Erdogan and the National Pact: the fallout today from the British Army’s seizing of Mosul in 1918

By Dr Rod Thornton

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently repeated his country’s long-held territorial claim to Mosul and the whole of northern Iraq. Such a claim is based on the belief prevalent in Turkey that this area had, as territory of the Ottoman empire, been illegally seized by the British in November 1918 after the First World War in the Middle East was over.

The facts are not in dispute. At the time of the cessation of hostilities between the Allies and Ottoman forces – brought about by the Armistice of Moudros on 31 October 1918 – Mosul and most of its surrounding vilayet (administrative area) were still in Ottoman hands. Advancing British troops were still some way short of the city. However, during the next month, British troops – without any fighting – pushed beyond the armistice line and removed demoralised and unresisting Ottoman forces from both Mosul city and its vilayet. Thus the British took control of what today is northern Iraq.

 What is in dispute is whether the British had the right to do this. Ottoman government protests that the British should have kept to the armistice line and that Mosul should have remained under its control came to be enshrined, post-war, in something called the National Pact. This had actually been promulgated by Kemal Ataturk himself in 1920 and long before he became the first president of the new Republic of Turkey in 1923. This Pact is a document which still has influence to this day within the Turkish body politic and is being quoted by Erdogan as he makes his claim to Mosul. Overblown rhetoric, maybe, but the danger for the future geopolitics of the Middle East is that Turkey, referring to the Pact, will see no legal impediment to its troops not only occupying large swathes of northern Iraq but also of northern Syria as well.

So, why did the British take the controversial action they did in 1918? Well, the then Ottoman prime minister blamed not so much the British in general, but rather the ‘sophistry’ of one individual British officer. This was the GOC Mesopotamia, General Sir William Marshall. Here was, indeed, a highly unusual case where one man – acting without orders and largely on his own initiative – may be said to have shaped the territorial boundaries of a significant portion of the modern Middle East.

Marshall had, near the end of the war and as the Ottoman army in Mesopotamia was rapidly weakening, been pushing his Anglo-Indian forces north from Baghdad (seized in April 1917). The view in the literature on this subject has it that Marshall had received orders from London to try and seize Mosul before war’s conclusion because of its oil potential. My research (mostly carried out in Erbil, 90 miles from Mosul) shows, however, that this was not the case. Marshall had no such orders. London, in fact, was showing very little interest in capturing Mosul. Rather, Aleppo and Baku were seen as the big regional prizes.

Marshall was moving towards Mosul for reasons of his own. He needed British control not just of the city of Mosul itself but also of its whole vilayet. This was for two reasons. The first was because he understood that the populations of the two Ottoman vilayets that the British had already occupied during the course of the war (Baghdad and Basra) could simply not be fed after the war if what was known as the ‘granary’ of Iraq – i.e. Mosul’s wheat fields – was still in Ottoman hands. For centuries, this granary had been supplying Baghdad and Basra. Marshall, who would be responsible for maintaining order in post-war Iraq, was aware that while there would be difficulties enough in trying to control southern Iraq’s fractious Sunni and Shia tribes his task might become insuperable if compounded by any inability of British authorities to actually feed the people of said tribes. By 1918, indeed, there were already severe food shortages across central and southern Iraq.

The second rationale for seizing Mosul was that Marshall needed to keep in situ the hundreds of thousands of Christians (some indigenous, but including many displaced Armenians) who were present in Mosul vilayet. If this region was not in British hands at war’s end then these Christians would doubtless flood south. They could then overwhelm the already taxed British system for dealing with the huge number of Christian refugees who, fleeing from Ottoman excesses in eastern Anatolia, had already arrived in southern Iraq.

As for the Ottomans, they had realised by October 1918 that they had to sue for peace quickly. They needed an end to hostilities before they lost more territory – including cities such as Mosul and Aleppo – to the general British advance north in Mesopotamia and Syria. The British likewise wanted a swift peace deal in order that troops could be transferred from the Middle East to the Western Front. Talks thus began on 26 October on a British battleship in Moudros harbour on the Greek island of Lemnos. They were conducted between Ottoman representatives and a Royal Navy delegation led by Vice-Admiral Somerset Gough-Calthorpe. He had been given carte blanche by British Prime Minister David Lloyd-George to negotiate on behalf of the Allies. An armistice was duly signed on 30 October and this was to come into force at midday the next day.

While Aleppo had by now been taken (on the 26th) by General Edmund Allenby’s troops operating in Syria, Marshall’s forces in Mesopotamia, advancing up the Tigris, were still some 12 miles short of Mosul. They had reached the town of Hammam al-Alil (much in the news today as the site of ISIS massacres). This was on 1 November. Marshall, hoping that his lead cavalry brigade could seize Mosul if allowed extra time to advance, did not actually tell his forward commanders that the war was over! Troops at the front were only informed of the armistice by the Turks themselves (under white flags). At Hammam al-Alil they were requested by Ali Ihsan Pasha – the Ottoman commander at Mosul – to return to the point they had reached when the armistice had been signed the previous day; i.e. back to Qayyarah. The ranking British officer at the front – Brigadier Robert Cassels – refused and stayed put to await orders.

 On 2 November, and three days after the armistice, Marshall, in Baghdad, did finally receive some orders from London to occupy ‘Mosul’. Marshall then conveyed this order to Cassels who, doubting it at first given that the war was over, asked for confirmation. Cassels assumed he could only enter the city if there was evidence of a breakdown of law and order (e.g, if Christians were being massacred). But all was quiet there. The order to occupy was, though, reiterated to Cassels and he conveyed it to Ihsan. The latter refused to vacate the city and a stand-off ensued. Ihsan made complaints about the British behaviour to his superiors. These were passed on to Gough-Calthorpe at Moudros. The admiral agreed with the Turkish position. He was of the opinion that nothing he had negotiated with the Turks on behalf of the Allies/British government covered the post-armistice seizure of any Ottoman territory not occupied at the time of the armistice – including Mosul. Gough-Calthorpe made his views known to the Admiralty in London.

To break the impasse, Marshall flew up to Mosul from Baghdad on 7 November. He ordered Ihsan, under duress, to not only vacate the city but also the whole of the vilayet as well. While he had his orders to occupy ‘Mosul’, it was not actually clear to Marshall what this meant. He was fairly sure it only meant Mosul city and not the whole vilayet as well. Marshall was thus taking a huge risk in making his own independent interpretations of both the wording of the Moudros Agreement and of his orders. He was using these interpretations in his negotiations with Ihsan. Hence he came to be accused by the Turkish prime minster of ‘sophistry’.

Ihsan again protested to Istanbul. But he was told not to oppose the British. The authorities in the Ottoman capital needed British diplomatic help in keeping Turkey-proper free from any post-armistice occupation by French, Greek and Italian forces. Thus they did not want to make an issue of Mosul.

Ihsan, in high dudgeon, resigned his commission and left the city. Marshall’s troops then moved in on 8 November and, in a swift operation and one for which Marshall took responsibility, went on to clear the entire vilayet of Ottoman forces up to what is roughly today’s border between Iraq and Turkey. Marshall, by his actions, had thus established a de facto if not an actual de jure border.

Curiously, in the British Official History of the war in the Middle East, Marshall received no praise at all for any of his actions as GOC Mesopotamia – including his seizing of Mosul. And yet by his actions he had added a vast area of – theoretically – tremendous economic potential to the British empire. This lack of praise is both highly unusual and telling. He must have done something that the British government could not approve of.

The Mosul situation had further negative consequences for Istanbul in that it had set a precedent. British troops in Syria could now, post-armistice and in light of what had happened at Mosul, also move forward and seize Ottoman territory right up to what is now, more-or-less, the current border between Syria and Turkey. The most significant town then taken was Alexandretta (today’s Iskenderun and part of modern Turkey). The commander there was one Mustapha Kemal – Kemal Ataturk himself. He, ashamed of what had happened at Mosul, wanted to fight the British troops as they approached Alexandretta. Gough-Calthorpe – again sympathising with the Turks – once more complained to the Admiralty.

Kemal was also told by his government not to oppose the British. The same rationale applied as with Ihsan at Mosul – the British could not be offended. Kemal, while protesting vehemently, obeyed. As it happened, the capitulations made over Mosul and Alexandretta did not, as hoped for by the Ottoman authorities, result in the garnering of any future assistance from the British. London raised little meaningful opposition to the subsequent occupation of Turkey by French, Greek and Italian forces.

Kemal never forgot his personal humiliation. In the post-war turmoil within Turkey, and as Kemal became involved in politics, he put forward the idea of the aforementioned National Pact. In his opinion, and thus also in the opinion of generations of Turks who were to follow, northern Iraq and northern Syria had been illegally seized by the British in operations that went against the wording of the agreement made at Moudros. These areas should, it follows, have remained within the Ottoman empire and thus they should have then become part of Ataturk’s modern Turkish republic. Erdogan agrees.

Image: Geographic map of Mesopotamia. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

How do Military Coups Fail?


On the night of Friday 15th July 2016 elements of the Turkish armed forces attempted to overthrow the democratically-elected – but increasingly authoritarian – government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After a bloody night of fighting in Ankara and Istanbul, and at least 290 deaths, this attempted coup d’etat was decisively crushed as police, loyalist military units and crowds of civilian volunteers rallied behind Erdogan. The Turkish armed forces and the judiciary are now being purged of real and suspected enemies of the AKP government, and a state that is both a NATO partner and a pivotal ally in Southern Europe and the Middle East is experiencing instability as severa as that the country experienced in the late 1970s.

Edward Luttwak has already provided an analysis on the coup’s failure, and has indeed written what could cheekily be described as the authoritative manual on how to take over a state at gunpoint. In this post I want to take a broader view as to how and why military coups end in failure.

Mao Zedong famously observed that political power grows from the barrel of a gun, and the most dramatic manifestation of that statement can be seen when the armed forces turn against their political masters, and the citizenry wake up to find armoured vehicles on their own streets. The spectacle of soldiers overthrowing the constitutional order they have sworn to defend is a subject of enduring fascination even in stable societies. John Frankenheimer’s 1964 thriller Seven Days in May showed the Joint Chiefs of Staff plotting to oust the US President, in order to thwart an arms control treaty with the Soviets. During the early 1970s the prospect of Her Majesty’s armed forces doing the unthinkable and seizing power in the UK appeared to be a genuine threat, given the extent of the country’s political and economic crises, the failure of either the Conservative or Labour governments of that time to address them, and the widespread paranoia at the time. For Turkey, a state which has experienced three successful coups since 1960, military putsches are not academic exercises or the stuff of fictional fantasies.

Yet the plotting and execution of a coup represents can founder due to a series of factors. For a potential junta of generals or colonels to succeed, the following conditions need to be met.

Firstly, plotters have to be able to plan and organise the takeover of the state without alerting any loyalist colleagues in the armed forces, or the country’s security services.

Secondly, they will have to seize and dominate the state’s transport and communications network – roads, rail links, ports, airports, television, telephones and the media.

Thirdly, they have to achieve a shock effect on the government. The President, Prime Minister, monarch, ministers, and senior civil servants must be either arrested (or perhaps killed), or at any rate they should be neutralised. The spectacle of a leader fleeing a country and seeking asylum abroad is usually a sign of the coup’s success.

Fourthly, the coup needs to be executed with such speed that it becomes a fait accompli for potential opponents. Other elements of the armed forces and the security services must be left with the impression that the only choice they have is either futile resistance or acquiescence in the new order.

Finally, the coup cannot succeed unless it has either popular support, or the plotters can at least count on the general population being unwilling to defend the old order.

On organisation, militaries are not monolithic entities, and would-be caudillos have to surreptitiously identify potential allies within the officer corps, running the risk of exposing their scheming in the process. However, regimes which have a genuine concern over a military takeover will often ‘coup-proof’ their armed forces. Generals and admirals will be appointed on the basis of loyalty rather than competence. Commanders will be regularly switched so that they cannot build a support base among the soldiers, sailors, marines or airmen they lead. The regime will impose an over-centralised and dysfunctional command structure which will make it difficult for plotters to even meet without attracting the attention of the regime’s security services, and can also drive wedges between officers and the rank-and-file through political indoctrination. What worked for Nazi Germany has worked for Arab autocracies such as Iraq and Syria too.

As was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq the secret police will often employ agents provocateurs to smoke out potential putschists by encouraging them to take part in bogus plots, and then arresting and exterminating them. Nascent coups can also be snuffed out if the regime prevents routine exercises or the issuing of ammunition, or if it develops its own parallel paramilitary forces that are better armed and trained than their regular counterparts, and manned by troops recruited on the basis of party, clan or ethnic loyalty to the state. Even if likeminded and resentful plotters can meet and plot in conditions of secrecy and security, there are of course other additional snags to deal with. What if more than one of the assembled putschists believes that he should be the next President for Life?

With communications, the would-be coup plotter might be guided by Lenin’s dictum that the first act is to seize the telephone exchange and the telegraph office. In the age of Twitter and the smart-phone it is no longer as easy to shut down attempts by the government to talk to the masses – or indeed to stop crowds rallying each other to defend the status quo. When Communist Party, military and KGB hardliners of the GKChP (the ‘State Council for the State of Emergency’) tried to oust Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991 they were stymied by the fact that the head of the Soviet Air Force, Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, declared that his service would oppose their putsch. Without the Antonovs and Ilyushins of the air forces Transport Command, the GKChP was denied a means of moving their own troops and security personnel around a state that spans ten separate time zones.

In Turkey last Friday Erdogan and his Prime Minister, Binali Yildirim, not only evaded capture or elimination, but also held their nerve. Erdogan himself rallied his AKP support base with a telephone call to a private TV channel (via FaceTime) which showed that he was (a) alive, (b) at liberty, and (c) still in the country and ready to fight his corner. The attempted coup in Spain in February 1981 foundered because King Juan Carlos broadcast his opposition and condemned its instigators. In the USSR 10½ years later the Russian President Boris Yeltsin emerged as an alternative source of legitimacy, climbing aboard a tank outside the Parliament Building in Moscow to address the assembled citizenry to resist the junta. In all of the above cases, the failure to neutralise effective opposition and to overawe the government contributed to the coup’s eventual defeat.

The routing of the Turkish coup, and the spectacle of soldiers being disarmed by civilians on the Bosphorus bridge, also shows that achieving a fait accompli is easier in theory than in practice. Coups are a nerve-wracking experience both for their instigators and for the troops they command, who often do not have the faintest idea of what they are doing and why. In certain cases, the coup plotters can rely on troops who are ready to gun down opponents in the streets, as was the case with Iraq in July 1958 and Chile in September 1973. But in other cases soldiers (particularly conscripts) who are faced with crowds of protestors or military units defending the powers-that-be can falter when given the order to shoot. It is a daunting decision to open fire on ones own fellow countrymen and women, particularly if you have doubts about whether you are going to succeed.

Then there are the masses themselves. The overthrow of the Estado Novo by the Armed Forces Movement in Portugal in April 1974 was met with public delight and approval. Nawaz Sharif’s ouster in Pakistan in October 1999 appears to have been greeted with popular apathy, while the Egyptian military’s overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 received widespread acclaim (although the Egyptian people may now have cause to regret their enthusiasm. Turkey, like Pakistan and Egypt, has a reputation for stratocracy, but institutional respect for the military appears to have been eroded over 14 years of AKP rule; the Ergenekon investigation of 2008-2009 into suspected coup plotting has arguably contributed to discrediting Turkey’s top brass in Erdogan’s favour, while also delegitimising military intervention in the country’s politics.

There are precedents for popular opposition undermining a military takeover. The Kapp putsch launched by Freikorps paramilitaries in Berlin in March 1920 initially threatened the destruction of the nascent Weimar Republic, as the commander of the German Army Hans von Seeckt refused to call out the troops to restore order. This attempted takeover was however undermined by a successful general strike called by the socialist and communist trade unions. Franco’s coup in Spain sixteen years later was initially thwarted by a popular counter-rising, which contributed to the ensuing civil war. The GKChP in the USSR in August 1991 was thwarted when Muscovites took to the streets in mass protests. In Turkey over the last weekend, even critics of Erdogan’s authoritarian style of rule (including the opposition CHP) condemned the coup. If the people are not onside, or are at least disinterested in the outcome, a takeover by the armed forces is usually either averted, or it simply leads to further violence and civil strife.

Turkey currently faces the prospect of an AKP dictatorship being imposed after a failure to impose a military one. Erdogan appears to be settling scores with all potential opponents – whether they backed this coup or not – thereby compounding the instability arising from the spill-over from the Syrian civil war, the renewed Kurdish insurgency and IS terrorism. In this case, there is an ominous precedent set by the putsch launched by pro-Communist Indonesian officers on 30th September 1965. After this coup’s collapse, Indonesia’s top brass launched a purge which killed an estimated half a million people, and also replaced Sukarno’s dictatorship with that of Suharto. Indonesia 1965 demonstrated that a failed coup d’etat can be every bit as disastrous as a successful one. One can only hope that Turkey does not provide another example.

Image: Tanks approaching the Ataturk airport, Istanbul, July 16th, 2016, via wikimedia commons.

Turkey: It’s the lust for power, stupid


Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan is illiberal and autocratic. He has little respect for the rule of law or the autonomy of institutions. He was content to allow lawyers and police officials who were alleged supporters of the cleric Fethullah Gulen to pursue, beginning in 2008, and eventually imprison military and other so-called ‘deep state’ functionaries on largely fabricated charges. In the wake of the 2013 Gezi Park protests and the corruption investigations launched against members of his inner circle in December of the same year – again by Gulen-linked lawyers and police officials – he embarked on a campaign to purge the police, judiciary and other public institutions of allegedly Gulenist officials and to take over or close down Gulenist businesses; he intimidated, took over or closed down more secular media outlets; and pressured the country’s universities and intellectuals. He even marginalised leading members of his own party. In the wake of the July 2016 coup attempt – a ‘gift from God’ in his own words – this crackdown has been sped up and intensified. His declaration of a three-month ‘state of emergency’ will extend the purge to anyone deemed a threat to his grip on power. Already, over fifty thousand public servants have been suspended from their official duties, and ten thousand have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the failed coup attempt. Almost one-third of the upper ranks of the officer corps are among this number. The military will surely now suffer the impact of Erdogan’s wrath. This is a witch hunt, and the label ‘Gulenist’ is about to end the careers and even freedoms of thousands of individuals, many of them innocent of anything that would raise eyebrows in a functioning liberal democracy.

However, Erdogan is acting as the adored leader of the over fifty percent of Turks who elected him to his office, and the similar number that vote for his Justice and Development Party (JDP). Materially, many of them have prospered considerably under Erdogan. Perhaps more importantly, their devout, conservative way of life is no longer subjected to official scorn or neglect. Religious education has been expanded, new mosques have been built, headscarved and bearded individuals are now employed in public office, and much of the media reflects their worldview. They see Erdogan as one of their own, and applaud him in his mission to wrench their country from the hands of a privileged, westernised, and unrepresentative metropolitan elite, and to turn the state into one in which the Anatolian masses feel they have a stake, to which they belong, and from which they can benefit. These people are not liberals. They are generally indifferent to and have little use for the freedoms that a liberal order bestows, are ignorant and suspicious of the west, and resentful of the secular minority that before Erdogan held their country in its grasp. This is payback time, and many are feeling triumphalist.

Turkey was not a liberal democracy in the days before the JDP was first elected to power in late 2002. Indeed, its forerunner as the representative of political Islam in the country, the Welfare Party, had been banned, as had all Islamic parties before it. Erdogan himself, as mayor of Istanbul, served a spell in prison. As recently as 2008, the then secular Constitutional Court failed by just one vote to shut down the ruling JDP for its ‘anti-secular’ activities, and in 2007 the Turkish General Staff responded to the prospective elevation to the presidency of one of the JDP’s leading members, Abdullah Gul, by issuing a so-called ‘e-memorandum’ threatening JDP rule. Secular dominance in Turkey was characterised by frequent military interventions in the country’s domestic politics, often supported by the secular elite. The 1980 coup led to over half a million detentions, a quarter of a million arrests, the banning of all political parties and imprisonment of their political leaderships, and scores of executions and unexplained disappearances. Under secular rule, all Kurdish parties were shut down and the use of the Kurdish language was restricted. The war conducted against Kurdish separatists was vicious and frequently illegal. Indeed, one of the first acts of the newly elected JDP in 2002 was to lift the decades-old state of emergency in the Kurdish regions. Turkey’s institutions were largely the preserve of the country’s westernised minority. Few Turkish ‘liberals’ lamented the exclusion of the headscarved and bearded from public office, or bothered themselves overmuch with the fate of Turkey’s Kurds.

Turkey has always been a divided society, but the boot is now on the other foot. Even so, Erdogan has not, yet, closed down political parties or, yet, executed anyone. Even the intensified war currently being waged against separatist Kurds in the country’s southeast comes in the wake of an attempted resolution to the conflict and against a backdrop of recognition that a Kurdish population exists in Turkey. These are not Turkey’s darkest days ever, at least not for the country’s conservative masses. The country’s secular and westernised minority, however, are facing increasing exclusion and marginalisation, and such liberal and lifestyle freedoms as the country has enjoyed look set to be further curtailed. Paradoxically, the country’s real or imagined Gulenists, no less devout in their own way than Erdogan’s JDP supporters, look likely to fare worse still. Few liberals, and few too of Erdogan’s fans, will be greatly concerned at that. Both liberals and Gulenists are deemed to represent a threat to Erdogan’s rule. Should the violent, bearded, and hard Islamist mobs that appeared among the crowds resisting the coup and celebrating its defeat imagine that the victory over the plotters is exclusively theirs, they too could yet find themselves in Erdogan’s line of fire as he relentlessly indulges his lust for power. We are not witnessing the end of a liberal democracy that never truly existed in Turkey. Rather we are witnessing a dramatic moment in an ongoing assault against anyone who might be regarded as a challenge to Erdogan’s autocratic rule.
Image: Anti-coup protesters after 15 July 2016 Turkish coup d’état attempt in Bağcılar, İstanbul, Turkey. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Turkey’s “Anti-Modern” Coup Fiasco


Two decades ago, a Turkish admiral coined the iconic term “post-modern coup” to describe what, to date, remains Turkey’s most recent successful military coup. Back then, in 1997, the military echelons escalated an ongoing political crisis, which culminated at a National Security Council meeting where the generals presented a list of ‘recommendations’ for the government to comply with. Failure to do so would have triggered a full-fledged military intervention against the executive, the document warned.

As the executive eventually caved in, the coup earned the label of “post-modern” due to the fact that, among other things, the military obtained their objectives without resorting to tanks rolling through the streets or any other coercive tool traditionally associated with military coups, and that they had been carrying out preparatory propaganda and lobby-like activities for months before taking action.

Ten years later, in 2007, another political crisis was unfolding in Turkey. The AKP’s leadership was by then committed to put one of the party founders, Abdullah Gul, up for the Presidential seat; the secular opposition, and the military along with it, considered this both a threat to the secular nature of the State (due to Gul’s background), and to the Presidential role as a whole (as, traditionally, Presidents were strongly aligned with Kemalist views).

Once again at the peak of the crisis, the Turkish military played the “post-modern” card and published what became known as the “e-memorandum”: the General Staff website displayed a document warning politicians about the need to respect the secular nature of the Republic, and stressed the military’s determination in defending it. In the meantime, a number of associations ran by retired military officers lined up with secularist organisations and joined the rallies and other forms of political activism that were taking place across the country.

In contrast to the events of 1997 and 2007, the failed military coup attempt witnessed on Friday the 15th of July had nothing “post-modern” about it. In fact, as events were unfolding, it became progressively clearer that it was a 20th century action in the midst of the 21st century, an “anti-modern” coup attempt, carried out via “anti-modern” means, and based on an “anti-modern” understanding of Turkey’s leadership, its society, and the role of its military.

Erdogan’s Leadership

The attempted coup is “anti-modern” because it failed to understand how pervasive and widespread Erdogan’s reach is. It has taken place in a deeply divided society, and in a political spectrum overwhelmingly dominated by the AKP. Over the past few years, President Erdogan’s leadership has demonstrated in several instances its authoritarian tendencies and his determination to centralise power into his own hands. Under Erdogan’s watch, even the coup aftermath has turned into an opportunity to weed out those who are not aligned with him. While 3,000 members of the armed forces have been swiftly arrested on coup plotting allegations, about the same number of civilian judges (including two Constitutional Court judges) have been put behind bars in the span of 24 hours, under the same (albeit, in this case, much thinner) allegations; as of the 18th of July, 30 provincial governors and more than 600 Gendarmerie officers were also suspended by the Minister of Interior.

The political opposition is so weak that Erdogan perceives his main political challenge actually comes from outside Turkey’s borders. His attention is focused on Pennsylvania, where Fetullah Gulen, a cleric (and former ally of President Erdogan) leading a vast network of Turkish followers, is in voluntary exile since 1999. After their informal alliance led the AKP to eradicate secularist and ultra-secularist figures from institutions and security organisations alike, the two sides are now against one another, to the point that AKP officials refer to the network as the ‘Gulenist Terrorist Organisation’ (or FETO). Since the early stages of Friday’s coup attempt, Erdogan has been adamant in pointing at Gulen and his organisation as the culprit of the turmoil – accusations that Gulen has swiftly dismissed.

Turkey’s Society

Coup plotters also failed to take into account how widespread President Erdogan’s own network is. This goes well beyond the AKP as a party, and includes smaller organisations which possess a broad spectrum of capabilities. As soon as Erdogan managed to appear on national television before trying to reach Istanbul, his supporters mobilised. Several mosques were calling for people to leave their houses and join the fight against coup plotters on the streets, shortly after Istanbul’s Ataturk airport was ‘liberated’, so that Erdogan’s jet could land.

But more importantly, the failed coup attempt was “anti-modern” because it failed to understand how unpalatable such type of action is to today’s Turkish society. While the live television feed of tanks in the streets, TV transmissions being interrupted, journalists reading putschist statements at gunpoint brought minds to the year 1980, when a military coup brought to power general Kenan Evren’s junta, today’s Turkey is no longer the Turkey of the late-1970s. This coup was also “anti-modern” because it advanced an old solution to the old, wicked problem of a “tyranny of the majority”, which all democracies have been grappling with to different degrees, and which Turkey seems to be stuck with under Erdogan.

Political parties (together with large sections of the armed forces) swiftly condemned the coup attempt, as did Turkey’s society at large. While discontent against Erdogan’s rule is widespread and deeply rooted outside of AKP circles, Turkish civil society has been trying long and hard to claim the power to make decisions for itself, rather than seeing them imposed top-down by patronising state institutions – including the military, which has traditionally been seen as the most reputable and respectable institution in Turkey. The Gezi park protests of 2013 embodied this spirit, which coup plotters are guilty of failing to understand and respect.

The Turkish Military

Last but not least, the attempted coup is “anti-modern” because it tarnishes the reputation of the Turkish military as a whole, regardless of the condemnations expressed by the vast majority of the armed forces, and because the action will further set back Turkish civil-military relations, making them even more prone to politicisation.

If seeing an attack helicopter opening fire against the Parliament, which hosted several MPs, is an iconic all-time low in Turkish civil-military relations, especially so for a group of officers whose stated goal is to “reinstate constitutional order, human rights and freedoms, the rule of law and general security”, the shockwaves of this coup attempt will be strong.

In about two weeks, Turkey’s Supreme Military Council (YAS) will hold its annual meeting to decide on the promotion, retirement, and expulsions of military officers from all of Turkey’s services. As civilians (i.e., the Executive President Erdogan) gained the upper hand in the process over the past few years, the decision-making process still remains highly political indeed.

In 2011, the Chief of General Staff and the Commanders of Land, Naval, and Air Forces resigned to protest against Erdogan’s meddling with the military both in the promotion process and the management of the Ergenekon and Balyoz cases, which had put scores of officers behind bars.

Since then, Erdogan seamlessly managed to promote those senior officers who shared his views or who would offer their acquiescence to his decisions, while overlooking, retiring or expelling those who might have created nuisances.

The failed coup attempt, in sum, offers Erdogan a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to politically purge the military, a move that will have dire consequences both for Turkish civil-military relations and for the Turkish military’s ability to function effectively – another fundamental reason why this can be labelled as an “anti-modern” coup attempt.

The fact that Erdogan will exploit the situation to further crack down on opposition, the separation of powers, and broader Turkish institutions, makes the plotter’s actions a textbook case of an “anti-modern coup”.

Follow Dr Francesco F. Milan’s work on his website and on Twitter

Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in South Korea. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



This is the second of a two-part series on the topic. The first of which was posted week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s transborder Kurdish problem

There can be little doubt that both Ankara and Turkey’s Kurdish nationalists have been influenced by developments in Syria. Many of Turkey’s Kurds are inspired by the example of their Syrian counterparts. Although the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) may have prioritized a resolution in Turkey, the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) probably saw its struggle in a wider pan-Kurdish context. Many Kurds in Turkey were bitterly angered by Ankara’s passivity in the face of the Islamic State (IS) siege of the Kurdish border town of Kobane.

During 2011, Turkey moved fast towards demanding the Syrian regime’s overthrow once it became clear that Damascus was ignoring Ankara’s advice on how to respond to the popular revolt that Syria was now experiencing, and notwithstanding the earlier courtship between the two governments. Ankara sponsored the Syrian National Council (SNC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and called on its allies to help establish a ‘no-fly-zone’ and a humanitarian corridor along the Syrian border with Turkey. Instead, Turkey found itself confronted both with the radicalization of the Syrian opposition and with a Kurdish dimension to Syria’s travails.

It was the Kurdish factor that loomed largest. Ankara reacted fiercely to the early 2013 declaration by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) that the three self-governing and largely Kurdish entities that it had established were to be known as ‘Rojava’. Ankara did little to help Syria’s Kurds defend the border town of Kobane against IS, and criticized the US for air dropping supplies to the town’s defenders. Ankara also protested when the IS-held town of Tal Abyad fell to the Kurds in July 2015. Ankara fears being faced with a Kurdish self-governing zone along the length of its southern border, and has resorted to shelling Kurdish led forces in Syria in order to prevent their advance, intensified its support to groups that would obstruct Kurds on the ground – including Ahrar-al Sham and other decidedly jihadi elements – and prevented the PYD from participating in the Geneva peace talks on Syria.

Ankara’s problem with the PYD is that it is affiliated with the PKK. Kurdish self-government in Syria might give inspiration to the closely-related counterparts in Turkey. Turkey had tried to pressure the PYD to join the SNC and to commit to Assad’s overthrow, but the Arab nationalist SNC is also opposed to Kurdish self-government. Turkey’s hostility to the PYD has put it at odds with both Washington, DC and Moscow. The PYD’s armed wing has proved to be Washington, DC’s most effective and cooperative local force in its struggle against IS in Syria, while Moscow’s stance hardened in the wake of the November 2015 shooting down of a Russian jet that had strayed into Turkish airspace. The repercussions were several, but have included a heightening of Russian support for PYD forces and a determined bombing campaign against Ankara-backed elements inside Syria. Moscow has joined with Washington, DC in arming and training Syrian Kurdish forces, and has called for the PYD’s presence at the Geneva talks.

The PYD hopes for a federal arrangement in Syria, which in any case seems the best and most likely outcome should the violence there ever come to an end. After all, Moscow and Tehran are now in a position to ensure the survival of the regime. No one force is capable of an overall victory in Syria, the Alawites were surely unlikely to submit to Sunni rule, and no-one inside Syria looks capable of defeating the PYD’s forces. Sunni Arab forces are hopelessly fragmented. Ankara can play the role of spoiler – although in doing so it is putting at risk its relationship with Washington, DC and might provoke an even harder Russian response – but it cannot engineer a Syria more to its liking. In short, Turkey’s struggle with Kurdish oppositionists in Turkey is now extended to Syria, and it is a struggle that looks set to extend far into the future.

Iraq’s ‘good Kurds’?

Turkey’s relationship with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) offers the exception to the rule of Ankara’s opposition to Kurdish identity politics. Turkey dominates the KRG’s economy, and enables the export of KRG oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Turkey has even trained Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. Until recently at least leaders in both Erbil and Ankara spoke of the ‘strategic’ relationship between them. It was not always like this of course. Ankara greeted the 1991 emergence of the KRG with dismay, sought to destabilise it, declared its independence to be a ‘red line’, opposed its acquisition of further territory, championed ethnic Turkmen against it, and referred to its leaders as ‘tribal’. Turkey’s so-called ‘zero problems with the neighbours’ policy was part of the explanation for the shift. Trade and energy considerations also played a role. In any case KRG President Masoud Barzani is not a pan-Kurdish nationalist but a devout conservative concerned only with the fortunes of the KRG, or rather of his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) ruled part of it. He is prepared to cooperate with Ankara against the PKK, which he regards as ideological and political rivals, and is in desperate need of a regional friend.

However, with the June 2014 capture of Mosul by IS the atmosphere changed. Ankara failed to come to the KRG’s aid, leading some Iraqi Kurds to question the depth of Turkey’s commitment. The KRG’s economic crisis – caused by a combination of reduced oil revenues, an internal political crisis, corruption, the termination of its subvention from Baghdad, the IS threat and the burden of over a million refugees – has rendered the KRG a less attractive economic proposition for Turkish investors. Barzani’s legitimacy inside and outside the KRG has waned. Iran’s influence has become more pronounced, and there is now high profile assistance to the KRG from the west. Some senior Iraqi Kurds are disappointed at Turkey’s murky links with IS and other jihadi groups, and also at the increasingly unpredictable behavior of Turkey’s president.

Furthermore, the depth of the ‘strategic relationship’ between Ankara and Erbil will face considerable challenges in the future. How might Ankara respond to Barzani’s promised referendum on Kurdish independence? Will it assist the Kurdish Peshmerga in their already-developing struggle with Shia militias – and perhaps in due course with Sunni Arabs too – over the territories that Erbil disputes with Baghdad, such as Kirkuk? Will Ankara accept a territorial enlargement of the KRG? What if the KRG, perhaps via the more pan-Kurdish Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Gorran parties, becomes more supportive of the PKK/PYD?

Turks and Kurds as neighbours

Until the breakup of the Ottoman empire there was little antipathy between Turks and Kurds. The new Turkish Republic then chose to suppress rather than embrace Kurdish distinctiveness. Turks acquired a virulent and exclusive nationalism which they are yet to shake off. The reaction of many Kurds has been one of revolt and alienation. There is no reason to suppose that Kurds, in Turkey or elsewhere, will resign themselves to the denial of self-determination that was visited on them a century ago. Sadly, there is little evidence that Turkey will embrace its Kurdish citizens and neighbours for what they essentially are – Kurds – and to allow them the self-identification that Turks so jealously guard for themselves. On what basis should we assume the next one hundred years of Turkish-Kurdish relationships will be much different from the last one hundred years, except in their detail?


Image: Putin and Erdogan. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.



This is the first of a two-part series on the topic. The second of which will be posted next week on the Defence-in-Depth blog.

Turkey’s very own Kurdish problem

Turkey’s AKP government’s attempts to seek a resolution to the country’s domestic Kurdish problem had by the second half of 2015 deteriorated into violent conflict throughout the predominantly Kurdish populated southeast, between the state’s security forces and the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). Turkey’s political leaders have declared their intention to militarily defeat the PKK – something the Turkish state has failed to achieve since the PKK first resorted to violence in1984 – rather than resume negotiations with it. The current round of violence, which is accompanied and partly explained by Ankara’s growing political authoritarianism, includes Turkish bombing raids against PKK bases in the Khandil Mountains of northern Iraq, the imposition of curfews lasting from weeks to months, and widely reported excesses on the part of the security forces. Urban districts have been flattened by government shelling, and tens of thousands have fled their homes. The government has stripped the MPs of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (HDP) of their parliamentary immunity, which clears the way for their prosecution and imprisonment. Subsequently, the HDP leadership is contemplating setting up in exile.

Events such as these have occurred throughout the history of the Turkish Republic. Ankara’s treatment of its Kurdish citizens since 1923 has been littered with executions, curfews, decades of emergency rule throughout the southeast, forced evacuations, intense ‘Turkification’ campaigns, the exclusion of foreigners from Kurdish areas of the country, population flight, the destruction of towns and villages, imprisonment of activists, the banning of Kurdish political parties, all sorts of abuses of human rights and the law, and even the denial that Kurds exist as a distinct people. However, what has shocked some observers about this latest round of violence is that it immediately followed what many had thought was a serious attempt to address the country’s Kurdish problem.

But to what extent did the events leading up to the resumption of violence in July 2015 really constitute a ‘peace process’? At no point did President Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicate his readiness to accept any item on the Kurdish side’s wish list. These included the release from prison of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the recognition of Kurdish as an official language of the Republic, state education in the Kurdish language, some kind of devolution – dubbed ‘democratic autonomy’ by the Kurdish movement – a disbandment of the government armed and funded Kurdish ‘village guard’ militias, a change to the ten percent electoral threshold, an amnesty for PKK fighters, and so on. Nor would the government countenance the Kurdish side’s suggestion that some third party mediation be introduced into the process.

Rather, Erdogan sought to impose his terms from above. He insisted that the PKK should disarm unconditionally, and dissociated himself from the so-called ‘Dolmabahce Accord’ that emerged from a meeting of government figures and HDP MPs in February 2015. His anti-HDP and nationalistic rhetoric became harsher once he recognized that the HDP stood to exceed the ten percent threshold and gain sufficient parliamentary seats in the June 2015 election to deny the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) a majority. HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas also declared his unwillingness to support Erdogan’s aspiration for a more presidential constitution. Erdogan’s belief that Turkey’s generally conservative Kurdish voters could be persuaded to forsake Kurdish nationalist candidates and support Islamist parties dates back to his Welfare Party days in the 1990s, and this is what he hoped to achieve.

Many in the PKK were skeptical of the government’s goodwill from the outset. Furthermore, both the PKK and the Turkish military treated the ceasefire that accompanied the ‘peace talks’ as an opportunity to prepare for the next round of violence. The military hardened existing fortifications and built new ones. Kurdish youth, many of them members of the PKK-affiliated Patriotic Revolutionary Youth Movement (YDG-H) and no doubt soon to become the next generation of PKK fighters, dug trenches and threw up barricades, while elected Kurdish officials declared their support for the establishment of Kurdish autonomous zones. In any case, in the wake of the HDP’s electoral success in June 2015, the government used the excuse of the killing of two policemen in the aftermath of the bombing at Suruc near the Syrian border which killed over thirty Kurdish activists to launch its military campaign. Although the government simultaneously declared its opposition to Islamic State (IS) and permitted US access to the NATO base at Incirlik, most IS activists that were initially detained were subsequently released. Although IS terrorist attacks inside Turkey and the intensification of IS cross-border shelling into Turkey from Syria in recent months has undoubtedly alerted the Turkish authorities to the threat posed, Ankara’s pursuit and prosecution of IS activists still seems desultory when compared to its campaign against anyone associated with the Kurdish cause.

In its one hundred year history, the Turkish state has either denied the Kurds exist at all, sought to obstruct any Kurdish political voice, or offered them assimilation either on the basis of ‘Turkification’ or, under the AKP, on the basis of a shared Islamic faith and appreciation of the benefits of the AKP’s economic policies. In fact, many Kurds are assimilated, but the Turkish state has never embraced or even truly grasped the fact that Kurds are at least as different from Turks as, say, Poles are from Germans or, if preferred, the Irish and Scots are from the English. There will be no settlement of Turkey’s Kurdish question until and unless Turks accept the ethnic, linguistic, cultural and historical distinctiveness of the twenty percent or so of Turkey’s citizens that are ethnically Kurdish rather than Turkish. There are few serious signs that this recognition is imminent.


Image: Prime Minister of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a meeting of the Russia High-Level Russian-Turkish Cooperation Council. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Nagorno-Karabakh clashes threaten stability in the South Caucasus


Violence has erupted in the South Caucasus, with clashes between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops along the Line of Contact around Nagorno-Karabakh resulting in a number of casualties. The military clashes began in the early hours of 2 April, while both the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents were attending the Nuclear Security Summit in the US. The unresolved dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the majority Armenian-populated enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh is one of the most worrying unresolved conflicts in the Caucasus region, both because of rising tension between the two sovereign states and because the three principal regional powers – Russia, Turkey and Iran – all have a differing stance towards the issue. The tense situation polarises the regional powers, with Russian support for Armenia and Turkey’s strategic partnership with Azerbaijan dividing the wider Caucasus region into two blocs and raising fears that, if there was a sustained renewal of fighting, it could rapidly become internationalised. It is over two decades since a cease-fire agreement was signed in 1994, but the ensuing stalemate has brought no real peace or stability and the two countries are still officially at war over the mountainous region. Fundamental issues remain unresolved and, as the fresh clashes demonstrate, the threat of renewed hostilities remains very real.

In recent years, there has been an escalation of violence around Nagorno-Karabakh with regular exchanges of fire along the 160-mile Line of Contact (LoC) between Armenian and Azerbaijani troops and a growing number of casualties in the so-called ‘sniper war’. The outbreak of violence on 2 April is the most serious confrontation since the 1994 ceasefire with over 30 deaths on both sides confirmed. Reports suggest that tanks, helicopters and armoured vehicles were involved. A new ceasefire was announced on 5 April, but there have been reports that the violence has continued and Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan has warned that, if the fighting escalates, Armenia will recognise the independence of Nagorno-Karabakh. The escalation in violence on the LoC over recent years has been accompanied by increasingly belligerent rhetoric from political leaders and a significant growth in defence spending by both Azerbaijan and Armenia. Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev has made it clear that he intends to pursue his father’s objectives of transforming the country into a regional power, restoring its territorial integrity and uniting the population. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan spend a significant proportion of their national income on defence expenditure, although Armenia is not endowed with the hydrocarbon reserves that its neighbour has. There has been a dramatic rise in oil-rich Azerbaijan’s defence spending from US$175m in 2004 to an estimated US$3.8bn in 2014, meaning that Azerbaijan’s spending on defence exceeded Armenia’s entire national budget (around US$3.2bn in 2014). Nevertheless, in spite of its relative lack of economic advantage, defence spending in Armenia still constitutes around four per cent of GDP (its defence budget in 2013 was US$447m), one of the highest levels amongst the post-Soviet states. Furthermore, whilst Azerbaijan’s armed forces are already almost double the size of Armenia’s, Armenia benefits from Russian political and military support. Russia is Armenia’s staunchest ally and Yerevan has sought a close relationship with Moscow to counterbalance what it perceives to be its vulnerable position between two countries that are antagonistic towards it: Turkey and Azerbaijan. Russia is its key trading partner, providing vital supplies of energy, as well as its principal source of security, providing much-needed military equipment and support. Armenia also has close relations with Iran, a relationship driven by strategic necessity: the two countries share borders and one of Armenia’s principal transit routes passes through Iran, whose southern transit routes are vital to Armenia given the closure of its border with Turkey. 

Azerbaijan’s foreign policy is similarly dominated by the continuing conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh: settlement of the conflict and ‘the restoration of Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity’ are the country’s primary foreign policy priority. Azerbaijan has a close relationship with Turkey, a relationship based to a large extent on ethnic and linguistic similarities. In addition to strong diplomatic and economic ties, Azerbaijan also receives a considerable amount of military support from Turkey, which has been assisting the development of the Azeri Armed Forces since the country became independent in 1991. However, this close alliance, like the Russian-Armenian partnership, reinforces mutual mistrust and suspicion over Nagorno-Karabakh, hindering the prospect of a negotiated settlement to the conflict. These agreements also increase fears that the conflict could become internationalised, with Russia or Turkey being obliged to assist their strategic ally in the event of a resumption of violence. Current diplomatic tensions between Moscow and Ankara could further complicate the situation.

The rapid escalation of hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh took many by surprise: after years of stalemate and an apparent a lack of resolve in the international community to sort out the problem, the protracted conflict has dropped off the radar, despite the need for greater international involvement. In addition to the security and geostrategic implications of any renewal of conflict, there are also economic ones to be considered, particularly the region’s role as a key transit route for the export of hydrocarbons from the landlocked Caspian Sea region. The rising tensions between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, combined with escalating defence expenditure, threaten to undermine security in its broadest sense across the volatile Caucasus region. This latest escalation of hostilities should act as a stark reminder of the need for greater international attention and the imperative of a negotiated settlement.

Image: A graffiti in Yerevan depicting the outline map of Armenia and Artsakh. The text says “Liberated, not occupied”, via wikimedia commons.

Reasons to (not) be cheerful in 2016…Deadly rivalries in Syria, Iraq and Turkey

After a turbulent 2015, members of DSD’s Regional Security Research Centre (@KingsRegSec) look forward to the coming year and examine the issues that they believe will be prominent in 2016, including the US presidential elections, continuing instability across the Middle East and the various coalitions seeking to counter IS, talks between India and Pakistan on Afghanistan, the UK referendum on membership of the EU and continuing concerns about Russian activity in eastern Europe.

Bill Park

The politics surrounding the Syrian and Iraqi crises are a mess. The recently announced Saudi-backed coalition of Syrian opposition groups is riddled with deadly rivalries and serves only to intensify the sectarian flavor of Syria’s struggle and of the region’s politics. Furthermore, it incorporates jihadi groups that are barely more tolerable than Islamic State (IS) and that undoubtedly intend the west harm. NATO member Turkey backs some of these groups, partly because of their role in fighting regime forces but also in the hope that they can obstruct the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the PYD from advancing further westwards and controlling yet more of the Turkey-Syrian border. However, a consequence of Turkey’s shooting down of the Russian bomber is that Moscow has embarked on a massive bombardment of these Ankara-sponsored groups, which serves both to strengthen the PYD’s position and weaken the opposition to Assad. Given that Washington regards the PYD’s fighters as the most effective force on the ground against IS, this aligns Russian and the US with the Syrian Kurds and against Turkey. On the other hand, Washington’s focus on degrading IS but by and large leaving other opposition groups unscathed, despite the jihadi and anti-western nature of many of them, serves to align the US with Saudi-backed sectarian Sunni groups and entices it towards a forlorn search for ‘moderates’ amongst them. Furthermore, while supporting the PYD despite Turkey’s disquiet, the US simultaneously supports Ankara’s vicious campaign of bombings, curfews and political repression against the PKK, sister party to Syria’s Kurdish PYD. No end to this campaign is in sight, and it is threatening to take on Grozny-like proportions as well as erode what is left of Turkish democracy. Ankara’s campaign extends to PKK bases inside northern Iraq, which is increasingly embarrassing to the KRG leadership, which number amongst Washington’s best friends in the region. Then again, the KRG’s peshmerga, regarded as the best ‘boots on the ground’ against IS in Iraq, are weaker than they could be because the US will only arm them via Baghdad, and which opposes the provision of heavy arms to the KRG. This continuing US commitment to Baghdad in effect aligns it with Tehran, and has led Washington to join Baghdad, Tehran and Moscow in demanding the withdrawal of Turkish forces from a Sunni-supporting base near Mosul. However, unlike those capitals, Washington does not support the Assad regime.

Confusing? Things will get still more so if IS ever is ‘degraded’, which in any case is a meaningless hope as the problem is less IS than jihadiism throughout the Muslim world. Syria’s Sunni groups will fight each other as well as the regime – which Moscow and Tehran will ensure remains in place in some form. The US and its regional allies will struggle to find themselves on the same page in such an intra-Sunni struggle. To add to the complexity, the more the US accepts the reality of Damascus – and it is now showing signs of doing just that, and needs to if a diplomatic agreement is to be found – the more it will alienate its regional Sunni allies. The US will feel obliged, under Turkish pressure as well as that of almost all Syrian Sunni Arab groups, to betray the PYD, which can see the writing on the wall and is already shifting towards Moscow, which will support a decentralized Syria as the best means of maintaining an Alawite presence in the country’s governance, and will also cherish the opportunity to spite Ankara. In Iraq, the territorial struggle between Baghdad and Erbil will resume, only this time Tehran-inspired Shia militias will provide the chief opponents to the peshmerga on the ground. In fact, this fight has already commenced. Which side will Washington take in this struggle? Only the next US president might know, and none of the likely Republican candidates appear to know anything at all about the region’s complexities. Russia will have incurred the wrath of the region’s Sunnis – in fact it has already done so – while the US will be puzzling over how it managed to simultaneously find itself uncomfortably on the same side on so many issues as Moscow, Tehran, and Baghdad, yet also distrusted by its regional Sunni allies for not joining them emphatically enough against Assad and, in Turkey’s case, Syria’s Kurds, and for leaving Iraq’s Sunni Arabs still disenfranchised. Meanwhile, any ‘degraded’ IS will simply reappear, perhaps in a new guise, in other trouble spots – Yemen, Sinai, Afghanistan, Tunisia, most frighteningly Libya, as well as the west’s cities of course. This is what we have to look forward to in 2016 and beyond.

Image: the Za’atri camp in Jordan for Syrian refugees as seen on July 18, 2013, via wikimedia commons.



On Sunday November 1st, Turkey will hold the second general election this year. This comes after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) failed to find an agreement with opposing parties to form a coalition government, having previously fallen short of obtaining enough votes to secure its own parliamentary majority in the June 2015 elections.

The AKP has been ruling the country since 2002, progressively expanding and consolidating both its electoral pool and the political power of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Over the past decade, the party managed to increase its votes from 34%, obtained while running for its first general election in 2002, to a solid 49.8% in the 2011 elections. The June 2015 elections however, interrupted this trend.

Erdogan’s rule has become more controversial and uncompromising towards both opposition parties and Turkey’s civil society (with the Gezi Park protests being one of the main aggregating events for grass-roots opposition). But make no mistake – it has been the discontent registered among AKP’s own supporters that has dragged the party down to about 41% of votes last June. AKP’s main electoral ambition is now to increase its number of parliamentary seats to re-gain a majority of its own.

As the turnout remained virtually constant over the years, a share of AKP voters appears to have moved towards either the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) or the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). The two parties, which hold irreconcilable political views, both fared well in June’s elections. The former, which flatly refutes any attempt at expanding the recognition of the Kurdish minority in Turkey, increased its votes by 3%. The latter on the other hand, truly imposed itself as the elections’ moral winner. For the first time in Turkey’s history, a pro-Kurdish party has managed to obtain enough votes to overcome the steep 10% electoral threshold, claiming 13% of the votes.

Through its success, the HDP successfully demonstrated there is a new kid on the block in Turkish politics, and that the Kurdish minority, together with parts of the country’s socialist and liberal electorate, supports the HDP’s willingness to address the lack of rights and recognition of the country’s Kurdish minority through political dialogue. The party’s approach stands against the backdrop of a longstanding war between the PKK (a Kurdish organisation labeled as a terrorist group by Turkey, the EU, and the US) and the Turkish state: since its inception in the early 1980s, and throughout different phases and various degrees of intensity, the conflict has claimed more than 40,000 lives. The conflict has deeply polarised Turkey’s society, and the MHP represents the spearhead of the hardliners’ front, pushing for a purely military solution that disregards any political claim by the Kurdish minority.

Over the past few years, the AKP’s own position with regards to the Kurdish issue has been ambivalent at best, with attempted openings and negotiations with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan. While projecting a sense of purpose, the initiatives never led to any long-lasting resolution, highlighting Erdogan’s lack of willingness to truly commit to the dialogue between the two sides.

This was best portrayed by events which occurred during the Fall of 2014: on the one hand, Turkey and the PKK were respecting the ceasefire that had been in force until that point, whilst on the other hand the Turkish government ostensibly dragged its feet when it was called to allow Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga to transit through Turkey, in order to support Syrian Kurdish forces that were pinned down by ISIS in Kobane.

While the AKP government’s inaction contributed to alienate the party’s Kurdish electorate, the fact that it eventually gave in to mounting domestic and international criticism, and provided logistical support to the Peshmerga also alienated its nationalist fringes, who felt that the government had become too tolerant when it came to the Kurds. There were obviously other factors at play, but the AKP’s conduct during these events played a fundamental role in eroding parts of its electoral base.

Today, faced with the impossibility of forming a single-party government, and pressured by the emergence of a strong and proactive pro-Kurdish party, Erdogan has opted to turn November’s election into a matter of national security. The main goal is to win back part of the nationalist voters, while delegitimising the opposition – and the pro-Kurdish HDP in primis. Through this strategy, Erdogan aims to rally the electorate around the flag, while using every opportunity to stress how the country needs to unite around the AKP, its strongest party, as it navigates through the current phase of insecurity and political paralysis.

Furthermore, since June’s elections, Turkey has experienced multiple instances of terrorist attacks and violence. In July, a suicide bomber linked to ISIS killed more than 30 members of an association who had gathered in the Turkish district of Suruc to reach Kobane, in order to carry out assistance projects for its Kurdish population. As the victims were mostly of Kurdish origin, the PKK accused the government of failing to protect the minority, and launched a series of retaliatory attacks against members of the Turkish security forces, effectively ending the ceasefire.

Since then, Turkish security forces have revamped their campaign against PKK’s safe haven in Northern Iraq, as well as their operations on Turkish soil; more than 100 members of the security forces have lost their lives since July, and President Erdogan is once again presenting himself as the only force that can keep the country from splintering. Last month, another terrorist attack, carried out by two suicide bombers affiliated with ISIS, hit a pacifist rally in Ankara, killing more than 100 people – many of which were Kurds.

During his electoral rallies as well as in his TV interviews, President Erdogan has consistently tried to deflect criticism by arguing that the current chaos originates from the June 2015 election results, and more specifically from the electorate’s failure to give him a stronger mandate. What is more important, however, is that Erdogan’s nationalist appeal seems to have already reclaimed some votes: the most recent available polls put the AKP at about 43.3% of votes (an increase of almost 3% from June), which might be just enough for his party to have a parliamentary majority. Appealing to Turkey’s nationalist sentiments seems to be just about the only option Erdogan has available in order to obtain a working parliamentary majority, and securitising the upcoming elections seems to be the safest bet in order to truly appeal to its nationalist voters – the swing-voters who the AKP can legitimately hope to bring in line with their party.

Follow Francesco F. Milan’s blog at www.ffmilan.net.

Image: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Poland. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Poland license.


This is the fifth in a series of posts to come out of the ‘Rise of the Islamic State (IS): Ideology, Strategy, and Implications’ roundtable organized by Regional Security Research Centre on 4 February 2015.  An audio recording of this roundtable can be listen to or downloaded from the Defence Studies Department’s SoundCloud page.


Turkey remains isolated in its approach to the Islamic State (IS) threat. In contrast to its NATO partners and to most of its middle eastern neighbours, Ankara is steadfast in its refusal to actively engage with the US-led campaign against IS. Notably, this has involved denying use by US bombers of the NATO base at Incirlik. Turkey’s President Erdogan did not hold back on criticising US arms airdrops to the besieged Syrian Kurds of Kobane, as described in Rod Thornton’s recent post, fearing that they could end up in the hands of Turkey’s PKK, with which the Syrian Kurdish PYD is affiliated. He also alleged that some of the arms fell straight into IS-controlled territory. Allegations that Ankara has at minimum turned a blind eye to jihadists crossing into Syria from Turkey, and may have facilitated them in other ways, persist. Unsurprisingly, questions have been asked in the US about Turkey’s understanding of what it is to be an ally, and President Obama seems to be giving his Turkish counterpart the cold shoulder.

Turkey’s stance has set back its position in the region too. The KRG, with which Ankara had built a close economic and political relationship, openly expressed its disappointment at Turkey’s failure to come to its aid as IS turned on Erbil after the fall of Mosul. Tehran did step into the breach and has augmented its engagement, as a consequence of which Iranian influence with Iraq’s Kurds has risen as Ankara’s has fallen. Turkey had already fallen out with Baghdad’s Shia-dominated government and with the Assad regime in Damascus of course, and has since entered into wars of words with Cairo and what passes for the government in Libya over its support for the Muslim Brotherhood in those two countries. Turkey now has few friends in its neighbourhood. Its failure to come to the aid of Kobane’s Kurds caused widespread demonstrations and rioting amongst its own Kurds and raised doubts about Turkey’s own domestic peace process.

Ankara’s logic is that the radicalisation of the Syrian opposition resulted from the drawn-out and ever more brutal struggle against the Assad regime. The west’s failure to come to the aid of Syrian moderates allowed this to happen, and caused much frustration in Turkey. Its demand is that the overthrow of Assad should be prioritised over the war against IS, and that a humanitarian corridor and no fly zones should be established in northern Syria. For this to happen, the US must take the lead, and Turkey would then follow. Syria’s Kurds feel that this is a ruse to allow a Turkish troop presence in the area, which could put an end to their experiment in self-government. Certainly Ankara opposes Kurdish self-rule in Syria, and suspects the PYD of collaboration with Damascus. Ankara has also called for a programme of training for moderate opposition elements. Washington has now agreed to lead such a programme, but whereas the US intends to deploy such forces as emerge against IS, Turkey believes they will be pitted against regime forces too. This apparent disagreement is likely to come to the fore in the not-too-distant future. In Iraq, Ankara argues that IS successes there are a consequence both of the initial 2002 US-led invasion, and of the subsequent marginalisation of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs by the US-supported Shia government of Nuri al-Maliki. There is more than a grain of truth in this assessment.

In fact, Ankara’s position is not without substance, at least in some respects. The anti-IS campaign has alienated many Sunni Arabs in Iraq, Syria and the wider region. It has meant a blind eye has been turned to the even greater death and destruction inflicted by Assad’s essentially Alawite government, which in effect is being strengthened in so far as IS, one of its more effective opponents, is being weakened. The same logic applies to Jubhat-al-Nusrah, the AQ affiliated force which had itself struggled against IS and which to a degree is being strengthened as IS is being weakened – if it is being weakened, that is. The anti-IS campaign also appears to have attracted a seemingly ever-increasing flow of jihadis from further afield. In Iraq the mostly Shia armed forces and government, who are barely trusted at all by the country’s Sunni Arabs, are receiving military and other assistance from the west. Worse still, Iranian-backed Shia militias, many of which have a reputation for taking reprisals against the Sunni population, are leading the fight in Iraq, often with western-supplied arms transferred to them by Iraq’s security forces. And assisting the Kurds in Iraq, Syria and, indirectly, in Turkey too, might in due course undermine the territorial integrity of each of those states. In other words, it is not only Ankara that may have got things wrong. But Turkey’s pro-Sunni and anti-Kurdish agendas might also be policy dead-ends.

Ankara has additional reasons for remaining aloof. It is home to up to two million Syrian refugees, many of them unregistered. Ankara fears there could be IS cells amongst this vast swarm of people, and which it would prefer not to provoke. A prolongation of the Syrian struggle could swell these numbers still further, which could lead to a native Turkish backlash and an expansion of the Syrian conflict into Turkey itself. Of course, some kind of accommodation with Damascus might hold out greater hope of bringing an end to the fighting in Syria and even of defeating IS, but recent hints from Washington that this option might be under consideration prompted a fierce reaction from Ankara. Turkey’s opposition to the Syrian regime has been so unrelenting that it can’t easily turn back now. It is holding out for a Sunni victory. Ankara is also aware of IS sympathisers amongst its own population, and has no wish to incur their wrath. And, as ever, Ankara does not wish to add impetus (and arms) to Kurdish demands inside Turkey by in effect siding with Syria’s Kurdish fighters.

In fact, Ankara has adjusted its behaviour a little in recent months. Under US pressure, Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga fighters were eventually allowed to transit Turkish territory in order to come to the aid of Kobane. Border controls have been tightened up. Turkey will contribute to the training programme for Syrian moderates. Its troops are training a limited number of Kurdish peshmerga, as well as units of the Iraqi army. Ankara has also declared its readiness to aid any – preferably Sunni Arab-led – assault on IS-held Mosul, although not with ‘boots on the ground’. But its minimal interpretation of the obligations of alliance, its failure to share the more widespread assessment of the regional threat posed by IS, its cold-hearted stance towards Kobane’s defenders, and its pro-Sunni leanings, have lost it a great deal of trust. Furthermore, its failure to oppose with any determination the jihadi elements of the Syrian opposition, and the suggestion that it might even have supported them, has aroused suspicion that Ankara shares an ideological –although not behavioural –affinity with IS in its desire to see the emergence of a more unified Sunni community in the middle east, albeit one preferably overseen from Ankara.

President Erdogan’s foreign policy advisor, Ibrahim Kalin, has referred to Turkey’s ‘precious loneliness’. The implication is that Turkey is acting on principle, and is playing a long term game. In the meantime it is prepared to be patient, and diplomatically isolated if necessary, until it is proved right. This suggests a remarkable self-confidence. But the consequent isolation might be real, long-lasting, and ultimately very damaging to Turkey.

Image: “Erdogan gesturing Rabia” by R4BIA.com. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.