Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Syrian Situation Just Got More Complicated

Besides clearly demonstrating the utter hypocrisy of both Turkish and Russian actions in Syria, the destruction of the Russian fighter plane by the Turkish Air Force demonstrates the complexity of forming any coalition to defeat ISIS. It is almost impossible to find a formula that fits everyone’s agenda, especially Turkey’s, in Syria.

According to Turkish sources the Russian plane was in Turkish air space along the northern Syrian border for all of 17 seconds. Given the uneven nature of the border at that point it is hard enough to stay on the Turkish side on foot let alone in a jet fighter travelling at more than the speed of sound. None less than Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan recognized this reality in July 2012 when Syrian forces downed a Turkish fighter plane. The BBC reported his comments then that “A short term border violation can never be a pretext for an attack.And now? What has changed?

Turkey has a great deal to lose by alienating Russia.  Russian President Vladimir Putin has many levers to use against Turkey if he chooses. For one thing, almost all of Turkey’s natural gas comes from Russia. And more than three million Russian tourists come to Turkey every year, almost filling the massive hotels along the southern coast. In addition, countless Turkish businesses operate in Russia which is also a key market for Turkish exports. Russia could also decide to use this incident as an excuse to annoy Turkey by helping the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS.

            So why did Turkey take such a risky step when it could just as easily have overlooked the temporary border violation and sent a sternly worded memo that the Russians would have filed in circular bin?
Dangerous Escalation In SyrIa
            The most obvious, and least credible, is that Turkey was defending its homeland. Scrambling a few fighters to ‘guide’ the Russian plane out of Turkish air space could have accomplished that. A more credible explanation is that this incident demonstrates the completely different objectives of Russia and Turkey in Syria. Russia has committed money and military might to prop up Syrian president Hafez al-Assad. Turkey demands that al-Assad’s departure is a requirement for any settlement.

            Rather than focusing on defeating ISIS, Russian planes, for their part, have been attacking those anti-Assad forces, mainly in the north western part of the country, that are friendly with Turkey. This annoys Erdoğan greatly, especially as he considers some of those anti-Assad forces to be distant cousins of the Turks. Therefore, shooting down a Russian fighter plane in that area could be seen as a warning not to attack the Turkmens. A dangerous step, because history has repeatedly shown that Russians tend to react harshly to threats.

            Conspiracy theorists, never in short supply in that region, go one step further and say that the attack is Erdoğan’s attempt to derail any grand coalition to destroy the barbaric ISIS forces by making it harder for Turkey’s NATO allies America and France to join forces with Russia against ISIS.

Turkey has a complicated relationship with ISIS, and so far has devoted much more rhetoric than military action against the group. This could reflect Erdoğan’s preference for ISIS rather than the Kurds along Turkey’s southern border, but it also reflects that fact that some of his political base views ISIS positively. Twice in the last month there have been ugly incidents at Turkish football matches when a moment of silence for victims of ISIS attacks in Ankara as well as Paris has been interrupted by a group of fans whistling abuse or shouting loudly “Allah-u Ekber.” Erdoğan’s criticism of this atrocious disrespect was muted at best.

Turkey will go to great lengths to prevent the Kurds in Syria from creating an autonomous region along its southern border even if the Kurds have been the most effective anti-ISIS force. Turkey is already annoyed at American support for the Kurds, and it would be doubly annoyed to see increased support from France and Russia in the name of an anti-ISIS coalition.

Add to this Turkey’s role as a transit point for refugees and you begin to see the volatile mixture that complicates any potential settlement of the Syrian issue. It is no longer just about the Syria we used to know or the future of al-Assad and his clan of Alawites. Now you have to include the contradictory agendas of several different regional and global players – agendas that include sharp religious differences, hopes for political autonomy, and national security.

Three years ago I wrote a post about Dr. Haitham Manna, one of the early opponents of the Assad regime, and how he was strongly opposed to foreign intervention into what he considered a Syrian civil war. His concern was that the foreigners would turn a Syrian conflict into their conflict. How right he was.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

War Alone Will Not Protect Us From Global Terrorism

We have seen and heard it too many times before – the wailing sirens, crowds gathered helplessly around scenes of carnage, words of solidarity with the victims, and the vows to chase the perpetrators to the ends of the earth.

And yet in response, more often than not, we wind up chasing our own tails. Even our successes in killing this or that terrorist leader soon degenerate into a deadly game of ‘whack a mole.’ Eliminate a terrorist in Syria, and his counterpart pops up in Yemen, or Sudan, or Libya, or Iraq.

An all-too-familiar scene
We also hear ringing declarations of ‘war’ – although it is not exactly clear just how and with what that ‘war’ is to be waged. Whose troops will be used? Where will they be used? And, most importantly, what happens after the military objective is won? Yes, a particular den of barbarians may be wiped out to everyone’s great – and temporary – satisfaction. But who will fill the vacuum? How can we be sure the same problem won’t crop up as soon as the troops return home in triumph with ‘Mission Accomplished’ banners waving in the air? In short, defeating the entity called ISIS will not, by itself, put an end to the larger problem of global terrorism.

Once you have ‘won’ such a war, how do you reconcile the ensuing conflict among the various local factions, each of whom has its own agenda. Olivier Roy, one of the leading scholars of political Islam, highlights this problem in an essay in The New York Times. The Kurds, for example, will fight to protect their area, but are not enthusiastic about fighting ISIS on behalf of the Arabs. The Saudis are in no rush to destroy their Sunni brothers in ISIS lest such action strengthen their main enemy, Iran. Israel, for its part, is delighted to see most of its enemies busy trying to destroy each other and relieve the pressure to do anything about Palestine.

So what can Europe do to protect itself against the outrages of global terrorism? A good place to start might be with far better defences. The Schengen agreement allows free travel throughout most of the EU member states. Once admitted into one of the Schengen countries people are allowed to travel to any other member state without worrying about visas. This attempt to emulate the United States where you can travel freely from California to Maine is admirable, but it omits one critical difference. The United States has a common policy for its external borders. As any foreign traveller can tell you, coming into the United States at any of the entry points is not that simple. Forms need to filled out before you get on the plane, the no-fly rule is checked, and you are finger printed upon arrival. These steps may not eliminate terrorists entering the United States, it makes it more difficult.

Europe, on the other hand, does not have a unified approach to its external borders. Some borders like the United Kingdom can be difficult to cross, while others are porous. Two of the weakest states in the EU, Greece and Bulgaria, have enormous pressure on their borders and the least amount of resources to deal with the problem. One problem is that low paid police and border officials are vulnerable to bribes from well organised people smugglers to turn a blind eye toward illegal entry. Many times these countries simply do not have the equipment or manpower to scrutinize ordinary travellers let alone vet and process the wave of immigrants coming from places like Syria and Libya.

This is not a problem for Greece alone
If the EU acted as a real union a common border policy would be imposed on all members. There would be one well-funded European agency with well-paid and well-trained personnel to handle security of external borders. The surge of migrants would no longer be just a Greek, Bulgarian, Italian or Spanish problem. Such a move would inevitably generate wails of protest about violating national sovereignty, but without such a solution the European Union is hardly a ‘union’, and remains easy prey to anyone seeking to create havoc inside the EU borders.

Obviously, solving the problem of external border control does not solve the issue of home-grown terrorism – be it deranged teenagers with high powered weapons in the United States or dissatisfied members of the Moslem communities across Europe. A threat in, say, Belgium can easily morph into a catastrophe in France. One would hope that seamless cooperation among the various intelligence agencies in the EU would ease this problem. But if the United States has problems coordinating activities of its several different intelligence agencies within its borders think how much more difficult it would be coordinate such activities across international borders. The Turks, for example, insist they warned the French about one of the attackers in Paris, but apparently nothing was done about this warning.

A longer term solution would be to restore a semblance of stability in Syria. Once people can be reasonably sure of going about their daily lives without getting shot they would be less eager to risk the trip to Europe. This alone won’t solve the problem of global terrorism, but it certainly would eliminate one of the contributing factors.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Protests Alone Will Never Win Elections

In retrospect no one should be surprised by yesterday’s election results. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) proved once again that it is a formidable political machine with firm control over almost half the Turkish electorate. Once again the opposition learned the painful lesson that by itself protest against the increasing excesses of President Tayyip Erdoğan is not enough to win elections. The only positive note for the anti-Erdoğan forces is that AKP failed to receive enough votes to change the constitution unilaterally and legitimise Erdoğan’s power grab.,

Over the next few days we will hear the tired old excuses of how the AKP didn’t ‘play fair’ or somehow manipulated the electorate – again. It is time to end the whinging and whining and get serious about the serial election defeats. Of course the AKP played the national security card and tried to frighten everyone about the ‘looming’ Kurdish problem. Politics in Turkey is a full contact sport. Domestic and foreign developments since the June elections played right into that theme. People willing to vote for the predominantly Kurdish party HDP in June had second thoughts in November. Many nationalists who voted for the MHP party in June also had second thoughts and decided to stick with the AKP as the best guaranty of Turkey’s security.

Different Election, Same Result
But these anti-Kurdish, national security themes do not explain the persistent failures of the opposition parties to mount a serious challenge to AKP’s dominance. This goes far beyond Erdoğan’s bombastic, divisive rhetoric. As things stand now the best they can hope for is getting enough votes to form a very junior partner in a coalition with AKP. Sadly, they would construe this as a victory. It’s more like calling the retreat from Dunkirk a victory.

            As long as the opposition parties remain divided the AKP, as the representative of Turkey’s overwhelming socially conservative electorate, has a fairly easy job. It is mathematically possible, but practically/politically impossible, for the opposition parties to unite and get more votes than the AKP. But egos and long outdated political ideologies make this nothing more than a pipe dream at the moment. It is nice to get the praise from worthy international organizations and from Turkey’s small but vocal intelligentsia, but neither of these can deliver enough votes to make a dent in AKP’s electoral armour.

            Furthermore, the opposition has to admit that in hundreds of large and small towns across the country the AKP municipal officials have done a decent job – not only in running the municipalities but in establishing solid, local AKP branches that deliver the votes in every election. It is this unglamorous groundwork, not censorious articles in the Economist, that wins elections.

            A useful first step might be to understand how the AKP can withstand the onslaught of serious issues like a declining economy, increasing unemployment, depreciating currency, and a very confused foreign policy. It’s almost as if despite all these issues the AKP electorate simply does not trust the opposition parties to represent its interests. “They may be corrupt. They be leading the country into a dangerous swamp. But they are OUR people. They know us and we know them. We don’t know you.” Demonstrably, very few people from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) are ‘one of us.’

            The CHP, for example, prides itself on being the party that Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey, created. The party proudly symbolizes the reforms that Atatürk made as he rebuilt Turkey from the ashes of the Ottoman Empire almost 100 years ago. Yet, in my own time in small towns across Anatolia, I learned that a great many people in small-town Turkey did not share the elite’s reverence for Atatürk. Quite the opposite, they felt ignored and believed their time-honoured socially conservative traditions were being trampled under the wave of ‘Westernization’ imposed from the top down.

            Part of Erdoğan’s political genius is that he recognizes this reality and has built an enduring career by building on it. His speeches carry the same theme, familiar to demagogues around the world.  “Only I understand you and can represent you – not those people safely removed in their Istanbul villas or foreign capitals.”

            Harping on Erdoğan’s obvious faults will not change this. The only real threat I see to Erdoğan is from within the AKP itself. He has done a good job purging the party of many who do not share his extreme views. But a core of existing and former MPs is increasingly uneasy with some of his actions. But will they have the courage to act? Will they reach out to like-minded people in other parties to from a new political movement, free from the cant of the past and extremism of the present? Does their concern for the direction of the country outweigh their fear of retribution from the reis – the boss?

            Will the anti-Erdoğan forces follow the good advice that Benjamin Franklin gave to his fellow revolutionaries during the American War for Independence. “Gentlemen, we either hang together, or we hang separately.”