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.
By Jonathan Schanzer and Emanuele Ottolenghi, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst at the U.S Department of the Treasury, is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Emanuele Ottolenghi, author of ‘The Pasdaran: Inside Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,’ is a senior fellow. The views expressed are their own.
In a surprise development on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued an apology to Turkish Prime Minister Yayyip Erdoğan over the ill-fated May 2010 flotilla conflict on the high seas between Israeli commandos and Turkish-backed activists seeking to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza.
The clashes left nine Turks dead. Erdoğan has been demanding an apology ever since, while ramping up his anti-Israel rhetoric – most recently, comparing Zionism with fascism. With relations at their nadir, the Israelis had nothing to lose by issuing this apology – Netanyahu's apology was clearly a concession to U.S. President Barack Obama, who just garnered a great deal of goodwill during his much-heralded trip to Israel.
But if Obama plays his cards right, he should make demands of Erdoğan, too. The relationship between the two men is already warm. According to the Los Angeles Times, “Obama has logged more phone calls to Erdogan than to any world leader except British Prime Minister David Cameron.” But the president has ignored the fact that Turkey has also become one of the more troubling epicenters of illicit financial activity.
By Fadi Hakura, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Fadi Hakura is associate fellow on the Europe Program at Chatham House. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Kurds are celebrating the arrival of spring amid hopes of a breakthrough between the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and the Turkish government. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, announced last week that he has negotiated with high-ranking intelligence officials a ceasefire and a vague promise of withdrawal of PKK militants to northern Iraq.
But Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has cautiously welcomed the move, must be careful not to raise expectations too high.
He has, for a start, so far shown no willingness to countenance PKK demands for separate Kurdish schooling, devolution of substantive powers to local administrations and reform of the constitutional definition of citizenship. He has also steadfastly refused to contemplate a general amnesty to the PKK – unsurprising given the hostility of Turkish popular opinion to these demands.
By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Soner Cagaptay is the Beyer Family fellow and director of the Turkish Research Program at The Washington Institute. His publications include the forthcoming book 'Turkey Rising: The 21st Century's First Muslim Power.' The views expressed are his own.
Turkey’s Syria policy now seems to have one goal: take down the al-Assad regime. With this in mind, Ankara has become actively involved in the Syrian uprising, supporting the opposition and allegedly allowing weapons to flow into Syria to help oust Bashar al-Assad. But not everyone vying for power in post-al-Assad Syria has welcomed Turkey’s helping hand.
Enter the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Ankara’s archenemy for decades. The PKK and its Syrian franchise, the Party for Democratic Unity (PYD), which holds sway over the Syrian Kurds, have recently secured parts of northern Syria adjacent to Turkey. This suggests that when the al-Assad regime falls, Turkey will be confronted with PKK and PYD-run enclaves across from its border with Syria.
By Soner Cagaptay, Special to CNN
Soner Cagaptay is a Beyer Family fellow at The Washington Institute and author of 'Turkey Rising: The 21st Century's First Muslim Power.' You can follow him @sonercagaptay. The views expressed are his own.
Today’s attack against the U.S. Embassy in Ankara suggests Turkey’s radical leftist Marxist groups, as small as they might be, could be mobilizing against America.
Turkey’s political landscape continues to bear the vestiges of violent leftist movements from the 1970s, laden with deep-rooted Cold War-style anti-Americanism. These small but active movements have rallied against the deployment of U.S. and NATO Patriot missiles in southern Turkey, and are believed to have been behind a January 21 protest aimed at Patriot teams arriving in the port of Iskenderun.
Although such groups operate at the political margin, they could have an outsized impact. Iranian and Russian media have covered these incidents extensively, no doubt in order to feed into anti-NATO sentiment and to increase the political costs for Ankara supporting the Syrian opposition. Indeed, small Turkish Marxist groups could even emerge as nodes of broader opposition to Ankara’s effective policy of working to help oust the al-Assad regime.