I could hardly believe it was true when I heard the news – but on reflection I realised the behaviour is totally in character.
The United States military Central Command (CENTCOM) announced on Sunday that it was “conducting patrols” along the Syrian side of the Turkey-Syria border. The stated purpose is “’to discourage escalation and violence between two of our most trusted partners in the fight to defeat ISIL’, the statement said . . . all parties in the region should remain focused on defeating the terror group.”
Photographs of the “patrols” published in Turkish media showed tanks flying US flags alongside ground forces belonging to the Kurdish separatist group YPG. The US source refers to “coalition forces”, implying some kind of Western alliance along the lines of George Dubya’s “Coalition of the Willing”, but in this case it’s just Americans and locals – a hotchpotch of anti-Assad rebels referred to by various unintelligible acronyms such as SDF and YPG.
In fact the US’s main “trusted partner” in the “fight” against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh is YPG – a shadowy Kurdish separatist group that Ankara claims is allied with the PKK, a revolutionary Kurdish outfit that regularly carries out terrorist attacks in Turkey, and is recognised internationally as a terrorist organisation. Turkey’s government has for years been asking Washington to establish a no-fly zone along the Syria-Turkey border to assist in the maintenance of security – but the requests have gone unheeded. Recently Turkey has begun taking matters into its own hands by carrying out airstrikes in retaliation for alleged aggression by the Kurdish groups.
Evidently the US military sees this as running contrary to their own plans for the region. “Patrols” of tanks along the border are clearly intended as a warning to Turkey’s government to toe the party line, ie the United States’ line – despite the fact no one is very clear exactly what that is.
Initially the Turkish government was reluctant to get involved in the “fight against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh” – understandably, given that many people believe that mysterious organisation was created, directly or indirectly, by the ham-fisted US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Turkey accepted the Assad dictatorship in Syria as a necessary evil until the Arab Spring in 2011 gave birth to a resistance movement and a long-running civil war that drove millions of refugees across its border.
Just the other day, Turkey’s President Erdoğan made it clear that his country now fully supports America’s fight against ISIS. He said that together, Turkey, the United States and its coalition partners could destroy ISIL/ISIS/Daesh – but said also that his government is not happy with America allying itself with terrorist groups (meaning the PKK-allied YPG). Turkey’s concern is that the US is promising Kurdish separatists an independent Kurdistan in return for their help, first in defeating Saddam Hussein, and now against ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. Given that such a new state would likely lay claim to a large chunk of south east Turkey, we can understand Mr Erdoğan’s unease. And given that the US has repeatedly turned a deaf ear to Turkey’s concerns in the matter, we may also understand why he feels his country has no option but to take action in its own interests.
Unfortunately this situation mirrors many that have taken place in this region and others as the United States and the EU play out their self-appointed role as the world’s policemen. Peace in the Middle East is unlikely as long as the US refuses to acknowledge valid Palestinian grievances against Israel. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to Turkey’s acceptance into the EU is the intransigence of Greece and Greek Cyprus, and the refusal to recognise that Turkey had a good reason for its military intervention on the island in 1974. I’m not even going to start talking about the number of times the US has interfered directly in the affairs of its neighbours in Central and South America.
Johannes Hahn, European Commissioner overseeing EU membership bids, suggested on Monday that in the current circumstances, Turkey’s bid to join the EU was dead in the water. Mr Hahn and his friends in Brussels are blaming Turkey for this, despite the fact that they have been holding their loyal NATO ally at arm’s length for 30 years, while admitting more and more former members of the old Soviet bloc, thereby heightening tensions with Russia. Hahn’s current excuse for rejecting Turkey is the old chestnut of human rights. When Turkey was having regular military coups back in the late 20th century, and torture and disappearances of political dissidents were commonplace, that was the big issue. As the country began to leave those days behind, the Cyprus business began to loom as the major obstacle. Now, as Turkey tries to stabilise itself in the wake of an unsuccessful military takeover, civil war and chaos across its eastern borders, a flood of refugees and tourist embargoes stretching its economic resources to the limit, and threats of terrorist attacks in its cities, the human rights business has surfaced again. “There is no version of Turkish democracy,” says Mr Hahn. “There is only democracy.” By which he means, I guess, “Do as we say or suffer the consequences.”
Thanks for your sympathy, guys. Never mind that France is still living under a state of emergency 18 months after a terrorist attack that killed a tiny fraction of the number of people who have died in Turkey. The fact is that, whatever their posturing, Europe needs Turkey more than Turkey needs Europe. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced recently that “the alliance without Turkey would be weak”. Turkey is getting on with the job of caring for three million Syrian refugees while wealthy European countries are bleating about having to cope with mere hundreds or thousands. EU leaders promised major financial and diplomatic assistance to Turkey in return for Turkey preventing those refugees from continuing their flight into Europe. Precious little assistance has been forthcoming although Turkey has upheld its side of the bargain. “Think,” said Stoltenberg, “if any other NATO country besides Turkey was under the massive terrorist attacks Turkey has faced. Turkey has the right to defend its country and to punish the people who launched the thwarted coup attempt of July 2016.”
My opinion is, leaders of the European Union and the United States want to see the back of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They resent the fact that, since his AK Party came to power in 2003, they have been obliged to start taking Turkey seriously. They can no longer mock the country for its hyperinflation and regular military coups. They are angry that Turkey is no longer a lapdog following the Western alliance wherever its economic interests lead. Turkey refused to follow George Dubya into Iraq, has openly criticised Israel’s illegal settling of Palestinian territory, and called out the Sisi military coup in Egypt for what it was. They are furious that every criticism they make of Turkey is thrown back in their faces with interest. Armenian genocide? Check out what the French did in Algeria. “We love Turkish people,” they’ll tell you. “It’s just that guy we can’t stand!” Yeah, yeah.
So there is only “democracy” . . . Western style. But what about countries that look at the West and say, “We don’t want that kind of democracy”? In fact, as we see from recent election results in the USA and France, there are actually plenty of people in those countries who are not sure they want it either. Mr Erdoğan’s government gets a good deal of flak for criticising and even censoring social media. So what do you make of the Home Affairs Select Committee report to the UK Parliament criticising large social media companies? The report accuses them of failing to remove illegal content such as hate speech, terror recruitment videos and sexual images of children when asked to do so. It said the largest firms were “big enough, rich enough and clever enough” to sort the problem out, and that it was “shameful” that they had failed to use the same ingenuity to protect public safety as they had to protect their own income.
A year or so ago, Mr Erdoğan came under considerable fire for his over-sensitivity in response to a poem aired on German television. A “comedian” from that highly civilised country trumpeted several verses of foul-mouthed X-rated doggerel accusing the Turkish president of committing unspeakable acts with sheep and goats. I say “unspeakable”, not because I am unduly sensitive, but because you won’t find any mainstream news media that were prepared to publish an English translation.
The German Public Prosecutor, in throwing out a case against the “comedian/poet”, is quoted as saying, “the context in which it was delivered made clear the claims were “exaggerated and absurd”, and not meant to be taken as serious allegations against Mr Erdogan [and] it was therefore “questionable” whether the poem constituted slander, given its satirical nature, and that the “from the lack of earnestness or any seriously intended connection to the personal dignity of (Mr Erdogan), it was meant to be immediately clear to every listener that it was a joke”.
So what about the shrill cries of protest in the USA over a “comedian” in that country suggesting that Donald Trump engages in fellatio with Russian President Putin? Seems it’s ok to accuse the leader of a key NATO ally of sexual shenanigans with sheep and goats – but if you step on the hypersensitive toes of the ever-lengthening LGBTIQ acronymiacs . . . that may be one step too far into the shaky ground of free speech.
I have to tell you, I’m in two minds about the “free speech” business. It may be that it is acceptable in Germany and the United States to accuse, in the most obscene and biologically precise terms, high-profile public figures of inserting their reproductive organs into the corresponding receptacles of female goats, of taking ovine male organs, or those of other countries’ leaders, into their mouths, and who knows what else. I have to tell the democratically self-righteous citizens of those countries, however, that they may not experience the same freedom everywhere. In Turkey, for example, you need to be careful about dropping a loose word with reference to another man’s mother or sister, if you value your health.
And the other thing that seems to me somewhat ironic – These freedom-of-speechers demand the right to make the most outrageously untrue accusations while expecting that the law of the land will protect them from the righteous anger of those whose honour and integrity they are intent on vilifying. That strikes me as cowardice in the extreme. Say and do what you like – but why should I pay taxes to protect you from the consequences of your “freedom”?
For many years I have been hearing these champions of free speech hiding behind words attributed to the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire: “I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Interestingly, I now find that the “quotation” was actually invented by Evelyn Beatrice Hall, author of a biography of Voltaire published in 1906, where she asserted that he had uttered the words – a claim she later retracted.
Soooo, it seems no one has a monopoly on the truth – and those who claim it most vociferously may be the ones we most need to distrust.