Tag Archives: Turkey

The Uses and Abuses of Uncertainty: The Case of Turkey

9 Sep



Webs of Uncertainty


One of the paradoxes of the digital age with its real time awareness is the degree to which information overloads clouds our imagination with cheaply achieved and false clarity, which in political contexts is often the Mad Men work of selective interpretation or deliberate manipulation. There are two types of uncertainty that complicate our perceptions of reality. There is, first of all, the ontological problems associated with a variety of uncertainties embedded in the unresolvable complexities of our experience in such ways that we make important decisions in the face of serious doubts. And secondly, there are often predispositional problems associated with the sources we choose to rely upon, the intrusion of our opinions, and under the influence of the worldview we adopt that biases understanding, sometimes intentionally, but usually, unwittingly.


A fundamental aspect of the human condition, philosophized brilliantly by Jacques Derrida, is a pervasive good faith uncertainty and undecidability that confusingly overlaps with the almost continuous need to act in the lifeworld, and then, despite this, assume responsibility for whatever decisions are taken. In effect, this makes the human condition ‘impossible’ because of this rooted unintelligibility of our experience, depriving the most momentous decisions of our daily life of any firm foundation in decidable fact. This realization is so deeply unsettling as to make its denial a sign of normalcy. Most of us arrange our lives so that this liminal uncertainty can be overlooked most of the time.


What is equally disturbing is the degree to which the technicians of public order are shaping our collective future from behind such a dark veil. Of course, this has long been true, but in the past the wider social consequences of disastrous choices tended to be relatively local and the leaders depended on special powers. Now leaders are expected to be ‘certain,’ as well as ‘objective,’ which means the job description includes a willingness to wear a mask of certainty that covers a face that is lined with tensions caused by acute doubt. Such expectations produce dishonesty in the political arena, but like our effort to minimize private uncertainty, many politicians are opportunistically able to treat the uncertain as certain, and by so doing, we drift as a species toward the abyss.


In modern times, the magnitude of technological capabilities have been continuously generative of unprecedented catastrophic dangers at the unfamiliarly grand scale of the species as well as habitual human threats and pitfalls experienced at various sub-species levels (nation, family, community). The warnings about climate change have raised this issue to a heightened level of global awareness, accompanied by a fatalistic denialism, as well as a set of politicized responses that up to this point fall well below what is required for a reasonable assurance of species sustainability.



The Turkish Internal Consensus


The experience of political rupture is another circumstance that exposes claims of certainty as pompous posturing, but also can bring forth distinctive forms of denialism that pretends that what is rather certain is mired in the swamps of uncertainty, and what is clear beyond a reasonable doubt, is to be treated as uncertain. Behind this manipulation of uncertainty is a political agenda, usually unacknowledged.


These reflections have been prompted by the various reactions to the failed July 15th coup attempt in Turkey. Within Turkey there is a strong consensus (estimated at between 80 and 90%) embracing most of the opposition forces in the country, but with exceptions. The consensus includes even many embittered secular opponents of Erdoğan’s leadership, believing that the attempted coup was the work of the Fethullah Gülen movement and that its leader in residence in the United States should be turned over to the Turkish government to face criminal prosecution for involvement in crimes of terror, murder, treason. Above all, the consensus proudly regards the defeat of the coup attempt as a great patriotic moment of mass support for Turkish democracy. The second element in this consensus is that the United States is somehow involved, and hence is almost certain to find an excuse to avoid extradition or deportation, and distract attention by harping on the importance of protecting the human rights of all Turks. The third element is that it is essential that the Turkish government, to restore a sense of security about the future, eliminate from various sectors of society adherents and operatives of the movement led by Fethullah Gülen. The fourth element is that the attempted coup was carried out in a bloody manner, killing and wounding many innocent civilians, and failed only because initiated ahead of schedule and poorly executed: Erdoğan escaped assassination by a mere 15 minutes and was then able to mobilize quickly the citizenry to take over public spaces in a bold, massive, and brave manner unprecedented in the context of coup politics, and indicative of the depth of anti-coup sentiment among the Turkish people and the intense support bestowed on Erdoğan for defeating the attempt with polls showing his post-coup popularity to have surged to 70% or more. I would maintain that this consensus in Turkey should be treated until reliably refuted as a generally authoritative account of the relevant events, while admitting that there are many complications that emerge if we look more deeply into the full implication of each of these four elements.




Erdoğan’s Critics: Governmental and Civil Society



In opposition to this consensus, the world press and Western governmental reaction basically ignores this consensus, and treats the coup events as if mired in uncertainty, an outlook coupled with antipathy toward Erdoğan and an overall ambivalence toward Turkey as a legitimate member of Western society despite its NATO membership and its support for the struggle against ISIS. I think there are important differences between the reasons underlying these attitudes that motivate overseas secular and Gülen Turks (and their influential friends around the world) and those that explain the somewhat convergent attitudes of Western governments.


To consider the prevailing attitudes of overseas Turks, it starts with hostility toward the Erdoğan leadership, contending corruption, authoritarianism, a hidden Islamic agenda, social conservatism, and a murderous war against Kurdish militants associated with the PKK, as well as against the Syrian Kurdish militia (YPG). This is enough to generate antipathy that expresses itself by either ignoring or rejecting the consensus depicted above as dominating public opinion in Turkey. In this sense, the role and effect of the Gülen movement is either downplayed or problematized, and basically treated as either irrelevant or unproven, and criticism is mounted against all efforts of the Turkish government to rid itself and Turkish society of a secretive religious sect that preaches a message of peace and moderation, while acting subversively and violently. As well, the apparent links between Gülen and the CIA are not even considered worthy of mention.


When it comes to Western governments the response also revolves around distrust of Erdoğan, claiming that he is a Putinesque autocrat, but seeming to have their deepest concerns because Turkey is an unreliable ally that no longer can be trusted to follow the diktats of Washington. In this regard, Turkey’s recent turn toward Russia and Iran, initiatives that preceded the coup attempt, are viewed by the United States and Europe as geopolitically unwelcome. Already by 2010 Turkey worried Washington by turning strongly against Israel and by trying in collaboration with Brazil to resolve tensions with Iran by working out an agreement to store Iran’s enriched uranium outside the country. Then, of course, there was the tie to Fethullah Gülen and his movement, the dispersion of influential Gülenists around the world that often impacted on public official perceptions, and the mutually reinforcing distinct viewpoints associated with Gülenists and secularists together have created an informal international media counter-consensus to what is believed within Turkey.


I became personally suspicious of the ties with the CIA initially in 2010 when Fethullah Gülen personally and organizationally sided with Israel in the dispute with Turkey arising from Israeli commando attack on the Mavi Marmara, a Turkish passenger vessel that was part of ‘a freedom flotilla’ seeking to break the blockade of Gaza and deliver humanitarian assistance to the entrapped Palestinians. It seemed a peculiar stand to be taken by a movement that purported to be devoted to peace and the spread of Islamic values. Then a couple of years later when invited to meet with some Gülen people in Istanbul my suspicions rose to near certainty. We were shown a short documentary in which James Baker, Madeline Albright, and Bill Clinton, that is, the reigning luminaries of both political parties, made separate appearances in the film to heap praise on Fethullah Gülen and his movement. I have been around long enough to know that this kind of promotional documentary was not an innocent and spontaneous display of enthusiasm for a secretive cult movement led by a mysterious Islamic preacher by the most prominent members of the American political establishment. It could not have happened without a strong government push, and one can only wonder why.


I did not believe, at the time, that these signs of governmental engagement was a prelude to a coup, but rather in the nature of a Plan B option in the event that Erdoğan slipped further from favor, and maybe served other purposes as well. There was also the possibility that the Gülen schools all over the world were being used as an effective means to penetrate some societies, such as those in Central Asia, places where American intelligence was weak. It is reported that Graham Fuller, who effectively backed Fethullah Gülen’s controversial request for a green card over the opposition of the State Department and the FBI, believed that such an educational network could be useful in gaining access to and recruits in otherwise closed foreign societies. Fuller had been CIA station chief in Istanbul before his retirement. Fuller claims a purity of intentions, and I have seen no hard evidence to the contrary, but the strong personal connection with Gülen given other confirming circumstantial evidence makes it reasonable to be suspicious.

As with the Turkish critics, the Western governments ignore the context of the coup attempt, and devote most of their attention to the post-coup crackdown on all suspected of any Gülen affiliation. Also, during the coup, diplomatic support for Ankara was not forthcoming, and a wait and see attitude seemed to carry the day. It may be that the West supposed that the coup attempt was the work of discontented Kemalists in the army and elsewhere, and its success would have been welcomed (as with Egypt in 2013). This distancing angered the Turkish government and people, and confirmed for many Turks suspicions about an American involvement as well as its unwillingness to lend support to a popularly elected government.


These suspicions are further confirmed by the evident reluctance of the United States to cooperate fully in seeking to grant extradition, which it must be said, does face legal obstacles in the best of circumstances. At the same time, if the U.S. Government wanted to back Turkey in this post-coup attempt atmosphere it could at least put Fethullah Gülen under temporary arrest or consider deporting him. One can only imagine the American reaction if Turkey was seeming to shield a person who was strongly believed by most Americans to be behind a coup attempt or major terrorist incident in the United States. Legalistic excuses would not begin to satisfy the American people in such a situation, and it will not satisfy, much less convince the Turkish people and their leadership given the near certainty, which has been attached to the allegation that Fethullah Gülen masterminded the events of July 15th. It should be recalled that the Russian grant of sanctuary to Edward Snowden was seen in the United States as an unfriendly act that harmed relations between the countries even though the nature of his alleged crime was distinctly ‘political’ in nature, and hence, non-extradictable.


An Uncertain Future


Among the uncertainties relevant to assessing the situation in Turkey is how the near future unolds. Will the West live with a Turkey that claims the prerogative of a sovereign state to pursue independently its own interests? Will the anti- Erdoğan campaign carry the day in the struggle for the control of world public opinion and shape Western policy toward Turkey? And, of course, will the Turkish government conform formally and in good faith to due process and the rule of law in the course of identifying those who can be reasonably charged with direct and indirect complicity in the coup attempt? (It worth noting that of the 55,000 or so who were originally subject to suspension or detention more than half have been restored to employment or released, according to the Minister of Interior). It is also most important, if Turkey is to regain respect beyond its borders, that it not mingle its legitimate grievances against the Gülen militants, operatives, and financial backers with separate concerns it might have about the opinions and loyalty of pro-Kurdish activists and ardent Kemalists.


This unfolding future should gradually tell us which mix of certainties and uncertainties will govern the Turkish internal and international future, and on that may hinge Turkey’s security and overall regional and global orientation, including the future of its relations with the United States, Europe, Russia, Iran, and its own regional neighborhood. Perhaps, underneath the immediacies of the situation, there are deeper forces at work in Turkey and elsewhere that are seeking to find new alignments that befit the realities of the post-Cold War world order. If this possibility were at the core of what is taking place, then it would not be startling to witness Turkey pulling slowly away from NATO, and finding its own path between East and West. At present, this seems unlikely as there remains in Ankara a strong bonding with the West despite these recent strains, but surely international relations have witnessed far stranger realignments over the course of the past century.

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited

20 Aug

Beyond Jewish Identity: Exceptionalism Revisited


The problem with Jewish identity is Jewish identity! By this I mean, the hegemonic forms of Jewish exceptionalism to which most Jews are enthralled, including a provocative insistence on willed disaffiliation in a few rate instances. Such a gesture of anti-exceptional exceptionalism is a kind of personal manifesto, a private declaration to the world of independence of Judaism with respect to both articles of faith and ethno-nationalist markers. It is usually rooted in a deep earlier experience of what it meant to be Jewish that is repudiated later on for personal and, sometimes, political reasons.


Of course, this kind of perverse exceptionalism also applies, with even greater stringency, to the genuine anti-Semite who attributes a negative exceptionalism to Jews by of hatred, blame, and paranoia. Zionist zealots often manipulate negative exceptionalism to instill fear among Jews about the intentions of their adversaries. It is also a useful instrument in Zionist hands to brand critics of Israel or supporters of BDS, discrediting their good faith by deliberately alleging hatred of a people while what is at stake is harsh criticism of the practices and policies of a state that inflict massive suffering on a vulnerable people. To be called a ‘self-hating Jew’ as I have been is to turn negative exceptionalism into a double-edged razor sharp weapon.


Positive exceptionalism, essentialized for many Jews by a variety of readings of Jews as the people chosen by God, as different and superior. It is sometimes concretized by reference to Israel that pulls above its weight when it comes to military power and technological achievement. There is another kind of positive exceptionalism that regards Jews as chosen by God to engage justly in the world seeking peace, abhorring violence. Michael Lerner, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and Marc H. Ellis exemplify the presence of such angels in our midst.


Thinking more personally, I acknowledge the importance of being Jewish as a marker of my identity both for myself and for many others in their chose life journey. What this means substantively is obviously very diverse. It eludes me almost altogether as I am not observant of nor familiar with Jewish rituals or traditions, although I have welcomed exposure to them when the occasion has arisen, and it has, although infrequently as my circle of friends is overwhelmingly non-observant. Subjectively, Judaism has never had a greater resonance for me than the rituals and traditions of other world religions, most of whom I have been exposed to from time to time, and which I studied long ago with a strong academic interest in religion as a structure of belief. I always welcomed opportunities to become more deeply immersed in any world religion whenever they arose. I never felt a particular attachment to the religion conferred upon me by the accident of birth, perhaps because in my case, it was not part of my upbringing and socialization experience as a child growing up in the highly secular surroundings of Manhattan.


Living part of each year in Turkey for more than twenty years has led my to think about the secular/religious divide that is very deep in Turkish society, and produces cleavages of understanding and polarizing enmities. I believe religion is deeply relevant to the mass of humanity, and has in recent decades been revived in quite diverse settings. In part, this seems a reaction to the modernist failures of community and identity. These failures are evident in the commodified surroundings we daily inhabit whether we wish to or not.  This defining reality of the lifeworld is heavily influenced by neoliberal capitalism as increasingly disseminated by the ambiguous magic of the digital age.


In the Turkish case, perhaps due to my experience of friends and colleagues, I find that the secularists tend to be more judgmental than their Islamist counterparts (who by and large accept the idea that religion and secularism can and should coexist so long as there is mutual respect and equal rights).  I interpret this difference as reflecting the fact that secularists held tightly the keys of power in republican Turkey until the Justice and Development Party (AKP) gained an electoral mandate to govern in 2002, and has been reelected time and again ever since. Had the situation been reversed, it is possible that it would be the secularists who would be more open to coexistence and mutual respect, although their pre-AKP record of governance and societal dominance gives little reason for such confidence as their policy was guided by the strong wish to keep religion in its box.


I am undoubtedly influenced by the view that unless ethno-nationalism in all its forms is soon superseded by a surge of commitment to species identity the human condition faces a dismal future. This does not mean abandoning a Jewish or other sub-species identities altogether, but it does emphasize another way of conceiving and layering multiple identities, with an insistence on privileging ‘human identity,’ which would reverse almost all that has gone before.  Such a revolutionary hierarchy inverts the ordering of identities that presently exist that works outward from family and immediate neighborhood, and gives least weight to ‘humanity’ or ‘cosmic consciousness.’


Such assessments also reflect spatial and psychological location. The meaning of being Jewish would undoubtedly be more central to my daily experience if I were living in Israel, yet no less or more authentic than an identity shaped by living most of the year in California. This affirmation of equivalence is undoubtedly an anathema to many Jews in and out of Israel, especially to adherents of Zionism in any of its many forms. Zionism above all else, as I understand it, embodies a dialectical interaction between negative and positive variants of Jewish exceptionalism, and takes for granted the hypothesis that Jews are deservedly, and for some, unavoidably exceptional.


Separating myself from this kind of involvement does not imply any hostility toward religious and ethnic identities so long as they seek openness to the ecumenical dimensions of human identity. To the extent a preferred identity is closed to religious and ethnic otherness, as in a variety of fundamentalisms (including secular fundamentalism), it has become in the twenty-first century the most widespread means to exhibit a collective death wish on behalf of the species. What I find most empowering is a trans-religious spirituality that draws on the insights and wisdom embedded in all the great religions, including the spirit faiths and nature religions of many native peoples. These religious and spiritual constructions of reality impart a far fuller sense of the awe and mystery of life on planet earth than can be gained by mastering what the Western Enlightenment canonized so powerfully through its amoral embrace of instrumental reason. All that reason leaves out is love, empathy, friendship, beauty, insurgent energies, and the indispensable balances and harmonies of co-evolutionary nature. Such spirituality could become a vital source of liberating energy if the human species manages to seize this bio-political moment that is upon us whether or not we realize it. And this also is a warning that the ethno-nationalist moment that continues to hold the political imagination in captivity has become the king’s highway to species extinction.


Instead of Jewish exceptionalism  (or American exceptionalism) the call of this bio-political moment is for species exceptionalism.




Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey

12 Aug



[Prefatory Note: This post offers a commentary of recent dramatic developments within Turkey and the largely critical international media and diplomatic responses. It compares international reactions to political ruptures in Iran (1979) and Egypt (2011, 2013), and encourages greater public attention to the importance attached by the Turkish citizenry to the defeat of the coup attempt and more sympathy with the kind of political leadership provided by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan since the coup attempt of July 15th.]


Aftermath of Political Ruptures: Iran, Egypt, Turkey


 A political rupture is a sequence of events affecting essential relations between state and society, and its occurrence is neither widely anticipated nor properly interpreted after its occurrence. After a rupture there occurs a revisioning of political reality that involves a recalibration of state/society relations in ways that remain occasions of enduring historic remembrance. Often these occasions are negative happenings, as Pearl Harbor and 9/11 are for the United States, but sometimes they epitomize points of light in the past as with July 4th commemorating the issuance of the Declaration of Independence.


9/11 was the most recent American experience of a political rupture. It resecuritized state/society relations within the country and transformed foreign policy. It marginalized debates about economic globalization and enlarged the war paradigm beyond conflicts between and within sovereign states. In so doing it highlighted new features of intrastate conflict, treated the entire world as a counterterrorist battlefield, and rewrote the international law of self-defense. Instead of responding to attacks, national self-defense, understood as policy rather than right was dramatically extended to encompass remote perceived threats and even latent potential capabilities.


Another innovative feature of major conflicts in the present global setting is the preeminence of non-state actors as principal antagonists. This preeminence takes the dual form of the United States as ‘global state’ and ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other as non- or at most quasi-territorial political actors, but surely not Westphalian states as understood by the membership rules of the UN. The United States in many of its roles and activities operates as a Westphalian state that accepts limits on its sovereign rights based on internationally recognized borders and the territory thereby enclosed and respects the sovereignty of other states. What makes the United States a post-Westphalian or global state is its projection of military capabilities throughout the entire world reinforced by non-territorial patterns of security claims along with extensive global networks of diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence.


What this all mean is complex, evolving, and controversial. It does signify that war has again, as before Paris Peace Pact of 1928, become a largely discretionary domain of policy, at least for geopolitical actors. We are experiencing, in the arresting phrasing of Mary Kaldor, an era of ‘new wars.’ The rewriting of international law is being done by way of authoritative and largely uncontested state practice, mainly that of the United States. At the margins, there persists a subordinate interpretation of international law of war that clings to what is written on the books, inscribed in the politically unrevisable UN Charter, and shaped by quite divergent authoritative practices that provides a useful summary of expectations with respect to uses of force. Jurists have yet to clarify, much less codify, these new realities in a reformulated jurisprudence that to be usefully descriptive must respond conceptually and normatively to the increasingly post-Westphalian character of world order.


There are also more contained political ruptures that have their primary focus on the internal nature of state/society relations, and seem to be territorial or regional occurrences that may have global repercussions, but do not challenge the preexisting frameworks of law and security that shape world order. I have a particular interest in, undoubtedly reflecting my experienced proximity to three political ruptures that have taken place in the Middle East: Iran, 1979; Egypt, 2011/2013; Turkey 2016. In each of these instances, the issues raised touched not only on the control and reform of state structures, but also on state/society balances pertaining to security and freedom, the relations of religion and politics, the contested agency of popular social forces, and the expansion or contraction of constitutional democracy. In each of these national settings, the controversial responsibility of the United States as influential actor introduces the often problematic role of a global state as a crucial actor in the interplay of contending national political forces.


Comparing these political ruptures is instructive with respect to grasping what works and what fails when it comes to transformative politics that are variously engineered from below, from above, from without, and from within to achieve or resist fundamental changes. In some instances, there are coalitions of forces that blur these distinctions, and the interaction is dialectic rather than collaborative or antagonistic. Especially, the imagined or demonstrated relevance of external involvement gives rise to conspiracy explanations, which are denied and hidden until the whistleblowing of Wikileaks and its various collaborators exposes more of the truth, although not necessarily a coherent or widely accepted counter-narrative. The formal diplomacy of world order is still largely premised on the autonomy and legitimacy of sovereign states, the major normative premise of the European invention of the state-centric Westphalian system, but this has always been qualified to varying degrees by geopolitical ambitions and realities, and despite the collapse of colonialism, this hierarchical ordering role remains a defining feature of the contemporary world, but it tends to have become more covert and difficult to establish on the basis of open sources. Unlike the imperial past when geopolitical hierarchies were overt and transparent, post-Westphalian patterns of intervention and extra-territorial governance are largely kept as hidden from public scrutiny as possible.


My intention is to mention very briefly the experiences of Iran and Egypt, and concentrate on the unfolding situation in Turkey after the failed coup attempt of July 15, 2016. Because these developments in Turkey have yet to assume a definitive or final shape, the fluidity of the situation is illustrative of the forces in contention, and the outcome will for better and worse influence the future of Turkish democracy as well as exerting a major impact on regional and global alignments.


Iran 1979: From the perspective of 2016, it is difficult to appreciate the intensity of the political rupture brought about by the extraordinary popular uprising in Iran that brought an end to the dynastic rule of the Pahlevi Dynasty by the abdication of the Shah. What was extraordinary beyond the display of the transformative impact of a mobilized people, prepared to risk death by confronting the violent guardians of state power, to express their opposition to the established order, was the role of Ayatollah (or Imam) Ruhollah Khomeini in leading the anti-Shah movement. In its failure to perceive the threat to the Shah until it was far too late, the United States was blindsided by the emergence of political Islam as a source of resistance to its grand strategy in the Middle East that was constructed around the ideological suppositions of the Cold War, that is, being anti-Soviet with respect to international alignments and anti-Marxist, pro-capitalist with regard to internal political llfe. Islam was treated either as irrelevant or as an important ally.


Iran was a major theater of contestation throughout the Cold War. It should be remembered that the United States has somewhat admitted the CIA role in the 1953 coup against the democratically elected government of Mohammed Mosaddegh. It was claimed that Mosaddegh was opening Iran to Soviet influence, but the moves against him seem mainly prompted by his strident form of economic nationalism, climaxing with the nationalization of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. It is notable that after the Shah was put back on his throne, an early initiative was to re-privatize the oil industry, dividing ownership between European and American oil giants, thereby supplanting British corporate dominance of Iranian oil production.


The 1979 rupture was notable in several respects: the emergence of political Islam as a formidable challenge to Western interests throughout the post-colonial Middle East; the revolutionary transformation of the Iranian state, establishing an Islamic Republic governing a theocratically reformed constitutional framework and an accompanying state structure; the identification of the United States, as ‘the great dragon,’ the principal enemy of Iran and Islam, a situation further aggravated by the hostage crisis following the occupation of the American Embassy in Tehran that lasted more than a year; the inflammatory impact of the failed American-led effort to achieve counter-revolutionary goals by encouraging the Iraqi attack in 1980 and by way of various covert operations designed to destabilize the country from within.


In its enduring effects, the political rupture of 1979 produced an Islamic theocratic state establishing a limited form of democratic governance, a prolonged encounter with the West as well as with regional rivals, especially Saudi Arabia and Israel; an ebb and flow between military threats, sanctions, and challenges directed at the leadership in Iran and diplomatic initiatives seeking some degree of normalization, most notably the Iran Nuclear Agreement of 2015.


Egypt 2011 & 2013: Without any direct acknowledgement to Iran, what took place in Egypt, following a similar rupture in Tunisia, was a successful uprising that led Hosni Mubarak, whose dictatorial presence had dominated Egyptian politics for 30 years, to relinquish political power. The enduring importance of the popular uprising was to exhibit the political agency of a mobilized populace in the Arab world, as well as demonstrate that social media could serve as a potent weapon of political resistance if properly used. Yet, in retrospect, the movement associated with Tahrir Square in 2011 lacked a political understanding either of the politics of Egypt or of the extent to which the established order encompassed the armed forces and was determined to retain control of the state after sacrificing its long term leader. The lack of awareness about the true balance of political forces in Egypt soon manifested itself by way of an electoral success of Islamic political parties, especially the party associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, far beyond what had been anticipated. The failure of the Tahrir Square militants to appreciate the counter-revolutionary danger was expressed especially by their willingness to leave the former governmental bureaucracy in tact and to view the armed forces as trustworthy executors of the popular will rather than as beholden to their affiliations with the old established political and economic order as it operated in the Mubarak era and by benefitting from its close professional and political links to the United States.


For all these reasons, the political developments in Egypt after the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president help us grasp the strength of counter-revolutuonary response that culminated in the coup led by General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in 2013, with huge populist backing under the slogan ‘the armed forces and the people are one’ (or fingers of the same hand’). The result of the 2013 coup was the restoration of authoritarian rule, more bloody in its oppressive tactics than under Mubarak, a crackdown directed at peaceful demonstrators and extended to the elected Muslim Brotherhood leadership of the country, and significantly, an immediate smoothing of relations with the United States, European Union, and Israel, as well as being the recipient of a major infusion of economic assistance from several Gulf country governments.


What these Egyptian events disclose is the acute vulnerability of

an extra-legal challenge to the established order that fails to take control of key state institutions after succeeding in eliminating the dictatorial ruler. Further, that popular discontent can be turned against political reformism to turn back the clock of progress, especially if the armed forces remain responsive to relevant geopolitical priorities and the new leadership fails to deliver economic gains to the population, especially the urban poor. Perhaps, the most enduring effect of the combination of the 2011 and 2013 events is to overcome the earlier impression of the deeply entrenched passivity of the Arab masses, and the related insight that populism can work either for or against secularist or Islamic agendas depending on the domestic context, and its shifting balance of forces.


Turkey 2016: The coup attempt that came close to succeeding, but failed, on the night of July 15th, was immediately converted by the Turkish government into an instant holiday commemorating those who gave their lives to save the Turkish republic against its enemies. There is little doubt in Turkey, regardless of diverging views on other issues, that the Hizmet movement headed by Fetullah Gülen bears prime responsibility for the coup attempt. And there is again wide acceptance among Turks of the related perception that the United States Government aided and abetted both the coup attempt and had been deeply involved for many years in lending various measures of support to the Gülen movement. To what extent and to what end is much discussed, but with little hard evidence, but many suspicious links between the CIA and Fetullah Gülen have been exposed, including even sponsorship of Gülen’s green card residency in the United States by such CIA notables as Graham Fuller.


It is too early to sort out the facts sufficiently to put forward a clear account of the coup attempt, its peculiar timing, its botched execution, and its political intentions. What is clear at this point is that the failure of the coup is a political rupture unlike either the Iranian Revolution or the Egyptian uprising as reversed by a populist military coup. The reactions by the Erdoğan led Turkish government centered on seizing the occasion of the aftermath as an opportunity to forge unity and national reconciliation, and this has so far had impressive results in the principal form of creating a common front among the three leading political parties in the country, culminating in the Yenikapı rally that brought several million people together on August 7th in Istanbul to listen to speeches by the heads of the Government and the heads of the two leading opposition parties. As further signs of what is being called the Yenkapı Spirit were giant portraits of Erdoğan and Kemal Ataturk on the wall behind the podium used by the speakers, and as notable, a long quote from Ataturk in the midst of Erdoğan’s speech. This positive inclusion of Ataturk is a strong indication that the governing party is making a gesture of acceptance to Kemalists and other secular oppositionists who were viewed as the staunchest critics of Erdoğan’s style and substance, as well as providing reassurance that the Turkish state will not abandon its secularist orientation as it moves toward constitutional reform and the distinctive post-coup attempt challenge of eliminating Gülenist penetration from the institutions of state and society that had long nurtured subversive intentions in their secretive leadership cadres while pretending even to their faithful adherents to be promoting nonviolence, moderation, human rights, and a moderate, flexible Islam.



After such a long period of polarization the anti-Erdoğan secularists, although at least deeply grateful that the coup failed and intensely critical of the Gülenist plot as well as convinced of America’s dirty hands, remain wary and suspicious of Erdoğan’s motives. They point out that Ataturk’s portrait was only present and of the same size as Erdoğan’s because Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, leader of the CHP (Peoples Republican Party), made it a condition of his participation and presence. They also note that Erdoğan in his speech referred to Ataturk as ‘Mustafa Kemal’ avoiding the honorific name conferred by the Turkish Parliament. Opponents of Erdoğan contend that he is using the atmosphere of heightened patriotism to carry out a government purge, detaining and purging thousands, declaring a state of emergency, whipping up popular support for restoring the death penalty, and pushing ahead with plans for a referendum that endorses his strong advocacy of constitutional reform featuring the establishment of an executive presidency with minimal checks and balances.


Tempering this skepticism of the anti-Erdoğan secularist are several considerations that lead to a more hopeful overall appraisal of the present situation. First, and foremost, Erdoğan has staked his politica future on an approach based on reconciliation that to work in the future entails a commitment to greater participatory and more inclusive democracy. This may seem expedient, but was far from predictable prior to July 15th. It would have been quite feasible in the inflamed post-coup atmosphere for Erdoğan to have strongly reaffirmed majoritarian democracy, claiming that he had received a mandate from the Turkish people to govern without constraint and to reconstruct the state along lines favored by the AKP. The reconciliation approach may not last, and depends on mutuality, but as long as it does, the stress on inclusive democracy implies a willingness to make compromises, including the reaffirmation of a secularist foundation of the proposed new constitution. True, Kılıçdaroğlu’s bargained to get Ataturk’s picture to hang at the rally, but the willingness of Erdoğan to give ground and exhibit flexibility is what gives ground for hope about the future.


As far as the mass suspensions are concerned, especially as involving journalists, the media, and educational institutions, there are reasons for concern. There are also contextual reasons to be

hesitant about voicing criticisms oblivious to the security threats that are still present and hard to assess and identify. After all, the Turkish state barely survived a coup arranged from within, and evidently reinforced by elaborate networks of Gũlen supporters that had infiltrated so widely as to make it virtually impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Part of the Gülen strategy was to gain and spread its influence through its extensive school system and the government-run military high schools. There are numerous seemingly reliable reports that entrance exam questions were given in advance to students later made subject to the cultic discipline of the Hizmet movement. What remains to be seen is whether a conscientious effort will be made to distinguish between innocence and guilt in accordance with due process and the rule of law. The state is entitled to take reasonable measures to protect itself, and this includes the declaration of a 90 day ‘state of emergency,’ but a claim of extraordinary authority is still a time to ascertain whether the rights of citizens are being respected and distinctions made between the guilty and the innocent. Again, if Erdoğan wants to sustain the Yenkapı Spirit, he has a strong incentive to avoid launching a witch hunt, and to roll back quickly excesses whenever detected.


The political rupture in Turkey, up to this point, concerns the core of state/society relations. The fact that the failure of the coup attempt is being mainly attributed to ‘the people’ is a recognition of the power and responsibility of the citizenry to defend an elected government when threatened by unlawful and violent seizures of power. As such it extends the democratic mandate beyond the ballot box, and explores a protective role for and responsibility of the Turkish populace. In the case of the populist role in Iran and Egypt, it was to mount opposition against the abuses of the state, while in Turkey it was quite opposite–the defense of the state against a hostile and unlawful enterprise of subversion led by Gülen operatives in the military.


As with the earlier ruptures in Iran and Egypt, the United States Government seems to have had a shadowy, as yet unproven, role in the events of July 15th, as well as in the buildup over the years of the vast networks of Gülen influence, not only in Turkey but by way of its educational presence in over 100 countries. The American relationship with Turkey is deeply at risk if it turns out that the CIA was actively intervening in an important NATO ally. Anger and suspicions resulted from the failure of the U.S. to show more support for the elected Turkish government as the coup events unfolded, contrasting unfavorably with an immediate response by Russia and Iran. The persistence of anti-Americanism is also dependent on how the United States handles Turkey’s formal extradition request. For technical legal reasons, as well as probable political embarrassment, it seems extremely doubtful that the request will be granted. As Erdoğan has already made clear, an American refusal to extradite, regardless of reasons given, will be viewed as unacceptable. In Turkey it will not lessen the anger if the decision is couched in standard legal reasoning (no prospect of fair trial; possible retroactive application of capital punishment; and accusation centered on non-extradictable political crime). Recall the United States refusal after 9/11 to accept the response of the Taliban-led Afghan government that it would be willing to deliver Osama Bin Laden, but only if it was given convincing evidence of his role in the attacks. Such a response was put to one side, and did not for an instant divert the Bush presidency from moving ahead with its regime-changing military intervention.


As with the Iran rupture, the developments in Turkey seem already to have had profound geopolitical effects, especially greatly strengthening Turkish moves toward establishing a close diplomatic and economic relationship with Russia, moving closer to Iran, and adopting a less zero-sum approach to the Syrian conflict. As yet neither Ankara nor Washington has mentioned these policy shifts as potential sources of tension. In fact, the U.S. Government has indicated its willingness to explore seriously the Turkish extradition request. Much is at stake, including the fight against ISIS being carried on from the major American Incirlik Airbase where 50 nuclear weapons are reportedly stored.


Post-rupture Turkey presents many uncertainties at this stage. Among the most important are the following:


–is there a continuing serious threat of a second coup attempt?


–will the current spirit of reconciliation based on participatory and inclusive democracy hold? Will it be broadened to include the pro-Kurdish political party (HDP)? Will Erdoğan revert to his earlier (2002-2009) style of moderate and pragmatic leadership, abandoning the kind of authoritarian ambitions that proved so divisive after 2010?


–what impact, if any, will Erdoğan’s Muslim devoutness have on the political future of Turkey?


–how will geopolitics be affected? A diplomacy of equi-distance as between Russia and the United States/Europe? Realignment by shifts toward Russia, Iran, maybe China and India?


How these various questions will be resolved cannot be foretold with any confidence, and depend on complex interactions within Turkey, in the region, and the world. It would encourage better future outcomes if the media in the West adopted a more evenhanded approach that empathized with the trauma generated by the coup attempt and the difficulties of restored confidence in the loyalty of public institutions, particularly the armed forces. Unfortunately, up to now, the positive aspects of the response to the Turkish rupture of July 15th have been largely ignored in Europe and North America and the problematic aspects stressed usually without even making due allowance for context.












Assessing Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu’s Departure from Government

26 May



[This post was published in modified form a week ago in Al Jazeera Turka. Since then Binali Yildirim has been selected as the new prime minister of Turkey, reflective of a choice made by President Erdogan. Mr. Yildirim had served for many years in the AKP Government as Minister of Transport, Maritime Affairs, and Communications. He was successful in this post, given credit for the great improvement in the public transport systems in Turkish cities and for modernizing Turkey’s network of inter-city roads and highways. Yildirim is widely regarded as an Erdogan loyalist with a pragmatic approach to politics. Of course, only the future will allow us to discern whether this shift in governmental leadership exerts a discernible influence on the domestic policy agenda and on the regional and global role of Turkey. Issues to watch closely include the approach taken to Syria and ISIS, and whether possibilities for reconciliation with the Kurdish political movement are explored, or are abruptly rejected.

There are two disturbing developments. The first is the parliamentary move to deprive members of their legislative immunity from criminal prosecution, which was explicitly aimed at Kurdish parliamentarians who are members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), and accused of lending support to PKK terrorism. The other initiative is a call for a constitutional amendment that would end the nonpartisan character of the presidency by allowing the president to be the head of the governing political party, in effect, making Erdogan head of the AKP as well as President of the country. Of course, Erdogan has been indirectly playing this kind of partisan role on a de facto basis, thus the authorization would merely be regularizing a practice that currently violates the spirit, and probably the letter, of the current constitution]   


The resignation of Davutoglu seems to be enveloping Turkey in mists of partisan speculation, which opposition forces contend has taken the nation a big step closer to the abyss of autocratic rule. The move does seem clearly dictated by President Recip Tayyip Erdogan’s determined effort to replace the Turkish parliamentary system with a presidential system as legalized through a process constitutional reform.


To some extent the confusion surrounding the departure of Davutoglu’s departure from the heights of governmental rule is a reflection of the public posture adopted by the two leaders. On Erdogan’s side we encounter the assertion that “Prime Minister Davutoglu’s decision will be for the better of Turkey and the nation.” This seems at variance with the spirit, if not letter, of Davutoglu’s stark declaration that his resignation “..is not my wish, but it is a necessity.” Possibly, the common ground here is the recognition that the AKP (Justice and Development Party) and the governing process need one clear and undisputed leader for policy purposes, and that explains the apparent downgrading of the prime ministerial post as connected to the overt assertion of the univocal primacy of Erdogan’s presidency.


Of course, there are more elaborate speculations and partisan spins, mostly difficult to evaluate, about whether the true explanation of these unsettling events has been friction between these two towering figures who have dominated Turkish politics in the 21st century is a matter of substantive disagreement on any number of issues. Or is this event better explained by reference to the tensions that had developed between Davutoglu and the AKP Parliamentary leadership on more prosaic questions of procedures and appointments. In this latter interpretation, the resignation of Davutoglu, and his replacement by a political figure lacking his international prominence, are enabling Erdogan and the AKP to coordinate their common effort to put the Turkish ship of state in efficient running order from the point of view of the presidency.


While Erdogan portrays this dramatic move as ‘Davutoglu’s decision,’ the opposition, always relentless in their often exaggerated criticisms of AKP governance ever since 2002, describes what has happened as a ‘palace coup.’ Reflecting on such an extreme presentation of Davutoglu’s departure suggests its opportunism. The opposition has long decried Erdogan’s takeover of government, portraying Davutoglu during his 20 months of service as head of government as nothing more than being ‘a shadow prime minister,’ sometimes even portraying him unflatteringly as ‘a puppet.’


And yet, if Erdogan was actually in full control all along, the resignation, whether voluntary or forced, is merely an outward acknowledgement of the de facto hierarchy that had already made the president the supreme leader of the country. Under these circumstances to treat what happened as a coup is deeply misleading as the resignation creates no alteration in the previously operative structure of political power in Ankara. Additionally, Davutoglu with seeming spontaneity indicated that he would never give voice to criticisms of the president, insisting that he leaves office continuing to have a ‘brotherly’ feeling toward Erdogan. This is hardly the language of someone who has been ousted from power as a result of a coup!


What may be really at stake in the course of this reshuffling is streamlining the constitutional restructuring process that seems so high on Erdogan’s agenda. It is to be expected that next prime minister, presumably reflecting Erdogan’s choice, will be a person that possesses sufficient clout with Parliament to push the process through quickly and in accordance with the sort of presidential system that Erdogan favors.


There is some reason to suppose that Davutoglu preferred what might be called ‘a republican presidency’ that sacrifices a measure of executive control for the sake of ‘checks and balances’ and ‘separation of powers[ while Erdogan is insistent upon ‘an imperial presidency’ that allows the president to run the show with minimum interference from other branches of government. Assuming that constitutional reform will bring some variant of the presidential system into being, this choice of model is crucial to the sort of political future that awaits the Turkish people. It is hard to imagine an imperial presidency, especially with Erdogan at its head, that manifests sensitivity to human rights, including freedom of expression and the human rights of dissenting individuals. The arrest and prosecution of journalists and academicians in recent months even prior to the adoption of a presidential system does seem to vindicate the worst fears about the fate of Turkish democracy.


At the same time maybe the issue is being inflated beyond its true importance. Many informed observers have observed that Erdogan had long since transformed the presidency as set forth in the 1982 Constitution into a vehicle for his unchecked authority. If this is a correct interpretation of the way the Turkish government has been operating in recent years, at least since Erdogan became the first popularly elected president in 2014, then the issue of institutionalization of this style of leadership has mostly to do with the future, and especially with the structure of governance in a post-Erdogan Turkey.


However, if the opposition is exaggerating Erdogan’s curent power and governing style, then it is possible that a new constitution, which requires a two-thirds supermajority in Parliament, will enhance the actual, as well as the legal role of the office of president in Turkey. By placing such stress on this move from a parliamentary to a presidential system Erdogan appears to believe that his role would be solidified as well as legitimated if the sort of constitution that he seeks is properly adopted as a reality. This may be the most consequential question bound up with Davutoglu’s resignation, and yet it is sometimes downplayed because of public fascination with the dramatic interaction of these two Turkish political figures, which pushes to one side the question of restructuring the constitutional architecture of the Turkish government.


Finally, there is the question of foreign relations. The US State Department has formally avowed that Davutoglu’s resignation is an internal Turkish issue lacking any significance for U.S.-Turkish relations. Of greater concern is Turkey’s far more complex relationship with Europe, and particularly the possible impact on Syrian refugee containment, Turkish visa-free travel rights in Schengen Europe, European promises of a fast track approach to Turkish accession negotiations, and European demands that the Turkish anti-terrorism law be amended so that it cannot be used to pursue journalists and professors.


There are also many indications that European leaders were comfortable dealing with Davutoglu on such matters, and are far less willing to cooperate with Erdogan. It also seems that Erdogan on his part is disinclined to satisfy European preconditions for an effective working relationship or speeded up accession talks. At the same time, Turkey and the EU are tied together by the presence of strong interests. 40% of Turkish international trade is with EU countries, and European tourism is a vital source of foreign exchange earnings and sustains the tourist sector in Turkey that was already hurting due to the upsurge of tensions with Russia. Besides, the large Turkish minorities in Germany and elsewhere makes these diplomatic tensions have unsettling domestic ramifications in Europe, including an upsurge in Islamophobia.


It should be realized that these questions arise in an historical context where a series of security concerns pose dangerous challenges to Turkish stability and development. These issues of leadership and constitutional structure, although serious are clearly secondary to the great challenges facing the Turkish nation at this point, above all the renewal of Kurdish civil strife and horrific urban warfare, but also the spillovers from the Syrian civil war in the form of ISIS and refugee flows, as well as tensions with Russia and Iran. It is to be hoped that people of good will throughout Turkey can find common ground on the urgency of these matters, and not remain distracted by trying to solve the puzzle of the leadership shakeup that has followed Davutoglu’s forced resignation.




On Future Turkish Political Leadership

19 Nov

[Prefatory Note: In a jointly written article, Bulent Aras and I made the case for a more assertive role for Ahmet Davutoglu in the new Turkish governing process that is emerging in the aftermath of the AKP victory in the November 1st snap election. In essence we are claiming that Turkey would benefit from a greater sense of equilibrium in the relationship between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Davutoglu. Such a course of action has the potential of diluting the severe form of polarization that has dominated the Turkish political scene in recent years as well as restoring Turkey as a politically stable and economically dynamic country that could spread a much needed moderating influence beyond its borders. The credibility of such a role depends on three factors: restoring a meaningful peace process with representatives of the Kurdish people; lending support for a Syrian compromise based on an inconclusive and flexible approach; adopting a regional posture of independence that is not seen as distinct from the approach being taken by the United States. This ambition is in our view connected closely with a willingness of Erdogan to confine his presidential role to the existing constitutional framework and to support a process of constitutional reform that does not displace the present parliamentary system.]




Hopes for the Morning After in Ankara: Taking Stock (2002-2015)

3 Nov


The stunningly unexpected electoral triumph of the AKP and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan creates a window of opportunity for Turkey that will not remain open very long. The country is most likely to experience another damaging cycle of polarization of the sort that has been so divisive ever since the AKP first came to power 13 years ago. Only a radical rupture can disturb this tormented continuity by making a determined move toward moderation. Such a rupture will require a convergence of the unlikely from two directions: an embrace of responsible democratic leadership by Erdoğan and the formation of a responsible opposition platform by the various forces that have been battling against the AKP all these years. Only such a dual embrace has any hope of success, one side without reciprocity from the other side will probably only engender anger and frustration.

Ever since the AKP gained electoral leverage in 2002 sufficient to shape the governing process in Turkey, an intense polarization has been evident. It pitted the displaced Kemalist urban elites of the West that had run the country since the founding of the republic in 1923 against the emergent Anatolian elites who gathered their strength from the religious and socially conservative ranks of Turkish society. The Kemalist opposition initially depicted this ongoing struggle for Turkey’s soul and political future as between the democratic secular legacy bequeathed by Kemal Ataturk, and the Islamic militants that supposedly ran the AKP, and thirsted to make Turkey into an Islamic Republic along Iranian lines. Secularists whispered to one another that regardless of its public utterances of adherence to the Constitution what really motivated the AKP was commitment to this secret Islamic agenda. From the beginning, Erdoğan the dominant political figure in the AKP, was an  anathema to secularists. Also, expressive of this oppositional fervor that accompanied the AKP initial electoral victory were secularist objections to the presidential appointment by Parliament of Abdullah Gul, above all complaining that because his wife wore a headscarf he could not properly represent Turkey in diplomatic circles.

In this first phase of polarization the AKP hardly fought back, but rather tried to compile a record that would make the secularist allegations appear irresponsible, and hence largely to blame for poisoning the quality of Turkish political life. The credibility of this style of response was augmented by the high priority initially accorded by the AKP leadership to seeking European Union membership, a goal also espoused by the opposition. This mainstream posture was reinforced by the achievement of economic success along neoliberal lines and through regional and extra-regional activist diplomacy that seemed at once to enhance Turkish prestige in the Middle East and to be dedicated to the peaceful resolution of all international disputes, what was called, it turns out prematurely, ‘zero problems with neighbors.’ These achievements were acknowledged by the Turkish citizenry in a series of electoral victories of the AKP. By and large this Turkish role was also internationally appreciated, as signaled by its election to term membership m the UN Security Council and by a new acknowledgement of Turkey as an important actor.

Yet these AKP achievements did not mollify the opposition. This passivity only added to the frustration of the anti-AKP forces, even rage as power slipped from their hands, with no prospect of recovery in sight. These electoral rejections of the opposition parties created a depressive mood among the secularists who increasingly, yet rarely openly, pinned whatever hopes they had on a military coup that alone was capable of restoring their rightful place at the top of the Turkish political pyramid. A second disruptive strategy in the early years of AKP governance was to seek the closure of the party by accusing the AKP and its leaders of criminal culpability due to their alleged policies of undermining the Kemalist principles embedded in the Turkish Constitution, and the Turkish Constitutional Court came within vote of dissolving the AKP.

Those in the opposition not willing to endorse such radical initiatives as a military or judicial coup, were still deeply dissatisfied with AKP governance. These milder opponents expressed their discontent verbally. They discounted the seeming success of the AKP economically and politically by insisting that the AKP claim to enact democratizing reforms were not sincere, but were adopted cynically to improve the prospect of qualifying for EU membership. The economic success was also discounted as a lucky windfall, an unearned result of policies put into operation under the guidance of Kemal Derviş, and instituted well before the AKP took over the government.

Even in the face of such mean spirited provocations, the AKP did not counter-attack as it could have, but concentrated its energy on the reform process, seeking to insulate the governing process from the notorious ‘deep state’ that had undermined elected governments in the past at the behest of the unaccountable Turkish intelligence services and the armed forces, and on several occasions mandated coups. The civilianization of the Turkish government should have been celebrated by all democratically inclined sectors of society as a major and unexpected achievement. Instead the elimination of the deep state was totally ignored by the opposition, and probably even resented, as it tended to undermine prospects for an extra-constitutional return to power, which was bad news given the unlikelihood in the foreseeable future of any kind of victory via the ballot box. Privately, many secularists regarded the Turkish armed forces as a brake needed to block AKP ambitions and protect the country against an Islamic tsunami.

As allegations of an AKP plan to turn Turkey into a second Iran faded more and more into a domain of implausibility, a new scare scenario was contrived by the hardcore opposition. It centered on the contention that Erdoğan was intent on becoming a second Putin, pushing the country toward autocratic rule and fostering an unacceptable cult of personality. Ignoring AKP achievements with the help of a strong media presence that demonized Erdoğan, contributing to this nihilistic posture of uncompromising polarization, which actually deprived Turkey of what every healthy democracy needs—a responsible party of political opposition that projects alternative policies, programs, including an alternative vision. It was not in the country’s interest to have one hegemonic party govern all these years in what amounted to a political and ideological vacuum, with no credible alternative leadership competing for power.

This overall portrayal of the Turkish scene changed in 2011 due to two major developments. First, the Arab Spring unexpectedly erupted generating waves of instability throughout the entire region. Ankara quickly and enthusiastically welcomed the Arab uprisings, and Erdoğan’s popularity in the region reached peak levels. But when the regional unrest spread to Syria, there soon arose a growing challenge to the zero problems diplomacy as a result of the draconian response of the Damascus regime to the first stirrings of revolt. If we recall that Syria was put forward as the centerpiece of zero problems diplomacy, we can realize that Erdoğan must have felt great pressure to distance Turkey from this display of Syrian brutality. When Ankara’s efforts failed to persuade Bashar al-Assad, the real autocrat next door, to stop killing Syrian civilians and adopt a reform program, the dye was cast. Turkey found itself gradually drawn into the wider regional turmoil by stages, initially in Syria when it sided with the anti-regime insurgents.

Turkish foreign policy had previously been challenged on other fronts, especially by deteriorating relations with Israel that reached a negative climax in 2010 when Israel boarded a Turkish merchant ship, Mavi Marmara, in international waters killing nine Turkish nationals who were taking part in an international humanitarian mission that consisted of several ‘peace boats’ determined to deliver assistance to blockaded Gaza, whose people had been suffering for years from collective punishment.

Secondly, in 2011 the AKP won their biggest electoral victory ever, leading Erdoğan to adopt a more aggressive style that expressed itself in ways that antagonized the opposition even more. He seemed to be disregarding critics and claiming a populist mandate in the spirit of majoritarian democracy, that is, a mode of ruling that stressed effectiveness and central power, and rejected the republican stress on checks and balances. This shift enraged the opposition, and led to the portrayal of Erdoğan as a dark angel intent on destroying Turkish republicanism in the process of becoming a reigning tyrant. After 2011 Erdoğan’s aggressiveness toward the opposition gave polarization a more symmetrical quality for the first time. This polarization was, however, misrepresented in the international media as solely the consequence of Erdoğan’s autocratic ambitions and brash governing style rather than being a belated reaction to an earlier circumstance of unilateral polarization that the opposition to the AKP had foisted upon the country from the first moment that Erdoğan grasped the reins of power.

Anti-AKP waves of harsh criticism, especially in liberal circles of government and media, began blaming Ankara for alienating Israel and the United States, as well as pursuing an imprudent policy toward Syria. The AKP leadership was accused of abandoning its traditional reliance on American guidance, thereby undermining Turkish security. This was coupled with the insistence that the AKP was at last showing its true Islamic and sectarian face, favoring the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Egypt, and Gaza, pursuing a foreign policy shaped by its Islamic identity rather than based on adherence to secular realism as offering the best approach to the protection of Turkish national interests.

In May of 2013 the Gezi Park demonstrations took place, at first peacefully and later increasingly in confrontational modes, taking slanderous aim at Erdoğan who was being compared by demonstration leaders to Hitler. As the protests against the government intensified after their opening rather mild phase, it became obvious that the ambition of the activists was to create a crisis of legitimacy in Turkey that would produce so much unrest that the country would become ungovernable, and a political process would ensue that brings the military out of the barracks to rescue a country on the brink of collapse. This is what was starting to happen in Egypt, and in a couple of months was consummated by a popularly backed military coup headed by General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi to power. Why not also in Turkey?


The government response to Gezi led by Erdoğan was defiant and suppressive, with police relying on excessive force that resulted in the tragic and unwarranted death of several demonstrators and injury to many more. The protests failed to ignite the hoped for groundswell of anti-government activism, although it did reinforce the international impression that Turkey was on its way to becoming a police state and it stimulated the domestic opposition to believe that it could build a powerful anti-AKP movement.

Another factor that riled the atmosphere at this time was the sharp break with the Hizmet movement led by the mysterious Islamic figure, Fetullah Gulen. Formerly allied with the AKP, tensions had been mounting, and exploded in response to the December 2013 Hizmet allegations of widespread corruption in the Erdoğan cabinet leading four ministers to resign, and implications that the trail of corruption if properly followed would lead to Erdoğan and his family. As would be expected, Erdoğan struck back, accusing the Hizmet movement of establishing ‘a parallel government’ that was subverting proper lines of authority and policy in the Turkish state bureaucracy. The claim was made that Gulen followers had succeeded in penetrating the police and the prosecutors’ office, and were responsible for bringing false charges against the military leadership, and doing other subversive things.

This accumulation of tactics designed to undermine the AKP and Erdoğan should be taken into account when addressing his still questionable effort to move toward an executive presidency. After all there were credible reasons for the AKP leadership to believe that it had been multiply targeted: polarization, judicial invalidation via party closure, aborted military coups, popular uprising, parallel government. In reaction, it is not altogether unreasonable for Erdoğan to arrive at the view that only a strong presidency could achieve security and stability that was needed if Turkey was to cope with the many challenges that it faces at home and in the region. It is understandable, but still highly imprudent as deep cleavages in the population persists. Even after the election landslide victory of the AKP and Erdoğan half the country remains deeply alienated, and would be susceptible to temptations of insurrection if these ambitions to revise the Constitution go forward.

In essence, this is an occasion on which Erdoğan alone has the capacity to move the country in a more grounded democratic and peaceful direction, softening if not overcoming polarization. Seizing such an opportunity would require Erdoğan to acknowledge the divided polity that Turkey has become, and to respect widespread fears of authoritarian rule. The most convincing way to do this would be to defer to the prime minister and head of the party, Ahmet Davutoğlu in the formation of a new government, and welcome a working partnership that divided authority harmoniously between these two highly gifted political leaders. It is not encouraging to hear Erdoğan talk vaguely of the added de facto powers that the Turkish presidency has somehow acquired without the benefit of constitutional reform and of his intentions to renew his personal crusade to create an enhanced presidency on a de jure basis.

Also menacing Turkey’s future has been the revived violence of the Kurdish struggle, giving rise to a strong military response. After this electoral outcome it is up to Erdoğan and Davutoğlu to take the initiative in declaring a ceasefire to take effect immediately, to welcome the HDP deputies to the Parliament, and to commit to a reopening of the reconciliation process, possibly even giving some sort of role to the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Öcalan.

Let’s hope than when Erdoğan awakens the morning after his glowing victory, he chooses what is best for Turkey rather than to settle for becoming a grandiose figure who is certain to be both revered and feared. Only if he tames his ambitions will Erdoğan ensure his legacy as a great Turkish leader, second only to Ataturk. Such speculations are admittedly in the realm of the fanciful, but little else seems relevant at this stage if Turkey hopes to find ways to reverse the downward spiral of recent years, and move back from the brink of turmoil that is engulfing much of the region.

Nonagon of Toxic Conflict: Notes on the Turkish Quagmire

2 Oct



The lethal complexity of politics in the Middle East has become overwhelming. The main political actors producing a continuous stream of swerves and turns that randomly juggle alignments and almost casually switch the identity of friends and enemies. In practical terms what this means is that there are indecipherably opaque conflicts, a multitude of state and non-state actors with distinct agendas, a bewildering array of seemingly contradictory and shifting conflict patterns, and controversial media manipulations orchestrated from various sources of governmental and insurgent authority situated both within and without the region. This geometry of conflict can be best approximated as a nonagon connecting the US/Turkey/Kurds/ISIS/Iran/Syria/Russia/Saudi Arabia/Israel, and even this is a crude simplification that leaves out many important actors. It is little wonder the Middle East has become a puzzle so daunting that only fools are clear about what should be done. The best we can do is to pick up a piece at a time, and hope it makes some sense a few weeks later.


Amid all these complexities there are some crucial developments bearing on Turkey’s relations to the overlapping realities of civil, national, regional, and extra-regional warfare. Turkey had deftly managed to avoid toxic engagement with the troubles of the region until 2009 when it began to cross swords with Israel, followed by jumping imprudently and overtly onto the anti-Assad side after the 2011 uprising in Syria. These prior problematic issues were temporarily eclipsed recently after Turkey crossed several additional treacherous thresholds of turmoil: the renewal of the deadly clash with Kurdish aspirations in Turkey and Syria; a formal joint undertaking with the United States to combat ISIS presence while still proclaiming solidarity with ‘moderate’ anti-Assad forces; and the recognition that the scale of the unmanageable flow of Syrian refugees across the Turkish border and outside of the camps is becoming unmanageable and a threat to domestic order.


As if this is not enough to worry about, polarized domestic politics in Turkey was unable to produce either a governing majority for the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in the June elections or in the aftermath an agreed coalition. As a result Turkey has an embattled interim government until a new election on November 1. The country is also beset by a divisive controversy that targets Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan as primarily responsible for all the above alleged wrongs, accusing him both of harboring the unabashed ambition to run the country as its executive president and of needlessly arousing Kurdish hostility and fears by adopting an ultra-nationalist posture during the electoral campaign that ended in June. The Turkish opposition seems to forget the uncomfortable reality that if by magic Erdoĝan disappeared the array of formidable problems facing the country would not disappear with him. And perhaps, even more uncomfortably, awake to the realization that the AKP since 2002, despite some notable errors and deficiencies, has been responsible for a remarkable series of positive economic, social, and political developments, as well as the upgrading of the country as an importantly independent regional and global political actor.


After 30 years of struggle between the Turkish state and it large Kurdish minority (14-18 million) causing up to 40,000 battle deaths there were finally hopes of peace raised in 2013 when a reconciliation process was started and a ceasefire established by the AKP led government. Now these hopes have disappeared and been replaced by daily violence as well as dire fears of what is to come, which includes the possibility of a full-scale civil war. In reaction to these developments Erdoĝan, emphatically declared the end of the peace process, although somewhat later ambiguously renewing a call for national unity, a new ceasefire, and a revived search for reconciliation. As might be expected, conditions were attached by Erdoĝan to such a proposal: abandonment of armed struggle by the Kurdish movement , the PKK (or Turkish Workers Party), which has been operating out of its main base area in Iraq’s Qandil mountains.


The recently proclaimed military collaboration of Turkey and the United States with the agreed goal of jointly battling ISIS adds to the confusion. It is Kurdish armed groups, including the PKK, and especially its Syrian offshoot, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), along with the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga militia that have proved to be the most effective forces combatting ISIS and the Assad government in recent months, and an indispensable complement to America air strikes. In effect, the anti-ISIS campaign is at cross-purposes with the renewed Turkish preoccupation with the fight against the PKK and the Assad regime. Fighting against the Kurds weakens the fight against ISIS and Assad, and vice versa.


From Ankara’s perspective there is logic to the seeming irrationality of stepping up the fight against the strongest enemy of its main Syrian enemy. Ever since the Iraqi Kurds established their state within a state in northern Iraq and the Syrian Kurds seemed within reach of their goal of establishing Rojava (or Syrian Kurdistan), the more radical parts of the Turkish Kurdish national movement, evidently had second thoughts about negotiating with the Turkish government a peaceful end to their struggle in exchange for rights and some measure of limited autonomy. After so many years of struggle why should Turkish Kurds settle for far less than what their Kurdish comrades in Iraq and Syria achieved? It should be appreciated in raising such a question that the Kurdish minority in Turkey is about three times the size of the Iraqi Kurdish population, estimated to be between 15 and 20 million, which happens to be more than eight times the size of the Syrian Kurdish minority. It would seem that what the reconciliation process would offer Turkish Kurds fell below reasonable expectations, and it could be argued that the success of the Kurdish political party (HDP or Peoples Democratic Party) in the June elections associated with electing 80 members of Parliament as a result of crossing the 10% marker for the first time accentuated rather than alleviated Kurdish anxieties. There is no direct evidence at this point, but circumstantially it seems as if the HDP’s success was not welcome news to the PKK as it seemed to augur a premature accommodation with the Turkish state, and thus a betrayal of more ambitious goals for the Kurdish national movement. How else can we explain the PKK repudiation of the ceasefire with Turkey on June 11th only four days after the historic HDP electoral success in June?


Then the ISIS suicide attack on July 20, 2015 in the Turkish border town of Suruç killing 32 young Turkish civilian activists made clear that Ankara could no longer ignore the threat posed by ISIS despite the disturbing contradiction of battling against an opponent of both the Kurds and Assad. Hence, the agreement with the United States with respect to ISIS, and the accusations that Turkey was nevertheless using most of its military capabilities to fight against the Kurds and Assad.


In this atmosphere of growing political violence the Turkish government faced a mounting internal security threat. Between the June 7 Turkish national elections and late July, there were over 281 violent attacks carried out in Turkey by PKK operatives, including a series of lethal assaults on police and military personnel. In retaliation, unsurprisingly, the Turkish armed forces launched air attacks against PKK positions in the Kandil area of northern Iraq. To blame this upsurge of violence on Erdoĝan is not only simplistic but deeply misleading.


Two other factors can better explain what happened. First, the Kurdish militant leadership in the Kandil base areas came to the conclusion that the political success of Kurdish armed struggle in Iraq and Syria could be duplicated in Turkey; secondly, a concern that the rewards of the reconciliation process started by the Turkish state if allowed to continue would reward Kurdish politicians and business people who took few risks to advance the national movement in Turkey, while the PKK fighters enduring decades of hardship, loss, and danger would end up being invited back to Turkey with an inadequate acknowledgement of their long struggle. Of course, in between the Turkish state and the AKP there were many Kurds and Turks to yearned for peace and political compromise, and opposed any behavior on either side that would resume a zero-sum bloody struggle in which one side or the other would be a winner and the other a loser.


The prolonged Syrian civil strife burdens Turkey further. It is relevant to recall that in the years immediately before 2011, and the Arab Spring, when Turkish regional diplomacy was capturing the imagination by its call for ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ it was then Assad’s Syria that served as the poster child of the policy reaching an unprecedented level of cordiality as between the two governments and their respective leaders. Earlier tensions were dissolved and forgotten, friendship and trade flourished in relations between the two countries, and overnight the governments of Syria and Turkey seemed to reconcile their differences, opened their borders, increased economic and cultural interaction, creating an impression that durable harmony will persist long into the future.


Then came the Arab Spring in early 2011, which spread to Syria in March shortly after the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The Damascus government responded with torture and crimes against humanity in its reactions to peaceful demonstrators who were initially suppressed in Daraa, and later in many parts of Syria. Turkey, along with the UN, tried for several months to coax the Assad leadership into meeting the political demands of the Syrian people by instituting democratic reforms. Assad seemed to agree, but no power-sharing steps were taken. Instead there was a spread of insurgent activity, and an intensification of indiscriminate violence and frequent atrocities by the government, including heavy bombing of rebel held Syrian cities and towns, and eventually recourse to chemical weapons and barrel bombs. Syrian casualties rose, mass atrocities were documented, and hundred of thousands of refugees streamed across the Turkish border, creating a major humanitarian challenge that continues to grow, reaching the astounding figure of over 2 million.


Against this background, Turkey increasingly and overtly sided with the rebel forces. Istanbul becoming the center of operations for anti-Assad political activity, which included explicit backing of the Friends of Syria (a loose and ineffectual anti-Assad coalition put together by the United States and Turkey). Various forms of military assistance were channeled to the Free Syrian Army but it steadily lost ground against the well-equipped Syrian armed forces, which enjoyed support and assistance from Russia and Iran. Early in the conflict Ankara believed that the balance of forces had shifted decisively against Assad, and that the Syrian regime would collapse in a few weeks. It was mistakenly thought that Syria, like Libya, would be easy prey to a popular uprising, forgetting that the Damascus government unlike Tripoli had loyal support from a series of important Syrian minorities as well as from large segment of the urban business world, was strongly backed by Iran and Russia, and possessed significant military capabilities.


The situation became even messier. Even before the appearance of ISIS, it seemed that the Al Nusra Front had become the most effective opposition to Assad, was linked to Al Qaeda. In this mix, when ISIS seemingly came out of the blue to mount an even bigger challenge to Damascus the alignments for and against became hopelessly complex. It is not surprising that given these developments the Turkish leadership was initially reluctant to confront ISIS as its battlefield record of success seemed to pose the biggest threat to their biggest enemy! Turkey still understandably wobbles on the tightrope that stretches between opposing Assad and fighting PKK and ISIS.


How this interplay of US/Turkish/Kurdish/ISIS actions and reactions will play out is currently unknowable. To intervene in such a zone of multiple conflict is beset with risks, costs, and unknowns but so is standing by as horrified spectators. The assumption in the West has been that military power offers the only way to calm the waters without sacrificing Western interests, but the consistent record of intervention is one of repeated costly failures. Perhaps, the very hopelessness of the situation makes the moment right for bold forms of regional diplomacy. Tangibly, what this means is bringing Russia and Iran into the game, and minimizing the influence of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Israel seems to be promoting regional disorder, destabilizing the internal public order of the major states in the region. Saudi Arabia apparently cares for little other than the survival of the royal regime in the Kingdom. It can savagely undermine the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hamas in Gaza yet claim to be leading the Sunni struggle against the spread of Shia Islam, justifying its interventions in Syria and Yemen. And globally, it is Saudi funds and Wahabi militancy that is bringing extremist politics to the forefront throughout the Middle East.


With such tensions, contradictory agendas, and unconditional ideologies at play the outlook for compromise and normalcy is dim. Oddly, Russia without ties that bind is freer to dampen the forces of extremism than is the United States that remains beholden to Israel and Saudi Arabia. Similarly, Iran despite the theocratic and repressive character of its government has the internal stability that Turkey now lacks, and if allowed could play a constructive force role by helping to work out a political transition in Syria and Yemen and playing a leading part in an anti-extremist coalition needed to cope with ISIS and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as well as the Al-Nusra Front operating in Syria.


Will this happen? Of course, not. It is far too rational and realistic. The United States despite its power and residual leadership potential finds itself stuck in a geopolitical straight jacket of its own devising, and without its ability to behave like a rational actor. The region seems destined in coming years to fluctuate between chaos and autocracy, and this means that Arab populations will experience repression, displacement, chaos, and cycles of demonic political violence. More than elsewhere, the Middle East is badly in need of political miracles.


Turkey is one of the few actors, situated within and without the Arab World, that retains the capacity to be a constructive influence in support of compromise and nonviolence conflict resolution. This helpful performance depends on the Turkish recovery of composure within its borders, which seems dependent of the AKP recovering an effective majority allowing it to form a government after the results of the new election on November 1st become known. The second best solution would be a strengthening of the AKP and CHP (Republican Peoples Party) parties in November, followed quickly by a coalition between these two parties that puts national unity, economic development, and political stability ahead of partisan confrontation. It is the anti- Erdoĝan preoccupation that has mainly hindered Turkey’s effort at regional leadership, although Erdoĝan has contributed to this atmosphere by his reliance on autocratic tactics in quelling the Gezi uprising in 2013 and expressing his views without sensitivity to opposition values and outlooks ever since scoring a major victory in the 2011 elections. It is time for Erdoĝan and the AKP to abandon ‘majoritarian democracy’ and also time for the political opposition parties and media to assess the Erdoĝan and the AKP in a more balanced, and less polarized views. It is unfortunate that even prior to 2011, the opposition to the AKP was unyielding in voicing its intense hostility, giving no credit, and insisting the AKP under Erdoĝan’s leadership was guiding the country away from the secularism of the Republic era, and toward the imposition of an Islamic theology in the manner of Iran. Let’s hope that the CHP does well enough in the new elections to join with the AKP in giving Turkey the government it deserves, and that Erdoĝan will be content to be presidential in a constitutional system that is essentially based on parliamentary supremacy but with some recourse to judicial checks on arbitrary power.


The focus on Turkey, and its role with respect to Syria and the conflicts with Syria, PKK, and ISIS is not meant to minimize the importance of the other actors in the region that are part of the geopolitical nonogon. There are several overlapping regional proxy wars that have complicated, perhaps precluded, a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, including serious intraregional tensions between Saudi Arabia and Syria as well as the extraregional rivalry between the United States and Russia. Also of indeterminate significance are the variety of undisclosed Israeli regional moves and the leverage exerted by way of its often dysfunctional special relationship with the United States (preventing negotiation of a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone or allowing Iran to play an appropriate diplomatic role). Although not as notoriously described, the willingness of the United States to give Saudi Arabia a free pass with respect to internal repression and recourse to force as in Yemen, and earlier Bahrain, is a further source of regional turmoil.