Dr. Salt has taught at the University of Melbourne, Bosporus University and Bilkent University in Ankara (Department of Political Science and Public Administration). He now writes independently on Middle East issues.
Turkey is passing through a particularly critical phase in its history. Thousands of people have died so far in the renewal of the war being waged against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in the southeast. In February and March 2016, scores of people died when a Kurdish faction struck back with suicide and car bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul, one targeting military personnel and the other, people waiting at a bus stop. The Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), a splinter group from the PKK that some commentators say is still part of the organization, claimed responsibility. Meanwhile, involvement in the Syrian war has rebounded savagely on Turkey: close to three million Syrians have crossed the border to escape the fighting, and Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers have taken the lives of hundreds of people in attacks along the border and, again, in Ankara.
Other consequences of this war include conflicted relations with the European Union (EU) over the fate of the Syrian refugees and the awakening of the Syrian Kurds. Relations with neighboring countries (Iran and Iraq) have been damaged, while the downing of a Russian warplane brought Turkey close to open conflict with Russia. In the meantime, Turks are deeply divided over the direction their country has been taken under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. While fissures run in many directions, the primary divide is between those Turks who seem to adore their president and those who abhor him.
Thin-skinned, pugnacious and vindictive, Erdogan hurls thunderbolts at his enemies from parliamentary and public platforms and the Turkish equivalent of Mount Olympus, the palace he had built on the land that once belonged to his secular antithesis, Mustafa Kemal "Ataturk." Cunning in his climb to power, he has been ruthless in its exercise. He is no statesman: the list of foreign leaders he has irritated with his abrasive remarks is a long one, but domestically he is the most successful practitioner of politics in Turkey since the establishment of the multiparty system in 1946. Proud of his upbringing in the working-class Istanbul suburb of Kasimpasa, he has shown a sound grasp of how to play to the needs and aspirations of his AKP (Justice and Development Party) government's supporters and (it might be said) playing off their susceptibilities.
When Erdogan first became prime minister in 2003, he was regarded in Europe and the United States, somewhat condescendingly, as a good example of a "moderate" Muslim leader. Even in his own country, many secular liberals were prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. Now the words commonly applied to him are authoritarian, dictatorial and even despotic. The margins for dissent seem to shrink a little bit more every day: the distinction between the critic and the enemy has all but disappeared. Increasingly, it seems there is no collective "Turkey" any longer but only the will of one man as repeated and reinforced by cabinet ministers and the government's information and propaganda network.
Since Erdogan was elected president in 2014, close to 2,000 people have been charged with insulting him (the precise number given early in March was 1,846, but there have been further arrests since then). The crime of lèse-majesté — insulting the king — still exists on the statute books of many European countries but is rarely used. Through the centuries it was invoked mostly to punish those who insulted the dignity of the monarch, so perhaps it should be no surprise that it is being used widely in a country whose president is often compared to a sultan. Under Article 299 of the Turkish penal code, anyone caught insulting the president of the republic can be imprisoned from one to four years, with the penalty increased by a sixth if the crime is committed in public. The law would seem to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.
A similar provision has existed in Turkish law since the 1920s but was rarely used until Erdogan came along. The law covers verbal insults as well as caricatures and comparisons to animals (Erdogan once sued a cartoonist who depicted him as a cat tangled up in a ball of wool) and film figures, as a doctor found out when he posted images of Erdogan and the Lord of the Rings character Gollum side by side on Facebook (the film's director, Peter Jackson, said the images were actually not of Gollum but of Smeagol, a gentle and lovable character). He was prosecuted and lost his job at the Public Health Institute. However, as the story spread around the world, it was soon not just Turks laughing at the comparison between the goggle-eyed film character and Turkey's president. Politicians elsewhere have to put up with being mocked, but Erdogan clearly cannot endure not being taken seriously.
Other victims of Article 299 include numerous journalists, a former Miss Turkey, and the leader of the opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), Kemal Kilicdaroglu, investigated by prosecutors for calling Erdogan a "dictator" (lawyers for the president had initiated a separate court action against him). A female economist working in government service was jailed for 11 months for making a rude gesture as the president passed by. She was given more jail time because she was a public servant herself, thus aggravating the crime. A journalist for a leftist newspaper was jailed for 21 months for writing an article in which the first letters of each paragraph spelled out the acrostic message 'Hirsiz Tayyip' (Tayyip the thief). Hakan Sukur, a Galataserai football champion in the 1990s and former AKP deputy, stands accused of violating the law by posting offensive tweets relating to Erdogan. Police followed the social media of a 13-year-old for nine months before questioning him and letting him off with a reprimand. A man near Izmir got so sick of his wife's cursing Erdogan every time she saw him on television that he reported her to the prosecutor. She responded by filing for divorce (apparently there were problems in the marriage anyway). He said he had warned her many times and that, even if his father insulted the president, he would report him, too.
The public is largely shielded from the horror of insults that so shocked a prosecutor that he blushed with shame when he read what people were saying about the president. They must surely be repeated in court for the judge to assess the scale of the insult; however, with few exceptions, the newspapers don't report what was said, presumably because repetition in print would lead to their being prosecuted, too. In December 2013, just after corruption charges had been brought against individuals close to or inside the government, Erdogan was caught on tape instructing his son Bilal to conceal large amounts of money stashed in the family's Istanbul houses. The authenticity of the taped conversations — lasting from 10 in the morning until 10 at night — has never been convincingly denied, but a journalist who referred to their contents recently joined the list of those charged with insulting the president.
REMOVING THE "CACOPHONY"
A former mayor of Istanbul and a founding member of the AKP, Erdogan was prime minister of Turkey from 2003 until 2014, before becoming the first president elected by a vote of the people rather than the parliament. Under the constitution, the presidency is largely a ceremonial office, but when Erdogan was elected, he took political power with him and has since continued to dominate Turkish political life. He hoped that elections in June 2015 would give the AKP government the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to change the constitution and broaden the powers of the president. However, far from winning a two-thirds majority, the party lost its absolute majority. It regained it in November 2015, but the numbers still fell short of an absolute majority, leaving the government with the option of calling a referendum or fresh elections on the central issue of a strengthened presidency through constitutional reform.
Erdogan has claimed and acted as if Turkey already had a de facto executive presidency. He and the former prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, gave clear signals of the kind of constitutional changes they wanted. In January 2015, Erdogan said a strong presidential system would "remove the cacophony" of the present system and have "an important effect on decision-making processes." One target for change would be the judiciary. Mr. Davutoglu said no constitutional body, including the Constitutional Court, could be allowed to establish superiority over the "will of the people."
In early May, a few weeks after making these remarks, Davutoglu was pushed out of office in what Kemal Kilicdaroglu called a "palace coup." Davutoglu himself remarked, "This is not my decision but a necessity." Tension between the prime minister and the president had been steadily developing over what Davutoglu clearly saw as the usurpation of his prerogatives. Differences over Syria may also have been involved, with Davutoglu demurring on the question of sending in special forces. Davutoglu took a conciliatory line on anti-government protesters and was known to oppose the jailing of academics and journalists. His relative popularity in Western capitals also seemed to be an issue. His resignation cleared the way for a Cabinet and AK party reshuffle that would allow the creation of what Erdogan called a "solid front line in achieving complete system change." In order to avoid similar governance crises, Erdogan remarked after Davutoglu's decision to step down, "We need immediately to adopt a presidential system."
The mechanism of change is the immediate issue. The AKP has 317 members in the 550-member Grand National Assembly (GNA). To change the constitution on the basis of a parliamentary vote the AKP would need a two-thirds majority (367). To submit the issue to a popular referendum it would need 330 votes, 13 short of its present number. Arranging the numbers in parliament might ultimately be considered a safer option than a referendum. Already the government is seeking to remove the parliamentary immunity from members of the largely Kurdish People's Democracy Party (HDP), which has 59 deputies. Wild brawls have broken out in the parliament over the issue. There are some indications that the ultra-right National Action Party (MHP), which has 40 seats in the GNA, might be amenable to joining the AKP in a coalition government as long as it pursues its war on the PKK. The MHP's leader, Devlet Bahceli, said recently that in defence to the national and historic interests of Turkey, "The de facto support we have been supplying to the government up until today may take a legal dimension. And the MHP will prove that only for the country and for the nation it is ready to undertake all kinds of responsibilities."
Whatever the nature of possible constitutional changes, Erdogan has long shown raw animosity toward individuals and institutions that stand in his way. When, in 2014, an administrative tribunal ruled that the presidential palace had been built illegally in Ankara's Ataturk Forest Farm nature reserve — given to the people by the republic's founding father — Erdogan denied the illegality and said that, if the tribunal had the power, "let it come and destroy it" [the palace]. Several court rulings have followed, but the legality of the palace complex remains a contested issue.
When, in March 2016, the Constitutional Court ordered the release of two jailed Cumhuriyet journalists on the basis of the violation of their constitutional rights, Erdogan said he neither respected nor would abide by its decision. He followed this by remarking that the court itself had violated the constitution and had made a decision that was "against the nation." Finally, Erdogan said he hoped the court would not repeat its decision and thus threaten its existence. Such statements from no less a person than the president of the republic are unprecedented in Turkey's history. One cannot imagine an American president challenging the judgment and even the existence of the U.S. Supreme Court or a French president threatening the Conseil Constitutionnel, but the theme of the Turkish court's "exceeding its authority" and actually violating the constitution was quickly taken up by mouthpieces in pro-AKP media outlets.
The chief judge of the Constitutional Court hit back at Erdogan, saying all citizens were bound by the law. In theory this is true, but in practice the judicial system in Turkey has been seriously weakened by intervention, which has saved those inside or close to the inner circles of power from having to answer to allegations in court. After the corruption charges brought in late 2013 against ministers and their sons, along with a clique of people close to the ruling party, hundreds of prosecutors and thousands of police were transferred to other duties; eventually all charges were dropped. The Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors was brought under tighter government control to prevent any such mishaps in the future.
The ruthless suppression of criticism is the new norm in the "new Turkey." By international standards, the prosecutions for insults and the accusations of espionage and treason that have been flung against critics of the government add up to serial transgressions of human rights and the freedom of speech. Turkey is a country that has always had human-rights problems, but its reputation now lies in the gutter. Journalists have been beaten, prosecuted and hounded out of the profession for what they see as doing their jobs, while assaults on social media and internet sites have been relentless. Pro-government mobs have attacked newspapers. Media groups have been targeted with massive fines or have been bought out by government supporters. Those linked with the teachings of the Pennsylvania-based religious figure Fethullah Gulen have been taken over and turned overnight into government propaganda organs. Gulen, once an ally and now regarded as a deadly enemy, has been put on a list of most-wanted terrorists and his Turkish hizmet (service) network in Turkey (the movement is international) officially designated as the "FETO/PYD (parallel state) terror organization." It is the parallel state that is said to have been behind the prosecutions of late 2013, enabling the government to claim they were nothing more than an attempt by Gulenists to undermine it from within, despite the prima facie evidence of serious wrongdoing. Allegations against the Gulenists have been deftly used to stifle allegations damaging to the AKP government.
Since the beginning of 2015, the government has launched a series of attacks on a bank, holding companies, and media groups that can loosely be called part of the Gulenist network. In February 2015, it took over the management of Bank Asya, whose management it accused of failing to meet legal criteria. In September, police raided the offices of the Kaynak Holding group, which operates 23 companies. That same month, the government struck at the Boydak Holding group in the provincial city of Kayseri. The company's chief executive, Memduh Boydak, three members of the executive board and seven other Kayseri businessmen were detained on charges of "deliberate and organized robbery." In early October, following two police raids on its offices in September, the government sent trustees to run the Koza Ipek Holding conglomerate. Overnight its two newspapers (Bugun and Millet) were transformed into government mouthpieces and its two television channels (Bugun and Kanalturk) taken off the air. An arrest warrant on charges of being the head of a terrorist organization was issued for the holding company's chairman, Hamdi Akin Ipek, who was overseas at the time.
In early March 2016, the chairman and general manager of the Boydak group, Haci Boydak and Memduh Boydak, were arrested on charges of financing the Gulenist "terror organization." Two other executives were detained but released under judicial control. Financial records and computer hard drives were seized during the police operation. In Istanbul at about the same time, police broke into the offices of the Gulenist Zaman media group after a court placed its operations in the hands of trustees. The takeover included the Cihan news agency as well as the mass circulation Zaman. The English-language Zaman was closed immediately and the Turkish Zaman shut down several months later. The trustees also ordered the destruction of almost three decades of the newspaper's digital archives. Criticism of the government's suppression of the Gulenist media does not necessarily add up to sympathy for the movement as such: secular Turks tend to see Erdogan and Gulen as two sides of the same coin, at war with each other but sharing the same long-term objective — the re-Islamisation of Turkish society — and just as menacing to the secular republic.
The assaults on alleged Gulen affiliates continued in April with the arrests of more than 100 employees (including executives) of Bank Asya and the Dumankaya construction company. Prosecutions were not confined to the Gulenists. In March, prosecutors indicted Aydin Dogan, chief executive of the giant media conglomerate Dogan Holdings, and Ersin Ozince, chairman of Isbank, Turkey's biggest lender, on charges of being involved in fuel-smuggling. Founded in 1924, Isbank has played a central role in republican history. The 28.9 percent of its shares that were Ataturk's have been held in trust since his death by the main opposition CHP. Following the indictments and rumors that the bank was about to be taken over, Isbank and Dogan Holding shares dipped several percentage points. Needless to say, the two institutions and their chief executives vigorously deny the accusations.
Davutoglu said the decision to take Zaman over was legal, not political. This cannot be accepted at face value; legal in form, yes it was, but just as definitely political in essence. Once the government has finished dealing with Gulenist-linked business/media groups, it is thought likely to turn its attention to the Gulenist universities spread across the country. Reports have been circulating that the government is drawing up regulations allowing it to close any private university deemed to be acting against the "indivisible integrity" of the Turkish nation. Indeed, the first warning shot was fired in September 2015, when police raided the rectorate offices of Kayseri's Meliksah University — a foundation (private) university established by the Boydak conglomerate — on the basis of complaints over land sales to the university.
The first edition of the new (if short-lived) Zaman appeared with a front-page picture of Erdogan opening the final stage in the construction of a third bridge over the Bosporus, named after the sixteenth-century sultan "Yavuz" (stern) Selim, who greatly expanded Ottoman domains. His defeat of the Shia Safavids in the Battle of Caldiran (1514) was one of the turning points in Ottoman history. As he was also known for his extirpation of the empire's Alevi population, the naming of the bridge after him would seem to be a deliberate provocation of Turkey's current population of 10-12 million Alevis. The government knew perfectly well what they thought because they had made their objections clear. Erdogan has made numerous snide remarks about Alevis in the past, including his insinuation that opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu is opposed to the government's Syria policy because he is an Alevi.
Many Alevis live in the border province of Hatay, which was part of the Syrian mandate until France allocated it to Turkey in the late 1930s, the transfer later being ratified in a referendum organized by the Turkish government. The Alevis maintain strong kinship relations across the border, still speak Arabic as a mother tongue and, by and large, were strongly opposed to Turkish intervention in Syria from the start. The decision to relocate a refugee camp for 27,000 Sunni Muslim Syrian refugees to a site spread out among seven Alevi villages in the Sivicrehuyuk district of Kahramanmaras province added to Alevi concerns. In the late 1970s, the city of Kahramanmaras was the scene of mob attacks on Alevis and leftists over six days that left more than 100 people dead. The villagers protested, but the relocation took place anyway.
It was the head of the national intelligence organization (MIT), Hakan Fidan, who remarked in a taped conversation leaked to the media in March 2014 that Turkey had already sent 2,000 trucks across the Syrian border. There had been many reports of weapons being shifted across the border into IS-held territory and other regions under the cover of humanitarian aid, but the revelation that arms had been found during a search of seven trucks in January 2014 still caused shock. Prosecutors who ordered the search and senior jandarma officers who carried it out were arrested and accused of membership in a "terrorist organization." Cumhuriyet journalists Can Dundar, the editor, and Erdem Gul, chief of the Ankara bureau, were indicted after the newspaper published a still photo from a video showing mortar shells and other munitions packed in the back of a truck under containers of medicine. The operation was carried out by MIT, and the trucks were heading into a takfiri-controlled area across the Syrian border. Following the publication of the photo, Erdogan said Dundar would pay a high price. The two journalists were charged with obtaining state secrets for the purpose of espionage, with attempting to overthrow the government, and with knowingly aiding a terrorist organization.
Erdogan had warned that, although Dundar and Gul were being released from prison, following the decision of the Constitutional Court, it did not necessarily follow that prosecutors would drop the charges. In the event, they did not. When the two men were arraigned in March 2016, eight foreign consuls-general turned up at the court in Istanbul to witness the proceedings, triggering the anger of the government and, predictably, its propaganda outlets, at their "intervention" in the judicial process. The court ruled that the trial was to be held in secret but later accepted the application of 473 lawyers to join the case, in which Erdogan and MIT have both been listed as complainants.
For the charge of espionage to stick, the government would have to show that the jailed journalists were passing state secrets to a foreign power, but there was nothing secret about the video of the truck driver being pulled out of his cabin and weapons being discovered under packets of medicine. It had been available for anyone to watch on the Internet for months before Dundar decided to publish, and no evidence was produced that he was doing anything other than what he regarded as his journalistic duty.
In May, the charge of trying to overthrow the government was dropped, but Dundar was sentenced to five years and 10 months imprisonment for publishing secret documents, and Gul to five years. Shortly before the verdicts were announced, an attempt was made to assassinate Dundar outside the courthouse by a man shouting "traitor." Dundar was unharmed, but another journalist was shot in the leg. Later Dundar remarked, "In the space of two hours we have experienced two assassination attempts. One was done with a gun. The other was judicial."
Erdogan's intemperate manner was on full display during the Gezi Park protests of 2013, but by this time he and Davutoglu were fully committed on other fronts. In 2012, after failing to persuade Bashar al-Assad to accept their "reforms" (essentially bringing the banned Muslim Brotherhood into the political process), they thrust themselves into the forefront of the collective of governments (the United States, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey) seeking to destroy the government in Damascus. The armed groups they supported were dominated not by "moderates" but by takfiri jihadists committed to the establishment of a sharia state. Given its long and porous border with Syria, Turkey was a natural magnet for jihadists traveling from around the world to join the fighting. By plane they landed in Istanbul, and by plane or bus they traveled to the southeast, generally staying in "safe houses" before crossing the Syrian border.
With the Islamic State spreading into Syria, a support network developed inside Turkey. By late 2014, more than 1,000 Turks were said to have crossed the border to join the ranks of the caliphate. Turkey was slow to commit itself to the war on the Islamic State and slow in cracking down on IS fighters gathering on the Turkish side of the border. Ambiguities remain. There have also been many credible reports, backed by Russian drone-surveillance imagery, of oil from IS-held territories and Iraq's Kurdish north being moved across the Turkish border for local or downstream sale. A shipping company owned by Erdogan's son Bilal is alleged to have played a central role in these transactions. These allegations are indignantly denied, with their credibility, in Turkish eyes, further undermined by the source, a country whose warplane was shot down by a Turkish missile. Like many other aspects of this prolonged war, verifiable truth seems destined to slip into the memory hole.
The consequences of Turkish intervention in Syria have been shattering for Syria and disastrous for Turkey economically and politically. A poor tourist season in 2015 is being followed by a poorer one in 2016, following suicide bombings in Istanbul and Ankara (and earlier ones at Suruc and Reyhanli along the Turkish-Syrian border). The downing of a Russian fighter jet in November 2015 pushed relations between Turkey and Russia to the edge, with intervention in Syria undermining relations with Iran and Iraq. Turkey's refusal to withdraw the troops it has stationed near Mosul adds another dimension to the difficulties of its relationship with the Iraqi government. Turkey's claim to Mosul in the 1920s was rejected by the League of Nations, and the positioning of troops close to the city's outskirts, amidst uncertainty over when and by what combination of forces the city will be liberated, invites speculation about the intentions of the AKP government.
Erdogan's unrestrained support for deposed Egyptian leader Muhammad Morsi undermined relations with another Arab government. Differences with the United States over the status of Syrian Kurds and with European governments over the future of the Syrian refugees have caused damage on these fronts as well, leading to what government spokesmen term "precious isolation," i.e., an isolation born not of Turkish policy mistakes but of the failure of others to acknowledge the nobility of Turkey's actions.
As a result of a war in which Turkey has played a pivotal role, 11 million people — half of Syria's population — have been displaced internally or abroad. Nearly three million Syrians have crossed into Turkey; close to 300,000 live in camps, and the rest are scattered across the country, begging, working as cheap labor and generally trying to survive as best as they can. Hundreds have drowned in the Aegean, while those who have reached Europe are stuck in camps or have been held up at border fences. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that "people smugglers" were followed by "people traders." The first point of contention between the EU and Turkey was how much money Turkey would be paid for keeping the refugees within its own borders and "resettling" Syrians (and others) sheltering on the Greek islands.
Further troubling scenes followed as Syrian and other refugees/migrants were ferried from the islands of Lesbos and Chios back to the Turkish port of Dikilli, as part of the agreement reached between Turkey and the EU. Yet the "migrant crisis" is not being "resolved," as The New York Times would have it: the human pieces are simply being moved around on the board. Syrian refugees are commonly called the "victims of war," when more accurately they are the victims of decisions taken in Western and regional capitals. The obvious solution to the crisis — ending the war so that the refugees can return to their homeland — was not even on the agenda of talks between the EU and Turkey, no doubt because of the involvement of some of these governments in the Syrian war and their unwillingness to call it off just yet. Neither is it a surprise that the government of the country from which these millions of people have been bled was not invited to take part in discussions of the crisis.
Europe's need for Turkish cooperation in stemming the westward flow of Syrian and other "migrants" clearly trumped concern for human-rights problems and the dire consequences of the war in Turkey's southeast. The emphasis was on how much money the EU would have to pay and how many concessions it would need to make (visa-free travel and the opening of new "chapters" in accession negotiations) in return for Turkish cooperation in handling the refugee/migrant crisis. A 30 billion euro ambit claim reported to have been made by Turkey during talks with the EU (it eventually settled for six billion over two years) is not new. According to the news portal Euro2Day, Erdogan raised this figure when he met European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission chairman Jean-Claude Juncker at Antalya in November 2015, warning/threatening that the consequences if Turkey decided to bus refugees across the borders of Greece or Bulgaria would be "more than a dead boy" on a beach. The reference here was to Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian Kurdish boy who drowned in the Mediterranean in September 2015, when the inflatable boat carrying his family from the southwestern Turkish resort of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos capsized.
The EU's earlier reluctance to put pressure on Turkey over human-rights questions eventually gave way to a tougher position. As part of the overall migration package, the EU was prepared to grant visa-free travel to Turkish citizens if Turkey could satisfy 72 criteria relating to document security, migration management, public order and security, fundamental rights and the readmission of illegal migrants. While Turkey satisfied 67 of these conditions, one of the remaining five was rejected outright by Erdogan. This was the requirement — under the heading of "fundamental freedoms" — that Turkey revise its legislation on terrorism, bringing it into line with European standards. The cause of European concern was the use of anti-terror laws to prosecute journalists and academics. "The EU says, 'You will change the anti-terror laws for visas,'" Erdogan responded. "Pardon me, but we are going our way and you can go yours." Later he accused European countries of being "safe havens" for the "extensions" of terrorism. He asked why, in March, the EU had allowed PKK supporters to set up tents in front of the European Parliament. Following these remarks, a planned EU-Turkey meeting was cancelled, and discussion of the visa-free regime for Turks was suspended in the European Parliament.
Who should Turks hold responsible for blowback from the war on Syria that they see before their eyes in their own country? Erdogan and Davutoglu endlessly blame Bashar al-Assad, but it was their decision to intervene in Syria and they have to share responsibility for the consequences. They could have continued to play the role of helpful arbitrators. They could have stayed out altogether; arguably, almost anything would have been better than what they actually did. If they bought into the attack on Syria, it was partly for their own grandiose reasons and not just because they were being egged on by the United States, Saudi Arabia or Qatar. They saw themselves as world-historical figures riding the crest of a wave of reform into a new Middle East that they would simultaneously serve and lead. They took this role on willingly — even eagerly — and made many statements that time proved to be without substance. Since their prediction in 2012 that Bashar al-Assad would soon be gone, more than 250,000 Syrians have died. Yet Bashar still sits in the presidential palace. In what possible sense could any of this mayhem be said to be in the Turkish national interest?
Turkey regards the awakening of the Syrian Kurds as a threat to its own national security. Yet by weakening the authority of the Syrian government across the country, the Turkish government — inadvertently or unwittingly — helped to create the circumstances that allowed Syrian Kurds to proclaim autonomy in their three northern enclaves. The irony here is that in dealing with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey has the same essential interest in controlling them as the Syrian government. Battlefield cooperation between the Syrian military and the Kurdish militias is purely tactical and subject to breakdown: Kurdish talk of federation is strongly opposed by the government in Damascus, which has not fought a bitter war for the past six years only to see the country divided in peace negotiations. Assad certainly has no more interest in seeing autonomous Kurdish enclaves form in the north of his country than does Erdogan.
Inside Turkey, Erdogan's "Kurdish peace" was an ephemeral arrangement negotiated covertly with imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan. What both sides were prepared to give was never clear. Its chief benefit to the AKP government seems to have been the number of Kurds who believed in it and voted for the party accordingly. The pendulum began to swing back from peace to war when Erdogan did nothing to stop the Islamic State from overrunning Kobane in 2014. American air power saved the Kurds, and ultimately world outrage compelled Erdogan to allow Iraqi peshmerga to cross the border and come to the aid of their Syrian brethren; but his callousness spelled the beginning of the end of the "Kurdish peace." With the AKP having lost its absolute majority in the June 2015 elections, Erdogan had nothing to lose by replacing the Kurdish peace with an all-out war on PKK terrorism as a main campaign theme ahead of the November elections.
The context arose after more than 30 young Turks and Kurds planning to cross the border to help rebuild Kobane were killed by a suicide bomber in the border town of Suruc. The man had crossed the border from Syria but was a Turk from the city of Adiyaman, a known center of IS recruitment. When two policemen identified as IS collaborators in the bombing of Suruc were murdered (the PKK was accused but denied responsibility for the killings), the AKP government authorized waves of air strikes against PKK positions in northern Iraq. When the PKK struck back, bombing convoys of police and soldiers, the AKP government had its central campaign theme: terrorism and its alleged accomplices in the mostly Kurdish People's Democratic Party (HDP). Mob attacks on HDP offices across the country forced it to cancel election rallies. Though weakened, it still managed to scrape over the 10 percent threshold needed to retain seats in the Grand National Assembly. Since then, the government has been calling for the removal of the parliamentary immunity of the HDP's joint chairpersons, Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yuksekdag, and other deputies so they can be prosecuted. According to Erdogan,
We should be throwing them [alleged PKK supporters] out of the Grand National Assembly of Turkey or even denaturalize them. These people cannot be MPs or citizens of Turkey. The parties of [the] Assembly should do what is needed to pave the way for the MPs to be tried. Academician-looking supporters, journalist-looking spies, politician-looking activists and civil servant-looking militias are no different from terrorists with bombs in their hands. We don't have to carry the weight of these people on our shoulders.
The war Erdogan declared against the PKK is now being fought on three fronts: southeastern Turkey, northern Iraq and northern Syria, against the PKK's Syrian Kurdish sibling, the PYD (Democratic Union Party), and its armed wing, the YPG (People's Protection Units). (While the United States supports Turkey's designation of the PKK as a terrorist organization, it does not share Turkey's view that the PYD is also one.) Heavy fighting spread across the southeast from July 2015 onwards, with high casualty figures and widespread destruction reported in many towns and cities, including Cizre and the Sur district of Diyarbakir. Both the Turkish government and PKK leaders have vowed to fight to the end. The bitterness and rhetoric is strong on both sides. Following the killing of six soldiers and one policeman in Nusaybin, Devlet Bahceli, the leader of the National Action Party (MHP), remarked that the city (in Mardin province) should be razed to the ground. The situation has been returned to where it was during the period of extreme violence in the 1990s and, in the view of some commentators, is even more dangerous. The 2.7 million Syrian refugees in Turkey have now been joined by close to 400,000 Kurds who have fled their homes in the southeast.
In such an overheated atmosphere, anyone who calls for an end to the killing can easily be characterized as a PKK supporter and even a traitor. Academics who signed an international petition calling for an end to military operations in the southeast were decried as "ignorant" by Erdogan. Invoking the War of Independence (1919-23), he said the country was again facing treason but this time from "so-called intellectuals." The petition — signed initially by 1,128 foreign and Turkish academics and later by many others — accused the Turkish state of a "deliberate and planned massacre." No doubt the central intention of the signatories was to end all violence and return the Kurdish issue to rational and peaceful discussion, but the petition was provocatively worded and the state did not hesitate to strike back. Of the signatories from state universities, 464 had been placed under investigation by early March 2016. Criminal proceedings had been opened against 153, and 33 had been detained; several other arrests were made later in the month. Nine academics had been fired, five had resigned and 27 had been suspended. Of the signatories from foundation (private) universities, 21 had been fired by early March and 43 subjected to administrative investigation for "terrorist-related" offenses.
By early 2016, Turkey's prime objectives across the Syrian border were twofold. The displacement of the Syrian government was still on the agenda, but stopping the Syrian Kurds from establishing a contiguous strip of territory just south of the Turkish border and maintaining a supply line to "rebels" through the "Azaz corridor" had taken priority. The 10 refugee camps Turkey has built across the border include one right on the outskirts of Azaz. The camps are maintained with the support of Kizilay (the Turkish Red Crescent), AFAD (the Turkish Disaster and Emergency Relief Organization), IHH (the Turkish Human Rights and Freedom Association) and international NGOs. The Oncupinar crossing is open for "aid" convoys crossing into Syria but closed to refugees trying to enter Turkey. As Jabhat al-Nusra and other takfiri groups control the region, a level of cooperation and coordination with them has to be assumed. Through the back door, it would seem that the establishment of these camps has given the Turkish government the semblance of the "humanitarian corridor" or "safe zone" inside Syria that it wanted all along.
CRITICS WITHIN AKP
There is no parallel in Turkish history for the cluster of disasters into which the country has been led through the Syria policy. Combined with a repressive human-rights situation, assaults on the pillars of constitutional government and repeated attacks on business, banking and media corporations, the overall picture is causing deep unease even within the ruling party. Erdogan's critics within the AKP include some formidable figures, among them former president Abdullah Gul, former foreign minister Yasar Yakis and former deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc. Their view is that the AKP has been wrenched very far from its original moorings as a "moderate" Islamist democratic party. For speaking out, Gul and Yakis have been removed from the list of the AKP's founders.
One word leaps out at the observer who contemplates Erdogan's tempestuous ride through history: hubris. The Turkish president's behavior invites comparisons with other authoritarian dictatorial figures in modern history, down to food fads and Erdogan's exhortation to Turkish women to have more children. (Senior figures in the AKP went a step further by saying raped women should give birth, as the state would bring up their children.) Like all of them Erdogan has used the tools of the state to intimidate and suppress criticism. His vilification of those who cross him sends cues and signals to his supporters, arguably placing his critics in personally dangerous situations. Yet his supporters seem to care nothing for any of this. They take pride in the president's defiance of convention and blunt rejection of criticism. He is simply their man, the tough guy from Kasimpasa, their fearless lion. For others, Erdogan may be divisive and dangerous, but for the president's supporters, he is leading the march into a glorious future. Under the heading of "Erdogan voice of global conscience," Sabah columnist Ilnur Cevik wrote, "The West has to learn with Erdogan and listen to him more carefully because all the Turkish President is trying to do is make this world a better place to live in for all human beings and not only for those living in the West."