Monday 22 February 2016

In which our hero visits Istanbul and learns more about Mr. Erdogan

I spent the weekend, or Friday to Monday as grand people used to say, in Istanbul. I didn’t go there to find things about which to blog but they found me.

Turkey used to seem very dull compared with Romania, almost another boring Western country. It no longer seems either boring or Western. 

The latest two in a spate of suicide bombings happened last week. A suicide car bombing  killed 28 soldiers  in military buses in Ankara, as they waited at traffic lights near the headquarters of Turkey's armed forces, parliament and government. The government
announced that the killings were the work of a Syrian Kurd and carried out with the complicity of the illegal Turkish Kurdish organisation, the PKK. On Thursday seven more people were blown up in the Kurdish province of Diyarbakir.

Reading the English language press on Friday I began to revise my opinion of Erdogan and see his reasons for thinking the Syrian Kurds a bigger threat to him than ISIS. Until it came to light that it was a Turkish Kurdish terrorist organisation, TAK, and a Turkish Kurd who were responsible, not Syrian Kurds or even the PKK.

A foreign journalist friend told me that the Kurds who were blown up in Ankara close to the heart of the government late last year were probably killed with the foreknowledge of the Turkish authorities. I was told the same story by Barış, a Turk I made friends with and with whom I had lunch. 

Both my informants told me that the Erdogan government had supported ISIS and was to blame for the PKK’s violent campaign after years of peaceful negotiations. There's not much doubt that Turkey has supported ISIS. Associated Press have said that more than 30,000 barrels of oil are being extracted each day by ISIS in Syria, much of which ends up in Turkey. The USA chooses to ignore this. .

Barış told me that foreigners with long beards were regularly seen throughout Turkey and some of them were jihadists. For what it’s worth I noticed more women in full burqas and bearded men in long skirts than on previous visits. Though the overwhelming majority of women wore jeans or knee-length skirts and lipstick, a sizeable minority (more than 10%) wore headscarves.

Another Turkish friend, a left-winger (in Turkey the left is very anti-Islam unlike in Western Europe), told me the following.

About fifteen to twenty years ago, Turkey was one of the strongest industrial powers in the area, better than Greece, Spain and Italy, industry-wise, not to mention anywhere in the Middle East or the former USSR. 8 out of 10 TVs and white goods were Turkish made. This was making the EU compete against Turkey. Under pressure from the US, Turkey was promised EU membership, but this promise is not going to be kept and this helps Erdoğan. The US had a dream of having Turkey as a Muslim democracy as an example in the Middle East and to make it much easier to monitor the Middle East. They find out that Islam and democracy do not fit, because Islam is not only a religion but a political system.
My friend is right that the USA had strong hopes that Turkey would prove that democracy and human rights could flourish everywhere and put huge pressure on the EU to accept Turkey as a candidate for membership. British Conservative elder statesman Chris Patten said back in 2011 that admitting Turkey as a member would give the Europe a new reason to exist. 
As an EU member, Turkey would add a new dimension of massive historic importance. Europeans would show that we could embrace an Islamic democracy and build a strong bridge between Europe and Western Asia.That, in turn, would create a new European identity and narrative, a new reason for the EU to exist in this century, a way of rejecting the divisive politics of old. 
I suppose these ideas are now laid aside but they may very well be revived in the future.

What is clear is that Turkey is in big trouble. She has made an enemy of Russia by unjustifiably shooting down a Russian plane, has alienated the Americans, has wholly failed to undermine Assad and cannot intervene in Syria to protect the rebels for fear of deadly Russian reprisals. Turkey has alienated her former ally Israel. Almost her only friends, oddly enough, are the Iraqi Kurds, proof surely that Turkey can have good relations with Kurds, and the Saudis. Turkey forms a Salon des Refusés with the Saudis, who are also dismayed by Russia's and Iran's success and feeling very unloved by the Americans.

How much Erdogan and Putin have in common. Both are pursuing what they see as their national interests in Syria, both are ruthless, cunning  and have strong autocratic tendencies. Both base their political support on patriotism and to some extent religion. Both are responsible for civilian deaths in Syria. The difference between the two is that Putin is effective and is winning, Erdogan losing badly. And for this I am glad, because I see Turkey’s involvement in Syria as mostly malign, whereas I think Russia’s brings a peace closer.


  1. Good piece. I agree that Erdogan has hugely screwed up his foreign policy, and, domestically, the feel is increasingly authoritarian. Even Istanbul, that anarchic city par excellence, is showing signs of this. I remember visiting a couple of years ago during the “tulip festival”, and found much of the flower displays reminiscent of what a communist regime may have put on in Eastern Europe pre-1989..

  2. "Both are responsible for civilian deaths in Syria."
    Good thing that Putin & Assad don't bomb weddings and hospitals as Obama likes to do, or the situation would be much worse indeed.
    Yrkelo Volrand

  3. Assad and Putin were bombing hospitals right up to the ceasefire last night, as well as schools and refugee camps.

    1. Terrible. But does this mean things in Syria would be better if the regime were defeated and, more importantly, does it mean the UK and USA should try to remove the Syrian regime? Is it our business? I think our business should simply be to help stop the war.

  4. Interesting article that reminds us that Turkey is a useful and important NATO ally - and right about Iraq and Libya.

  5. All of those "enlightened" folk who harbour cold war concepts to their breasts are the same types who felt that spending a massive amount on the french GDP on the Maginot Line. Putin and the Russian military actually learned a great deal from their defeat in Afghanistan and their successes in Chechnya. They will defeat ISIS and when that happens, the Assad regime can be dealt with.