As the battle against the militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS) as they now call themselves) heats up south of Turkey's border, Ankara has been accused of awkwardly sitting on the sidelines as its allies fight the organization -- or, even worse, providing support to the group.
But is the Turkish government now preparing to enter the battle against ISIS? In recent days, Turkish tanks have been deployed along the Syrian border, in an area where Kurdish fighters are battling an ISIS advance (resulting in a wave of refugees entering Turkey). More significantly, the government of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has forwarded to parliament a motion that would allow Turkey to send troops into both Syria and Iraq (a vote on the bill, which is almost certain to pass, is expected on Thursday). Reports the Hurriyet Daily News:
The mandate the Turkish government is seeking from the Parliament to authorize the army to send troops into Iraq and Syria to deal with growing threat of extremist jihadists does also include opening its bases to foreign troops, a senior government official has said, signalling about potential Turkish contribution to the international military campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Critics of Turkey's Justice and Development Party (AKP) government have for years been warning that the country, under the leadership of now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has taken an authoritarian turn after several years of reform-minded action. Supporters of the AKP and Erdogan, meanwhile, have denied the charge, accusing the critics of being disgruntled supporters of a previous status quo who are simply upset with seeing their once privilaged position in society disappear.
A new report issued today by Human Rights Watch goes a long way towards settling this debate, accusing the Turkish government of "taking far-reaching steps to weaken the rule of law, control the media and Internet, and clamp down on critics and protestors." From HRW's report:
Turkey is undergoing a worrying rollback of human rights. In office for twelve years under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan—elected president in August 2014—the ruling Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi, AKP) has shown increasing intolerance of political opposition, public protest, and critical media. Over the past nine months, in an effort to stifle corruption investigations, the AKP government has sought to curb the independence of the judiciary and weaken the rule of law. The erosion of human rights through limitations on media freedom, clampdown on protest, and further loss of trust in Turkey’s politicized criminal justice system have deepened political polarization in the country.
The release a few days ago of the group of 49 Turks being held hostage in the Iraqi city of Mosul by the militant Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself) signals the end of one crisis for Ankara but by no means the end of Turkey's troubled entanglement with ISIS or the danger that the rise of group poses for Turkish interests and security.
Certainly, despite the good feelings created by the release, major questions remain about just how Ankara was able to get ISIS to give up a group that provided it with enough leverage to keep Turkey out of the military efforts against the extremist organization. Turkish officials have insisted that no ransom was paid, but reports in the Turkish press suggest that the hostages' release may have been part of a simultaneous release of ISIS members being held by another rebel group in Syria.
By now, it's a well-established fact that foreign fighters looking to join extremist groups -- most worryingly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), as it now calls itself -- fighting the Assad regime in Syria have been using Turkey as a gateway to that country.
But more recently concerns have been rising about ISIS's activity inside Turkish cities, particularly with regards to the recruitment of vulnerable Turkish young men in poor neighborhoods. In a deeply reported piece in Newsweek, reporters Alexander Christie-Miller and Alev Scott take a look at ISIS's activity in Istanbul, telling the story of Deniz Sahin, a 28-year-old woman whose estranged husband recently went off to join the extremist group in Syria, taking their two children along. From the Newsweek piece:
Stories shared with Newsweek in recent days by Deniz and others show the group has sunk its tendrils deep into Turkey, a country that may now be in its firing line after being named as part of a Nato alliance to combat the jihadist group. Many fear Isis has the capacity to wreak havoc in a nation that attracts 35 million tourists a year and whose porous border adjoins Isis-controlled territory.
As part of the effort to boost its image and role on the world stage, Turkey has over the last decade made a push to host a bigger number of international meetings and conferences, especially in Istanbul.
The setting makes sense, considering the city's obvious charms. But sometimes Ankara's eagerness to play host doesn't quite match the reality on the ground. Case in point: the ninth annual Internet Governance Forum, a large United Nations-mandated gathering, which is currently taking place in Istanbul at a time when Turkey is increasingly under fire for curtailing internet freedoms within its own borders.
In a sharply worded briefing issued ahead of the Forum, Human Rights Watch accused the Turkish government of having an "abysmal record of protecting free expression online." From HRW's report:
Turkish authorities have blocked tens of thousands of websites under the country’s draconian Internet Law 5651 over the last few years. The exact number remains unclear since the judicial and administrative procedures for Internet blocking are not transparent. In February, the government passed amendments to the law that expand censorship powers, enabling authorities to block access to web pages within hours, based on a mere allegation that a posting violates private life, without a prior court order.
With the power of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or, as it now calls itself, the Islamic State) growing and the amount of territory it controls increasing, Ankara is now facing some uncomfortable questions about what role it played in facilitating the organization's rise.
In a Washington Post piece from last week, reporters Anthony Faiola and Souad Mekhennet provide a fascinating insight into this issue, visiting Reyhanli, a Turkish town on the Syrian border where until recently ISIS fighters had the run of the place. From their article:
Before their blitz into Iraq earned them the title of the Middle East’s most feared insurgency, the jihadists of the Islamic State treated this Turkish town near the Syrian border as their own personal shopping mall.
And eager to aid any and all enemies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Turkey rolled out the red carpet.
In dusty market stalls, among the baklava shops and kebab stands, locals talk of Islamist fighters openly stocking up on uniforms and the latest Samsung smartphones. Wounded jihadists from the Islamic State and the al-Nusra Front — an al-Qaeda offshoot also fighting the Syrian government — were treated at Turkish hospitals. Most important, the Turks winked as Reyhanli and other Turkish towns became way stations for moving foreign fighters and arms across the border.
It says something about Recep Tayyip Erdogan's political audacity and his Justice and Development Party's (AKP) marketing chutzpah that despite the Turkish leader having served as prime minister for some twelve years they were still able to sell his victory in yesterday's presidential election as the starting point for a "New Turkey." After over a decade of thoroughly dominating Turkey's political scene, there is certainly very little that is new about Erdogan.
Erdogan's win does signal something new, and that is another chapter in what by now is the long-running story of the mercurial leader's very public quest for increased power. With his ascendancy to the president's office assured, Erdogan is now faced with some new challenges: namely, how to enhance his powers despite the constraints placed on the president by the constitution and Turkey's existing parliamentary system, and how to restructure the government so that this goal is best served and the AKP stays in power past the next parliamentary elections.
In a new briefing, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's Turkey expert, Soner Cagaptay, lists the current powers available to the Turkish president -- from chairing cabinet meetings to vetoing bills -- and suggests Erdogan will push those to the limit (if not beyond) to maintain his dominance:
With the battle against the militants of the Islamic State (IS) heating up in Iraq and Turkey -- along with the United States and other countries -- getting involved by providing support for the Kurdish forces fighting there, it's clear that regional foreign policy questions will dominate Ankara's agenda for the foreseeable future.
As Turks head to polls on Sunday to elect a new president, a vote Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan expected to win, the question now is what might Turkish foreign policy during his presidency look like, especially considering that Erdogan is widely expected to even further consolidate his power once he takes office?
Writing in The National Interest, analyst Sinan Ulgen lays out the fairly serious foreign policy challenges that Turkey's next president will face:
Turkey’s new government will also inherit a difficult foreign-policy portfolio. Erdogan’s initial vision to normalize the county’s relationships with its Southern neighbors and to position Turkey as a regional power interested in advancing peace and prosperity by emphasizing economic cooperation and mediation allowed Ankara to gain substantial ground. But Turkish policy makers misinterpreted the extent of the country’s growing soft-power influence by becoming overconfident about their ability to shape regional dynamics.
Late last month, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan took part in the opening ceremony of a new soccer stadium in Istanbul. Rather than simply cut a ribbon, Erdogan -- a standout amateur soccer player in his youth -- put on a team jersey and went down to the field to play a friendly match. After his team fell behind by three points in the match, which was being broadcast live on television, the 60-year-old PM incredibly found a way to score three goals in 15 minutes, against a goalkeeper who plays in Turkey's top tier professional league no less.
As Turkey heads towards a presidential vote this Sunday -- the first one in which the people, rather than parliament, will elect the new president -- Erdogan's hat-trick performance seems emblematic of the way the campaign has been playing out. Despite the presence of two other substantive candidates, Erdogan has been dominating the field, receiving the lion's share of the state television broadcaster's attention. A fawning pro-government press, meanwhile, has been dutifully reporting about the PM's every move and utterance, imbuing them with an almost otherworldy quality (in the case of Erdogan's soccer game performance, one paper declared "his style was likened by some....to Barca star Lionel Messi.").
The last few years have seen Ankara's regional role in the Middle East become severly diminished as its relations with one neighbor after another went downhill. But could the current war in Gaza between Hamas and Israel offer Turkey a chance to reassert its regional relevance?
The promise of that happening is certainly there, especially after Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was included in a mini-summit this past Saturday in Paris that brought him together with Secretary of State John Kerry and the foreign ministers of Qatar, France, Germany, Italy and the U.K. in a failed effort to create a ceasefire in Gaza.
The inclusion of Turkey made certain sense, since -- like Qatar -- it is has been a strong supporter of Hamas in recent years and is considered to have an open line to the organization's leadership. Ankara has also been showing its support for Gaza in material terms, recently sending some 17 tons of medicine to the besieged area and also providing funding for fuel for Gaza's only power plant.