There’s rarely a dull moment in this part of the world. Boarding a public minibus, taking your car on to the streets of Istanbul, or just crossing the road to pick up a newspaper or a loaf of bread – life is full of surprises, and you can never be 100% sure you’ll see the sun come up tomorrow. So it’s not totally surprising that foreign journos have difficulty working out what’s going on. Even those of us who’ve lived here for years still find plenty to puzzle over.
Still, if you’re a professional analyst, you have responsibilities, right? Once you start putting pen to paper, or finger to keyboard in the public domain, you should be making every effort to get it right, right?
So I have to tell you, I’ve been a bit disappointed by the low-level commentary I’ve been reading in the foreign press recently. For example:
‘Turkey’s increasingly desperate predicament poses real dangers’, says The Washington Post, who enumerate the fall-out with Russia, a couple of suicide bombings, renewed fighting with the Kurdish PKK, and a dip in tourist revenue as signs that Turkey is experiencing a ‘strategic nightmare’. The article quotes two Turkish academics in support of its doomsday predictions. Well, we should be grateful that those two gentlemen are free to express their anti-government opinions without being locked up. At least the writer admits that Turkey’s current problems are only ‘partly of its own making’ and ‘not entirely self-inflicted’. He (or she) acknowledges that the US State Dept continues to support the Kurdish YPG in Syria, in spite of pleas from Turkey’s Government.
In The Economist, someone hiding behind the pseudonym of Charlemagne belabours the European Union for its failure to rein in the ‘authoritarian habits of (President) Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’, and Turkey’s government for discarding the accession process. What? Is it any wonder Turkey’s interest in joining Europe waned after being played for fools for fifty years? ‘Charlemagne’ refers sketchily to Turkey’s battle with Kurdish separatists in the southeast, and the flood of Syrian refugees seeking safety in Turkey over the past five years as though the Turkish government is somehow to blame for all this. Brief mention is made of Bashar al-Assad’s ‘Russian enablers’, America’s use of Syrian Kurds who are ‘useful in fighting Islamic State (IS)’, Nicholas Sarkozy’s arrogant rejection of Turkey’s EU aspirations, constant vetoing by Greek Cyprus, and Germany’s worrying about ‘migrants reaching rich Europe’ as though these are merely incidental side issues – but the thrust of the article is that Turkey is the bad guy, and Mr Erdoğan is the evil villain.
And another one from The Economist: ‘Mr Erdogan’s commitment to democracy seems to be fading’, as if the United States government has any interest in seeing democracy flourish in its vassal states. The damning evidence, apparently, is that Turkey’s AK Party government has ‘spread its tentacles’ into the courts, the police, the intelligence services, the mosques, the public education services, health systems and the media. Well, if they have, they couldn’t have had better teachers than successive US administrations.
One of several ironies in this piece is its reference to the time Mr Erdoğan spent in jail when he was Mayor of Turkey’s largest city, Istanbul, as ‘one of the milder perversions of justice that prevailed before the AK party’s rise.’ Perversions of justice had, in fact, been two-a-penny before AK Party became the government – and that was probably the main reason for their coming to power out of nowhere. The anonymous writer goes on to sympathise with Turkey’s ‘increasingly beleaguered liberals’ in the same paragraph as he recalls their support for an attempt by the country’s generals in 2007 to prevent the AK Party from appointing the ceremonial president of the republic – something it had a perfect right to do under the constitution written by the military government in 1982. I have no doubt those same ‘liberals’ would have been only too happy to see Mr Erdoğan’s elected government overthrown by a military coup, and its leader tossed back into prison.
On to Benny Avni in The New York Post. Well, at least he has the courage to front up and put his name to the article. We’re about to see the end of NATO, apparently, because Turkey is set to get into a war with Russia. America won’t get involved because, according to Mr Avni, ‘We don’t do wars anymore.’ Run that by me again! America doesn’t do wars anymore? Well, if he means they just bomb and take out citizens of other countries without actually declaring war, I guess he has a kind of legalistic point. ‘Syrian and Russian planes,’ he goes on to say, ‘have increased their ferocious bombing of militants and civilians in Aleppo’s vicinity, where two hospitals were bombed this week’. He quotes Turkey’s Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu’s accusation that Russia is ‘behaving like a terrorist organization’ – yet again, it seems, Turks are the evil empire.
A slightly more balanced article appeared on Friday in Time Magazine. Ian Bremmer lists five facts that ‘Explain Why Turkey Is in Deep Trouble’. First is that 2.6 million civilians fleeing Syria’s civil war have now taken refuge in Turkey, costing that country’s government an estimated $8.5 billion. This is one reason why Turkey got involved in the Syrian conflict. The other reason is the rise in Kurdish separatist activity in Iraq and Syria, encouraged by the United States, who have been cynically using them against first, Saddam Hussein, and more recently, against the new bogey, ISIS/Daesh. Turkey’s big fear is that members of its Kurdish population will take advantage of the situation to pursue their own separatist aims, hence the third fact which is increased terrorist activity within Turkey’s own borders. Bremmer’s fourth fact, the apparent rise in President Erdoğan’s popularity can be seen as a pro or a con, depending on your point-of-view; but undoubtedly his last, that Turkey is experiencing disturbing diplomatic problems on the international stage, is true.
Shooting down that Russian warplane seriously upset Vladimir Putin, even though his pilot was in the wrong; and the USA can’t come out and say they gave Turkey the ok to do it, even though they probably did. As noted above, Turkey’s worries in Syria are three-fold: Bashar al-Assad’s refusal to go is creating a massive refugee problem; America wants Turkey to join in the fight against ISIS/Daesh; and Kurdish militants, supported by the United States, are creating instability in Turkey itself. It may be ok for Americans to support their country, right or wrong – but other sovereign states must have the right to make decisions for their own good.
Still, if we can believe the results of a recent poll, an ‘Overwhelming Majority of Americans Believe that Both Parties Are Too Corrupt to Change Anything’. Apparently 84% of all Americans believe their political leaders are more interested in protecting their power and privilege than doing what is right. 70% agree that the federal government today no longer has the consent of the people, and a majority of voters would join a third party if it had a chance of success.
So what are America’s allies to think? While most news media are focusing on events in Syria, it was quietly reported over the weekend that US aircraft had carried out strikes against ISIS in Libya, resulting in at least forty deaths – the second such strike in three months. I’m not a big fan of Fox News either, but an opinion piece on their website noted, with some justification, that ‘Libya devolved into a failed state when NATO assisted Qaddafi’s radical jihadist opponents in killing him and then promptly abandoned the country. Left in the wake were two rival governments competing for power, which created space for Islamists to turn Libya into a cesspool of extremism’ and asked ‘Have Western leaders learned anything?’
In the mean time, giving the lie to accusations that dissenters speaking out against Turkey’s government and President Erdoğan are silenced or imprisoned, the Nobel organisation’s current darling, writer Orhan Pamuk, has criticised the European Union for failing to take action against his democratically elected government. Comparing Turkey’s leaders to the regime in Saudi Arabia, Pamuk implied that Europe’s leaders had done some kind of unholy deal with Mr Erdoğan and the AK Party to stem the flow of refugees across the Aegean.
Laughably, Pamuk is reported as saying “I am a person who says ‘Let’s talk about literature only’ but it is no longer possible” – apparently forgetting that his outspokenness on the Kurdish issue and the Armenian ‘genocide’ were significant factors in winning him that Nobel Prize for ‘literature’. And despite repeated claims that he was victimized for his words, as far as I am aware, he has never actually spent time in prison, unlike President Erdoğan; and he seems free to live a comfortable, high-profile life in Istanbul, giving self-publicising interviews to local news media.
So who can you believe? It’s starting to look as though multi-billionaire tycoon Donald Trump could be the next president of the United States. And if not him, then Mrs Bill Clinton is looking next most likely – and if you think you can believe anything either of those two tell you, Allah korusun, as Turks say.