The most significant development in the fight against ISIS over the last week went largely unreported on by the American media. While the media dutifully reported on the summit which served no purpose except to provide another reason for everyone to laugh at John Kerry, relatively little attention was paid to a far more serious development, the surprise win for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sunday’s snap elections in Turkey.
There’s a sound business reason that the American media paid relatively little attention to this development: Turkish politics are not readily explained to Americans via soundbites, and if you spend more than about 5 seconds on backstory involving Turkish parliament, you’re probably going to lose your audience. I already know this post will probably get almost no traffic because it isn’t about either Donald Trump or Ben Carson. But stick with me, understanding what is happening in Turkey is important, and the next President will have to be prepared to deal with it.
God knows this one isn’t, after all.
Turkey is often held up as the model of Middle East Muslim democracy, which is at once probably true and also depressing. Turkey’s constitution was basically imposed at gunpoint as a condition of the departure of the military junta after the coup of 1980. These are not the conditions that generally give rise to stable liberal democracies, and Turkey is not really a noted exception. As a consequence of their beginnings, the Turkish ruling party has more or less always felt comfortable treating dissidents and the press in a manner that we would consider appalling in the West and flatly inconsistent with what we consider Democracy to entail.
For example, just days prior to Sunday’s election, Erdogan’s party literally sent police into television stations that held broadcasts that were critical of him or his party, frog-marching reporters out the front door. What had these stations done to invoke Erdogan’s ire? Well, they had the temerity to (attempt to) cover Erdogan’s goons violently breaking up a peaceful protest:
Bugün TV broadcast Wednesday morning’s scenes of riot police forcing their way through the sliding doors after using teargas and water cannons on people assembled outside, and bringing with them firefighters to cut through the outer iron gates. After police pulled the live-feed cables on most cameras outside, dramatic live broadcasts from inside the building continued, and Tarık Toros, the head of broadcasting in the TV station’s central control room, was seen preventing moves to switch off the broadcast. At the time of writing, broadcasts were continuing from the station’s central control room.
Bugün TV naturally was miffed at being treated in this manner but what happened after the raid in Turkey’s kangaroo court system really brought home what life in Turkey was all about in the Middle East’s foremost free democracy:
The channels are owned by the Ipek media group that includes Bugün and Millet newspapers and is part of the Koza Ipek group of companies. The government alleges the group is supportive of United States-based cleric Fethullah Gülen, the head of a religious movement subject to an unprecedented crackdown in Turkey.
On October 26, a court in Ankara ruled that the Koza İpek group should be taken over, and it appointed a government-controlled trustee panel to administer the board. It amounts to a government takeover of the media group.
For the purposes of comparison, imagine if Obama sent the FBI in to seize the FoxNews headquarters, and an Obama appointee judge declared that FoxNews was now the property of the Obama Administration. For all that Americans complain (with justification) about Obama’s abuses of power, we simply have no frame of reference for what everyday politics in Turkey is like.
In retrospect it’s an absolute miracle that Erdogan ever lost grip on power in the first place, and it is indicative of what a crypto-fascist he really is that he got it back. It was expected, after last June’s stunning losses and the failure of the opposition to form a cohesive coalition government, that Turkey would face snap elections every four months for the foreseeable future. In fact, heading into Sunday’s elections, Erdogan’s AKP party was polling around 40% nationally, which signaled a probable continuation of the deadlock for the foreseeable future.
“Shockingly,” Erdogan’s AKP actually pulled in about 49% on election night, which allowed him to seize control of power again. Western media outlets who reported on the story blithely assumed, “Gee, guess the pollsters got it wrong.”
Look, I’m not going to sit here and pretend to be an expert on polling the Turkish electorate. Hell, maybe it’s an exceptionally difficult proposition – I mean, after all, pollsters bolloxed up the United States elections in 2014 and even Gallup blew it big time in the 2012 Presidential elections. Pollsters get things wrong and if this were American or Canada or Great Britain I wouldn’t begin spouting conspiracy theories just because the vote came back different from what the polls expected.
That having been said, this isn’t America or Canada or Great Britain, and the guy who lost power doesn’t really have democratic ideals lodged firmly in his heart, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone in the least if he put his thumb on the scales to tip the result in his favor, and in so doing, to prevent himself from facing another meaningful election until 2019.
Looming over this election, of course, is the alleged menace of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. Everyone and their dog (including the Obama administration) has rushed to label the PKK a “terrorist organization.” Definitely, the PKK would not be welcome in polite society in the West, as they are clearly not averse to using violence to settle political differences. A watershed moment in Turkish politics came in the October 10, 2015 Ankara bombings, which were the deadliest terror attacks in Turkey’s history.
The AKP initially blamed the blasts on ISIS but then for good measure said the PKK may have been involved, too, thus raising the specter of PKK collaboration with ISIS. This scenario, of course, was facially implausible (it is equally plausible that the bomb was planted by far left-wingers than either group, but the suggestion that ISIS has begun working with PKK is positively Trumpian in its insanity, as the Kurds hate ISIS worse than anyone on the face of the earth) but the incident was viewed as critical to galvanizing support for the AKP.
At the end of the day, the Kurds are facing oppression from the alleged democracy in Ankara as surely as they did under Saddam in Iraq. It is one thing to ask an oppressed minority to work for a political solution in a country with a functioning democracy with a free press and freedom of speech; it is quite another to ask them to sit by patiently when the ruling party openly uses force to silence dissent.
The absurdity of it all is that the Kurds are among the only people in the Middle East who have demonstrated any aptitude for fighting against ISIS at all. The Kurds hate ISIS and attack them with all the ferocity and recklessness of a honey badger, matching them dirty trick for dirty trick:
The roles of underground operations, guerrilla, sabotage, and classic special-operations units are groups who act in frustration to opposing forces.
In this case the bullet meets the bone in Syria as Kurdish Forces are successfully deploying unconventional-warfare tactics against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Kurdish forces have developed and deployed covert guerrilla warfighters against ISIS. Such as the recently reported 45 ISIS fighters “die after eating poisoned Ramadan meal in Iraq.”
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The PYD is also affiliated with the Kurdistan’s Workers Party, or PKK, a group classified as terrorists by the US, the EU, and Turkey, among others.
These Kurdish forces have homegrown operational intelligence capacities and internal organization to align with the fast and loose mountain-warfare stylings of the YPG/YPJ’s predecessors and primary trainers, the PKK. Using the PKK’s methodologies as a foundation along with some difficult lessons learned in the field, the YPG/YPJ has met with many unique mission challenges and have since adapted an asymmetrical-warfare construct, which is agreeable to their organizational model.
But the thuggish Turkish “Democracy,” with Erdogan at the head, hates the Kurds worse than ISIS, whatever their public pronouncements to the contrary. That is why, when Turkey announced that they were joining the fight against ISIS, they began their campaign by… bombing the Kurds.
At the end of the day, Erdogan is perfectly happy to let ISIS brutalize both Assad and the Kurds. From where he sits, ISIS is killing two birds with one stone. What really almost certainly riles him to a degree that he doesn’t let on publicly is that the United States is arming the Kurds in Iraq with weapons that he knows good and well are crossing his border and finding their way into the hands of the PKK.
While his control on Parliament was weakened, Erdogan had to at least make a show of being the guy who could protect his country from ISIS (and from the probably trumped up charges that the PKK was behind the Ankara bombings). Now that he has “surprisingly” seized back firm control, he is free to be a much more openly indifferent participant in the conflict, and to actively frustrate United States efforts in the region (to the extent that they had any chance of succeeding in the first place). And it will surprise no one if he manages to expand his power base over the next couple years to amend the constitution to strengthen his grip on the country totally.
Sunday’s election results in Turkey have made the fight against ISIS more difficult, and life for the only group that is effectively fighting them much harder.