Crisis in Syria, trouble at home?
News in Turkey continued at its typically frenetic pace on both domestic and foreign fronts. The crisis in Syria continues to tax Ankara’s foreign policy makers, while domestic jockeying ahead of the June parliamentary election threw up some surprises, including speculation about a possible rift emerging between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu
TURKEY/US AGREEMENT TO TRAIN SYRIAN REBELS
After months of wrangling, Washington and Ankara finally came to an agreement on the training and equipping of moderate Syrian opposition fighters, but questions remain on the ultimate target of these forces.
According to the memorandum of understanding (Mo U) sealed by US Ambassador to Ankara John Bass and Foreign Ministry Undersecretary Feridun Sinirlioğlu, Ankara will provide an equal number of trainers to work alongside their US military counterparts.
Negotiations were complicated by the divergent aims of both countries, with the US focused on degrading and destroying the Islamic State and Turkey prioritizing the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, which it claims is the source of the situation that allows ISIL to thrive.
The jockeying comes amid increased scrutiny of Ankara’s foreign policy, particularly in neighboring Syria. Writing on the Al Monitor website, Turkish commentator Cengiz Çandar suggested that Prime Minister Davutoğlu’s much-vaunted previous policy of “strategic depth” had been reduced to “meters.”
SÜLEYMAN ŞAH TOMB EVACUATED
Such assessments were bolstered for Justice and Development Party (AK Party) skeptics by the events surrounding the evacuation and relocation of the Süleyman Şah tomb, a Turkish exclave 37 kilometers inside Syria that held the remains of the grandfather of Osman I, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. The tomb and the 38 soldiers guarding it had been surrounded by Islamic State militants for months.
The move was Turkey’s first open military operation in Syria, and involved the dispatch of hundreds of ground troops, tanks, aircraft and drones to extract the tomb and its guards. Construction of a new tomb site has been started close to Ashme, a Kurdish village recently liberated from Islamic State militants.
The operation was a test case demonstrating just how polarized Turkey is at the moment, with spin on the events wildly different between pro- and antigovernment media. The retreat caused particular consternation in the nationalist right wing, with Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Deputy Chairman Semih Yalçin slamming the government for “abandoning a piece of Turkish land […] The military of this country has the duty to protect and defend our land.”
Pro-government voices sought to spin the retreat
as a triumphant operation carried out successfully by the Turkish military. An underlying theme of much government friendly analysis of the evacuation was the assumption that the Islamic State is a creation of Western powers trying to destabilize Turkey. İbrahim Karagül, the editor-in-chief of progovernment daily Yeni Şafak, argued that the Süleyman Şah tomb operation thwarted the designs of foreign powers scheming to attack Turkish interests under the guise of the Islamic State: “Last year’s hostage incident in Mosul was not an Islamic State attack; it was an attack by countries using the Islamic State as a proxy in their power rivalry with Turkey. Some are scheming to set the Islamic State loose against Turkey. This time, the chosen target was the Süleyman Şah tomb and the garrison there […] Turkey was under the threat of a direct attack under Islamic State camouflage. If the operation had not been undertaken, Turkey and the Islamic State would have been set up against each other and other schemes would have been implemented.”
Fatih Yaşlı in the Yurt daily, however, claimed that the operation signaled the end of “neo-Ottoman fantasies.”
THE SÜLEYMAN ŞAH OPERATION WAS A TEST CASE DEMONSTRATING JUST HOW POLARIZED TURKEY IS AT THE MOMENT
SOLDIERS IN CEREMONIAL CLOTHES ADORN NEW PRESIDENTIAL PALACE
Historical fantasies were also in evidence in mid-January, when visiting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was welcomed in Ankara by Turkish President Erdoğan at the new presidential palace -- along with a team of costumed “warriors” representing the “16 historic Turkic states.”
Government supporters welcomed the bizarre display as a sign that the “New Turkey” was reconnecting with the heritage of its historical greatness. Its opponents, however, responded with mirth. Some suggested that Erdoğan was now turning to such eccentric displays out of sheer boredom in his gargantuan new palace, rather like Atatürk’s indulging some of the wilder theories of Kemalist ideology after becoming president in the 1930s.
Milliyet columnist Kadri Gürsel tweeted that there was an “Ottoman circus in the palace,” while Lebanese satirist Karl Sharro tweeted the picture, accompanied by the sentence “I am officially announcing my retirement from satire, because there’s no way I can compete with this. No way. Done.”
Dressing up appears to be an increasingly popular trend among pro-government figures in Turkey, with
a number of hopefuls aiming to be selected as AK Party deputy candidates attracting attention by promoting their nomination campaign with posters of themselves wearing faux-Ottoman costumes.
THE EDUCATION SYSTEM HAS LONG BEEN A LIGHTNING ROD FOR TURKEY’S CULTURAL DIVIDE
ANTI-İMAM HATİP PRESSURE PROTESTS
Thousands of Turks boycotted schools and took to the streets on Feb. 13 to demand a secular education and denounce what many claim is the creeping Islamization of the Turkish school system. Media reports said the boycott was followed in cities including İstanbul, Ankara, İzmir, Edirne and Antalya, with some students visiting science museums or attending lectures instead. Police roughly dispersed the protests in the western city of İzmir with water cannon and in the capital Ankara with tear gas. Fifty-six people were reportedly detained overall.
Chief among the protesters’ complaints was the allegation that the government is seeking to gradually increase the number of religious vocational imam hatip schools at the expense of secular high schools. After the AK Party came to power in 2002, the number of students attending imam hatip schools has increased by 90 percent, and now teach around 1 million children aged between 10 and 18 -- 9 percent of all students.
Another complaint, particularly voiced by Alevis, criticizes the mandatory religious classes in Turkish schools, which focus exclusively on Sunni Islam. The European Court of Human Rights (ECTHR) has ruled that the mandatory religious classes are an affront to Alevi students’ religious freedoms.
The education system has long been a lightning rod for Turkey’s cultural divide. “The Islamic majority still sees itself as a victim of Kemalist modernisation [...] The reopening of these schools can be seen as revenge against the secularist elites, an attempt to rebrand the Turkish nation and reinvent Turkish memory,” Tahir Abbas, a professor of sociology at Fatih University in İstanbul, was quoted as saying in The Guardian.
SUICIDE BOMBING IN SULTANAHMET
On Jan. 6, a female suicide bomber detonated herself in the tourism police branch of İstanbul’s historic Sultanahmet neighborhood, killing herself and a police officer.
Initial suspicion had fallen on a radical leftist group within Turkey, but the Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party/Front (DHKP/C) denied responsibility, bizarrely stating that it could not have carried out the attack because it was busy planning another one. The suicide bomber was later identified as Diana Ramazova, a Russian national whose husband had died fighting for the Islamic State in Syria.
The Turkish media quoted sources in the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) describing the incident as the first Islamic State attack inside Turkey, claiming that Ramazova was seeking revenge for Turkey killing her husband.
The Islamic State has not issued any claim responsibility for the attack, but other MİT sources were later quoted as saying that they had uncovered a plot by Islamic State militants to attack foreign diplomatic representatives in İstanbul.
CUMHURIYET TARGETED AFTER PUBLISHING CHARLIE HEBDO CARTOONS
The temperature also rose in Turkey following the Jan. 7 terrorist attacks on the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, particularly after secularist daily Cumhuriyet took the bold step of translating and publishing parts of the edition of the magazine that was released after the attack. There were rumors that the front page of Cumhuriyet would carry the front page of Charlie Hebdo showing a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, but in the end the newspaper’s editor-in-chief decided against this step, citing the sensitivity of the situation. Nevertheless, two columnists -- Ceyda Karan and Hikmet Çetinkaya --
decided to include small pictures of the Charlie Hebdo cover above their pieces in a show of solidarity. Both were later summoned to testify before an İstanbul prosecutor on suspicion of inciting the public to hatred and insulting people’s religious values -- both of which are criminal offenses in the Turkish Penal Code (TCK).
The İstanbul offices of Cumhuriyet had to be protected around the clock by police after printing the edition, faced with angry protests from conservative religious groups denouncing the decision to publish. However, despite many unpleasant banners and slogans, including death threats, the protests ultimately passed peacefully and no injuries or deaths were reported.
A piece by columnist Ceren Kenar in the Türkiye daily titled “Do you still miss the old Turkey?” gave an optimistic take on the episode, contrasting the angry but peaceful reaction to Cumhuriyet with the Sivas massacre in July 1993. In the latter, 37 people died at the hands of Islamic fundamentalists angry at an Alevi conference in the Central Anatolian city of Sivas, attended by well-known atheists such as the late writer Aziz Nesin. The difference, according to Kenar, showed how Turkey has made progress over the last 20 years: “This time, the cartoons were published, democratic reactions were voiced, and nobody was harmed.”
A column by Yusuf Kaplan in Yeni Şafak, however, articulated some of the wilder conspiracy theories circulating in Turkey regarding the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which it described as the work of the French “deep state”: “Let’s not be fooled! This is an attack schemed by the French deep state in order to escalate Islamophobia! This is the Sept. 11 scheme of Europe! It is the only way to legitimize the hostility against Islam that is spreading around Europe! […] It was not Europe that was hit in Paris; it was Islam that was hit! That was the target! The champagne bottles were opened, and toasts were proposed behind closed doors in Western capitals, in Paris, London, New York and of course in Tel Aviv!”
Meanwhile, a recent survey by Ankara-based research company Metropoll put Turks’ response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in worrying context. According to the poll, 42.6 percent of respondents said they believe the Islamic world is the “real victim” of the attacks, with only 21.7 percent seeing the 12 staff members who were killed as the “real victims.” Some 19.6 percent said the 12 dead “got what they deserved,” while 56 percent said they believe a foreign intelligence service was behind the attack.
PARLIAMENT VOTES AGAINST TRIAL OF EX-MINISTERS
Parliament voted in January not to send to trial four former ministers accused of wrongdoing in a corruption investigation, in welcome news for President Erdoğan and the government, who have cast the graft scandal that emerged in late 2013 as a plot to undermine his rule. The outcome, which was no surprise as the ruling AK Party has a big parliamentary majority, closes one of the last legal avenues in the probe. Earlier court cases have already been dropped.
However, the vote revealed a rift within the ruling party, because around 50 ruling party deputies on average did not toe the party line by not voting against referral, despite pressure from the party leadership. Among the four ex-ministers, former EU Affairs Minister Egemen Bağış got the least support from AK Party deputies in the vote.
Shortly after the vote, AK Party deputy Şamil Tayyar described the ruling party deputies who voted in favor of sending the ex-ministers to court as “traitors.” “These [the deputies] are traitors among us [...] A network of treachery within us has conducted the operation against Erdoğan. They could not achieve their goals, but they attempted an operation,” Tayyar said,
adding that it is “time for a cleansing within the party.”
Anti-graft group Transparency International said the outcome of the vote would contribute to a culture of impunity for politicians. “[It] will only reinforce the growing global perception that corruption is a major problem in Turkey [...] The way this investigation has carried out, with constant political interference with, and sometimes outright harassment of, judiciary and media raises a big question mark about the government’s will to tackle corruption,” said Oya Özarslan, the chair of Transparency International Turkey.
ERDOĞAN CONTINUES AS ‘POLITICAL PRESIDENT’
President Erdoğan continued to attract criticism for violating the constitution as a “partisan” president in a nominally non-partisan position.
Erdoğan has repeated his demand in a number of speeches for “400 seats” in Parliament, directed at the ruling AK Party. Such a number is far higher than the 330 seats required to unilaterally amend the Constitution, which Erdoğan needs to do in order to change Turkey to a presidential system. Along with a number of other examples, his “400 seat” demand has raised speculation that Erdoğan is deliberately setting Prime Minister Davutoğlu an impossible task as part of an emerging power struggle.
That speculation was also fueled by Erdoğan’s demand to chair two Cabinet meetings, in place of Davutoğlu, in January and February. Gürsel in Milliyet wrote that Erdoğan’s intention in presiding over the Cabinet was to diminish Davutoğlu’s standing, but poured cold water on speculation of a rift between the two: “The source of ‘power’ has already changed in Turkey. In practice, the Constitution has long been suspended. After abandoning the rule of law, Turkey is continuing its journey in dark waters. But nobody should expect any crisis within the AK Party. A figure [Davutoğlu] who owes his position to a leader who has not hesitated to sacrifice the founding fathers of the party can only submit to the ‘strong power.’ This is not a crisis of the AK Party -- it’s a crisis of the regime of Turkey.”
Another possible point of contestation between Erdoğan and Davutoğlu emerged over the resignation of powerful former MİT Undersecretary Hakan Fidan. Fidan’s resignation to run for Parliament for the AK Party is said to have been in line with the wishes of Davutoğlu, and after its announcement Erdoğan openly declared that he was not in favor of the move. Fidan subsequently retracted his candidacy and was returned to his position.
TMSF TAKES OVER CONTROL OF BANK ASYA BOARD
In February, Turkey witnessed the extraordinary prospect of the government trying to sink one of the country’s top banks, as the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) took control of 63 percent of the privileged shares in Islamic lender Bank Asya and appointed a new board of directors.
The TMSF stated that the operation was carried out due to claims that Bank Asya had failed to provide the necessary documents regarding its partnership structure and organizational scheme, but most observers recognized it as just one part of the AK Party’s crackdown on institutions affiliated with
followers of Islamic scholar Fethullah Gülen (a movement also known as Hizmet). On Feb. 4, the Hizmet-affiliated Zaman daily carried a large picture on its front page showing Bank Asya’s supporters protesting outside its İstanbul headquarters, against what the headline described as “Operation to Scare.”
After the emergence of the corruption probes in December 2013, the AK Party government tried to convince friendly firms as well as public institutions to withdraw deposits from Bank Asya to damage its financial integrity. State-owned firms and institutional depositors subsequently withdrew TL 4 billion ($1.75 billion), or some 20 percent of Bank Asya’s total deposits, according to media reports. In response, Hizmet supporters have apparently flocked to deposit their own money in the bank, with many even selling valuable personal property such as wedding rings and sofas in order to shore it up.
Writing in Yeni Şafak, Ali Bayramoğlu pointed to democratic flaws in the government’s fight against “Gülenist entrenchment in the state apparatus.” “Democracy and the rule of law call for a fight against the fraternity. However, the fact that the fight waged by the elected government is legitimate does not mean that all methods used in the fight are legitimate as well,” Bayramoğlu wrote, listing a series of problems with the way the government has conducted the struggle so far.
MURDER OF ÖZGECAN ASLAN AND #SENDEANLAT
The brutal killing of Özgecan Aslan in the Mediterranean province of Mersin struck a chord in Turkey in February, sparking protests and soul-searching over violence against women and gender inequality in the country.
The Süleyman Şah operation was Turkey’s first open military operation in Syria.
Cumhuriyet was targeted after publishing Charlie Hebdo
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (R) and his Palestinian counterpart, Mahmoud Abbas, against a backdrop of honor guards in historic warrior dress.
In February the Savings Deposit Insurance Fund (TMSF) took control of 63 percent of the privileged shares in Bank Asya and appointed a new board of directors.