Extremism

Is Turkey ruled by a tyrant? We may soon have an answer

This is a cross-post from the Telegraph.

Woe betide any Turk who dares insult His Excellency President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

File photo: Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses a labor union meeting in Ankara, Turkey

Turkey’s leader inhabits the world’s largest residential palace with 1,000 rooms and a floor area four times the size of Versailles. He delights in issuing instructions to his people, notably by telling Turkish women to ensure they produce at least three babies each. He calls Benjamin Netanyahu a “murderer” and Bashar al-Assad a “merciless killer”.

But woe betide any Turk who dares insult His Excellency President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. And by the way, in theory at least, he also wants to join the European Union.

Mr Erdogan is now trying to subdue every possible challenge to his rule. Troublesome journalists go straight to jail where they are joined by ordinary Turks found guilty of “insulting” their leader, in breach of the notorious Article 299 of the Penal Code.

After 14 years of dominance in Turkey, Mr Erdoğan has become one of the most quixotic and accomplished politicians of all. The question which divides his country is whether he is also dangerous.

Here in his home city of Istanbul, which he served as mayor in the Nineties, there are plenty of devout supporters of the president. Devout is the right word, for Mr Erdoğan embraces the religious faithful, the poor and the lower middle class. One Istanbul commentator – no friend of the president – acknowledges the personal charisma of a ruthless but intensely emotional man, who wept in public during his mother’s funeral.

Yet Mr Erdoğan’s behaviour rings more and more alarm bells. After his Justice and Development (AK) party won power in 2002, he broke the army’s grip on politics – and Turkey’s secular modernisers cheered him on.

But Mr Erdoğan is now trying to subdue every possible challenge to his rule.Troublesome journalists go straight to jail where they are joined by ordinary Turks found guilty of “insulting” their leader, in breach of the notorious Article 299 of the Penal Code.

These days, Mr Erdoğan denounces Vladimir Putin at every opportunity. But he has borrowed from the Russian’s political playbook by jumping from the prime ministership to the presidency in order to prolong his dominance.

Now Mr Erdoğan wants to complete this manoeuvre by rewriting the constitution to create an imperial presidency, tailor-made for his own ambitions. As for how long he aims to rule, he talks of being “ready for 2023” – the centenary of the republic’s birth.

So Turkey has an instinctively authoritarian leader who treats the constitution as a personal plaything and plans for decades of dominance. How can this not be dangerous?

Workers of the Zaman newspaper hold placards that read, 'free media can not be silenced' and 'Zaman wont be silenced' during a demonstration in 2014

Workers of the Zaman newspaper hold placards that read, ‘free media can not be silenced’ and ‘Zaman wont be silenced’ during a demonstration in 2014 

¶Terrorists strike in Istanbul from time to time – witness the suicide bombing outside Hagia Sophia in January – but visitors to this heaving metropolis find it easy to forget that one corner of Turkey is already engulfed in conflict. The old war between the Turkish state and Kurdish guerrillas has flared back to life with terrible consequences. A 28-year-old Kurdish journalist, Vildan Atmaca, told me what happened when she tried to reach the scene of a gun battle in the eastern province of Van.

“We tried to go there, but the security forces blocked us,” she said. “So we went to the hospital to speak to people who had been wounded. But the police chased us away from the hospital. Half an hour later, the police came to our office to arrest a reporter for writing ‘false news’. Then I was detained for ‘resisting arrest’.”

For the next six weeks, Ms Atmaca was behind bars in Van. She was not physically assaulted, but she had to endure constant verbal abuse from her guards – often of a sexual nature. Then she was freed on bail, pending trial for allegedly “spreading terrorist propaganda”. Speaking over the phone from a town in the epicentre of the conflict, Ms Atmaca told me: “There is no law, no justice and no democracy in Turkey.”

Family members of army officer Enes Demir mourn as they attend a funeral ceremony for Enes Demir and Dogukan Tazegul, both killed while fighting Kurdish rebels in Sur

Family members of army officer Enes Demir mourn as they attend a funeral ceremony for Enes Demir and Dogukan Tazegul, both killed while fighting Kurdish rebels in Sur

¶Along the natural avenue carved between Europe and Asia by the mighty Bosphorus, a Russian frigate steamed towards the Black Sea. Istanbul straddles one of the great junctions of the world, controlling a vital artery for Russian shipping, both civilian and military.

Mr Putin and Mr Erdoğan have exchanged harsh words and economic counter-measures since Turkey destroyed a Russian jet last November. But the warships that Mr Putin sends to join his Syria campaign must pass under Mr Erdoğan’s metaphorical nose in Istanbul.

So far, he has done nothing to obstruct them: that would be too inflammatory even for him. Given that Mr Erdoğan intends to wield power into the indefinite future, however, who knows what he might have in store?

 

Erdoğan’s Turkey: a disintegrating ally and imaginary friend

This is a cross-post from the Guardian.

As prime minister tries to make deal on refugees, confrontational president continues to pit it against its longtime allies.

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan speaks to the media

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants visa-free travel for Turks and accelerated EU accession talks in return for his cooperation on migrants.

The kneejerk response of Turkey’s leaders to the country’s latest terrorist atrocity – Sunday’s suicide bombing in Ankara that killed 37 people and injured more than 100 – suggests that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongman president, and his neo-Islamist party are fresh out of ideas about how to halt what looks increasingly like a slide into chaos.

The bigger problem, for Turkey’s US and European allies, is how to shore up a strategically important Muslim democracy, Nato member and EU applicant that had long been considered a vital outpost of stability in a volatile region. Once-dependable Turkey seems in danger of implosion. Under Erdoğan, Turkey is the west’s disintegrating ally and Europe’s imaginary friend.

This dilemma will come sharply to a head later this week when Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, tries finally to seal an EU deal with Turkey on Syrian migrants. Erdoğan is demanding visa-free travel for Turks, accelerated accession talks and for Brussels to ignore human rights abuses in return for his cooperation. Several EU countries, notably France and Cyprus, are adamantly opposed.

Erdoğan set Sunday’s bombing, the second in Ankara in two months, in his preferred narrative context: as part of a life-or-death national struggle against shadowy forces bent on victimising and destroying Turkey. This is the only tune on his playlist. He uses its fearful message to win elections, rally nationalists and delegitimise opponents.

“Our state will never give up using its right of self-defence in the face of all kinds of terror threats. All of our security forces, with its soldiers, police and village guards, have been conducting a determined struggle against terror organisations at the cost of their lives,” Erdoğan said, ignoring the fact that Sunday’s victims were civilians.

Officials pinned the blame, predictably, on Erdoğan’s bête noire, the Kurdistan Workers party (PKK), although a more likely culprit is an extremist splinter group, the Kurdistan Freedom Hawks, which perpetrated the 17 February Ankara attack.When the capital was bombed last year, the Kurds were again initially blamed. It later transpired that Islamic State was responsible.

Following his usual script, Erdoğan authorised retaliatory airstrikes on Monday on PKK targets in northern Iraq, another example of how the Turkish leader lashes out under pressure. It is a dangerous reflex. Last year, Erdoğan ordered the shooting down of a Russian warplane that briefly entered Turkish airspace from Syria. Bilateral relations have been dreadful ever since.

Security forces also intensified operations in ethnic Kurdish areas of southern and south-eastern Turkey that have killed hundreds of people and displaced tens of thousands since last year. Curfews and martial law, backed up by tanks, were imposed on Monday on Yüksekova and Şırnak, near the Iraq border, and Nusaybin, close to Syria.

Turkey’s internal Kurdish problem is only one of the challenges that Erdoğan’s confrontational approach appears to exacerbate. Turkey is at war, on and off, with Syrian Kurdish militias fighting Isis in northern Syria. Ankara fears they may try to create a separate political entity linked to the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and even Turkey itself.

Signs of societal disintegration may also be seen in Erdoğan’s manipulation of the judiciary, repeated threats to prosecute pro-Kurdish MPs and politicians, curbs on media freedom and independent journalism, unchecked corruption, and his attempt to enact a new constitution giving him Vladimir Putin-style presidential powers. He is obsessed with a supposed “parallel state” conspiracy against himallegedly led by an exiled former ally, Fethullah Gülen, and has ordered mass arrests.

At the weekend, the main opposition Republican People’s party leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, said Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) would stop at nothing to stay in power. “Turkey is step by step sliding towards an authoritarian regime … The AKP is currently in a position that it may do everything not to leave power, including [committing] political murder,” he said.

Erdoğan’s for-me-or-against-me stance increasingly pits Turkey against longtime allies. The migrant deal, which the UN and aid agencies say is probably illegal, is just the latest flashpoint. Last autumn, when visiting Brussels, he angrily threatened to flood Europe with refugees unless the EU bowed to his cash demands. He often mocks and berates the EU, once calling it an elitist, Islamophobic Christian club. He flatly rejects European criticism of increasingly worrying media controls and human rights abuses.

Erdoğan has also fallen foul of the Obama administration over how best to fight Isis and his cross-border shelling of Syrian Kurdish militias, who Washington regards as useful allies against the jihadis and the Damascus regime. In a recent interview, Barack Obama described Erdoğan as a failure and an authoritarian. When Turkey shot down the Russian warplane, the US was almost as alarmed as Moscow, especially when Erdoğan called for Nato backup.

In Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s prime minister, the west has a thoughtful interlocutor who will try his best to cut a deal on migrants and refugees with the EU this week. But Davutoğlu, a former academic who owes his political career to Erdoğan’s patronage, does not call the shots. Turkey’s irascible, unbiddable president does – and in his hands lies Turkey’s future as a dependable partner.

 

Erdogan uses ISIS to suppress Kurds, West stays silent – Turkish MP

This is a cross-post from RT Question more.

Buildings which were damaged during the security operations and clashes between Turkish security forces and Kurdish militants, are pictured in Sur district of Diyarbakir, Turkey February 11, 2016 © Sertac Kayar

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been using ISIS to advance his Middle East policy and suppress the Kurds, and Ankara’s elite maintains vibrant economic ties with the terror group and harbors its militants, a Turkish MP has told Russian media.

“Erdogan uses ISIS [Islamic State/IS, also known as ISIS/ISIL] against the Kurds. He can’t send the Turkish Army directly to Syrian Kurdistan, but he can use ISIS as an instrument against the Kurds. He has a greater Ottoman Empire in his mind, that’s his dream, while ISIS is one of the instruments [to achieve it],” Selma Irmak, a Turkish MP from the Peace and Democracy Party told RIA Novosti on Monday.

There are many signs that the Turkish leadership is aiding Islamic State and benefiting from it, Irmak argued.

“Wounded militants are given medical treatment in Turkey. For ISIS, Turkey is a very important supply channel. They are allowed to pass through the Turkish border, being given IDs [and other documents],”she added.

“ISIS has training camps in Turkey,” Irmak stressed, citing other examples of Turkey providing IS with certain capabilities, including the fact that all militants go back and forth into Syria through Turkish territory.

Both the Turkish elite and the terrorist group enjoy economic ties as well, Irmak argued.

“ISIS’ oil is sold via Turkey. All of ISIS’ external [trade] operations are being carried out via Turkey and involve not only oil.” Part of the terrorist group’s criminal business trafficking hostages as well as female slaves of Yazidi and Assyrian minorities, while “the government is, of course, well aware of it,” she added.

“ISIS never attacked Turkish positions and claimed no responsibility for terror attacks in Turkey’s cities. There were three large terror attacks [in 2015] in Diyarbakir, Suruc and Ankara. Each attack caused harm to the Kurds and opposition activists supporting them,” the MP noted.

Turkey only intervened when the Kurds retook territory from the IS-held Kurdish city of Tell Abyad in northern Syria.

“Turkish warplanes formally bombarded the ISIS-held territory and conducted two airstrikes to show it fights the Islamic State. And in the meantime, Turkey made 65 airstrikes on Qandil [the PKK stronghold in mountainous northern Iraq].”

According to Irmak, Ankara feels free to take on the Kurds because the West is unwilling to harm its interests in the region and beyond.

“Unfortunately, the international community is indifferent towards these events. Turkey has taken Europe prisoner by using Middle Eastern refugees as an instrument of blackmail. The US keeps silent too, having common interests with Turkey. For instance, the US wants to keep using the Incirlik airbase […] and the Turkish Army is emboldened by such impunity.”

It’s time to turn our backs on Erdogan’s Turkey

This is a cross-post from ‘The Globe and Mail’.

This will be remembered as the month when Turkey’s elected regime crossed the moral red line into acts of genuine totalitarianism. It is a moment to back away from our close alliance with that regime.

Canada and its allies are relying on Turkey. Our military campaign in northern Iraq and Syria, to which Ottawa is contributing more than 800 trainers and special forces, would not function without the active co-operation, including access to military bases and border openings, provided by Turkey, a long-time fellow NATO member. And Turkey, which has received and is housing close to three million Syrian refugees, is seen as being vital in preventing the refugee flood into Europe from becoming less manageable – so vital that the European Union this week struck a deal in which the Turks, in exchange for reducing the refugee flow, will be given visa-free travel in Europe, billions in financing and a more direct pathway toward eventual EU membership.

Turkey, however, has become a problem. A really big problem. A week ago Friday, Turkish soldiers and police surrounded the offices of Zaman, the country’s largest and by some measures best newspaper, fired tear gas, broke down the doors and seized control of the paper and its media empire with authorization from courts appointed by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his party. By Sunday morning, the paper, known for its independent-minded columnists, was publishing the most anodyne form of government propaganda.

This is bad enough in itself, but it is part of an unprecedented campaign to shut down or seize control of all forms of political, bureaucratic and media opposition – officially in the name of shutting down the Islamist and Kurdish movements. Mr. Erdogan claims they are security threats, but in practice, these crackdowns give him absolute executive power by eliminating all institutions of democratic and popular dissent.

That campaign went into high gear hours late last year after Mr. Erdogan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) won a majority in the Nov. 1 national election. The editors of the important moderate news magazine Nokta were imprisoned for “fomenting armed rebellion” – that is, for criticizing Mr. Erdogan’s authoritarian approach. The most outspoken columnists in the newspaper Milliyet were fired or silenced. TV stations have been shut down.

More than 1,800 people have been arrested in the past year on charges of “insulting the president” – a law whose very existence is contradictory to democracy. Those imprisoned under it include the editor of the newspaper Birgun, who was found guilty of insulting Mr. Erdogan in an acrostic puzzle. And hundreds of government officials have been arrested or sacked on accusations that they are associated with the Islamist Gulen movement, which had brought Mr. Erdogan to power a decade and a half ago, but which he now opposes as a threat to his power.

Mr. Erdogan won November’s election on a fear campaign aimed at Turkey’s Kurds, who make up about a fifth of the country’s population. The Kurdish-Turkish violence that drove those fears is entirely the creation of Mr. Erdogan, who abandoned his long and successful unity-building efforts in 2013 after Kurdish-led moderate political parties became popular with non-Kurdish Turks seeking a modern and European-minded alternative. They therefore became threats to his goal of gaining an absolute majority he could use to rewrite the Turkish constitution and make himself president for life.

Mr. Erdogan is now bombing his own citizens aggressively: The Kurdish-majority city of Diyarbakir has become a deadly place of bomb craters, house-to-house searches and seizures and late-night disappearances. Little of it has anything to do with actual threats to the Turkish state. As the British writer Christopher de Bellaigue recently observed of the Nov. 1 election: “Erdogan pulled off the classic politician’s trick of successfully selling the panacea for an ailment largely of his own making.”

Kurds in Syria and Iraq are our most important allies in Syria’s civil war, and are key to finding a peaceful settlement to that conflict. By turning them into enemies strictly because they threatened his own grandiose political ambitions, Mr. Erdogan has destroyed the unified and open Turkey he earlier helped to create. And he has done so using the tools not just of authoritarianism but now, by silencing the media, of totalitarianism. It is time to stop treating Turkey as an ally, but as a country that has stepped beyond the pale.

Turkey’s Revival of a Dirty ‘Deep State’

This is a cross-post from Consortium news.

Exclusive: NATO keeps backing Turkey, one of its members, despite its aid to the Islamic State and other jihadists fighting Syria’s secular government — and even though Turkey’s erratic President Erdogan may be leading NATO into a risky showdown with Syria’s Russian allies, writes Jonathan Marshall.

By Jonathan Marshall

Turkey’s embattled President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is resurrecting the “deep state” alliance of secret intelligence operatives and extreme rightists that he so notably challenged just a few years ago while putting hundreds of military officers and other opponents on trial for conspiring against Turkish democracy. In a remarkable about-face, Erdogan is now emulating the ruthless tactics of previous authoritarian rulers at the expense of Turkey’s evolution as a liberal state.

Like many of his secular predecessors, Erdogan has reverted to waging an all-out war against radical Kurdish separatists, the PKK. He is dramatically expanding the once discredited National Intelligence Agency, which in years past recruited Mafia criminals and right-wing terrorists to murder Kurdish leaders, left-wing activists and intellectuals. And he appears to be forging an alliance with ultranationalist members of the National Action Party (MHP), who supplied many of the ruthless killers for those murderous operations.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

Turkish President Recep Erdogan.

These developments should alarm U.S. and European leaders. They are ominously anti-democratic trends in a country that once promised to meld the best of Western and Near Eastern traditions. They are also helping to drive Turkey’s secret alliances with Islamist extremists in Syria and its violent opposition to Kurdish groups that are leading the resistance to ISIS in that country.

Erdogan successfully cultivated a democratic image after his moderate Islamic party, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), gained a two-thirds parliamentary majority in the November 2002 elections. Then in 2008, with public support for his party sagging, Erdogan oversaw the mass indictment of more than 200 former military officers, academics, journalists, businessmen and other opponents of the AKP.

The 2,455-page indictment alleged a vast conspiracy by members of an alleged “Ergenekon terrorist organization,” named after a mythical place in the Altay Mountains, to destabilize Turkish society and overthrow the government.

The alleged Ergenekon plot drew credibility from an all-too-real alliance of intelligence operatives, criminals and rightist terrorists exposed in the aftermath of the so-called “Susurluk Incident.” A car crash in the Turkish town of Susurluk in 1996 connected one of the country’s leading heroin traffickers and terrorists with a member of the conservative ruling party, the head of the counterinsurgency police, and the Minister of Interior.

Subsequent investigations linked this “deep state” network to a former NATO program — sometimes known by the name of its Italian version, “Operation Gladio” — to foment guerrilla resistance in case of a Soviet occupation of Turkey.

In contrast to the legitimate revelations that grew out of the Susurluk affair, the Ergenekon proceeding at times resembled a Soviet show trial. A court handed down life sentences to a former head of the Turkish military and several top generals, the heads of various intelligence organizations, a prominent secular ultranationalist, secular journalists, and a prominent deputy from a secular opposition party, among others.

A separate proceeding, known as “Sledgehammer,” convicted more than 300 secular military officers of involvement in an alleged coup plot against the AKP government in 2003.

Critics accused the Erdogan regime of using the cases to neutralize its potential rivals as part of its broader suppression of political dissent.

“The intimidation and the number of arrests have steadily risen in the last 10 years,” Der Spiegel observed in 2013. “Many journalists no longer dare to report what’s really happening, authors avoid making public appearances and government critics need bodyguards. The anti-terrorism law is an effective instrument of power for the government as the supposed terrorist threat is an accusation that’s hard to disprove. It plays on a deep-rooted fear among Turks that someone is trying to destabilize and damage the nation.”

The two big trials that fanned that fear were based on falsified evidence and a politicized judicial system. The injustice was effectively recognized by Istanbul’s high criminal court in 2014 when it freed the former army chief of staff convicted in the Ergenekon case. In March 2015, a prosecutor admitted that evidence submitted in the Sledgehammer case was “fake” and 236 convicted suspects were acquitted.

However, just as Erdogan had used those two cases to purge the Turkish power structure of his secular critics, so he used the discrediting of those cases as an excuse to purge supporters of another rival, the exiled moderate Muslim cleric Fethullah Gülen. Erdogan accused them of terrorism and of creating a “parallel state” to challenge his rule. The crackdown followed judicial actions and news leaks, attributed to Gülen followers, that implicated Erdogan’s family and supporters in high-level corruption. As the New York Times observed, Erdogan turned his back on those show trials “for the simple reason that the same prosecutors who targeted the military with fake evidence are now going after him.”

Now, in a complete reversal of his previous warnings about the dangers of the deep state, Erdogan is actively cultivating the very institutions that were at its core.

For example, the government is planning a 48 percent increase in spending for the National Intelligence Agency (MIT) in 2016, on top of a 419 percent increase over the past decade. The new money is slated to pay for construction of a big new headquarters building and to expand the agency’s operations.

According to Turkish expert Pinar Tremblay, “What we are observing here is a national intelligence agency that has become a prominent player in the decision-making process for Turkish politics. … [MIT head Hakan] Fidan acts as a shadow foreign minister. He is present in almost all high-level meetings with the president and prime minister. It is an open secret that both the president and the prime minister trust Fidan more than any other bureaucrat.”

After MIT trucks were caught in 2013 and 2014 smuggling ammunition, rocket parts, and mortar shells to radical Islamic groups in Syria, Erdogan’s allies put police and other officials involved in the raids on trial for allegedly conspiring with Gülen against the government.

A recent report also suggest that Erdogan is also seeking support for his Syrian adventures from members of the National Action Party (MHP), sometimes known as the Grey Wolves. Once openly neo-fascist in ideology, the party figured prominently in terrorist violence in the 1970s and 1980s with backing from military and police officials. Mehmet Ali Agca, the terrorist who tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in 1981, was a member of the Grey Wolves.

Members of a youth branch of the MHP are reportedly now fighting in Syria to support that country’s Turkish ethnic minority, the Turkmen, against Syrian Kurds. (The Turkmen are also being armed by the MIT.) At least one MHP notable was killed recently by a Russian bombing raid; one of the mourners at his funeral was the Turkish gunman who murdered the pilot of the Russian jet shot down by Turkey in November.

A leading Turkish expert on the Grey Wolves, journalist Kemal Can, says they are drawn to supporting the Turkmen less for ideological reasons than because of state recruitment. “I think that, directly or indirectly, the state link is the decisive one,” he said. “The ultranationalists are the most fertile pool for secret operations.”

Many members of the MHP are also drawn to the cause by their violent opposition to the Kurds and other non-Turkish minority groups.

After PKK militants attacked Turkish soldiers and police last summer and fall, Grey Wolves attacked 140 offices of the HDP, the Peoples’ Democratic Party which supports the rights of Kurds and other minorities, according to the leftist Turkish journalist Sungur Savran, setting many offices on fire:

“Ordinary Kurds were hunted on the streets of the cities and towns of the Turkish-dominated western parts of the country, intercity buses stopped and stoned, and Kurdish seasonal workers attacked collectively, their houses and cars burnt down, and they themselves driven away en masse.”

Such polarizing violence suited the needs of Erdogan’s AKP party, which wants to eliminate the HDP from parliament in order to gain the super-majority it needs to revise the constitution to enhance Erdogan’s powers as president.

Last September, intriguingly, one leader of the ultranationalist MHP urged restraint against ordinary Kurds, saying that “equating the PKK and our Kurdish-origin siblings is a blind trap” that would ensure wider ethnic conflict. Further, he claimed that groups acting in the name of the Grey Wolves to attack Kurds were actually “Mafia” fronts for President Erdogan.

His claim about the “Mafia” may have been more than metaphorical. Following Erdogan’s recent denunciation of hundreds of Turkish academics as “traitors” for protesting the government’s vicious crackdown on Kurdish communities, an ultranationalist organized crime boss – who was briefly imprisoned for his alleged role in the Ergenekon conspiracy but is today chummy with Erdogan – promised to “take a shower” in “the blood of those so-called intellectuals.”

So there you have it: The Erdogan regime has revived an alliance of intelligence officials, right-wing ultranationalists and even organized criminals to crush Kurdish extremism, to cow political critics, and to support radical Islamists in Syria.

The Erdogan regime, once the great scourge of alleged anti-democratic conspirators, has recreated the Turkish deep state as part of a menacing power grab. It represents a direct threat not only to Turkish democracy, but to Turkey’s neighbors and NATO allies, who will bear the consequences of Erdogan’s ever-more risky, erratic and self-serving policies.

 

Turkey is turning into a paranoid one-party state

Erdogan one party state

This is a cross-post from the Spectator.

President Erdogan’s increasingly tyrannical regime is suppressing the truth about its war on the Kurds

Turkey is less and less a democracy, more and more a paranoid one-party state. If you don’t believe that, look at what happens to those who draw attention to the government’s failures and crimes. The editors of Cumhuriyet, a centre-left broadsheet, have been delivering their editorials from jail since November. A statement issued this month by the Izmir Society of Journalists claimed that 31 journalists were in prison while 234 were in legal limbo awaiting trial. Over the course of last year, they added, 15 television channels had been closed and 56 journalists refused accreditation.

Recently, a woman identifying herself as a teacher phoned in to a popular television talk show and asked the presenter, Beyazıt Öztürk, if he was aware of the terrible violence in the predominately Kurdish parts of southern and south-eastern Turkey. ‘Please, don’t let people die, don’t let children die, don’t make mothers grieve,’ she pleaded.

The next day, the TV channel — part of a group under intense pressure from the Turkish government — had to issue a grovelling apology for having aired this cry for help. ‘Doğan TV and Channel D have stood by the state from the first day to the present day,’ it read. Öztürk even delivered a personal apology on the day’s main news bulletin. But that wasn’t enough. He is now being investigated on charges of ‘making propaganda for a terrorist organisation’, and it is unclear whether his show will continue.

It’s not just journalists, either: a business group, Koza İpek, was taken into state administration and its media assets butchered on the grounds of ‘financing terrorism’ through a closeness to one of the government’s political rivals.

Why do President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the political party he co-founded, the Justice and Development party (AK party), need to suppress free speech? The AK party was swept back into single-party power in the second general election of last year with 49.5 per cent of the vote. It is now in a position where it can do almost anything it wants with Turkey. Yet it lacks the supermajority needed to change the constitution. This is problematic, because Erdoğan is now campaigning to abolish the position of prime minister and consolidate his power as president — a move he recently regretted comparing to Hitler’s Germany.

The AK party is still 13 MPs short of being able to bring the issue to a referendum, and the three opposition parties in parliament have all tasted enough AK party power to know that it is not in their interests to strike a deal. To achieve Erdoğan’s wish, the AK party must now knock the Peoples’ Democratic party (HDP) — a coalition of Kurdish and leftist groups with 59 MPs — out of parliament, and that means controlling the narrative about the ongoing war in Turkey’s southeast.

So far, the government appears to be succeeding in defining how ordinary Turks see the violence between the state and the loosely HDP-linked Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which broke out again in July after years of peace talks. Those wanting to find out the facts often have to triangulate between highly unreliable Turkish pro–government news and equally unreliable, but less accessible, reporting from the Kurdish-movement press. Perhaps the most trustworthy figures are provided by the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, which says that 1.37 million people have been affected by the government’s 24-hour-a-day curfews, which have been enforced since the violence restarted, and 162 civilians have been killed in the past five months.

Erdoğan now insists that Turkey will never again hold talks with any faction of the Kurdish separatist movement. ‘That work has finished,’ he has said. Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, meanwhile, told a crowd outside AK party headquarters that the PKK were ‘trying to make young people the enemies of schools, of mosques and of the [holy] book… We’re up against a barbarian organisation.’

Yet the AK party is ambivalent in the way it deals with a more obviously barbarian movement, Isis. The government arrests on a whim Kurdish or Kurdish-sympathetic politicians for being ‘terrorist sympathisers’, but is curiously tolerant when dealing with actual Islamist terrorists. In the wake of an Isis suicide bombing in Ankara in October, for instance, Davutoğlu urged restraint: ‘If there’s a sleeper cell somewhere, you cannot simply round them all up and put them somewhere, hoping no one will notice. We have to behave in accordance with the law.’

Few AK party supporters hanker after the Isis way of life. Many in the party’s ranks belong to Sufi-influenced sects, which would earn them a death sentence were they to stray over the border. And the AK party could hardly ignore the bombings attributed to Isis last year in Diyarbakır, Suruç and Ankara — or the killing of 11 tourists in another bombing three weeks ago in Istanbul.

Rather than taking the dry puritanism of Wahhabism as a model, the AK party prefers the aesthetic of a new Ottoman era, an attempt to recast the most glorious days of that empire to fit their brand of political Islamism. If this approach were to be encapsulated in a slogan, ‘Making Turkey Great Again’ would not be too far off. It seeks to underline the strength of the Turkish nation, the public role of Islam, and the importance of strong leadership — and that’s where President Erdoğan comes in.

In his push for near-absolute power and his construction of a palace around three times the size of Versailles, including a bunker with direct access to police CCTV cameras, Erdoğan is clearly suffering some form of megalomania. He is neurotic about the threats facing his government, and increasingly paranoid about disloyalty within his party. He has started to replace mainstream activists with advisers who — judging by their public proclamations, at least — spend much of their time worrying about conspiracies involving sinister international financiers or telepathy. Perhaps Erdoğan’s accidental comparison of himself to the Führer was a Freudian slip.

How Turkey risks becoming a dictatorial, rogue and failed state

Erdogan-dictator (1)

This is a guest post by Mustafa Bezad Fatmi

Think of a country where a woman is demonised merely for saying “children should not die”. Think of country where academicians are labelled as traitors, and even detained, just for urging the government to bring about a political solution to an ongoing military conflict. Imagine a country where hospitals and educational institutions are closed simply because they belong to the opponents of the ruling party. Imagine a country where in university departments like political science and international relations, political theories that are not in line with those of the government are hardly discussed. Think of a country where high school students are expelled because of their parents’ affiliation to a social movement which is critical of the government. And also think of a country where the president of the republic cites Hitler’s Germany as a model for what he wants in his own country.

These are the facts not of a Cold War era pariah state but of a 21st century permanent member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), a crucial ally of the United States and a country hoping to integrate into the European Union (EU) – Turkey.

Turkey’s problems are alarming and seemingly intractable. However, all the aforementioned facts, despite being deplorable, are not the real problems Turkey is facing today; they are merely the symptoms of a chronic and grave crisis. The crisis is real and at the very heart of Turkish democracy. The country risks becoming a dictatorial, rogue and a failed state, if it has already not become so.

And these problems are extremely difficult to deal with in the country as the majority of the Turkish population don’t consider them as problems – at least the last general elections suggested so. One wonders why people would support demonising someone who calls for peace, jailing of academicians, closing of schools and hospitals, restrictions on freedom of thought and speech, arbitrary expulsion of students from public schools, and so on.

True, no one in his/her right mind would endorse such acts in normal circumstances but in extraordinary circumstances many would and do endorse them. In extraordinary war-like situations many would buy the government’s argument of the need for such actions.

And if you believe the current political dispensation in Ankara, many Turkish citizens, in collaboration with unspecified international players, have declared war on the Turkish state. These citizens include many prominent journalists, highly qualified academicians, experienced lawyers and judges and also some very talented high school and university students.

What puts them at “war” with the government is their critical stance and unwillingness to toe the government’s line on every issue.

According to the government, these people are traitors who want to oust it by undemocratic means, seize control of the Turkish state and divide the country. All these claims, despite being backed by no real evidence, have been effectively disseminated among the uncritical masses through a large network of media outlets that serve not as a check on the government but as a mouthpiece of the ruling party.

It must be noted that almost 90 per cent of the mainstream Turkish media is directly or indirectly controlled by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

It is true that in an electoral democracy, the majority rules and its choices must be respected. But nevertheless, given the clichéd fact that Hitler too was a democratically elected leader provides a valid ground for a qualified criticism of electoral democracy – especially when his despotic model of governance continues to inspire a leader in the 21st century (Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan).

Silence of the international community

It is interesting to see that Turkey, despite all its faults, remains a crucial ally of both the US and EU. Last year in November, the EU reached a deal with Turkey in which the later was provided with $3.2 billion. This deal was to curb the flow of refugees from the Middle East to Europe as many of them transit through Turkey.

The EU also promised closer ties with Turkey as part of this deal. Meanwhile, the US also continues to disregard the egregious violations of human rights and democracy in Turkey in return for access to an airbase in the southern part of the country. Since July 2015, Turkey is allowing the US to use its Incirlik airbase to bomb the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

Unfortunately, the EU and US’ need of Turkey to deal with the chaotic refugee crisis in Europe and the menace of the ISIS have trumped all the democratic values they are supposed to promote in Turkey.

There are two hypothetical circumstances in which the despicable state of Turkish democracy may improve. First that there is a change in the leadership of the country and a pro-democracy and reformist government comes into power.

Second that the EU and the US manoeuvre to influence change in policymaking in Ankara which they are certainly capable of doing given Turkey’s willingness to join the EU and its permanent membership of the NATO.

But unfortunately, both of these possibilities are highly unlikely to become realities under the present circumstances. The leadership of the country is not going to change as Turkey has recently concluded both of its important elections (presidential and general elections) and the next elections in the country are not due until 2019.

And the EU and the US cannot be expected to anger the Turkish government by interfering in its internal affairs until the refugee crisis and the ISIS problem is properly dealt with.

The days ahead are not pleasant for Turkey. What remains to be seen is how worse the situation in the country becomes before there is any sign of improvement.