Why the Kurdish conflict in Turkey is so intractable


Recep Onursal, University of Kent

The ramifications of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border continues to have a seismic effect on the situation in northern Syria.

Faced with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who controlled the area were forced to make compromises. On October 13, they announced a deal with the Syrian army, which began moving troops towards the Turkish border. A five-day ceasefire was brokered by the US on October 18, during which Turkey agreed to pause its offensive to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw.

For many, the SDF proved itself to be the most effective force in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Turkey, however, considers the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, the US and EU label as a terrorist organisation.

But behind this lies a long history of Turkey denying the very existence of the Kurdish conflict, and the political and cultural rights of its Kurdish population. Understanding this history helps explain why the conflict is so intractable, and the impact it continues to have on Turkey’s foreign policy choices.

No room in the nation state

The Kurdish conflict cannot be understood without considering the question of power and exclusion. Its origins go back to the mid-19th century when the Ottomans attempted to end the 300-year-old autonomy of the Kurdish principalities in Kurdistan. This struggle for autonomy wasn’t resolved during the rule of the Ottoman era, and when it collapsed, all of the new nation states that eventually emerged – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – inherited their own Kurdish conflict.

The Turks and the Kurds fought a successful war of independence together in 1919 against the Allied forces. Nevertheless, when the new Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Turkish identity was presented as its unifying force, at the expense of the society’s political, social and cultural differences.

Not only was political power further centralised in Ankara, but the domination of the ethnic, Turkish and Sunni majority became the norm. The decision to create a centralised and homogeneous nation state was implemented in a top-down and violent fashion. The seeds of the long-term problems that Turkish and Kurdish communities confront today were created by this decision.

Various Kurdish groups challenged this new social and political order with different revolts, uprisings, and resistance, but these were violently suppressed. Repressive policies of assimilation were later implemented to transform the Kurds into civilised and secular Turks.

A conflict buried

The Kurdish conflict laid buried for many years. Then, the most serious challenge to Turkey’s nation state project was initiated by the PKK in 1984, which embraced a political agenda called democratic autonomy. The violent struggle between Ankara and the PKK has resulted in a huge economic and human cost.

Peace talks which began in 2013 with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan were widely considered to be the best chance for ending the conflict, but these collapsed in 2015. This led to increasing violence in the form of a destructive armed conflict in southeastern Turkey and a wave of bombings, including in Ankara and Istanbul.

The resolution of intractable conflicts is only possible when conflicted parties can confront their past and learn from it. In 2015, amid attempts by Turkish opposition parties to reopen peace negotiations with the Kurds, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted: “There is no Kurdish conflict”. Such positioning, which continues today, keeps the political dimension of the conflict in the background.

The state carefully controls what can and cannot be said about the conflict. Typically, words such as “terror” and “traitor” are used to criminalise those who criticise government policy towards the Kurds. A group of academics who signed a petition in 2016 calling for the resumption of peace talks were charged with making “terrorism propaganda”. The non-violent wing of the Kurdish movement – activists, politicians, political parties – has also been criminalised.

Blame game

Instead of confronting their failure to bring about peace, Turkish political elites have tried to apportion blame elsewhere. Erdoğan, for example, repeatedly refers to an invisible “mastermind” who orchestrates the PKK. Such rhetoric is deployed to play on the collective fear and anxiety about national security felt by parts of Turkish society.

Some have called this the “Sèvres syndrome” – referring to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that marked the end of the Ottoman empire and proposed to divide it into small states and occupation zones. The treaty was never implemented, and superseded by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which recognised the Republic of Turkey.

This syndrome – also referred to as “Sèvres Paranoia” – in essence reflects the collective fear that the Treaty of Sèvres will be revived and that the Turkish state is encircled by enemies who want to divide and weaken the country.

Today, this line of thinking is an integral part of Turkish political life and continues to influence public perception towards the external world. In a 2006 public opinion survey, for example, 78% of participants agreed that “the West wants to divide and break up Turkey like they broke up the Ottoman Empire”.

Driving Turkey’s choices.
By kmlmtz66/Shutterstock

In this way, the Kurdish conflict has been used to mobilise Turkish society to act against its own collective interest: a peaceful and just society. Policies aimed at managing the conflict have been implemented mostly within a state of emergency, in ways that continue to undermine Turkish democracy. Not only has the tremendous economic and human cost of the conflict become a “normal” part of Turkish life, but the state has also been successful in actively keeping the political dimension of the conflict at bay.

For a long time, Turkey refrained from talking about the Kurdish issue by assuming that it would eventually fade away. But it didn’t and instead, the conflict has become more deeply entrenched. Time will tell whether the Turkish state will ultimately gain or lose by its latest military intervention in Syria. However, what’s clear is that the Kurdish conflict will get more complicated with this latest move, and both the Turkish state and Turkish society will no longer be able to ignore it.The Conversation

Recep Onursal, Assistant Lecturer and PhD candidate in International Conflict Analysis, University of Kent

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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As Turkish troops move in to Syria, the risks are great – including for Turkey itself



Turkish armoured vehicles drive down a road during a military operation in Kurdish areas of northern Syria.
AAP/EPA/STR

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.

This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.

Alleged gas attacks by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s incumbent government followed, which resulted in the US continuing its stay in Syria despite its reluctant president.

The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.




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Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play


It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.

The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.

Why does Turkey want to increase its military presence in Syria?

There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.

The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.

Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.

Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.

Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.

Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.

Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.

The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.

Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.

It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.

It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.

Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.

What is likely to happen now?

Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.

A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.

Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.




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One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.

Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.

The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.

If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.

Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Trump decision to withdraw troops from Syria opens way for dangerous Middle East power play



Turkish and US troops on patrol in northern Syria. President Donald Trump has announced he plans to withdraw US troops from the region, paving the way for great destabilisation.
AAP/EPA/Sedat Suna

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

US President Donald Trump’s precipitate announcement he was withdrawing American forces from northeast Syria to enable Turkey to assert its authority along the border risks wider regional bloodshed – and further destabilisation of one of the world’s most volatile corners.

If implemented against a furious pushback from his own side of politics, the Trump decision threatens a region-wide conflagration. These are the stakes.

Trump has given contradictory signals before on the same issue. It remains to be seen whether he gives ground again after what appears to have been a hasty, certainly ill-considered, decision following a phone conversation with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Now under enormous stress from his own side, Trump is resorting to bombast. He tweeted:

Leading the charge against the Trump decision is his close ally, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham. He has threatened to introduce a Senate resolution opposing the administration’s decision, describing the move as a “stain on America’s honour”.

Like plucking a thread from a finely woven Turkish rug, the administration’s announcement effectively to abandon a Kurdish militia could lead to a complete unravelling of that part of the Middle East in which various forces have collided since the Syrian civil war broke out in March 2011.




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America’s Kurdish allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia arm (known as the YPG), would be at the mercy of a Turkish thrust across the Syrian border into territory the Kurds now control.

Turkey has made no secret of its intention to create what it is calling “safe zones” up to 30 kilometres inside the border in northeast Syria. This would enable it to relocate tens of thousands of Syrian refugees among the 3.6 million on Turkish soil.

In the face of such a Turkish move, the YPG would be hard put to hold sway against both Turkey’s military and Islamic State fighters seeking to take advantage of militia weakness in the absence of US support on the ground and in the air.

The ABC reports that something like 70,000 members of Islamic State or their supporters are being held in camps in SDF-controlled territory. Around 60 people of Australian origin, including children, are in this situation.

Thousands of IS militants are being held in prison camps in SDF-controlled territory. These fighters have already sought to stage mass breakouts from prison facilities.

Turkey views the YPG militia as cross-border allies of Kurdish separatists – and it regards the Kurdish separatists as terrorists.

The situation along the Turkish-Syria border is, by any standards, an explosive mix.

At the same time, Syrian forces of Bashar al-Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, would inevitably be poised to take advantage of chaos and regain territory lost in the civil war. This is a highly destabilising scenario.

In other words, Trump’s announcement could hardly portend a more worrisome outcome in a part of the world riven by years of conflict.

The US announcement also sends a disturbing signal to the wider Middle East that the Trump administration is intent on pulling back from its commitments in an unstable region.

Confidence in American steadfastness is already precarious due to Trump’s repeated statement that America wants to remove itself from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

In a Twitter message early this week that amplified a White House announcement, Trump said it was time for the US to withdraw from “these ridiculous Endless Wars”.

Trump also attacked European allies over their failure to take back their nationals among IS fighters held in SDF-run detention centres in northeast Syria. Some 10,000 prisoners are being detained.

This is a situation ripe for Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The latter is seeking to reassert itself in a region it regards as its own sphere of influence. Moscow’s support for Damascus is part of this regional power play.




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These are telling moments. Signs of an apparent American lack of commitment might well encourage Iran and Russia, as well as Islamic militants such as IS and al-Qaeda. These groups have been biding their time.

None of America’s regional friends, including Gulf states and Israel, will draw any comfort at all from the Trump decision – if implemented – to head for the exit.

By any standards, this is a mess of Trump’s own making.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Christchurch attack strains Australian-Turkish relations ahead of ANZAC day


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Weeks ahead of the ANZAC commemoration at Gallipoli, serious tensions erupted between Australia and Turkey, after threatening comments by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the wake of the Christchurch massacre.

Scott Morrison on Wednesday called in the Turkish ambassador to give him a tongue lashing. He demanded a withdrawal of the remarks and the taking down of a nationalist video featuring footage of the Australian gunman’s live stream.

The strength of the Prime Minister’s response has an eye to the emotional place of Gallipoli in the Australian narrative. But he also has to be careful not to cause the Turkish government to respond by hampering next month’s ANZAC commemoration.

President Erdoğan, electioneering at Çanakkale, just across from the Gallipoli peninsula, referred to the massacre, saying: “They test us with the messages they give in New Zealand […] We understood that your hatred is alive […] We understood that you begrudge our lives.”

He said: “Your ancestors came. […] Later on, some of them returned back on their feet, some of them in coffins.

“If you will come here with the same intentions, we will be waiting for you. You should have no doubt that we will farewell you just like your grandfathers”.

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters, visiting Indonesia, on Wednesday highlighted that the gunman was “a non-New Zealander, an outsider”.

Peters also said he thought Erdoğan had not known the full facts but “since he’s been apprised, or informed of the facts, he’s made a very conciliatory statement today […] which would stand in stark contrast to what he said the other day.”

In an opinion piece published in The Washington Post Erdoğan has written “all Western leaders must learn from the courage, leadership and sincerity of New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, to embrace Muslims living in their respective countries”.

Peters, who is going to Turkey this week, said when there he would “set any record straight that needs to be set straight as to what went on”.

Attacking Erdoğan’s original comments, Morrison told a news conference they were “highly offensive to Australians and highly reckless in this very sensitive environment”.

Morrison said he had asked for the remarks to be clarified and withdrawn. “I’ve asked for these comments, particularly their reporting of the misrepresented position of Australia on Turkish television, the state-sponsored broadcaster, to be taken down,” he said.

He would wait for the Turkish government’s response – beyond that “all options are on the table”. Asked what these options were, the Prime Minister would not elaborate.

Morrison said he did not accept as an excuse that “things are said in an electoral context”.

The travel advisory for Turkey is under review. People planning to go to Gallipoli should exercise common sense and await further advice, Morrison said. The present advice is for people to exercise a “high degree of caution”.

Morrison said Erdoğan’s remarks were “offensive, because they insult the memory of our ANZACs and they violate the pledge that is etched in the stone at Gallipoli, of the promise of Atatürk to the mothers of our ANZACs. So I understand the deep offence Australians would be feeling about this.

“The comments completely misrepresented the Australian and New Zealand governments’ very strong response to the extremist attack, he said. All Australians had condemned it.

“We have reached out to embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters in New Zealand and in Australia, quite to the contrary of the vile assertion that has been made about our response,” Morrison said.

He said he had spoken with Turkish Australian leaders on Wednesday morning. “They have expressed to me their deep disappointment about these comments. They don’t represent the views of Turkish Australians.

“I am not going to single out the comments of one person and ascribe it to a people, whether in Turkey or across Australia. I don’t think it does reflect the views of the Turkish people, or certainly of Turkish Australians,” Morrison said.

He said Foreign Minister Marise Payne would be speaking to her Turkish counterpart.

The Australian ambassador to Turkey was due to speak with Erdoğan’s advisers.The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Syrian war is not over, it’s just on a new trajectory: here’s what you need to know


File 20190205 86224 ksozds.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Russia, Turkey, Iran and Israel will keep vying for power in Syria long after the US is gone.
from shutterstock.com

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

December 2018 marked a significant shift in the Syrian conflict. The end-of-year events put the country on a new trajectory, one in which President Bashar al-Assad looks towards consolidating his power and Islamic State (IS) sees a chance to perpetuate its existence.

Turkey’s role

Kick-starting the development was Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s announcement he would start a military operation east of the Euphrates River – an area controlled by the US supported and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The US and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces control the area to the east of the Euphrates River.
Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the eight-year conflict, Assad and his main backer, Russia, have not militarily engaged with the Kurds. Assad and Russia didn’t see the Kurds as terrorists or insurgents, but as protectors of their territory against IS and other jihadist forces.

But Turkey sees the Kurdish zone as an existential threat. Turkey has legitimate fears: if the Kurdish region in Syria becomes independent, it can unite with the Kurdish region in northern Iraq and eventually claim the largely Kurdish southeast of Turkey.

Turkey’s intended military operation east of the Euphrates is yet to eventuate. But the announcement was a bold move, made more real by the large military build-up on the Turkish-Syrian border. It put pressure on the US administration and US President Donald Trump to make a call on Syria: either stand firm against Turkey and further stretch already tense relations, or pull out of Syria to abrogate responsibility.

Trump chose the second option. He swiftly declared the US would pull out from Syria altogether – and sell Patriot surface-to-air missiles to Turkey to prevent its attempt to purchase the Russian S-400 missile defence system.

The removal of US troops came with a Trump-style announcement on Twitter: “After historic victories against ISIS, it’s time to bring our great young people home!”

US policy

Since April 2018, Trump had made clear his desire to leave Syria. Ten days after declaring his intention, an episode of chemical attacks forced Trump’s hand into staying in Syria and retaliating. This time, though, either the pressure from Turkey worked or Trump saw it as a perfect time to execute his intent to leave.

Under the Obama administration, US foreign policy with regards to Syria was to remain there until IS was destroyed completely, Iran and its associated entities removed and a political solution achieved in line with the UN-led Geneva peace talks. Trump claimed the first goal was complete and saw it as sufficient grounds to pull out.




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Then, on December 21 2018, Trump announced Defence Secretary James Mattis would retire at the end of February 2019. The Washington Post reported Mattis vehemently objected to, and clashed with Trump over, the Syrian withdrawal. In his resignation letter, Mattis wrote: “you have the right to have a Secretary of Defence whose views are better aligned with yours”.

Differences have marked US policy on Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011. Trump further added to the confusion, and his erratic decision-making also demonstrates his frustration with his own administration.

Russia’s game

The global fear, of course, is that the US withdrawal will leave Russia as the region’s military and political kingpin, with Iran and Turkey as its partners.




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Stakes are high as Turkey, Russia and the US tussle over the future of Syria


Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has publicly stated that Russia respects Turkey’s national interests in Syria. He added Turkey was willing to compromise and work together to improve the situation and fight against terrorism. Turkey appears to have accepted Russian objectives in Syria in return for Russia’s green light to do what Turkey deems best for its national interests in the Kurdish region.

One Russian objective is to ensure Assad remains Syria’s president. Russia may allow Turkey to host limited operations in the Kurdish region, not only to hold a compromise with Turkey, but also to eventually pressure Kurdish forces into cooperating with Russia and accepting the Assad regime.

Russia is playing out a careful strategy – pleasing Turkey, but not at the expense of Assad’s sovereignty in Syria. Erdogan was a staunch adversary of Assad in the early years of the conflict. Russia counts on Erdogan’s recognition of Assad to influence other Sunni majority states to cross over to the Russian-Assad camp.

Russia’s strategy is to please Turkey, but only to the extent that it doesn’t threaten Assad’s hold on power in Syria.
from shutterstock.com

The Turkish foreign minister has said Turkey may consider working with Assad if Syria holds democratic elections. Of course, Assad will only agree to elections if he is assured of a win.

The United Arab Emirates announced a reopening of its embassy in Damascus, which was followed by Bahrain stating it had never cut its diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration. Although Saudi Arabia denied it, there are media reports that the Saudi foreign ministry is establishing diplomatic ties with the Syrian administration.

These are indications the main players in the region are preparing to recognise and work with the Assad government.

An important step in Turkey’s recognition of Assad came in a meeting on January 23 between Putin and Erdogan. Putin reminded Erdogan of the 1998 Adana Pact between Turkey and Syria. The pact began a period of previously unprecedented bilateral links between Turkey and Syria until 2011, when the current conflict flared.

Erdogan acknowledged the 1998 pact was still in operation, meaning Turkey and the Assad administration could work together against terrorism.

Trump may also see no problem with the eventuality. There was no mention of Assad when he claimed victory in Syria, indicating he does not care whether Assad remains in power or not.

Islamic State

The overarching concern is that the US pulling out of Syria would bring back IS. The group has lost large territories and the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. The last town under IS control, Hajin, fell to coalition forces in December 2018. Despite these wins, it’s too soon to claim the end for IS.

Trump has a solution to this too: outsourcing. In a Tweet on December 24, he announced Turkish President Erdogan will “eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria”. This is highly unlikely as Turkey’s main concern is the Kurdish region in northern Syria where IS is not likely to pose any threat.

Given Russia and Assad will be the main forces in Syria, their policies will determine the future of IS.

Assad would not want IS to jeopardise his own government. At the same time, Assad’s claim for legitimacy throughout the civil war was his fight against terrorism, embodied by IS. If IS were to exist in some shape and form, it would benefit Assad in the crucial years of consolidating his power. This may lead to Assad appearing to crack down on IS while not entirely eradicating them.




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IS will also try hard to survive. It still has a large number of seasoned commanders and fighters who can unleash guerrilla warfare. IS also has operatives peppered throughout Syria to launch suicide bombing attacks in Syrian cities, similar to what they have been doing in Iraq.

Israel, meanwhile, has been quietly hitting Iranian targets in Syria since May 2018. Israeli air strikes intensified in January 2019 and occurred in broad daylight. In acknowledging the strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s “permanent policy” was to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

We could see more altercations between Israel and Iran in 2019, now that the US has abandoned the objective of countering Iran’s presence in Syria.

The Syrian conflict is not over. It’s just on a new trajectory. The US withdrawal is sure to leave a power vacuum, which will quickly be filled by other regional powers like Turkey, Iran and Israel under the watchful eye of Russia.The Conversation

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: Turkey shows the economic pain of global democratic backsliding


Richard Holden, UNSW

Vital Signs is a regular economic wrap from UNSW economics professor Richard Holden (@profholden). Vital Signs aims to contextualise weekly economic events and cut through the noise of the data affecting global economies.


As American baseball legend Yogi Berra once supposedly quipped, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” Three years ago the crisis was in Greece, now it’s Turkey. Another European summer and another European economic crisis.

It’s tempting to say that being in Europe is all the two situations have in common. Greece’s population is a little over 10 million; Turkey’s is nearly 80 million. Greece’s troubles were triggered by out-of-control government debt; Turkey’s government debt-to-GDP ratio is quite low. The Greek government was on the loopy left; Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is on the conservative right.

But the similarities between the Greek and Turkish crises are deeper than the differences.

Both were brought about by decades of ignorant, populist economics. When crisis hit, both countries had leaders who instantly made things worse. And in both cases the world’s global capital capital markets have proved to be an unforgiving judge.

Erdogan’s voodoo economics

Turkey finds itself in crisis not because of massive government debt – although it has been rising pretty rapidly of late and private-sector debt is a real issue – but because of a large current account deficit.

The current account deficit – roughly the difference between the value of what it imports and what it exports – is running at more than US$60 billion at an annualised rate.

This means Turkey is a large net borrower from the rest of the world.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has goosed GDP through cheap foreign credit and low real interest rates. But unlike tinpot strongmen who worry mainly about holding onto power tomorrow, global markets look far into the future.

And this year markets decided that Turkey’s economic future looked pretty bleak.

A plummeting lira

The Turkish currency, the lira, has fallen by more than 40% against the US dollar this year. Since more than half of Turkey’s foreign debt (government plus private) is denominated in foreign currencies, this is a big problem.

It is estimated that there is more than US$200 billion of dollar-denominated Turkish corporate debt. When the lira falls, foreign-denominated debt rises, making it hard to service, let alone repay.

At the same time, the inflationary spiral this sets off does huge damage to the domestic economy. It is estimated that Turkey’s annual inflation rate is running at more than 100%.

Erdogan doesn’t want interest rates to rise – and he has bullied the central bank into doing so later and less than the bank otherwise might have. He is on record as saying that higher interest rates increase inflation, rather than the opposite, as every first-year economics student knows.

To Erdogan, black is white, night is day, up is down.

US President Donald Trump announced last week that “Aluminum will now be 20% and steel 50%. Our relations with Turkey are not good at this time!” Erdogan’s response has been to call for a boycott of iPhones and enact retaliatory tariffs of as much as 140% on a range of US goods.

Erdogan did secure US$15 billion in foreign investment from Qatar, after meeting Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Bin Al Thani in Ankara on Wednesday. That might stop some of the bleeding for now, but this gives Qatar tremendous leverage.

The real cost of this support won’t be measured in basis points.

Global contagion?

The big risk here is that the foreign holders of all this dollar-denominated Turkish debt get into trouble as Turkey struggles to repay or defaults. Even the Bank of International Settlements doesn’t easily know who all these debt holders are, but banks in Spain and France appear to be significantly exposed – especially Spain.

A run on the Turkish currency could turn into damage to balance sheets of banks across Europe, triggering a potential debt crisis in countries like Spain.

That’s some distance off for now. But it looms.

All this will likely end in some kind of International Monetary Fund assistance package – but that’s going to come with conditions. Folks who like to use the term “neoliberal” will dub such conditions as brutal austerity.

Others will consider the conditions the cost of stabilising an economy pushed to the brink by a financially illiterate megalomaniac.

Economics in a world of democratic backsliding

Turkey may be at the centre of the crisis du jour, but Erdogan is but one of a cast of nasty, illiberal characters. Although they occupy varying positions on the ideological spectrum, from Poland to Hungary to Latin America, there has been significant democratic backsliding in recent years.

These strongmen do violence to principles of liberal democracy – often literally. They also damage their economies and, as a consequence, their people.

Institutions like the International Monetary Fund will probably handle the problem in Turkey, although it would be a lot simpler if Erdogan just allowed interest rates to increase and solve the problem directly.

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The Conversation

But sadly we can expect more illiberal and nonsensical economics from these illiberal strongmen. It is contagious populist ideology more than financial contagion that should scare us right now.

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics and PLuS Alliance Fellow, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Erdogan’s victory will have far-reaching implications for Turkey and the Middle East



File 20180626 19404 1mhb7ev.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Recep Tayyip Erdogan greets supporters after winning with 52% of the vote in the Turkish election.
AAP/Turkish president press office handout

Mehmet Ozalp, Charles Sturt University

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the incumbent president and main political actor in Turkish politics for the last 16 years, has won yet another election with a majority vote of 52%.

The election was held in the climate of a two-year state of emergency, Erdogan’s considerable weight on Turkish media, and his ruling party’s dominance of the election process. This was no ordinary election and will have historic ramifications for Turkey, its relations with the West and the Middle East.

The election has put in effect the terms of 2016 constitutional changes and ended the fragile Turkish parliamentary democracy that has been in place since 1950. As of June 24, Turkey has ventured into a democratic league of its own.

In the new executive presidential regime, there will be elections and multiple political parties. Once elected, though, the system unifies powers in one person, the president, rather than enforcing the all-important principle of separation of powers in a liberal democracy.




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Erdogan will form the government by appointing ministers from inside or outside the parliament. His presidential decrees will be equal to legislation. As the leader of the ruling AKP party, he will hold the majority vote in the parliament – in effect, he will control the legislative branch.

Erdogan will appoint half of the top council, which appoints judges and prosecutors. The other half will be appointed by the parliament he controls. He will have sweeping powers to abolish the parliament and declare a state of emergency any time.

The new constitution stipulates two five-year terms. If an early election is called during the second term, the incumbent president can be nominated for a third term. This means Erdogan could possibly be in power until 2034.

Erdogan wins elections with an Islamo-nationalistic populism that is a cross between Trump and Putin. Like Trump, he promises to make Turkey great again as a global economic and political power, reviving the past glories of the Ottoman Empire.

Similar to Putin, Erdogan follows a confrontational approach in foreign policy, takes bold military steps in Syria and rallying the population behind him in a nationalistic fervour.

The key lies in Erdogan’s almost absolute control of the Turkish media. This not only raises questions about the fairness of elections in Turkey, but also explains the diffusion of a powerful narrative behind Erdogan’s political success.

The formula is simple: undertake large-scale road, bridge and airport building projects and launch them with media fanfare. This makes even the reluctant supporters say about the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), “they are corrupt, but they also work”.

Secondly, anything that goes wrong in Turkey is explained as a Western conspiracy. If rating agencies drop Turkey’s credit rating, it is not because of poor economic and political policies controlled by Erdogan for the last 16 years. Rather, it is explained as Western subversion to undermine the Turkish economic success.

A case in point in illustrating the appeal of the Erdogan narrative is the Dirilis (Revival), a state-funded television series that narrates the foundational story of the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century.

The hero of the series, Ertugrul Bey, father of the founder Osman Bey, often clashes and wins against Byzantine and Crusader forces who are determined to pillage Muslim land and kill innocent Muslim populations. It is the Muslim version of Games of Thrones, watched by millions around the world.

Many see Erdogan as the modern-day personification of Ertugrul Bey, fighting imperialistic forces against all odds to revive Islamic civilisation and become a voice for oppressed Muslims around the world.

His supporters are convinced Erdogan is the greatest leader in Turkish history, one who would make Turkey a world power and bring back pride for Turks and all Muslims. The narrative is intoxicatingly attractive to traditionally religious Turks and masses of Muslims around the world.

This sets the scene for what to expect in Turkey-West relations. The West, the European Union and the US are the antagonists in Erdogan’s narrative, and will continue to be so. He is not likely to mend relations with the EU, let alone make the necessary reforms to gain EU membership.

Aiming to have a growing influence in the Middle East, Erdogan will intensify his relationship with Russia over Syria. Putin will use Turkey to undermine the NATO alliance. This will further stretch EU-Turkey relations, which are already in tatters over the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.




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Erdogan’s dilemma is that the EU is Turkey’s largest economic partner and he needs funding from Western banks to service Turkey’s growing USD$450 billion foreign debt. This is increasingly worrying Turkish businesses.

During his election campaign, Erdogan travelled to the US and UK to convince lenders and business investors to continue to fund the Turkish government and economy. Erdogan is likely to play out a love-hate relationship with the West.

While Erdogan has no qualms about resorting to anti-Western rhetoric, his supporters forget that it was the same West that hailed Turkey under Erdogan’s leadership as a new hope in the post-9/11 world. Turkey was portrayed as a leader and a model for the Muslim world, where Islam and liberal democracy could harmoniously co-exist.

Turkey could show the world it was possible to stay true to Islamic values and identity while being a first-grade democracy with freedoms and affluence. Other Middle Eastern countries would follow the Turkish success, rising above the seemingly perpetual political turmoil, social discord, economic ruin and inevitable suffering of ordinary Muslim people.

The ConversationBut, 16 years on, Turkey has become just another typical Middle Eastern country.

Mehmet Ozalp, Associate Professor in Islamic Studies, Director of The Centre for Islamic Studies and Civilisation and Executive Member of Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gallipoli commemorations of Turkish youth tell us much about politics in Turkey



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Turkish soldiers in a trench at Gallipoli. The way Turkish youth commemorate the battle tells us much about the country’s politics.
Ausstralian Dept of Veterans Affairs

Brad West, University of South Australia and Ayhan Aktar, Istanbul Bilgi University

With ongoing political instability and security concerns in Turkey, we are again likely to see a smaller turnout of Australians and New Zealanders for Anzac Day ceremonies at Gallipoli this year.

But thousands of Turkish youth will be on the battlefields at dawn. They will be re-enacting the march by the 57th Regiment to the highlands, where Ottoman troops halted the Anzac advance in 1915.




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We undertook fieldwork last Anzac Day on this ritual as part of a proposed larger research project examining how the memory of Gallipoli has become central to tension between Turkish republicans and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). The republicans want to protect and restore the secular pro-Western origins of the republic, while the AKP wants to integrate Islam into the nation’s civil institutions and national imagination.

Nowhere is this memory politics more significant than in this re-enactment ritual, which under AKP rule has been renamed the Loyalty March for the 57th Regiment.

While Islamic influence on remembrance rites at Gallipoli has been growing for more than a decade, its political significance has increased dramatically since the July 2016 attempted coup. This has proved to be a transformative event for Turkish politics and society.

The 57th Regiment re-enactment

In the last two decades, Turkish interest in the history of the Gallipoli campaign has grown significantly. It was here that the 57th Regiment came to prominence in Turkish collective memory as the military unit led by Lieutenant Colonel Mustafa Kemal, later Atatürk.

As founding father of modern Turkey and hero of the war of independence, Mustafa Kemal pushed the 57th Regiment to the highlands, preventing defeat in the campaign.

The origins of the re-enactment are closely tied to this mythology – it was originally known as the 57th Regiment March in the Track of Atatürk. Local university students first organised the commemoration in 2006, partly in response to the increasing number of Australian and New Zealand youth on the battlefields for Anzac Day. For the 90th anniversary the year before, the Anzac Day pilgrimage reached its zenith, with about 17,000 participants.




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The structure adopted for the first 57th Regiment re-enactment largely remains today. It involves an eight-kilometre hike from the regiment’s original base at Bigali village to the highlands of the battlefield. The ritual grew rapidly, with 6,000 participants three years after the first march.

Unsurprisingly, given the march’s popularity, the AKP assumed some control of the re-enactment through the Ministry of Youth and Sports. The government began funding the cost of travel and living expenses for young participants. It also oversees official registration and program co-ordination to cap attendance.

Such oversight allowed for representation of youth from around the country, including a greater percentage of participants from AKP stronghold areas who would otherwise struggle to fund the travel. It is this “pious generation” that the AKP and its leader, Recep Erdoğan, have emphasised as central to AKP’s vision of a new Turkey.

Turkish youth march in a Gallipoli re-enactment.
Ayhan Aktar

Cultural contradictions

Historical re-enactment is about comprehending and experiencing the past as it relates to the ordinary citizen. This commemorative form has proved particularly significant for AKP memory politics by allowing a focus on the martyrdom of 57th Regiment, which suffered heavy casualties.

By providing competition to the traditional heroic saviour narrative of Atatürk at Gallipoli, the AKP has been able to counter the secular pro-Western principles around which he founded the republic. Mandatory prayer sessions have been added at the beginning and end of the march. This has been justified as simulating the actions of the ordinary men who constituted the unit.

This more egalitarian historical focus, which cultural scholars refer to as memory “from below”, gives religion a place in commemorations of Gallipoli. This can also be seen in the increased recognition of individual martyrs through a focus on firsthand accounts of the religious zeal of Turkish soldiers against an infidel invader of their homeland.




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Changes to the memorial landscape on the battlefields have aided this way of telling history while also promoting religious observance at the site. Fallen Turkish soldiers remained in mass graves after the war, a reflection of the stigma of Ottoman history in republican Turkey.

But, since 2005, Turkish authorities have built 11 cemeteries for the fallen soldiers. These have become popular sites for prayer by the 1 million-plus Turkish visitors to the battlefields per year, in large part funded as social tourism by municipalities. Another 15 cemeteries are proposed, with plans for accompanying outdoor mosques.

The AKP has a vested interest in advancing re-enactment as a commemorative form at Gallipoli, as it provides an opportunity for increased religious references and contexts. To ensure the re-enactment remains popular, though, the AKP has retained much of its original carnival-like character. Participants still take “selfies” and engage in jokes, laughter and joyful conversations while walking.

Political opposition

The recreational character of the re-enactment means participants have a range of motivations for their involvement.

Political chants and song, for example, are often recited by small groups. Some of the most common are the songs of the AKP’s political opponents, the Nationalistic Movement Party.

Other participants engage in religious chants such as Allahu akbar (Allah is the greatest) and Tek yol İslam, tek yol şehadet (Only path is Islam, only path is martyrdom).

Arguably the populist nature of the re-enactment legitimises other tourist and unofficial remembrance forms at Gallipoli that work to cap the state’s control over historical interpretation.

The 57th Regiment re-enactment is becoming a popular pilgrimage activity throughout the year. The Republican People’s Party (CHP), for example, had a re-enactment as part of its four-day Justice Congress at Gallipoli in August 2017. The congress was held to highlight violations of the justice system by Erdoğan following the attempted coup.

Like the main April 25 re-enactment, the success and political outcomes of such ritual displays are highly contingent. In the case of the CHP congress, its ability to challenge the AKP’s symbolic alignment with Gallipoli was hampered by photos appearing on social media of congress members drinking alcohol on the battlefields. The images caused a public scandal. A CHP spokesperson admitted:

Such impertinent behavior is completely against the glorious memory of our Gallipoli martyrs.

The ConversationWhether Australians and New Zealanders will return to Gallipoli en masse for future Anzac Days, and how they will be received if they do, is uncertain. But ritual performances on the battlefields on April 25 are almost certain to remain politically significant in Turkey.

Brad West, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, School of Creative Industries, University of South Australia and Ayhan Aktar, Chair Professor, Istanbul Bilgi University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.