Protests Might Not Dislodge Erdoğan But Do Pose Challenge

The sometimes violent demonstrations that swept Turkey’s major cities, including Istanbul, in recent days might not reflect the nation’s majority’s discontent with the Islamist government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan but do pose the first serious challenge to the prime minister’s authority which previously seemed incontestable.

Demonstrations that sprang up last week in response to plans to construct a shopping mall in one of the last remaining green spaces in the center of Istanbul morphed into a nationwide protest movement against Erdoğan’s rule which opponents say is increasingly dictatorial.

Erdoğan’s conservative party got almost 50 percent of the votes in the last election but its support comes largely from Sunni Muslims in the countryside. Minorities as well as urban and young voters are wary of its Islamist agenda which has seen the persecution of critical journalists, the sidelining of the army that ruled Turkey thrice in its republican history and the repeal of secular laws in a country that is 96 percent Muslim. Abortion rights have been restricted. Headscarf bans were lifted. And late last month, parliament prohibited the sale of alcohol between ten o’clock at night and six in the morning. Read more “Protests Might Not Dislodge Erdoğan But Do Pose Challenge”

Turkey Overplayed Hand, Irrelevant in Gaza Conflict

The country that once aspired to a position of regional leadership apparently played no role in Wednesday’s ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel which was negotiated with Egypt and the United States instead. Israel lacks the necessary trust in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey for him to be a credible partner.

Initially silent about the recent violence in Gaza, the Turkish prime minister came out fulminating against Israel’s military actions earlier this week, branding the country a “terrorist state” that was inflicting a “massacre” in the coastal strip. On Tuesday, he argued that Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, was rightfully defending itself against Israel’s attempt at “occupation and ethnic cleansing” even if Israeli settlers and security forces were withdrawn from the territory in 2005. Read more “Turkey Overplayed Hand, Irrelevant in Gaza Conflict”

So Now Erdoğan Cares About Europe Again?

Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey address a press conference in Ankara, November 6
Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey address a news conference in Ankara, November 6 (Rijksoverheid)

Turkey’s prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan practically demanded on Wednesday that the European Union make his country a member state by 2023. It is difficult to imagine that the Turkish leader expects membership in such a short-term, if at all, so why raise the stakes?

In Berlin for a meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdoğan warned that if Turkey isn’t admitted, Europe risks “losing” it.

European Union membership in 2023, when the Turks mark the centennial of their republic, is part of the Erdoğan government’s “2023 vision” as formulated by foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu two years ago.

Yet under Davutoğlu’s direction, Turkey has moved away from Europe in recent years, emerging as a pivotal regional actor in its own right. It entered free-trade agreements with Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Tunisia and set up a free-trade zone with neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Turkey positioned itself as a regional mediator, even negotiating a nuclear fuel swap agreement with Iran. Europe, it seemed, had taken a backseat in the minds of Turkish foreign policymakers.

Davutoğlu’s “zero problems with neighbors” strategy no longer seems viable in the face of mounting tension with Iraq and especially Syria. Erdoğan has antagonized his Iraqi counterpart Nouri al-Maliki by deepening trade relations with his country’s Kurds while his calls on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to reform fell on deaf ears. Turkey now supports the largely Sunni opposition against Assad, giving its foreign policy a more sectarian than neutral flavor.

This may explain Erdoğan’s newfound appreciation of European Union membership but is unlikely to. Turkey may not rise to be the Middle East’s troubleshooter after all but can still claim the leadership of the Sunni world. If it were part of Europe, that would be far more difficult to achieve.

Turkey’s main interest in membership is commercial. The free flow of people, goods and services across the border would be a tremendous boon to its economy. But the same can be achieved with a free-trade association similar to Norway’s. Moreover, Turkey is already on track to enter a customs union with Europe.

Meanwhile, with the exception of the United Kingdom, no Western European member state is in favor of admitting Turkey. Erdoğan must realize that his ultimatum will do nothing to change that.

Turkey currently complies with just one of the 33 chapters in the negotiating process. On matters ranging from environmental protection to food safety to public procurement, it has yet to align with European law. Even if it complies with all of the terms, existing member states must agree unanimously to grant Turkey membership. Cyprus, for one, will likely block such an ascension given its sovereignty dispute with the Turk Cypriots in the north of the island who are recognized as an independent state by Ankara alone.

Indeed, Erdoğan probably realizes that Turkey will not be a member state in his lifetime and may be starting to give himself and his party some political cover for when that becomes obvious. The opposition, which already has strong doubts about the ruling Islamist party’s commitment to Turkish secularism, could blame the Erdoğan government and its supposed Islamification of the country if it drifts farther from Europe. The prime minister appears to be laying the groundworks for ultimately blaming European intransigence instead.

Turkey’s Erdoğan Warns Will Not Wait for Europe

Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey address a press conference in Ankara, November 6
Prime Ministers Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey address a news conference in Ankara, November 6 (Rijksoverheid)

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan urged the European Union on Tuesday to grant his nation membership by 2023 and suggested that it could set up a currency union of its own instead of joining the euro.

At a joint press conference in Berlin, German chancellor Angela Merkel reassured her Turkish counterpart, “The EU is an honest negotiating partner.” She promised that ascension talks would continue “irrespective of the questions that we have to clarify,” referring to the country’s human rights record and disagreements over the status of Cyprus.

Greek Cyprus, a European Union member state that is also part of the eurozone, is opposed to Turkish membership. The Turkish republic in the north of the island is only recognized by the government in Ankara. Erdoğan argued on Wednesday that admitting the internationally-recognized Greek Cyprus without settling the sovereignty dispute had been a “mistake.”

Other European Union member states, including Germany, have conveniently cited Greek Cypriot objections to Turkish membership for years when they are themselves apprehensive about the Muslim nation of more than seventy million joining the bloc. Members of Merkel’s ruling Christian Democratic party are almost unanimously opposed to Turkish membership as are conservatives in France, the Netherlands and other Western European nations. Indeed, only Britain’s prime minister David Cameron has openly called for Turkey to join.

Erdoğan’s proposed lira zone seems more a stab at the European currency union’s woes than a true plan for monetary union in West Asia. Although Turkey has signed free-trade deals and entered customs unions with several of its neighbors, it is far-fetched to imagine any of them, besides possibly Azerbaijan, sharing the Turkish currency in the near future, especially as its engagement policy of “zero problems with neighbors” has been buried in the chaos of Syria’s civil war.

Erdoğan Does Not “Rule Out” Invasion of Syrian Kurdistan

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan warned on Sunday that Turkish forces may cross the border into Syria in pursuit of Kurdish separatists. He accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of supporting the Kurdish insurgency.

Erdoğan spoke with Turkish television on the day that fourteen Kurdish militants were killed in simultaneous raids on four Turkish border posts. Six border guards died in the clashes.

Kurdish militant activity in the border area between Iraq, Syria and Turkey has increased in recent months. In the absence of Syrian security forces, separatists aligned with the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and its NATO allies, have been able to stage attacks on Turkish border posts and take over entire Syrian towns.

Last week, Turkish tanks carried out military exercises near the Syrian border, mere kilometers from towns that are now under Kurdish control. Turkey has increased its army presence on the border since one of its fighter planes was taken down by Syrian air defenses in June.

Erdoğan did not “rule out” the possibility of Turkish forces crossing the border to suppress the Kurdish uprising. “We have three brigades along the border currently conducting maneuvers there. And we cannot remain patient in the face of a mistake that can be made there.”

Earlier, Erdoğan insisted that, “It is out of question for us to tolerate a structure of the terrorist organization in north of Syria and permit the presence of a threat to Turkey there.”

Turkish forces in recent years have crossed into northern Iraq numerous times in pursuit of Kurdish insurgents. At the same time, it has fostered close commercial and diplomatic relations with the Kurdistan Regional Government there, to the extent that it antagonized the central government in Baghdad when it began importing Kurdish oil last month.

That relationship could be strained if Iraqi Kurds throw in their lot with their Syrian counterparts. The president of Iraq’s Kurdish province Masoud Barzani admitted earlier this month that Syrian Kurds who had defected from Assad’s army were being trained in his territory. “This was aimed at filling the vacuum that will be created” if the Ba’athist regime collapses, he explained.

Less than two million Kurds live in Syria. Turkey’s Kurds, more than eighteen million, comprise some 20 percent of the country’s population. Ankara has battled the PKK’s quest for independence since the early 1980s. Many of its fighters are drawn from Syria’s Kurdish minority.

Turkey cannot allow northeastern Syria to become a safe haven for insurgents but if it intervenes, it not only risks losing the trust of the Syrian opposition which, under the leadership of a Kurd, has been allowed to organize on Turkish soil; it could instigate a war with Syria proper because President Assad will likely regard an incursion as the first step toward toppling his government.

Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously claimed that there are more than seventy million Kurds in Turkey. This is, in fact, Turkey’s total population.

Erdoğan Woos Pakistanis and Teaches Them a Lesson

In Pakistan last week, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan praised the strong relations between the two Muslim countries and vowed to stand by Pakistan’s side. “We understand your pain and will continue to stand by you in the days ahead,” he said.

Mere months after Pakistan’s government seemed on the brink of collapse and there was even talk of another military coup, the Turkish leader expressed confidence in the country’s ability to address the challenges that it faces.

Erdoğan added, “A strong democratic Pakistan has much to do with regional peace, prosperity and stability.”

Turkey notably backed Pakistan’s demand that the United States apologize for the death of civilians who perished in a drone strike in November before reopening NATO supply routes in Afghanistan, even if Turkey is a NATO member.

Military relations between the two countries have historically been strong. Turkey’s is more secular than Pakistan’s army but under Erdoğan premiership, the country has moved into a more Islamist direction. At the same time, he has reined in the generals who, like their Pakistani counterparts, like of think of themselves as the guardians of the secular tradition. Pakistan’s civilian leaders can only dream of such authority. The army and intelligence services, considered a “state within a state,” are enormously powerful in Pakistan.

Pakistan has had its fair share of military coups since independence. The army ran the country three times after 1947. Pervez Musharraf led the last military government between 1999 and 2007. His successor as army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, has promised to keep the armed forces out of politics but enjoys tremendous influence as the nation has been on a war footing since the Americans invaded Afghanistan more than ten years ago, rekindling a conflict with Islamist insurgents that has wrecked Pakistan.

The country is home to different ethnic groups that had never formed a nation before 1947 — and, in a sense, still haven’t. The majority Punjabi army is reluctant to expand operations in the western tribal region where the people are of Pasthun descent and insurgents battling NATO forces in Afghanistan are known to shelter. The army’s offenses in the region are estimated to have displaced up to half a million people. Terror has spilled into Pakistan proper with assassinations and bombings taking place in major cities including Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore.

Another outright military takeover is unlikely as it would associate the generals with the unpopular American raids and overall sense of decline, the blame for which is currently put on the civilian government.

Still, the present situation, where the civilian government lacks the authority to set foreign and security policy independent of the army, is far from satisfying for either party. Erdoğan’s moderate Islamism could be a model for Pakistan’s leaders to simultaneously keep the generals at bay and appease the masses but as with all things in Pakistan, it hinges more on the army’s willingness to let it happen than the civilian leadership’s ability to copy it.

Diplomatic Crisis Between Iraq, Turkey Deepening

The war of words between Ankara and Baghdad is worsening after Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki branded Turkey a “hostile state” and the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region hinted at secession.

Tensions between the neighboring countries flared last week when Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Maliki’s “self-centered” policies had exacerbated the sectarian divide between Iraq’s Shia, Sunnis and Kurds.

Maliki responded by accusing Erdoğan of the same by interfering in Iraqi politics. He also said that Turkey aspired to “hegemony” in the Middle East. Read more “Diplomatic Crisis Between Iraq, Turkey Deepening”

Turkish Leader Urges Opening of Syrian Aid Corridors

Turkey’s prime minister on Tuesday urged the “immediate” opening of humanitarian aid corridors in neighboring Syria and warned that the “bloodshed” in the country “will not be left unaccounted for.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who leads Turkey’s ruling conservative party, told parliament that the Syrian army is “butchering its own people, pointing its guns at the masses.” He described the crackdown of anti-government protests there as “inhumane savagery.”

France has since November argued that other countries should secure humanitarian corridors in Syria to allow food and medicine to reach civilians who are caught up in the nearly yearlong struggle between rebel militias and forces that are loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. Read more “Turkish Leader Urges Opening of Syrian Aid Corridors”

Turkey’s Erdoğan: Israel “Shows No Mercy”

Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Israel “shows no mercy” and is “cruel” in its treatment of Palestinians in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that airs on Sunday.

The Turkish leader also questioned the number of Israelis that have suffered under missile attacks launched from Gaza where the militant Islamist movement Hamas has been in government since 2007, before claiming that “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were killed” as a result of military action by Israel.

Relations between the two Middle Eastern states have deteriorated since May of last year when Israel intercepted a small fleet of blockade runners that was bound for Gaza. The activists on board the ships claimed that they were carrying humanitarian aid for the people of the Gaza Strip but attacked Israeli soldiers when they boarded the lead vessel. Nine Turks were killed in the skirmish that ensued.

Ankara strongly condemned the incident. Erdoğan’s deputy prime minister likened the action to “piracy” and characterized it as “a dark stain on the history of humanity.” Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, the architect of Turkey’s “zero problems with neighbors” policy, compared the Israeli raid to the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Turkey demanded a formal apology from Israel for the loss of life as well as reparations for the families of the deceased. When its demands weren’t met this month, it barred Israeli military aircraft from Turkish air space and vowed legal action against the Israeli soldiers that were involved in the incident.

The Israeli embargo of Gaza continues but Egypt, where veteran president Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising last February, unilaterally lifted the blockade this May.

Erdoğan received a hero’s welcome in Cairo nearly two weeks ago where he spoke passionately on behalf of the Palestinian cause. “Our Palestinian brothers should be able to have their own state,” he told a summit of Arab leaders, urging their support for full Palestinian membership of the United Nations.

The Palestinian Authority sought recognition of statehood at the General Assembly in New York on Friday despite American and Israeli opposition to the move. Western powers insist that a Palestinian state can only come about as a result of negotiations with Israel.

Although he risks alienating traditional allies of Turkey’s with his populist rhetoric, Erdoğan will likely continue to champion the Palestinian cause and frustrate his nation’s relations with Israel in the process.

The prime minister’s moral support of the Palestinians held his administration in good stead among Arabs who took to the streets to demand democracy in Egypt and Syria this year. Its “zero problems with neighbors” policy, by contrast, accomplished little in Damascus where President Bashar al-Assad hardly recognized Turkey’s plea to end the violence against demonstrators.

The emerging new political class in Egypt and possibly Syria might remember Turkey’s willingness to do business with the old, authoritarian guard in these countries and regards Ankara’s once close ties with the Jewish state warily. This threatens to derail the very aim of more than a decade of Turkish foreign policy — to establish trade relations across the region and position Turkey as the pivotal power broker of the Middle East.

So Turkey is changing its foreign policy again, this time in favor of not just its neighboring governments but its neighboring people.

Turkey, with its novel blend of moderate Islamism and secular administration, uniquely positioned between the Muslim world and Europe, should have been on the side of those to whom it appealed most all along — the very educated, cosmopolitan youngsters who agitated against the corrupted and oppressive enlightened despotisms of their time.

Erdoğan admitted as much when he avoided answering Fareed Zakaria’s question about Turkey’s realignment plainly. “We work on adopting the science of the West,” he said. “But let’s not forget, there are really beautiful things in the East, as well. Do not leave the eastern parts of the world aside.”

Turkish Ruling Party Expects Election Win

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) was expected to perform well in Sunday’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his electoral powerhouse were running for a third term in office against a splintered opposition of nationalists, secularists and leftist parties.

The AKP ran on a platform of stability. Since 2002, when Erdoğan swept to power with 34 percent of the vote, the AKP has liberalized the economy and restored confidence and growth to Turkey. Nearly unaffected by the global economic downturn, Turkey’s conservative party won a strong mandate in the previous parliamentary elections of 2007, capturing 47 percent of the vote.

Turkey’s secular establishment regards Erdoğan warily with concerns about his party’s pandering to the Islamist vote. The conservatives may have only partly succeeded in repealing a ban on women wearing headscarfs in public spaces; their intentions were perfectly clear, say opponents. The AKP claims to uphold religious freedoms but secularists see growing signs of orthodox Islamism.

The AKP’s civil rights record has been notably progressive for a party that describes itself as conservative however. In an effort to meet the criteria of European Union membership, Erdoğan’s government allowed the European Court of Human Rights supremacy over the Turkish judiciary, diminished the powers of a 1991 anti-terrorism law which had constrained Turkey’s democratization and abolished the death penalty.

For decades, the country’s secularists relied on the army to keep Islamism at bay while enriching themselves at the cost of financial ruin. Erdoğan began to curtail the influence of the armed forces when he came to power seven years ago and has worked to root out corruption from government altogether — a herculean task that has not been without merit. In conjunction with market reforms and free-trade agreements with Turkeys’s neighbors, the economy is prospering because of it.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, which was founded by Atatürk himself, hasn’t received much more than 20 percent of the vote in recent elections but may fare better under the new leadership of Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu who ran for mayor of Istanbul in 2009. Kılıçdaroğlu is expected to move the party further to the left and campaigned in the rural east of the country — an AKP stronghold where the social democrats haven’t performed well for generations.