Taking a small group of tanks into Syria, along with their special forces, albeit with a contingent of a resurrected ‘Free Syrian Army’ in brand new uniforms, was a highly unusual step for Turkey. The 2015 incursion to move the remains of Suleyman Shah to a safe location near the border wasn’t a precedent: those remains are, under international treaty, Turkish territory.
So the Jarablus breakout is historic, and it was enabled by reforms in the Turkish military following the failed coup.
Imperial arrogance, underhandedness and pusillanimity: a potted history of US-Turkey relations 2003-2016
In 2003 Bush offered the Turks the chance to invade Iraqi Kurdistan (plus a lot of money to defray their expenses) if they cooperated with plans to invade Iraq. Like everyone else, the Turkish populace took to the streets to object to the war plans. Unlike everyone else, the governing AK Party took parliament to a vote against war. Anger and reprisals from the US followed (Chomsky 2004: 35-6). A strong alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan today is, in no small measure, a result of that decision.
Obama’s almost angelic accession, his early visit to Ankara in April 2009, his Cairo speech addressing the Muslim world the following June, all spoke to a reboot of relations. In 2011, when Obama ‘handed’ the Libyan mission over to NATO, Turkey responded positively to fulfill its obligations under the treaty. But relations went downhill after that. Like most people, Turkish leaders were taken aback by the way NATO’s defensive playbook turned aggressive. Hopes for a negotiated truce were dashed by a rebel force in Benghazi emboldened by NATO’s aggressive stance.
Before the end of the Libyan fiasco, developments in Syria had also gone from bad to worse. Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, trapped in a chaotic situation not of their making in Libya, faced a Syrian leader in Assad with a penchant for carnage and chaos deaf to all pleas for moderation. In September 2011 diplomatic relations with Syria were cut for the first time since 1998, when Assad’s father had agreed to stop support of the militant Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey.
Syria was going the way of Libya. This time the problem was on Turkey’s doorstep. Turkey opened the İncirlik airbase in early 2012 to a (supposedly covert) operation run by the CIA and MI6, and funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to transship weapons from Benghazi to Syrian rebels. Two problems then occurred. Everybody knew (after the double fiasco of Iraq and then Libya) that a political framework was necessary to structure the Syrian opposition to negotiate with the Assad régime, so that any military operations could be organised around an agenda, and avoid the aimless free-for-all we have today.
So the first problem was that everybody knew except the ‘Queen of Chaos’ (pace Diana Johnston) that is, or she didn’t want to know it. When the Friends of Syria tried to form the Syrian National Council (SNC) in Istanbul under the aegis of the Turkish government, Hillary Clinton called it a waste of time and a ‘talking-shop’, largely because of her opposition to the Muslim Brothers. She seemed to want a quick-fire repeat of the Libyan scenario. Assad would simply die like Ghaddafi. The second problem was to do with the proposed safe zone. Assad’s viciousness, in particular his indiscriminate barrel-bombs and chemical weapons drove the Syrian opposition, in May 2013, to demand for a safe-zone. The demand was reiterated and backed by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu, as they witnessed millions of refugees pouring into Turkey.
But Turkey fell foul of Obama’s ‘leading from behind’ doctrine. ‘You go first’ Obama kept saying as the Syrian people’s plight became even more desperate. Refugees by mid 2014: Turkey 2,700,000 – America 2,000. Mid-2014 is important, because that was when DAESH/IS took Mosul and announced the Caliphate. This jolted Obama into action.
Turkey dug its heels in on the anti-DAESH/IS coalition. Obama was, once again, playing the NATO card, demanding use of the İncirlik airbase. Erdoğan demanded the safe zone. By early 2015 a Washington beltway analyst would summarise the situation for the Turkish public: “Ankara’s refusal to allow the U.S. to use İncirlik Air base is of great concern to American military planners and seems like the top priority issue at the table right now… [Turkey is] not living up to its NATO obligations… People in the US government and the Washington think tank community have begun to re-assess the US-Turkey partnership”.
The contemporaneous siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane led to media pressure on Erdoğan to relent on his demands, and to sanctification of the Kurds. The ‘re-assessment of the US-Turkey partnership’ came when the US backed the known PKK affiliate in Syria, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), as its favourite proxy on the ground for the DAESH/IS fight. This was around Newroz 2015 (21 March), and occurred at the very time that Kurdish leader Abdulla Öcalan called, from his cell on İmrali island, for final Kurdish disarmament, to bring the 2009 Kurdish-Turkish reconciliation process to a close.
In June 2015 the commissariat of the Kurdish umbrella group to which the PKK reports – the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK) – ruled against their imprisoned leader’s wishes, actually emulating Öcalan’s own stubbornness back in 2009 (on the latter see Wikileaks 02Dec09). After the Suruç bombing on 20th July 2015 (claimed by DAESH/IS), the PKK declared war and an end to the reconciliation process. DAESH/IS had begun a bombing campaign in Turkey in Mersin and Adana earlier in May, so Suruç wasn’t really the point given the KCK decision.
On the other hand, the Suruç event played into the campaign to get rid of Erdoğan. An Islamo-Erdoğanophobic psychosis was growing apace in Europe. Erdoğan sitting on his hands fitted right in with this; as he waited for a response from Obama while Kobane was being held by DAESH/IS. We know that this phenomenon, kicked off with Iranian help during the Iraq War, is essentially the bastard child of US policy. Nevertheless, Erdoğan was to be portrayed by Western intelligence services as a champion of DAESH/IS.
In this respect, David Hearst reveals to us that Western intelligence officers working with Turkish military elements opposed to Erdoğan, briefed British and American journalists with allegations about Turkey aiding and abetting DAESH/IS, which would be taken as fact. Furthermore, Hearst’s assessment of Seymour Hersh’s report the ‘The Rat Line’ chimes with that of Muhammad Idrees Ahmad.
Be that as it may, finally, the US and Turkey came to an agreement in July 2015 on a safe zone 65 km deep along the Turkish border with Syria, from Jarablus to Marea (40 km from Aleppo). Turkey duly joined the coalition and opened İncirlik to the Americans. Obama would always remain unhappy with Erdoğan not having fallen in with his ‘leading from behind’ policy. For Obama, he was “a failure and an authoritarian, one who refuses to use his enormous army to bring stability to Syria” (there would be similar bitter recriminations about David Cameron over Libya).
So we can three things from this potted history:
Imperial arrogance: For Davutoğlu taking over as prime minister, the problems had begun in 2012: “Frankly speaking, if the United States, the Western countries and Friends of Syria Group had two years ago arrived at the point that they have arrived at today and the moderate opposition had been supported, today, [DAESH/IS] would not have had a space to use and the [Syrian] régime would not have the power to commit massacres”.
This, basically, was Hillary Clinton in the early days, scrambling attempts by Erdoğan and Davutoğlu working towards a political settlement in Syria.
Imperial underhandedness: A generous appraisal of US policy towards Turkey is that differences between the leaders became the springboard for the collapse of the most important process taking place in democratic Turkey: the Kurdish reconciliation process. A less generous appraisal, marrying up the circumstantial evidence above with new evidence I shall return to about the role of Western intelligence services, is that this was deliberate. Turkey’s break out in Jarablus must be seen in the light of this.
Imperial pusillanimity: Even when Obama conceded the safe zone to get the use of İncirlik, he wasn’t serious. This would mean a void in terms of a proper superpower presence behind the proposed safe zone. This is where the empire got its comeuppance. By September 2015, Russia had quickly and dramatically exploited this void for its own purposes and established the Khmeimim airbase.
The Jarablus breakout, Islamic State and the PKK
So, Jarablus began as a meek but historic endeavour, launched within the framework of the earlier agreement on the Jarablus to Marea safe zone both with coalition air cover, and apparent US political support. It is a sad escalation of war, but so far – with the total absence of Syria’s large northern neighbour with the region’s – in Obama’s words – largest army, things were going nowhere.
The immediate issue was that, while the PKK had been terrorising Turkey, the PYD announced a new country (Rojava), which the Assad régime and Iran in particular, would not agree to. It was leveraging its new-found imperial support in a dash to join up its lands east of the Euphrates with the canton of Afrin in the west, bordering Turkey’s Hatay province. It was using whatever means, and doing whatever it took to achieve this. This would ensure many new Arab enemies for the Kurds as well.
Russia expressed surprise and anxiety at Turkey’s sudden move, as if it didn’t know. This was part of Putin’s tactics which, I have come increasingly to realise, have systematically been one of never countering, always leveraging on US/Western moves. It’s called walking in your opponent’s shadow, and it worked: the Khmeimim airbase is now the most strategically important airbase in the Middle East.
It was after the PYD (rebranded as the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) to include a smattering of non-Kurds) took Manbij from DAESH/IS, and was heading for Jarablus to do same, that Turkey launched ‘Operation Euphrates Shield’. This was launched during Biden’s visit to Ankara on the 24th August, when he announced a U-turn over its previous unconditional support of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the military arm of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD). They were now told that they “should not spread west of the Euphrates… if they do they will never receive US support again. Period.” This was yet another imperial re-assessment, this time in favour of Erdoğan.
US support wasn’t entirely cancelled, because coalition warplanes were covering the YPG elsewhere: but the Rojava project was cancelled. The PKK went berserk in reaction, attacking all kinds of people and places in Turkey, including the motorcade of Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Chairman Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu as it passed through the northeastern province of Artvin, the day after ‘Euphrates Shield’.
The Jarablus breakout was subsequently followed by the announcement that the Turkish force would now proceed on to Manbij and el-Bab (which is 35 km from Marea going to Aleppo from the south-east). Yet a further announcement projected increasing the size of the military force. If Turkey proceeded in stages with the tacit assent of Russia and Iran and therefore Assad, then its only enemy was the Kurds, backed and not backed by the US, all at the same time.
The casus belli was the DAESH/IS attack on a wedding party in Gaziantep on 20th August, although Binali Yıldırım admitted that no-one really knew who had committed the outrage. A 12 year-old boy had done it, but he couldn’t be linked by forensics to either the PKK or DAESH/IS. Turkish forensics usually match bomber DNA, with the DNA of families across the south-east region, because many DAESH/IS members are ethnic Kurds actually waging an ideological war against the Marxist-Leninist PKK. So forensics profiling follows tribal lines to create leads.
Anyway going after DAESH/IS is what the coalition is supposed to do, so coalition air cover followed.
Russia-Turkey relations and NATO
The Putin-Erdoğan summit on the 9th August in St Petersburg led to outrage in the Washington beltway. The Council on Foreign Relations told us us that ‘Turkey was no long a reliable ally’, and this was echoed by imperial court propagandist Rupert Murdoch. Once again an Erdoğanophobic rash smeared its way over the front pages of the Western media.
When Hürriyet’s Cansu Çamlıbel asked ex-US Ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, James Jeffrey, to explain Erdoğanophobia, he told her that there are ‘complicated reasons’ for it which, in Jeffrey’s words, “give [Egyptian tyrant] Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who is far more authoritarian and much less legitimate, a better reputation in Washington than Erdoğan.”
I will come back to these ‘complicated reasons’ shortly, but let us say for the moment that any idea that NATO wants Turkey to go, or that Turkey wants to leave NATO, or that Russia wants Turkey to leave NATO is completely absurd. What exercises beltway pundits is how to get rid of Erdoğan.
NATO will never want Turkey to go: From NATO’s operational point of view, as a defensive organisation, what is it supposed to do with the tactical nuclear weapons deployed at İncirlik, if Turkey left? Where to relocate the X-band radar for NATO’s ballistic missile defence at the Kürecik radar base in Malatya? Who to replace Turkey with in the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF)? How to replace the – in Obama’s words again – very large Turkish army?
Even if these things could be resolved, Turkey, like Egypt, is a crucial global east-west node coveted by CENTCOM.
The 1936 Montreux Treaty gives control of the Bosporus to Turkey, control therefore of Russian access to warm waters, and NATO access to the Black Sea (to protect, if necessary its new members – Bulgaria and Romania). Like the Suez Canal, the Bosphorus is a crucial waterway, which is being expanded . In this case, expansion was done for good commercial reasons, unlike the case of the Suez Canal, the expansion of which was a commercial disaster and was done merely to please CENTCOM.
Turkey will never want to leave NATO: But there is more to the Istanbul region than just the Bosphorus. More traffic is planned to go transversally over the Bosphorus, linking up with the Chinese Silk Road, than through the Bosphorus. The Istanbul region is currently one of the biggest infrastructural building sites in the world, with projects planning for massive traffic flows through new airports, bridges over, and several tunnels under, the Bosphorus.
Being a global node comes with a concentration of financial services, and so a financial centre is also planned. Given, therefore, that Turkey sees itself as a future investment hub, with the concentration of capital (including Middle Eastern capital) situated in the West, NATO would be an integral part of Turkey’s economic future. For these same reasons Turkey maintains the rhetoric of joining the EU, although it sees this as highly unlikely – which I shall come to.
Russia doesn’t want Turkey to leave NATO: For these same reasons, Russia also doesn’t want Turkey to leave NATO. Turkey is its window on the West: a source of capital and trade which will help to reverse the underperformance of its economy in relation to its human capital. But, above all Turkey is an energy transit zone, and the Turkstream gas pipeline project will allow Russia to bypass the barriers erected against its interests in Ukraine by the West.
For any of this to happen, though, not only must Turkey remain ‘in the Western bloc’, as it were, but it must continue to be governed by an independent government: one which will encourage Russian trade. In return for facilitating Russian energy exports, Turkey expects to acquire Russian technology, for instance in its deal on the Akkuyu nuclear power plant.
But general trade in manufactures, fruit and vegetables, and tourism is also important to both. So why, in regard to these sectors, did Russia impose trade sanctions on Turkey, if it was going to be an act of self-immolation as much as it might have punished Turkey for shooting down the Russian warplane on 24th November 2015? These is more than meets the eye in those events.
Russian strategy and tactics: Opposite the heavy industrial zones of Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine, which has been decimated by war, there are some of the most populous and equally industrialised zones of Russia: Krasnodar, Rostov, Stavropol and Volvograd. Krasnodar is contiguous with Crimea, and so apart from the military need for access to warm water, Crimea offers commercial access to the Black Sea. Russia is geographically large, but its economy is heavily weighted in the south-east. Clearly, for all these reasons Turkey is an gateway.
Establishing a substantial airbase at Khmeimim in Syria, on the other side Turkey, would protect the old naval base at Tartus and complete the needed access to warm water. If the airbase at Khmeimim was armed with the S-400 anti-aircraft system this, furthermore, would give Russia air superiority over the region. This objective had become urgent because of the new aggressive stance of the West in Eastern Europe, and the disruption to trade since the Kiev ‘Maidan’ coup in February 2014.
Establishing a new airbase at Khmeimim, and moving the S-400 there, was a strategic necessity therefore, but easier said than done in the tense climate following the annexation of Crimea, in particular in the situation where Russia’s Syria ally was under pressure from the same forces that were pressuring Russia.
And yet an opportunity presented itself when Iran, failing to defend Assad against Syrian rebels, asked Russia for help. The Russian deployment of warplanes and tanks to the existing Russian naval base at Tartus in Syria, just ahead of the September 2015 UN Security Council meetings, would only become possible, because Iran made the Iraqi government open its airspace to Russian transport planes headed for Syria. Bulgaria had closed its airspace to Russia at US request.
Upon the news of the Russian deployment, Kerry grudgingly “welcomed a role for Russian forces if it is focused on combating the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and not on propping up Mr. Assad”. Accordingly, and a few days later, Russia surprised the US with a deal brokered by Iran on the sidelines of the UNSC meetings, between itself, Syria, and Iraq, which proposed a joint intelligence-sharing room in Baghdad, to ‘protect the territorial integrity of Iraq’ against DAESH/ISIL. There was little Kerry could say in response.
Obama and Kerry couldn’t have responded aggressively to this fait-accompli, given that Russia was part of the ongoing decommissioning of Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal, and crucial to the management of Iran’s stockpile of nuclear material and central, therefore, to the success of a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
In September 2015, Russia carried out its first air strikes in Syria – purportedly to target DAESH/IS, as agreed with Obama at the UNSC meetings. But Western media and the Syrian opposition saw immediately that the campaign overwhelmingly targeted anti-Assad rebels. Russia had in fact struck at Hama and Idlib provinces.
By October, Russian airstrikes had begun to concentrate against fighters of ethnic Turkish Bayirbucak Turcomans, who live in the strategic area between the Turkish border town of Yayladag and northern Latakia where the Russians were based. This activity, as far away in Syria as it was possible to be from DAESH/IS, was accompanied by regular incursions into Turkish airspace, until one day in late November Turkish anti-aircraft missile batteries responded and downed a warplane.
As have explained elsewhere, it is difficult to understand these events other than in terms of a deliberate attempt at hue-and-cry theatrics on Putin’s part, which would allow Russia to achieve its strategy at Khmeimim and install the S-400. Since the failed coup, different arguments have been proffered that pro-coup Gülenist pilots were responsible for downing the warplane, but this doesn’t alter the fact that Russia was bombing Turcomans, not DAESH/IS, and that incursions into Turkish airspace were common in that period. The fact that the black box of the downed airplane couldn’t be opened was also not credible, lending weight to the argument that there had been an incursion, and that the response, given previous warnings, was quite standard.
Furthermore, Putin continued the theatrics beyond the initial rhetoric, imposing sanctions, aggravating the situation in regard to the Kurds by publicly backing the PYD, and then astonishing the Western media by apparently providing the first real evidence that Turkey was deliberately trading with DAESH/IS, with its video of delivery trucks, only for Iraqi Kurdistan to say that these were actually their trucks, and Pravda then to quietly admit that they didn’t actually know who DEASH/IS was trading oil with. The fact that this trade was with the Assad régime and Israel is not the point here.
The point is that Russia was pursuing its tactic of ‘walking in the enemy’s shadow’. By reinforcing US positions and arguments vis-à-vis Turkey – the Western bugbear, Russia would deflect criticisms of its failure to carry out its promises to attack DAESH/IS, while the downing of one its warplanes at the hands of a US ally justified the delivery of S-400 to Khmeimim. The tactics worked. The US didn’t want to upset relations with Russia at the time, and almost rebuked Turkey over the incident. But, in the midst of all the hullaballoo over sanctions and so on, Putin still kept awarding essential contracts to Turkish firms.
Once Khmeimim was established, Russia would want peace in Syria. So now, a stable and friendly government in Turkey was necessary, not only to trade with, but to protect its military base from ground offensives by any kind of rebels. So it was no surprise that the purpose of the St Peterburg summit was billed, according to Svobodnaya Pressa, to be about “Turkey’s support for terrorists in Syria”.
Lots of trade deals were signed, but these were going to happen anyway. The focus of Turkish media on those deals reflected the desire of the Turkish business community for things to return to normality with Russia. But this had always been a mere matter of time. The real agenda was Syria and making Khmeimim a permanent feature of the region’s security architecture.
Empty words about ‘clarity’ were coming out of the Geneva talks between Kerry and Lavrov, Turkey would be needed to bring the US closer to the Russian position. With the Jarablus breakout, Turkey was now a player on the ground, and this changed everything.
On the way to Jarablus: the coup, the Gülenists and military reform
Fars News Agency (20th August) reported that Russian military intelligence at Khmeimim picked up radio signals suggesting a coup and shared them with Turkish military. The Kremlin denied this a few hours later. Turkish Intelligence (MİT) claims, however, to have received information at 4 pm on 15th July and informed army general staff. Yet the first TV announcements by the military were at 12.04 am 16th July local time (pro-coup), and 12.52 am (anti-coup).
The first general alarm is tweeted by Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım at 11.05 pm, who had been informed of unusual activity by friends and colleagues who witness the closure of the Bosporus Bridge and low flying F-16s in Ankara at 10.30 pm. Both he and Erdoğan, who was on holiday at the Yazıcı Hotel in Marmaris, were not informed of the coup by Turkish Intelligence (MİT).
Erdoğan is advised to go to Istanbul rather than Ankara and he makes his FaceTime message via CNN Türk to the Turkish people at 12.25 am. He does this as he leaves Marmaris in his helicopter heading for Dalaman airport, to fly to Istanbul with his escort, where he lands at 03.20 am, to an airport already freed from putschist soldiers by angry crowds responding to the FaceTime message. A Chavista counter-coup had occurred.
The only evidence which corroborates the MİT claim that there had been some early information (to which their reaction was obviously wholly inadequate), is al-Jazeera’s Arabic’s acquisition of a stream of WhatsApp communications between putschists, which showed that the coup’s launch was brought forward from 3.00 am 16th July to 9.30 pm the previous day. The confusion surrounding this change of timing must have contributed to the coup’s failure.
The two main reasons for the coup’s failure, however, were a naturally angry population with, irrespective of ideological bent, a visceral hatred of militarism. The FaceTime message hit a raw nerve and the people out on the streets eventually had to be restrained. But there was the fact also that the coup wasn’t a coup by the armed forces, but a coup by a ‘deep state’ operator spread widely over the military, the gendarmerie (JİTEM), the police, and the Ministry of Justice, and organised by various shadowy figures (in Gülenist language: ‘imams’ or ‘brothers’), often located in Turkey’s academic or medical institutions. That fact, plus the change in timing and the truly massive reaction of a raw populace saw a quick end to the affair. This, I believe, is the beginning of the end of militarism in the Middle East.
The reaction against Gülenists was swift and massive. CENTCOM saw all their contacts in Turkey melt away and reacted angrily. The State Department as usual took the CENTCOM line (as did Western media), only for the US then to have to row back on its comments.
The previous closure of 3 Gülenist newspapers and tens of their newsletters and the confiscation of their documents had given MİT all it needed in terms of information to close down the network; the coup provided the grounds for arrest. The list of well over a million and a quarter subscribers to the Zaman newspaper (which had twice the circulation of Hürriyet) alone, had been enough: the postal subscription was obligatory for all Hizmet members: many ordered multiple copies for their families.
Gülen, Turkey’s Billy Graham cum L. Ron Hubbard, was the group’s inspiration. The Turkish government knows that he didn’t personally order the coup. He might have wished it, or given his blessing to one of the ‘righteous’ who took the decision, but there is no evidence that he was directing it. Turkey is nevertheless demanding extradition from a US government standing behind legalities. Surely, what is good for the Butcher of Cairo Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is good for a NATO ally? If Congress can give Cairo a legal waiver on human rights, why can’t it give one to Ankara? Expect the Turkish government to hold US feet to the fire on this matter in perpetuity. You reap what you sow.
The Turkish military upper echelons have, in a few weeks, suffered a purge well beyond the Gülen factor. Any person in a sensitive position even reporting to a Gülenist has been shelved. The 2010 cheating scandal in the Turkish civil service would appear to have been the tip of the iceberg from evidence given by Levent Türkkan, personal aide to Hulusi Akar, the Chief of General Staff, whom he abducted during the coup. Gülenists, he said, had helped him cheat on his entrance exams by giving him all the answers the night before. Under new laws, current military academies have been closed down.
The democratic state in Turkey takes control in a physical restructuring of army bases. For the first time the prime minister chairs meetings of the Supreme Military Council in his office, accompanied by his staff. The sudden question of reforms to MİT, as a result of its fatal failures during the coup – failures in its relationship with elected politicians, and the process of subsuming the military to civilian control, gives Erdoğan’s constitutional reforms a reality and urgency they never had. The leaders of the opposition have, for the first time, agreed with the government on a way forward, in this respect.
The army that broke out into Syria at Jarablus is an army under the control of Turkish politicians, for the first time.
The Syrian Conflict and the peace process
Assad would have fallen during the Arab Spring if Iran hadn’t come to his help. Its aim was to save the axis with Hezbollah, a foundation of its asymmetric response to Western pressure. Hezbollah had to join the fight, but all this has been at an enormous cost. In 2006, a champion of the Arab street, Hezbollah is now a pariah, as is Iran. The current unfortunate sectarianism has emanated from this.
Iran’s enormous sacrifices of high-ranking personnel and money led it to seek, and to facilitate Russian help, with the help of the Iraqi régime. Russia is now installed at Khmeimim and wants to secure its new status, hence the St Petersburg summit and the accent on ‘the fight against terrorists’. Only Turkey has the kind of influence that can help Russia. Its military alliance with Qatar, funders to the Iblib-based Jabhat al-Nusra, who have instigated a rebranding of the group as Jabhat Fath al-Sham, outside the al-Qaeda ambit, puts it in that position.
The obvious attempts by Qatar to seek ‘freedom fighter’ status for Jabhat al-Nusra does not convince the US, largely because of the Islamophobic psychosis (which I come to below) of which the State Department is a prime casualty. Out of the zoo of rebel groups, however, Jabhat al-Nusra has stood out as by far the strongest contender to DAESH/IS virus. All attempts by the US to create ‘moderate rebels’ have been pulverised by the Russians, and rebels have been constantly driven away to join non-US backed groups. If Jabhat al-Nusra hadn’t been there as a force on the ground, as well as an umbrella group forging alliances, DAESH/IS would have been the main beneficiary of the skewed and mendacious Russian campaign.
The turn of the US to the Kurds could be seen from a myopic perspective to have been a desperate turn to find a stalwart ally on the ground. Actually, from the analysis above, at the geopolitical level, it was the result of a stubborn refusal to accede to Turkish demands for either a political structure based on the SNC or a safe zone, and by a desire to punish Turkey for non-cooperation in the period after the capture of Mosul by DAESH/IS.
The analysis above concludes, and this is the general view in Turkey, that the US deliberately sabotaged the reconciliation process and drove Turkey into a period of heightened terrorist activity and a politically highly pressurised environment, which saw, among other things, Davutoğlu buckle under the pressure, and resulted in the July 15th coup. Where America helped Britain resolve its crisis with the IRA under Bill Clinton, under Obama it has instead exploded the situation with the PKK.
After the unravelling of the coup, the US is going to have to make new choices. As explained above the choice of Turkey leaving NATO just isn’t an option – it is mere raving. With the ‘deep state’ in Turkey fast vanishing, the cracks in Turkish society are healing. But with Gülenist leaders in jail, their followers, who in large measure joined the movement as a ‘patriotic act’ to ‘save the nation’, express their shame and dismay following an action: one of which they didn’t dream their mentors were capable.
The PKK remains the sole thorn in Turkey’s side (besides DAESH/IS which, in Turkey, feeds off the situation created by the PKK – as explained above). With a long reputation since the days of Hafez al-Assad as a tool of foreign powers, it has had few friends in Turkey. With its new reputation as an imperialist tool, it is fast attracting the kind of pariah status currently reserved for Hezbollah, on the Arab street. It will be in the interests of the PYD in the long term to acquire the acquiescence of Turkey for an autonomous region in its Syrian heartland, similar to that of the KRG in Iraq. There is business to be done with its position across part of the Southern Gas Corridor.
Turkey has a head of steam coming out of the coup, which could easily turn the Syria conflict into an existential conflict for the PYD, as today’s editorial in the government organ Sabah indicates. The US is likely to head this off by making the only possible choice: that of sticking with Turkey and the Turkish government. In this case, a balance of forces will take shape in Syria essentially brokered by Turkey, which will occasionally make statements supportive of a permanently transitional Assad, to please Iran (which will only allow Russia to use its airbases, if he stays), and occasionally deny the statements, for the benefit of the Arab street.
Fear and Loathing in Europe and the spread of Islamo-Erdoğanophobia
Hard on Turkey’s failed coup, the French political weekly Le Point issues a special edition, which describes the country as “the country which scares the West”. Destined to grace the coffee tables of the Parisian intelligentsia, the gist of its content should not surprise anyone. Turkey holds the EU to ransom over Syrian refugees, holds the US to ransom over DAESH/IS, arbitrarily purges local opposition to the ruling party, and wages violent war on the Kurds.
The text is arranged around pull quotes in bold of statements alleged of Erdoğan over the years, which are not based on the text in the publication. The most significant quote, at the head of the list, encapsulates the basic claim of Islamophobes: “Democracy is a means not an end: it’s like a tram, you get off when you arrive at your destination” 1996. There are several thing wrong with this quote, the main one being that Erdoğan didn’t say it, or write it. It was written by the Islamic politician and founder of the Refah Party in the late 1990s, Necmettin Erbakan, who is not mentioned by Le Point, in his book Türkiye’nin meseleleri ve çözumleri (Turkey’s problems and their solutions).
Ruşen Çakır, an Istanbul journalist, who followed and wrote about Islamic movements in the course of the 1990s, discusses the implications of this particular quote in the context especially of Erdoğan’s revolutionary approaches to activism in the Refah Party. An early scepticism is replaced by a more sanguine assessment in his 1994 book, Ne Şeriat Ne Demokrasi. Refah partisini anlamak (Neither Sharia nor Democracy defines the Refah Party), where he says that Erdoğan seem to “embrace fundamental freedoms” (Pérouse 2016: 112).
Even a casual reader on Islamic movements in this period knows that Erbakan was a traditionalist confounded by a natural law conception of the world which, like much the Turkish theological establishment, is ironically indebted to the importation from France by 19th century Islamic reformers in the Ottoman Empire of the ideas of positivist sociologist Auguste Comte on rational religion. What Erbakan would mean by what he wrote was that democracy, when practiced, would naturally drive society towards a rational morality (Comte’s tertiary and Final Stage of society).
Erdoğan is a new breed of Islamic politician soaked in the practice of politics, which has no metaphysical teleology, other than the constant practice of positive law. Erbakan is old hat. Çakır clearly saw that Erdoğan had moved on. Erdoğan in fact embraces the notion of Islamic law as it was practised before its pollution with Comtean (as thus French) ideas in the 19th century.
But all this aside, Islamophobia is an irrational social psychological state, fuelled by the decline of a ‘fortress’ Europe with an ageing population, battling to keep pace with the new emergent economies, among them Turkey. The prospect of Turkey joining the EU, or Turkish businessmen getting visa-free travel through Europe, drives European élites to distraction. The advent of the Christian-Democrats (CDU) to power in 2005 under Merkel saw the Turkish EU-accession process frozen, in which state it remains.
And yet Islamophobia as a particular form of psychosis, wasn’t a serendipitous outpouring of a depressed continent, it acquired its present-day characteristics by design. Inderjeet Parmar gives us a lead on how this current European phenomenon arose. After the Iraq War, anti-Americanism in Europe was sharply on the rise. Parmar “examines the attitudes and activities of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF)… that received funding from Ford and Carnegie to combat anti-Americanism and develop transatlantic dialogue” (Parmar 2015: 238).
The GMF was chosen by the Washington élites because of its place in the country with dominant European economy, but also one which had two of the world’s leading media organisations, Bertelsmann and Springer, both keen supporters of the CDU and the essential reason for the roll-out of Merkel’s political dominance, which had been founded on charters with Atlanticist principles – to defend the relationship with the US. Many other philanthropic organisations also existed founded on the same principles, such as the Munich Security Conference (MSC), which has become the principal forum recently for discussions on terrorism.
Craig Kennedy was tasked with leading GMF on the new campaign from 2003. Parmar tells us that “… Kennedy was one of twenty-nine prominent Americans… who contributed to a right-wing volume [whose] central argument was that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, were sourced in the hatred of American values and freedoms and had no relation what-ever to American foreign policy” (Parmar 2015: 240).
The GMF and MSC developed this idea intensively, with David Cameron stating in his 2011 MSC appearance categorically that “There exists an autonomous sui generis Islamist extremist ideology which is not caused by poverty, injustice and/or British foreign policy abroad”. The 2011 MSC speech was the basis for Britain’s anti-terror PREVENT programme, which sought essentially to combat radical ideas and radicalism in general, whether violent or not violent. PREVENT documents would repeatedly list references on empirical research work done on terrorism, such as that done by Jamie Bartlett, Jonathan Birdwell, and Michael King, which contradicted the conclusions in the actual policy document.
They wrote: “Anger at Western foreign policy is frequently used to explain terrorist activity. For terrorists, the extent of this feeling was intense… However, this opposition was not unique to terrorists. Foreign policy was a major and consistent grievance among radicals and young Muslims, where disapproval was nearly unanimous” (Bartlett, Birdwell, and King 2010: 31). In the PREVENT document, as in the mind-set now of the trans-Atlantic élites and its media, the fault lay not in the foreign policy – it lay in Islam as an ideology.
It wouldn’t take much brainwashing to take Parisian élites, in particular, straight to this conclusion and convert it into Islamo-Erdoğanophobia in Turkey’s case, because of its alliance with Kemalist élites in Istanbul, especially in its radical press, grounded in a view of themselves in both cases as Jacobins and the view of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s tabula rasa foundation of the Turkish Republic in 1923 as Jacobinism in practice.
Unfortunately for them the philosophies of both these élites are delusory. On the one hand, the Jacobin nihilism French Revolution ended up in a hundred years of monarchy and rabid imperialism. On the other hand, and following from this, there can be no such constructive thing as Jacobinism in practice, as evidenced by the fact that Atatürk maintained Islam as a core feature of the state regulated through his Directorate of Religious Affairs, and his personal writing of school textbooks on Islam.
He had no choice in this as Erich Zürcher explains: “It is now generally recognized that the long reign of Abdülhamid II (1876-1909) in many ways laid the foundations of what became modern Turkey”. The rise of Balkan nationalisms within the Ottoman Empire which saw the expulsion of Muslim populations from Europe and their emigration to Anatolia, and the concomitant rise there of Greek and Armenia populations could only be countered with an Islamic identity for Turks (Zürcher in Kerslake, Öktem and Robins 2010: 55-68). Islam is thus viscerally part of the Turkish psyche, which is why political Islam arose as soon as democracy was made possible in Turkey in the 1950s, and why Adnan Menderes, its first exponent, miserably hanged by the military in 1960, is held up as a hero.
Turkey is Islamic. Europe has to get over it. Islam is not the cause of terror. The world has to get over that. Western imperialism is.