Turkey and Israel

Turkey and Israel

by

Howard Adelman

I want to begin by fitting Turkish-Israeli relations within the context of the recent 1 November election, domestic policy and the overall foreign policy of Turkey. I begin with the elections. I had suggested last week that the increase in the vote for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) was partly due to a shift in conservative religious Kurdish votes in the south-eastern part of Turkey back to the AKP when the war with the Kurdish rebels (PKK) resumed after the June elections. The motivation – a fear of instability and/or a belief that the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (HDP) was linked to the PKK and/or the Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) that had been so active in constructing blockades in Kurdish urban areas when the Turkish army resumed the war against the PKK. That interpretation has since been strongly challenged by one of the leading polling firms in Turkey, Konda, and its CEO, Bekir Ağirdir.

If indeed that shift had really taken place, it could mean that Erdoğan .no longer needed a war against the Kurds and demonization of the PKK to rally support for the AKP. He might become more flexible. That, in turn, would mean that the close relationship developing between the Kurds and the Israelis would become less consequential. However, part of the increased support of 8.7% for the AKP may not have been due to a shift in support of the Kurds at all, even though the HDP vote declined by almost a million votes.

In addition to the explained shift in my previous blog of votes from Saadet (Felicity) and Büyük Birlik (Great Unity), two parties which did not run in the 1 November election, and from the AKP’s rival on the right, the MHP, whose thunder Erdoğan had stolen with his resumption of the war against the PKK, 4% of the increase in the AKP vote was attributed by Konda, not as a shift from the HDP, but from voters who did not vote in the 6 June elections and new voters. That would mean that Erdoğan had little incentive in terms of domestic political support to resume peace negotiations with the PKK and to cease its war also against the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria, a party that receives a great deal of unacknowledged support from Israel. As stated in my blogs on Turkish domestic and foreign policy, Erdoğan’s greatest fear is the creation of a safe haven for Turkish Kurdish fighters in northern Syria. He has been more than willing to curtail his recent aggression against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria to concentrate most of his forces against the PYD.

In the aftermath of the IS terrorist attacks on Paris, will that policy shift as a result of the current G-20 meeting in Antalya with Erdoğan in the chair? After all, the recent aggression of IS, the refugees and the war in Syria threaten to overshadow the economic issues which were supposed to dominate the agenda. Further, Turkey has assured Hamas that Israel’s role in both Syria and the Gaza Strip will be raised in the discussions  Though the emphasis was mostly on the war and the refugees in the statement issued by the EU before the attacks in Paris – “Meeting in Turkey in the midst of a refugee crisis due to conflicts in Syria and elsewhere; the G20 must rise to the challenge and lead a coordinated and innovative response to the crisis that recognizes its global nature and economic consequences and promotes greater international solidarity in protecting refugees,” – the priority given to conflict in the region and the refugees means that IS will definitely be at the top of the agenda.

After all, Turkey, in both its actions and its words, had signalled that its war in Syria will concentrate more and more on IS as a priority, a priority very much likely to increase in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. Turkey is a member of NATO. And in the aftermath of Paris, NATO is bound to have a much higher profile in the war against IS. Turkey will be pressured even more to play its part. Further, the EU badly needs Turkey’s cooperation in stemming the flow of refugees, particularly since Turkey promised to provide a safe haven for the refugees in northern Syria and invest there in container communities like those built so quickly in Germany.

Whatever the eventual policies, this shift in Turkish priorities will put a spotlight on Israel’s involvement in Syria. Just before the 1 November elections, IDF planes evidently bombed, not only IS sites on the Golan Heights and Hezbollah bases near Ras al-Ayn and Katifa along the Lebanese border, but also sent sorties towards the Damascus airport. Further, Turkey will have as much interest as Israel in driving a wedge between Iran and Russia. Russia and Iran may both be allies of Assad in Syria, but Russia focuses its energies on rebuilding the secular Syrian army while Iran tries to strengthen the religious Shiite (Alawite) irregular forces fighting for Assad, the parallel to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Numbering 200,000, with 20,000 volunteers from Iraq, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Taliban from Afghanistan, often led on the ground by seasoned Iranian officers – hence the almost 50 Iranian “adviser” casualties, most officers – Russia and Iran are setting the stage for the post war battle over succession, assuming Assad will be offered as a sacrifice for a deal with the West. But Iran, with boots on the ground, has the distinct advantage.

Israel is directly affected by this rivalry. Israel is the arch-enemy of Iran, and Iran has no interest in strengthening any force linked to Israel. On the other hand, Assad (assume the Syrian army) and Israel had established a modus vivendi over the last few decades. More recently, Israeli officials met with Russian representatives to ensure that Israeli and Russian warplanes do not clash over the skies of Syria. Further, Russia assured Israel that Hezbollah would not get Russian arms. This Israeli-Russian connection has been built on a foundation of increased trade between Russia and Israel, including advanced military equipment and military exchanges.

Of course, the primary source of friction between Israel and Turkey has been the Palestine issue, with the single main source of friction Israel’s attack against the Mavi Marmara in which Turks were killed. More particularly, Turkey has been a strong supporter of Hamas in the Gaza Strip. So it should be no surprise that when the election results were approaching a clear win for the AKP, almost the first voice of congratulations delivered to Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was from Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau and the deputy chair of the political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh. Erdoğan, promised both that he would put Israel’s violations of its historical role on the plaza of the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount on the agenda of the G-20.

However, Khaled Meshaal does not belong to the extreme wing of Hamas. Meshaal was the one who, in July 2014, aborted the planned attack by Hamas’ military wing using the tunnels that would have sent a seismic wave through the Middle East, perhaps as great as the recent IS attacks on Paris. Like Paris, the Hamas-planned attack was a highly sophisticated, coordinated and simultaneous one by three different 10-man teams from its elite force through three different underground tunnels, involving one detail infiltrating Israel to attack and kill residents of Kibbutz Kerem Shalom and return with civilian hostages, a second team to control the perimeter and a third to set a booby trap for the IDF when they rushed to the defence of the kibbutz. The goal was to trade Israeli hostages for Hamas members in Israeli prisons. Meschaal vetoed the plan in fear that the Israeli response would be so overwhelming, so much more even than the results of the 2014 Gaza War, that it would have left Gaza totally devastated with European voices silenced because the violence was triggered by such a daring Hamas initiative.

On the other hand, the link between Hamas and Erdoğan has become more important since the 4 November announcement that Hamas was seeking a unified Palestinian command in the current 3rd intifada against Israel that he hoped would facilitate Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. “Hamas believes in all of the resistance’s choices and in the importance of coordinating efforts under a united command to increase the intifada’s efforts.”

But to really understand Turkey’s actions and policies, it is necessary to shift from Gaza, which is a sideshow in the conflicts in the Middle East, to Israel’s relations with the Kurds (Ofra Bengio “Surprising Ties between Israel and the Kurds,” Middle East Quarterly Summer, 21:3, 2014), and Turkey’s response to that connection. Historically, the Kurdish move to separatism had been labeled the New Israel. As Christians and other minorities are cleansed first from Iraq and then other Middle Eastern countries, one stream of the Muslim response was to label the tendency of Kurds to seize independence and create a “Yahudistan” as another naqba. The slander went beyond defining a parallel, but suggested that Israel had a more nefarious role. The very recent effort of the Kurdish offensive to retake the city of Sinjar from IS should be read with this in mind.

Ironically, there is some ground for suggesting a connection between Israel and the movement towards independence. There are also many historical differences. After WWI, while the Balfour Declaration in 1917 promised a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine, dividing up the Middle East in the Versailles Treaty after WWI denied granting the Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey the status of an independent state for 30 million Kurds. In the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War, Kurds, beginning in the autumn of 1961, once again saw their chance to rise up in Iraq. The Kurdish activist, Ismet Sherif Vanly, went to Israel to meet Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Shimon Peres, with a result that Israel and the Kurds exchanged permanent representatives, an arrangement that secretly survived that crushing of Kurdish aspirations. The Kurdish leader, Mulla Muṣṭafa al-Barzānī, visited Israel both in 1967 and 1973. As a result, in 1967 he Kurds opened another front against Iraq, thereby preventing Iraq from joining the other Arab states in the Six Day War. Kissinger and the CIA blocked a similar attempt in 1973. (Hasan Kösebalaban (2011) Turkish Foreign Policy, Nationalism and Globalization, 181)

Only in 1980 did Prime Minister Menachem Begin disclose the humanitarian and subsequent arms support and dispatch of military advisers that Israel had given the Kurds during the 1965-75 Kurdish uprising. In the aftermath of the Kuwait War in the beginning of the 1990s, once again the Kurds rose up in Iraq to set up an independent state, an initiative that was totally crushed by Saddam Hussein as the West refused to come to the aid of the Kurds, even though Prime Minister Shamir of Israel made a plea to the West on behalf of the Kurds. Israelis became even more convinced that they could only rely on themselves.

What survived was an Israeli-Kurdish Friendship society which worked diligently to reinforce relations between Iraqi Kurds and Israel. A Kurdish-Israeli journal was even started – Israel-Kurd. The Kurds, unlike the Arab world, even invited Israelis to conferences in Kurdistan. In spite of these links, there have never been any formal relationships between the Kurdish leadership and Israel, partly so that the relationship would remain under the radar and not attract even more attention to the Kurds. American Jews also tried to serve as intermediaries between Kurds and the American government through the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its links with the Washington Kurdish Institute (WKI).

Israel’s relationship with the Iraqi Kurds was one thing, with the Turkish Kurds another, partly because Turkish and Israeli foreign policy had been aligned in the latter half of the twentieth century, at least until Erdoğan was elected Prime Minster, and the Kurdish PKK was viewed as a radical terrorist organization allied with Syria and the PLO. In Lebanon in 1982, volunteers from the PKK fought against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and, with the defeat and departure of the PLO from Lebanon, the PKK were given a safe haven in Syria. Netanyahu, when he was first Prime Minister, publicly supported Turkey in its fight against the PKK. The Israeli government was even accused of capturing Abdullah Öcalan, the founder of the PKK in 1978. Israel was accused of turning him over to the Turkish authorities, especially since Israel regarded him as a persona non grata after his anti-Semitic remarks. In fact, his capture in Nairobi in 1999, was a combined effort of the CIA and Turkish military intelligence. (Victor Ostrovsky, “Capture of Kurdish Rebel Leader Ocalan Recalls Mossad Collaboration with Both Turkey, Kurds,” Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs, April/May 1999)

When the war of the Kurds in Turkey resumed against Erdoğan in the 21st century and Erdoğan had become an outspoken critic of Israel, a rapprochement took place between the PKK and Israel. By 2005, Barzani openly defended Kurdish relations between Kurdistan in Iraq and Israel and Jalal Talabani, the President and head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and President of Iraq at the time, openly shook the hand of Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, in front of Mahmoud Abbas in Greece in April of 2008. It seemed clear that the two men had met before. Seymour Hersh even claimed that Israel had been arming and training the Kurds in Iraq, a claim echoed by Yedi’ot Aharonot which insisted it had evidence of Israeli military advisers training the Peshmerga.

Once the peace process initiated by Erdoğan in 2013 had been ended by him in June 2015, the relations between Israel and the PKK, and between Israel and Syrian Kurds, went up several notches. The Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) had close ties with the PKK and operated in both Iran and Kurdistan; Israeli ties with the PJAK deepened. For the first time, Israeli relations with the four very different parts of the nationalist Kurdish movement in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey had become, more or less, aligned. How much was Israel willing to antagonize Turkey further by realigning its relations with the PKK? How willing is Erdoğan to bury the hatchet with Israel and perhaps even re-establish an exchange of ambassadors with Israel to give him a freer hand in fighting both the PKK and the Kurds in Syria? How willing are Putin and Obama to push Erdoğan towards such a reconciliation?

Not enough, evidently. On 24 October, Erdoğan claimed that the PYD in Syria remained an existential threat to the unity of Turkey, even while the U.S. was lending increased indirect support to the PYD and direct support to Iraqi Kurdistan’s Peshmerga in the fight against IS. The militant arm, the YPG (People’s Protection Units) of the PYD, collaborated with both the Free Syrian Army in the fight against both Assad and IS. However, Turkey was critical of American support for Syria’s Kurds and took umbrage at American concerns about human rights and freedom of the press in Turkey as four thugs, three of them open members of Erdoğan’s AKP, beat the popular columnist of Hürriyet, Ahmet Hakan, to a pulp. Erdoğan not only escalated the war against the PKK, but against the YPG as well.

But Erdoğan is now fighting a five-front war, against the secularists within Turkey, Güllenists within Turkey, and a more militant war against the PKK and the PYD, and, now against IS as well, the latter especially since two police were killed on 26 October in the raid against an IS hideout in Turkey. The West really only identifies with the latter war, but Turkey failed to take advantage of that when IS allegedly bombed the Kurd-dominated rally in Ankara and over 100 were killed. But the outpouring of sympathy for Turkey from the West was subdued compared to the response to the over 130 dead in Paris following the IS attacks there. Virtually no one takes Erdoğan’s claims seriously that the PKK and IS were allied in perpetrating the Ankara bombing.

In conclusion, as much as the West needs Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against IS, Turkey’s antagonism towards the Kurds in general and the PYD in Syria in particular, will keep any rapprochement with Israel at bay, especially since Israel is continuing to provide ammunition and arms, military training and diplomatic support to the PYD and, indirectly, the PKK. Where will Turkey end up now that the West is, or soon will be, in an all out war against IS? If Turkey aligns its policies more with the West and Israel reconciles to some degree with Turkey, will the West and Israel, more particularly, sacrifice their relations with the Syrian Kurds to rebuild its relations with Turkey? As long as the West has no troops on the ground, as long as Turkey continues to see the Kurds in Syria and the PKK as its main foe, in spite of joining the fight against IS, as long as the West needs Turkey in its fight against IS, then Israel will continue to be left out in the cold and will also likely continue strengthening its ties with the Kurds.

I suspect now that IS will be defeated in Syria, but that IS will also go underground more extensively in both Turkey and Europe. With the open battles between the police and IS terror cells in Turkey in October when Davutoğlu pronounced IS as ungrateful, presumably for all of Turkey’s previous covert support to IS, IS terrorists will continue to infiltrate Turkey as well as European states engaged in supporting the fight against Assad. However, because of Turkey’s resumption of war with the Kurds in both Syria and Turkey, Israel will continue to support the Kurds and Turkey’s animosity against Israel will remain intact. This is especially true since the public in Turkey still refuses to see IS as a mortal danger in contrast to the militant Kurds. Only about 15% of Turks believe that IS is a real danger to Turkey. And almost 60% of Turks believe that, even if IS was at the bottom of the two suicide bomber attacks in Turkey in October, IS is not a real threat to Turkey. 20% (see Gezici Research) even believe that the Turkish military intelligence was really behind the October suicide bombings, even if the perpetrators were from the IS.

Further, Turkey even denies the existence of significant numbers of Kurds in Tell Abyad, 5% instead of 40%. Of 250 Armenian families that escaped to Aleppo, only 50 have returned to Tell Abyad compared to the almost total return of the Kurds. Yet Erdoğan in October 2014 still claimed that, “I don’t want to argue whether Kobani is Kurdish or Arab. But its real name is Ayn al-Arab.” “Tell Abyad,” he recently added, “belongs to Arabs and Turkmen.” With such mindblindness, any effort to deepen relations between Turkey and Israel seems highly unlikely.

Turkish Foreign Policy

Turkish Foreign Policy

by

Howard Adelman

The main focus of Turkey’s foreign relations has been Syria and Iran, but also Iraq. Iran and its satraps (Assad’s Syria and a Shiite-led Iraq) form the main rival for Turkey’s hegemonic ambitions in the region. Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been unwilling in the latter part of his rule to become an obsequious suitor in pursuit of full entry into Europe. Erdoğan no longer believes that this is doable, at least not on terms acceptable to him. Hence, in part, the turn eastward.

There are also Cyprus and Greece, Egypt and, of course, Israel. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, became one of many of Erdoğan’s regional archenemies after Sisi toppled the democratically-elected regime of Mohammed Morsi, the then Islamist president of Egypt. Egypt is now Turkey’s hegemonic rival to the south-west. Whereas it may seem that the two countries should be close allies, since Egypt has an authoritarian government that Erdoğan can only envy, and both now have IS in their entrance hall, the reality seems to be that the two countries for now seem incapable of combining forces to deal with common enemies such as IS.

Erdoğan is also not willing to surrender his effective control of the northern half of Cyprus if that is a condition for getting into the EU. It seems clear that, quite aside from the EU’s concerns with Turkey’s human rights record and the fear of adding 80 million Muslims to the European population base, Cyprus is a key wedge issue on which Europe will not and cannot surrender on Turkey’s terms. It is one thing to accept a de facto division of the island. It is quite another to reward Turkey with de jure recognition of the division at the same time as Turkey gains EU membership. Meanwhile, Turkey is consolidating its links with the Turkish half of Cyprus. On 17 October, Erdoğan inaugurated the very controversial $450 million pipeline link with Turkish-governed northern Cyprus.

However, Cyprus is no longer the wedge issue between the EU and Turkey. The key factor is the almost two million refugees in Turkey. Turkey opened its doors to the flight of Syrians (and Afghans and Iraqis) to the EU to send a clear message that the EU needs Turkey’s cooperation to manage the crisis. Merkel’s efforts to call Erdoğan’s bluff by agreeing to admit 800,000 still has to be played out, but it is clear that Turkey holds a sword of Damocles over Europe since it could easily send a million more refugees towards Europe.

At the same time, Erdoğan has been pushing for a no-fly zone over Syria, ostensibly to facilitate refugee return as well as supposedly create a zone free of “terrorists” (read Kurds, not just IS). One suspects that any no-fly zone would cage Russia in and provide greater freedom for Turkish forces to tackle Kurdish militants on the ground in Syria. The Kurds could not be protected by the Americans, not only from IS, but now from Turkey. Such a step would also give both IS as well as Turkey, a much freer scope for action on the ground, especially since, as part of this proposal, Turkey has offered to rebuild the infrastructure as well as housing for the returnees.

There is another problem in the Mediterranean other than Cyprus and refugees. Turkey’s relations with both Russia and the United States depend almost entirely on Erdoğan’s battle in Syria, first with the Kurds there, who Erdoğan feared were en route to forming a strong military and economic base to help undermine his control of south-eastern Turkey. Then there is Assad, who was built up by Erdoğan as Turkey’s main enemy, primarily because of Turkey’s rivalry with Iran. IS with its strong base now in Iraq and its newer controls over swaths of Syria, had, until only very recently, been ranked very much and far lower down as a third priority in Syria. In fact, Turkey has been accused of supplying arms and munitions to IS in the past. For example, in 2013 Eren Erdem and Ali Şeker, opposition members in the Turkish parliament, openly accused the Turkish government of supplying IS with the chemicals used in the attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. Hundreds were killed in the chemical attack, which was initially blamed on Assad. Though there is evidence that Turkey provided continuing support to IS, more recently, this situation has been changing, but not enough to give up Erdoğan’s preoccupation with the Syrian and Iraqi Kurds lest they encourage Turkish Kurds, by their example and material and military support, to pursue autonomy and, possibly, independence.

Just a little over a year ago, 60,000 Kurds fled to Turkey in just 24 hours, a flight and influx that made the movement of refugees to Europe look like a slow motion operation. This is not because Kurds are in love with Erdoğan. It is because IS decided to run its own ship, abandon any reliance on Turkey’s support and attack the weakest areas in Syria, the villages and towns along the northern border with Turkey. Given the IS surprise victory in Mosul over the Iraqi army on 10 June 2014, and its acquisition of an enormous amount of American military equipment — AFV’s, American M1 and T-72M tanks, 4,000 IS militants in September 2014 turned from the IS victory in Mosul and seized dozens of villages that were predominantly Kurdish. Their prime target was the strategically-placed border town of Ayn al-Arab or Kobanî. Control of Kobanî was necessary for IS to consolidate its control over the north of Syria. Kobanî is located half way between Aleppo in the west, Syria’s second largest city, and Amude, Qamishli and Deirik in the north-east.

In spite of the danger IS posed to Turkey itself, especially in the long run, there is a great deal of evidence that Turkey’s security forces were supplying IS with arms and munitions even as the U.S. was ramping up its war against IS after deciding, reluctantly and tardily, to provide bombing cover for its allies in Syria. Those allies, as we shall see, included the Kurds. And the Kurds posed a central fear for Erdoğan lest the new strengthened semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq link up with a corresponding one in Syria to provide a border base for Turkey’s own separatist and militant PKK. At the same time, Turkey opened its border to the tens of thousands of Kurds in flight from Syria and surrendered over a hundred villages to the IS militants who randomly slaughter Kurdish civilians at will.

Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani’s call for a concerted and coordinated international intervention to protect Kobanî from IS initially went largely unheeded, in good part because the PKK has been labelled a terrorist organization and the so-called Rojava Revolution to unite Kurds in an independent Kurdish state in the Middle East has been viewed as a threat to “stability” in that region. The defence of Kobanî in the fight against IS by Kurdish forces emerged as a turning point in the war against IS and the shift away from Turkey’s unabashed support for IS in opposition to the Kurdish militants within Turkey. Ironically, the eventual victory of the Kurds in the fight against IS from Kobanî meant that the Kurds were perceived as posing an even greater danger to Erdoğan.

With the losses in the June 2015 election and the strength of the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria, Erdoğan could not desist in once again resuming the war against the PKK. The irony is that this was taking place at the same time as the Kurds in the region were joining nationalist democratic struggles, struggles which recognized Kurdish autonomy, in an effort to protect the gains Kurds had already made in both Iraq and Syria. As they worded it in their September conference in Washington, they opposed “nationalism that separates peoples, identities, beliefs and cultures – rejecting racism and religious extremism.” At the Washington conference, they adopted a policy of establishing organizational and military, political and diplomatic alliances that recognized Kurdish autonomy within larger free and democratic states, such as their goal for Syria.  What began as a resistance against al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra terrorists morphed into a search for allies in the struggle against the even more virulent and extremist IS or al Daesh. In less than one year of warfare directly engaging IS, the Kurds suffered 3,000 casualties, almost 30% of them dead.

However, the Kurds had established themselves as the clearest and most disciplined fighting force in the Middle East, including even IS. They had been crucial to the victory over and reversal of the IS position in Mosul, gaining, at the same time, more territory and consolidating the Kurdish autonomous area in Iraq. But their most formidable victory that established the Peshmerga force as a significant military actor in the region was the Kurdish defence of Kobanî and the eventual retreat of IS at the beginning of 2015 from many of their gains in northern Syria.

IS felt certain of victory in Kobanî. They had modern tanks and artillery. They had 4,000 experienced fighters. They had swept most Kurds out of northern Syria in an exercise in very rapid ethnic cleansing. They, however, were not counting on the far poorer equipped Peshmerga Kurdish forces to make such a valiant stand in Kobanî. They had expected the Kurds to flee en masse from IS’s reputation of exacting revenge on any civilians that remained behind.

In what seemed like impossible odds, the Kurds held off IS for months until the U.S. finally offered air support that allowed the Kurds to push back the IS forces. Ironically, the Kurdish successes in both Iraq and Syria only left Erdoğan feeling more threatened. Further, Erdoğan had held off as long as he could in providing permission for the U.S. air force to take off from Turkish airfields, permission which he finally granted in late summer of 2015.

Tim Arango in The New Yorker (29 September 2014) had been very prescient about the fighting skills of the Kurds. In a 27 October 2015 article, he depicted the Turkish military attacks against Kurdish forces, not only in Turkey, but in Tal-Alyad, Syria, just after the Kurdish forces routed IS from that border town. Erdoğan was not satisfied with his cold and calculated move to once again take up the war against the Kurds in Turkey’s southeast. He was moving the war to the base of Kurdish strength in Syria, taking on the People’s Protection Units or YPG, the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party in Syria. He had ostensibly warned the Kurdish Syrian military forces that they should not cross the Euphrates, that the river was Turkey’s red line.

In return for granting the U.S. access to air bases in Turkey, Erdoğan had already launched 400 sorties against Kurdish forces in Iraq. Just as Kurdish forces were pushing towards the IS capital in Raqqa, Erdoğan now turned his military against the Kurds in Syria, though ostensibly he was supposed to be targeting IS. That would come next, Turkish political leaders assured the Americans. IS could not be weakened if it only left the Kurds strengthened. The Obama regime seemed to avert their eyes as Turkey attacked its strongest ally in the Middle East next to Turkey itself, Egypt and, of course, Israel. However, the Kurds were the best fighting force on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. Would the U.S. allow one ally, that was a member of NATO, pulverize its other most steadfast ally in the region, now even more reliable than Israel?

Following Erdoğan’s enormous election victory on 1 November 2015, the situation became even worse as Turkey set out to weaken the Kurdish military totally within Turkey and in both Syria and Iraq with a barely disguised bid to create a buffer zone in the southeast border areas of Syria and Iraq to prevent reinforcements of the PKK entering Turkey and to disrupt the PKK supply lines. As rumours abounded on Remembrance Day 2015 that Erdoğan planned to hold a plebiscite on the presidency, the U.S. State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, repeated that the Kurds would be resupplied through Baghdad and not directly to either the Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq and clearly not directly to Syrian Kurdish forces. Nevertheless, the U.S. insisted that it continued to support the Kurdish attacks against IS. Turkey’s Prime Minister openly announced it had no opposition to supplying arms to the Peshmerga forces in Iraq via Baghdad, but was adamantly opposed to strengthening the Syrian Kurds at all.

As the war widens within both Turkey’s south east and in Syria itself, as the ostensible allies fight a two-front war – where there is no real front – against both IS and Assad, the issue is whether the Kurds will become the sacrificial lambs once again to the realist compromises of the great powers. It seems that the Kurds, as usual, have no reliable strong ally anywhere in the world.

But perhaps they have. In this balagan, a political mess that seems so characteristic of the Middle East, Israel appears initially only relevant as a distraction. When Erdoğan thinks he needs the Palestinians to rally his Muslim base in his own country and in the Middle East more generally, he will continue to use them to create spectacles, but ones without any true substance. Israel and Turkey are not “natural” enemies. Nor are they likely to become such given how Turkey is surrounded by real enemies. That is because Turkey’s policy entails an engagement, not only with the Islamic State (IS) that has recently made itself Erdoğan’s enemy, at the same time as all of the “allies” try to overthrow Assad. The only thing that seems clear is that the Kurds in both Iraq and Syria remain Erdoğan’s main preoccupation that colours and effects his relationships with Russia, the United States, countries like Saudi Arabia, and, as we shall see, Israel.

Next Blog: Turkey, the Kurds and Israel

Turkey’s 1 November 2015 Elections

Turkey’s Putin: The 1 November 2015 Elections

by

Howard Adelman

My main question is what the re-election of President: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP Party to a majority of seats in the special Nov. 1 election means for Israel. However, a quick summary of the Turkish election results that were widely considered to be an “earthquake” or a “tsunami” is necessary first.

Canada was not the only country that recently held an election that had entirely surprising and unexpected results that flummoxed all the pollsters. In the special election called by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for 1 November, the AKP ruling party, the party Erdoğan himself founded in 2001 and now led by Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, received almost half the votes and a majority of 327 seats in the 550 seat Parliament, but not the supermajority he needed to change the constitution to give Erdoğan a very significant increase in power. This was up from 40.8% of the vote and only 258 seats in the election just five months previously, those seats down from the 311 seats it had held in the previous parliament. Further, in order to dampen fears of a move towards Erdoğan authoritarianism, unlike the June elections, the AKP played down Erdoğan’s quest for increased powers, and, to that end, his participation in the election was actually significantly reduced.

Unlike Canada, where there was a ready explanation for the election results – votes won at the expense of the NDP as the Liberals replaced the New Democratic Party as the catalyst for change in voters’ minds. In Turkey, there was widespread evidence that, to some degree, the vote had been rigged, but the indications are that most of the shift was a result of an electoral shift between June and November.

June 7     Nov. 1   Seats  Shift

(to AKP)

AKP Party founded by Erdoğan 2001                              40.8%  49.47%  +59=327  +8.67

HDP – the Kurdish-dominated social democratic party   13.1%  10.75%   -21=59    – 2.35

CHP – Turkish secularist party; founded in 1923             25%     25.8%      +3=135

MHP – right-wing nationalist party                                   16.3%  11.9%    -40=40      -4.5

Two small parties; did not compete in the June election

(the small Islamist Felicity Party and the Kurdish

Islamist Huda-Par party)                                                    2%                                      – 2

97.2%                                -8.85

If the significantly increased voter turnout is factored in, the source of the shift in votes is somewhat clear. Yet many claim the elections were rigged. The evidence for rigged elections include the following:

  • The polls suggested that the AKP would improve its vote total, but only by 1-2%
  • The YSK, the Turkish Electoral Commission, closed its website and became incommunicable immediately after the election
  • 10 minutes after the first constituencies reported, the government Anadolu News Agency declared that 70% of the votes had been counted and that the AKP received 50% of the vote
  • There were reports of spikes in the votes of around 10% in many places, that is, where for a short period during the counting, suddenly the AKP was receiving 100% of the votes and its totals suddenly went up by 10%
  • Widespread rumours that the AKP got Syrian refugees to vote (even after the outflow to Europe, there are still over 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country)
  • The AKP, an anti-Kurdish party, significantly increased its vote results in predominantly Kurdish constituencies
  • There were power outages in Kurdish areas
  • There was a 1.5 hour power outage in one area of Istanbul, an active anti-AKP area
  • Some routes to polls had been cut off
  • There were rumours that the voting bags were switched
  • There were rumours that the computers counting ballots were preset by the AKP

The incidents that had preceded the election were already ominous:

  • Immediately after the 7 June election, a regime of intimidation began, beginning with the termination of the cease-fire with the PKK, the Kurdish rebel force, with clashes that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of members of the PKK and over 100 Turkish soldiers after the PKK had been accused of killing two police officers for assisting ISIS, but for which the PKK never claimed credit
  • There had been 30,000 deaths from the Turkish-PKK war over the past 30 years and the war was now resumed with the peace process dashed to pieces, especially following the killing of 12-year-old Helin Sen by a police sniper bullet and 9-year-old Elif Şimşek by a Turkish rocket
  • Between the June and November elections, 159 Turkish security officials were killed as well as hundreds of PKK fighters and 81 civilians
  • Kurdish activists, many allied with the HDP, the predominantly Kurdish party that broke through the 10% minimal vote requirement in the last election, were arrested in sweeps across the country
  • Turkish officials released a video showing a Kurdish protester, labelled a terrorist, being dragged behind a police vehicle by a rope tied around his neck ostensibly to check that the body was not booby-trapped, though the body was already riddled with 28 police bullets; the body, as it turned out, was that of a relative of Leyla Birlik, a HDP deputy from Şirnak, a 24-year-old actor, Haci Lokman Birlik, who had performed in an award-winning movie, Bark (Home), about the lives of Kurds in Kurdistan; the incident echoed the August video of the bullet-riddled body of female PKK fighter,Kevser Eltürk (Ekin Van) stripped naked
  • Erdoğan repeatedly broke protocol applied to a Turkish president – halfway between a political leader and a ceremonial head of state – and urged voters to cast their ballots for the AKP
  • The AKP was widely accused of being corrupt and many investigations had been launched since the inconclusive results of the 7 June election
  • The most serious incident had been the bombing of the Ankara Peace Walk on 10 October with over 100 dead supporters of the HDP, the Kurdish-dominated social democratic party that had led the rallies; Erdoğan blamed ISIS, Syrian intelligence and Kurdish militants (PKK) for the attacks (the suicide bomber unit of IS, Dokumacilar, was specifically blamed); ironically, subsequently Prime Minister Davutoğlu said the bombings were an attempt to influence the 1 November elections
  • Unlike the usual pattern, as I mentioned in previous blogs, security forces were suddenly noticeable by their absence
  • After the blast, the security forces took a surprisingly long time to show up
  • Further, after the blast, ambulances were allegedly prevented from reaching the victims immediately
  • ISIS was blamed for the explosion, but never claimed credit as per its usual custom
  • The intimidation of the media had grown – following a mob attack on 28 October, a mob made up of police officers and government bureaucrats, the editors-in-chief of the Bugün and Millet dailies, and Kanaltürk and Bugün TV channels were fired; Koza Ipek Holding, which owns Ipek Media, was placed under government trusteeship for supporting “terrorism,” though it only openly supported the Gülenists; at the same time, pressure on the media increased exponentially with a mob attack on Ahmet Hakan, Hürriyet’s popular columnist, who was severely beaten
  • Of the six men arrested for Hakan’s beating, four were released immediately
  • The violence between ISIS and Turkish security forces had heated up with 2 police and seven Islamic State militants killed, 5 police wounded and 12 ISIS militants arrested on 25 October following a raid and firefight in the mainly Kurdish city of Diyarbakir in southeast Turkey with rumours of many more IS safe houses equipped with automatic weapons already established across Turkey
  • Erdoğan insisted that Kurdish militants and ISIS, as well as Syrian intelligence, were linked
  • School teachers from Western Turkey employed in the Kurdish-dominated southeast refused to report to work
  • On 27 October, Turkey attacked the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) (supported by the U.S.) in Tal Abyad, Syria to raise the spectre of Kurdish independence spreading to Turkey
  • At the same time, two days after the Diyarbakir shoot-out, on 27 October, Turkish security forces rounded up 30 alleged IS militants in Konya and Kumar.

However, there were many signs that, in fact, the AKP was moving back towards a more historic pattern of results:

  • The Canadian election had been fought on the grounds of change versus continuity with the question being which party would be chosen as the party of change; the Turkish election had been fought on the basis of stability versus chaos, and if stability was favoured, so, ironically, was the AKP
  • Following on the earlier 20 July IS (alleged) suicide bombing that killed 32 Leftists in Suruç en route to crossing the border to cross into Kobani and fight in Syria, the spark that restarted the Turkish civil war, the explosion in Ankara on 10 October killing 102 peaceniks lent credence to the order versus chaos campaign of the AKP, allowing the party to win support at the expense of both the HDP and the MHP
  • In the face of the renewal of the war with the Kurds, the Kurdish traditional pattern of division between the secular democrats and militants (the Hizb ut-Tahrir) versus the conservative religious Kurds, once again came to the fore
  • In October, the renewed conflict between Ankara and the PKK disrupted the school system in the predominantly Kurdish southeast region because many teachers from western Turkey refused to report to work, inducing fear in parents concerned with their children’s schooling; in a report of the teachers’ union (Ekitim-Sen), 89% of the teachers expressed their belief that schools could not function properly with the conflict underway with 42% seeking reappointment to another province and 41% insisting they would not work in the region even though there was a long waiting list of teachers seeking jobs
  • The HDP lost most of its support in its heartland, south-eastern Anatolia – 24% decline in Muş and a 15% decline in Bingöl
  • The CHP failed to form an alternative government, even though the Kurdish-dominated HDP was offered the post of Prime Minister and even though the nationalist right-wing MHP was offered the prospect of suing Erdoğan and his followers for corruption if they agreed not to bring the new coalition down in a Parliamentary vote
  • At the same time, Devlet Bahçeli, leader of the MHP, rejected every offer of coalition with the AKP just as his hawkish stand against Kurdish nationalists was being usurped
  • Erdoğan’s persecution of the Gülen’s alleged network had increased, and legal proceedings were actually launched by the Turkish embassy in Washington to have a legal firm investigate the Gülen “netwok”
  • In Erdoğan’s attacks against the Assad government in Syria and the Islamic State at the same time, the actual main military attacks in late October were against Kurdish fighters in Syria
  • There were many rumours that if the AKP did not secure a majority in the 1 November snap election, another election would soon be scheduled, the fifth in two years, since Erdoğan could not be counted on to make a prudent rational choice
  • Turkish economic decline, that had so dominated the June election, was overshadowed by the increased focus on physical security in spite of the continuing decline of the lira in relation to the U.S. dollar and the poor results of Turkey’s balance of trade figures
  • Erdoğan was not only instigating polarization against his former Gülen allies and the Kurdish community (not just the PKK), but was fomenting both Sunni-Alevi and Muşlim-secular antagonism; the budget for the Directorate of Religious Affairs now was larger than that of 12 other ministries put together
  • As voters shifted to seeking security, they also looked more and more at strategic voting; the MHP, like the NDP in Canada, was left in an invidious position, for if the party contemplated a coalition with the AKP to ensure stability, the prospect of surviving as an independent party diminished, but if they insisted on remaining independent, then the voter base, which they shared with the AKP, would shift away from them to ensure an AKP majority – which is what took place, particularly since the AKP had adopted their hawkish position against any compromise with the PKK
  • The AKP had already stolen the MHP headliner, Tuğrul Türkeş, the son of Alparslan Türkeş, the founder of the MHP
  • The up-and-down, but overall down, decline in the Turkish currency reinforced the quest for security
  • Thus, in Canada, the external forces pushed for change, whereas in Turkey the demand for stability increased

Erdoğan had a powerful motive to rig the election – he was determined to get the country to switch from a parliamentary to a powerful centralized presidential system, but without the checks and balances of the U.S. and more akin to the Russian system. However,  he needed two-thirds of the seats in Parliament to change the constitution, highly unlikely under any scenario. But why were pollsters so wrong about the results for the Liberals in Canada and for the conservative AKP in Turkey, though it was more understandable in Turkey where the pollsters had to stop publishing polls ten days before ballots were cast? Why did pollsters in both countries fail to predict or even anticipate the real possibility of a majority for one party? In both countries, voters turned out in record numbers. Why did liberals win in one country and conservatives in the other, conservatives with an authoritarian bent?

A key factor is which party ran the best campaign. In Canada, that was an easy choice – the Liberal Party, even though all parties ran relatively solid campaigns. In Turkey, the issue was the opposite – which parties ran the worst campaigns? It is not simply that the HDP and the MHP ran very ambiguous and, therefore, unfocused and weak campaigns. The HDP was never clear enough about distinguishing itself from the PKK, though for the second time running, it still managed to come in above the 10% threshold. At the same time, the MHP was speechless as the AKP stole its thunder. Neither party was helped by the series of attacks on journalists and the free media, but that could not have been a major factor, in spite of how repulsive these attacks were, for they were aimed at Gülen supporters as well as the CHP that held onto and even slightly increased its support.

The biggest irony of the election was that the party that claimed victory, ran on a program of stability. Yet Erdoğan himself and his policies of polarization (a much more radical version of Harper’s) deepened Sunni-Alevi, Islamist-secular and Turkish-Kurdish polarization, with the enemies of the Islamic nationalists of the AKP all in the opposition seats. Voters who gave up their desire for political change bought into the promise of stability by voting for Erdoğan’s party, the almost singular source for the country’s continuing instability. If Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is true to his words in his victory speech, offering to end “polarization and tension,” I suspect he may be sending a direct challenge to his boss, Erdoğan, the mastermind of enhanced tension as the Machiavellian route to increased power.