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


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.”


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.”



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.



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.


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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


JAN. 12, 2015 PHOTO: AP

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.

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