The North Syria Debacle as Seen by One Trump Voter

As I write (10/22/19) the pause or cease-fire in Northern Syria is more or less holding. No one has a clear idea of what will follow it. We will know today or tomorrow, in all likelihood.

On October 12th 2019, Pres. Trump suddenly removed a handful of American forces in northern Syria that had served as a tripwire against invasion. The handful also had the capacity to call in air strikes, a reasonable form of dissuasion.

Within hours began an invasion of Kurdish areas of Syria by the second largest army in Europe, and the third in the Middle East. Ethnic cleansing was its main express purpose. Pres Erdogan of Turkey vowed to empty a strip of territory along its northern border to settle in what he described as Syrian (Arab) refugees. This means expelling under threat of force towns, villages, and houses that had been occupied by Kurds from living memory and longer. This means installing on that strip of territories unrelated people with no history there, no housing, no services, and no way to make a living. Erdogan’s plan is to secure his southern border by installing there a permanent giant refugee camp.

Mr Trump declared that he had taken this drastic measure in fulfillment of his (three-year old) campaign promise to remove troops from the region. To my knowledge, he did not explain why it was necessary to remove this tiny number of American military personnel at that very moment, or in such haste.

Myself, most Democrats, and a large number of Republican office holders object strongly to the decision. Most important for me is the simplistic idea that

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Nightcap

  1. French financial experts are anything but Diego Zuluaga, Alt-M
  2. The beauty of Soviet anti-religious art Roland Brown, Spectator
  3. Obama, Erdoğan, and the Syrian rebels Seymour Hersh, LRB
  4. Europe, Turkey, and the Kurdish rebels Bill Wirtz, TAC

Turkey, Syria, the Kurds, and the American Foreign Policy Establishment

Donald Trump pulled the US out of Syria, and Turkey brutally pounced on the Kurds. What a mess.

I have just two quick notes on the subject: 1) the American Foreign Policy Establishment has upset me for many years now, mostly because they are liars. The allegations of American betrayal in regards to our Kurdish allies are simply not true. If the Kurds were truly American allies, then the hawks would have gone out of their way to call for a Kurdish state in the region (something some Kurds have been trying to found for a long time). This has not happened in the 50 or 60 years that the United States has been deeply involved in the Levant. Have you heard hawkish politicians in the US call for an independent Kurdish state? Instead, Washington’s Foreign Policy Establishment has been content to use the Kurds as pawns against its Persian and Ba’athist enemies. Once the Kurds outlived their usefulness, they were abandoned by the American Foreign Policy Establishment, ironically in the name of state sovereignty.

2) The Kurds should have known better by now that their only friends are the mountains. I don’t know why they thought they could hold Syria. I don’t know why they thought they could trust Washington. My best guess is that geopolitics is hard to do when you’re as politically decentralized as the Kurds, and there was simply no overall game plan for going to war alongside the Americans, except to maybe slaughter some Arabs and Turks and build rapport with Washington for an eventual Kurdish state.

One last note: Not only is Turkey slaughtering Kurds, but Iran is calling for Turkey to stay out of Syria. The Russians are still there, too. The withdrawal of American troops from Syria means that Russia, Turkey, Iran, Syria, and several non-state actors will now fight for control of the Levant. Having Moscow bogged down in the Levant bodes well for peace in Europe for the time being. A Turkish-Persian small war would likewise give the West a breather, at least militarily. If anti-refugee parties in Europe thought the first wave of refugees was unbearable, they’re in a for a world of surprise now. The bloodshed that will result from the world’s hegemon leaving a power vacuum will likely make Europe’s populist parties even more popular.

Nightcap

  1. Ottoman nostalgia (back to the Balkans) Alev Scott, History Today
  2. Did post-Marxist theories destroy Communist regimes? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. Islam in Eastern Europe (a silver thread) Jacob Mikanowski, Los Angeles Review of Books
  4. Against Imperial Nostalgia: Or why Empires are Kaka Barry Stocker, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Israelis versus Jews Jonathan Bronitsky, Claremont Review of Books
  2. Silk, Slaves, and Stupas Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books
  3. Erdoğan’s Flights of Fancy Kaya Genç, NY Review of Books
  4. Why Free Markets are Better than Globalism David Gordon, the Austrian

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism X

In my last post in this series, I discussed Turkey of the 1970s, starting with the 1971 Coup by Memorandum. Now I will move onto the Turkey of the 1980s, starting with the 12th September Coup in 1980, its impact and the foundations of civilian politics after the military left government. The coup was in reaction to political violence in the streets, political deadlock in the National Assembly and a worsening economic situation. It was overwhelming popular when launched, but since has become thought of as the darkest moment of the Turkish state. Despite its retrospective unpopularity and the ways that Recep Tayyıp’s Erdoğan AKP (along with Islamist predecessor parties) has positioned itself as the biggest victims of the coup, there are clear continuities with the current illiberal Erdoğanist-AKP regime and the 12th September regime.

At the time of the coup the Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces was Kenan Evren, and he became head of the military council which administered the country until 1983. He also assumed the office of President of the the Republic, which he retained after the return of civilian rule in 1983. He was still respectfully known as Evren Paşa to some when I first came to Turkey in 1997, but all lingering respect and affection has disappeared. There is some ingratitude here as Erdoğan’s way of running the country clearly owes a lot to Evren and the 1982 constitution promulgated by the coup regime, with its lack of restraints on executive power, enabled Erdoğan to take over the state and turn the kind of power Evren exercised during a military regime into the permanent power of a civilian president, based on a crudely majoritarian understanding of democracy. Majoritarian in two senses, which will be discussed below. The regime became famous for abuse of human rights, including mass detentions, widespread torture and widespread use of the death penalty for political linked crimes, including a man of only 17 years. The brutality and the crude political understanding of the generals in power undermined the idea that a full scale military coup was acceptable and it never happened again, though the story of military involvement in politics was not over.

The 12th September regime stabilised the economy with the help of Türgut Özal who was then a professional economist and then the first civilian Prime Minister when elections returned. The original plan was presented to the last pre-coup government and so the coup regime’s initial economic plan was a continuation of ideas entering the centre-right civilian political sphere sphere. This reduced some forms of state intervention in the economy and opened it more to the world economy, so could be labelled neo-liberal, a term now used largely as a term of abuse, but which can be used in a more meaningful way. Inevitably, there are left-wing analysts who treat the economic changes that came out of 1980 as the equivalent of the economic changes introduced in Chile after the September 1973 coup. This conceals more than it illuminates. The military adopted Özal’s plans out of pragmatism of the moment rather than conviction, soon moving away from economic liberalism, when a military figure replaced Özal as head of economic planning in 1982.

The 12th September regime organised a referendum in 1982 to pass a constitution which was far less liberal than that of 1961 (itself introduced by referendum during a period of military rule). It retained the role of the army in influencing the government through a National Security Council, introduced by the 1961 constitution. The 1980 constitution is still in place, though heavily amended. The 1982 constitution retained the centrality of the National Assembly as the expression of the national will, going back to the constitutional ideas at the beginning of the Republic. It increased executive privilege though in over-ruling court decisions and gave the Presidency just enough power so that once Erdoğan came to power with a strong willingness to ignore precedent and the norms guiding the constitution, he could turn Turkey into a de facto presidential republic with a weak national assembly, even before the 2016 referendum which formalised the change.

The electoral rules for the National Assembly were changed to exclude parties with below 10% of the vote. The system of proportional representation introduced (a version of the d’Hondt system), favoured the largest party so that it could take the majority of seats with about 35% of the vote (lower is possible but that in practice is how it has worked, depending on the distribution of votes between parties), which is how the AKP gained a majority. The rules were biased towards rural constituencies over urban constituencies, so favoured the right-wing parties.

The 10% rule is sometimes seen as aimed against Kurdish based parties, but if we look at the election results before 1980, it would be more reasonable to think of it as aimed against Idealist Hearths/Grey Wolf Turkish ultranationalists and National View Islamists. Preventing radical left parties and Kurdish based parties from entering the National Assembly may have been an aim in 1982, but surely only secondary to a wish to keep the far right out of the National Assembly. The system had adjusted to a kind of absolutist majoritarianism in which the ‘majority’ could be a plurality with much less than half the vote. The less formal design was to make Turkey a permanently majoritarian country in the sense that it would be dominated by forces rooted in the Sunni religious majority and dominant Turkish ethnicity resolutely committed to a very homogenous understanding of the nation in which the more extreme versions of ethnic nationalism and religious conservatism would be marginalised but so would religious minorities (most significantly Alevi Muslims), ethnic minorities (most significantly Kurds), and open non-believers. Evren himself publicly quoted from the Koran, completely against the spirit of Kemalism, and suppressed the teaching of evolutionary theory in schools. Erdoğan has imitated him in both these respects.

The coup regime created its own national-conservative party with a left-Kemalist (national republican party) as the preferred opposition, both of which disappeared before long. Özal was allowed to create a middle ground party, Motherland (which now exists only as an on-paper micro-party satellite of AKP). This gathered members of the Menderes-Demirel centre-right tradition along with three other pillars: ultranationalists who had been active in the Grey Wolf  associations, former members of the left (including far-left) turned ‘liberal’, members of Sunni religious communities. All the pre-coup parties were illegal during the 1983 elections and the Motherland Party was the only legal party led by people with political experience and talents, so it was in the ideal position to get the most votes, to the irritation of the military leaders who nevertheless accepted the result.

Özal himself was a member of the Nakşibendi Sufi lodge (a very old religious community linked to very orthodox Sunni Islam, originating in the Ottoman lands but also present in other Muslim areas) so was the first Turkish leader from the world of religious communities in the history of the republic. More on Özal and the politics of the 1980s in the nest post.

Ottomanism, Nationalism, Republicanism IX

After a break dealing with proofs and indexes of two forthcoming books, a process that overlapped with getting a new university semester started, I can return to this series, which I last added to here. I set the scene of the late 1960s in Turkey, so I will turn to the next big upheaval, the Coup by Memorandum on March 12th 1971.

The Coup by Memorandum followed an attempted coup by far left/third worldist revolutionaries amongst the officer corps. Any unity created by the Kemalist project (secularist national-republican tradition of Turkey’s founder, Kemal Atatürk) was effectively ended, though this decomposition could be said about the whole period from the 1940s to 1971, especially after the adoption of multi-partyism by Atatürk’s successor, İsmet İnönü.

The 1971 coup forced the resignation of the conservative Prime Minister Süyleman Demirel and the implementation of a program to crush the far left, while also implementing some of the more left-wing ideas associated with the 1960 coup (particularly land reform and trade union rights). National View, the first Islamist party in Turkey, founded by Necmettin Erbakan, was closed down along with leftist groups so that an appearance of balance could be maintained in opposing the extremes on both sides. The reality, though, is that the level of state repression, including violence, and further including illegal violence (torture of the arbitrarily detained) directed against the far left, including Kurdish autonomists, drastically exceeded that directed against the far right.

The level of oppression that affected the mainstream right (in that the Justice Party was temporarily removed from government) and religious right was enough to create the idea that the right in Turkey was in some way the liberal part of Turkish politics. This not only influenced liberals, but even some people with very left wing views. It is part of how the AKP could come to power and hollow out state institutions, while subordinating civil society from 2002 onwards. The right continued with a militant anti-communist discourse, in all parts, while in part posing as the liberal friends of leftist rights, along with the rights of the Kurdish autonomists. This was pioneered by Turgut Özal in the 80s and taken further by the AKP. Presumably, Turkish liberals and leftists of the most anti-Kemalist sort have now learned a lesson, but possibly too late to benefit from it for at least a generation.

The military establishment’s implicit tolerance of the religious right, along with the ultranationalist grey wolves, in comparison to the secularist leftists tells an important story about the reality of ‘Kemalist domination’ of Turkey. It had evolved into a Turkish-Islamic synthesis, a compromise with the more conservative parts of the Kemalist establishment, in which the Turkish-Islamic synthesis became more prominent and the ‘Kemalism’ became more and more gestural, including a pointless obsession with preventing young women with covered hair from entering the university, at the same time as the rights of non-Muslim minorities.

The picture is more complicated in that the anti-leftist post-memorandum government in 1971 closed the Greek Orthodox seminary in the Princes Islands off the Marmara Sea coast of Istanbul, as part of a general closure or nationalisation of private (largely foreign) institutions of higher education. This was a policy in accordance with the demands of the far left, including campus radicals. So a measure to deny rights to a Christian minority coincided with the demands of the far left and was undertaken by a notionally secularist government, in reality more concerned with crushing the far left and extending a conservative form of statism.

The above, in any case, did not resolve the real problems of political violence to which the 1971 coup responded. The period between the end of the very temporary government appointed in 1971 and the coup of 12th September 1983 was one of increasing political violence and extremism, with a lack of stable governments as the Justice Party lost majority support (though it remained in government most of the time). Neither it nor the Republican People’s Party were able to form stable coalitions or parliamentary agreements, while the economy suffered and political violence increased between far left and far right groups. Unexplained massacres of demonstrators and political assassinations accompanied barricades that violent groups put up to signify control of urban areas.

The National Assembly failed to elect a President of the Republic in 1980, despite 115 rounds of voting during increasing political and economic disruptions. When the army seized power again on the 12th September, there was widespread public support, but this was the most brutal of the military governments. Its attempt to create a more ‘stable’, i.e. authoritarian, democracy gave Turkey a constitution and system which enabled the AKP to come to power with 35% of the vote in 2002 and then erode the weak restraints on executive powers when held in conjunction with a one party majority in the National Assembly.

More on this in the next post.