Further thoughts on Syria, Turkey, and democracy

This Monday, Nov. 28, I’ll be speaking at a 2pm symposium in Washington DC on the topic “The Future of Syria: Political Turmoil and Prospects of Democracy”. It is organized by SETA-DC, the Washington DC branch of the Ankara-based SETA (Foundation for Economic, Political and Social Research.) Also speaking will be Erol Cebeci, Executive Director of SETA-DC and until recently a parliamentarian for the AKP.
Longtime readers of this blog will be aware that I have followed Turkish-Syrian relations for some time here; and back at the beginning of the current political turmoil in Syria I was arguing that Turkey’s AKP government was uniquely positioned and perhaps uniquely motivated to be the principal power mediating the regime-opposition negotiation in Syria that I saw, and still see, as overwhelmingly the best way out of Syria’s impasse.
Since I started expressing that position publicly, back in May, several important further developments have occurred. Principally, of course– and just as I predicted back in the March-May period– the confrontation between the regime and the opposition in Syria has continued; both sides have demonstrated resiliency; and the casualty toll has continued tragically to grow. There have also been these other developments:

    * Turkey’s AK government has shifted into a position of much stronger support for the Syrian opposition, with PM Erdogan now openly calling for the resignation of Syria’s President Asad, while leaders and members of the militarized, oppositionist ‘Free Syrian Army’ have been given considerable freedom to organize in the encampments of Syrian refugees in Turkey.
    * Attempts by western governments to win a UNSC resolution that would, as with Resolution 1970 in re Libya, have provided a basis for future military action against Syria were rebuffed when both Russia and china vetoed it.
    * The Arab League has launched its own strong-seeming diplomatic and political intervention that requires the Syrian government to end the use of repression and violence, engage in negotiations with the opposition, and allow the entry of Arab league monitors– actually, the deadline for that latter step is today.
    * The Arab League-cum-NATO military action against Libya (which was also supported by NATO member Turkey) had been cited as a desired precedent by many in the Syrian opposition. That action was eventually successful in taking over the whole of Libya and killing President Qadhafi. But it took them seven months and a lot of bloody fighting to achieve that; and the outcome inside Libya has been very far from what most pro-democracy, pro-rights activists in the west had hoped for.

So obviously, there will be a lot to discuss with my SETA colleagues next Monday.
One thing that has been much on my mind in recent days is the range of possible effects that the situation in Syria might have on the prospects for democracy not only in Syria but also in Turkey. Of all the Middle Eastern forces currently giving support to a Syrian opposition that claims to pursue the goal of democracy, the only one that any has any credible claim itself to uphold and practice the values of democracy is Turkey. The idea that Saudi Arabia, other GCC countries, Jordan, or the currently military-ruled regime in Egypt has any credibility in saying it seeks the goal of democracy is completely laughable. So it strikes me that sincere supporters of democracy around the world who want to see a democratic and accountable outcome in Syria should pay particular attention to the role that Ankara might yet play there.
It is also the case that for me, one of the bedrocks of any commitment to democracy is a commitment not to use violent means to resolve differences of opinion or politics among fellow-citizens, however deepseated and sensitive these differences may be. Democracy is not really– or perhaps, not only– about elections, which are at best only a technical means to reaching a democratic end. (Elections, remember, can be and are used by all kinds of profoundly rights-abusing regimes.) Democracy is about having a fundamental respect for the equality of all human persons and establishing a set of political mechanisms that allow citizens of one state (and eventually, of the whole world– though we are still a long way from that) to live together peaceably and over the long term while allowing the different communities within that state to live out their own vision of the good life so long as this does not impinge on the rights of others.
Turkey is a country in which many different kinds of social groups live together. These include members of the Sunni-Turkish majority. They also include members of ethnic, religious, and sectarian minorities. They include people who are highly secular and people who are highly pious and for whom “the good life” is necessarily one defined by religious norms. They include highly sophisticated, “Europeanized” urbanites, and people much more rooted to the traditional ways of villages and small towns. Yet somehow, as a result of decisions taken throughout the course of Turkey’s modern history– including both the Kemalist era and the post-Kemalist era– nearly all these different groups have been able to find a way to come together and agree on the (still-evolving) rules of a democratic order for their country.
I have long thought of this as an amazing achievement. Of course, it is still incomplete. But still, Turkey’s people have come so far away from both Ottoman-era theocracy and the intolerant, ethnocratic militarism of Kemalist rule that I think this is an achievement to be acknowledged and celebrated by democrats everywhere.
Turkey’s longest land border is its border with Syria– more than 500 miles long, as I recall. If there is ethnosectarian breakdown in Syria, can Turkey be insulated from that, I wonder? And if so, at what cost?
… Well, the events in Syria are moving fast, and will doubtless continue to do so over the coming three days. So I shan’t complete gathering my thoughts for Monday afternoon’s presentation until that morning.
As a side-note here, I also want to send my (only slightly qualified) congratulations to my friends at the Crisis Group for having once again produced a very sane and timely analysis of the situation in Syria. In the Conclusion to this study, they write:

    That the current crisis and future transition present enormous risks is not a reason to defend a regime that offers no solution and whose sole strategy appears to be to create greater hazards still. Optimally, this would be the time for third-party mediation leading to a negotiated transition.
    … However unlikely they are to succeed, mediation efforts ought to be encouraged in principle, and none should be automatically dismissed. The focus should remain for now on the Arab League initiative, the most promising proposal currently on the table. For international actors or the opposition to rule out dialogue or negotiations with the regime would be to validate its argument that nothing short of its immediate fall will be deemed satisfactory. At the same time, Damascus should not be given an opportunity to gain time, nor should it be offered concessions in the absence of tangible signs that it is acting in good faith. Should the regime present a genuine, detailed proposal backed by immediate, concrete steps on the ground – again, an implausible scenario – mediated talks with the opposition should swiftly begin.

The report goes to some lengths to spell out the massive risks involved in any non-negotiated resolution in Syria, which is good. And they highlight the extreme political incompetence of the Asad regime, which I also think is something well worth doing. But I think they let the opposition off too lightly; and I really do not see that that the Arab League as such is in any position to negotiate the kind of transition– that is, a negotiation to a truly democratic, rights-respecting and accountable political system– that I see as being the one best able to prevent the outbreak (or continuation) of further internal violence in Syria, going forward.
Throughout my years in Lebanon during the early years of the civil war there, I saw at first hand how an “Arab League peacekeeping mission” there was used all along by all the different Arab powers to pursue their own, often highly divisive agendas and thus became yet another factor that prolonged the fighting and the suffering there. And I have no reason to believe that the Arab League is in any better position today to plan and run a constructive peacekeeping mission in Syria. In addition, as noted above, it is amazing for anyone truly concerned about pursuing a more democratic and accountable Syria going forward to think that the governments now running the Arab League are well positioned or well suited to help realize that goal. Hence I would like to keep alive the possibility of a role for democratic Turkey in spearheading a serious push for negotiations– something that the Crisis Group’s report doesn’t mention.
(On the Arab League, and Qatar’s rapidly shifting political role in regional politics, As’ad AbouKhalil has had four excellent short pieces in Al-Akhbar English in the past couple of weeks. You can access them all via this web-page.)

Notes on Turkey and Syria, #2

Turkish FM Davutoglu today told a couple of media outlets (including the NYT) that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad should launch a “shock therapy” version of political reform. Did he use those words in English? If so, it is a truly lousy turn of phrase. “Shock therapy,” as administered to the Russian economy by Jeffrey Sachs back in the day resulted in the evisceration and destruction of the nation’s economy. Shock therapy, as previously used in psychiatry, was violent, deforming, and usually unsuccessful.
Please, Ahmet Davutoglu, get a better turn of phrase. Something like “truly transformational reform”, perhaps?
* * *
On Tuesday, Turkey is hosting a meeting of Syrian opposition activists and leaders in Antalya. The goal is, I think, to enable them to form a joint coordinating body. Sevil Kucukkosum of Hurriyet writes that the Syrian NGO the National Organization for Human Rights is the sole organizer of the gathering. Syrians do not need visas to visit Turkey. But I imagine the Turkish government is allowing this gathering to proceed.
The Hurriyet report says that representatives of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, “could participate at the Syrian opposition meeting.” The Syrian MB has never systematically followed the decision its Egyptian counterpart took in the early 1980, to hew to a solely nonviolent path.
* * *
If Syria is really to enter the “grand constitutional process” that will be necessary to transform the country into a democratic, accountable, and inclusive democracy, then all parties (including above all, the government) will need to agree to a cessation of armed operations. All parties will also need to be able to negotiate the terms of the democratization, the rules going forward, and what to do about the many painful legacies of the past. The government needs to prepare and organize itself for this negotiation; and so does the opposition. From that perspective, having the opposition get organized is an excellent step. And it is doubtless good that the government is sending a (relative) reformer, Abdullah Dardari, to Ankara as ambassador in place of the harder line Nidal Kabalan.
Still reading the Hurriyet report there, however, I see it says this:

    Turkish officials have urged al-Assad to conduct a national dialogue that would include the Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps even bringing that group into the government by granting it two ministries, according to a report in The New York Times. They have also suggested an anticorruption campaign, which would undoubtedly reach into al-Assad’s inner circle, and greater accountability for the security forces that have often been granted free rein in suppressing dissent.

Honestly, I don’t think any of this goes far enough. What is needed is a thoroughgoing transformation to a real, functioning, one-person-one-vote democracy, not just bringing two MB members into a Baath-dominated government. And this transformation will involve many other changes, as well, including institution of a transparent economic system and a system for ensuring civilian control of the military.
* * *
Can this be achieved while a portion of Syria is still chafing Israeli occupation, while the Israeli military daily threatens Damascus and the whole of Syria and Lebanon, and while Syria is still in a formal state of war with Israel? I believe it can. If the United States is able to do only one thing to help support the process of democratization in Syria it should be to use all the levers at its command to tell the Israelis not to intervene in any way in Syria, and to assure Syrians that the U.S. still fully supports the concept of a “full land for full peace” deal between Israel and Syria and will work actively to see its speedy implementation.
The Asads, father and son, both pursued the “full land for full peace” deal actively with Israel through negotiations. But the negotiations were always stymied and blocked by Israel (with help from Dennis Ross and others) and never got anywhere. Though the Asads maintained a strategic posture toward Israel based on general military deterrence, over time that deterrence became puny in the extreme; and it cannot serve any longer to “justify” the maintenance of the bloated national-security apparatus that currently hangs over the whole society like a very heavy weight.
* * *
Syria has been reeling from several years of drought and many more years of economic mismanagement and the economic burden of its national-security apparatus. It urgently needs economic help and the institution of sound economic policies. Turkey can do a lot to help in both regards, but it cannot do it alone.
* * *
The two countries are extremely important to each other. Each is an important gateway between the other and a significant hinterland. They have many geopolitical interests in common. Turkey is about four times the size of Syria in population and about 12 times as big as it in GDP.
This report from the Ankara-based think-tank the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK) looks very interesting.
that report on it, from Today’s Zaman, says,

    A report released by an Ankara-based think tank indicates that as the Syrian regime faces hardships with the continuing public uprisings for a more democratic regime, Turkey should develop policies to influence the process to evolve democratically, since Syrian matters are “family matters” to Turkey.
    The report released on May 9… titled “The Name of Walking in a Mine Field: Forcing Change in Syria,” indicates that Syria is in need of “urgent change” and Turkey needs to develop policies in the direction of democratic change, as human rights groups say the death toll from Syria’s crackdown on a nine-week uprising has exceeded 1,000.
    The report states that Turkey’s priority should be preventing a foreign intervention.
    “A foreign intervention in Syria means disaster for both Turkey and the region. A solution is necessary before it reaches that point. Turkey should focus on Syria with all of its power. If the issues in Syria are not solved as soon as possible, Turkey’s initiatives in the region will fail,” the report said and continued: “Turkey’s assertion to be a model state in the region will weaken in particular. A Turkey that cannot be influential in solving matters in Syria will lose its positive image in the eyes of the Arab public. The situation in Syria could be seen as a foreign policy problem in other countries, but it is a family matter for Turkey. Events in the region will greatly affect Turkey.”

I’d love to see an English-language version of the whole report…
* * *
As I noted in this piece that I blogged on Tuesday, I do think South Africa’s experience of a negotiated transition from minority rule to full democracy is one that can be very valuable for Syria. Of course, the South African parties and movements were able to complete their big constitutional transformation more or less on their own, while the Syrians evidently need a friendly outside force to act as mediator, convenor, and general chivvier, and structurer of the incentives. But still, there are a lot of excellent lessons the South Africans can offer.
One key one, I think, is that the focus of all participants should be determinedly forward-looking– laying the basis for a decent, egalitarian, accountable, and cooperative system going forward– rather than vindictive and backward-looking, seeking to settle endless old scores here and there. The Spaniards could offer some good lessons in this regard, too.

More on Turkey/Syria

On Monday, I blogged that I thought Turkey’s role in helping urge/midwife a successful push for reform in Syria could be key. I gave a few reasons for this– chiefly, the good relations between the two countries and the length (800 miles) of their common border.
Yesterday, Turkey’s intel chief Hakan Fidan was in Damascus, and reported to have been discussing the need for reform with his hosts. (Meanwhile, Turkish PM Erdogan was in the Kurdish-Iraqi capital of Irbil and the Shiite-Iraqi capital, Najaf. As I tweeted at the time: “It’s hard work running a neo-Ottoman empire!” But really: Erdogan’s outreach to neighbors all round, including to Kurds, has been very notable.)
I’ve written quite a lot about Turkey and Syria on this blog over the past two years– check out the archives, including for reporting from good trips I’ve made to the two countries since summer 2009.
Based on all this, I could summarize my views on what Turkey can “offer” to a democratizing Syria– and, perhaps, to a number of other truly democratizing Middle Eastern countries– as follows:

    * Between them, Turkey’s current AK Party government and its longstanding and increasingly sturdy democratic constitution offer a great model for how a country can both be an open, west-friendly liberal democracy and be ruled by a party that is intentionally mildly Islamist. Turkey’s political history– through the aggressive secularism and tight ethnonationalism of the Kemalists, to the point it has arrived at today– is fascinating. The Kemalists made several good contributions to the country’s political and economic development. But it took the AKP to transcend the boundaries of ethnonationalism that constrained Ankara’s ability to have good relations with most of its neighbors– and indeed, with all those of its own citizens who are not ethnic Turks.
    * Turkey offers a great example of a generally peaceful transition from a regime in which the military used to have a commanding sway (underlined by periodic coups and soft coups against the elected government) to one in which the democratic principle of civilian control of the military is now much more deeply entrenched and respected. For Syria, this could be a very valuable lesson– though we need to remember that Syria is still in a state of war with Israel, which continues to occupy (and indeed, has annexed) the strategic Golan region. So the military’s role in politics and society is more complex there than in Turkey. Of course, a truly engaged and fair-minded U.S. diplomacy could– and should– speedily bring an end to Israel’s occupation of the Golan. That would be one of the best contributions Washington could make to democratization in Syria! The record of the peace negotiations of the 1990s (about part of which, I wrote a book for USIP) is a great basis from to start.
    * Turkey offers a great economic model to Syria and other Middle Eastern democratizers. The Turkish economy has been booming in recent years– including during the period after the west’s financial collapse of September 2008. It seems to be sturdily structured; and Turkish business leaders (like many other Turkish institutions) have done a great job of extending their contacts, their contracts, and their influence into many areas of the former Ottoman space– as well as the former Soviet space.
    * Turkey has offered a great “social” model to Syrians and other Middle Easterners, as well. Syrians at different levels of society with whom I have spoken in recent years emphasize that they strongly welcome the Turkish model as much more attractive than the Iranian model of society, which is the other major pole of influence on governmental thinking.

Indeed, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that for the past few years many Syrians have been deeply in love with Turkey– for a number of reasons. One of these, certainly, has been the straightforward, principled stance that the AK government has adopted toward Israel. Remember that in 2008, Ankara did a lot to spearhead and facilitate a very promising round of quiet peace talks between Syria and Israel. Then, in December 2008 Israeli PM Olmert abruptly broke off the proximity talks he was holding in Turkey in connection with that effort– and he returned to Israel to launched the assault against Gaza that was so appropriately named “Cast Lead.” The Turks felt completely betrayed and used by Olmert in that regard– a fact that led to Erdogan’s stiff behavior toward Israeli Pres. Shimon Peres at Davos shortly after. But Erdogan felt betrayed precisely because he had been deeply committed to the success of the earlier peace talks. That good motivation and good energy should certainly not be forgotten.
Syrians across the board also really appreciate the kind of lifestyle model they find when they visit Turkey– as, increasingly, they do in droves, thanks to the abolition of visa requirements across the long shared border. Syrian intellectuals wonder earnestly how long it would take their country to catch up with the kind of economy and life they see in eastern Turkey– and that they see portrayed on the many Turkish soap operas that now compete very well, along with their own, Damascus-produced soaps, across the whole Arab media market.
One notable thing that’s happened along the way is that the resentment that an earlier generation of Syrians still felt at the fact that colonial France had gratuitously (in their view) “given away” the whole ethnic-Arab province of Alexandretta to Turkey on the eve of WWII has now just about completely dissipated. That province, now Hatay in Turkey, is just another part of Turkey that Syrians like to visit.
… Well, I don’t have time to write more here about this. Democratizing this regime in Syria is not an easy prospect for anyone to undertake, even if Pres. Asad has the best of intentions. (And, as I noted, trying to do this while a belligerent Israel still occupies Mount Hermon and an additional huge chunk of Golan, and makes periodic belligerent declarations towards Syria makes it even harder.) But as I noted in my last blog post, Turkey has a strong incentive to try to undertake the task successfully. The suggestion I lightheartedly made there that Syria might benefit from having its own AK Party– a moderately Sunni-Islamist party that delivers good governance in a climate of great respect for ethnic and religious minorities, and that deals generally successfully with the complexities of disentangling the military from the reins of governance– is actually one that might be worth exploring further… Though we should note that Turkey’s AK (“Justice and Development”) Party took many years, and several rounds of serious problems, before it was able to come to power.
And what might Washington’s position in all this be? I am still very concerned that the State Department holds far too many people at high levels who furthered their careers under the aggressively Israeli-controlled parameters of the Clinton and GWB administrations, and who therefore harbor far more kneejerk opposition to this Turkish government than is warranted. (As we saw, indeed, with their disgraceful response to the Mavi Marmara incident last year.) But it is high time Washington overcame those biases and sensitivities. Indeed, given how deeply involved the Obama administration has now, willy-nilly, become in issues of hands-on governance in numerous Arab countries, those old-fashioned biases toward Israel are now much more of a burden than they ever were before. So let’s hope that– at least when dealing with decades-long NATO ally Turkey, and its role in the Middle East– they can figure out a different, more constructive way to proceed.

Yesterday’s Taksim Square bomb

Thanks to everyone who’s expressed concern for my wellbeing after yesterday’s bomb in Taksim Square.
In the incident, a suicide bomber detonated himself at the entrance to a police bus. He killed himself and injured 15 police officers and 17 members of the public. Te indications seem to be it was PKK-related, though Al-Qaeda has also undertaken terror acts in Turkey in the past.
I wish for a speedy and full recovery for all those injured.
The police seemed to do a good job of cordoning off the square, sending in forensics teams to gather evidence, etc.
Taksim Square is a very symbolic high point at the hub of Istanbul’s commercial area. In the evening we walked along Istiklal Caddesi, one-third of a mile or less away from the square, and though the crowds seemed a little diminished, many Istanbullers were going ahead with their life and showing admirable resilience in the face of the terror attempt.
Still, the event does perhaps underline the need for the government to get the PKK issue resolved– politically, which is the only way this can be achieved.

More impressions, Istanbul

So many conversations, so many amazing meals, so much history.
One major thing that has emerged from the conversations, for me, is a much more robust sense that what we are seeing in Turkey today is not a function just of the actions and policies of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), but also of deeper processes within Turkey’s society and state. Which is to say, really, that even if the AKP were not the ruling party here (and there is zero indication at this point that they will lose the parliamentary elections coming up in May 2011), then most of the same policies we see today would continue to be enacted by any other party that came in.
I do think the democratization of political life that has been taking place in this country of some 72 million people is the “big” political story– and it is one that other political parties, and even to a significant extent the military hierarchy itself, have contributed to. It is never easy to get the military to step aside from exercising political power; but here in Turkey that seems finally to have occurred. And surely the current chief of the general staff, Gen. Isik Kosaner, and his top aides must have played a key role in this. The success– by 58% to 40%– of last month’s referendum on a broad range of constitutional matters was an important bench-mark in the campaign to replace military rule with democratic accountability.
(I have heard some indications that Turkey’s membership in NATO had a positive effect in helping to educate leaders of the country’s military in the need for civilian control of the military. In which case, kudos to NATO. Maybe this is one of the few really positive achievements NATO can point to in its history? We could, also, imagine other ways in which democracy-promoting countries might have spread the crucial notion of civilian control of the military to Turkey… But still, if NATO helped to do it, then well and good.)
* * *
We had lunch the other day with a man in his early thirties whose father, back in the early 1980s, was assassinated by what the Turks helpfully refer to as the “deep state”… That is, that network of shadowy parastatal and paramilitary organizations that maintained the military’s effective (and also, until last month, often constitution-permitted) control over the country through extra-constitutional means. Our friend was two years old at the time. His mother then had to bring her two boys up alone. His father had been the editor of an Islamist journal– to which the present PM, Rejep Teyyip Erdogan– had been a contributor.
More on this, later. But of course it is important to remember the many people whose lives were blighted by the actions of the deep state.
* * *
Yesterday, a friend took us on an excellent tour around some of Istanbul’s lesser known sites and neighborhoods. We started at the Greek Patriarchate, at the top of a hill in Carsamba. The Patriarchate and many of the Greek homes, institutions, and businesses in this neighborhood and elsewhere throughout the city were badly sacked during anti-Greek and anti-Jewish riots that took place– with some instigation from the government– in 1955. In recent years, the large administrative buildings there have all been rebuilt, in what looks like a very solid and well-financed way. The friend who was with us said there are still disagreements over whether the Patriarchate is an institution of the Turkish state, or an independent institution.
We went into the church there. (It was surprisingly small.) Over at one side of the sanctuary were two boxes made of some form of sturdy translucent plastic, each the size of a portable sewing machine lying on its side, and each elevated on four legs. Our friend told us these contained just a tiny portion of the vast haul of Orthodox ecclesiastical relics that had been looted by the crusaders when they sacked Istanbul in 1096. He said these two small boxes of stuff had been returned to the church here by the Vatican a few years ago– “But the vast majority of what the Crusaders looted, the Catholics kept. Like the four horsemen you still see till today in St. Mark’s Square, in Venice.”
* * *
We drove along the length of the massive city walls the Byzantines built right across the hilly heights of the peninsular on whose tip their city was perched, running two miles or so from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara. These walls were truly a huge feat of engineering: A double layer of them, maybe 30-40 feet high, extremely thick, and punctuated by frequent large block-house/guard-towers. Those walls, and a thinner, single set of walls along the coastline, were what they relied on for protection.
After the Ottoman dynasty had established itself in Bursa, to the southeast, the other side of the Sea of Marmara, it was able to conquer and incorporate vast swathes of land beyond Byzantium to the north and west– including, right up to Bulgaria. But they still could not take Byzantium. And the Byzantines made a heavy chain that they strung across the Golden Horn to prevent Ottoman shipping, which was able to move up and down the Bosphorus, from using the Golden Horn route to come in and take their city from its more vulnerable northern or western sides.
I guess the chain worked. Because when the young Sultan Mehmet (the Conqueror) decided to capture the city he did not try that direct naval route. Instead, starting at a point a little further north up the Bosphorus, he constructed a large slipway right over the northwestern isthmus of the city and dragged his entire attack fleet up and over the landmass to get around the chain, instead. And that worked for him. He took Byzantium in 1453.
* * *
Friday was Independence Day. We were lucky enough to be included in a fabulous party at a sixth-floor apartment overlooking the Bosphorus, from where we had a great view of the wonderful firework show put on– presumably by the Istanbul Municipality– from barges out on the water. (Some of us remarked that staging a huge firework show like this is a sign of significant peace and prosperity. A city like Baghdad, Kabul, or Gaza could not dream of being able to “enjoy” such sounds and sights without everyone thinking it was an attack… )
Turkey’s attainment in 1923 of national independence from the yoke that WW-I’s victorious allies had sought to impose on the country was no small achievement. However, the prickly (and often very aggressive) ethnonationalism and militarism that were both part of the Kemalist package (i.e., the package of policies enacted by the country’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) continued to plague Turkey and its peoples until very recently.
Now, the country finally has a stable and well-performing government that is non-Kemalist. I was going to write “anti-Kemalist”, but I don’t think that’s the case. They are still Kemalists inasmuch as they accept the republican and democratic basis of the state that Ataturk pioneered, and the institutions associated with that concept of the state. They have tweaked, in an important way, the relationship between the military and the civilian government that had long been dysfunctional and harmful for the country. But the rest of the Kemalist constitutional structure still stands intact.
Where they are not Kemalist, however, is in their views of secularism and ethnonationalism. They are not the same militant secularizers that the Kemalists were. And they are certainly not the same ethnonationalists as the Kemalists.
85 years of Kemalism did, however, leave the AKP government with some terrible legacies to deal with when it came into power through the elections of 2002. Legacies of harms inflicted in the past on the country’s Kurdish, Greek, and Jewish citizens. Legacies of aggressive ethnonationalist policies pursued towards many neighbors, especially in Cyprus… The AKP’s very talented leaders, including President Abdullah Gul and Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, as well as Erdogan, seem to have taken numerous good steps to deal with these legacies and to build much healthier relations both inside Turkey and with neighbors outside it…
* * *

Istanbul, for all that ails you

Today, I feel like maybe I died and went to heaven. I am sitting in an apartment that is perched on the heights of Istanbul’s Cehangir neighborhood right across the Golden Horn from the Topkapi Palace. I stare out of the picture windows at the confluence of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. Ferry-boats of all sizes ply busily this way and that across the broad waterways. Seagulls wheel and shriek in the light mist. A tram clangs somewhere far beneath me. There is a steady hum of traffic.
Last night the towers of Topkapi, and the great rotund masses of Agia Sofia and the Blue Mosque all sat like jewels, bathed in the amber tones of great floodlighting. All the great mosques of that part of the city– and even many of the smaller ones, including the one near us in Galatasaray– are floodlit at night. The lights from Topkapi and the waterfront mosques bleed out across the water towards us. At night, each ferry-boat scuttles across the water suspended above the inky depths on the insect legs of its own reflected lights.
In the past, I have thought of Istanbul as “Venice on Steroids”: that combination of an organic reliance on waterways and their boat-systems, with the sheer weight and wealth of stupendous religious monuments. But the two cities are different in important ways, as well. Where Venice lies flat, beached (and sinking) at the top end of the Aegean, Istanbul sits astride what is evidently an extremely busy international waterway. Last year when we were here we were sitting at an outdoor restaurant near the second bridge across the Bosphorus and behind our friends as we sat there, there passed a long procession of vast tankers and container boats traveling up to the countries of the Black Sea.
And Istanbul (unlike Venice) is exuberantly 3-D: There is not a flat street in sight except those that flank the city’s many coastlines. Yesterday afternoon we walked to Istiklal Cadessi through a network of small streets that plunged up and down the hillsides here: No other way to get there! City residents must all be extremely fit! Istiklal Cadessi (Independence Street) and a very high proportion of the smaller side streets were all humming with activity. On the backstreets, there are sidewalk cafes just about everywhere. And never mind about those sloping sidewalks: The enterprising business owners have put in long platforms that give each group of tables a flat base to stand on. Okay, it pushes pedestrians into the street; but many of these small streets are actually or effectively pedestrianized, anyway.
We had dinner with Soli Ozel and his family. Great to catch up with him and hear his (generally but not wholly admiring) views of the policies of the present government. The criticisms he voiced were mainly that the government could have been smarter in some aspects of its diplomacy– especially on Iran, where he thought Turkey should have abstained on the recent resolution in the Security Council, rather than voting against it. But he did concur with the judgment that– according to Bill the spouse, who has been here since the beginning of the month– is quite widespread here, namely that PM Erdogan is one of the most talented political leaders that Turkey has ever seen.
There is, as always, a lot going on here politically. I still think that the transition Turkey has made since 1999, from what was still a military-backed system of government to one in which the democratic basis of governance has been much more solidly entrenched than hitherto, is a really important experience that democrats worldwide should hold up and appreciate. And the two facts that this transition has been achieved through almost wholly nonviolent means and that it has been undertaken largely though not wholly by a moderately and democratically Islamist party are both really, really important.
It is great to see Istanbul and the whole of Turkey doing so well in the current times! While economic woes continue to plague much of the “west” today, the course that this country has been on since the end of the Cold War has overwhelmingly been one of opening new markets and new (or, more accurately, renewed) cultural and political ties with all the countries around it in a dazzling 360-degree display of smart outreach. And the success of that outreach really shows– in the buzzing activity, self-confidence, and nice lifestyles you see in the streets here. (Istanbul is stunningly well-run as a city, too. It is significant that Erdogan and his AK Party cut their political teeth here back in the 1990s by proving they could run this city well, before they moved on to take over the commanding heights of national politics.)
Where our apartment is, here near the Galatasaray district, is not far from the area Orhan Pamuk wrote about growing up in, in his memoir “Istanbul”. The Istanbul of Pamuk’s youth was drenched in sadness, neediness, and nostalgia for the loss of the city’s past glories. The contrast with the way the city feels today could not be starker!
I feel so lucky to be here. When Bill first set up the short-term teaching gig he has at Bilgi University, the idea was that we would come together for the month. But then, I realized October would be really busy for Just World Books, so I shortened my stay to one week… Well, I am still doing a bunch of work for the three books JWB will have coming out within the next month– three! count ’em! But at least as I sit here connected to the Intertubes, I have the supreme joy of looking out over this amazing view. And then, from time to time, I can even detach myself from the ‘tubes and go out and have some real-life experiences of today’s Turkey… Wow. Even in the drizzly rain it is all spectacular.

Obama and Erdogan’s 75-minute talk at G-20

Today’s Zaman has an intriguing description of the 75-minute meeting that Obama held with Turkish PM Rejep Tayyip Erdogan on Saturday, the eve of yesterday’s G-20 meeting in Canada.
It’s an election year in the U.S. (as indeed it is every other year… ) and Obama is under a lot of pressure from the powerful pro-Israel lobby AIPAC to distance himself from longtime NATO ally and Afghanistan war contributing nation Turkey. See e.g. this pathetic piece of anti-Turkish propaganda sent around recently by AIPAC media director Josh Block.
So I suppose it’s not totally surprising that, as TZ noted, the Ehite House tried to keep the Obama-Erdogan meeting ” a low-profile event… It released a considerably brief statement after the one-hour, 15-minute meeting and offered no photo opportunities… White House officials who were briefing the press concerning Obama’s bilateral meetings as the Erdoğan-Obama meeting was taking place didn’t mention this meeting at all.”
Too bad Obama doesn’t have more backbone, though, given the completely scurrilous (and often borderline racist and/or Islamophobic) nature of the anti-Turkish campaign and also Turkey’s role– did I mention this yet?– as a long-time NATO ally and weighty, successfully democratizing, majority Muslim nation at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
TZ parsed the very brief comment the White House did eventually make about the meeting, and the reported contents of the meeting that it gained from participants, very carefully indeed:

    The fact that the adjective “strategic” was not used before the word “allies” in the White House statement was… noteworthy. Yet, the expression “model partnership,” first introduced by Obama during an April 2009 visit to Turkey, was used during the discussions between Erdoğan and Obama, Today’s Zaman learned.

Regarding the crisis in Turkish-Israeli relations provoked by Israel’s extremely lethal May 31 raid against the Turkish aid ship Mavi Marmara, the TZ reporter wrote:

    the US side expressed uneasiness over the recent course of affairs regarding [Turkish-Israeli] relations and said Washington would continue to lend support for the resolution of bilateral problems between the two countries.
    Erdoğan, meanwhile, thanked Obama for his administration’s contribution to Israel’s release of activists on board [the aid flotilla]…

That first point is interesting given that, as I reported here, recent high-level Turkish visitors to Washington were pleading publicly (though in a dignified way) for U.S. help in healing Turkey’s rift with Israel. However, it still doesn’t look as if Obama was promising to do very much to help.
Maybe after the November elections?
The other issue that recently harmed Israel’s formerly fairly robust ties with Turkey was Ankara’s role– along with Brazil– in winning Tehran’s support for a fuel-swap agreement that when implemented would remove 1,200 kg of 19%-enriched uranium from Iran and replace it with medically specific fuel rods that can’t be used in any realistic nuclear weapons program.
On that, TZ reported that during the Obama-Erdogan meeting,

    The US side didn’t offer “any new mission” to Ankara regarding the Iran issue and didn’t encourage the Turkish side to continue its mediation efforts between Tehran and world powers, sources said.
    In [the G-8 meeting that prceded the G-20 meeting in] Toronto, the leading eight industrial democracies praised Brazil and Turkey’s diplomatic overtures to Iran, even though they had been rejected by other members of the international community. Brazil and Turkey were the only two members of the UN Security Council to vote against the most recent set of sanctions on Iran.

TZ quoted an excerpt from the G-8 group’s final communique that included this:

    We… welcome and commend all diplomatic efforts in this regard, including those made recently by Brazil and Turkey on the specific issue of the Tehran Research Reactor,” a final communiqué by the G-8 — the United States, Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia — said.

Turkey conf live-blog #4

Turkish Amb. Namik Tan:
The U.S. needs to rely more on alliances and soft power than it has until now.
Turkey is a country with many friends in its region and around the world and with a booming economy… The highest growth rate in the OECD. The only government that didn’t have to intervene in the financial sector during the recent crisis. Construction sector second only to China’s… Pipeline projects, etc.
The alliance between Turkey and the U.S. is extremely powerful. It acts at the economic and cultural levels and is very important for both parties, including in defusing the idea of a clash of civilizations.
… We have now been moving to strengthen and modernize our strategic relationship with the United States.

Continue reading “Turkey conf live-blog #4”

Turkey conf live-blog #3

I left after Kalin for a press gaggle that he and Celik did. That was interesting. More later. Main takeaway: More details about the contacts that the Turkish foreign minister and Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak had prior to the sailing of the Mavi Marmara about its imminent sailing, and Kalin’s clear recollection that “We understood from Barak that they would be acting towards the boats very differently from the way they did.”
I missed most of a panel discussion involving former Rep. Robert Wexler, the anti-Tehran Iranian activist Karim Sadjadpour, and Turkish journo Cengiz Candar, moderated by Steven Cook.
Apparently Wexler gave a strong defense of Israel’s (naval-gazing) self-enquiry.
A questioner just referred to Wexler’s angry tone there.
Now Wexler is talking again.
Here he is:

    Let’s look at objective facts.
    Israel can’t maintain the blockade of Gaza on its own. Only because Egypt, a sovereign Arab nation, also maintains the siege of Gaza is the siege maintained.
    Israel didn’t simply maintain a blockade on Gaza when Gaza elected Hamas but did so when Hamas took an Israeli corporal Shalit.
    Hamas rejects the very peace process that America, Israel, and Turkey all support.

He is speaking in a very demagogic way– not answering the question but an anti-Hamas diatribe.
“Where’s the outrage against Hamas when they execute the supporters of Fateh?” etc.