows who is really in charge. And if there is any action that harms US interests, President Erdogan cannot blame shift.
Relatedly, the fourth factor (feel free to email me more) is the reality that times have changed. Turkey’s interests are not the same as those of the US and the West. Turkey also does not identify with the West as much as it used to. This fact is plain and simple and the longer this reality is ignored or swept under the carpet, the more likely these kinds of rifts will happen. It is time for a new paradigm in US-Turkish relations. I propose a transactional relationship based on selective joint interests on an ad hoc basis. After cool heads prevail and this crisis is resolved, surely this is the best way forward to build confidence and trust between both sides and, who knows, soon a lasting partnership that may once again be of a strategic nature. But that’s far into the future.
So, this begs the question, how do the sides get out of this current impasse? Stay tuned, I will offer a few words about that soon.
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