More blood and tears
Esen Uslu looks at the increasing problems of the Erdoğan regime as it engages in yet more foreign adventures
The regime in Turkey consistently tries to make us all believe that we are surrounded by a circle of enemies plotting to do us down, while the heroic government fights them off with devout Islamic determination, aided by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the resilience of our gallant armed forces.
The streamlined media - which consists of channels bought by a pool funded by the largest construction contractors and other entrepreneurs - having benefited from preferential treatment in public works contracts, and virtually controlled by the AKP, comes out with the same message day after day. Media control is so extensive that all the major dailies use virtually the same front-page headlines and all the TV channels continuously broadcast Erdoğan’s speeches, together with endless footage supplied to embedded journalists by the army from various fields of conflict. The only other current-affairs programmes consist of presentations of the same fare, with various academic researchers and ‘experts’ attempting to give some credibility to the regime’s propaganda.
Hundreds of journalists have been jailed for daring to voice a different line and, as I write, four more have just been added to the tally. They reported that an army patrol threw two Kurdish villagers out of a helicopter in Van province, and then tried to hush up the case. One of them died after being in a coma for 20 days and even the funeral was monitored - and attacked - by security forces. Journalists, from the Mesopotamia News Agency, had managed to lay bare the trail of evidence on social media. They now find themselves in jail as a result.
And now the new social media law is coming into effect. Very soon Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok and the other channels which do not have a recognised status subject to Turkish law will be access-restricted in stages. As most of them have ignored the threat or said they will not comply, we could see Turkey blocked from all access to social media channels in a couple of months time.
In addition there is now a new court case against the leaders of the soft-left, pro-Kurdish Peoples Democratic Party (HDP), who have been charged with inciting violence during the siege of Kobanê in 2014. Among the detainees was the mayor of Kars, a city near the Azerbaijan and Armenian border, who was previously jailed, but the constitutional court eventually quashed the verdict. But, no problem, the prosecution claimed that a string of new convincing witnesses have come forward. The case has been reopened.
A total of 59 out of the 65 elected HDP mayors of Kurdish cities have now been replaced by official appointees. This form of ‘direct rule’ in local government, combined with legislation presented to the recently reconvened parliament to remove the legal immunity of HDP MPs, seems to indicate that the regime has decided to finally close the party down. Erdoğan’s intention seems to be to ensure that there is no Kurdish representation in the coming local and general elections.
And the Kurds over the border are also on the receiving end of the regime’s big-stick policy. The so-called 30-kilometre ‘safety belt’ into Iraq is regarded as insufficient unless the cooperation of Kurdish regional government forces is secured. To keep the Peshmerga on board has meant pitting the two principal tribes against one another without antagonising the US. That means a greater role for Turkish intelligence in driving foreign policy.
The same goes with the occupied zones in Syria. The jihadis massed in Idlib have been used as a resource to be recruited. Already trained, they are sent into conflict zones such as Libya and Azerbaijan. However, keeping a working relationship with Russia is essential, to maintain a kind of truce in Idlib despite the presence of around 15,000 Turkish troops. But the joint Russian-Turkish patrols to keep major roads open failed, and some sections of the jihadis have actually opened fire on Turkish troops.
Erdoğan’s desire to maintain the truce and keep control over Idlib province for as long as possible without coming into conflict with Russia resembles a tightrope walking act. That despite the occasional roar from the president, demanding the Russians surrender the zone around Kobanê to Turkish forces. A similar call is also occasionally made to the US to stop supporting “Kurdish terrorists” and instead stand by their longstanding ally and Nato partner. Both of these calls seem to be oriented to the domestic audience only, as both Putin and Trump have been kept rather occupied by other worries.
Meanwhile, in northern Cyprus a presidential election will be held on October 11, but the Erdoğan-supported candidate seemed to be in need of a last-minute boost to stand any chance and avoid serious embarrassment. That last-minute boost came in the form of a haphazard decision to finally reopen the Varosha neighbourhood of the Cypriot city of Famagusta, which has been a closed zone for 40 years.
The reopening of this ghost town had long been under consideration, and a tentative step had been taken with the formation of a joint commission to deal with the complex issues of real-estate ownership and compensation. But things did not proceed in any meaningful way. Everybody on the Turkish Cypriot side had been talking about ways of giving the process a new impetus after the elections.
However, there was no time to lose for the Turkish regime and the sudden decision dictated to north Cyprus has seriously rocked the boat - the ruling coalition there collapsed because of the lack of consultations. The president, Mustafa Akmei, had been against any such move, but his prime minister, Ersin Tatar, announced the decision to reopen Varosha while visiting Turkey.
Varosha had been the playground of wealthy Europeans in the 60s. But since the occupation by Turkey in 1974 the hotels and casinos have remained empty. Today they are in a state of decay. The area is controlled by the Turkish army. No civilians are allowed there. Allegedly it was being kept as a bargaining chip in negotiations towards a final settlement for the whole island. However, one of those plush hotels with its famous beach was converted into an officers’ club.
The Varosha issue has also been used as a lever to pressurise the Greek Cypriots. They had seemed adamant that the new alliance they formed with Israel, Greece and Egypt under the patronage of France must proceed in order to curb Turkish attempts to grab the lion’s share from gas and oil explorations. And now the Greek Cypriot cause is being deployed to bolster international efforts to curb Turkish involvement in Libya.
In other words, Erdoğan seems to be willing to act without thinking about what the consequences may be. Recent experience has shown that the side taking the initiative is likely to gain and can then sit on those gains and weather the storm. This seems a realistic option that may be repeated again and again while circumstances allow.
And those circumstances seem favourable at present. Nato is increasing its naval cooperation with new members Bulgaria and Romania in the Black Sea basin, and with Ukraine. Nato’s naval forces continue to follow an aggressive exercise schedule, keeping the largest fleet allowed by the Montreux Convention in the Turkish Straits. Almost every day Nato ships cross the Bosporus - followed by Russian navy ships destined for the eastern Mediterranean to supply Syria going the other way.
Turkey and Russia have now completed ‘TurkStream’ - the underwater pipeline supplying Russian gas to the westernmost part of the southern shore of Black Sea, with a view to exporting to Europe without going through Ukraine. However, how it will then proceed into Europe remains problematic unless Turkey’s relations with Greece are improved.
Although Erdoğan is helping Russia to bypass Ukraine, that country is now becoming a close friend of Turkey. The jet engine factories of Ukraine, previously used to supply the Soviet airforce, now have a new opportunity in the shape of Turkey, which wants engines for helicopters and drones. So, while not recognising the incorporation of Crimea and occupation of the eastern parts of Ukraine by Russia, Turkey is walking on another tightrope, trying to keep both these parties on board, while keeping Nato happy.
Our clockwise tour around Turkey brings us next to the trans-Caucasia - another soft spot for Russia. Armenia is a member of the post-Soviet Commonwealth of Independent States under the protection of Russia, but for years Turkey has been arming and training Azerbaijani forces, and now, of course, there is a major conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. During the summer, immediately after the initial skirmishes, Turkey and Azerbaijan held a major military exercise. And thanks to the Turkish airforce some of those jihadis recruited from Idlib were flown to Azerbaijan.
A poke in the eye for Russia. Islamist fundamentalism has been an obsession of Russia’s since the war in Chechnya. And the radicalisation of Azerbaijan would inevitably affect other Muslim populations in the region. But Erdoğan declared that Turkey would support Azerbaijan by any means necessary and indicated that if a truce was imposed it should have a role in negotiations to find a settlement. Turkey seems to be following a pattern in this: engage with Russia in maintaining control of the conflict zones - similar cooperation structures were set up in Syria and Libya. Now it seems Turkey is suggesting something similar in Caucasia.
This will inevitably worry Iran, which shares a border with Azerbaijan. To be suddenly faced with Sunni jihadis to its north will be a cause of concern to put it mildly. In addition Turkey’s growing role in Caucasus weakens Iran’s position. But Turkey has become an important trading partner during the era of ever tighter sanctions imposed on Iran by the west.
So the going seems not too bad for the Turkish regime. However, the fighting all along its periphery, as well as the fulfilment of its other commitments, such as training the Somali army, maintaining a substantial force in Qatar and a contingent in Afghanistan, etc, require a strong economy as well as access to substantial foreign cash. But the money pouring in from Qatar during the war in Syria has started to slow down.
On the other hand, the Turkish economy is quickly going down the drain, with the pandemic only adding to the general deterioration. The ‘tax and spend’ public works programme, shifting the traditional burden of state borrowing onto the private sector, thanks to a surplus of easy credit, has reached its limits. And, with it, the so-called ‘Turkish miracle’ has run into trouble.
Playing a dangerous game of tightrope walking, while various other powers are in conflict with one another, may well end in disaster. Added to which, it looks increasingly unlikely that Erdoğan and the AKP will allow anything but crudely rigged elections. There now appear to be very few new options open for Turkey’s coalition of Islamist politicians and nationalist militarists. Losing an election cannot be contemplated, so one option is the iron fist of the army - which will mean more blood and tears in the region.