United States opposes Kurdish referendum in Iraq – Yeah, sure!

I saw it first in our local newspaper, and I checked it out. Yep, it seems some low-ranking “spokeswoman” from the State department was given the job of lying to the world. Ignore the fact that the US used the Iraqi Kurds to get rid of Saddam Hussein – and what did they promise in return? Ignore the fact that the US is providing military hardware to Kurdish separatists in northern Syria, against the repeatedly expressed wishes of loyal NATO ally Turkey. What do they think will be the consequences of that?

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US “coalition partners” in Syria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States “strongly opposes” the planned independence referendum by Iraqi Kurds and urges Iraqi Kurdish leaders to engage in negotiations with the Baghdad government instead, the U.S. State Department said on Wednesday.

In the most forceful U.S. statement so far opposing the referendum, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “The United States strongly opposes the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum on independence, planned for September 25.”

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US ‘concerned about quality of democracy in Turkey’

The headline was in our local English language daily, so I checked it online just to be sure. Well, as usual, there’s a context. The words were spoken at a US Dept of State press conference on Thursday. In fact the spokesman was doing his best to be diplomatic in the face of questioning clearly aimed at getting him to come out and criticise the state of democracy in Turkey. So, credit where credit’s due – he didn’t.

And well he might not! Whatever pious voices the US reporters might raise against Turkey, it’s pretty clear that they would be better advised to deal with the blows against democracy being struck by their own government at home and abroad.

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Thanks to a CIA-backed coup in 1952 to overthrow the democratically elected prime minister

For example:

“An executive at the Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank on April 13 pleaded not guilty to involvement in a multi-year scheme to violate U.S. sanctions against Iran.


“Mehmet Hakan Atilla, a deputy general manager at Halkbank, entered his plea through his lawyer at a hearing in Manhattan federal court.

“U.S. prosecutors accused Atilla of conspiring with wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab to conduct hundreds of millions of dollars of illegal transactions through U.S. banks on behalf of Iran’s government and other entities in Iran.”

Well, if these Turkish guys were actually trying to evade US sanctions against Iran (and I’m not saying they were), they were undoubtedly doing it for the benefit of their own country and not just Iran. Turkey had been suffering economically for more than 30 years by loyally supporting the US government’s sanctions against Iran. These sanctions were imposed after a grass-roots Islamic revolution in 1979 overthrew the US-puppet Shah who had been misgoverning the country for 27 years on behalf of his western masters. Who’s wrong here?

If you guys are really so keen on democracy, can you please tell us exactly how such interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation fits into your plan for democratising the universe? And how are things progressing in Afghanistan?

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And $2 million for each bang

“The United States on Thursday dropped “the mother of all bombs,” the largest non-nuclear bomb it has ever used in combat, on an ISIS tunnel and cave complex in eastern Afghanistan. The bomb, officially called the GBU-43/B Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), was dropped from a MC-130 aircraft in the Achin district of Nangarhar province, Pentagon spokesman Adam Stump said, according to the Associated Press. The target was near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan.

“President Donald Trump said Thursday the bombing was a “very successful mission,” according to Reuters, and he touted the mission as evidence of a stronger foreign policy under his administration. It was not immediately clear how much damage the bomb did, how many militants were killed, or whether any civilians were killed.

“The GBU-43 is a GPS-guided weapon that weighs an enormous 21,600 pounds (9.5 tonnes), according to an article from the Eglin Air Force Base. Each one costs $16 million, according to military information website Deagel. During testing in the early 2000s, it created a mushroom cloud that could be seen from 30 km away, according to the Air Force story.

“The U.S. military says it has 20 MOAB bombs and has spent about $314 million producing them, according to CNBC.

“While not all details from Thursday’s blast have been made public, the bomb is very powerful. “What it does is basically suck out all of the oxygen and lights the air on fire,” Bill Roggio, of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Air Force Times. “It’s a way to get into areas where conventional bombs can’t reach.” (Source: Time)

Another article in Time informed me that Turkey is one of five countries where ISIS gets many of its foreign recruits:

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Britain and France’s secret plan for post-WWI Middle East – and where did Kurdistan fit in?

“Turkey has its own fraught relationship with an ethnic minority agitating for independence. The Kurds are an ethnic group that number between 20 million and 40 million who straddle the borders of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Armenia. Denied their own state when the borders of modern Turkey were established following World War I, they are now the world’s largest stateless ethnic group. Kurdish fighters have spent decades fighting the Turkish government to carve out an independent state for themselves, and some have resorted to terrorism; over the past three decades, more than 40,000 people have been killed in clashes between Turks and Kurds.

“Complicating matters is that Kurds in Syria are one of the most effective forces fighting both Assad and ISIS. Their success could create an independent Kurdish state inside Syria, which might encourage a larger share of Turkish Kurds to take arms with the same goal. So one of the greatest terrorist threats against Turkey is also a threat to ISIS.

“At the same time, roughly 2,100 Turks have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS. Since 2015, more than 400 people have been killed in terrorist attacks throughout the country. In other words, Turkey’s terrorism problem is only becoming more complicated.”

And made a whole lot more complicated by US interference in regional affairs. For a start, it wasn’t just Turkey that stood in the way of a Kurdish state. It was the victorious allies, Britain and France who drew the borders of Iraq and Syria for their own selfish reasons at the end of World War I. And if they’d had their way, the Turks would have been an even larger stateless group! Further, there is no doubt that most of the Kurdish people in Turkey do not support PKK separatist terrorism. They are getting on with the business of making a living, and a better life for their kids in the cities of Turkey – with the assistance of the present government. And the process is not helped by the US government supporting Kurdish revolutionary separatists in Syria in the so-called fight against ISIS. Yankee go home! Just let the locals get on with sorting out their own problems!

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Well, I don’t get to vote in the referendum, but if I did . . .

Dear Americans, you may think you have the best of intentions, but . . .

“Misdirected coalition strike kills 18 partner forces in Syria

“A coalition air strike accidentally killed 18 members of a U.S.-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) near a key town in northern Syria, the U.S.-led coalition said on April 13.”

Who needs enemies when you’ve got a friend like the USA?

Analysis: What is Turkey trying to achieve in Iraq?

This article appeared in Al Jazeera today. I’m abridging it a little:

“Any attempt to change Mosul’s demographic composition would be a direct threat to Turkey’s security, analysts say.

“Only weeks before Iraqi troops and their local and international partners start their push to retake the city of Mosul from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), the leaders of Turkey and Iraq have been caught in a war of words that could derail the Mosul liberation efforts.

730768b961374fc195b9f53e9633b8c6_6Mosul, home to up to 1.5 million people, has been the headquarters of ISIL’s self-declared caliphate in northern Iraq since 2014. The battle for the city, expected later this month, is likely to shape the post-ISIL Iraq.

Turkey’s President Erdoğan also said that Turkey is determined to participate in the operation to retake Mosul from ISIL, with or without Baghdad’s approval. Turkish media later reported that Turkey is planning to participate in the Mosul operation with an invitation from the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Masoud Barzani.

Turkey’s parliament voted two weeks ago to extend the deployment of an estimated 2,000 troops across northern Iraq by a year to combat “terrorist organisations”. Around 500 of these troops are stationed in the Bashiqa camp in northern Iraq, training local fighters who will join the battle to recapture Mosul.

Abadi’s government requested an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss the issue, and both countries summoned each other’s ambassadors in a mounting diplomatic standoff. “It is hard to take Baghdad’s threats seriously,” Ali Faik Demir, an expert on Turkish foreign policy from Istanbul’s Galatasaray University, told Al Jazeera.

“A country that cannot protect its territorial integrity and eliminate terrorist elements within itself cannot threaten a neighbour for protecting its own interests. Especially when that neighbour was invited in to the country by Mosul’s former governor to train Sunni militias who are preparing to fight ISIL.”

According to analysts the legitimacy of the government in Baghdad is slowly eroding amid sectarian tensions, foreign interventions and the ISIL occupation. Abadi, say analysts, is trying to use Turkey’s presence in Northern Iraq to fuel a new brand of Iraqi nationalism to keep at least certain parts of the country intact in the post-ISIL era.

” Turkey is concerned that once ISIL fighters are pushed out of Mosul, the government in Baghdad will make it difficult for Sunni residents of the city to live there. Erdogan previously said that Mosul, which was seized by ISIL two years ago, belongs to “its Sunni residents”.

Analysts believe that Turkey’s concerns about the future of Mosul should not be interpreted as an attempt to reshape a sovereign country’s demographic make-up. “We have to remember Iraq’s current borders were drawn in the Sykes-Picot agreement,” Demir said.

“Those borders are nothing more than arbitrary lines drawn in the sand by the British. So the situation can only be analysed realistically from a city-centric perspective. Mosul is a historically Sunni city and any attempt to change its demographic composition would be a direct threat to Turkey’s security,” he said.

Analysts emphasised that Turkey’s uneasiness about the prospect of having sectarian militias help Iraqi army in the Mosul liberation operation should not be dismissed simply as a desire to protect fellow Sunnis in the region. “If [these forces] push into Mosul, where will the Sunni residents of the city go?” asked Demir. “Of course they cannot go to Syria, so they will move north, into Turkey. ”

Turkey is already hosting 2.7 million refugees, he said.  “Turkey simply cannot absorb another wave of refugees, so the Turkish government and military need to take necessary precautions to make sure residents of Mosul can stay in Mosul after ISIL is ousted from their city.”

Ahmet Kaya, Adele and Turkey’s Kurdish Difficulties

Ahmet Adele

A case of theft – or just a coincidence?

I don’t tweet myself, so I can’t speak from first-hand knowledge – but I’m told the twittersphere and other social media in Turkey were buzzing with outrage last week over the sacrilegious desecration of a song by the late Ahmet Kaya, an icon of Turkey’s left wing revolutionaries. It is alleged that a new release by pop diva Adele, ‘Million Years Ago’ is a direct steal from Kaya’s 1985 track, ‘Acılara Tutunmak’.

I’ve listened to both songs a few times, and for sure there are similarities. You can probably sing Kaya’s lyrics to Adele’s music. A careful listener might detect echoes of Kaya’s sadness and disillusionment in Adele’s feelings of loss for a past life. Kaya ‘lived several thousand years, holding on to his pain’; the English songstress misses the days ‘when life was a party to be thrown . . a million years ago’. However, the grounds are probably too flimsy to bring a case of copyright infringement. Could the young lady have heard Kaya’s 30 year-old ballad, sung only in Turkish? It’s a long shot. I heard someone suggest she had a Turk somewhere back in her family tree – but I could find no trace of one in the several biographical sites I checked.

ahmetdkNevertheless, I’m grateful that the controversy has shone a spotlight on the music of Ahmet Kaya, at this time of escalating violence between Kurdish separatists and Turkish security forces. It’s fifteen years since he passed away, at the far-too-young age of 43 – and this seems like a good opportunity to take a look at his life and art.

Kaya was born in the eastern Turkish city of Malatya to a Kurdish father and Turkish mother. I don’t know whether his father would have liked to give his son a Kurdish name – but anyway, in those days it was illegal. That’s probably also why the family’s surname is Turkish.

Despite his Kurdish roots, Kaya sang mostly in Turkish. He released his first album in 1985, and subsequent albums recorded until his death in 2000 sold well. According to his Wikipedia entry, During his career he recorded approximately 20 albums and was known for his protest music and positions on social justice. Recurring themes in his songs are love towards one’s mother, sacrifice, and hope.’

In 1999 Kaya was about to be named Musician of the Year at an awards ceremony televised on Turkey’s Show TV. Apparently he made a speech in which he spoke of his Kurdish background and announced that he was including a song in the Kurdish language on his next album. The Turkish Wikipedia page reports that some members of the audience began to swear at the artist and throw things at him, whereupon he was escorted from the auditorium by officials. The English version claims that subsequently, ‘massive opposition from Turkish people and celebrities’ was led by prominent Turkish singer, Serdar Ortaç, who later apologized for his behaviour. The Turkish site makes no mention of Ortaç’s involvement.

Kaya's grave in Paris

Ahmet Kaya’s grave in a Paris cemetery

Whatever the truth of the matter, the opposition culminated in a criminal prosecution, and Kaya escaped to France. Shortly afterwards he was sentenced, in absentia, to three years and nine months in prison for spreading separatist propaganda. It later emerged that some of the evidence central to his conviction had been forged. Sad to say, however, Kaya died of a heart attack in Paris, in self-imposed exile, and is buried in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise. Perhaps his family is deriving some small satisfaction from the fact that Turkish people are now leaping to his defence against foreign superstars pirating his music – if indeed that’s what they are doing.

It does seem, then, that Ahmet Kaya’s reputation has been resuscitated in his homeland in the fifteen years since his death. Going a step further, it also seems to me that this resurrection, or forgiveness, or whatever you like to call it, is indicative of a shift in the majority perception of the twenty per cent of Turkey’s population said to be ethnic Kurds. Under a provision in the constitution written by Turkey’s military government after the 1980 coup, the threshold for representation in parliament was set at ten per cent. Kurdish parties had been unable to pass this barrier, until this year, when, partly as a result of support from non-Kurdish liberal opponents of the AK Party government, the HDP Party finally broke through.

Unfortunately, the shine has gone off the reconciliation process somewhat, with renewed violence in the southeast near the Syrian border, and the refusal of the HDP leadership to condemn PKK aggression.

Pro-Kurdish lawmaker Leyla Zana takes her seat as she arrives at the Turkish Parliament in Ankara

Kurdish representative Leyla Zana taking her seat in the parliament of Turkey

Further underlining the fact that there is still some way to go, an unfortunate incident took place during the swearing-in ceremony for new representatives in Turkey’s parliament (meclis) in November. Kurdish rights activist Leyla Zana became the centre of attention when, in taking the oath of allegiance, she altered the wording slightly from ‘The Turkish Republic’ to ‘The Republic of Turkey’. It may seem like a small quibble, but in the Kurdish consciousness, the latter is acceptable while the former is seen as exclusive and oppressive. Given the sensitive state of Turkish-Kurdish relations at present, it might have been wise for those administering the oath to suffer a hearing lapse – but unfortunately the provisional speaker of the house was Deniz Baykal, former leader of the opposition CHP party, outspoken critics of the government’s attempts to find a solution to the Kurdish issue. Baykal insisted on the correct wording, Zana refused to budge, and what could have been seen as a minor semantic quibble turned into another basis for conflict.

In fact, Ms Zana is an intriguing character. She was one of five siblings, born in 1961 into a very traditional Kurdish family in the east of Turkey. Her father allowed her only a year-and-a-half of schooling, and married her off, at the age of 15, to a cousin twenty years her senior. The couple had two children together, and Mehdi Zana was elected Mayor of Diyarbakır, a majority Kurdish city, in 1976. In the political repression following the 1980 military coup, the mayor was sentenced to 30 years imprisonment, leaving his young wife to support herself and the two young children.

Apparently, with her husband’s encouragement, she learned Turkish, studied on her own to gain a high school diploma, and in 1991 became the first Kurdish woman to be elected to the Turkish parliament. During the swearing-in ceremony, she said a few words in Kurdish, causing a great public uproar. Subsequently she was stripped of parliamentary immunity, charged with treason and sentenced to fifteen years in prison. She was released in 2004 after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Turkish courts had violated her right to free expression.

In 2008 and 2009 Leyla Zana received three further prison sentences for allegedly supporting terrorist activities, though all three convictions were overturned on appeal in higher courts. She was re-elected to parliament in 2011, and is clearly a lady with the courage of her convictions. Exactly how the government of Turkey deals with her will give some indication of how the future of Turkish-Kurdish relations will go in the foreseeable future.

Unfortunately, the violence in Turkey’s southeast region is leading to a hardening of attitudes on both sides. At the same time, it is a well-documented characteristic of human nature that unjust oppression tends to increase the numbers of activists prepared to die in the cause – and there’s nothing like martyrdom to bring new recruits lining up to join. The United States government still hasn’t figured this out. I sincerely hope the government of Turkey is smarter.

Turkey’s Kurdish issue: From peace to low intensity-war

 

The clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have spread to urban centres, making thousands flee their homes.

This article was published on Al Jazeera online yesterday. It seems to present a fairly balanced picture of the situation – something which is not readily available elsewhere, at least in English language media:

5b7e99681e944afc9c43898cb6689232_18It wasn’t long ago when optimism was the gist of the day on Turkey’s Kurdish issue. Many believed that there was about to be a substantial settlement of this century-old problem.

In the early days of 2013, the armed conflict ceased. Peace as a new normality was setting in. Reaping the spoils of the peaceful political climate, the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) scored the highest electoral achievement in the history of the Kurdish political movement. Although support for the Kurdish parties in Turkey has traditionally hovered at 5-6 percent, the HDP’s young leader Selahattin Demirtas received 9.8 percent of the votes in the presidential election of August 2014, and the HDP acquired 13 percent in the June 2015 elections. That figure later dropped to 10.7 percent in November’s snap elections.

At present, this picture seems to belong to a bygone era as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Turkey have once again resumed armed violence.

3707d8f2be163bd14c78cf07586f13bb_L-1The PKK – inspired by the success of its sister organisation the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria, is trying to replicate PYD tactics in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey. It is attempting to establish what it proclaims as “democratic autonomy” in some of the Kurdish towns – by digging trenches, building barricades and resorting to brute force.

The fallacy in this approach is that Turkey is not Syria. Despite all its shortcomings, Turkey is a functioning democracy, where the HDP very recently could mount a powerful opposition to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK party) government. In such a context, the PKK’s strategy to turn Kurdish cities, towns and neighbourhoods into a battleground expectedly invites a forceful response from the government.

Since conditions of security and order are completely different in Turkey, a strategy inspired by the imbroglio in Syria is unlikely to work. The fact that the PKK has thus far failed to generate significant societal support and participation in its endeavour shows how ill-conceived this new approach has been. The HDP’s failure to distance itself from the PKK’s strategy cost the party more than one million votes. And the resumption of fighting after the June elections was another reason for the decreased support for the HDP at the snap elections. Read the whole article

Turkey catches Fire? Who to blame for ISIS?

The post-modern news media inhabit and project a fascinating virtual world. Friends and family abroad email or text me saying: ‘We heard there was a terrible earthquake in Turkey – are you all right?’ ‘Well, yes,’ I reply. ‘It was an awful thing for the people on the spot, but that spot is nearly 2000 km from Istanbul, so we ourselves only read about it in the newspaper. But I hear the USA is engulfed in race riots and street violence – I hope you guys are all safe.’ ‘Oh sure,’ they say. ‘Ferguson, Mississippi is a long way from our house.’

But we know it's not happening in your part of America

But we know it’s not happening in your part of America

So when you read a headline in Time proclaiming ‘Turkey Catches Fire as ISIS burns Kobani’ I’d like you to bear that in mind. Turkey covers a land area approximately three times that of Japan, New Zealand or the United Kingdom. There are fires from time to time, but I have to tell you, at this stage, the sub-editor at Time seems to have had a rush of blood to the head. One of my students comes from the city of Şanlıurfa, some 40-50 km from the Syrian border. Out of interest I asked him how things are down there. Pretty normal, he assured me.

On the other hand, the situation in parts of Iraq and Syria near Turkey’s southeastern border seems rather dire. Civil war has been ongoing in Syria for three years with no end in sight – and an estimated 1.5 million refugees have crossed into Turkey, overflowing government camps and increasingly finding their way to urban centres in the west. A mysterious new entity labeled ‘ISIS’ by Western media, seemingly unaffiliated to any particular Middle East state, yet remarkably well-trained and equipped with artillery and other modern military hardware, is raging through the region, burning towns, massacring locals and beheading visiting journalists.

A CNN poll in early September allegedly found that a majority of Americans was ‘alarmed’ by ISIS and in favour of bombing them. Incidentally, the poll also found that 83% were in favour of providing humanitarian aid to refugees, but I haven’t heard much more about that. 61% were clear that they didn’t want to see US troops on the ground in Syria or Iraq. The proportion supporting airstrikes is around 2:1 according to a more recent poll. Keith Helser, a ‘commodities trader from suburban Chicago’ is quoted as saying ‘He [President Obama]’s got to do something.’ He said most people he talks with don’t care much about the U.S. airstrikes. ‘It’s a long way away. As long as we’re not letting our own people get killed, I don’t think they care that much.’

Syrian Kurds crossing the border into Turkey

Syrian Kurds crossing the border into Turkey

Well, excuse me, but I don’t see that. Why exactly does President Obama have to do something? And if he genuinely feels he does, why does it have to be dropping bombs from a great height on countries with whom his own government is not officially at war? The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on August 22 saying that more than 191,000 people had been killed in Syria between March 2011 and April 2014, and 2.9 million had fled the country. ‘It is scandalous,’ he said, ‘that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained, and the relatives of all those who have been killed or are missing is no longer attracting much attention, despite the enormity of their suffering.’

Western news media, especially in the USA, have made much of the admittedly gruesome deaths of two or three foreign nationals at the hands of ISIS executioners. We also read and see much about Yezidis, Chaldean Christians and Kurds being massacred. Again, I’m sorry, but I don’t see the deaths of those journalists as sufficient reason for large-scale military invasion of a sovereign state with whom we are not actually at war. And I don’t believe Barack Obama does either. I also have serious doubts (along with Mr ‘Chicago commodities trader’ Helser) that most Americans care a great deal about Yezidis or Chaldean Christians, even if they knew what they were. I suspect that there has been a concerted campaign by opinion leaders in the US (political, industrial and financial) using the news media to instill fear into their fellow citizens so that they will support further military action. And the real question, in my opinion, is why?

Bringing peace to the Middle East

Bringing peace to the Middle East

Getting back to recent events in Turkey referred to in that Time article about that country catching fire, it is true that several cities have been experiencing violent street demonstrations where Kurdish citizens are allegedly demanding that the government send military aid to the residents of the Syrian town of Kobani, apparently about to be overrun by ISIS forces. A news item on Thursday in little old New Zealand announced that the US and its allies were ‘chafing at Turkish inaction on Syria.’ It seems that ‘the US and its allies’ want the Turkish government to send troops and tanks across the border into Syria to engage ISIS forces and try to save the town of Kobani – this in spite of the fact that US and its allies are pretty clear in their reluctance to commit ground forces of their own to the conflict. Sitting up there in a bomber at a safe altitude, or at an even safer distance at the controls of an unmanned drone dropping explosive ordinance is apparently ok – but putting US lives at risk . . . Uh, uh. Get those Turks to do it. They’re good at that kind of stuff.

But the Turkish government is being uncooperative, as indeed they were when George W Bush and his allies went a-hunting Saddam Hussein. The line being taken by the US-controlled news media is that Turkey is happy to see ISIS killing Kurds; that they don’t seem to be viewing the threat of ISIS with the appropriate degree of seriousness; and that they are claiming to be worried about PKK Kurdish terrorism when we want them to care more about ISIS.

In fact, in the last two weeks, 160,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS forces have been permitted to cross the border into Turkey, adding to the 1.5 million Syrians mentioned above. Who will be responsible for feeding, housing and providing gainful employment for these people? The Turkish government is understandably nervous that sending troops into Syria with aggressive intent will provoke a similar response within its own borders. President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu have also made it clear that they are unwilling to commit Turkish troops until the US and its allies clarify their long-term objectives for Syria.

Front page of 'Sözcu' - I suspect the USA is behind it

Front page of ‘Sözcu’ – I suspect the USA has some interest in stirring up protests

Banner front page headline in Turkey’s main anti-government newspaper ‘Sözcu’ this morning announced, over graphic photographs of masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and brandishing clubs and sawn-off shotguns: ‘İşte Tayyip’in Eseri’‘This is Tayyip’s [the Turkish president’s] handiwork.’ This in a country where there is, allegedly, no freedom of the press. I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened in the USA if a newspaper had carried a headline, in the days after 9/11, saying ‘This is the Bush family’s handiwork.’ But leave that aside. What I am interested in is, who is actually responsible for the current chaos in the Middle East.

I’m not going to say anything about Israel. I’m not going to enter into a discussion of the extent to which American and British determination to establish a Jewish state in Palestine drastically altered the dynamics in the region, and their commitment to propping it up has created a situation where peace is virtually impossible. No, I’m not.

What I am going to do is direct your attention to a pair of articles written by Alastair Crooke, according to Wikipedia, a British diplomat, a former ranking figure in British Intelligence (MI6) and European diplomacy, and now a vocal advocate for dialogue between militant Islam and the West. Crooke is apparently somewhat unpopular with the neo-conservative club, but what he says makes a lot of sense to me. The first article provides a historical survey of the rise of Wahhabi Islam and its connection with the foundation of Saudi Arabia and its ‘royal’ dynasty. The second proposes the thesis that ‘The real aim of ISIS is to replace the Saud family as the new Emirs of Arabia’.

Crooke argues that Wahhabism was a purist Islamic doctrine originating in the 18th century, strenuously opposed by the Ottomans when they controlled the region, but accepted by the British when, for reasons of their own, they saw fit to settle the Saud family on the Arabian throne after the First World War. Since then there has been an uneasy relationship between the Wahhabist clerics with their Shariah regime, and the Saudi royals pursuing a lavish lifestyle funded by a symbiotic relationship with the USA and its insatiable thirst for oil.

My good friend Abdullah. He doesn't personally flog anyone

My good friend Abdullah. He doesn’t personally flog anyone 😉

In all fairness to the George Bushes and Barack Obama, they probably weren’t/aren’t entirely comfortable with the amputating of hands, stoning of adulteresses and public flogging of women for drinking a glass of beer or driving a car. Sucking up to the Saudi royals involves a certain sleight of mind whereby you pretend you are a persuasive force for modernisation while your weapons factories supply them with state-of-the-art military hardware and you finance their purchases by buying their oil. As Alastair Crooke points out, however, there is a price to pay by King Saud and his family too: an increasing alienation of the Wahhabi believers on whom they depend for their privileged existence. Osama bin Ladin, founder of Al Qaeda, came from a wealthy Saudi family with close ties to the Saudi royals – but his religious principles led to his disillusionment and subsequent exile.

The sad fact for America is that few countries in the world, and probably none in the Middle East (apart from Israel) have much sympathy for their interest in preserving the obscenely opulent lifestyle of the Saudi royals. A Time article today reports that it is not only Turkey that sees Bashar al-Assad as a more important target than ISIS. Neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan are also having to absorb vast numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria – and other Arab states have reasons of their own for wishing to see the back of Assad. The article suggests that the US government’s reluctance to confront the Syrian dictator stems from the fact that his main ally in the region is Iran. The USA is desperate to get Iran to agree to limit its nuclear development programme (so that Israel can continue to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East), and stepping in to oust Assad will very likely put an end to any hope of success in that struggle.

A symbiotic relationship

A symbiotic relationship

I will give the last word here to Alastair Crooke: ‘Here is the difficulty with evolving U.S. policy, which seems to be one of “leading from behind” again — and looking to Sunni states and communities to coalesce in the fight against ISIS.

‘It is a strategy that seems highly implausible. Who would want to insert themselves into this sensitive intra-Saudi rift? And would concerted Sunni attacks on ISIS make King Abdullah’s situation better, or might it inflame and anger domestic Saudi dissidence even further? So whom precisely does ISIS threaten? It could not be clearer. It does not directly threaten the West (though westerners should remain wary, and not tread on this particular scorpion).’

Governing Turkey – listening to the experts

‘Türk demek, Turkçe demektir. Ne mutlu Türk’üm diyene!’
The words are written on a banner one of our neighbours has strung from the balcony of his house. To be fair, we are not in Istanbul. We’re at our summer retreat near Bodrum; the summer season hasn’t officially opened, few people are around, and I’m hopeful our ultra-nationalist neighbour will pack his banner away before the place starts to fill up.
The modern Republic of Turkey is a complex state – that is probably the main message I aim to convey through this blog; and the words on our neighbour’s banner provide a brief glimpse into this complexity. The second sentence is generally attributed to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the republic’s founding father. Faced with the need to unite a diverse people to fight for national survival in the aftermath of disastrous defeats and in the face of foreign invasion and occupation, Mustafa Kemal Pasha (as he was then) played the one card that had any hope of success – the trump card of national identity. “How happy,’ he announced, ‘is the one who says ‘I am a Türk!’”
At the time, it must have been a risky gambit. The 600-year Ottoman Empire was on its knees, its capital, Istanbul, under foreign occupation, and its remaining territories under sentence of partition. The Sultan and Caliph, nominal ruler of the Empire and leader of the world’s Muslims, was a virtual prisoner and puppet of the occupying forces. ‘Turkishness’ itself was not a quality to be especially proud of. The ruling class were Ottomans, their language a hybrid of Turkish, Persian and Arabic, written in an Arabic script intelligible only to an educated few. The royal family had for centuries been breeding with women selected from the upper classes of non-Muslim and non-Turkish neighbours. Talented individuals from non-Turkish, non-Muslim nations within the Empire (especially Greek, Armenian and Jewish) had filled key positions in the imperial economy. Actual ‘Turks’ were more likely to be soldiers or farmers.
Those soldiers, and a good number of the farmers, had been fighting and dying for an empire whose boundaries had been shrinking for a century or more. Why would they be happy? Why would their mothers, fathers, sisters and children be happy? That Atatürk managed to inspire and unite them for one more deadly struggle against enemies bent on their destruction goes a long way towards explaining why the people of Turkey hold him in such reverence. The second sentence on our neighbour’s banner expresses an aspect of national consciousness beyond the mere lexical meaning of the words themselves.
The first sentence is a little more problematic, and I haven’t heard that they were ever spoken by Atatürk himself. The word ‘Türk’ can be rendered in English as ‘a Turk’ or ‘Turkish’ in the sense of national identity. ‘Türkçe’ means ‘the Turkish language’. The writer wants to say, I think, that the Turkish language is the soul of the Turkish nation. He or she may even be implying that native speakers of other languages can not be considered Turkish. If that is the case, it is rather unfortunate. There has been a good deal of house construction and renovation going on in Bodrum and Turkey recently. Many of the contractors and probably most of the workers are Kurdish. They are undoubtedly citizens of Turkey, but the majority of them would have, of necessity, learned the Turkish language after starting school. Until recently they were denied the right to speak their language and even to give their children Kurdish names. The fact that Turkey’s current government has relaxed these prohibitions and opened up discussion on the Kurdish issue is, ironically, one of the factors arousing anger amongst political opposition groups.
Another irony, perhaps, is the reason that those Kurdish people remained in the Republic when others left – they were Muslims. After Turkey’s War of Independence ended in 1922 with the defeat of the invading Greek army and the evacuation of occupying British troops from Istanbul, there was a major exchange of populations in which hundreds of thousands of Christians and Muslims were uprooted from their homes and sent, Muslims to Anatolia and Christians to the Greek state across the water. The result was that, however secular Atatürk’s intentions, his new Republic was overwhelmingly Muslim in demographic composition.
This religious-versus-secular contradiction is not the only paradox inherent in the new entity that was Turkey. Emerging as it did from the ashes of the discredited Ottoman Empire, the Republic of Turkey had an uneasy relationship with its immediate predecessor. On the one hand the military, architectural, artistic and culinary achievements of its illustrious golden age were matters of great pride. On the other, its slow decline had left its people with a sense of inferiority and in its final death throes there were undoubtedly shameful events. Restoring national pride was a key goal of the new administration, at the same time as there was recognition of the need to follow a modernising path already trod by Western nations.
In fact, ‘restoring’ pride is probably not the correct word to use when talking about Turkish nationalism. ‘Creating’ perhaps better addresses the problem faced by the Republic’s early leaders. In a sense it was necessary to retrospectively leapfrog the Muslim Ottomans, the Christian Byzantines and the pagan Romans and to create a heritage of pure Turkishness based on those warrior horsemen (and women) who had spread out of Central Asia in waves from time immemorial. It was necessary to idealise the pre-Islamic spirituality of shaman tribesmen (and women) and to divest the corrupted Ottoman language of its Persian and Arabic borrowings. Connections were made to ancient Anatolian civilisations such as the Hittites, and a new Latin-based alphabet facilitated widespread literacy at the same time as it separated modern Turkey from its more recent history.
Without a doubt there must have been elements in those early days that were strongly opposed to the goals and methods of Atatürk and his colleagues: the religious elite and the simply devout villager must have been alarmed at the processes of secularisation. Educated intelligentsia must have been furious that years spent studying the Ottoman language would be devalued. Well-heeled urbanites, especially in Istanbul, may have felt uncomfortable with the inclusive, at times almost socialistic rhetoric of the new leader. As years went by, some at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum may have felt aggrieved that the rhetoric was slow to produce the promised brave new world.
It would require a large book to examine all the disparate groups that make up the modern Republic of Turkey. European neighbours may fear that opening their EU door to Turkey would lead to a flood of immigration to their economic paradise. Since the foundation of the Republic, Turkey itself has been a magnet drawing refugees seeking a safe haven from strife and oppression; the most recent being almost a million impoverished Syrians. Governing this country is no easy task – and it would not be surprising if its own citizens harboured some uncertainties about the best direction for reaching a happy future.
As an example, I would like to cite the case of a high-profile, highly educated, financially comfortable, internationally recognised Turkish gentleman. Orhan Pamuk is an acclaimed novelist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. As I remember, when that award was made, the response in Pamuk’s homeland was somewhat muted. Lately, however, his star seems to have risen and in recent months he has been the subject of some media attention. Possibly the key to this is an interviewpublished in several Turkish dailies on May 23 under a headline quoting Pamuk as saying it was “impossible for an honest person not to criticise the [Turkish] government.”  
Well, I have some history of criticising governments myself – but I find myself almost feeling sorry for Mr Tayyip Erdoğan and his team. These days the blame for pretty much everything is laid at their feet, and it seems to add weight to the criticism when it comes from someone with celebrity status. Last year it was a motley crew of actors and actresses from Hollywood and the UK. I’m not exactly sure why people assume that, because someone has achieved success in sport, pop singing, piano playing or movie acting, their opinions on national and international affairs must be worth publicising. Occasionally one or two do decide to put their credibility on the line by entering politics – footballer Hakan Şükür in Turkey and actress Glenda Jackson in England come to mind – and they would probably admit that doing is somewhat more difficult than talking.
Nevertheless, Mr Pamuk talks; in this instance, apparently, in Lyon, France while attending an international forum on “The Novel”. No doubt the French media are fond of Mr Pamuk, given that they have been trying to pin a charge of genocide on the Turkish people for years. Pamuk got himself in a spot of bother in 2005 after giving an interview where he was quoted as saying that “a million Armenians and 30,000 Kurds were killed in this country and I’m the only one who dares to talk about it.” His version of the story makes much of the fact that he was charged with “public denigration of Turkish identity” and had to flee the country. He tends to play down the details that the interview was with a newspaper in Switzerland (this country?); that the prosecution was brought by an ultra-nationalist lawyer who was subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in the ‘Ergenekon’military coup conspiracy trial; and that Pamuk himself received little more than a judicial slap on the wrist. One might compare the fates of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange who are still trying to escape the clutches of the US justice system for telling the truth on a number of issues with serious implications for world peace.
The latest club for belabouring the government in Turkey is the deaths of 301 miners in a coal-mining accident two weeks ago. Certainly such events are unacceptable in a country with aspirations to rank among the world’s developed nations. Certainly the tragedy highlights problems with workers’ rights, workplace safety and collective bargaining in Turkey. On the other hand, those miners were working in dreadful conditions 400 metres underground for subsistence wages to extract coal, most of which is burned to produce electricity. In my opinion, some of those critics piously blaming the government for the Soma mine tragedy would do well to examine their personal carbon footprint before casting the first stone.
I don’t wish to single out Mr Pamuk for unfair criticism, but it does seem to me that he represents a section of Turkish society that is a little out of touch with the reality of life for the majority of his countrymen and women. In February this year, The New York Timespublished an article entitled “Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.” I don’t know where Mr Pamuk lives these days – the interview was apparently conducted mostly in the artsy Cihangir neighbourhood of Istanbul where the writer has recently opened a ’museum’ based on the fictional events in his novel “The Museum of Innocence”. I’m curious because the article neglects to mention that Pamuk is Robert Yik-Fong Tam Professor in the Humanities at New York’s Columbia University, and I’m wondering whether he commutes from Istanbul to carry out his teaching responsibilities.
Apart from gentrified Cihangir, Pamuk’s Istanbul also includes the plush old-money district of Nişantaşı, and the leafy Bosporus campus of Robert College where tuition will cost you an arm and a leg, even if your child manages to pass the entrance exam. The NY Times article asserts that Pamuk’s “work is as grounded in [Istanbul] as Dickens’ was in London”, while admitting later that (very unlike Dickens) “Most of Mr Pamuk’s characters are members of the secular elite”. To be fair, there may have been some difficult times for the Pamuk family, since young Orhan’s father apparently “frittered away much of his fortune through a series of bad investments”. However, he was still able to provide his son with a car and money for weekly visits to bookshops where he would “fill the trunk with books”. The bookshops were near the campus of Istanbul University where Pamuk was a student in the 1970s. At that time left wing protesters were being shot, imprisoned, tortured and disappeared in events leading up to and following two military coups. Pamuk, by his own admission, “while his friends were risking their lives facing down soldiers . . . spent most of his time reading at home in Nişantaşı.”
Well, you can’t blame the guy for that, even if it does imply a splash of pinkish armchair socialism. What surprised me more was reading that little Orhan’s first experience of foreign travel was a summer in Geneva with his father at the age of seven – and that he didn’t leave Istanbul again until he was 30. I feel sure the interviewer must have made an error in transcribing his notes here – but if not, I cannot comprehend how a Turkish citizen of such narrow geographical experience could claim to have any understanding of his country and its people.
Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, on the other hand, knew his people intimately. Another reason for his almost mythical status in Turkey is that, when the bullets and shrapnel were flying on that crucial ridge of Chunuk Bair/Conk Bayırı in 1915, he was leading his lads from the front rather than sitting at home reading.