Sunday, July 24, 2016

Why We'll Never Get a Full Accounting of Turkey's Failed Coup*

Haaretz: It was a wild, confusing night of gunfire, unscheduled calls to prayer and sonic booms in Istanbul. But with an nontransparent government, a media that's state controlled or under pressure, and wide-scale purges, Erdogan's narrative will be hard to challenge.

Louis Fishman, July 17, 2017

On Friday night just after 10pm my cellphone started buzzing and the deluge of WhatsApp messages started. “Go home immediately!” After that: “Turkey is in the midst of a coup d’état!”
Rumors had already started taking off on Twitter that the Bosphorus Bridge connecting Istanbul's European and Asian sides had been blocked and that tanks had taken to the streets. Some of the reports seemed exaggerated: A coup was underway? Others reported that it was extreme measures taken to secure the city in the wake of fears of another possible terror attack. That same day there had already been a number of false alarms in a country already on edge after the ISIS attack on Istanbul’s Ataturk airport just weeks before, which left almost 50 people dead.
It took no time at all for the Twitter rumors to spread like wildfire. Reports were emerging from Ankara that jet fighters were racing through the sky nonstop. Something was happening, but a coup? Was this really possible?
About two hours later, it seemed Turkey had been brought back to 1980, when the army briefly overran the state television channel TRT, which has functioned in the last few years as a mouthpiece for the Turkish government. This time, after a brief hiatus, the TV anchor came back on air to read the official coup statement, announcing that the “Turkish Armed Forces have completely taken over the administration of the country to reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security that have been damaged.”
This confirmation propelled residents of my Istanbul neighborhood out to get water and food, and for many others to line up at ATMs to withdraw money. For many in Turkey, this behavior was already hardwired as a coup survival instinct. Either citizens remembered first hand from the coups of 1960, 1971, 1980 (and the “post-modern coup" of 1997 that played out differently), or — for the younger generation who hadn't themselves lived through a similar scenario — they remembered the lessons of stories endlessly retold by their parents' generation and, in any case, were receiving enough advice through SMSs and social media to know what to do.
While chatter was emerging of how the country could be ruled by a “Peace Council,” and who was behind the attempted overthrow of the government, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan ( love him or hate him) quickly pulled the carpet from out under their feet, not disappointing his supporters for a second. Having left his vacation on Turkey’s southern coast he appeared on no less that ten television channels live via FaceTime. Back in the coup of 1980, Turkey only had one television station; channels have multiplied since then, including several 24-hour news channels and other that wear their support for Erdogan on their sleeve.
On air, Erdogan confirmed the coup attempt, and reiterated PM Binali Yildirim's words that the coup plotters would pay a heavy price. More importantly, Erdogan called on Turkish citizens to take to the streets, fill the squares, and make their way to the airport, where the army had rolled out its tanks. Within hours Erdogan himself landed there, once the masses had indeed forced the army to pull out: He was back in control. Erdogan supporters also heeded his call to take back the streets and challenged the army’s presence in different parts of the city.
From the moment the unrest started, Erdogan, Yildirim and other government ministers reassured their constituency, and the opposition, that they were in control, providing no room for any discussion of a possibility of a coup. At the same time, the coup plotters seemed unorganized and ill-prepared, unable to sustain control of state television. The coup participants' somewhat embarrassing takeover of the Dogan Media’s building, which brought CNN Turk’s live television broadcast to a halt, led to their arrest shortly after.  
Through the night in Istanbul we heard continuous gunfire mixed together with mosques that blared unscheduled prayers over their loudspeakers, anti-coup demonstrators shouting, and massive sonic booms, which many mistook for explosions.
However, if Istanbul was bad, Ankara was much worse: The live TV streams showed the parliament being bombed by a helicopter and fighter jets. Civilians protesting the army's presence were at times being shot at with live ammunition; in one sequence we could see a helicopter shooting at a crowd from the sky.  
I finally crashed out at 5:30 am, as sonic booms shook the house. I woke up a few hours later to the news that the soldiers controlling the Bosphorus Bridge had surrendered, and only vestigial clashes remained in Ankara.
The coup had failed, and it did so radically. However, it came at a high cost for Turkey. Its citizens have been left in a literal state of shock. Not only were anti-coup protesters protesters (defending the state’s democratically-elected government) shot by some soldiers, but some of the protesters lynched soldiers, leaving dead on both sides. For many Turkish citizens this is what they feared most: Turkish citizens fighting each other on the streets of its cities.  
Only 12 hours after the last coup plotter fired on the building from an F-16, Turkey's Parliament was the scene of a moment of hope. In a rare moment of unity, all the political parties joined together in solidarity against the attempted coup, all calling for democracy. Despite the fact that the general public played a major role in challenging the coup, suggesting the diminishing likelihood of such an upheaval in the future, the polarization in the Turkish state has only grown stronger.
Turkey’s government can certainly claim a major victory. Its supporters own the city squares where there were scenes of intense celebration. However the coup is also an object lesson for how unstable the country has become. Turkey has seen an immense amount of civil strife this year; the hundreds who died in this week’s failed coup attempt will be added to a very long list of people who have died in recent terrorist attack and political violence.
In a country where there is no accountability or transparency, where most of the domestic press is in the hands of the government, while other media outlets are under immense pressures to minimize the extent and critical tone of their reporting, it is highly unlikely that we will ever get the real picture of what happened before, during and after the coup-that-wasn't.
It's great news the coup did not succeed. What's more worrying is that the events, though shocking, fail to engender much surprise: During the last three years the country has been in constant crisis and following the attempted coup, and subsequent purge, it seems ripe for even more internal strife.
*This article appeared in Haaretz on July 17, 2016. Click here for the link

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Turkey must get its priorities straight and focus on ISIS*

Haaretz: The country is in a dire situation, and needs to get its act together and fight the real terrorists while holding talks with Kurds.

Louis Fishman, July 1, 2016

Tuesday night seemed like just another Istanbul summer evening as people hurried home after work to make it to the late evening Ramadan Iftar, leaving the city's famous traffic all but a myth. However, later on in the night people came out to stroll and enjoy the cool air. 
I was on the Asian side of Kadikoy enjoying the atmosphere. It seemed like the old days in Istanbul, as if the country had no problems: Lovers sitting on the shore, families eating ice cream and young people just hanging out.
However, this serene feeling was shattered once the news started to spread about a suicide attack that had just taken place at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. The trip back home to the European side in the minibus was eerie, with everyone sitting quietly. Finally, one person broke the silence and asked the driver to turn on the radio; silence continued as we listened in shock. 
Tuesday’s is but another in a long list of attacks that have occurred since last June, when an HDP (the mostly Kurdish leftist party) rally was hit by an ISIS sympathizer just days before the election, killing five and injuring hundreds.
In the following months, ISIS set off more blasts targeting both HDP members and other leftist groups: 33 were killed in Suruc last July, and 109 were killed at an Ankara rally in October. 
In the meantime, Ankara also saw two major bombings set off by TAK, an offshoot of the outlawed PKK (the Kurdish Workers’ Party). Since last summer, the Turkish government has once again become entrenched in all-out war with the group in the southeastern regions of the country. The TAK bombings in Ankara in February and March added 66 more civilians and security forces to the list. 
Lastly, ISIS struck in Istanbul, killing 13 German tourists in January and a group of four Israeli tourists in March. In fact, one Turkish online newspaper, Diken, has recorded a total of 15 bombings (including Tuesday’s attack) in the last 12 months, leaving 290 civilians dead and over 1,500 wounded.  
The year of violence has left Turkish citizens on edge. Tuesday’s bombings only reinforced the feeling that attacks can happen at any time and in any place. It also showed that ISIS, which is currently the main suspect, has become much more sophisticated, increasing fears of when and where it will attack next.
The Kurdish TAK, which could also attack at any moment, only adds to the growing atmosphere of terror.    
Further, Tuesday’s attack once again sent out a strong message to tourists to stay away from Turkey, which dampened the glimmer of hope that – following Turkey’s reconciliation with Israel and its apology to Russia for shooting down its military jet last November – quick and much-needed relief could be brought to a sector that is set to lose $15 billion this year alone (fortunately, following Erdogan’s conversation with Putin, the Russian president has lifted sanctions on tourism).
By hitting its airport, ISIS also struck at Turkey’s pride, damaging Istanbul's status as a major international hub due to Turkish Air. In fact, even when tourism dropped in Turkey due to fears of terrorism, many travelers continued to choose Turkish airlines.
However, Turkey’s problems do not start or stop with terror. Once placed within the current political state of instability, a much more volatile picture emerges. In fact, in addition to the 290 civilians killed (including foreigners) in terrorist attacks since June 2015, over 500 members of the security forces have been killed fighting the PKK. And, according to the Turkish government, at least 7,500 PKK insurgents (also Turkish citizens) have been killed as well. The deaths of civilians caught in the crossfire also reaches the hundreds, according to opposition parties.
In other words, Turkey is a state that is being torn apart at the seams and the numbers of dead when considered in total is simply astonishing. 
The Turkish government needs to reassess its domestic policy, like it did with Israel and Russia in terms of its foreign policy, and see where it is possible to create an atmosphere of dialogue in order to take on ISIS and TAK. The more it continues to deem human rights activists dangerous, like Reporters Without Borders, Erol Onderoglu, author Ahmet Nesin, and the Head of the Human Rights Foundation of Turkey, Sebnem Korur Financi, who were arrested earlier this month for spreading “terrorist propaganda,” the more it will continue on a path of instability.
This includes its treatment of opponents as terrorists, such as journalists and academics tried on terror charges, affiliates of the Gulen Movement (now declared a terrorist organization), or the HDP MPs who could face prison terms now that their parliamentary immunity has been lifted.
In fact, it has become clear as day that the United States and Europe are hesitant to move forward building coalitions with Turkey to fight terror as long as there are fears its opponents are being unfairly tried. 
Turkey is in a dire situation. If it doesn't get its act together, set its priorities straight and fight the real terrorists, while reigniting peace talks to reach a just solution to the Kurdish question (or at least work to ease the tension), it seems it will be doomed to continue to see more unrest. Within this greater polarization, the ground could become even more fertile for terrorism to wreak more havoc and chaos among its citizens.
This article appeared in Haaretz on July 1, 2016. Click here for the link

Netanyahu's Turkish coup: How Erdogan realized he really does 'need Israel'*

Haaretz: Rooted in the AKP's staunchly anti-Israel past, often tainted with blatant anti-Semitism, rooted in internal Turkish politics, Erdogan has always treated Turkey's relations with Israel with disdain. What changed?

Louis Fishman, June 27, 2016

The renewal of ties between Turkey and Israel marks a major turning point in this history of their bilateral relations, frozen since the 2010 Gaza flotilla incident, in which nine Turkish citizens died. Since then, Turkey has demanded an official apology from Israel (that came at President Obama’s urging in 2013), and financial compensation to be given to the families of the victims.
However, the major stumbling block was Turkey’s demand that Israel lift the Gaza blockade, something that Israel insisted was unacceptable, as it was an issue directly related to its security. 
For the last six months Turkey and Israel have worked on reaching a compromise concerning Gaza. Turkey has received guarantees that it will be able to supply humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and in addition it will also be able to build a hospital, supply much needed electricity and clean water to the Strip, in addition to other steps aimed at improving the lives of Palestinians there.
Netanyahu snatches victory from the jaws of crisis 
While Turkey’s achievements are impressive, Turkey’s acceptance of Israeli monitoring of these goods and services is an achievement for Israel, since it essentially is de facto recognition of the Gaza blockade itself, and something Israel has offered in one way or another since the crisis broke out. Israel received assurances that Hamas would not act against Israel from Turkish territory, allowing Turkey to save face as well, by not having to expel them. Importantly, it also received assurances that IDF soldiers who participated in the Flotilla Raid will be free from criminal charges in Turkish courts.  
Putting aside the details of the agreement, the real story however is how Israel was able to transform the international crisis it found itself in following the raid into a diplomatic victory. It’s one that should be fully credited to Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
Essentially, this agreement has the potential to create a new regional reality, advancing relations not based on the glory of the once strong Turkish-Israeli military alliance of the 1990s, but a new paradigm in sync with an understanding of Turkey’s current political situation.    
Turkey’s political Islamist: Disdain for Israel – and Jews 
Since the AKP came to power in 2002, its influential leader, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always treated his country’s relations with Israel with disdain. This view was tied not only to his party’s staunchly anti-Israel past, often tainted with blatant anti-Semitism,  but was rooted in internal Turkish politics.
During the 1990s, criticism of Turkey’s alliance with Israel was to a great extent taboo. In fact, one of the events that hastened the 1997 military coup, which led to the resignation of Turkey’s Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan, was when Turkish military tanks rolled into the Ankara neighborhood of Sincan where an Islamist evening of solidarity with Palestine, the al-Quds (Jerusalem) Night, was taking place; the mayor, among others, was arrested.
However, even after the coup, the secular establishment continued to weed out Islamists from the system. In 1999, Erdogan, who was then Istanbul’s influential young mayor and a member of Erbakan’s party, served a four-month prison term for the public reading of a poem deemed anti-government and was suspended from politics.
Few could imagine that the same jailed politician just five years later would lead the country on a new revolution (much to the dismay of his opponents who in the last few years are experiencing increasingly oppressive measures) Since coming to power in 2002, Erdogan succeeded in ending the days of military tutelage and continues to transform the country into what he defines as the “New Turkey.”
During the first years of power, he did give Israel a grace period, visiting Israel in 2005, but Erdogan never paraded his relations with Israel and from 2007 onwards relations quickly deteriorated.   
The Erdogan about-face on Israel 
Today’s agreement is the first time that Israel has reached an agreement with the “New Turkey,” and it is Erdogan who is for the first time treating Israel as an equal partner. So, what has changed?
Why has Erdogan, the man who never missed an opportunity during the last few years to regularly berate and curse Israel at political rallies, and turned to a cheek to the blatant anti-Semitism filling the pages of Turkey’s pro-government press, suddenly changed to a leader that just last January stated, “Israel is in need of a country like Turkey in the region. We have to admit that we also need Israel”
Since the days of the Gaza flotilla, Turkey has found itself more and more isolated in the Middle East. From its failed policy in Egypt, to its miscalculations in Syria, Turkey is desperate not just for friends, but also to regain some of its political clout in the Middle East. Turkey’s potential role in Gaza will bring it a step closer to reaching this goal. More importantly, Turkey’s falling out with Russia only highlighted its deep need to diversify its natural gas resources, and any deal with Israel cannot move forward domestically without dealing once and for all with the flotilla Incident.
The very fact that Erdogan has at last come to the conclusion that Turkey is in dire need with relations with Israel is what makes this agreement even more agreeable to Israel.
During the last six years, Israel waited patiently for Turkey to come around and bowed its head at regular outbursts of Turkish hate (although some Israeli politicians took the chance to reciprocate by slinging mud at their Turkish counterparts .
Public hostility, private understandings 
However, Israel, like Turkey, was well aware that the public image of Turkey defying Israel stood in stark contrasts to the booming trade between the two countries over the last six years.
It continued its diplomatic work in Istanbul and Ankara, and even in the worst of days, during the 2014 Gaza War, it continued to present a public face; its Consul General even appeared on Turkish television to explain the Israeli side of the conflict.
While it is still too early to see if this new phase in relations will usher in a reformatted strategic alliance between the two countries, it is clear that Israel has succeeded in shifting its relations with Turkey’s former military secular elite on to the new political elite, which despite its historical hostility to the Jewish state is now paving the way for stronger mutual ties. 
*This article appeared in Haaretz on June 27, 2016. Click here for the link