By Bayram Balci, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Bayram Balci is a researcher at CERI Sciences-Po in Paris and a visiting scholar in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The recent disclosure of tapes allegedly implicating Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a massive corruption scandal is the just the latest development in Turkey’s ongoing political crisis. But even as the rivalry between an increasingly autocratic prime minister and the shadowy Gülen movement deepens, there could yet be light at the end of the tunnel.
A previous, uneasy, coalition between the AK Party and the Gülen movement – led by U.S.-based preacher Fethullah Gulen – started to implode in December following the surprise arrests of the sons of three cabinet ministers over claims of bribery and the rigging of state tenders.
Undermined by widespread criticism and high-profile court cases, Erdoğan has raised the specter of a political plot being fomented from the United States. With Gülen’s supporters issuing arrest warrants and investigating alleged corruption among Erdogan’s allies, the prime minister has used suggestions of a plot to justify purges and political reshuffling within the police and judiciary.
Watch the full interview on "Fareed Zakaria GPS," this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on CNN
Fareed speaks with Turkish President Abdullah Gul about the situation in Syria.
Are you disappointed that President Obama has chosen not to take some kind of military action in Syria? Your government has been urging military action for a long time.
No, it's not the military action. In fact, of course, the military action is the last resort. But what we insisted is that there should be a comprehensive political strategy first. This is missing from the very beginning
But a lot of people look at Turkey's policy, which has been support for the rebels, very tough against Assad, urging that he leave, and say that you have not been able to help create a real political opposition, unify the rebels, find the moderates. That while for two years this has been the effort, there isn't that much to show for it.
Yes, well, I think I have to remind first that at the beginning, we worked hard to find out a peaceful solution for this. At least six months, we worked very hard. We visited several times. But unfortunately, there was no response. There was no real response at the time.
It's not the problem of Turkey, first of all, but we are the neighbor. So what’s happening in Syria is having consequences – immediate consequences – on Turkey. Therefore, Turkey is very active in this issue. And this should not be misunderstood that Turkey wishes war or Turkey wishes the attack on Syria. That is not correct. What we want to see is that this situation should not continue like this. If this continues like it, everything is going to go bad there.
By Sinan Ülgen, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Sinan Ülgen is a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Twitter @sinanulgen1. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Democracy can get in the way of a good war in the Middle East, a reality underscored by the diminishing U.S. public support for intervention in Syria. But the ongoing discussions in Washington over how to respond to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons aren’t just being watched closely in Washington and Damascus. In Turkey – Syria’s neighbor and in the vanguard of the struggle against the al-Assad regime – the outcome of deliberations on an attack are critical. Indeed, while the West looks increasingly wary of military action, there are serious concerns in Ankara that Turkey’s security could be put at risk by a U.S.-led strike that is too limited in scope.
Turkey has diligently defended the idea of regime change in Syria prior to the alleged chemical weapons attack. Having rightfully desisted from a unilateral intervention, Turkey has focused its efforts on strengthening the opposition. Ankara has given substantial diplomatic and logistical – as well as more recently military – support to the Syrian rebels. But Ankara’s overt antagonism toward Damascus has started to exact a heavy toll.
Fareed speaks with CNN about the situation in Syria, the Obama administration's response to the crisis, and what could happen if Bashar al-Assad's regime falls.
You wrote a strong column in which you said the Obama administration's handling of Syria was, in your words, a case study of “how not to do foreign policy.”
Well, the president has tried to have it both ways. For two years, he has been resiliently resisting calls to jump into the cauldron that is Syria. In my opinion, wisely. Syria is a very deep, complex, largely internal, largely sectarian struggle. I'm not sure what U.S. military intervention can do. But at the same time, the president has wanted to seem to be doing something or seem to be setting up these red lines which he talked about far too casually.
And, you know, he strived to, at the same time, be a realist and be a humanitarian. And it's a little difficult to do. And it's perhaps easier to do in Syria. But right now what you're seeing is the fruit of that because a lot of what U.S. foreign policy over the last six months has been is devoted to trying to make sure the president's red line language doesn't appear to be an empty threat. And so, he might have spoken carelessly. We are now in danger of using military force carelessly to make sure that there isn't hypocrisy there.
By F. Stephen Larrabee, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the Rand Corporation, and served on the National Security Council staff in the Carter administration. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
The dynamics of the Syrian crisis have been shifting. Reports that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have pushed back a rebel offensive near the mountainous area of his Alawite hometown are but the latest indicator of how the president has regained the initiative in the country’s bloody civil war.
But while international attention has tended to focus on central and southern Syria, developments in the northeast, along the border with Turkey, are also worth watching as ethnic Kurds appear bent on carving out an autonomous administrative region that could eventually develop its own ties with Ankara. And it’s a move that could be good news not just for Turkey, but for the United States, too.
The Syrian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the Syrian population, initially did not join the uprising against al-Assad, fearing they might face even greater discrimination and repression under a Sunni Arab dominated regime. However, the withdrawal of Syrian government forces from five Kurdish-dominated towns in the northeast along the Syrian-Turkish border in July 2012 changed the political dynamic.
By Soner Cagaptay and Aaron Y. Zelin, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Soner Cagaptay is director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the author of the forthcoming book The Rise of Turkey: The 21st Century’s First Muslim Power. Aaron Zelin is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and founder of Jihadology.net. The views expressed are their own.
In late May, the Turkish government uncovered a plan to use Sarin gas as part of a potential bomb attack in southern Turkey. Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), was allegedly behind the plot, and the subsequent arrests highlighted the increasing trouble jihadi radicals could pose for Ankara. Indeed, the longer Turkey turns a blind eye to jihadi rebels crossing its territory into Syria, the more likely there will be blowback.
The reality is that providing jihadists access to a neighboring country can result in unintended consequences as radicals ultimately bite the hand that feeds them, something Pakistan should have learned over Afghanistan, and Bashar al-Assad has discovered as Syria-backed al Qaeda elements from Iraqi territory have turned against the regime in Damascus.
True, Turkey has neither the vulnerabilities of Syria, nor Pakistan – the country is a democracy and a majority middle class society, so does not have the social and economic problems so often conducive to jihadist radicalization. Nor does Turkey have a homegrown jihadist tradition. A foreigner orchestrated the 2003 Istanbul bombings that targeted the British consulate, the headquarters of a Turkish bank and two synagogues, and few Turks have since demonstrated a taste for jihad.
By Fareed Zakaria
"Another year, another country, another square," wrote the British columnist Timothy Garton Ash in the Globe and Mail this week.
He was referring, of course, to the protests in Istanbul’s Taksim Square, which many have compared to earlier protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, or Tehran's Azadi Square, or Moscow’s Red Square, or Kiev's Independence Square.
In fact, what’s going on in Turkey is quite different from those earlier examples. Turkey is not a dictatorship, but it is a country in the midst of a culture war.
Let's start by remembering that the prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is the most popular politician in his country. His party has been returned to office three times with increasing parliamentary majorities.
By Stephan Richter, Special to CNN
For years, there had been troubling signs, not least the jailing of journalists (worse than in Russia!) But, generally speaking, Turkey still seemed to be successfully managing its modernization, blending religion with economic and social progress. Yet the outside world shouldn’t have been fooled, and the major barrier to Turkey’s continued development should have been clear – an arrogant and overbearing leader.
Faced with an eternally disorganized opposition, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s supreme confidence was perhaps understandable. But his strictly majoritarian approach to governing has come back to haunt him, and his tone deafness – demonstrated by his dismissive response to the protests across the country – risks undoing the progress the country has made. Meanwhile, what was once seen as a demographic advantage – namely Turkey’s young population – may prove a political and social disaster as the country’s economy stumbles and unrest grows.
By Jenny White, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jenny White is professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks. The views expressed are her own.
Turkey is doing well these days. Its banks are solid and, according to the International Monetary Fund, it has the 17th largest economy in the world. As a result of the European Union accession process, Ankara has changed hundreds of its laws and institutions to align them with Europe. Parliament is writing a new constitution to replace the one written under military oversight after the 1980 coup, and many hope it will enshrine liberal individual rights.
So why have tens of thousands of Turks across the country risen up and taken to the streets, battling the police and demanding that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan resign? The protest was ignited by the uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, the only remaining green space in Istanbul’s central Taksim area, to make room for a mall. But it was never just been about the trees.
Superficially, these protests could be put down to secular Turks protesting attacks on their lifestyle by the Islam-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) government, including recent restrictions on the sale and advertising of alcohol and a Turkish Airlines ban on flight attendants wearing red lipstick. But that sort of analysis trivializes the much deeper and systemic problems that afflict Turkey – and it doesn’t explain the breadth and depth of the protests that quickly spread from cosmopolitan Istanbul to cities across the country, including some of Turkey’s more conservative regions. Yesterday, a 22-year old protester was killed by police in Antakya, a city near the Syrian border in Turkey’s conservative east. Street battles continue today in areas of Istanbul and Ankara. The police have been shooting gas canisters into the crowds indiscriminately and often at close-range, causing serious injuries. Hundreds of protesters have been arrested.
By Emma Sinclair-Webb, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Emma Sinclair-Webb is a senior Europe researcher at Human Rights Watch who focuses on Turkey. The views expressed are her own.
Sevan Nişanyan, a Turkish-Armenian journalist, wrote a blog entry last September stating that critical comments about religion don’t constitute hate speech. “Making fun of an Arab leader who claimed he contacted God hundreds of years ago and received political, financial and sexual benefits is not hate speech,” he said. “It is an almost kindergarten-level test of what is called freedom of expression.”
An Istanbul court disagreed and on May 22 – for these very words – sentenced him to 13 months in prison for “insulting the religious values of one section of the population.” What makes his prosecution even more chilling is the fact that it followed public comments by Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ recommending that Nişanyan should be prosecuted.
There have been dramatic developments in Turkey in recent months as the government embarks on a bold attempt to end the entrenched conflict with the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and to start down the long road to peace with the Kurdish minority. While the sight of uniformed and armed PKK fighters – male and female – retreating to camps over the border in Iraqi Kurdistan is tangible evidence of progress toward peace, the Turkish authorities and judiciary are still cracking down on people who express dissent in words rather than with an AK47.
By Mark N. Katz, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Mark N. Katz is professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University, and the author of ‘Leaving without Losing: The War on Terror after Iraq and Afghanistan.’ The views expressed are his own.
The ongoing civil war that is devastating Syria is increasingly threatening to spill over and engulf neighboring countries. Indeed, all the ingredients are there for what would be a disastrous region-wide Sunni-Shiite conflict.
Just look at what has been going on. Turkey is hard pressed to deal with the growing number of Syrian refugees flooding into its territory, while tiny Jordan may soon be overwhelmed by them. In addition, the conflict between Syria’s Alawite minority regime and its Sunni majority opposition is spilling over and re-invigorating Sunni-Shiite conflict both in Iraq to the east and Lebanon to the west. Meanwhile, Shiite-dominated governments in Iran and Iraq, as well as the radical Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement, are all actively assisting Syria’s Alawite regime, while Sunni-dominated governments in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan are helping the Sunni opposition.
And what has been the Obama administration’s response to all this? Surprising – and troubling – restraint.
By Soner Cagaptay and James F. Jeffrey, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. James F. Jeffrey is the Institute's Philip Solondz distinguished visiting fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq. The views expressed are their own.
This week’s summit between President Barack Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan reflects the extraordinary development of relations between the United States and Turkey.
Ankara faces a civil war in Syria that is forcing Turkey to contend with a weak and divided state on its borders. This disintegration brings the dangers of chemical weapons proliferation and al Qaeda infiltration on Turkey’s doorstep. Coping with these challenges will be near impossible without U.S. support, particularly after the May 11 bombings that devastated Reyhanli, a Turkish border town near Syria. Erdogan is therefore sure to make the Syria issue one of his key “asks” during his conversations with Obama on Thursday.
The fact is that Turkey has not faced a threat on the scale of the Syrian crisis since Stalin demanded territory from the Turks in 1945. In 2011, hoping to oust the al-Assad regime, Turkey began to support the Syrian opposition. But, thus far, this policy has failed, and exposed Turkey to growing risks.