As I sat down to write this article, my wife turned to me from her computer and said that there was a terrorist bombing in Izmir.
Almost every week lately, there is another incident that can be tied to ISIS whether or not it actually takes “credit”. On New Year’s Eve, we were at her brother-in-law Mehmet’s apartment on the upper west side of Manhattan sitting down for dinner with Prosecco, the poor man’s Champagne, when the news broke about the terrorist attack on the Reina nightclub in the Beşiktaş district of Istanbul. When I first met Mehmet on a visit to Istanbul in 2003, he anticipated that this sort of thing would eventually begin to take place in Turkey. He thought that the war in Iraq could spill over into Turkey and that it would be best for his family to relocate to the USA. This is pretty much what has happened.
ISIS is a product of the invasion of Iraq, a war that Turkey opposed and whose decision was welcomed by the left. While most people might remember the AKP as key to voting down a resolution that would have permitted Turkey to be a staging ground for the invasion, the truth is that its opposition was based more on cash than principle. Like a mafia gang, it offered the USA a deal. A fifty-two-billion-dollar aid package would buy Turkey’s backing but when Bush refused to pay more than half of that, the AKP nixed the deal.
In fact, the baksheesh economy prevailed in Syria as well, the “anti-imperialist” country often depicted as the polar opposite of NATO member Turkey. Clifford Krause reported in the NY Times on January 2nd, 2003 that the Bush administration was “surprised and gratified by Syria’s recent vote in the United Nations Security Council in favor of the resolution demanding Iraq allow weapons inspectors to return or face possible military action.”
For that matter, despite the well-trod narrative of Turkey being bent on “regime change” in Syria, the two countries were thick as thieves before the Arab Spring. On July 24, 2010, the Times reported on how “Well-heeled Syrians” had been coming to Gaziantep, a Turkish city not far from Aleppo, drawn there by Louis Vuitton purses. It also reported that Erdoğan regarded Iran’s nuclear power initiative as “peaceful” and that Syria was an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey’s bid to join the EU since that would enhance its status as an intermediary for lucrative trade that would be otherwise out of bounds. Trade between Turkey and Syria more than doubled from $795 million in 2006 to $1.6 billion in 2009, and was expected to reach $5 billion in the next three years.
So much for geopolitical scenarios between Sunni and Shi’ite states fighting to the death.
My wife’s family had little use for Islamist politics, even if in the milder AKP version. My father-in-law was a pilot in the Turkish air force and went on to a career in the freight division of Turkish airlines. The late patriarch of another wing of the family based in Izmir was a General who served as the military attaché to NATO in Italy. Such men were the typical beneficiaries of Mustafa Kemal’s statist development policies that were arguably the fruit of the last of the bourgeois revolutions.
Kemalism was steadfastly committed to secular rule, so much so that my in-laws could barely conceal their disgust with the direction Turkey was going under AKP rule. My father-in-law moved from Üsküdar to Kadıköy in the 1960s because he had become fed up with how his old very charming and historic neighborhood had become transformed into an Islamist stronghold. His worldview was orthodox Kemalist even disturbingly so. On one visit, we were watching some news show on TV when archival footage of Armenians suddenly appeared. My Turkish was not good enough at that point to follow the commentary but he filled me in with the chilling revelation: by siding with the Russians, the Armenians got what they deserved.
The relationship between Turkey and the Soviet Union was a deeply tangled one. Lenin was anxious to develop ties with Mustafa Kemal since he had come to power through a successful rout of the Greek invaders who had been backed by Great Britain and other imperialist powers in the same way that the Soviet Union had been invaded at the very same time. While Kemal was no Marxist, the West was anxious to suppress a bourgeois nationalist whose victory might inspire other such revolts in the region—as it certainly did.
However, Kemal was only committed to state capitalist development and would show no mercy to those he regarded as Bolsheviks. On January 28, 1921, Kemal had seventeen leading Turkish communists thrown into the sea off Trabzon — the traditional Turkish method of discreet execution.
By the 1950s, the progressive aspects of Kemalism had long disappeared. Except for the Kurds and the beleaguered socialist groups in Turkey, there was not much resistance until the Islamists began to emerge as a bourgeois power with its own agenda. Largely based in the Anatolian region and in the textile industry, they began asserting themselves in the 1980s.
For many Turks who had little sympathy for Islamism as an ideology, the AKP was a welcome alternative to decades of Kemalist misrule. In the early 2000s, I took Turkish language classes with Etem Erol at Columbia University, who died much too young exactly a year ago from a heart attack. Like many progressive-minded Turks, Erol voted for the AKP in the 2002 elections and again in 2007. For him, the charitable work of the Islamists and their seeming willingness to bring the Kurds in out of the cold was reason enough to vote for the party.
Now a ferocious critic of the AKP that he would now have you believe is responsible for much of Syria’s miseries, Stephen Kinzer was of a different mind in 2006 when he praised Turkey’s bid to join the EU and the government’s relaxation of tensions with the Kurds. In a New York Review of Books article dated January 12th, Kinzer quoted a Kurdish writer named Lutfi Baski: “Before, we were afraid to speak out. The government was insisting that there were no Kurds, that there was no Kurdish language or culture. They arrested us and closed our organizations. Now, so much has changed, especially in the last few months. Our problems haven’t been solved, not at all, but at least we can talk about them honestly. It’s a huge difference.”
Not only did much of the left admire Erdoğan for a more enlightened stance toward the Kurds, he appeared to be on our side when it came to the Palestinians. In 2010 the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was an important initiative that had the full support of the AKP. That was the same year as the infamous “low sofa” interview he gave to Israeli television, one in which he was seated far below his interviewer—a sign of disrespect.
Kissinger once said that America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests. The same thing is true of Erdoğan’s Turkey. This year Erdoğan concluded a deal with Israel that smacked of the baksheesh syndrome. In exchange for a $20 million payment from Israel, Turkey would forsake all claims against the IDF for killing a Turkish citizen during its raid of a Freedom Flotilla ship. Like Greece, Turkey is anxious to work with Israel on deals that would allow it to buy gas from Israel’s offshore oil fields and become a partner in a gas pipeline that would run via Turkey and through which Israel would export gas to Europe. With Turkey already reorienting to Russia that has already developed close ties with Israel over the need to defeat “terrorism”, this is an indication that Turkey is guided much more by Metternich than Sharia law.
Some analysts feel that Hamas might even benefit from such a rapprochement since Turkey’s stepped up war against ISIS reflects the same sort of political cleavage that exists in Gaza. For the past year or so, Hamas has been cracking down on Salafist jihadis in Gaza who are intent on sparking a new war with Israel. But as tends to be the case in the region, alliances are not always predictable or static. Despite Erdoğan’s bromance with Putin, Hamas still identified with the Syrian rebels in East Aleppo who were facing the same sort of scorched earth tactics the IDF had used in Gaza.
On December 27th, Middle East Eye reported on Hamas’s stubborn resistance to the “axis of resistance”:
The fall of Aleppo to Iran-backed pro-government forces has brought a bubbling conflict between Iran and Hamas to the boil, with the former making thinly-veiled threats to cut off the Palestinian group.
The threats came from Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the Iranian Foreign Affairs and National Security Committee, in the wake of increasing solidarity from Hamas to Aleppo.
In an interview last week with the reformist Qanun newspaper, Falahatpisheh made clear there would be material consequences if Hamas did not change its position on Iran’s role in the region, not least its intervention in Syria.
In other words, if Hamas refused to applaud Russian bombing and Iranian Revolutionary Guard mercenaries substituting for a non-existent Syrian army, it would not get its baksheesh.
To paraphrase Heraclitus, the only thing that is permanent in Turkish politics is change. For six years, the left has posited Turkey as a NATO-backed and Sunni fundamentalist state committed to the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad. The silence over its retooled foreign policy from pundits used to seeing Turkey in Platonic idealist terms has been deafening. Russia has given the green light to the Turks to bomb Kurdish controlled areas in northern Syria in exchange for their backing for a war on jihadis that is backed by the USA and Russia as well.
Turkey’s alliance with Russia does come with certain costs, however, such as the assassination of a Russian diplomat at an art gallery and terrorist attacks that are occurring with frightening regularity. Overlapping Europe and Asia, Turkey is suffering from a permanent identity crisis that will not likely be resolved in this century—at least as long as capitalism exists on a worldwide basis.
To assert its role in the world and to gain control over an unruly populace aggravated over AKP corruption and insensitivity to traditional values that came to a head over the Gezi Park protests, Erdoğan is working hard to recast himself as a latter-day Mustafa Kemal. He has declared his intention to transform Turkey’s parliamentary system into one much more like the USA’s that rests on a strong executive—specifically, a President who would enjoy near-dictatorial powers. Clarifying what such a presidency would amount to, Erdoğan’s Justice Minister Bekir Bozdag answered: “Ataturk’s era was a presidential system in action.”
Among the supporters of a change to the constitution that would permit Ataturk nouveau is the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) led by Devlet Bahçeli. The MHP can best be described as the Turkish version of France’s National Front. It started out as a fascist party but evolved into an ultraright formation that like many such groups sprouting up everywhere can be described as Euroskeptic. With Turkey moving inexorably into the Russian “axis of resistance”, I don’t envy the job that journalists who have made a career out of amalgamating Turkey with NATO and Sunni radicalism will have on their hands in explaining new realities. Such pirouettes might result in a broken bone if the author is not careful.
For those at the lower ranks of Turkish society, like my wife’s relatives in Izmir, the maneuvers taking place at the top have little interest. Like most Turks, they are trying to survive in an environment where the jobs are hard to come by and pay even less. The husbands make their living as professional musicians and embody the carefree spirit of Izmir’s bohemia, a city called “Infidel Izmir” for its dominant Greek population that was literally driven into the sea by Mustafa Kemal’s advancing army.
Izmir surrounds a bay that is connected to the Mediterranean. Located in the south of Turkey and enjoying warm ocean currents, it has a climate similar to Miami’s and palm trees to match. To get from one side of the city to another, the people of Izmir use ferry boats just as the people of Istanbul take ferries to get across the Bosphorus.
When I visited Izmir in 2005, I accompanied my musician friends and their families to the seaside where the Turks culminated the victorious campaign to “drive the Greeks into the sea”. Greece had been allied with Great Britain in WWI, as Turkey had been an ally of the Germans. With the Anglo-American victory, there was an attempt to wrest back the gains of the Ottoman Empire and re-establish Western/Christian control. The 1920 Treaty of Sèvres, which ended the First World War in Asia Minor, carved up the Ottoman Empire and assigned the conquered territories to Greece. Greek troops had already occupied Smyrna in May 1919 under cover of French, British and American ships. It was up to Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk, to drive out the Greeks in order to lay the basis for the new Turkish state. It was tragic that ordinary Greek citizens were to suffer the consequences, just as Turks in Greece would, but that seems to be the legacy of modern statehood.
Twelve years after visiting Izmir, the feelings of remorse over what Turkey and most of the Middle East have become haunts me. During the rise of capitalism, feudal institutions were the primary fetter holding back the advance of democracy and economic justice. After all, it was better to be a free laborer than a serf tied to the land and subject to an aristocrat’s whim.
Now in capitalism’s dotage, the nation-state is a fetter on the kind of social and political developments that would allow us to transcend wars that have cost the lives of a half-million Syrians and threaten to spill over into Turkey, a most beautiful and gracious country whose people deserve better.