Turkey Foreign Policy

Turkey: Foreign Policy

by

Howard Adelman

It is always remarkable when a domestic policy issue becomes a matter of foreign policy. Yesterday morning, I discussed President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasing repression of the media and, in particular, the arrest of Ekrem Dumanli, editor-in-chief of Turkey’s largest circulation newspaper, Zaman, and Hidayet Karaca, director of the news channel, STV. When combined with the corruption scandals, the purge of the Gulenists, the total sidestepping off the military on an issue that directly affects its self-image as the embodiment of the Turkish people and its ability to perform, the increasingly dire economic, health and educational reports on the government’s performance, and Erdoğan’s determined efforts to convert the Turkish parliamentary polity into a highly centralized presidential system, but one without checks and balances, then the signs of weakness of the Erdoğan government are everywhere on which foreign governments can pounce. However, rarely do governments use press freedom and rights to free speech as the instruments to undermine an ally of which it is increasingly critical.

This is particularly interesting because Turkey has a long enough history of vibrant press freedom that has revealed the media repression to be very porous. Erdoğan‘s Kurd political satrap, his former economic minister, Mehmet Zafer Çağlayan, has a bad habit, just as Erdoğan has, of putting his foot in his mouth and probably ill-gotten gains in his pocket. In the spring, he self-righteously defended his son, Salih Kaan Çağlayan, who had just been arrested and charged with involvement in the 2003 corruption scandal. What was the defense? A blatantly anti-Semitic response! “I would understand if a Jew, an atheist, a Zoroastrian would do all these things to us. Shame on them if these things are done by those who claim to be Muslim. How can a Muslim do this?”

After the Gulenist purge from the police and the judiciary by Erdoğan, a Turkish court very recently dropped the corruption charges against 53 people, including Çağlayan’s son, Salih Kaan Çağlayan, and the sons of two other cabinet ministers. But all has not be sanguine. Just over a week ago, Hurriyet, a mass-circulation paper normally in Erdogan’s back pocket, played up the corruption scandal on its front page by following up on the parliamentary query by Corruption Commission Chairman, Hakki Koylu, an AKP loyalist, of the suspicious transfer of 2.5 million Turkish lira ($1.06 million) to Çağlayan’s personal bank account.

Erdogan may still appear invulnerable as the elected choice of the people, except that he won the presidential elections, in spite of alleged vote rigging, by a very slim margin. As the spiritual core of the AKP and the leader that carried his cohort to both political power and personal wealth, he is now incapable of separating himself from those colleagues. Countries that have grown weary of Erdogan’s unreliability are now taking advantage of that weakness and, in particular, his efforts to suppress the media, to undermine him further – in spite of commentators, like Semih Idiz, who still see the efforts at consolidation of power while sweeping the corruption scandal under the rug to be unstoppable. However, the combination of the suppression of the media through the arrests of journalists and heavy fines levied against media outlets by the government and the news of the widespread corruption, may, as Nobel prize-winning writer, Orhan Pamuk commented, but with my cliché, offer the two straws that broke the camel’s back.

Given America’s strategic interest in ensuring that Turkey remains a capable and secure partner, particularly in the fight against Islamic State, it now seems that those strategic interests can be married to the issue of a free press. Jen Psaki, Secretary of State John Kerry’s spokesperson on foreign affairs, while admitting that John Kerry has not personally taken up the issue, and while insisting that Turkey remains a democracy and an important ally and NATO power, clearly suggested that the American embassy in Ankara has raised the issue of press freedom in Turkey. She replied to press queries about the media repression in Turkey by saying that, “the United States supports freedom of expression and assembly, including the right to peaceful protest. We look to Turkey to uphold these fundamental freedoms. We remain concerned about due process, broadly speaking, and effective access to justice in Turkey…we are concerned by the detention of journalists and media representatives following police raids on the offices of media which have been critical of the government. Media freedom, due process, and judicial independence are key elements in every healthy democracy and are enshrined in the Turkish constitution. Freedom of the media includes the freedom to criticize the government. Voicing opposition does not equal conspiracy or treason. As Turkey’s friend and NATO ally, we urge the Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold Turkey’s core values and democratic foundations.”

Criticism for the US of Turkey has become more blatant. The EU has been even more critical than the US. The EU has openly stated that the raids were incompatible with media freedoms and, further, suggested they could affect Turkey’s longstanding bid to join the bloc. Erdoğan has responded by dismissing such threats, but most ordinary Turks take them seriously.

However, whatever the debates over media suppression, the current central issue in foreign policy for Turkey is – not Israel and Gaza or even Cyprus – but the rise and spread of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. On the one hand, Turkey has harboured Islamic State militants and permitted Islamicists to cross the border into Syria to fight the Bashar al-Assad regime. The main opposition military supply line runs from Turkey to the northern city of Aleppo, which is why the recent Syrian army recapture of Aleppo was so important. At the same time, true to his faith in the teachings of his hero, the Turkish anti-Semitic philosopher, Nurettin Topcu (1909-1975) (see his essays “Money and the Jew”, mankind’s two enemies, and “Human Beings and Jews” where Jews are depicted as the bloody and sinful ordeal for humanity), Erdoğan himself envisions Turkey as the future Islamic caliphate. So he is tempted as well as pressured to join the US-led coalition against Islamic State. However, he has not.

 

In the meanwhile, AKP media mouthpieces deride that US pressure as a conspiracy to trap Turkey into fighting battles for the West. Erdoğan denounced Interpol when, at the request of Egypt, it issued an arrest warrant for Youssef al-Qaradawi. Qaradawi is an Egyptian-Qatari national as well as an intellectual eminence grise of the Muslim Brotherhood and president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, who is suspected of having found a safe haven in Turkey. Is Erdoğan protecting Qaradawi, a Muslim cleric who has supported suicide bombings in Israel and endorsed the killing of Jewish fetuses? For Qaradawi, Muslims can only speak to Jews through the sword and the rifle.

On 21 November, Dursun Ali Sahin, an Erdoğan appointed governor of Edirne in Eastern Thrace, a city that once had 13,000 Jews and now has only 2 as a result of systematic ethnic cleansing over the years, decided to convert the Jewish synagogue there into a museum, but one in which there would be no displays. After an outcry, Ali Sahin apologized and said he had been misinterpreted. However, it is widely believed that Erdoğan’s anti-Israeli rhetoric is a distraction for his deeper anti-Semitic convictions. So much for Hamas’ cousin, the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, occupying the peaceful road to Islamic unity.

Turkey and Egypt have become each other’s worst enemies. They have cut off diplomatic relations with one another and Egyptian men between the ages of 18 and 40 are banned by their government from traveling to Turkey without the written approval of Egyptian State Security. This has also exacerbated the tension between Turkey and the West, a tension enhanced to the breaking point when the US State Department issues its annual reports on the mistreatment and torture of political prisoners in Turkey at the same time as both countries obfuscate the Turkish-American illegal rendition, detention and torture of Islamist terror suspects. Turkey (the only NATO member to do so) vociferously denounced American actions in the wake of the recent Senate report on the illegal activities and torture by calling on those who violated laws and democratic norms to be held to account. Ankara tried to have it both ways, staking out its greater moral purity while disguising its own sins and never acknowledging that Turkey participated in the rendition of terrorists as cited in the Senate Report. Nor has Erdoğan admitted that he made the Incirlik air base available to the Americans for transfer of those prisoners while continuing to stress his deep-seated anti-western outlook. It is no wonder that relations between Erdoğan and his European and American allies have become so strained.

If Turkish-American relations are strained, to say the least, Turkey’s over fifty-year-old pursuit of membership in the EU, if it has not almost been completely abandoned, is in the doldrums and, thus, the EU threats ring more hollow as Erdoğan continues to pose that he is still interested, though little has been done to whittle down the 14 outstanding conditions for accession from the original 35. But his actions belie his words as Turkey demonstrates an increasing unwillingness to comply with the EU’s entry restrictions.

Cyprus remains a sore point, not only between Greece and Turkey, but between the EU and Turkey. The EU has never stopped objecting to Turkey’s occupation of the northern half of the island. As Greek Cyprus pursues a joint hydrocarbon exploration with Israel and Egypt as partners, Turkey can only fume and foam and threaten to disrupt the exploration by deploying the Turkish navy. Erdoğan’s loose tongue does not help. A week before the EU ministers and top brass visited Ankara for talks, he fired a fuselage: European Christian states do not like Muslims but they love the “oil, gold, diamonds and the cheap labour force of the Islamic world”. He went even further: Europeans were accused of enjoying watching Muslim children die.

So why do Western leaders troop religiously to Ankara, not only European leaders (recently High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, Frederica Mogherini, and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain), but US Vice-President Joe Biden in November and the Pope in December. The unequivocal answer – realpolitik. The West will do whatever it can to keep the Islamists from allying with the far more radical Islamicists. The EU and the USA are also wary of the growing friendship and links between fellow wannabe strongmen who are remarkably similar in a number of respects – Putin and Erdoğan – as they come closer to one another in sharing their increasing international isolation. This explains the delicate tightrope walk by both the USA and the EU as they reinforce the message that Turkey is an important ally and, at the same time, raise the decibel level of the criticism of the Erdoğan government.

Erdoğan’s decision to allow Turkey to be used for pipelines as a transit route for natural gas between the Middle East and the West both has undermined the Russian-Tukey relationship while, at the same time, it has brought Putin to Ankara to woo Erdoğan with his charms, though unlikely to be completely successful given Russia’s support for Turkey’s enemy, Assad’s Syria. Putin, however, came armed. On his visit at the beginning of December, Putin announced that the US$22 billion South Stream project running through Bulgaria from Russia would be scrapped. However, that proposal turned into an unloaded gun when, in the face of Western sanctions against Russia, Bulgaria declined to host the pipeline.

Putin had to become more fawning than ever on his December 1st visit to Turkey and proposed a huge 63 billion cubic metre capacity pipeline from Russia through Turkey in addition to the 16 billion cubic capacity pipeline already under construction to supply both Turkey and Europe with Russian natural gas. This would provide the kleptocrats in Turkey with a large amount of loose change. These projects are over and above the 18 billion cubic metre Tanap project from Azerbaijan through Turkey to Europe that Iran is building. Turkmenistan will also be able to access that pipeline for oil transmission. As a bonus for Turkish cooperation, Russia promised to reduce the costs of gas to Turkey by 6% on 1 January 2015.

In spite of realpolitik, it is amazing that Turkey has not been evicted from NATO for ignoring the boycott of Russia over the issue of Ukraine.

Here is where money trumps ideology. Israel too may also be permitted to build a pipeline from its enormous gas fields on the Mediterranean coast to Turkey. Although economic cooperation between Israel and Turkey may be forging ahead, political relations continue to worsen. Israel has accused Turkey of training Hamas operatives while Turkey insists it is only hosting Hamas Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades and its leader, Saleh al-Aruri who was deported from the West Bank by Israel in 2012 after his 18-year prison sentence had been served. Even the Palestinian Authority accuses Aruri, with support from Ankara, of planning multiple attacks against Israeli targets.

The contradiction between economic interests and ideological convictions, between the realities of the marke place and Erdoğan’s populist domestic policies, such as the distribution of free coal to the needy that also serves as a cover for stealing money from the public (estimated at 10 billion Turkish lira by the end of 2013 when rake-offs from the coal deals, transportation and distribution are all taken into account) as Turkey closes dangerous and inefficient coal mines forcing the government to buy coal on the spot market, both of low quality and high cost, to meet its “obligations” as that coal must be distributed for electoral benefit in the run-up to the June elections. In addition to a press freedom crisis and a corruption crisis, Turkey is coming closer and closer to a financial crisis. In the process, the EU and the USA are putting their joint weight on the opposite side of the teeter-totter than Erdoğan.

Turkey’s obsession with orchestrating regime change in Syria has been a failure, yet Ankara does little about the rising threat of lslamic State even as Turkish cars are stolen to be used as car bombs, as in the 29 November suicide attack in Kobani at the Mursitpinar crossing into Turkey. Turkish territory is used as preparation areas for attacks by IS on Syria. IS fighters can be found in Turkish villages near the Mursitpinar border crossing with Syria. Those fighters attack the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) forces from the rear as the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq, now that it has secured a revenue-sharing agreement with Baghdad, grows closer to the Kurds in Turkey than to the government in Ankara

Is Ankara hosting IS as pressure on the anti-Assad coalition, that includes Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Bahrain, to create a buffer and no-fly zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border? Why is Erdoğan so stubbornly resistant to including Assad representatives in the Geneva talks sponsored by both Russia and the US? Erdoğan has chastised the US for its “impertinence, recklessness and endless demands” offered from “12,000 kilometers away”. In some ways the criticism is wholly justified for Turkey hosts over a million Syrian refugees (Ankara says it is 1.6 million) while countries like Canada cannot even muster the ability to admit a meagre 1,300 to which it is already pledged.

Nevertheless, Turkey increasingly appears as the odd man out in the Middle East with enemies in Cairo, Damascus, and the Arabian peninsula, cool relations with Baghdad, not to speak of its direct rivalry with Tehran. Netanyahu has to be gloating with these radical shifts since the 2010 Mavi Marmara episode even as Erdoğan continues to host Hamas and enhance its presence in the West Bank.

Turkey – Domestic Changes

Turkey – Domestic Changes

by

Howard Adelman

I begin with domestic matters because they help understand the direction of the Turkish leadership. Tomorrow I will take up foreign policy.

Sixty-year old Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the founder of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) Turkey’s current president and former prime minister for the last eleven years, and mayor of Istanbul before that, has transformed Turkey domestically and certainly redirected Turkey’s foreign policy. Erdoğan is to Turkey what Putin is to Russia. After founding his new party in 2001, that party in the Turkish elections of 2002 took two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. A year later, after his banishment from politics was overturned and his then ally, Abdullah Gűl, served as interim Prime Minister for a year, Erdoğan became Prime Minster. Only this year did he assume the role of President after converting the Turkish political system from a parliamentary to a quasi-presidential democracy by shifting the largely ceremonial role of president to the most powerful figure in the country. However, in contrast to his earlier victories, he only won the presidency with less than 52% of the vote. However, he has set up a shadow government of directorates to monitor Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and his Cabinet who all come from his own party.

Control of the Media

Unlike Russia, where corruption and control of the media have allowed Putin to undermine the nascent democracy of Russia, Erdoğan has not achieved the position yet. Events, however, are changing the situation rapidly. Though Erdoğan seven years ago began arresting critics in the media whom he accused of being the propaganda arm of a coup effort, only in the last two years has he revealed himself to be determined to assert absolute control over the media. Yesterday afternoon I received news that Ekrem Dumanli, the editor-in-chief of Zaman, Turkey’s top-selling newspaper, and Hidayet Karaca, the director of STV, a news channel, had been rounded up two days previously by Turkish police. The mysterious twitter account, Fuat Avni, had three days before that predicted these arrests and that of 150 or so other journalists. Some of these have gone into hiding. The charges: affiliation with the Fethullah Gulen movement, Erdoğan’s once erstwhile ally in overcoming the stranglehold the military held over the state, and an alleged conspiracy to undermine and/or attack a small rival Islamist group, the “Tahsiyeciler”, a group whose leaders Erdoğan had arrested only four years earlier who follow the teachings of the Islamic scholar, Said Nursi. Is it a wonder that Turkey ranks 154th on the world press freedom index, according to Reporters Without Borders?

The attacks on the domestic press were matched by a vicious campaign castigating the foreign – particularly Western – press of distortions, disinformation, ignorance, lying and even spying. Ceylan Yeginsu, a journalist working for the New York Times, that in its editorials had once lauded Erdoğan for his leadership role in the emerging Turkish vibrant democracy, had to flee the country for his life after being attacked in the AKP-controlled press and receiving multiple death threats. When Erdoğan himself was not deriding the Western press for being propagandists and undermining the new Turkey, that role was taken up by Ibrahim Karagul, editor-in-chief of the pro-Erdoğan newspaper, Yeni Safak, and the new English newspaper in Turkey, Daily Sabah, initially owned by Erdoğan’s son-in-law. And this is just the surface in this information war that permeates the electronic media as well.

Turkey’s Deteriorating Democracy

So much for the hopes for democracy in Turkey once the military had been removed from power in the name of rule by and for the people. That populism has been enhanced by the distribution of free coal to the needy. However, the crushing of the Gezi Park protests in the summer of 2013 was just more public action in a coordinated effort to destroy any opposition in Turkey. The cronyism and corruption that is endemic and very widespread in Turkish society has permeated the AKP (one in five Turks and about 50% of businesses pay bribes to access public services). The effort to protect ill-gotten gains once that corruption had been revealed by the Fethullah Gulen movement have led the government to place a publication ban on the parliamentary committee looking into corruption. At the same time, Turkey has followed the lead of the Canadian parliament under Harper’s Conservatives of passing legislation through complex omnibus bills with relatively little time for debate. The bills in Ankara include provisions which infringe human rights protections.

The corruption scandal possibly accelerated the leadership’s plans to enhance its control of the media. Turkey has slipped from 53rd to 74th on Transparency International’s corruption index. Further, that corruption as well as increasing disparity between the rich and the poor are now being legalized as a new presidential provision permits young Turkish men to buy out their compulsory military service for $US8,700. Turkish writer and 2006 Nobel Prize winner for literature, Orhan Pamuk, has also denounced Turkey’s increasing climate of fear.

Educational Revisionism and Social Policy

In addition to its educational reforms that provided free textbooks for needy students, Erdoğan and his allies have pushed for making Ottoman Turkish compulsory in schools, introducing more and more elements of Ottoman culture into the curriculum, introducing segregation of schools by gender, and introducing Islamic religious instruction for students in fourth grade and higher, and planning to introduce such education at even lower grades in the face of EU demands that compulsory religious education requirements be scrapped. In the meanwhile, the educational authorities have eliminated human rights and democracy classes previously taken in fourth grade. These changes have taken place in parallel with the long term trend of religious cleansing of non-Muslims in Turkey as property disputes affecting the Armenians, Syriac church and the Yazidis drag out through the bureaucratic and legal process.

Unfortunately, at the same time, Erdoğan has pushed for technological modernization. Language, cultural and religious revisionism are difficult to blend with modernization that becomes self-propelling and innovative instead of simply copying from the West. Thus, Turkey ranks last among 44 countries on the English proficiency list, even though English is compulsory in Turkish schools. Raising a generation of devout Muslims may be at odds with encouraging technological innovation. Turkish pupils, along with other pupils from predominantly Muslim countries, are in a race for the bottom. Turkey now ranks 44 out of 65 countries in the measurement of 15-year-old educational achievements in mathematics, science, literacy and problem-solving.

The social indicators have been very bad. Child poverty has risen by 63.5%. With 301 minors killed in the disaster at Soma this year, Turkey had by far the worst record of workers’ deaths compared to any European state. On the gender front, the news is even worse. Although Erdoğan in 2004 passed a new penal code protecting women’s sexual and body rights, and although Erdoğan has promoted changes in the treatment of women in the army by increasing the number of female officers and NCOs to facilitate dealing with terrorism and to enhance the professionalism of the military, on 24 November he claimed that gender equality contradicted the laws of nature even though 22% of AKP seats were held by women.

Erdoğan, however, is a champion of motherhood rather than sisterhood. In spite of an enormous increase of almost 40% in GDP per capita under his rule, there was still only a 30% female participation rate in the workforce. His policies threatened to exacerbate the health, education and income disparities between men and women already deeply rooted in Turkish culture. Not to speak of honour killings! While not as bad as the situation in Pakistan, those murders still take the lives of 200 Turkish girls each year in spite of the 2004 law designed to combat such crimes. Between 2002 and 2009, the murder rate of women in Turkey went up 1400% and since Erdoğan came to power, 7,000 Turkish women have been murdered. On the UNDP’s Gender Equality Index, Turkey’s standing has slipped from 69th to 77th out of 187 countries.

When my brother, a renowned Canadian cardiologist, was invited to Turkey in 1996, and where they first diagnosed him with a blastoma after he had fainted on a golf course where he had gone to play with other Turkish doctors, Al had been very impressed with the advanced state of medicine in Turkey in the hospital he had visited. Now Turkey seems to be moving backwards in time to revive traditional medical practices including:
• acupuncture (the stimulation of specific points along the skin with thin needles)
• apitherapy (the use of honeybee products for treatment)
• phytotherapy (treatments based on traditional herbalism)
• hypnosis
• the use of leeches
• homeopathy
• chiropractic treatments
• wet cupping
• larval therapy (the introduction of live, disinfected maggots into the skin)
• mesotherapy (the injection of special medications into the skin)
• prolotherapy (the injection of irritating solutions into an injured spot to provoke regenerative tissue response)
• osteopathy (nonsurgical treatments of the muscle and skeleton system)
• ozone therapy (the introduction of ozone and oxygen gas mixtures into the body)
• reflexology (massage-like treatment of pressure on reflex areas).

The issue is not the legalization of these treatments, but making them part of the education in medical schools. Some, like the use of leeches, are already part of modern medical practice. Others, however, have not been validated by science. So in addition to taking time away from enhancing modern medical practice, practices which have not yet been validated by science will be introduced into the medical curriculum. Further, the system of independence in educational decisions by qualified professionals is being undermined by state dictates in favour of validating traditional culture.

There are those who posit that this is merely a method of bringing traditional medical practices under state supervision. Then why are the costs of those treatments not covered by public health insurance? Some argue the expansion has been introduced to enhance medical tourism. Further, Turkey is far from unique in allowing and regulating such practices.

Standing in opposition to these rationales, one of the indicators to the undermining of scientific medicine has been the lethargic response to a rise in measles which has been blamed on the large number of Syrian refugees who have found a haven in Turkey, rising from very low numbers – 7 cases in 2010 – to over 7,000 cases last year. No provision in the Turkish 2015 budget targets contagious diseases like measles. Further, excluding Syrian refugee births, infant mortality and maternal deaths increased in 2013 for the first time since 1945.

Crime has also increased, much as a by-product of the Syrian civil war. Almost 500 high quality 4x4s have been stolen from Turkish car rental companies for transfer to Syria.

Kurdish Separatism

Erdoğan has to be praised for beginning the process of recognizing the Armenian genocide, enhanced by Pope Francis’ recent visit to Turkey, but with little sign of real progress. Erdoğan is perhaps best known for pushing reconciliation with Kurds who had been forcefully resettled in the thirties and banned from using their language. He has even entered into discussions with the PKK (the Kurdistan Workers Party) itself. However, while now allowing school children to be taught in Kurdish, would Kurds also have to learn classical Ottoman Turkish? Further, was Erdoğan strongly motivated to make peace with the PKK early in his national political career because he respected the group rights of the Kurds or because he wanted to undermine the rationale of the military for maintaining a relatively large army while, at the same time, solidifying his support with the Turkish public?

One very much suspects the latter given his subsequent career in national politics in Turkey and seemingly confirmed by the recent decision on December 10th in the face of the adjacent threat of Islamic State to enable middle and upper class military recruits to buy their way out of national service, a decision made without any consultation with the military general staff as required by the Turkish constitution. However, Erdoğan has never seemed to care about the constitution when it is to his populist advantage (currently an average Turkish citizen contributes about US$200 for each member of the family for defence) and when it undermines support for his critics on the left who were bound to vigorously oppose the move’s inegalitarian character. Further, if, as projected, 700,000 young men pay the state $8,700 each (men older than 30 pay US$13,300), US$5.7 billion will be added to state coffers from the men under 30 years of age alone, especially since parliamentary elections are to be held in June 2015. This is in addition to the monies saved on defence. The loans men are taking out to pay for the exemption in response to a spate of bank ads and the sales of unproductive capital (property, gold rings) has already acted within days to stimulate the economy. The greatly increased revenues to the state may be bad for the economy in the long run, but, in the short run it is much more than enough to pay for Erdoğan’s vain, enormous, lavish and enormously expensive presidential palace.

Is Erdoğan’s populist and Islamic program complemented by his foreign policy?