Category: Middle East

Rise of nerves

I’d never really thought much about violent extremism before 2001, when images of the collapsing Twin Towers filled TV screens around the world. I was just a naive 18 year old asking my father if the world was ending.  He assured me it wasn’t, but I still remember how alarmed he looked.

The world didn’t end then, but it changed.

Although the events of 9/11 were undeniably tragic, it riles me somewhat when the media elevates this above all other similar incidents. In Turkey, in just twelve months, there have been at least fifteen terrorist attacks, culminating in the big one that really hit home for me. Ataturk Airport, June 28, 2016. 45 dead, 239 injured.

I was due to fly out of Turkey just days later. Of course, that was no reason to be afraid, but it does bring a stark reminder of one’s own mortality.

But the sense of fear in Istanbul started long before the airport attack. As an expat there in late 2014 I remember hearing fellow Brits talking about their fears of spending too long in crowded places, of taking public transport, or of hanging out in Taksim Square.

This rise of nerves coincided with the rise of ISIS; disturbingly close to home over the Syrian border. Turkey seemed immune to attack at that time, in fact some say the Turkish government actively supported ISIS, or turned a blind eye to its cross-border activities at the very least. With that in mind, some of us felt a little safer, assuming that ISIS would not bite the hand that fed it.

But things changed in July 2015, when an ISIS suicide bomber attacked a Kurdish peace rally in the eastern city of Suruç, killing 33 people. Eyewitnesses reported a curious lack of security at the event, which is unusual for Turkey. From that point on, every month seemed to bring a new attack, and nowhere felt safe anymore.

In early 2016 the focus shifted to Istanbul. Every expat’s anxious nightmare came home to roost when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the middle of the tourist heartland, Sultanahmet. Then came another attack in March, this time targeting another popular tourist area, Istiklal Avenue.

The bomber struck on a Saturday morning, where thankfully the street was at its most empty. At peak times, mainly weekend evenings, nearly three million people might traverse that street. It often gets packed rigid; difficult to move in any direction. That used to be dynamic and exciting. In the wake of the bombing, it became terrifying. And these days, it’s not so packed anymore.

In July came the final message from ISIS to Turkey, in the form of the Ataturk airport bombing. It seemed the group had lost patience with Turkey. Something had shifted; no idea what. But now, a few months later, Turkish forces have joined the coalition working to rout ISIS out of Mosul once and for all.

What this defeat will mean for the terrorist group remains to be seen. Analysts offer up a wide range of theories, but simply using military force to defeat the group in Iraq will not defeat the ideology. In fact, it will probably support the compelling ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative that ISIS promotes through all its online content.

A concept can’t be killed, it can only be neutralised. Changing hearts and minds through smarter and more thoughtful engagement at the grass roots is one way to start doing this. Of course the social and political challenges will remain. Only deep-seated policy change can shift these. That is unlikely to happen any time soon. But rising Islamophobia and the resulting discrimination and marginalisation must be tackled if we hope to create convincing counter-narratives to combat those of violence.

Turkey’s biggest trauma

The recent coup attempt in Turkey should be recognised as a “national trauma”, according to regional expert Sinan Ciddi, speaking at an event organised by the Centre for Turkey Studies at SOAS.

“We are still unsure who was behind the coup,” Ciddi said. “We only have certain suspicions that it was instigated by ‘factions’ of the Turkish military.”

In the wake of the coup attempt, it is important to understand, 1) why it failed, and 2) what the implications will be, both long and short-term, for Turkey. The following is a summary of and reflections on some of the key points from the evening’s discussion.

The US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen has been scapegoated for the coup attempt. Some of the perpetrators were loyal to Gülen, that’s for sure. But others were hardline Kemalists forming an ‘unholy alliance’, with Gülen to unseat the AKP government and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan himself.

The Turkish government only allows us to see a carefully curated view of events, thanks to the strategy of media blackouts that is always swiftly implemented after any incident of civil unrest. Only independent outlets such as Al Monitor can freely publish news about controversial events in Turkey. In recent months most of the events in this category have been terrorist attacks, but a media blackout also happened during the brief hours of the July coup attempt.

Why did the coup fail?
Erdogan broke the blockade of the normal media ban and took to the airwaves via FaceTime to galvanise the people against the putschists. His message resounded heavily with the crowd and propelled them into action. This was the undoing of the coup. In addition, the military made certain logistical failures, e.g. by deploying too few a number of troops, which in some ways didn’t look like a serious attempt.

The prime reason for failure was the widespread lack of military support. Generals did not step up to deploy troops in Istanbul. The coup was doomed to failure from the very beginning and civilian authority was restored overnight. Did the putschists actually intend to succeed? Or was the coup simply a smokescreen for a more sinister political strategy?

What are the implications for Turkey?
Firstly, there is now a general problem of governability in Turkey. The government has put the country under a state of emergency for three months. This means, among other things, that the cabinet can be ruled by decree and is no longer subject to parliamentary approval, nor is it under the purview of the judiciary. Since the state of emergency has been declared, there have been various rulings, which have curtailed the role of the military while enabling civilians to gain control. Military institutions have been handed over to civilian authority, including seemingly harmless ones such as hospitals and schools.

This ‘Erdoganisation’ of the military aims to undercut that institution’s Kemalist structures and construct a new military that is unflinchingly loyal to the president. In pursuit of this goal, the government has conducted a widespread purging of the ranks, with 10,000s of officers removed from their posts. The AKP has also cast a wide net to catch any additional suspected coup plotters, mainly targeting Gülenists, in a process Ciddi referred to as ‘de-Gülenification’. In addition to the military purge, at least 4000 schools, companies, universities and media organisations have also been curtailed and closed down, including the Zaman newspaper group, and Istanbul’s biggest Gülen-linked university, Fatih University.

Turkey is certainly not headed towards greater democracy. Instead, it is systematically removing all actors that potentially threaten Erdogan’s power, including political dissidents and all other opposition figures (mainly Gülenists). The coup attempt has presented the perfect excuse to do this. It is no wonder Erdogan described the event as a ‘gift from God’.

So what will the judicial landscape of Turkey look like once the state of emergency has ended? There is likely to be less and less independent governing by institutions. Instead things will shift towards the creation of Erdogan’s own ‘kingdom’, as he continues to gut Turkey’s institutions and reshape them in his preferred fashion. This is alarming for the future of Turkey’s governance, as the world still does not know what kind of constitution will eventually emerge.

What are the foreign policy implications?
In the West, alarm bells are already ringing as Turkey ratchets up the tension with its Western partners. The US ambassador did not condemn the coup immediately, a move which rankled Turks and stirred up a ripple of suspicion and anti-American sentiment. In contrast, Russian president Vladimir Putin hurried to condemn the coup and offer his support. Turks love a good conspiracy theory, and the rising suspicion of the West, especially the United States, is at an all-time high. Some people think: ‘Perhaps the US was actually complicit in the coup. After all, it is currently harbouring the ‘terrorist’ Fethullah Gülen over in Pennsylvania and refuses to give him up to face Turkish justice. Why not?’

But the US ambassador’s move, seen by Turks as failure to empathise with their traumatised country, has not helped matters. In his typical confrontational style, Erdogan quickly seized on this to stoke public sentiment against the West in an attempt to solidify Turks as a nation united against the threat of outsiders. In recent weeks Turkey has started to turn towards unlikely new friends, including Israel and Russia. But at the same time it remains a member of NATO. How long can this uncomfortable dynamic continue?

The relationship between Turkey and the EU now hinges on one issue: refugees. Believing that Europe failed to support Turkey during the coup, Erdogan has threatened to cancel his refugee programme and let them all pour across European borders. With this sword of Damocles hanging over Merkel and friends, the EU is forced to keep Turkey on side, but barely.

So what role does Turkey play in the region now?
Turkey is no longer inspiring much confidence in its Western allies in terms of resolving the Syrian conflict. It is uncertain whether Turkey can actually help in Syria or merely hinder. No-one knows for sure if the Turkish army is primarily targeting ISIS militants or instead the Kurdish forces (Western allies against ISIS), in pursuit of the Turkish state’s age-old ‘Kurdish issue’. After all, having an independent Kurdish-ruled state (Rojava) on its borders is seen by Turkey as a significant existential threat. This begs the question: what is Turkey’s true goal in Jarablus and beyond?

How far will the AKP take the state-of-emergency law?
It  could perhaps be leveraged strategically to fashion a new Turkey, one where Erdogan rules unchallenged and keeps every facet of society firmly within his grasp. Will Turkey cooperate with the western powers in Syria? And will Turkey’s currently weakened government structures be able to help stabilise Syria, or just make it worse?

The feud between Erdogan and Fethullah Gülen goes back only a short time, to around 2010. Before then, the two sides were the strongest of allies. In fact, the Gülenists were fast-tracked into power by the AKP, after the Ergenekon trials ended. Turkey has a long history of ‘deep state’ activity, so why tolerate it for all this time only to make a massive deal of it now? Is it because the Gülenists got too comfortable with their positions of power and began to overplay their hand, eventually antagonising the AKP?

The coup attempt came as a huge shock to most Western observers. Turkey is now in a state of flux and, although we can toss ideas and theories around, it is difficult to predict with any certainty what will happen next. That the AKP will take an even tighter grip on Turkey is one sure thing, especially with greater consensus between the three main parties (AKP, CHP, MHP) as they come together against the coup. Whatever we in the West think of Erdogan, we must not forget that he and the AKP remain highly popular with many Turks. He is still a democratically elected leader, although of course his actions reflect anything but democracy. Turkey remains a conundrum in many ways.

The changing face of post-coup Turkey

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Sunset over Haydarpasa Station, Istanbul

The Place Brand Observer invited me to write about the July coup attempt in Turkey, and its implications for the country’s global reputation. 

Turkey has long been described as a country of contrasts. Ever since Ottoman times it has managed an image that has skilfully blended the best of the East with the strong points of the West.

There have been peaks and troughs but Turkey has overcome them all and emerged stronger. Until now, when the country faces what may be its biggest challenge yet, one that may see it losing favour in the eyes of the West.

On the evening of July 16, 2016 there was a coup attempt in Turkey. Military officers took over Istanbul and Ankara and for the space of a few hours the world watched with bated breath, unsure what the outcome would be.

In the end, the people overcame the putschists and the coup was foiled. Throughout that fraught night, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, addressed the Turkish public, calling for unity and a show of strength against the coup. The people rose to the occasion with panache.

In the wake of this dramatic event, there have been a number of repercussions affecting Turkey’s reputation. According to the 2016 Most Reputable Countries report from Reputation Institute, released just last week, Turkey’s reputation has dropped the most this year out of all the 70 countries surveyed in the report.

This dark shift is reflected in Turkish tourism, an industry that over the last year has reported some of its worst figures in decades. Foreign visitor numbers fell by 41% in June this year, according to data from the Turkish tourism ministry. It was the worst drop in tourist numbers on record.

The July coup attempt has surely done further damage. But this incident is only the final straw in a series of events over the last 12 months that have combined to cause significant damage to Western perceptions of Turkey.

Since summer 2015, Turkey has experienced terrorist attacks, ongoing civil war in the southeast, government crackdowns on press and academic freedom, and loss of certain civil liberties, while becoming subject to a constant stream of negative reporting in the international media. It is no wonder the country’s image has been damaged so severely.

In general, there are two main strands that contribute to forming overall negative perceptions of Turkey; the first, perceptions of the country as unsafe (due to numerous terrorist attacks during 2015/16), and the second, perceptions of its leadership as increasingly authoritarian.

It is worth noting here that Turkey and its government still enjoy widespread popularity among much of the non-Western world, where Erdoğan is still viewed as a strong and successful leader. In addition, recent polls have shown that anti-Western sentiment among Turks has flared up after the coup, with 70% of Turks believing America to have been involved.

If the Most Reputable Countries poll were to be conducted in the Middle East and Africa, we would probably see very different results for Turkey. Nation branding is first and foremost a Western construct, where countries tend to be judged according to Western standards of freedom, democracy, and tolerance. This is worth keeping in mind, lest our perceptions risk becoming too ethnocentric.

But in practice, the Western world holds most of the power. It controls much of the flows of tourism, foreign investment, talent, and diplomacy that determine the success or failure of any nation.

In light of all this, what’s next for Turkey? In a recent article, Efe Sevin writes that the current brand image crisis “should be seen as a prolonged crisis”. He stresses that an active communication campaign would be the best, and perhaps the only, way for Turkey to get its image back on track.

At present, the Turkish government is fully engaged in promoting an image of the country as unified, in opposition to outside forces that would seek to damage the nation. There is much talk of Turkey’s commitment to democracy, yet the West remains unconvinced. In fact, it grows ever more sceptical by the day. In particular, the post-coup response, which involves widespread purging of suspected ‘Gulenists’ from within the judiciary, military and academia, is hindering the ‘democratic’ image of Turkey.

The Gulen movement, or Hizmet, headed by reclusive US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, has now become public enemy number one, blamed for the coup attempt. But just a few years ago Gulen and Erdogan were close allies, and the global network of Hizmet schools were responsible for promoting a positive image of Turkey around much of the world.

In order to move forward post-coup, Turkey needs to acknowledge other factors causing its image problem and not simply resort to blaming everything on Gulenists (as Gulen’s followers are known), as this piece in the Hurriyet newspaper attempts to do. As Sevin points out, the Western media has largely made up its collective mind about Turkey and its government.

To salvage its image in the medium-term, Turkey’s best hope is to decide which audiences matter most, and figure out ways to reach them and get the desired message across.

This post was originally published on the Place Brand Observer

An imagined nation carving out its niche

Mardin old town

Kurdistan is an imagined nation that exists only in the minds of the its people. But the concept of ‘Kurdishness’ crosses many borders. The Kurds have been called the ‘world’s largest stateless nation’, although some have criticised this designation for its suggestion of homogeneity. In reality there are many differences between various Kurdish groups.

The Kurds number around 30 million people, spread across four neighbouring countries, Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Despite having their own distinct languages, culture and history, the Kurds are still struggling to carve out their own space somewhere in the niche where those four ancient lands meet.

A Kurd may hold a Turkish, Syrian, Iranian, or Iraqi passport, but he or she will always identify as a Kurd first and foremost. The sense of national pride for a nation not yet born is nevertheless strong and widespread.

The problem of statelessness is not new for Kurds. Throughout history they have been engaged in an ongoing struggle for recognition and independence. So far their dream of an independent state has not been realised. Iraqi Kurdistan may be the closest the Kurds have come so far to having an independent Kurdish state.

Officially still part of a federal Iraq, this Kurdish region is governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), headed by its own president (Maasoud Barzani), and enjoys a certain level of freedom from Baghdad central control. Accordingly, the region has developed into relative prosperity, thanks to its oil wealth, and has become known as the most secure and stable area of a largely war-torn Iraq.

The Kurdish example illustrates our focus on the cross-border mentality in a number of interesting ways. Firstly, the whole idea of ‘Kurdishness’, is a concept that crosses borders, not just the four borders of the mountainous Kurdish homelands, but also internationally. This sense of Kurdish unity was consolidated and brought dramatically to world attention last year, when the plight of Kobane hit the news.

Kobane, a Syrian Kurdish city, came dangerously close to being overrun by Islamic State militants. But the city was saved, partly because Kurds came from all over neighbouring Turkey, and some from even further afield, to support their brothers and sisters across the border in the battle against IS.

It seemed that the sense of Kurdish solidarity had never been stronger than in the battle for Kobane. As a result, the Kurdish reputation garnered increased global support and attention as the media portrayed the Kurds as a brave force protecting the world from the IS onslaught. In this way, Kobane acquired a symbolic significance.

The story of Kobane has given the Kurdish national project a fresh and revitalised narrative. In particular, some experts in Kurdish affairs claim that the events in Kobane have given the Kurds increased international legitimacy.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot treaty carved up the Middle East between the British and the French after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The heavy-handed approach of the treaty showed complete ignorance of the region. It created many new borders that disrupted fragile religious, tribal and ethnic boundaries.

The violent repercussions of Sykes-Picot have been felt ever since. Fortunately, there may be a new approach. Economic cross-border cooperation, while keeping nation-states intact, may help end some of the region’s conflicts. Ironically, it is the Kurds and their long-time foe, the Turkish state, who are leading the way.

Iraqi Kurdistan produces a great deal of oil and gas. Baghdad lays claim to most of the revenue from this, depriving Erbil of what the latter says is its fair share. To out-manoeuvre Baghdad, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan came together to build an oil pipeline from Erbil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

This cross-border endeavour has allowed Iraqi Kurdistan to access the international markets for its oil and gas, while simultaneously avoiding Baghdad seizing control over the revenues.

Collaboration such as this is still rare in the region. The Ceyhan pipeline is a groundbreaking attempt to transverse borders for mutual economic benefit. Cross-border economic initiatives like this one can potentially pave the way for greater understanding and mutual cooperation between states in the Middle East.

Climate of fear: Two years in Istanbul

istanbul

It is sobering and painful to imagine bad fortune befalling those places you hold dear; to know that the streets that you once frequented and the bridges you once traversed have become bit part players in a much larger tragedy.

I first discovered Istanbul during its calmer days. I arrived in the city in the autumn of 2013; my first encounter with the ancient cultural heart of an altogether unfamiliar country. Istanbul captivated me at once with its energy and quirkiness, with its fascinating and shambolic mingling of cultures, and with its passion and unrelenting buzz.

Admittedly, all was not entirely well in the Istanbul that I first saw. In the summer of that same year, the Gezi Park protests had brought the city’s various discontents into stark view. The heavy handed crackdown by Turkey’s government against those protests was an ominous sign of things to come. During the Gezi events the world saw a flow of images showing Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons turning on protestors with vicious intent. These images became a dominant motif for Turkey over the months and years that followed Gezi.

I will never forget one ordinary Saturday afternoon in late 2014. I was wandering Istiklal Caddesi with friends on a mildly sunny day. The avenue was busy with people young and old, families, and foreign tourists. Suddenly we were startled by people running in our direction. It turned out there were police hot on their tails armed with excessive amounts of teargas.

We were about to be caught in the crossfire and knew that a gassing could be really unpleasant. So we ran for the nearest side street and took refuge in a vehicle workshop, where the owners rushed to batten down the steel door and where together we all waited until the danger had passed by. Outside, the air was acrid with the lingering stench of teargas.

Since those early days there have been many more dramatic events in Istanbul and wider Turkey. Most notably, the ruling regime has stepped up its level of control, bolstered by another resounding win at the ballot box in mid-2015, when Turkey held its most recent general election. The leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure. At first I thought he was unpopular with most Turks, judging from the opinions of my liberal and mostly secular English-speaking Turkish friends, who never missed a chance to criticise him.

But as I got to know Turkey more deeply it became clear that the man had widespread popular support, just not from the demographic that constituted most of my social scene. On the contrary, Erdogan supporters came from the working classes, from the more religious and less well-educated sections of society. This is a general statement but one that largely holds true.

To understand Turkey better it is important to remember that Istanbul is not really Turkey, and Turkey is not really Istanbul. In fact, most of Turkey resides in the wider Anatolian regions, beyond Istanbul, where society tends towards the poorer, more conservative and more religious. These are the heartlands from where President Erdogan draws the majority of his support base. These are the voters that have kept the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in power for almost fifteen years.

Erdogan is undoubtedly a gifted politician. Although he may lack a university education (his degree is believed to be fake), he has used his time spent on the streets of Istanbul to learn exactly what makes the common Turk tick and he has leveraged this knowledge to great effect. He is ruthless too, as shown by his cynical manipulation of Turkish society to achieve his political aims.

In summer 2015 the tide shifted in Turkey. A challenger party, the HDP (People’s Democratic Party), won enough general election votes to give it a seat in parliament. This denied the AKP the majority rule it had expected to win. The result was a hung parliament amid calls for the ruling party to form a coalition. Anyone who knows Turkish politics and the personality of Erdogan himself knows how impossible this is. There was stalemate for a number of months until a second general election was called in November.

Between the first and second elections a number of unusual events befell Turkey. In July, not long after the first election result was announced, a truce between the ruling party and the PKK (Kurdish independence party, notorious for long-standing conflict with the Turkish state) suddenly fell apart. It was unusual, because this truce had been in place since 2013, with the goal to embark on a peace process. As a result, conflict duly resumed in the south-east between the PKK and Turkish security forces. Turkey was once again embroiled in a civil war.

Then, just before the November election was due, Turkey suffered the worst terrorist attack in its history. Two suicide bombers blew themselves to smithereens amid a peace rally in the capital Ankara, killing 102 people, most of them young. They had been rallying for peace in the Kurdish southeast. The finger was pointed at Islamic State. But the militant group, normally so quick to claim responsibility for its actions, has so far remained silent on this attack.

Eyewitnesses at the Ankara event noted the surprising lack of security forces during the peace rally. It was almost as if the government wanted the rally to be attacked. Some have even gone as far as to claim the AKP deliberately orchestrated the bombing to tip the November election in its favour. Be that the case or not, it worked. The AKP won a landslide victory and regained full control in parliament. I was out of the country when the results came through.

All the while tensions were ratcheting up across Turkey. The feeling was palpable in Istanbul’s over-crowded subways and heaving streets; not only tension but also fear. The country had started to feel unstable. I was fairly shielded from the effects of this fear, as I lived far from the city centre at that time. The place where I lived was a low-key working-class suburb, where nothing except occasional boredom was a concern. But friends living in the centre spoke of their nervousness using public transport and being in busy enclosed spaces such as shopping malls.

Istanbul was changing.

The following year, things took a turn for the worse. There were two separate suicide bomb attacks, one in January in touristy Sultanahmet followed by a second in March in the heart of Istiklal Street. Both times foreign tourists as well as Turks were killed. These two locations were absolutely the most effective choices for destroying the tourism industry in Turkey, which indeed they did.

Another suicide attack in late June, a particularly brazen one targeting Ataturk Airport, cemented the climate of fear in Istanbul. It sent many people fleeing elsewhere if they were able to do so. Expats began talking seriously about leaving; while Turks entitled to foreign passports were trying urgently to secure them.

To their credit, the Turks had the airport up and running again within hours of the attack, which was convenient for some but rather alarming for others. Things felt normal when I flew out of that same airport just days after the attack, apart from the commemorative display in the arrivals hall where 42 people had been blown and shot to shreds.

This leads us up to the most recent news of this weekend’s coup attempt. It’s a time of high drama for Turkey. Erdogan has called on the US to extradite his arch-rival, elderly Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who he has accused of orchestrating the coup via his many supporters in positions of power in Turkey. It makes little sense for Gulen to do such a thing.

What rings more true – alarmingly – is that the AKP somehow set up the coup attempt as justification for the subsequent arrest of thousands of judges and senior military figures – which happened within two days of the coup. How the wheels of so-called justice can move so fast is mystifying, unless of course the coup was expected, planned and carried out by those loyal to the AKP.

Now is a golden opportunity for Erdogan to make his final bid for total control. His dearest wish is to change the constitution to allow executive powers for the presidency. If this occurs, it could be a death knell for any semblance of democracy in Turkey. The country will have transitioned into a dictatorship in all but name, just like its current civil war in all but name against the Kurds in the southeast.

There is no telling now what the future holds for Turkey. If it continues down this path Erdogan is likely to achieve unquestionable power. What that means for the common people of Turkey is as yet unknown. Now relegated to an observer instead of a more active participant, I can only hope that whatever comes next will avoid doing further damage to the city, country and people among which I spent some happy, formative and productive years. It feels like Turkey is descending into an abyss, but inshallah, as the Turks say, things will not be as dark as they seem.