Monthly Archives: April 2019

Turkey: Revenge of the Kurds

Turkey: Rocks & Hard Places

Dispatches From The Edge

March 25, 2019

 

After 18 years of unchallenged power and success, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suddenly finds himself in the middle of several domestic and foreign crises with no obvious way out. It is unfamiliar ground for a master politician who has moved nimbly from the margins of power to the undisputed leader of the largest economy in the Middle East.

 

His problems are largely of his own making: an economy built on a deeply corrupt construction industry, a disastrous intervention in Syria and a declaration of war on Turkey’s Kurdish population. All of these initiatives have backfired badly. In the Mar. 31 local elections, Erdogan’s conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost control of all of Turkey’s major cities, including the country’s political center, Ankara, and the nation’s economic engine, Istanbul. The latter contributes more than 30 percent of Turkey’s GNP.

 

That is not to say that the man is down and out. The AKP is demanding a re-run of the Istanbul election and is preventing the progressive mayors of several Kurdish cities in Turkey’s southeast from assuming office. Erdogan is not a man who shies from using brute force and intimidation to get his way. Close to 10,000 of his political opponents are in prison, hundreds of thousands of others have been dismissed from their jobs, and opposition media is largely crushed. The final outcome of the election is by no means settled.

 

But force will only exacerbate Erdogan’s problems.

 

The Kurds are a case in point. When the leftist Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) made a major electoral breakthrough in 2015—winning 81 seats in the Parliament and denying the AKP a majority—Erdogan responded by ending peace talks with the Kurds and occupying Kurdish towns and cities.

 

Rather than cowing the Kurds, however, it sowed the wind, and the AKP reaped the hurricane in the March election. An analysis of the Istanbul mayor’s race shows that the AKP and its rightwing National Movement Party alliance won about the same percentage of votes it had in last year’s presidential election. The same was true for the AKP’s opposition—the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) and its ally, the right-wing Good Party.

 

The difference was that the HDP did not field a candidate, and its imprisoned leader, Selahattin Demiratas, urged the Kurds and their supporters to vote against Erdogan’s candidate. They did so in droves and tipped the balance to the CHP’s candidate. That pattern pretty much held for the rest of the country and accounts for the AKP’s loss of other cities, like Izmar, Antalya, Mersin and Adana.

 

When the Turkish state waged a war against the Kurds in the 1980s and ‘90s, many fled rural areas to take up life in the cities. Istanbul is now about 11 percent Kurdish. Indeed, it is the largest grouping of urban Kurds in the world. So if there is a phrase that sums up the election, it might be “revenge of the Kurds.”

 

But the AKP’s loss of the major urban centers is more than a political setback. Cities are the motors for the Turkish economy and for the past 18 years Erdogan has doled out huge construction projects to AKP-friendly firms, which, in turn, kick money back to the Party. The President has delivered growth over the years, but it was growth built on the three “Cs”: credit, corruption and cronyism.

 

Those chickens have finally come home to roost. Foreign currency reserves are low, Turkey’s lira has plummeted in value, debts are out of hand, and unemployment—particularly among the young and well educated—is rising. In a rare case of political tone deafness, Erdogan focused the recent campaign around the issues of terrorism and the Kurds, ignoring polls that showed most Turks were far more worried about high prices and joblessness.

 

Where Erdogan goes from here is not clear.

 

Turkey is holding talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about a possible bailout, but the President knows that means increased taxes and austerity, not exactly the kind of program that delivers votes. There will be no elections until the 2023 presidential contest, so there is time to try to turn things around, but how? Foreign investors are wary of Turkey’s political volatility, and the Europeans and Americans are unhappy with Erdogan’s erratic foreign policy.

 

The latest dustup is fallout from Turkey’s disastrous 2011 decision to support the overthrow of President Bashar Assad of Syria. Assad has survived—largely because of Russian and Iranian support—and now Turkey is hosting millions of refugees and bleeding out billions of dollars occupying parts of northern Syria.

 

Turkey initially tryed to get NATO to challenge Moscow in Syria—even shooting down a Russian warplane—but NATO wanted no part of it. So Erdogan shifted and cut a deal with Moscow, part of which involved buying the Russians new S-400 anti-missile and aircraft system for $2.5 billion.

 

Backing the extremists trying to overthrow Assad was never a good hand, but Erdogan has played it rather badly.

 

The S-400 deal made NATO unhappy, which doesn’t want high-tech Russian military technology potentially eavesdropping on a NATO member country, particularly on American warplanes based in Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base.

 

The US Congress is threatening to block Turkey’s purchase of the F-35 fifth generation fighter plane, even though Turkey is an investor in the project. The Trump administration has also warned Ankara that it will apply the 2017 Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act if Turkey buys Russian military equipment, sanctions that could damage Ankara’s already troubled economy. Turkey is officially in a recession.

 

The Americans are so upset about this S-400 business, that the Senate recently proposed lifting an arms embargo on Cyprus and signing energy agreements with Greece and Egypt—two of Turkey’s major regional rivals.

 

Although not being able to purchase the F-35 may end up being a plus for Ankara. The plane is an over-priced lemon. Some of Erdogan’s advisors argue that Ankara could always turn to Russia for a fifth generation warplane (and one that might actually work).

 

There is some talk about throwing Turkey out of NATO, but that is mostly bluff. The simple fact is that NATO needs Turkey more than Turkey needs NATO. Ankara controls access to the Black Sea, where NATO has deployed several missile-firing surface ships. Russia’s largest naval base is on the Crimean Peninsula and relations between Moscow and NATO are tense.

 

A strategic turn toward Moscow seems unlikely. The Russians oppose Turkey’s hostility toward the Kurds in Syria, don’t share Erdogan’s antagonism toward Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and have differences with Ankara over Cyprus and the Caucasus. And for all the talk about increasing trade between the two countries, the Russian economy is not all that much larger than Turkey’s and is currently straining under NATO-applied sanctions.

 

On the one hand, Ankara is angry with Washington for its refusal to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim leader that Erdogan claims was behind the failed 2016 coup. On the other hand, the Turkish President also knows that the US pretty much controls the IMF and he will need American support if he goes for a bailout.

 

How Erdogan will handle his domestic problems and foreign entanglements is anyone’s guess. Erdogan the politician made peace with the Kurds, established a good neighbor policy regionally and lifted tens of millions of Turks out of poverty.

 

But Erdogan the autocrat pulled his country into a senseless war with the Kurds and Syria, distorted the economy to build an election juggernaut, jailed political opponents and turned Turkish democracy into one-man rule.

 

If the local elections were a sobering lesson for Erdogan, they should also be a wakeup call for the mainstream Turkish opposition. The only reason the CHP now runs Turkey’s major cities is because the Kurdish HDP took a deep breath and voted for the Party’s candidates. That must not have been easy. The CHP was largely silent when Erdogan launched his war on the Kurds in 2015 and voted with the AKP to remove parliamentary immunity for HDP members. That allowed the Turkish President to imprison 16 HDP parliamentarians, remove HDP mayors, and smash up Kurdish cities.

 

The Kurds demonstrated enormous political sophistication in the recent Turkish balloting, but they will not be patient forever. Erdogan can be challenged, but—as the election demonstrated—only by a united front of center-left and left parties. That will require the CHP alliance to find a political solution to the demands of the Kurds for rights and autonomy.

 

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Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Diego Garcia: “Unsinkable Carrier” Springs a Leak

Dispatches From The Edge

April 8, 2019

 

 

The recent decision by the Hague-based International Court of Justice that the Chagos Islands—with its huge US military base at Diego Garcia—are being illegally occupied by the United Kingdom (UK) has the potential to upend the strategic plans of a dozen regional capitals, ranging from Beijing to Riyadh.

 

For a tiny speck of land measuring only 38 miles in length, Diego Garcia casts a long shadow. Sometimes called Washington’s “unsinkable aircraft carrier,” planes and warships based on the island played an essential role in the first and second Gulf wars, the invasion of Afghanistan and the war in Libya. Its strategic location between Africa and Indonesia and 1,000 miles south of India, gives the US access to the Middle East, Central and South Asia and the vast Indian Ocean. No oil tanker, no warship, no aircraft can move without its knowledge.

 

Most Americans have never heard of Diego Garcia for a good reason: no journalist has been allowed there for more than 30 years and the Pentagon keeps the base wrapped in a cocoon of national security. Indeed, the UK leased the base to the Americans in 1966 without informing either the British Parliament or the US Congress.

 

The Feb. 25 Court decision has put a dent in all that by deciding that Great Britain violated United Nations Resolution 1514 prohibiting the division of colonies before independence. The UK broke the Chagos Islands off from Mauritius, a former colony on the southeast coast of Africa that Britain decolonized in 1968. At the time, Mauritius objected, reluctantly agreeing only after Britain threatened to withdraw its offer of independence.

 

The Court ruled 13-1 that the UK had engaged in a “wrongful act” and must decolonize the Chagos “as rapidly as possible.”

 

While the ruling is only “advisory,” it comes at a time when the US and its allies are confronting or sanctioning countries for supposedly illegal occupations—Russia in the Crimea and China in the South China Sea.

 

The suit was brought by Mauritius and some of the 1500 Chagos islanders, who were forcibly removed from the archipelago in 1973. The Americans, calling it “sanitizing” the islands, moved the Chagossians more than 1,000 miles to Mauritius and the Seychelles, where they have languished in poverty ever since.

 

Diego Garcia is the lynchpin for US strategy in the region. With its enormous runways, it can handle B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers and huge C-5M, C-17 and C-130 military cargo planes. The lagoon has been transformed into a naval harbor that can handle an aircraft carrier. The US has built a city—replete with fast food outlets, bars, golf courses and bowling alleys—that hosts some 3,000 to 5,000 military personal and civilian contractors.

 

What you can’t find are any native Chagossians.

 

The Indian Ocean has become a major theater of competition between India, the US, and Japan on one side, and the growing presence of China on the other. Tensions have flared between India and China over the Maldives and Sri Lanka, specifically China’s efforts to use ports on those island nations. India recently joined with Japan and the US in a war game—Malabar 18—that modeled shutting down the strategic Malacca Straits between Sumatra and Malaysia, through which some 80 percent of China’s energy supplies pass each year.

 

A portion of the exercise involved anti-submarine warfare aimed at detecting Chinese submarines moving from the South China Sea into the Indian Ocean. To Beijing, those submarines are essential for protecting the ring of Chinese-friendly ports that run from southern China to Port Sudan on the east coast of Africa. Much of China’s oil and gas supplies are vulnerable, because they transit the narrow Mandeb Strait that guards the entrance to the Red Sea and the Strait of Hormuz that oversees access to the oil-rich Persian Gulf. The US 5th Fleet controls both straits.

 

Tensions in the region have increased since the Trump administration shifted the focus of US national security from terrorism to “major power competition”—that is, China and Russia. The US accuses China of muscling its way into the Indian Ocean by taking over ports, like Hambantota in Sri Lanka and Gwadar in Pakistan that are capable of hosting Chinese warships.

 

India, which has its own issues with China dating back to their 1962 border war, is ramping up its anti-submarine forces and building up its deep-water navy. New Delhi also recently added a long-range Agni-V missile that is designed to strike deep into China, and the rightwing government of Narendra Modi is increasingly chummy with the American military. The Americans even changed their regional military organization from “Pacific Command” to “Indo-Pacific Command” in deference to New Delhi.

 

The term for these Chinese friendly ports—“string of pearls”—was coined by Pentagon contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and, as such, should be taken with a grain of salt. China is indeed trying to secure its energy supplies and also sees the ports as part of its worldwide Road and Belt Initiative trade strategy. But assuming the “pearls” have a military role, akin to 19th century colonial coaling stations, is a stretch. Most the ports would be indefensible if a war broke out.

 

Diego Garcia is central to the US’s war in Somalia, its air attacks in Iraq and Syria, and its control of the Persian Gulf, and would be essential in any conflict with Iran. If the current hostility by Saudi Arabia, Israel and the US toward Iran actually translates into war, the island will quite literally be an unsinkable aircraft carrier.

 

Given the strategic centrality of Diego Garcia, it is hard to imagine the US giving it up, or, rather, the British withdrawing their agreement with Washington and de-colonizing the Chagos Islands. In 2016, London extended the Americans’ lease for 20 years.

 

Mauritius wants the Chagos back, but at this point doesn’t object to the base. It certainly wants a bigger rent check and the right eventually to take the island group back. It also wants more control over what goes on at Diego Garcia. For instance, the British government admitted that the Americans were using the island to transit “extraordinary renditions,” people seized during the Afghan and Iraq wars between 2002 and 2003, many of whom were tortured. Torture is a violation of international law.

 

As for the Chagossians, they want to go back.

 

Diego Garcia is immensely important for US military and intelligence operations in the region, but it is just one of some 800 American military bases on every continent except Antarctica. Those bases form a worldwide network that allows the US military to deploy advisors and Special Forces in some 177 countries across the globe. Those forces create tensions that can turn dangerous at a moment’s notice.

 

For instance there are currently US military personal in virtually every country surrounding Russia: Norway, Poland, Hungary, Kosovo, Romania, Turkey, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Georgia, Ukraine and Bulgaria. Added to that is the Mediterranean’s 6th Fleet, which regularly sends warships into the Black Sea.

 

Much the same can be said for China. US military forces are deployed in South Korea, Japan and Australia, plus numerous islands in the Pacific. The American 7th fleet, based in Hawaii and Yokohama, is the Navy’s largest.

 

In late March, US Navy and Coast Guard ships transited the Taiwan Straits, which, while international waters, the Chinese consider an unnecessary provocation. British ships have also sailed close to Chinese-occupied reefs and islands in the South China Sea.

 

The fight to de-colonize the Chagos Islands will now move to the UN General Assembly. In the end, Britain may ignore the General Assembly and the Court, but it will be hard pressed to make a credible case for doing so. How Great Britain can argue for international law in the Crimea and South China Sea, while ignoring the International Court of Justice on the Chagos, will require some fancy footwork.

 

In the meantime, Mauritius Prime Minister Pravard Jugnauth calls the Court decision “historic,” and one that will eventually allow the 6,000 native Chagossians and their descendents “to return home”

 

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