Erdoğan’s Blowback: How Personal Ambitions Plunged Turkey into Crisis

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is surrounded by security personnel as he leaves a building in Istanbul, October 13, 2016
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is surrounded by security personnel as he leaves a building in Istanbul, October 13, 2016 (!Koss)

Recep Erdoğan has come a long way. The president of Turkey, Erdoğan has been clawing upward since becoming mayor of Istanbul in 1994. His political road has been riddled with mines: Turkish generals, side-switching Islamist allies, Kurdish politicians and secular-minded Turks. His accomplishments are impressive. Serving as prime minister from 2003 until 2014, he shepherded real democracy into what was once a military-dominated republic.

But all great movements run out of steam. Erdoğan’s political shakeup of Turkey is starting to ossify into authoritarian thuggery and habits meant to be banished by democracy.

Worse, his policies are getting Turkish citizens killed. Read more “Erdoğan’s Blowback: How Personal Ambitions Plunged Turkey into Crisis”

2016 in Geopolitical Review

Barack Obama
American president Barack Obama waits backstage before participating in a panel discussion in Atlanta, Georgia, March 29 (White House/Pete Souza)

You’d be hard pressed to find someone who liked 2016. Just about every safe assumption about the future was challenged. To top the year off, the United States even abstained from a veto on the UN Security Council condemning Israeli settlements, rewriting at the last moment the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. It has been a roller coaster, but what has it all meant? Read more “2016 in Geopolitical Review”

Andrei G. Karlov Is Not Franz Ferdinand

Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany speaks with Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, circa 1910
Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany speaks with Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian crown prince, circa 1910

The high-profile killing was everything one could want from a public assassination. Cameras were live; the Western media, less prone to state censorship, watching. The assassin even had a chance to deliver a short speech that was straight to the point and then was promptly killed by Turkish security services. From the standpoint of political murder, it ticked all the boxes.

It goes to show that humanity has made a good leap forward in education that #FranzFerdinand briefly trended on Twitter. That people knew of the long-dead archduke, and knew his killing touched off World War I, is a testament that maybe teachers are doing a good job after all.

Well, a decent job. Because the killing of Ambassador Andrei Karlov is a blip, not a world-shaking event.

There’s a very good reason for it: Russia needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Russia. Even if Vladimir Putin’s own mother was killed in Ankara by a similar rogue agent, Moscow would still very likely not go to war with Turkey.

That’s because Franz Ferdinand tripped a geopolitical bomb waiting to go off. There is no such bomb between Turkey and Russia. Read more “Andrei G. Karlov Is Not Franz Ferdinand”

After Mosul Falls, What Then?

There are some 100,000 troops involved in the conquest (or reconquest, depending on your perspective) of Mosul. On the surface, the battle is meant to restore the Iraqi government to its full writ; a Baghdad-united Shia and Sunni realm, a nation state on the way to functionality. In other words, a normal country.

Ah, dreams.

Careful observation reveals a more wretched future. The Islamic State may be doomed, but that hardly means peace for Iraq. There are too many who want a piece of this particular pie.

Many players there are. Let’s start with the greatest of powers, who define the broadest outlines of geopolitics in the Middle East. Read more “After Mosul Falls, What Then?”

Sensing American Disinterest, Egypt and Turkey Reach Out to Russia

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey meet in Saint Petersburg, August 9
Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey meet in Saint Petersburg, August 9 (Kremlin)

Russian president Vladimir Putin appears to have pulled off two geopolitical coups in one week.

On Monday, he was in Istanbul to sign an agreement with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for the construction of a Black Sea gas pipeline that would bypass Ukraine (a longstanding Russian foreign-policy goal).

The two strongmen also vowed to seek common ground on the war in Syria. That seems a long way off, given that they back opposing sides in the civil war, but it’s an improvement from calling each other the “accomplices of terrorism,” as they did in November.

Then on Tuesday, the Russian Ministry of Defense announced that its forces would hold joint military exercises with Egypt’s at some point later this month.

Egypt and Turkey are supposed to be American allies. What’s going on? Read more “Sensing American Disinterest, Egypt and Turkey Reach Out to Russia”

Turkey Goes into Syria, Or How to Influence People with Tanks

Polish Leopard tank
A Polish Leopard 2 tank, also in service with Turkey, takes part in a military exercise, September 27, 2006 (Ministerstwo Obrony Narodowej)

Nature abhors a vacuum; so too does geopolitics. The nation state has conquered the world and it cannot abide an empty place on the map for long.

The collapse of the Syrian state has left behind such a vacuum. The question has never been if it will be filled; short of human extinction, that is inevitable. The question is by who.

Now Turkey has finally invaded Syria: not to smash and grab but to stay, in one form or another.

What’s going on here? Isn’t this just another sad mistake in the long series of sad mistakes in Syria?

Not necessarily. Here’s why. Read more “Turkey Goes into Syria, Or How to Influence People with Tanks”

Turkey’s Intervention in Syria: Why and Why Now?

A Polish Leopard 2 tank, also in service with the Turkish army, takes part in military exercises near Zagan, June 13, 2015
A Polish Leopard 2 tank, also in service with the Turkish army, takes part in military exercises near Zagan, June 13, 2015 (MCD/Evert-Jan Daniels)

Turkish tanks rolled across the border into Syria on Wednesday. Protected by warplanes and flanked by special forces, they quickly succeeded in forcing Islamic State militants out of the city of Jarablus and driving a wedge between their territory and that of the Syrian Kurds.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkish-backed rebels — mostly Arab and Turkmen — had taken control of the city. Read more “Turkey’s Intervention in Syria: Why and Why Now?”

Why Turkey Is Drifting from the West

Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Barack Obama of the United States meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 7, 2009
Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey and Barack Obama of the United States meet in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, December 7, 2009 (White House/Samantha Appleton)

Blaming the West is a time-honored tradition for those who would be king; Recep Erdoğan is merely following the well-worn pathway of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and Hafez al-Assad when he declared the root of Turkey’s evil coup is somewhere in a Western intelligence agency.

It’s a familiar Middle Eastern script. It appeals to the Turkish street because it coddles Turkish nationalism, reinforcing the (deeply false) notion that Turks’ only political flaw is letting spies slip into their society. It draws upon historical myth for credence: of course Western intelligence agencies have meddled and doubtless continue to do so, from Operation Ajax to CIA spooks in Syria’s civil war.

But just because Western spies have meddled in the past does not mean they did so this time, nor does that let Turkey’s citizens off the hook for listening to the siren call of Erdoğan’s Islamism.

Yet despite its familiarity, this time there is a general feeling that perhaps Turkey and the West are going separate ways.

The rationale is simple: NATO needs Turkey, but Turkey, increasingly, does not need NATO.

Here’s why. Read more “Why Turkey Is Drifting from the West”

Turkey Coup Continues Destabilization Spiral in Black Sea

Black Sea ships
Ships on the Black Sea seen from Sukhumi, Abkhazia, May 12, 2009 (WomEOS)

In the two years following the Russian annexation of the Crimea, the Black Sea region has turned into a seismic spot for geopolitical destabilization.

The failed coup against Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the latest in a series of events that have undermined stability in the area. There is now concern that relations between Ankara and the rest of NATO could change, which would have an averse effect on regional security.

On the other hand, NATO has had some successes in the region, with Montenegro joining soon and the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine strengthening their relations with the Western alliance. Read more “Turkey Coup Continues Destabilization Spiral in Black Sea”

Turkey’s Coup Signals a Generational Shift to Islamism

Turkish generals
General Kenan Evren and other leaders of Turkey’s 1980 coup observe a Victory Day parade that year (Anadolu Agency)

On Friday, a faction of the Turkish military tried to overthrow presidential strongman Recep Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party and increasingly the man of Turkish politics. They failed; first, they didn’t kill or capture Erdoğan in the opening moments of the coup, then they failed to shut off the Internet and media so that that Erdoğan’s supporters couldn’t rally. A few hours after the coup had begun, it began to unravel as tens of thousands of Turks flooded the streets, captured tanks, killed soldiers and forced the rest of the putschists to surrender.

It was remarkable how it played out in public: from Erdoğan FaceTiming the nation to revelations that the putschists were using WhatsApp to coordinate units, this was in every sense a twenty-first century coup run as though it were the twentieth century. Read more “Turkey’s Coup Signals a Generational Shift to Islamism”