In Turkey, it’s all about the palace

Erdoğan’s message to Turks: Vote correctly next time!

By Claire Berlinski and Okan Altiparmak, August 4, 2015

Don’t forget what’s really at stake for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On December 17, 2013, the Financial Crimes and Battle Against Criminal Incomes department of the Istanbul Security Directory detained 47 people, including a number of high-level officials.

The sons of the minister of the Interior, the minister of Economy, and the minister of Urban Planning were implicated, as was Erdoğan’s own son, Bilal, with all three ministers handing in resignations.

The Turkish media was alive with rumors of an imminent second wave of arrests, hinting at the involvement of then-Prime Minister Erdoğan’s other son, Burak, and Saudi al-Qaeda affiliates. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP, responded as any normal party in a healthy and vibrant democracy would: it arrested the prosecutors. It purged the police force, sacked dozens of police chiefs, and arrested the journalists who reported the story.

Erdoğan is accustomed to winning. Since the 2002 general election that brought his AKP to power, he has defeated rival after rival, imprisoned military officer after military officer, prosecuted journalist after journalist, tear-gassed protest after protest; and — most importantly — won election after election.

Turks have come to refer to Erdoğan and his entourage as the Palace, in reference to the spectacularly garish $615 million palace he’s constructed for himself on the outskirts of Ankara. Whether it is equipped with golden toilets is unclear; deep reporting on the matter has been discouraged, given that Erdoğan filed suit against the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) party for suggesting so. He was, he thunderously intoned, executing the People’s Will. To object to these practices was to object to democracy itself.

In June, Erdoğan asked the afore-mentioned People to show their will and send 400 of his party’s candidates to Parliament, enabling him to change the Constitution and arrogate to himself the powers of an “enhanced Presidency.” This would presumably have eliminated the last pretence of a separation of powers in Turkey. But to his shock, the people displayed a will of their own.

“I said ‘Either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos” —Erdoğan advisor Burhan Kuzu.

Not only did the party fail to win those seats, it lost its parliamentary majority for the first time since 2002. This was owed to a perverse and anti-democratic quirk of the Turkish Constitution put in place in the wake of the 1980 coup, in part to ensure that no party representing Turkey’s Kurds could ever enter Parliament: a 10-percent election threshold.

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) now claims to be a national party, but arose from the Kurdish nationalist movement. The HDP’s candidates had previously run as independents to bypass the election threshold, but this time took a huge gamble and won: they ran together, and in doing so united Turkey’s Kurds.

These Kurds have not always been politically united. Among them are those who support the PKK, the banned organization founded by Abdullah Öcalan and formally designated a terrorist group in Turkey, the United States and Europe.

If the word has any meaning, the designation is correct: the PKK targeted civilians and employed suicide bombers before anyone in the West had heard of such a practice. Öcalan was captured and sentenced to death in 1999; his sentence was commuted to aggravated life imprisonment when Turkey, under a coalition government led by Bülent Ecevit, abolished the death penalty as part of its bid to be admitted the European Union. Öcalan has since been imprisoned in isolation on İmralı island, in the Marmara Sea.

But it is not true — by any means — that all of Turkey’s Kurds support the PKK. Until recently, the AKP had managed to score its massive electoral victories with the assistance of Kurds who are, it is often said, “socially conservative,” but this does not mean quite what it does in the West. It means Islamically devout.

Exhausted by a Turkish-PKK civil war that had claimed 40,000 lives and internally displaced as many as two million people, many Kurds and Turks eagerly grasped Erdoğan’s idea of a “peace process.” The West grasped it even more eagerly, although it asked few questions about whether democratic transformations that might satisfy Kurdish aspirations — or Turkish ones, for that matter — were truly happening.

What occurred, certainly, was a lull in the violence. But this perhaps had less to do with the “peace talks” than it did the geopolitics: in 2002, the PKK was cornered and exhausted, pressed from all sides by the U.S. in Iraq, Turkey, Iran, the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and an EU that saw itself as an expanding and buoyant engine of democratization, with Turkey part of the project.

The eventual emergence of the HDP, which shares grassroots with the PKK but does not endorse violence, should in principle have thrilled any advocate of a peace process, for this is precisely the goal of such processes: to persuade those who seek to achieve their political goals by force to lay down their arms and pursue them through democratic means.

The HDP managed to unite Turkey’s Kurds politically, in part because their co-leader, Selahattin Demirtaş, ran a flawless campaign marked by temperate, liberal rhetoric. But the HDP’s success came in larger part because Kurds were outraged that the AKP had not only failed to support Kurds in Syria struggling to save themselves from ISIS’s genocidal depredations, but seemed to be cooperating with ISIS.

In June 2014, 46 Turkish diplomats were kidnapped when ISIS stormed the Turkish embassy in Mosul. They were released largely unharmed three months later. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said there had been no special forces involved. Instead, the country’s intelligence agency, MiT, had used its “own methods,” and that “our citizens were handed over to us and we brought them back to our country.”

Turkey meanwhile refused to join U.S. plans for airstrikes against ISIS and refused to give coalition planes access to its airbases. Its border became known as the Jihadi Express, given the ease with which foreign fighters seemed to slip through it to join the Caliphate and slip back to propagandize openly in Turkey — even as Erdoğan’s every other enemy was thrown in the slammer.

It is not hard to understand why Kurds, as well as quite a few ethnic Turks who saw the HDP as the best hope for blocking an Erdoğan sultanate, threw their weight behind the HDP. In doing so, they for the first time put a serious obstacle in Erdoğan’s path to total power.

The loss of the AKP’s majority in parliament put Erdoğan in a jam. He’s aware that international opinion of him has dimmed greatly, particularly since the brutal suppression of the May 2013 Gezi Park protests. He’s facing the prospect of prosecution at home should the corruption investigations proceed — as demanded by the opposition parties — and perhaps even prosecution abroad, given rumors that the International Criminal Court has agreed to give consideration to charges that the Turkish government delivered weapons to ISIS.

By Turkish law, if no coalition is formed before August 23, snap elections must be held — a “re-run,” as Erdoğan has termed it. So he has until then to correct the Peoples’ Will. As the Turkish economist Emre Deliveli has pointed out, data from 2007-2015 shows, quite strikingly, that support for the AKP rises after episodes of political violence.

So if you look at it from Erdoğan’s perspective — it’s all about the Palace — Demirtaş has to go. The easiest way to ensure that is to fracture the Kurdish vote: make sure Kurds grasp they must choose between Demirtaş and chaos. Smear the HDP with charges that they and the PKK are one. Whip up nationalist rage (it is not hard to do, in Turkey). That may help recoup the 2.5 to 3 percent of the vote the AKP lost to the nationalist MHP on June 7 as well.

On July 20, a ghastly suicide bombing in the border town of Suruç killed 32 young Turkish citizens. The murderer was reportedly an ethnic Kurd with suspected ISIS ties. In the early morning of July 22, less-noted in the Western media, two Turkish police officers in the Syrian border town of Ceylanpınar were found dead in their home, shot in the head.

The PKK quickly claimed responsibility: According to the press office of the HPG (the PKK’s military wing), “We targeted them because they were cooperating with ISIS operatives in the Kurdish region.” On July 23, a Turkish petty officer was killed by fire from across the Syrian border; the often unreliable state media agency, Anadolu Agency, claimed he had been shot by an ISIS militant from Egypt.

The Suruç attack has since been the focus of the West’s media – not the PKK’s claimed revenge attack. But this is definitely not true of Erdoğan’s media.

Turkish F16s immediately began taking off from Diyarbakır, in southeast Turkey. Western press outlets announced in thrilled tones that Turkey had finally declared war on ISIS and repeated Obama administration officials’ declaration that this was a “game changer.” It was immediately revealed that Turkey had agreed to grant the coalition access to Incirlik airbase.

But those F16s were not, as widely reported, “pounding ISIS.” They were pounding the Qandil Mountains in the KRG of Iraq, which the PKK has long used as a stronghold. The southeast of Turkey is now in flames, plunged into seething civil disorder by the airstrikes on the Kurds, which have reportedly struck at least one village full of civilians.

Local reports from scores of villages have been appalling: attacks on government installations, destruction of official vehicles and equipment by masked men, an unclear but obviously rapidly-rising death toll, conscript Turkish soldiers killed, policemen ambushed, and limitless reports by the government of “operations” and “terrorists killed.” Turkey has been “rounding up terrorists in mass waves,” as widely reported, but the great majority of them have been charged as PKK or leftist terrorists, not ISIS terrorists.

Before the election, Erdoğan had put the matter plainly to the electorate: “You give me 400 MPs and let this matter be resolved peacefully.” After the election, his advisor, Burhan Kuzu, made things even plainer when he tweeted: “Yes, the election is over. The people have decided. I said ‘Either peace or chaos,’ and the people have elected chaos. May it bring happiness.”

Now the AKP is delivering chaos, with the witting or unwitting help of the PKK. The PKK, it should be noted, has as much of an incentive to destroy Demirtaş as Erdoğan does: of what use are they if a legitimately-elected politician can successfully represent Kurdish interests in the Turkish parliament?

On June 29, as the violence mounted, the acting deputy prime minister responsible for the peace process, Yalçın Akdoğan, offered incoherent but menacing remarks to the state-run Anadolu Agency. The HDP, he said, had sabotaged the peace process through the “greed” of trying to overcome the 10 percent election barrier and achieve representation in parliament. They were, he said, “a tool” to topple the government. (He intended this as a slur. Roll that understanding of parliamentary democracy around in your mind.)

He accused the party of “extreme and inflammatory” behavior: particularly offensive, he said, was Demirtaş telling Erdoğan, in March, “We will never allow you to be elected as [executive] president. That really did it.” He intimated that Öcalan was on Erdoğan’s side. “They say Öcalan is against the presidential system, that Öcalan is against the AKP. These are totally lies. … If Öcalan ever catches them, he would chase them with a stick.” He seemed to be suggesting the AKP could control the PKK and bring calm to the Southeast.

The implicit message throughout to Kurds — and Turks, for that matter —has been as blunt as this: “Vote correctly the next time, or you shall have no peace and you shall live in hell.”

But is not at all clear that AKP can control what’s been unleashed after a new election, even if Erdoğan believes so: if the atrocities keep mounting, no one will be able to control things. As many as six million Kurds in Turkey voted for a peace party on June 7. Instead, they got war – with the apparent blessing of the United States, which gave the impression that Obama had cut a cynical, Machiavellian deal at their expense.

“Turks retaliated with strikes against the PKK for strikes that they suffered as a result of PKK violence,” said State Department spokesman John Kirby. “The Turks have a right to defend themselves against it.” Demirtaş has been begging for the resumption of peace talks, while Davutoğlu has been blaring that “We are all ready to sacrifice our sons.”

So how easy will it be after this to convince Kurds that non-violence and democracy work? And what are they to make of it when EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini tweets; “Just called @hdpdemirtas, condemning PKK terrorist acts: keep working for the peace process”? As one well-informed and despairing observer in Turkey put it: “Not to mince words, this is about the stupidest thing I can recall any politician anywhere saying in public in my lifetime.”

As NATO countries prepared to meet to consider Turkey’s application for support, Erdoğan formally announced the end of the peace process with the Kurds. No new rights would be granted to any of Turkey’s 78 million citizens, he said. Any. The government opened a criminal prosecution of the parliamentary leadership of the HDP.

The AKP’s press is now drowning Turks in utter insanity like this: “When the deep reaction is mobilized, the owners of those headquarters which administer terrorism today could be forced to wear a skirt and dance in the middle of Taksim Square, and be exposed to the country. Because their malevolent plans will explode in their faces.”

Does the West even remember how many people Erdoğan arrested in the so-called Ergenekon trial, proudly announcing that he was ridding Turkey of the “deep reaction?” And how it applauded this?

As of now, neither Turkey nor the U.S. seems to have agreed to anything beyond opening Incirlik. The rules of engagement and the scope of the mission remain undefined. So why did we cheerfully announce this agreement when we did? Let no one tell you that the way Erdoğan has made use of our diplomatic support was unpredictable. It was not.

Turkey has not joined the fight against ISIS so far in any meaningful way. No one seems to agree what kind of agreement was negotiated or even with whom (Turkey is, after all, under a caretaker government). Thus far, no coalition aircraft have flown out of Incirlik. Why did the United States announce or confirm this agreement if it wasn’t yet ready to use that base? What possible strategic purpose would it serve? To better advise ISIS of the coalition’s military plans?

Given that 56 “highly vetted” U.S.-trained rebels were just despatched into Syria immediately and predictably to be kidnapped and some executed by al Nusra – the al Qaeda affiliate about which Turkish officials are still publicly enthusiastic – it is hard to refrain from the uncharitable suspicion that the timing of the announcement was motivated by no strategic logic whatsoever. The announcement was about Turkey’s domestic politics – and those of the United States.

Erdoğan was aware that international opinion of him had become growingly negative. Easily dealt with: Incirlik’s all yours, and we’re all in. Upon the announcement that Turkey had “entered the fight against ISIS,” Obama, Jean-Claude Juncker, Mogherini, British Prime Minister David Cameron, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Western media lined up to offer moist congratulations, for at last, the mighty Turks would show ISIS what it means to anger NATO. But as of now, it’s not ISIS that’s done for – it’s Turkish democracy.

If coalition forces begin flying out of Incirlik in numbers sufficient to “change the game” against ISIS — isn’t 12 days rather a long time for planes to get to a NATO base? — perhaps it will have been worth it. But he who sups with the devil should have a long spoon, and there is good reason to fear the one we have used is not nearly long enough.

Update: A Pentagon spokesman has said that military officials launched armed drones from Incirlik air base in southern Turkey over the weekend. “At this point, no actual strikes have been conducted, but they have begun flying armed,” the Washington Post reported Monday night.

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