Talking Turkey

Turkey is the successor to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled much of what is now called the Middle East for about 400 years. The Ottoman Empire was also the Islamic Caliphate. However, in the wake of the Ottoman’s dramatic loss of land in the First World War, leaving it with what is today Turkey, the Empire was abolished, leaving a republic in its wake. The republic’s founder, Ataturk, made the country entirely secular, and abolished the Caliphate in 1924. So dramatically did Turkey want to shake off its religious, Middle Eastern background, that its leaders adopted (and encouraged Turks to adopt) Western-style dress. It no longer used Arabic script in its writing, but adopted Latin script to transliterate Turkish. It looked to Europe, not the Middle East for partnerships, joining NATO and wanting to join the EU. The latter quest was never going to be successful, because of Turkey’s shaky democratic traditions (three coups between 1960 and 1980), its human rights record (for instance, it ranks 154 of 180 in the World Press Freedom Index) and, though it isn’t spoken of in polite circles, the fact that Turkey is Muslim and Europe is not.

In 2002, Turks elected an Islamist government, the AKP (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi, ‘Justice and Development Party’), which began a very slow, very careful and very clever process of creeping Islamisation throughout the country. Although it would be wrong to say it turned its back on Europe, the Turks pretty much gave up on ever becoming an EU member and returned their focus to the Middle East.

In pursuing its Middle East policy, the AKP Government dallied with one of the Middle East’s two main blocs, the Resistance Bloc (for a backgrounder on these blocs, see ‘What is the Big Picture?’). This wasn’t because it agreed with Iran’s regional hegemonic ambitions, but because Turkey’s interests were aligned with Iran—it wanted to change the status quo in the Middle East, it didn’t like Israel, it didn’t like the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and it didn’t want Kurds, which are present in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq, to seek independence as a result of that invasion. I’ll be writing more on the Kurds further down.

Eventually, however, Turkey tired of the Resistance Bloc. What tipped the scales was a confluence of events in 2011 and 2012. In mid-2011, Syria’s President (dictator) Assad (a paid-up member of the Resistance Bloc) rejected Turkish attempts to moderate Syrian behaviour in the first few months of the Syrian civil war. Turkey’s leaders clearly took this as a personal slight (evidence of immaturity in policy making!) and shifted Turkey from believing it had the ability to help engender a peaceful resolution to making its regional priority the removal of the Assad Government.

Previous to that, popular protests had resulted in the removal of the Egyptian President (dictator) Mubarak in February 2011 and the election of a Muslim Brotherhood government headed by Morsi in June that year. In January 2012, hamas’s chief left Damascus and, in doing so, left the Resistance Bloc. Turkey saw in these changes the emergence of a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc to challenge the dichotomous dominance of the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc.

Turkey bet heavily on the success of the Sunni Islamist Bloc, with strong support for the Brotherhood in Egypt and hamas in Gaza. It also turned a blind eye to people and weapons entering Syria from Turkey, to fight with jabhat a-nusra (al-qaeda’s Syrian franchise), the Islamic State and other nasty groups.

But hamas’s position hasn’t improved (it has actually worsened). The Muslim Brotherhood over-reached in Egypt, attempting to impose Islamist policies too quickly, and were booted out after mass protests brought the military back to power in July 2012.

The Sunni Islamist Bloc appears to be dissolving before it could properly solidify, and by acting so dramatically against the interests of both the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs (and losing), Turkey has significantly hurt its interests in the region.

Turkey’s short-sighted policy on Syria has hurt it. It sought to become a champion for Sunni rights (and thus popular among Sunni Arabs) when it became so adamantly against the Syrian Government. However, Islamist militias (like Islamic State) that Turkey unofficially helped, have been killing Sunnis as willy-nilly as the Syrian Government. And Arabs in the Middle East know this.

The recent actions of Islamic State in closing in on the town of Ayn al-Arab (commonly called Kobani) have presented Turkey with another opportunity to lose. Turkey, which is deeply nationalist, has a large population of Kurds, which are also nationalist (Like Turks, Kurds are mostly Sunni. And like Turks, Persians and Jews, they are a separate ethnicity to the Middle East’s majority ethnic group, Arabs). Turkey has been in conflict with the PKK (Partiya Karker Kurdistana, ‘Kurdistan Workers Party’) for decades. The PKK is the dominant Kurdish group in Turkey, and is aligned with the dominant Kurdish group in Syria, the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat, ‘Democratic Union Party’).

After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the PYD declared autonomy in three areas of Syria, one of which is Ayn al-Arab. Islamic State is now closing in on this area, threatening to massacre everyone in it. Turkey, despite being in NATO, and despite its troops sitting idly by watching the spectacle from just across the border, has been doing nothing to stop this. It does not want a successful Kurdish enclave bordering Turkey—least of all one run by PKK allies. What it really wants is for the PYD to come begging Turkey to intervene, after which Turkey would likely invade the area to set up a safe haven, but thereby remove the PYD’s autonomy.

To ensure the PYD didn’t succeed, Turkey was not allowing any Kurds from Turkey enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. This policy has been risking the delicate peace talks that Turkey and the PKK have been undertaking for the past couple of years. Certainly, if Islamic State succeeds in overcoming the enclave and committing a massacre, that peace process will be ruined. It would also significantly damage Turkey’s reputation in the West, given that Turkey is officially in the coalition meant to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State.

But now, a day after Turkey lost (to New Zealand!) its bid to win a seat on the UN Security Council, Turkish President Erdogan received a phone call from US President Obama, who clearly put the hard word on him. Turkey has now said that it will allow Kurds from Iraq to enter Ayn al-Arab to fight with their brethren. (The dominant Kurdish group in Iraq are rivals to the PKK and PYD (even to the point of closing the border between Iraqi Kurdistan and a Syrian Kurdish enclave on the Iraq–Syria border!), and are quite friendly with Turkey, mostly because they are rivals with the PKK). At the same time, the US dropped supplies, including arms, into the Ayn al-Arab enclave. So while ensuring it’s Iraqi Kurds, not Turkish Kurds, entering Ayn al-Arab is a win, of sorts, for Turkey, the reality is, it is now looking increasingly like Kurdish autonomy in Syria will survive for a little while longer. Turkey will not be able to establish its safe haven, and its policy of sitting by and doing nothing has helped poison Turkish–Kurdish relations even more, and made Turkey look terrible in the eyes of the West.

Strategically and tactically, the AKP Government in Turkey, in power since 2002, has taken the country out on a limb, leaving it dangling with fewer and fewer friends and no good options.

Why does Israel have such a bad image in the West?

old2bcityPeople like to categorise information into dichotomies—good vs bad, justified vs unjustified, etc. And for the first decades of its existence, Israel was ‘good’ in the popular imagination of the West, and Israel’s enemies ‘bad’. This was because Israel’s enemies openly declared their desire to destroy Israel, which the West perceived as unjustified.

But since 1967 (when Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank in the Six Day War), Israel’s image has steadily worsened. The reasons are complex but, broadly, it’s because in the years after 1967, the Palestinians and the Arab world changed their rhetoric on Israel. Increasingly, the language used was about national self-determination—to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel, not instead of it.

This message worked and, in the West, the Arab–Israel conflict morphed from being about Arabs trying to destroy Israel (unjustified) to Palestinians trying to gain independence (justified). The title of the conflict also changed; the Arab–Israel conflict became the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

Just as they came to perceive that the post-1967 Palestinian goal was to establish a state in Israeli-occupied land, Western observers increasingly perceived Israel’s refusal to cede that land as the reason for continued conflict. Israel gradually moved from being good to being bad.

(I would note two things. First, stated Palestinian objectives did not change overnight, but evolved throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, as did Western perceptions of Israel. Second, many friends of Israel are concerned that stated Palestinian goals mask a desire to destroy the Jewish state. This post does not enter that debate; it’s about perceptions.)

Israel justifies its refusal to cede land by citing security concerns. However, this is not accepted in the West, which believes that ceding land would resolve the conflict, ending Israeli security concerns.

To the West, Israeli settlements in the West Bank are further proof that Israel is not interested in peace. And, indeed, Israel has never made a convincing argument justifying the settlements.

Filtering facts to prevent cognitive dissonance
Because Western individuals, media and officials perceive the conflict through the ‘Israel is the reason for the lack of peace’ prism, they interpret some facts and disregard others in a way that confirms their assumptions (we all do this—ask any psychologist!)

Thus, that terrorism increased in the years after the peace process began is not interpreted that Palestinians used their newfound autonomy (and the arms and money that came with it) to increase attacks on Israel. Nor is it interpreted that Palestinian rulers could not control their own population, which included extremists wanting to attack Israel (both interpretations would have suggested slowing down the rate of Palestinian autonomy until it had proved itself capable of ruling). Instead, the increase in attacks was interpreted as Israel not giving up land fast enough. The answer was to pressure Israel to give up more land quicker.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005. The immediate result was that, for the first time in history, Palestinians gained sovereignty over land they claimed. Within a year, hamas took over, killed its internal rivals, established an Islamist dictatorship and increased its attacks on Israel, resulting in three wars in six years (2009, 2012, 2014). The Western interpretation was not that withdrawing from land before Palestinians are ready to rule it results in more violence, but that Israel provokes hamas due to its policy (along with Egypt) of placing Gaza under embargo.

If this is perception, what is reality?
If the Western perception that ‘Israel is bad because it is the reason for the ongoing conflict because it doesn’t give up land’ is incorrect (or too simplistic), what is the real reason for the ongoing conflict?

The goal of the Arabs in the first decades of the conflict was to end Israel’s existence. In the years after 1967, some Arab parties changed their goals to establishing a Palestinian state alongside (not instead of) Israel. However, other Arab parties continued the goal of wanting to destroy Israel. Thus, Israel’s security fears of people wanting to destroy Israel (no matter how much land it cedes) are valid. But so is the West’s view that Israel not giving up land is an obstacle to peace.

Just as the fight to eradicate the Jewish state continues, the Israeli settlement movement is pursued by Israelis that don’t want a non-Jewish state anywhere in what they call the Land of Israel (which includes the West Bank). The Israeli government allows the settlements to increase in population. However, this is more a function of it pandering to powerful factions in Israeli domestic politics, than a sign the Israeli government wants to prevent the creation of a Palestinian state.

Israel would have the political ability to remove the settlements and withdraw from the West Bank if the majority of Israelis and the Israeli government became convinced a Palestinian state would not endanger Israel. This won’t happen by badgering Israel into making more concessions (although that is also necessary), but by ensuring the Palestinian government is able to rule. This means the Palestinian government needs to end corruption within its ranks (for two reasons: a major source of hamas’s popularity is the Palestinian government’s corruption; and corruption deters would-be foreign investors, which are necessary to enable an economically viable Palestinian state). Also, the West needs to encourage the Palestinian government to defeat hamas and all other Palestinian factions that want to destroy Israel.

However, for the Palestinian government to wholly sign on to peace with Israel, and to embark on a process of destroying hamas et al for that reason, the principle of making peace with Israel needs to be accepted. Currently it is not. Anyone in the Arab world that encourages ‘normalisation’ with Israel is ostracised. This policy is encouraged by Arab governments. While this might be a popular choice, it doesn’t give the Palestinian government the political umbrella it needs to take the courageous actions required to make itself viable, encourage Israel to withdraw from land and defeat its enemies. Thus, the Arab states need to change their approach to the Israeli–Palestinian dispute.

This is not to say that Israel has no role to play. Just as the Arab world needs to give the Palestinian government political cover to take pro-peace actions, and just as the Palestinian government needs to take those actions, Israel must provide rewards to the Palestinian government for doing so. Currently, most achievements by Palestinians vis-à-vis Israel (and there are few) are perceived as coming as a result of violence against Israel. This encourages more violence, and creates popularity for those groups participating in violence. If rewards come to those groups that advocate peaceful action, and more rewards come when peaceful actions are taken, it creates legitimacy for peaceful parties.

The international community can encourage both Israel and the Palestinians to take pro-peace actions. But most Western actions do the opposite. The West sees Palestinians as justified, and so offers Palestinians rewards—recognition at the UN, millions in aid, etc. These rewards do not stop when Palestinians take anti-peace actions (such as celebrating violence against Israel, ruling out future negotiations or ignoring corruption). Indeed, such anti-peace actions are blamed on Israel for not being quicker to withdraw from land, thus encouraging Palestinians to take more anti-peace actions. Rewarding bad behaviour will only encourage more bad behaviour.

Israel is seen as unjustified because it refuses to cede land, and is routinely criticised by the UN and others. But Israel is not withdrawing from land because it is genuinely scared of what will happen if it does. In order to overcome its fear, it needs to know the international community has its back. Unremitting condemnation from the West has convinced Israel that everyone (except America) is against it. This has made Israel less willing to withdraw from land.

In the coming months, Palestinians will likely seek a Security Council resolution instead of negotiations with Israel. If the Security Council (or General Assembly) says yes, this will reward Palestinian intransigence, which will encourage more intransigence, which will breed more Israeli stubbornness. Serious carrots and sticks need to be applied to both parties to force them back to the negotiating table and for both sides to enact policies that enable peace to be possible. This is the only way peace will be engendered.

What is the big picture?

middle-east-map-politicalOver the last few decades, the Middle East has coalesced into two broad groupings, which I and others call the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc. The Arab Spring created the conditions which, in turn, created a third, still-nascent bloc, which I’ll get to in a bit. It is the creation of this new bloc which is the reason for much of the violence and instability in the Middle East today.

The Status Quo Bloc consists of most of the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf (led by Saudi Arabia), Egypt and Jordan, with a few hangers-on. Basically, these countries are stable dictatorships (or kingdoms) and will usually swat away clumsy Western attempts for them to democratise. They are Sunni and Arab. They look to the US to guarantee their security. They want the status quo to remain exactly as it is. Israel is a proxy member.

The Resistance Bloc wants to shake things up. Although its members have different goals, they are united in their desire to remove America as the source of Middle Eastern stability (since America props up their enemies). Led by Iran, the Resistance Bloc includes ‘official’ Syria, hezbollah and, until relatively recently, hamas. Iraq is a recent member (Iraq is mostly ethnically Arab, and mostly religiously Shi’ite. With America asleep at the wheel, Iraq has been allowed to drift into Iran’s orbit of influence, a stunning defeat for US foreign policy given all the blood and treasure it spent ‘liberating’ Iraq from 2003).

Iran is religiously Shi’ite and its rulers are ethnically Persian. Iran wants to be the regional hegemon. The Sunni Arab states fear it. It is this fear of Iran that drives much of the really important stuff that happens in the Middle East, including the origins of the Syrian civil war.

Emergence of a third bloc
The leaders of the Status Quo Bloc are generally secular. And Iran is Shi’ite. So, where does this leave Sunni Islamists? First, let’s take a step back. Basically, an Islamist is someone who wants their country run according to their interpretation of Islam. And there are two types of Islamists; those that wish to achieve their objectives using political means, and those that justify the use of violence to achieve their objectives.

Generally speaking, over the decades, the religious establishments in Arab states have been tolerated, with one important proviso; the religious leadership (or anyone else) were to make no complaint about or attempts to usurp the ruling elite. Over time, in various Arab countries, there have been very bloody bouts of repression, where thousands of people have been imprisoned or killed because a religious movement overstepped this mark.

Thus, the political Islamist movements (like the Muslim Brotherhood) went underground and bided their time, and the Islamists that justified violence formed various groups that have attacked Muslim and non-Muslim targets over time.

The Arab Spring offered the underground political Islamist groups an invaluable opportunity. In those Arab countries where the Arab Spring took off, the movement was originally a genuinely popular movement of people wanting more rights than they had. But in every case where elections were held, Islamists won. This was because the political Islamists had been highly organised, with trusted members and charismatic leaders, for years. The liberal democratic groups that we in the West hoped would have won were newly created, highly factional and rarely had a single charismatic leader behind which to unite.

The stunning ascendance of Sunni Islamists in the wake of the Arab Spring created a still-nascent third bloc in the Middle East. Although this Sunni Islamist Bloc immediately made a big impact on the Middle East, it is too soon to tell if it will form into a viable, lasting bloc.

Some of the big impacts made by the Sunni Islamist Bloc:

  • The Muslim Brotherhood was elected to power in Egypt (June 2012).
  • Turkey, which had dallied with the Resistance Bloc for years, became a firm member of the Sunni Islamist Bloc. Likewise Qatar.
  • Hamas, which had for years been in the Resistance Bloc, joined the Sunni Islamist Bloc (both because of the ascendance of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and also because the wholesale slaughter of Sunni Muslims by the Resistance Bloc’s Syria was making hamas’s ongoing membership of the Resistance Bloc increasingly unpopular.)

But the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt overstepped its mandate, attempting to impose its Islamist agenda too quickly. Egyptians went back out on the streets. They brought about a counter-coup in July 2013 and re-installed the military as the arbiter of Egyptian political life. Egypt, though it retains a pretence of democracy, is now to all effects and purposes a military dictatorship once again.

Under the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt was clearly the leader of the emerging Sunni Islamist Bloc. The Brothers’ demise embarrassed Turkey, Qatar and hamas, which had heavily bet on its success.

The most immediate impact was that hamas was now without a patron. Having unceremoniously left the Resistance Bloc, hamas was no longer receiving significant funding from Iran. And with Egypt firmly back in the Status Quo Bloc, the free passage of money and arms in the tunnels under the Egypt–Gaza border was quickly cut off. Hamas was in a difficult position and it was this, more than any other reason, that caused it to prod Israel into war in July 2014; hamas knew that Israel would over-react, and that the civilian casualties in Gaza (mostly caused by hamas purposefully putting civilians in harm’s way) and physical damage would cause the international community to pressure Israel into weakening its embargo on Gaza. Weakening this embargo would strengthen hamas both politically and economically. The embargo hasn’t yet weakened, indicating that Israel didn’t lose the war. However, the UN fact-finding mission will only release its report in March next year. International pressure as a result of that report might well hand hamas its victory, encouraging it to pursue more violence in the future.

As for the Sunni Islamist Bloc, it is too soon to tell whether it will last, but the Status Quo–Resistance enemies have a common enemy in the Sunni Islamists, and are working together to destroy it.