A watermen’s fight
Esen Uslu reports on the pandemonium created by Erdoğan in the run-up to next month’s referendum
In Istanbul slang the phrase, ‘watermen’s fight’, refers to the staging of a mock scuffle in a busy street, allowing the pockets of bystanders to be picked. The term originated with boatmen ferrying passengers between the old walled city and the European quarters across the Golden Horn. In these staged fights oars would be thrown and a passenger or bystander would be ‘accidentally’ hit on the head. After the melee had subsided and the victim had gathered his senses, he would discover that his wallet or pocket watch had disappeared.
But streetwise people in Turkey are quite accustomed to such events - if a fight breaks out, their first instinct is to take a step back and hold onto their valuables. However, those same streetwise people are quite prone to fall for the staged acts of nationalist and Islamist politicians, and often allow themselves to be duped by their claims to be battling to defend Turkey’s Islamic dignity and pride in the face of foreign, Christian enemies.
Which is why the Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, like nothing more than creating their own watermen’s fight with European leaders. There is much chaos and not a little grunting and groaning, but in the end it is the ordinary people who get hit on the head and duped.
However, no matter how hard they try, Turkish politicians cannot create such a hullabaloo unaided - they need a partner or two overseas. And the recent general election in Holland provided such a partner: when Erdogan attacked the Netherlands for its treatment of Turkish immigrants, the ruling VVD was only too pleased to make use of the insults hurled by Turkey to wield against its rightwing opponents.
Reeling from the unexpectedly sharp response from VVD leader Mark Rutter, the Turkish side dug deep to find dirt to hurl at the Dutch and mobilised their Islamist and nationalist supporters. The Dutch consulate in Istanbul was surrounded and, under the benign gaze of the police, an activist climbed onto the roof, replacing the Dutch flag with a Turkish one to the delight of the protestors.
The anti-Dutch sentiment prevailed for a couple more days and there were a couple of bizarre incidents. As the Dutch football team is known as ‘the oranges’, rightwing thugs made a great show of ‘stabbing’ several oranges in front of the consulate. And a prominent politician who owns a dairy farm to great publicity sent his Holstein-Friesian cattle to the slaughterhouse!1
When Rutter barred a Turkish foreign ministry spokesperson from entering the Netherlands to speak at a rally organised by AKP supporters in Rotterdam, she tried to sneak in over the German border. After she was turned away there were more demonstrations, fully covered by the Turkish media, of course.
Just before the row with the Dutch flared up, Erdogan had been at loggerheads with German chancellor Angela Merkel. It turns out that Germany has been refusing to sell weapons to Turkey for some time, because they “could be used in the internal repression campaign”. While the substantial cash received from Germany in exchange for the agreement to prevent refugees leaving Turkey for western Europe was more than welcome in Istanbul, the AKP desperately needed arms for its ongoing campaign against the Kurds.
Added to this, Turkey’s application for EU membership, which was emphasised by Erdogan in the early years of his administration, has now become a bargaining chip, as he attempts to award himself draconian powers as a Bonapartist president in the forthcoming referendum on the Turkish constitution.
The hopes of the Erdogan clique were raised when it was thought that the new US administration under Donald Trump would quickly enter the Middle East china shop with all the subtlety of a bull. However, Trump was bogged down with its own troubles and those hopes were dashed.
Then there was the public relations calamity when it was revealed that Turkey had paid a cool half a million dollars to a company owned by the disgraced US national security advisor, Michael Flynn.2 The former head of the CIA, James Woolsey, who was part of Trump’s election campaign team, revealed in a CNN interview that he had participated in a meeting with Flynn, along with Turkey’s minister of foreign affairs and minister of energy (who just happens to be Erdogan’s son-in-law), in a New York hotel in September 2016. They were discussing ways of subverting US extradition procedures in order to bring Fethullah Gülen, the cleric who has been a thorn in the backside of Erdogan, back to Turkey.3
All seasoned observers of Turkey’s foreign affairs can list numerous disasters, as diplomatic relations between Turkey and Europe in particular continue to nosedive.4
On the Syria-Kurdish front, Trump’s promise to support the Turkish army in its push towards Raqqa in order to defeat Kurdish fighters failed to materialise. The US pursued its own previously laid plans, involving US forces on the ground. US troops were sent to the no man’s land between Turkish forces advancing towards the Kurdish-town of Menbij and an important junction on the west side of Euphrates river. The US also airlifted fighters of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces to the west of Taqba, a town which straddles the road crossing the Euphrates further south.
And Vladimir Putin has followed suit by sending a Russian armoured column to cooperate with the SDF in Afrin to the west of al-Bab, which is held by the Turkish forces and its allies, to prevent a Turkish-led foray into Afrin. So the Turkish operations in northern Syria have ground to a halt - its troops are unable to move east or west, while they face Syrian government forces to the south.
Meanwhile, Turkey is wielding the worsening humanitarian situation of Syrian refugees as a possible weapon against EU countries. The minister of internal affairs has openly threatened to open the gates to refugees who wish to travel west. In a parallel development, Istanbul is engaged in a row with Tehran along similar lines - the border region of Iran contains thousands of Afghan refugees waiting to cross into Turkey.
The official Turkish policy seems to be one of creating pandemonium in neighbouring countries and at present only Georgia and Azerbaijan have remained unscathed - Turkey’s own internal politics have resulted in a marked deterioration of relations with allies and enemies alike. This has coincided with a renewed wave of atrocities committed against refugees.
Time running out
As the April 16 constitutional referendum approaches, opinion polls suggest that - despite Erdogan’s last-ditch attempts to rally support around a nationalist and Islamist platform by presenting a crude but potent picture of the need to defeat ‘Christian and Shia enemies’ abroad - the ‘no’ campaign is in the lead, What is more, it is thought that a substantial number of undecided voters could be won at the last moment to reject Erdogan’s power grab.
In this desperate situation, he is aware that, even if he uses every trick in the book to pull off a narrow victory in the referendum, he could still be finished. The coalition around him is in crisis and he may no longer be able to hold it together.
At last week’s Newroz demonstrations celebrating the Iranic new year in Turkey’s Kurdistan and western Turkish cities, it was clear that the popular opposition is mobilising against massive odds. All progressive people hope that Erdogan can be prevented from taking a final gamble that could involve war.
However, the danger of such a last-chance hurrah is still looming. Erdogan must be stopped in his tracks before a new calamity falls upon the Middle East.