The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged turkey
In Translation: Strategic implications of Turkey's failed coup
Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Erdogan and the Turkish National Security Council

Last weekend's aborted  coup in Turkey, and the crackdown that has followed it, has been the focus of excellent think-pieces in the last week (such as this excellent piece by Aaron Stein). Most are concerned with the domestic implications for Turkey and the ambitions of President Erdogan. In the Arab world, reaction has been divided and mostly concerned with the strategic implications for the region, particularly as it came as Ankara had announced an effort to patch up its relations with neighbors. The most concrete element of this new policy that has been achieved thus far is the discreet settlement reached with Israel over the Mavi Marmara incident, and the potentially most significant element were overtures to Russia and Syria. (Reconciliation with Egypt, also floated prior to the coup, seems unlikely after Egypt so clearly welcomed the putsch.) 

In the article below, the commentator Abdel Bari Atwan (whom I find relatively equidistant these days from the main Arab "concerned parties" in the new regional great game) focuses in on the potential of a reversal of Turkish policy on Syria. Atwan wagered that the issue might be addressed in Wednesday's National Security Council meeting in Ankara (it does not appear to have been) but this is one issue worth watching.

As always, our friends at Industry Arabic provided the translation. They're great, please check them out for your business (or other) needs.


Is President Assad the biggest winner after the failed Turkish coup? What is the surprise Erdogan is preparing to unleash on Wednesday? How do we explain the chilliness and confusion of the Saudis toward Ankara? And why is Jubeir suddenly more optimistic about solving the Syrian crisis?

Abdel Bari Atwan, al-rai al-youm, 20 July 2016

Let us leave aside the failed Turkish coup and all the consequent purges, which have included tens of thousands of judges, teachers, imams, security officers, state employees and both high and low-ranking officers — let us leave all of that aside, even if temporarily, and try to explore the steps President Recep Tayayip Erdogan is preparing to embark on at the regional and international levels.
Surprises from President Erdogan these days are many and various — you need to stop and catch your breath every now and then while trying to keep up with him — but the most prominent may be “reconciliation” with Syria, entry into negotiations with it, and a shift in Turkey’s attitudes toward it, politically and militarily.
We’ve spoken about this issue here more than once before, and have quoted more than one statement from Mr. Binali Yildirim — the prime minister, and the second man in Turkey — in which he spoke about the futility of the war in Syria and the need to stop the bloodshed and return to “zero problems” with neighbors. What is new this time is that assurances in this direction came from Erdogan’s own mouth the day before yesterday. This may be the biggest surprise, and could gladden the hearts of some while giving others heart attacks.


In video and audio, President Erdogan told a group of his supporters on Monday evening that “his country would put all its disputes with neighboring countries behind it,” and revealed that his country would take an important decision after the National Security Council meeting which will be held tomorrow (Wednesday).
We do not know what important decision the Turkish national security leadership — with the participation of the prime minister, senior state officials, and the military and security establishments — will take, but we do know that the biggest disputes with neighboring countries, which it will put behind it, are with Syria, the source of all the problems Turkey is enduring these days, including “terrorism” and its bombings in Ankara and Istanbul, and Kurdish aspirations to establish a “state” taking shape along its northern border.
Of course we do not deny the existence of disputes with Iraq, as well as others with Egypt, and third, to a lesser extent, with Iran, and fourth with Russia, which are on their way to being resolved. However, all of these disputes are secondary, or are directly related to the Syrian issue, and will all melt away if there is a change in Turkish policy toward this issue.
In this article, we will try to read between the lines of Erdogan’s statements and see what they involve in terms of meanings and indicators on this or that issue and what we can deduce through these readings. We can summarize them in the following points:

  1. There has been an accelerating political and media trend by President Erdogan’s government to review its friendly relations with Washington, as well as a lack of concern with European threats to stop negotiations to include Turkey in the European Union if it reinstates the death penalty. There is a chance of a rupture between the two sides on the grounds of the American government’s refusal to extradite US-based Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, who has been officially accused of being behind the failed coup.
  2. A state of “chill” has prevailed over Turkish-Saudi relations since Mr. Yildirim’s statements about the possibility of restoring his country’s relations with Syria. The confused reaction of Saudi media toward the failed coup reflected this chill, as Saudi channels, including the official Al Ekhbariya and semi-official Al Arabiya, appeared at first to sympathize with the coup, and then corrected this and timidly welcomed its failure.
  3. A strange statement was made by Mr. Adel al-Jubeir, the Saudi foreign minister, on the sidelines of the European Union-Gulf Cooperation Council Ministerial Meeting in Brussels yesterday. He said, “There is hope of finding a solution to the Syrian crisis,” while adding at the same time that, “the support of his country for the Syrian opposition will continue, as well as the war on ISIS.” What made this strange was that Mr. Jubeir was uncharacteristically optimistic about a political solution in Syria and did not mention the departure of President Bashar al-Assad, whether peacefully or through war, at all.

We do not want to preempt events or jump to hasty conclusions, however we do not hesitate to say that President Assad could be the biggest winner to emerge from this failed Turkish coup, whether it was real or fabricated, for several reasons, listed below:

  1. The Turkish-Russian rapprochement will be definitive, and could enter a stage of unprecedented strategic cooperation if US-Turkish relations collapse. Two days ago, Sergei Lavrov confirmed there was close cooperation between Moscow and Ankara around the Syrian issue.
  2. The phone conversation initiated by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani with his counterpart Erdogan — and which was greatly welcomed and appreciated by the Turkish president when Rouhani offered congratulations on the failure of the coup and readiness for cooperation between the two countries — could be a prelude to joint Iranian-Russian mediation to resume Turkish-Syrian relations.
  3. The Syrian opposition has disappeared from the political scene over the last three days. So far, no delegation representing it has arrived in Ankara to at least show solidarity with Erdogan.

The Turkish landscape is changing, and Turkey will be different after the coup, as we said in a previous article. So is it the case with President Erdogan. We are less than 24 hours from finding out about the biggest transformation, which the Turkish President will announce after the National Security Council meeting. These are long hours to wait, at least for us.

More attacks on the press in Turkey

Press freedom in Turkey has taken a beating in recent years, driven by efforts to detain and expel journalists with ties to the Kurdish PKK. The journalist Frederike Geerdink was recently expelled from Turkey while covering the PKK. And three reporters associated with VICE News were detained for “supporting terrorism” – that is, interviewing PKK members. The government’s logic here is eerily similar to that of the Egyptian court that passed judgment on Al Jazeera reporters for the “crime” of interviewing members of the Muslim Brotherhood. There are quite a few other “off-limits” topics in Ankara’s eyes today. After the Kurdish Question, the most taboo one is government corruption, whether it is in the form of sweet deals for friends and family of the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, or the diversion of war matériel into Syria.

"Who are we?" "The Erdogans!" "What do we want?" "All the money!" "When?" "Right now!" "..." "The Erdogans!" From @HandeGabrali

The most recent episode in this drama was a police raid on the offices of the Kopa Ipek conglomerate. The raid followed a report in the Koza Ipek-owned Bugün newspaper on the transfer of weaponry and construction material into Syria from a Turkish border post. Warrants have since been issued for the firm’s executives on the grounds that Kopa Ipek is allegedly providing material support to Syrian terrorists.

Examining the record of arms transfers into Syria – ostensibly to fight against Assad and build influence among the rebel forces – is a particular sore spot these days, with the government going so far as to arrest the forensics experts and prosecutors who were originally tasked with investigating arms transfers … until their higher-ups decided to kill the probe and punish those whose routine police work exposed a major clandestine operation. Erdogan himself has even demanded that reporters from Cumhuriyet face maximum jail time on the grounds that their reporting is part of a conspiracy by his former Islamist allies, the Gulenists.

Given that the Gulenists were once allies of the AKP and permitted to hold positions of influence in media and government, Erdogan’s reaction is not all that shocking. In the estimation of the socialist daily Birgun, these actions have been aimed at circling AKP wagons ahead of the November elections, a tactic that other observers of Turkish politics saw in action even before now.

The targeting of the conglomerate is part of a larger crackdown on Gulenist finances. But this was not always so: Koza Ipek’s foray into the national media market was initially welcomed by the AKP, since its conservative editorial line distinguished it from other media, like the Dogan Media Group, that have long been critical of the AKP.

But since 2013, the Gulenists have had a serious falling out with the AKP. Cracks were apparent prior to then over economic policy and foreign affairs, but the real break came with a massive anti-corruption campaign that the Gulenists championed against the AKP’s leadership. As punishment for this effort, the movement is now described in state media as a “cult” plotting a putsch, no better than the alleged “Ergenekon” conspirators of the early 2010s who were themselves billed as the second coming of Operation Gladio.

The AKP-Gulen relationship first blossomed in 2002 when the two Islamist camps struck a “tactical alliance.” But during the course of the controversial “Ergenekon” trials, the AKP may have decided that the Gulenist press had gained too much influence in their coverage and championing of the investigations. Likewise, the Gulenists recognized they had gained greater influence in the country’s political life by pursuing the campaign so assiduously. Disenchantment within Gulenist ranks was rapidly growing over Turkey’s economic tribulations, making them wonder if they might not do a better job than the AKP. AKP stalwarts meanwhile resented the Gulenists’ apparent disregard for the compromises and failures the AKP had to take on as the ruling party.

The Gulenists’ own successes provided ample avenues of attack against their organization, in the end. Their internationalism became proof of an inherently conspiratorial nature. The patronage and access their adherents enjoyed were reinterpreted as efforts to create deep cover for infiltrating institutions. And criticism of economic policies that negatively impacted Gulenist donors came to be seen as a prelude to a run on the AKP at the polls. All of this became part of the “evidence” that the movement was a hostile “parallel structure,” an Islamist Gladio biding its time.

By December 2013, following months of skirmishing, the matter came to a head when the judiciary and police, both of which counted many Gulenists among their ranks, began investing the AKP leadership for corruption, uncovering scandals that the Gulenist-affiliated press pursued with vigor. Now a line had been crossed, and an AKP “witch hunt” began in earnest. Erdogan’s position on the Gulenists’ overreach was made quite clear by the subsequent firing of Gulenists from their jobs, the cessation of support for the movement’s work, raids or arrests of its supporters, and remarks in pro-AKP outlets threatening to squash critics like bugs. Turkish democracy has been seriously undermined by this “witch hunt”, which has continued unabated for almost two years. Comments today that imply the AKP has been (too) kind in staying its hand against the press continue to echo remarks made by AKP functionaries in 2013 that “we could drown you [protestors] in a spoon of water, but luckily for you we believe in democracy.”

There is no unified line among editorial critics of the AKP: they range from the secular nationalist camp to Islamists to oligarchs and trade unionists alike. But the most common theme today is exposing greased palms on the frontlines of the Iraqi and Syria conflicts. Corruption is so close to the surface that reporters who take the risk can find ample evidence of it.

It is quite clear that elements within Turkey’s security services are not averse to turning a buck from these conflicts. Oil smuggling rings ranging across the borders of Iraq, Turkey, and Syria draw in a cast ranging from the Turkish Gendarmerie to ISIS muscle. People smuggling is lucrative, too, whether it be to bring jihadists into Syria or refugees out. The only real question left is if dodgy deals like Heysem Topalca’s arms-for-artifacts trading are one-offs, or if his case was typical but just too egregious to ignore. Given that larger smuggling operations fly artifacts out of dig sites in northern Syria, it would seem that the latter case is more likely. As the archaeologist Sam Hardy notes, such plundering by the security services to finance a “dirty war” has precedent in Turkish politics. It is little wonder that this sort of muckraking is discouraged at all levels, from the president’s office on down.

For now, Jake Hanrahan and Philip Pendlebury of VICE News have been released, but their colleague, Mohammed Ismael Rasool, has not – presumably because the government can more easily bully someone who doesn’t have a Western passport. It also sends a message to the domestic fixers, reporters, and translators who make international media coverage of Turkey’s domestic political turmoil possible. 

In Translation: The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

Ever since King Salman ascended to the Saudi throne a few weeks ago, the Arab press has been rife with speculation that he intends to reset Saudi foreign policy. Some, particularly members of the Muslim Brotherhood, are speculating rather wildly that Riyadh wants to make peace with political Islam after financing the Sisi regime in Egypt that decimated the Brotherhood and encouraged similar anti-Islamist clampdowns elsewhere. Others have pointed to a Saudi refocusing Iran, rather than Islamism as the chief threat – particularly as the Arab Islamists have retreated in many countries. The idea of a Saudi push for a "united Sunni front" against Shia Iran and its regional clients makes some sense after the Iran-allied Houthis took control of Sanaa, leading Riyadh to once again reach out to the Yemeni Muslim Brothers as a counterbalance. 

The Sisi regime and its media has reacted quite badly to all this, particularly since so much of what stands as "ideology" of this regime is based around building the Brotherhood into some all-powerful bogeyman. The dependency of this regime on Gulf financing makes it doubly nervous to see a rapprochement between Salman and Turkey's Erdogan, who is perhaps the only regional leader that continues to call Sisi a putschist. In cutting through all the wild speculation surrounding Salman's intentions and the dual summits he held over the weekend with Erdogan and Sisi, some of the more plausible readings of Saudi intentions have come from Saudis themselves. Khaled al-Dakheel, a prominent columnist in al-Hayat, penned an interesting piece on this a few days ago, which we translate below. Note in particular the paragraph in which he lambasts the Sisi regime's obsession with scapegoating the Brotherhood and its inability to build a coherent alternative around which Egyptians could rally. 

Our In Translation series is made possible with the support of Industry Arabic, a full-service Arabic translation service staffed by experienced linguistic ninjas. They have a black belt in Hans Wehr. Please help them support us by hiring them for the next translation job you or your company has.


The Saudi Transition and an Anxious Egypt

By Khaled El-Dakheel, al-Hayat, 1 March 2015

After the death of King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, Egypt has clearly been vexed with anxiety, and the source of this anxiety is obviously Egypt’s worries about the political orientation of the new Saudi monarch Salman bin Abdulaziz. The biggest mouthpiece of this concern and anxiety has been the Egyptian media, which expresses doubt that the position of King Salman toward the Muslim Brotherhood is not as firm or decisive as that of the late King Abdullah, and that he may incline toward a rapprochement and possibly alliance with Qatar and Turkey. As a result, his stance toward Egypt would come with boundaries, conditions and requirements that did not exist under King Abdullah. In other words, there is anxiety that Saudi support for Egypt will decline, or that this support will be part of a new political package that the new Saudi crown deems important. Most likely this anxiety was present among Egypt’s leadership before the death of King Abdullah and before it was expressed by the media.

It is only natural and to be expected that Egypt would be worried about a change of leadership in an ally as important as Saudi Arabia and at a time as turbulent as this, especially amid the difficult political and economic circumstances in Egypt. However, what is not natural is the way that this concern has been expressed in the media, where it has reached a level of hysteria.

This was noted by Egyptian writer Mostafa al-Naggar in Al-Masry Al-Youm on 23 February, where he drew attention to the Egyptian media’s complicity in “vile slander against Qatar and in hitting the Saudi regime below the belt.” This indicates that at least some of the Egyptian media is still hostage to the discourse of the 1950s and 1960s, when vile words, veiled threats, and hitting below the belt were used to exert pressure and engage in blackmail. It did not occur to those responsible for this that resorting to such discourse provokes anxiety outside of Egypt, first because it means that Egypt – or at least some people in Egypt – have not changed since the region and the world have changed after the first popular revolution in Egypt’s history.

The second reason it provokes concern is because it suggests that the Egyptian media at least harbors a deep-rooted sentiment that the choice made by the Egyptian state after the 30 June Revolution may be more fragile that it appears. If this is the case, it really does give cause for concern. Amid the current unrest in the Arab world, Egypt’s stability, and before and after it the stability of Saudi Arabia, are no longer just a strategic interest for these two countries alone, but they are a strategic interest for the Arab world as a whole, as well as for the international system. It was on this basis that King Salman Abdulaziz offered reassurance that Saudi support for Egypt would not change.

Where’s the problem then? As I indicated, the problem seems to be in the manner and framework of this support. Some in Egypt would like Saudi support to be in the form of an open-ended royal gift or grant: a blank check, as they say. Saudi Arabia should not seek a rapprochement with Turkey, for example, because they sympathize with the Muslim Brotherhood. This view ignores the fact that relations between countries are not based on such a viewpoint, a viewpoint that is sentimental and not political. The more rational, political viewpoint is that Saudi-Egyptian relations should not be contingent upon a certain stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood or a certain stance toward Turkey. 

If the stability of Egypt is a strategic interest of Saudi Arabia – and it is – Saudi Arabia must deal treat the Brotherhood issue as essentially a domestic Egyptian issue, and to approach it from the standpoint of its influence on Egypt’s stability first, then the regional repercussions and thus on Saudi Arabia second. From the same perspective, Saudi Arabia’s continued alienation from Turkey – as wished for by some in Egypt – does not serve regional balances at this stage, as these balances are the main pillar of the region’s stability and thus of Egypt’s stability as well. Turkey is one of the most important countries in the region in terms of economic and military capabilities and political role. This is in addition to the fact that it is a member of NATO and the G20, and enjoys a strategic position between the Arab world on the one hand and Israel and Iran on the other, as a country that possesses a clear political and economic project that is in contradiction with Israel’s settlement project as well as with Iran’s sectarian project. Turkey also is significant as the secular nation-state whose project and regional policies are most likely to intersect with Arab interests. However, before anything else, this presupposes that there is an Arab plan. At this moment, Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the Arab countries best poised to consider launching and sponsoring such a project. This is what Saudi Arabia and Egypt should be occupied with, not Turkey’s stance toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

The irony is that in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood has become a sort of ideological and political complex, a destructive complex that needs to be deconstructed, and a distinction needs to be drawn against the position towards the Brotherhood and what the country needs on the regional level. Egypt did not accept that Turkey described what happened on 30 June 2013 as a military coup. However, most countries in the world consider it to be a coup. Does this mean that relations should be cut off with these countries too? If it is important for Egypt that the world recognizes that what happened then was a revolution – which is its right – it must back that up politically and constitutionally at home before it tries to do so abroad. Then, if the Muslim Brotherhood issue blows up in this way, it is a natural result of the absence of an Egyptian intellectual and political project for the majority of Egyptians to rally around. In the same context, the scale of the Muslim Brotherhood issue both inside and outside Egypt indicates the continued crisis of governance in the Arab world, and this crisis is the primary reason that Arab countries suffer from stumbling growth and the resulting flare-ups that led to the Arab revolutions and it is because of this that they have hit intellectual and political dead-ends.

Here let us pause and ask: is that everything? Fortunately, it appears that what was impossible to achieve has begun to be achieved at least in part. Today is the second day of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s visit, and tomorrow begins his official visit to Riyadh. Today (Sunday) Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi also arrives in Riyadh. Is this a coincidence or a prior arrangement? It does not look like there will be a meeting between the two leaders in the Saudi capital. However, their presence at the same moment might imply something. In any case, the Turkish premier’s visit represents a shift in Saudi policy in the right direction, and it will be a first step toward an expected change in the political stances of more than one country in the region.

Finally, let me repeat the conclusion I made to an article of mine here last year about the urgent need for a Saudi Arabia-Egypt-Turkey trio, noting that such a trio “in the current circumstances constitutes a strategic necessity for the three parties. These parties complement one another politically and economically, and coordination between them…would restore some balance to the region after the fall of Iraq and Syria, not to mention that it would form a barrier to Iran’s destructive role…It would also be a starting point to lay the foundations for stability in the current turbulent period.” (Al-Hayat, 13 January 2014) Is Egypt tilting even slightly in the direction that Saudi Arabia has already started down?

Price tag of Erdogan’s new palace revealed: $600m - FT

A decade ago it could easily be argued that Erdogan did a lot of good for his country. With every passing day he looks more and more like a crude mafiosi dictator:

The controversy over a new 1,000 room palace for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s president, has deepened with a government acknowledgment that the complex costs more than $600m, nearly double previous estimates.

Mehmet Simsek, finance minister, said the complex, which dwarfs the White House, the Elysee and Buckingham Palace, would cost a total of TL1.37bn, ($616m) of which TL964m had been spent so far from the budget of the prime minister’s office. This compared with previous reports estimating the cost at $350m.

Mr Erdogan sees the palace, built in protected forest land in contravention of a court decision, as a symbol of a new, more vigorous Turkey. But his critics denounce it as the excess of an ever more authoritarian and powerful leader.

“The so-called sultan has built this for himself in a country where 3m people are without work,” said Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the opposition Republican Peoples party, in a speech on Tuesday, citing court of accounts figures suggesting contractors were overpaid. “You cut down hundreds of trees to build yourself this palace.”

The complex, opened last month, incorporates Turkey’s traditional Seljuk and Ottoman architectural styles, and features a majestic tree lined interior hallway, an underground bunker and a park.

The Istanbul protests and the military

Interesting tidbit from Medium's curation of reports from Istanbul:

Over the course of the past day though, they have been quietly supporting the protesters. They have refused to cooperate with Police requests to use military zones for transportation. At a military hospital in Istanbul they refused to treat police officers, instead handing out gas masks to dissidents. As this exchange between a policeman and soldier attests, relations between the two armed groups are indeed frosty at present. Part of the dialogue translates as:

Policeman: “Next time we should also throw gas bombs here [a military zone].”

Soldier: “If you do it, we will find something to throw to you as well, rest assured.” 

Update:  Paul Mutter alerts me to this pic taken by the NYT's CJ Chivers:

Hugh Pope on the "Istanbul Gas Festival"

Last time I was in Istanbul, a year or two ago, I had a chance to have a lovely fish dinner at Hugh Pope's — he writes about Turkey for the International Crisis Group — at his Istiklal Cadesi apartment. It's a great location to monitor the ongoing protests against Erdogan, and Hugh has a long post up on his blog detailing the events on the day. Here's his take:

So what’s new in all this? Social media, for a start. Many of my Turkish friends are glued to their Facebook accounts, sharing pictures of the worst police outrages – a remarkable one shows a policeman dousing a protestor with a device like an insect spray gun, as the protestor holds up a sign saying “Chemical Tayyip” [Erdogan] — and spoof posters like an ad for the “Istanbul Gas Festival”, “We can’t keep calm, we’re Turkish” and so on. The spontaneous look of the small groups of protestors coalescing and dispersing in the street outside is quite unlike the usual formal protests organized by unions and political parties, and lacks the angry, violent edge to the pop-up parades by radical left-wing groups. Mostly young and middle class, they include people in shirts for all Istanbul’s big rival football clubs, young women in headscarves, groups of white-coated medical volunteers, and a young man with a big bag of lemons, selling them to the crowd as an tear gas antidote.

On the other hand, Turkey had the same banging of pots and pans in anti-government neighbourhoods in the 1990s, which was widespread on the Asian side of Istanbul last night; and in my district of Beyoglu, every year or two a big issue brings angry demonstrators and policemen with gas weaponry that is used to clear people away. While the government is clearly rattled this time round, after four days, perhaps the only obvious long-term political consequence I can predict so far is that all this will be remembered when Prime Minister Erdogan launches his expected quest for the presidency in an election next year.

There is a little over-enthusiasm in some circles about the scope of these anti-Erdogan protests. Erdogan is no Mubarak or Ben Ali, he was legitimately elected after all and can credibly claim to have effectively tackled Turkey's economic problems and countered Turkey's once coup-happy generals. But it's not all rosy, apart from his political longevity, there is a relatively poor human rights record (especially on the media and the Kurdish question), an economic growth story that is not without its cronyism, rising cost of living and economic inequality, and a cult of personality that is foundering on (among other things) a foreign policy humbled by the Syria question. The parallels to draw are not with the Arab uprisings, and not quite with recent European unrest such as Greece. This appears to be a very Turkish wave of discontent, perhaps the bursting of the much-inflated Erdogan bubble that thrived pretty much unchallenged for the last decade.

Hugh concludes with some commentary on the scandalous media handling (by state TV but also elsewhere):

There’s a lot of talk among my Turkish friends of the Gezi Park demonstrations being a “turning point”, and today it feels that way, with growing numbers of demonstrators in the streets, many cities in Turkey protesting in sympathy, and the unscripted nature of proceedings. Normal patterns have been drastically changed in recent days, not just in  traffic but also in many peoples’ lives. Phone calls with friends in the center are often about “my street is all mixed up now, can’t talk for long”. If anyone gets killed, rather than 100 or so already injured, that will sharply escalate the situation. Here’s hoping the government manages to handle the next 24 hours more sensitively than the last. A good first move would be to get some traction by letting state television give a full version of events – currently, people are consuming a diet of wild rumors and partial views on social media, which can only add to the current escalation.

But do read it all.

Iran and Turkey Join Syria Peace Envoy in Truce Call

Iran and Turkey Join Syria Peace Envoy in Truce Call

NYT's Anne Barnard and Rick Gladstone report on UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi's attempt to secure a cease-fire between the government and rebels in Syria:

Both Turkey and Iran publicly endorsed Mr. Brahimi’s effort on Wednesday. Those endorsements were significant because Iran is the most influential regional supporter of Mr. Assad’s, while Turkey supports Mr. Assad’s armed adversaries, is host to more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and has repeatedly called on Mr. Assad to resign.

In the past few weeks Turkey also has banned Syrian aircraft, moved armed forces close to its 550-mile border with Syria and engaged Syrian gunners in sporadic cross-border shelling, raising fears that the conflict in Syria could turn into a regional war.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who met this week with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey at a regional summit meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, was quoted by Iran’s state-run news media on Wednesday as saying he supported the Syria truce proposal and “any group that derives power through war and means to continue war has no future.”

Sounds like the Egyptian initiative to engage Iran on Syria is fast becoming a Turkish initiative. 

Update — Also, this from the Turkish paper Zaman:

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on Tuesday he had suggested to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad three-way talks including Egypt on the Syria crisis, given the apparent Saudi objection to Iranian involvement in a current quartet.

So who's doing the leading here? Not sure Cairo would have so easily dismissed a Saudi role.

Turkey's nightmare - in Syria

Turkey's nightmare

Today's editorial in the FT:

Turkey is watching its deepest fears become reality on its southern border. As Kurdish forces take control of towns across north-east Syria, Ankara faces the possibility of an autonomous Kurdish area emerging, in loose federation with adjacent Iraqi Kurdistan.

To the Turkish establishment, this is an existential threat: an embryonic Kurdish state is bound to embolden Turkey’s 13m-plus Kurdish population in demands for regional autonomy, and could try to claim chunks of Turkish territory. Worse, a powerful element in a new coalition of Syria’s Kurdish groups is the PYD – an ally of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a 27-year struggle against the Turkish state. The PKK is now exploiting the situation, launching massed attacks, not the usual scattered raids, on army posts in Turkey’s south-east.

And there are reports that Assad is evacuating the Kurdish areas of Syria to give militants there a free rein.

Powers continue jockeying over influence in Syria

The New York Times reports that the CIA has been on the ground in Turkey vetting armed opposition groups in Syria. The anonymous sources cited by the Times say that the US itself is not providing weapons to the rebels, in keeping with its earlier declarations to not directly arm them, but is apparently tracking weapons going into Syria and “advising” allies in the region as to which groups should get what weapons. Reports on alleged Western intelligence gathering operations along Syria’s borders several months ago were denied then, but the Times asserts that the CIA presence has been on the ground “for several weeks” at least.

The promise of weapons sales to the rebels has been advanced as a cost-effective way for the US and its allies to direct the course of the Syrian uprising’s armed resistance to the Assad regime. With arms comes influence - or so Washington, Doha and Riyadh hope - and the armed opposition has been hard-pressed to provision itself.

Even with these promises, armed groups in Syria, who are frequently at odds with one another, have relied and continue to rely on materials produced by Syrian expatriates, captured battlefield detritus or purchased from black marketeers. With the exception of equipment seized from a battlefield or brought over by defecting soldiers, the regime can still bring much greater firepower to bear, which manifests itself in the form of besieging and shelling neighborhoods concealing (or thought to be concealing) insurgents fighting the Syrian Army. As such, some factions of the anti-Assad movement continue to call for direct foreign military intervention, notably from the Turkish Army.

Ankara, for its part, denies it is helping arm the rebels, and even the recent shootdown of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian airspace is unlikely to result in directly military action by NATO. Indeed, Turkey’s reluctance to “get involved” more proactively remains a major stumbling block for interventionists. (Ed. note: is it Turkey that is holding back NATO, or the reverse?)

The Times report paints a picture of a more engaged American intelligence effort in Syria, one that critics of both intervention and non-intervention say has been lacking since 2011. The perception of expanded US handling has been buttressed by recent reports in The Wall Street Journal and TIME that the US is assisting activists on the ground report on atrocities ascribed to the Syrian Army and pro-regime militias accused of committing civilian massacres in the conflict.[1]

As has been the case with reports on US efforts in Yemen, it is not clear whether the government sources speaking for these reports are engaging in unsanctioned leaks, or are going to the press with the White House’s acknowledgment. Despite years of talk about regime change in Syria and past US support for Syrian dissent groups in Istanbul and London, the Syrian uprising - like those in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain - clearly caught the Obama Administration (and Syria’s neighbors) by surprise. The White House has been scrambling to implement something it’s “leading from behind” model for Libya in building an international consensus to take more decisive action, though denies Russian claims that through NATO, it intends to directly intervene in Syria.

Recently, there have been several spats between Washington and Moscow, which is Assad’s main arms supplier. The UK Foreign Office managed to fire a warning shot across Moscow’s bow over the Syrian crisis when The Standard Club withdrew insurance for the MV Alaed, a Russian freighter carrying repaired Syrian attack helicopters and “air defense systems” to Syria. This act of “lawfare” forced the Alaed to turn back to port. Shortly before this incident, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised Cain over the use of Russian-made helicopter gunships by the Syrian military. One of the outcomes of this diplomatic protest, though, has been some embarrassing revelations about US-Russia defense sector links.

These moves were plainly aimed at signaling to Russia that it needs to exercise more influence on Assad in ways favorable to the West’s demands, or to back away from the dictator. A CNN report that the US military has revised/prepared contingency war plans for Syria is also part of this messaging - as is the Iranian media pushback in the form of announcing war games to be conducted in Syria by the Russians (these reports have been denied by Russia and do not seem credible).

More concretely, Russia has dispatched three amphibious landing craft to its naval base in the Port of Tartus, increasing their security presence there. Significantly, this force is thought to include heavy weapons and advanced anti-air systems. Russia’s mistrust of Washington’s efforts to address the conflict stems from fears that Syria will turn into Libya again, where the Russians and Chinese essentially allowed the UN Security Council and NATO to invoke a “responsibility to protect” that turned into a coordinated effort to oust the late Colonel Qadhafi from power. Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Arms, allies and naval basing rights matter too, analyst Dmitri Trenin notes, but “Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders.” So even absent the Libyan card, for Russia, there are few prices short of war the Kremlin will not pay to avoid the humiliation of “losing Syria,” it’s sole remaining Arab ally in the region.

So while the arming of rebel groups under US auspices is ostensibly aimed at redressing this imbalance of firepower, so far, no policy has been articulated in public as to whether this aid is supposed to help take down Assad with extreme prejudice, or compel him to broker a ceasefire and exeunt, even though members of the Syrian opposition have now repeatedly rejected a “Yemeni solution.” Assad, for his part, shows no signs of backing down despite combat fatigue, desertions and attacks within the heart of Damascus itself.

The US is still not willing to take that bet for Syria, though, at least not yet. Moscow shows no signs of backing down. Syrian activist Haytham Manna recently told The Guardian that “foreign influence and arms have split Syria’s civil movement.” The continued failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan, and the efforts of the Syrian Army or the rebels to maintain secure zones for civilians, show that this split may be irreconcilable, even if foreign powers press harder on Assad by all means short of open war.


  1. While media activists have specific agendas and incentive to spin events, such activists have been politicized from the start in this conflict, with or without US dollars or cameras. Another complication is that the conflict has seen the deaths of Syrian media activists who were not associated with one particular armed camp or another, such as Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed by the Syrian Army in Homs this May. Ideally, third party sourcing to evaluate competing claims would be easier to come by. But even when such reports appear, the coverage quickly turns into a debate over the credibility of each outlet’s narratives.  ↩

The Economist is wrong on Turkey and Israel

I was slightly taken aback reading one of the leaders in this this week's Economist, on Turkey's foreign policy. The leader takes  Recep Tayyib Erdogan to task for his populist foreign policy. He deserves it, indeed, for his boisterous announcements about giving Syria an ultimatum (which has been allowed to elapse). But the leader pushes for Israeli-Turkish reconciliation for the wrong reason, with the assumption that Turkey is at fault, based on a reasoning that simply does not make sense.

And then there are relations with Israel, which have never recovered after the Israeli army’s killing of eight Turks and one Turkish-American aboard a Gaza-bound ship, theMavi Marmara, last year. The intransigent Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, is not popular with many EU governments or with the current American administration. He has been foolishly stubborn to refuse even the smallest apology over the Mavi Marmara. But if Mr Erdogan calculates that he can pander to anti-Israeli prejudice at home without paying a price abroad, he is making a mistake. Turkey stands to gain from stable Arab-Israeli relations, which it ought ideally to be well-placed to promote. And, like it or not, many in the West take Turkey’s attitude to Israel as a yardstick of its broader intentions. If Turkey wants to preserve good relations with the West, it must find some way of mending fences with Israel as well.

I very much doubt that latest assertion. As a medium power, Turkey has enough clout to maintain the distance it wants to maintain from Tel Aviv (for the right reasons, it seems to me, since its citizens were murdered). It has also plenty of good reasons to distance itself from a state engaged in a campaign of slow ethnic cleansing and which is itself increasingly isolated. What are examples of Turkey suffering from its policy on Israel, exactly? Turkey gets flak, probably rightly, for its attitude to the Armenian genocide, for its stance on the Cyprus conflict, and for its handling of the Kurdish question. But Israel? And in any case, what are the indications that the West and Turkey don't get along, or that issues such as EU membership are about Israel (after all, Sarkozy and the Greeks opposed that from 2007 at least, when relations between Ankara and Tel Aviv were good.) If "the West" wants to make Turkey pay a price for its Israel policy, then it is the West that is foolish.

I was in Istanbul recently and talked to various Turkish foreign policy experts, businesspeople as well as Syrian dissidents. Relations with Israel did not seem a big deal or issue of concern there. Relations with Syria and Iran were very much on the top of the agenda, notably whether Turkey could/should provide a safe haven or no-fly zone in northern Syria. Among Turks, opinions were very divided on this and the issue of whether Turkey should impose trade sanctions with Syria — quite reasonably, some Turkish businessmen feel that a) they stand to lose money from sanctions and b) only ordinary Syrians would suffer from trade sanctions. I would certainly join them in opposing anything like the 1990s era sanctions in Iraq.

Turkey still has to fully determine its Syria policy, even if it is moving in the direction of full-fledged opposition to the Assad regime. It has yet to formulate a grander regional policy — as a friend joked, Turkish policy for the last decade has simply been "to export plastic buckets to its neighbors." The challenge of Turkey's foreign policy seems to me not to be Israel, which is a secondary interest whichever way it goes, but figuring out whether it will be based on much more than mercantilism.

Why Turkey is still worthy of emulation

There's been some commentary lately about Turkish foreign policy faltering in the face of the Arab spring: Turkey first opposed NATO intervention in Libya, tried to mediate out of the impasse and then recently turned around to say Qadhafi must go. It has acted hesitantly over Syria, where it has considerable interests. Anthony Shadid in the NYT and Steve Cook in Foreign Policy have highlighted the problems the AKP government have faced in dealing with these issues. But I think they go too far in talking about Turkish incompetence in the face of a turbulent Middle East.

This is only the case if you feel that a foreign policy success for Turkey is about getting what it wants all the time. It's quite reasonable for Turkey to believe, with its considerable interests in Libya, that backing the rebels outright was not the best course of action, and that negotiations with the Qadhafi regime were worth a try. When it didn't work, they moved on. Likewise, I'm not convinced when Cook writes:

Instead, the Turks have indulged in cynical posturing. As Assad deploys troops and tanks against peaceful protestors, the Turkish foreign ministry counseled the Syrian leader to “implement [reforms] without further delay” and subsequently expressed satisfaction with Assad’s efforts. To which the only reasonable reply is, “What democratic reforms?” The Turkish position on Syria has not yet placed Ankara at odds with Washington or Brussels. But should the United States or Europe shift on Assad — a distinct possibility — then Turkey would find itself supporting a dictator against the will of its two most important allies, as well as the will of the Syrian people.

The criticism about Assad not implementing reforms is fair, but taken in the context of decades of American and European praise for "reform" in the dictatorial regimes that fell in Egypt and Tunisia (and others that may be about to fall elsewhere), some humility may be needed: let he who is without sin cast the first stone. It reminds me of the Obama administration's ridiculous posturing on Iran supplying Syria with riot control supplies — the irony won't be lost on many Egyptian protestors who found themselves gassed and shot with US-supplied weapons last January.

Turkey may indeed carry cynical moves, and deserves moral condemnation for it. But it doesn't mean its foreign policy is a failure. The real achievement of Turkey's foreign policy is not so much its success in achieving its goals, but its independence: it acts like a sovereign state, not a client state. In the face of a tough and unpredictable regional situation that directly affects its interests, it may have faltered, but it has retained its autonomy. That is what Arabs ruled by Quislings and acquiescent puppets have admired, not necessarily the policies themselves. 

On Turkey and Syria

Following up on my recent Syria post, Helena Cobban has some insightful remarks re: Turkey's role. Before I get to it, from today's FT:

Turkey’s prime minister has urged Syria’s government to act swiftly on its reform promises, seeking to use Ankara’s influence to avert unrest on its southern border.

Reçep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters on Monday that he had spoken twice with Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president, since protests spread across the country on Friday, and had advised him to take a “positive, reformist approach”.

“It is our heartfelt wish that there should be no painful events here as in Libya,” Mr Erdogan said, repeating calls for swift action on social and economic reform published by Turkey’s foreign ministry on Friday.

Last week’s crackdown on demonstrators in Syria is of deep concern to Turkey’s ruling Justice & Development (AK) party, which has forged close ties with Damascus in recent years, putting the relationship at the heart of its bid for regional influence.

Cobban notes:

Erdogan's role is, I think, key. Given the length of its common border with Syria, Turkey has a strong interest in preventing a number of outcomes in Syria:

    Fitna;

    * Emergence of a regime that is much more strongly Islamist than Erdogan's own AK Party;

    * An outright western or western/Israeli military intervention in the country; and

    * The west's imposition of much tighter sanctions on Syria, such as would drive the regime and many Syrian citizens toward extremism and further anti-westernism.

Erdogan is also in a unique position to be the spearhead of the "speedy reform" project in Syria, on account of the following factors:

    * The high esteem he enjoys both from Pres. Asad and those around him-- and, crucially from the great mass of the Syrian people;

    * Turkey's geographic proximity to Syria: This allows Turkey to do things (like increasing or easing pressure on trade routes or flows of Euphrates water) that can act as incentives or disincentives for the Syrian reform process. It also means that Turkey's political elite and public all widely understand that they need to deal successfully with the Syrian challenge, even if it costs them something, because the cost of failure could be huge for Turkey itself.

    * The fact that the AK Party, with its west-leaning and generally moderate form of Sunni Islam, is in a generally good position to be able to interact with emerging leaders from Syria's own long-repressed Sunni majority community. (Come to think of it, a democratizing Syria could also usefully have a "Justice and Development Party"-- AKP-- of its own, why not?)

Will Asad engage with this opportunity that western powers and Turkey appear to be offering him? I don't know, though I strongly hope that he will. 

As I said before, I don't know whether the Syrian regime is even capable of producing meaningful reform, and there are reports that even though Bashar might like to, his brother Maher and other elements of his family and the regime are against it. 

Nonetheless, this type of intervention by Turkey is precisely the type of regional balancing I would love to see more in the region — as opposed to direct European and American involvement construed within inflexible regional security frameworks such as "Sunni vs. Shia", "radical vs. moderate" or those related to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Aswani: Does the world want a democratic Egypt?
Alaa al-Aswany in al-Masri al-Youm:

Unfortunately, Egypt’s history is replete with lost opportunities for democratization. We now have another opportunity, which I hope will not be lost. The 25 January revolution forced Hosni Mubarak to step down. Hundreds of Egyptians sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom. Since its inception, however, the revolution was confronted with a vicious counter-revolution — both inside and outside of Egypt.  

A few days ago, the Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Dar reported that Egyptian authorities are under massive pressure from Arab rulers, especially from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to ensure that Mubarak is not tried. The report asserted that these Arab states had directly threatened to freeze all relations with Cairo, cut all financial assistance, and withdraw their investments from Egypt. They even went as far as threatening to dismiss the 5 million Egyptians working in those countries, if Mubarak were to be tried.

For its part, Israel always defended Hosni Mubarak, one of its best allies. The Israeli press does not conceal its concerns about meaningful democratic change in Egypt. The US administration has a similar position. Both American and Israeli officials recognize Egypt’s potential and know it will become a powerful regional force in a matter of years, if it becomes a democracy.

He's right — unfortunately, both regional players and the West have little interest in an Egyptian democracy if that means real debate about foreign and economic policy of the kind we've seen in Turkey. Just look how some think-tankers in Washington have sought to encourage US support of the Turkish military on the basis that it is secularist (as opposed to the AKP) even as it was revealed that it attempted to stage a coup.

New Blog: Steven Cook at CFR

Veteran Egypt (and Turkey and Algeria) watcher Steven Cook, an expert on things military and much else, has a new blog at the Council of Foreign Relations website. Steven, who wrote a masterful comparison of the military regimes in those three countries in Ruling But Not Governing, is currently working on a book on Egypt-US relations since the 1950s, which should come out next year.

In his latest post, written from Ankara, he writes about whether Turkey needs the carrot of EU membership to carry out democratic change anymore. It's something I've been thinking about a lot right now, having come to see Turkey as a democracy (despite remaining problems about its treatment of minorities and some laws left over from the military dictatorship era). And in fact, the recent constitutional changes were carried out at a time when the EU connection is getting weaker.

When I think about EU policy towards the Arab world, I see a mixed bag: on the one hand, there are EU policies that incentivize reform and change towards democracy. On the other, I see many policies that would like to focus on minimal reforms but not real appetite for full-blown democracy promotion, conditionality, etc. The lack of serious implementation of human rights provisions in EU Association Agreements comes to mind, for instance. At the end of the day, the EU is an unreliable partner for democratic change, because its members (esp. France, Italy and Spain) have too much incentive to maintain the status-quo. They, and the US, will continue to lean towards support the dictatorships until a credible, broad-based opposition movement begins to pose a serious challenge. The problem now is that the regimes, and their foreign partners, maintain a situation where it is extremely difficult for such opposition movements to emerge. I very much agree with the work of Richard Youngs at FRIDE on these issues.

Anyway, here's what Steve had to say about Turkey:

It’s long been an accepted truth in the Turkey-watching community that the EU was an anchor of Turkish political reform. The structure of Turkish politics was such that Ankara needed the incentive of EU membership to drive democratic change. Many Turks believe this as well, but after 58% of voters said “Evet” (Yes) to a series of constitutional amendments in a September 12th referendum, some commentary—by no means a consensus—began popping up here arguing that Turkey no longer needs the EU to drive its political change. The amendments, the most important of which has to do with the selection of judges to Turkey’s highest judicial bodies, raised legitimate concerns about the government’s ability to pack the courts. Yet, the perception among many is that with the changes to the constitution, the Justice and Development Party government took an important step toward a more open and democratic government that (unlike an array of reforms undertaken in 2003 and 2004) were not specifically in response to Europe’s membership criteria.

Add to Turkey’s apparent ability to undertake change on its own; falling support for EU membership—between 45-50%, which is down 30 points from 2004; a younger generation of Turks who have no vested interest in joining Europe; and imploding EU economies, in contrast to Turkey’s solid growth, it may be time to rethink Ankara’s relationship with Brussels. I am not suggesting that Turkey cut its ties to the West. Europe remains Turkey’s most important trading partner and source of foreign direct investment. Turkey could, after all, continue to harmonize its political and economic systems with the EU, but not take the ultimate step toward membership. That’s what Norway did, and it was enormously beneficial.

And get his book!

More Israeli propaganda failures

Max Blumenthal shows that the IDF is quietly redacting its own press releases to remove allegations of links between the IHH members of the flotilla and al-Qaeda:

Not content to believe that night vision goggles signal membership in Al Qaeda, Israel-based freelance reporter Lia Tarachansky and I called the IDF press office to ask for more conclusive evidence. Tarachansky reached the IDF’s Israel desk, interviewing a spokesperson in Hebrew; I spoke with the North America desk, using English. We both received the same reply from Army spokespeople: “We don’t have any evidence. The press release was based on information from the [Israeli] National Security Council.” (The Israeli National Security Council is Netanyahu’s kitchen cabinet of advisors).

Today, the Israeli Army’s press office changed the headline of its press release (see below), basically retracting its claim about the flotilla’s Al Qaeda links.

We debunked the basis of previous al-Qaeda links here.