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
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
Following the decision of US President Trump to withdraw forces from Syria, I penned an op-ed for The Globe and Mail, Canada's leading daily.
Around 100 years ago, the Arab Middle East was carved into spheres of influence by Britain and France, the imperial powers of the day. In the period after the First World War, the only country strong enough to challenge the two was the United States – but while it managed to insist that League of Nations mandates be established for Syria, Palestine and Iraq, the United States declined to join the League itself, turning instead toward isolationism. Washington declined to take control of a mandate, and allowed the colonial powers to dominate the region. It wouldn’t be until after the Second World War that the United States would assert its influence in the Middle East, and it carried that out through regional alliances with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel and, until 1979, Iran.
Looking at history is instructive, not just to reaffirm that this is all in the past now, and even more so after Donald Trump’s surprise and abrupt decision to send the 2,000 U.S. special forces stationed in Syria home because he felt the war against the Islamic State was complete. But it also provides the context that actually, this is well-charted territory. By exiting the country, the United States is effectively allowing Syria to be divided up again, but this time by the region’s new non-Arab imperialists – namely Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Iran has a long imperial history dating back to the Achaemenid Empire. Even after the demise of the Qajar dynasty and the ascendancy of the Pahlavi dynasty of the late Shah, Iran considered itself to be a regional superpower. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Islamic Republic set up regional proxies in places such as Lebanon – where Iran funds the powerful military and political force Hezbollah, through which the regime props up the Assad government – and Yemen, where Iran arms the Houthi rebels contributing to the prolonging of the country’s bloody civil war. Tehran also wields considerable influence over Iraq through its links with Shia militias and politicians, while Iran’s Quds Force, an elite branch of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, is believed to be active in Syria, along with an array of Iranian-backed Shia militias fighting for the Assad regime. Iran has also set up military bases in Syria to entrench its position permanently.
U.S. forces were a check on Iranian influence in Syria. Tehran will now relish the opportunity to expand its influence in Syria and beyond.
Turkey is also looking upon that power vacuum with interest. Turkish politicians, most especially the country’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seek to emulate their imperial Ottoman forefathers. Not only does Turkey dominate the Kurdistan Region of Iraq economically and politically, but the government has also established military bases in Qatar and Somalia while leasing an island from Sudanlocated strategically on the Red Sea, which Turkey claims to be developing into a tourist hub.
In the case of Syria, Turkey has launched two interventions. The first was the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Turkish special forces supported the Free Syrian Army in its march to capture the northern Syrian city of al-Bab. The second intervention took place earlier this year when the Free Syrian Army, again backed by Turkey, invaded and took control of the northern Syrian enclave of Afrin. In both incidents, the primary foe was the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Kurdish militia that Turkey claims is affiliated to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s. The YPG, however, is also the dominant party within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the most significant partner on the ground of the international coalition against the Islamic State.
Despite Mr. Trump’s insistence that the Islamic State is defeated, the vast majority of experts beg to differ. Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw forces effectively means that the largely Kurdish SDF and YPG are being abandoned and left to the mercy of Ankara, which just last week threatened to launch another attack against those groups. If Turkey follows through on its threat – which is now a very real possibility – it will destroy the only effective indigenous force against the Islamic State and cement Turkey’s influence in Syria and the region.
And then there’s Russia. After 1917′s October Revolution, Russia’s Bolshevik leaders ended their country’s disastrous role in the First World War and forfeited any real say in the peace conferences that followed. However, a century later, Russia has managed to cement its foothold in the Middle East to an extent greater than even the heyday of the Soviet Union. Moscow’s steadfast support of the Assad regime, through measures such as prolonged military investment, has paid off. Moscow is now the indispensable arbiter in the future of Syria and has managed to win permanent influence in the region – and that only looks set to increase.
Mr. Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria enables two regional non-Arab states, with the support of Russia, to dominate Syria and the Middle East. So say goodbye to Uncle Sam – and hello to the new imperials.
This article first appeared on 21 December 2018 in The Globe and Mailand can be found here
I recently published an op-ed piece in Haaretz about antisemitism in Turkey which can be found here. This is the second such piece I have authored about antisemitism in Turkey, only this time I provide different examples and offer a more contemporary context.
Unfortunately, these pieces are just too easy to write. Conspiratorial notions of world Jewish power are not intimated in Turkey, they are overtly pronounced by public intellectuals and political figures especially by those who identify with the religious-nationalist and conservative camps (left wing antisemitism is also present albeit somewhat differently). As my recent article highlights, every time there is a political, economic or social crisis in Turkey, it almost goes without saying that there will be at least one public official or so-called intellectual who will point the finger at the Jews. Last month, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blamed George Soros “the famous Hungarian Jew” for being the secret puppet master behind the Gezi Park protests of 2013.
The case of anti-Semitism in Turkey is a rather paradoxical phenomenon when you consider that the once thriving Jewish population of Turkey today barely stands at 20,000. Turkey, in other words, is one of those countries where there is a significant presence of antisemitism but with very few actual Semites. This is not unlike antisemitism in the contemporary Muslim world where conspiratorial notions of world Zionism are rife, but the Jewish population virtually nil. This of course stands in stark contrast to the antisemitism of Russia and Europe in the centuries leading up to World War II where the notion of world Jewish conspiracy was born.
When faced with accusations of antisemitism, Turkey’s political elite like to respond by declaring their affection towards Turkey’s small Jewish community and remind anyone who will listen that it was the Ottoman Empire which welcomed the Jews of Spain after they were expelled in 1492, forgetting that when Sultan Bayezid II commented of the expulsion of Spain’s Jews that “You venture to call Ferdinand [of Spain] a wise ruler…he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!" In other words, the Ottoman Sultan had an economic motive for opening Turkey to Jews rather than a benevolent one.
Regardless, with a community that barely stands at 20,000 souls, less than 0.1% of the population, it shouldn’t be difficult for a country to have good communal relations with such a small minority, especially when one considers that the Jewish community is barely distinguishable by looks, language or nationality to the rest of the population and are law abiding, integrated and quiet. And still this tiny community has faced terrorist atrocities such as the 1986 Abu Nidal attack where Palestinian gunmen burst premises to slaughter 22 people while a service was taking place. There was also the 2003 Istanbul bombings in which two synagogues were bombed (including the Neve Shalom), this time by a home grown Turkish al-Qaeda faction which killed 23 people. Let’s not even get to threats against Jewish targets and violence and insults against individuals.
Still, the idea of a global pernicious Jewish conspiracy against Turkey remains as strong as ever, begging the question why do such notions continue to resonate within Turkish society, especially among ultra-nationalists and religious conservatives?
Leaving aside purely religiously inspired antisemitism, my answer to this perplexing question is that the Jewish scapegoat works in the Turkish context because of the of prevalence of religious-nationalism which emphasises that Turkey is predestined to be a both a great nation and the leader of the Islamic world. This is the view of leading cadres of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and also members of the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and also has roots in the thinking of the Milli Gorus (National Outlook) tradition from which leading members of the AKP, Erdogan included, emerged. This was an Islamically rooted political movement which emphasised that it is Turkey’s natural place to lead the Muslim world and that the Turks are the warriors of Islam. Therefore, it would follow on that just like it Ottoman forbearers Turkey will once again have a powerful position in the world and it is currently in the process of achieving this aim.
But if Turkey is predestined to be a leading world power, the question looms why has this still not been realised? What is holding Turkey back? It is here that the international Jewish conspiracy makes a fine answer which allows the government and its supporters to point towards an easy scapegoat and avoid the difficult (but more constructive) path of self-criticism and accountability. This is why international Jewry is blamed for anything from the Gezi protests and the current financial crisis to Kurdish nationalism. What a pity.
I have recently authored a full-length report about British-Turkish relations. Not to give too much away, I argue that although both British and Turkish politicians call bilateral ties a “strategic partnership”, in reality there is little that is strategic about the relationship. The report is due to be released in a couple of weeks so please watch this space.
However, let me address an aspect of British-Turkish relations which I allude to in my report, a factor for why there are closer ties between Britain and Turkey: Britain is not Germany! Allow me to explain what I mean.
After Germany, Britain is Turkey’s largest trading partner in Europe. Like Germany, Britain excels in the automotive, pharmaceutical, chemicals and arms industries. And just like Germany, Britain is a significant world economic power and there are thousands of UK companies which operate in Turkey and is an important source of foreign investment.
However, unlike Germany Britain does not link relations with Turkey with human rights or democratization (or even pay lip service to such lofty ideals). British policy makers prefer to voice concern about Turkey’s decent to authoritarianism, lack of freedom of expression and the erosion of checks and balances in private. Unlike their German counterparts, British officials seldom criticise Turkish policies or actions in public. This works for the Turkish government which is tired about hearing such criticism.
In contrast to Germany, Britain does not have a strong of a presence of members of the Gulen movement or the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). This is important because the Turkish government considers followers of Fetullah Gulen, the Turkish preacher in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and accused of masterminding the July 2016 attempted coup, an existential challenge. The Turkish government remains in an all-out war against the movement and not only seeks to purge them within Turkish state organs and eradicate their presence in civil society, but Ankara also seeks the extradition of leading members who reside or fled abroad. This means their activities in Germany is a significant source of tension.
Similarly, the PKK which has waged an on and off separatist war against the Turkish state since the 1980s is considered by Ankara a significant challenge to the Turkish Republic. The current Turkish government is in no mood to negotiate with even moderate Kurds as evidenced by the arrests of members of the largely peaceful parliamentary Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). Both the Gulen movement and the PKK activities in the UK, although present, are far less prolific than in Germany. Sure, there was a recent extradition request against a Gulen member which a British court rejected, but overall this is small fry compared to other European countries. In other words, while Turkey is seething because Germany’s insistence on due process and fairness when it comes to PKK and Gulenist activities, Britain gives Turkey much less cause for anger.
Britain is also different from Germany because of the make-up of citizens of Turkish origin. The British-Turkish population stands at around 500,000 which is certainly not an insignificant number. However, this is nowhere near the size of their German counterparts where the population of Turkish origin Germans is about 4 million or 5% of the total population. Unlike Germany two-thirds of British Turks are from Cyprus rather than Turkey proper. This is an important distinction because the Mediterranean island was a protectorate of the British Empire and then a crown colony for much of the previous century. This meant that the population who migrated to the UK were familiar with British customs and practices.
Although not perfect, the integration process of Turks in Britain was comparatively easier than Germany for numerous reasons that many scholars have already addressed. Also, the other Turks who migrated to the UK came during different periods. Some were intellectuals who fled the 1980 coup, others were Kurds seeking a better life away from the conflict in the Southeast. Others were students at British universities or businesspersons with a financial stake in Britain’s future prosperity.
So, when Turkish politicians such as President Erdogan say that Turks abroad should not assimilate and see Turks outside of Turkey as part of their jurisdiction, it strikes a chord with Berlin, but doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact in London.
However, the fact that Britain is not Germany is, as my report argues, not enough to cement a strategic partnership between Britain and Turkey. In fact, it is a weak basis for relations to develop into anything significant. Germany’s relations with Turkey has more depth, meaning and engages broader segments of Turkish society. In the long-term this will be beneficial to Germany as its relations with Turkey is one which is not just with the governing party.
As some of you might know, I have been spending the past year working on a research project about British-Turkish relations. My pretty lengthy report will be ready very shortly and published by the IPC, but before it will be released I will be speaking at several events in the UK (and another in Germany which I will detail later). Please feel free to attend but do make sure you book a place for the House of Commons event in London:
Strategic Partners or Drifting Apart? British-Turkish Relations in the Age of Brexit
27 November 6-7:30pm
Committee Room 11, House of Commons, London.
The Foreign Policy Center and the Istanbul Policy Center
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, London is looking to develop bilateral relations with non-EU countries. Turkey has been identified as an important trade and strategic partner. British-Turkish relations are worth $16 billion and there are 3,000 British companies, which operate in Turkey. Both are NATO members and are part of the Global Coalition against ISIS, while the UK has traditionally been an advocate for closer collaboration with Turkey.
However, there are significant challenges to closer relations. These include deepening concerns about Turkey’s human rights record and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. Turkey has been also been experiencing a significant economic downturn and is steadily rebuilding and strengthening its ties with Russia. While on the UK side opposition to Turkish membership of the EU formed a plank of the Leave campaign in the UK’s 2016 referendum, adding tension to bilateral relations.
The future of UK-Turkey relations poses a number of questions about the UK’s wider foreign policy objectives while it is in the process of leaving the EU. The UK will seek to strengthen its non-EU alliances but faces a major challenge trying to balance its strategic and economic priorities while advocating the protection of human rights and democracy.
This Foreign Policy Centre event, in partnership with the Istanbul Policy Center who are publishing a report examining British -Turkish relations, will bring together prominent scholars and policymakers to focus on the challenges, opportunities and pitfalls on the road ahead in British-Turkish relations.
British-Turkish relations after Brexit: Strategic partners?
28 November 5pm
St Antony’s College, University of Oxford: Seminar Room, European Studies Centre
European Studies Centre South East European Studies at Oxford
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, London is looking to develop bilateral relations with non-EU countries. Turkey was one of the countries identified as an important trade and strategic partner. British-Turkish relations are worth $16 billion and both countries have expressed the intension of increasing this figure to $20 billion. Both are NATO members and are part of the Global Coalition against ISIS. Just last year, a fighter jet deal was signed between Britain’s BAE Systems and the Turkish Aerospace Industries worth £100 million with the potential of additional contracts as the project develops. However, there are significant obstacles to closer relations. Turkey’s economy is in a downturn and there is heightened concern about Turkey’s human rights record and its commitment to democracy and the rule of law. How can Britain balance its strategic and economic priorities while advocating the protection of human rights, democracy and civil liberties in Turkey? And as Turkey's economic trajectory is far from positive, have economic relations already peaked?
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 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.
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