Category Archives: Turkey

The Idlib Showdown: five to midnight

The Russian are meeting with the Turks and Iranians in Tehran on Friday. The Russians have begun limited airstrikes to soften up Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS) positions (above picture). These have been pinpointed by Turkish Intelligence (MİT), with raids beginning after Turkey blacklisted the organisation, in a final move pressuring it to disband and surrender to them. The Russians are impatient because of the repeated drone attacks by HTS on the Khmeimim airbase, and are the prime movers of the new phase of military operations in Syria.

On the other hand, the Syrian régime forces backed by Iranian militias are so far holding off on a major attack and engaging only in limited shelling. They are awaiting, it seems, the outcome of the Tehran summit. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu’s interventions with the US to hold off an American response has resulted in rumblings and threats from Trump against the Syrian régime and a full UNSC meeting on the subject of Idlib. The French are also pressuring to stave off an attack by Assad.

The likely outcome is for limited strikes and advances and a slow strangulation of the HTS units that refuse to surrender. The Iranian economy is heavily dependent on Turkey and this is already showing in Iran sensitivity towards Turkish demands. With the Turks ensconced in their positions around Idlib, their vision of a province surviving the crisis to go on to prosper in the manner of the northern Syrian areas of Al-Bab, Jarablus and Afrin, and avoid an apocalyptic fate similar to that of Aleppo, Raqqa and Mosul, is become more likely with every passing day.

What happened in those last three historic Arab cities – cities that will now limp into the future as a mere shadow of their former selves- has taught us that there is little difference between the scorched earth military tactics of the Americans and the Russians. The future of Syria will lie with the Syrians both in Turkey and in the Turkish controlled areas of northern Syria, who have been given an economic future by the Turkish nation. The power of the Syrian people must become an economic not a military one.

After struggling to bring it under control, Turkey blacklists Tahrir el-Sham (HTS)

After months of cajoling leaders of Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), ex-al-Nusra Front, to disband in order to avoid a Russian/Syrian régime attack on Idlib Province, Turkey has listed HTS as a terrorist organisation, now paving the way for the advance. The long negotiations with HTS did see many of their fighters join the force organised by the Turks in the province, Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

Now only hardcore elements remain in the rump ex-al-Qaeda organisation, who are sworn to fight to the bitter end. Unlike previous encounters between rebel fighters and the Russian/Syrian military in the Damascus and Aleppo environs, there is no longer anywhere for the HTS units to retreat. 

A pincer movement against its fighters by the Assad régime, from the west and the south of Idlib, with Russian air support is planned. HTS is held up in Khan Sheikun, Jisr al-Shughur, Kafr Nabal, Idlib, and parts of Jabal al-Zawiya, Salqeen, Darkush, Harem, Sarmada, Sarmin and Ma’ra Misrin. However,  the Turks have given clearance for an advance in only three areas:

  1. Jisr al-Shughur to secure the approach to the Russian airbase at Kmeimim
  2. Southern Idlib countryside to secure Hama airport
  3. The Hama-Aleppo main Road 

The scenario that is unfolding has been planned by the Russians in agreement with the Turks, who are ensconced in 12 heavily fortified positions around Idlib. It is cautiously envisaged as unfolding in stages in order to minimise civilian casualties. Turkey is conducting joint intelligence work to identify the positions of the blacklisted organizations. Turkish intelligence (MİT) is crucial to this operation, which is why its head, Hakan Fidan, has been to Moscow so many times recently. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said that he has asked the US to share their intelligence over the jihadist groups in Idlib to help the pinpoint operation. This might, however, be optimistic, given that the move against HTS will reduce the US footprint in the Idlib area. Still, not all US agencies are involved there, and some may help.

So now that Turkey has thrown its hat in the ring formally and agreed the terms of any advance, should it happen, there is little doubt that HTS’ days are numbered. Intermittent negotiations are likely to continue between Turkey and the HTS leadership for the group’s disbandment and surrender. Meanwhile, Russian naval exercises off the Syrian coast are intended to ward off any unexpected succour for the beleaguered HTS units that might prolong the conflict.

 

 

The Syrian War: Showdown in Idlib

While a semblance of peace reigns over Idlib’s marketplace, Syrian government forces are striking the Turkmen Mountains in northwestern Syria’s Latakia province, with Assad himself threatening a major offensive to retake Idlib Province, at least rhetorically. Not long ago on July 31, the Russian president’s envoy to Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, had made it clear on the sidelines of the Astana 10 conference that ‘Any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.’ However, Sergey Lavrov, in a visit to Turkey yesterday said, despite warnings by the Turkish government that an uncontrolled offensive would be catastrophic, that ‘Syria has a right to defend itself against militant groups’.

Despite the apparent disagreement, things are not what they seem. Turkey, with Russian and Iranian consent, has set up “observation posts” around Idlib’s conurbation of some 3 million people, most of whom are displaced persons (IDPs) from other parts of Syria, now threatened once again by Assad’s army. Apart from the observation posts dividing Afrin from Idlib to the north, a front has been established facing Syrian government forces from El-Eis south of Aleppo to Kafr Sijnah and Qalaat al Madiq to the south of Idlib (north of Hama), and back up on the western side up to Jisr al-Shoughour. Furthermore, these positions have been heavily fortified with massive prefabricated concrete (being delivered below), and it doesn’t look as if  the Turks intend to move anytime soon.

Meanwhile, Turkish security officials have been negotiating for some months now to integrate the various fighting groups spread across Idlib Province into an organized defence force under their control. But Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS or the Institution for the Liberation of the Levant), previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) when it was still a declared al-Qaeda affiliate, has, typically, been refusing to cooperate.

Furthermore, elements from within HTS have been making and sending armed drones to cause damage at the Russian airbase at Khmeimim, which has made the subject of HTS’ dissolution a matter of heated debate between Russia and Turkey. While Turkey has recently been having more success at reducing the numbers of HTS’ followers, hardcore elements have broken away to form a new group called Tanzim Horass el-Din which, in virtue of its name (Organisation for the Protectors of the Religion) seems to be declaring an inflexible conservative stance. The al-Jazeera video below summarises these and other related events.

So while Russia is expressing its impatience with the situation in Idlib in its support for the threatened advance by Assad’s forces, the Turks continue to insist that the campaign be stopped. Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın told reporters at a press conference today: ‘We are calling for the immediate termination of the operation into Idlib. Referring to Turkey’s role in the Astana  process, he said: ‘ As a guarantor country, we are working to avoid the mistakes carried out by the [Assad] régime in other parts of Syria, like Deraa and Homs, in Idlib.’ This is a diplomatic way for the Turks to say that they are not moving, and that the Russians have to give them more time to get the situation in Idlib under control. It is understood, however, that Russia’s change of tone conveyed in Lavrov’s statement yesterday is a necessary threat in the interests of speeding things up with recalcitrant fighters on the ground.

Meanwhile, it is the next round of the Astana process in Tehran that will be decisive in all these respects (including Assad’s advance) since, undoubtedly, the Iranians will be bringing into the mix the question of trade with Turkey, in trying to overcome the difficult new sanctions environment .

The travails of the Lira and the financial assault on Turkey

The social media bots were in full swing as the Turkish Lira roared past the L5.5=$1 mark on August 8 towards L7 in a frenzy reminiscent of the boiler room attacks on the elected Egyptian President, Mohamed Morsi in the lead up to the Western-sanctioned July 2013 Egyptian coup. The smear campaign was a final assault orchestrated by the US security state against Turkey, intended to drive it into the arms of the IMF, after an attempted coup organised through Turkish deep state operator and religious cleric, Fethulla Gülen, in July 2016, had failed. This was a final attempt to bring this rebellious imperial satrapy to heel, and its bolshie Islamic leader Erdoğan, under control. If Khomeini’s upset of US dominance over Iran caused a shock to the world order in 1979, Erdoğan’s policies are even more difficult for the world’s élites to swallow.

Consider that the “U.S. Empire” began (formally) on Monday, February 24 1947. On that fateful day, British Ambassador Lord Inverchapel informed newly-appointed U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall personally that Britain could no longer provide aid to Greece and Turkey: “His Majesty’s government could no longer keep up its imperial role in checking Russian ambitions at the straits barrier”. He said it was urgent that the U.S. take over that role, which was going to be costly. As Truman scheduled a meeting with congressional leaders to discuss the estimated $400m cost of this venture on February 27, it would be Dean Acheson, Marshall’s deputy, who actually took over the lead negotiating role.

To convince squeamish budget-cutting congressional leaders just coming out of WWII, of the necessity of spending so much money, Acheson argued that Soviet pressure on the Dardanelles (Bosphorus) might cause Greece to fall like a ‘rotten apple’, the corruption would then infect ‘Iran and all to the East’, then ‘Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France’. Acheson’s claims were so off the scale that he upset many Washington insiders and Walter Lippman, for instance, was so incensed  that he almost came to blows with Acheson at a dinner party.

The way George Marshall recalled these events of 21-27 February 1947 that led to the Truman doctrine is illuminating. When Inverchapel raised the matter of Greece and Turkey with Marshall, the U.S. Secretary of State said that he didn’t understand the urgency, and ‘given that the Russians had made no move with regard to Turkey for some time, he asked if the Ambassador had any ideas regarding the reasons for the Russian silence’. The British Ambassador replied that ‘in his opinion no foreigner knows why Russia takes or fails to take certain actions. Therefore, as an honest man, he must admit that he is not in a position to explain what is responsible for the present Soviet attitude towards Turkey’. If the business of Empire – according to these strange diplomatic exchanges – is thus simply a mindset, it is in this form that the US inherited it from the UK.

In any event, Turkey became central to US world dominance, and as the Turkish military joined NATO in 1952, forming the front line of the Cold War and the covert ‘fight against international communism’, there followed the creation of the Turkish “Gladio” special warfare department (ÖHD – called the STK before 1965). This would constitute the Turkish “Deep State”, funded directly by the US outside Turkish government accounts, until it was flushed out by Turkish Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit in the 1970s, only for it to be replaced in the 1980s by the Gülen organisation. This would, in turn, collapse with the failure of the July 2016 attempted coup, and subsequently unravel in dramatic fashion as a result of Erdoğan’s “state of emergency” – thoroughly unpopular with the Western media – as more than 50,000 military men, bureaucrats and academics were removed from office and were either convicted in court or simply lost their jobs. The current attack on the Lira must be seen in that light – as the final (possibly, you never know) attempt to bring what had been a pillar of “US Empire” to heel.

Emerging from basket-case status in the 20th century, Turkey is now a G20 country with a government debt to GDP ratio of 28.3%. Among G20 countries only Russia has a lower ratio (12.6%) whilst Germany (64.1%), the UK (85.4%) and the US (105.4%) all have much higher ratios of public debt to GDP. If we are concerned about the state of foreign exchanges and inflation then the best measure of GDP is purchasing power parity (measuring the country’s production in terms of local costs), and on that basis, Turkey is the 13th largest economy in the world GDP with $2.1trillion economy, compared with Russia ($4tr.),  UK ($2.9 tr.), Germany ($4tr.) and the US ($19tr.).

Turkey’s problem (if that is a problem) is that it is the fastest growing G20 country, level with India (7% p.a. GDP growth), ahead of China (6.5%), Germany (2.9%), the US (2.6%) and the UK (1.4%). These levels of growth drag in a lot of imports in terms of energy products and intermediate goods necessary for industrial production, which leads to a high balance of trade deficit, currently running at levels of around $55billion p.a. (double the rate for the UK, for instance). Nevertheless, Turkey total public/private external debt is only $453bn.; lower than all G20 countries, except Saudi Arabia. The large European countries (Germany, France, the UK), the US and Japan have massive external debts, because they have deep capital markets and are home to international banking, and so the external debt figures (between $2 and $20tr.) are strictly not comparable with Turkey’s. But BRICS countries like India and Brazil have external debts of well over $550bn, and small European countries (outside the G20), like Denmark, Finland, Austria, and Belgium have a much larger external debt than Turkey.

So why did the Dow Jones lose 196 points last Friday on the news that Turkey’s currency was plummeting, with, especially, bank stocks falling (Citigroup -2.39%; Morgan Stanley -2.12%; Goldman Sachs -1.78%; Bank of America -1.30%; and JPMorgan Chase -0.98%). In Germany, Deutsche Bank down -4.68% on Friday, is an exceptional case with its stock down -41% since February. But the selloff didn’t stop there. Two big U.S. life insurance companies were also down MetLife -3.19%, and Prudential Financial -2.97%. This is the product of exposure by European Banks to Turkey, with a total of both loans and shareholdings in local Turkish banks standing at some $194bn (according to the Bank of International Settlements). So what has that to do with the Wall Street banks and insurers? The problem is in fact that European banks are  counterparties to trillions of dollars in derivatives held by Wall Street, estimated at over $4tr. by the Office for Financial Research (OFR). So if anything happens to the European banks, Wall Street would collapse.

The basic problem is that, if over the past year the Turkish lira has lost 40% of its value vs. the U.S. dollar, this makes local dollar-denominated debts of Turkish companies harder to repay, and puts European banks, and therefore Wall Street, at risk. Trump was blithely unaware of all this as he focused on delivering his gut punch to a truculent Erdoğan. This latter was refusing to release Pastor Andrew Brunson from his Turkish jail cell (charged as he was of involvement in the 2016 attempted coup), which White House evangelist-in-chief, Mike Pence, had summarily demanded. While the Lira was already displaying weakness, Trump tweeted his explosive attack, and the currency decline turned into a rout:

“I have just authorized a doubling of Tariffs on Steel and Aluminum with respect to Turkey as their currency, the Turkish Lira, slides rapidly downward against our very strong Dollar! Aluminum will now be 20% and Steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!”

Fed tightening over the past year, and the end of Quantitative Easing (QE) has meant that, not just Turkey, but all currencies of the emergent economies/BRICS countries have lost somewhere around 20% of their value against the US dollar. The drop in the Lira was proportionate to those trends, until last month that is, when social media pressure began to build up against Turkish government policies, noticeably after the official rejection by Turkey of US sanctions against Iran. When demands for the release of Pastor Andrew Brunson were also rebuffed, a new high-pitched Erdoğanophobic feeding frenzy driven by political bots took the Lira to its current new lows. The Turkish currency would thus register a decline over the last year similar to that of the currency of the worst-performing emerging economy – Argentina (or a move of c. -40%).

But the difference between the Turkish and Argentinian economies, in terms of strategic potential, GDP growth, productivity and foreign exchange reserves is stark, demonstrating the clear political origins of the market assault on the Lira, in the last phase. The intention may have even been to drive Turkey into the arms of the IMF, as in the case of Argentina, giving the US new leverage on the country. However, with $170bn in foreign exchange reserves the Turkish Central Bank has enough money to cover interest payments, capital repayments on its external debt, as well as trade deficits, for the next year and a half at least. The very last thing Erdoğan would do is to go to the IMF. Instead, he has the time and space to follow the same policy that Russia pursued during a similar attack on the Rouble in 2014: dedollarisation.

Rather than put up local interest rates, which are already at 17.75%, the Turkish government seems to want to pursue a policy of increased trade in local currency with China, Russia and Iran, and to seek new loans in Yuan from the Chinese, to replace US dollar debt. However, this policy of diversification need not be blinkered or focused only Eastward. Coming out from under the US shadow can significantly also involve a reboot of old historical ties with Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner. Germany is looking to re-orient itself in a new phase in relations with a US which, following the failure to agree on TTIP under Obama, and its summary cancellation anyway by Trump, has been willing to consider a break-up of the European Union. Germany supports Turkey’s insistence on continuing trade with Iran, as it does the continuing prosperity of Turkey. On the back of such improving relations with Germany, better relations with France and the UK would follow. Such an eclectic solution would in fact be natural for a country that sees itself as a bridge between continents and between cultures.

 

The Turkish democratic space and the future of the Middle East

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced his re-election on the basis of unofficial results after winning 52.5 percent of the national vote for the presidency, as the first executive president on the terms of the April 2017 Constitutional Referendum. The presidency had also previously shifted from being determined by parliamentary vote to a direct plebiscite in 2014. Now that virtually all the 180,996 ballot boxes have been opened, the Turkish Election Board, confirms the result. This is Erdoğan’s thirteenth election win since his days as Istanbul mayor.

However, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) only winning 42.5% of the vote in the accompanying elections for the expanded parliament of 600 seats, clearly missed its target of a majority win. The popular vote it acquires translates into 292 seats. Nevertheless, the new government’s ease of manoeuvre in parliament, for legislative purposes, will be made possible through the continuation the AKP’s alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), and Erdoğan’s alliance with its leader, Devlet Bahçeli.

Erdoğan’s main rival, Muharrem İnce, the presidential candidate of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), was on 30.8 percent of the votes at the time of Erdoğan’s announcement. The CHP accused the Anadolu Agency of “manipulating” the vote count in its broadcasts in order to confuse matters, in a desperate manoeuvre to buy time as the CHP vote looked to be sharply down from its 25 % performance in the last (November 2015) elections. This is standard practice on the part of CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, who always cries foul as a habit, irrespective of the circumstances . His suspicion of ballot tampering was not based on any evidence, but on the mere fact of a turnaround in votes, which simply didn’t meet his expectations or predictions. İnce, however, performed much better in the presidential race than Kılıçdaroğlu did in the parliamentary race, and he conceded gracefully, pointing out that the massive lead Erdoğan enjoyed put the result beyond question.

Meral Akşener, leader of the newly founded right-wing İYİ (Good) Party, with a 7.4% result, failed to live up to the promise of her expected performance in the presidential race, where some polls had put her popularity at 20%. Furthermore her party only managed to scrape through into parliament due to her alliance with Kılıçdaroğlu’s CHP.

The Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) succeeded in getting 11.2 percent of the national vote, helped especially by support from non-HDP voters, principally Turkey’s ultra-left voters, who deserted the CHP with negative consequences for the party. Compared with that, therefore, the HDP’s jailed presidential candidate Selahattin Demirtaş won a disproportionate 8.2 percent support, given that the support from the left was only directed at the party and not its leader.

These June 2018 elections mark the beginning of a new era in Turkey’s administrative system, and is an endorsement of the results of the 2017 Constitutional Referendum. Erdoğan’s tactic of allying with Bahçeli paid off. Erdoğan’s political successes have historically been predicated on carefully judged alliances both within and outside the AKP, although the alliance in the early days with the Fethullah Gülen cultic movement soured spectacularly as it began to plan an unconstitutional take-over through a widespread parallel (deep) state apparatus. This process culminated in the attempted coup in July 2016, and led to the current judicial process of the expurgation of the deep state, with the imposition of a state of emergency, yet to be lifted.

Now, Erdoğan’s AK Parti will clearly have to continue to work with the MHP as a coalition partner in parliament, to pass the legislation that will be needed to put flesh on the bones of the presidential system. Although the MHP is regularly tarred with the brush of “fascism” by ultra-left commentators, it is clear that it has nevertheless left behind the negative image it had in 1990s, when its youth movement fostered the violence of the “grey wolves”. The ultra-left’s continuation of the “fascist” meme in its current discourse about the MHP displays a nostalgia for the street battles and the ideological conflicts of the depressed 1990’s.

Indeed Bahçeli seems to have become a mainstay of the Turkish constitutional system. His wily political nous has positioned him as the “kingmaker” of Turkish politics ever since his call for a snap election back in 2002. He has predictably proved Akşener and the pundits wrong by garnering close to 12% of the parliamentary vote for the MHP. The MHP’s resilience seemed to surprise many among the commentariat as it now becomes a key player in parliament. The members of Akşener’s İYİ (Good) Party will find it hard to watch Bahçeli’s success, having defected from the MHP, and are likely to be attracted back into its fold as Akşener – unable to sit in parliament because she ran as presidential candidate – just watches.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic to lend 15 CHP deputies to the İYİ (Good) Party, to help Akşener run as a presidential candidate and later ally with İYİ Party, was an act of self-immolation and sabotaged the CHP’s own chances, as Akşener attracted more votes from the CHP than from the AKP, and much less than was hoped from the MHP, which had been her main aim.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s tactic to put his party rival, Muharrem İnce, in as the presidential candidate, rather than run himself, allowed İnce to demonstrate an unexpected charisma and popularity, which helped him to win 30% of the national vote, or 7.3% more than the disappointing 22.7% achieved by the CHP. The CHP lost votes not only to the İYİ Party but also to the HDP, as a result of the ultra-left’s desertion of the CHP in its mission to drive the HDP over the 10 percent national threshold, and reduce the AKP’s lead in parliament. There will be considerable infighting in the CHP, which might consider an emergency congress to elect İnce as party chair ahead of the March 2019 municipal elections.

Kılıçdaroğlu’s various tactics, thus shorn of any long-term vision or programme competing with the AKP, is a complete failure. To the sense of catastrophe surrounding Kılıçdaroğlu, the bitter irony must added that the CHP’s lowest showing in the national vote since 2011 was  buoyed by the votes of an Islamic constituency. The CHP appropriated 671,000 votes from the Felicity (Saadet) Party, which had joined CHP’s “Nation Alliance”, but which had failed to pass the 10% threshold required to enter parliament. This failure thus adds 3 deputies to the CHP’s tally of 144 seats, an outcome which will haunt the remainder of Temel Karamollaoğlu’s political future, such as is it. His inability to attract voters away from the AKP for the Felicity Party will surely have drawn it to a close.

The HDP’s success is down to the ultra-left voters, but it gives the chance for the party now to draw a clear line between itself and the terror acts of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), despite sharing the same grassroots. This is a possibility since its leader, Demirtaş, serving a jail sentence for aiding and abetting terrorist violence, has recent admitted the error of the party’s previous support for the PKK as inconsistent with democratic participation. Furthermore, the presence of the HDP in parliament now gives the Turkish establishment a formal interlocutor for the Kurdish people and is thus a positive development. This is especially important in the light of the fact that Erdoğan’s alliance with Bahçeli will undoubtedly mean a ramping up of military action in Iraq and Syria against the PKK.

This particular outcome is significant. The HDP presence in parliament is a sweetener for Kurds, balancing out the harsh military action against the PKK. The Kurds might finally insist on full participation in the civil community represented by the Turkish democratic space, in which they have been offered full equality. The PKK umbrella group – the KCK – had rejected this in July 2015 in favour of war and the prospect of Kurdish national independence (Rojava), based on political opportunities afforded by Assad’s policies in Syria, on US logistical and weapons support from the US, and on financial support from the UAE/Saudi Arabia. The choice remains and is stark: the HDP will have more seats in parliament (67) as the MHP (50), and thus the wherewithal to negotiate with Erdoğan if it commits to a democratic agenda rather than blindly following the PKK’s programme of violence. A note of caution: the KCK’s hold on HDP deputies is, however, strong and not many share Demirtaş’ strength of mind.

As Erdoğan recently stated, the Kurds have a nation wherein the Kurdish language, Kurdish media, and Kurdish aspirations will flourish: it is called Turkey, the geographical designation. Bringing the enmity of Turks and Kurds to an end by sidelining the PKK’s divisiveness will also help stabilise both Iraq and Syria. While Syria has a long way to go yet to reach a political solution to its devastating crisis, Iraq’s political scene is developing apace. The acceptance by the Barzani clan of the lack of wisdom in the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) independence referendum, and of a renewed commitment to the Iraqi constitution – under pressure from Turkey, Iran and (from within) from the Talabani clan – was an important recent step towards Iraqi stability. But most important was the fact that the elections were a breakthrough in the process of overcoming the narrow Maliki-type of sectarian governance, while the post-election visit of Qasim Suleimani to Baghdad led to a shift in Sadr’s proposed alliance with Hadi al-Amiri, to one with al-Abadi, more conducive to political stability. This is surprising in that al-Amiri is much closer to Iran than Abadi.

In regards to Turkey itself, the electoral catastrophe suffered by Erdoğan’s opponents on June 24 is only partly due to Kılıçdaroğlu’s astonishing lack of political skills, and to Akşener’s delusions about her popularity among Turkish nationalists. It is also partly a result of the credit due to Erdoğan for his total transformation of the Turkish economy since the depressed 1990’s, and the quintupling of Turkish per capita incomes since. Above all, however, it is due mainly to the relentless attacks by the Western media on Erdoğan over the years, and the support – entirely transparent to the Turkish public – of its masters in the Western security state, of the Gülen movement  (aka FETÖ) and the PKK as Western proxies.

Erdoğan’s electoral success is thus mainly due to the continued perceived threat of interference by foreign powers in Turkey’s affairs by the people. Such interference, in their minds, promises only the same kind of devastation that is plainly evident in Turkey’s neighbourhood, and which is viscerally felt by Turks first-hand, from their need to support 4 million desperate refugees in their homeland. The reaction of the new middle classes who have risen during the Erdogan boom in this electoral cycle has thus, quite naturally, focused on defending the country’s integrity and sovereignty, reliving in this new chaotic era Mustafa Kemal’s rescue of the nation from dismemberment by foreign powers in 1919-23.

The Kingmaker and the snap Turkish election

 

Devlet Bahçeli is the “kingmaker” of Turkish politics. It was Bahçeli who called for early elections back in 2002, paving the way for the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to come to office.

In the aftermath of June 2015 parliamentary election, in which the AKP failed to garner a sufficient majority to form a government, it was Bahçeli who rejected calls from other opposition parties to set up a coalition government, calling for early polls instead. In the November 2015 election the AKP increased its votes, and secured a parliamentary majority.

Subsequently, Bahçeli’s political profile grew substantially after the July 2016 coup attempt. On Oct. 11, 2016 he openly announced his party’s support for the AKP’s ambitions to change the administrative system from a parliamentary to an executive-presidency model. An AKP-MHP alliance narrowly won the constitutional referendum of April 16, 2017.

In early 2018, Bahçeli once again took the stage by declaring that the MHP will not present a candidate for the presidential race and instead will back President Erdoğan’s nomination, forming a new alliance, in light, on his view of the critical security situation Turkey faces at the centre of a collision between America and Russia in Syria.

Now that he has called for new snap elections, bringing forward the next presidential election from November 2019, after Erdoğan’s apparent refusal to contemplate such a move, Bahçeli secures Erdoğan’s agreement. However, the swiftness of the response and the very early date for the new election (June 2018) suggests Erdoğan was in on the idea from the start.

Both Erdoğan and Bahçeli are impatient to begin legislating for the new structures of governance under the presidential system, to consolidate Turkey’s transformation into a state capable of resisting the pressure and interference of foreign powers dogging its political system since 1947. Basically, the reason for the snap election is to wrong-foot Western powers and avoid election interference, which is what Binali Yildirim means when he says that there are ‘geopolitical reasons’ for advancing the election date.

Controversy dogs these elections due to the emergency laws in place at the moment as a result of the Turkish government’s crackdown on the Gülen movement. For the EU in Brussels, this is a civil society movement with a right to free expression, whilst for the Turkish government it is a cult (FETÖ) guilty of high treason in virtue of an attempted violent coup against the state and democratic institutions. For the EU, the state of emergency amounts to the Turkish government acting outside the rule of law. For the Turkish government, an attempted coup d’état is a supreme example of disrespect for the rule of law and warrants sanctions against all suspected members of the Gülen organisation.

The position of the EU is principally sustained by the German government, which has granted asylum to leaders of the Gülen movement, and has instructed the Greek state not to extradite other Gülen elements to Turkey, which escaped to Greece after the coup.

The overall position of the German government against the current Turkish government’s policies, however, pre-dates the attempted coup, and goes back to 2005 when the Merkel CDU/CSU landslide election victory over the SPD would lead to new policies towards Turkey and the rejection of its attempts to improve its trading position and renegotiate the essentially neo-colonial framework of the European Customs Union, by entering the EU as a full member.

The important role the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS) and the Axel Springer Group played in Merkel’s rise should have been warning to the Turks that their non-cooperation in the Iraq War was going to be considered by the US establishment as unforgiveable treachery.

Furthermore, this would have to be understood in the context of the campaign launched by the US through GMFUS beginning in 2004, to combat the anti-Americanism that had taken a strong hold on European public opinion, after France’s and Germany’s (under the SDP) own opposition to the Iraq War.

 

 

Who is who in Syria and the problem faced by Turkey

Barçın Yinanç writes: A few days before the Turkish Armed Forces entered Afrin’s city center, video footage was all over the Turkish press showing how the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) was stopping civilians trying to leave the city. This was shown as evidence that the PYD, which is considered the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), would use civilians as human shields in the anticipated urban warfare.

In the end, the PYD retreated from the center of Afrin and the urban warfare expected to take place with the Turkish army did not occur.

But this video footage remained as proof showing the city’s civilian Kurdish population’s wish to leave and in fact, those who found a way, left.

That brings us to the Turkish government’s first challenge. The Turkish government has been telling all regional and international actors in Syria that demographic engineering through ethnic cleansing should be avoided. Yet, while talking about “cleansing the PKK from the Turkish-Syrian border,” the Turkish government risks contradicting this position if civilian Kurds fleeing armed conflict do not return in fear of reprisal from the Free Syrian Army (FSA), or simply in fear of the presence of the Turkish army.

According to diplomatic sources, the representatives of the Kurdish population in Afrin have told the Turkish government that after having suffered for decades under the oppression of the Bashar al-Assad regime, and after having been subjected to similar oppressive rule by the PYD in the course of these last couple of years, they do not want to come under the oppressive rule of “Sunni Arabs” this time.

Therefore, the challenge for Turkey will be to make sure to separate between the People’s Protection Units (YPG)/PKK and the Syrian civilian Kurds, in addition to securing the return and guarantee of the rights of the latter.

Who is who among the Sunni groups

The second challenge is one posed by the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran trio. Supported by Russia and Iran, regime forces have been making advances against rebel fighters. The same pattern is applied each time, which we have witnessed in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta and which we are now seeing in Douma. There is extensive bombing, including on critical infrastructure like hospitals, use of chemical attacks to further intimidate locals and then an offer to exit for those who want to leave.

Turkey undertook a cross border military incursion against the PKK in Syria, thanks to the green light from the Russians, but that came at the expense of regime attacks against the opponents, which started to flee towards regions under the control of Turkey, like Idlib and Cerablus. Ankara’s protests and numerous telephone calls between Russia and Turkey at the highest level did not stop the Russians’ strategy to push regime opponents toward Turkish controlled areas.

This brings us to the second challenge for Turkey, on identifying who is who among those fleeing towards Turkish controlled areas. You have a civilian woman whose husband is affiliated with Ahrar al-Sham, a brother who was a former member of the al-Nusra Front, an uncle with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and a brother-in-law with the FSA.

Then there is the challenge of Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTF). From Tunisians to Germans, from Moroccans to French, all are asking their Turkish counterparts what will happen with the FTF. Where will they go? Certainly back to their country of origin? And obviously they will pass through Turkey. Already, several diplomatic missions in Turkey are busy dealing with the FTF and their families; the ones who knock on their door but also who do not knock.

Those who do not want to return, like the Chechen and the Uyghurs, what will happen to them when their room to maneuver becomes limited in Syria? Will they find it easier to penetrate Turkey and become deadly lone wolves? Thanks to the military campaign, the PKK may now have limited capacity to use Syria as a launching pad. Will it be the same for the radical jihadists?

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Idlib: the rebel capital of Syria

Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to implement a de-escalation zone over the entire Idlib Province of Syria at the last (6th) Astana Conference. According to the agreement, Turkey would become the guarantor of rebel opposition groups situated in the province. In this way another destructive campaign by the Assad régime in Syria could be avoided, and the migrant populations that have moved there due to their opposition to the régime would be saved from further harm. Turkey is deploying its troops in Idlib, not only to bring peace to the  area itself, but also to surround and neutralise the YPD/PKK Kurdish pocket in Afrin, in conjunction with the Euphates Shield A’zaz to Al-Bab zone to the north. This would bring about Turkey’s aim of halting plans for a unified and contiguous Kurdish state in Syria, and doing so without spilling any further blood.

Idlib has seen many refugees flock to the city, especially after the dramatic fall of Aleppo, bringing the overall population (of the city alone) to well over a million. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dominated by the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), took control of much of the province after many military confrontations with its rival Ahrar al-Sham. Despite HTS’s overall control, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Jays al-Izza and Jays al-Idlib, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki continue to control different pockets throughout the province. While these latter groups support the Turkish deployment and its backing of the Free Syria Army (FSA), HTS remains opposed, and there it is likely that a confrontation with Turkish troops occurs at some point. HTS have informants within the other opposition groups and also have high ranking officers who are in the service of Western intelligence agencies.

Turkey’s Idlib Operation replaced the previously planned Euphates Sword, which would have seen an advance directly into YDP/PKK territory in Afrin. It is being conducted with the FSA factions in the lead, in a similar manner to the previous Operation Euphrates Shield (OES), which began from Jarablus. One of the successes of the Turkish Idlib Operation has been to encourage small groups of fighter to split off from HTS, in order to strengthen the FSA with new elements with local knowledge. Another success seems to have been the marginalisation of HTS by prioritising humanitarian aid and reconstruction. It would appear that HTS finds itself in a corner as a result of this policy, since any attack on its part would lead, not only to many losses among its fighters, but also any local standing it might continue to have in the community.

Developments in Iraqi Kurdistan with the collapse of the Barzani independence referendum saw Turkey help Iraq, leading to the prospect of the maintenance of Iraq’s sovereign integrity. Turkey’s change of stance has rebalanced forces within Iraq, where Abadi, instead of relying purely on the US to fend off the extreme pro-Iranian political factions in the Shia coalitions, can now count on a new ally with significant local economic import, to strengthen his suit. Iran , far from seeing this as an unwelcome development in Iraqi politics, is relieved that Turkey can thus dilute the importance of the US here. This reduces the commitments Iran needs to make to the Iraqi economy to keep US influence in the country marginalised, and lessen the reactions against its presence, from nationalist groups such as the Sadr movement. Abadi new tough language with the US is a sign of this rebalancing and of his new political standing.

A new geopolitical understanding has also been reached over a remarkably short period between Turkey and Iran, based on all these developments, which in turn will also help to consolidate the Idlib Operation. The Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana process has brought peace to the region. In this – its latest phase – the marginalisation of two the major tools of the Western intelligence agencies in the destabilisation of the region is complete: HTS and the YPG/PKK. So quickly has Turkey been able to effect its establishment of bases across Idlib Province, that it appears that a new operation is being envisaged in Afrin province itself.

The failed 2016 Turkish coup and the role of the US

The sign on the bus carrying participants to trials of those accused of organising the attempted 15th July 2016 coup reads; “We have not forgotten July 15, we will not let it be forgotten”.

On July 15th 2016, a military coup was hatched which included the attempted assassination of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. It failed, and has since been the centre-piece of massive  investigation, arrests, and court proceedings. Fethullah Gülen, who resides permanently in the US in a compound in rural Pennsylvania, was without doubt the focal figure in this coup, which included hundreds of his followers in the organisation known in Turkey as FETÖ. Attempts to characterise the coup as fake and organised by the country’s government have foundered on the evidence. Requests for Gülen’s extradition have been met in the US justice system by total silence – neither acquiescence nor rejection based on evidence-based arguments.

This is despite the fact that the US has supplied documentation to Turkish authorities, which has allowed them to convict Kemal Batmaz as being one of the two leaders of the coup (along with fugitive Adil Öksüz). The document from US border security affirms visits by Kemal Batmaz to Fethullah Gülen in the US, which he had previously denied. It is now fairly obvious that this evidence is as damning of Gülen as  it is of Batmaz.

Now outgoing US Ambassador to Turkey, John Bass,  has caused problems for himself over his strong reaction to journalist reports that an unregistered US Istanbul Consulate staffer was a FETÖ operative. There has been tension between Turkish authorities and the US Embassy on the FETÖ debacle on a number of previous occasions. Before Adil Öksüz disappeared following his controversial and sudden release from custody arranged by FETÖ-linked judges , he received a call from an Istanbul telephone number registered to the U.S. Consulate. Upon being questioned on the matter, US authorities claimed he had been called merely to be told that his visa application had been canceled.

Secondly, FETÖ leaders Muharrem Gözüküçük and Bayram Andaç called the U.S. Embassy and the U.S. Consulate one day after the raid by FETÖ-linked officials on trucks belonging to the intelligence services (MİT) in March 2014, which were delivering aid and weapons to Turkmen tribes. This raid was a ploy orchestrated by Fethullah Gülen through former Adana prosecutor Özcan Şişman to implicate the Turkish government as a supplier of weapons to ISIS. Given the evidence from an August 2012 document that the US Defense Dept. was deeply involved in the plan to allow ISIS expansion into Syria in the first place, this was a clear attempt to shift blame onto the Turkish government, using friendly Turkish deep state elements in order to do so.

Furthermore, in respect of Turkey’s ongoing fight against the PKK, Hamza Uluçay, who worked at the U.S. Consulate in Adana for 36 years was charged six months ago with having close ties to the organisation, officially proscribed both in Turkey and the US.

Ambassador Bass says that the arrest now of US Istanbul Consulate staffer Metin Topuz is an outrage and on his view, ‘without merit’. Turkish authorities hold, however, that he actually does not exist on the list of accreditations with the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and therefore should not be on concern to the Ambassador. To add to the confusion, Topuz himself maintains he worked for the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), raising suspicions of CIA links. He is charged with espionage and violating the constitutional order: “The suspect had phone contacts with 121 people investigated for links to FETÖ and contacted people using ByLock hundreds of times,” the indictment reported by Anadolu Agency (AA) claims, referring to the encrypted messaging app used by the terrorist group.

Ambassador Bass’ reaction to the situation was to disaccredit a number of journalists reporting on these cases, preventing them from asking questions at his pre-departure press conference. Following that, the US suspended non-immigrant visa applications from Turkey. The sudden action, which appears to have backing at Foggy Bottom, occurred without any prior warning, and seems to be both an admission of guilt (“she both protest too much”), and an act that seems to be designed only to be solved by some kind of covert bargaining. However, in retaliation Turkish visa applications for US citizens have been suspended.

If State Department officials believe that this arm-twisting (essentially taking US – Turkish commercial activity hostage) will lead to the Turkish government rolling-over, they might well be mistaken. It is not merely that the Turks have so far been unmoved by any and all attacks over the roll-over of their state of emergency and accusation of human rights abuses associated with their arrests over the matter of the coup. More generally, in terms of the direction of world trade, “times have changed”, in case this hadn’t been noticed.

 

 

A Tale of Two Independence Referenda

Catalonia and the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) are instances of the central government behaving badly in Spain’s case and the regional entity behaving badly in the other. The fallout in the case of Spain will be ongoing instability, which will have a Europe-wide impact, and in the case of the KRG, contrary to all prognostications, will have a stabilising effect on the Middle East, as Barzani is forced to climb down from the tree he is sitting on.

Spain felt some of the worst effects of the financial crash in Europe and really hasn’t recovered since, except as far as the country’s manipulated national accounts are concerned. Youth unemployment officially at 39%, unofficially much higher, is foreshadowing a lost generation. The effects of all this on Catalan national feeling in the face of an unpopular government of austerity that keeps coming back into power in Madrid, cast the die.

Moreover, this north-eastern region of Spain was granted autonomy under the 1978 constitution. However, a fraught relationship between the political classes in Madrid and Barcelona began in 2010 when extra powers granted to Catalonia in 2006 were unilaterally rescinded by Spain’s Constitutional Court. An unofficial vote on independence in November 2014 showed 80% support for secession, after which the Catalan Regional Government (CRG) decided to launch the current referendum (which seems to have achieved a 90% yes vote of 2.2m people, on a 42% turnout).

Unlike the KRG, the CRG has the administrative wherewithal to make success of independence, and the democratic structures to make independence about all the residents of the region. The reaction of the central government in Madrid will cost it dear in terms of credibility. Without Catalonia, Spain as an entity may shrink, but as a geographical entity, Catalonia isn’t going anywhere, and there is no reason for either economy to suffer anymore than they have already. In fact, shaking moribund Spanish political structures is what is needed for the future.

International opinion has swung the way of Catalonia even as Madrid pummels its people into submission. Nevertheless, the EU has determined their referendum to be illegal, which now presumably makes a mockery of its decision to allow Kosovo to separate from Serbia and continue life as a failed state. The Spanish King read out the script handed to him by the Madrid government, which will reinforce Catalan resistance. The strange thing is that although a part of the Catalan population is opposed to leaving Spain, it is still wholly united with the nationalists when it comes to maximum devolution. Perhaps that is message that needs to be understood.

Barzani’s KRG on the other hand, where the independence referendum passed with over 90% of the vote, is an entity without democratic structures. It is run by the Barzani clan (politically embodied in the Kurdish Democratic Party -KDP) that decided on the referendum precisely because of the pressure it was under from rival groups (the Talabani clan represented by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran movement). None of these parties meet in a parliamentary setting: their role is purely and simply to carve out and rule different pieces of Northern Iraq.

Without the support of Turkey, the KRG wouldn’t have survived its problems with a dysfunctional Iraqi government in Baghdad over the last few years. It doesn’t have the wherewithal to make independence a reality, essentially launching both the Kurdish and non-Kurdish populations of the area into the unknown. Arab and Turkmen residents in the area will fear for their lives, while even Kurds are unlikely to benefit from a system that is socially just. But Barzani is under fire now from his own followers for a gross political miscalculation, and his future is in doubt.

Ironically, however, Barzani’s rash move seems to have strengthened the hand of the Astana trio (Russia-Turkey-Iran). This would not have been predicted by Barzani’s CIA and Mossad advisers. After Putin’s visit to Ankara, Russia is likely to trade its support of Turkey against the KRG referendum in exchange for Turkey’s support for the Russian solution in Syria. This will effectively reinforce the structures of cooperation that have been forged regionally at Astana over the Syria question, and extend them into the Iraqi political quagmire, to provide a framework within which the Iraqi government can be encouraged to reform without facing new potentially existential questions.

Part of what will be driving these developments is the perception by all parties that behind Barzani’s asinine decision lies a US-Israeli axis that will seek co-opt Saudi Arabia and the UAE into exploiting the Kurdistan referendum to start another round of proxy wars in the area. There is no doubt that military manoeuvres on KRG borders by Iranian and Turkish forces together with the Iraqi army reflect an urgent sense of preparing for the worst.

The neocon philosophy dominating the thinking of Barzani’s foreign advisers is typically always linear and always fails to understand the principle of reaction. Not only can Iran and Turkey see them coming, but these regional players now have the power jointly to do something about it, especially if Russia sees it is in its interest to come off the fence.

Iran in particular sees any Kurdistani project as a potential cordon sanitaire that will have the effect of cutting it off from Lebanon, to try to achieve the results that the botched war against Assad never could. So, contained in Hassan Nasrallah’s warnings to Israel and the US over coming conflicts is a promise to take the war to the occupied territories in that  event.