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Nuclear Lies and Broken Promises

Nuclear Lies & Broken Promises

Dispatches From The Edge

Nov. 22, 2019

 

 

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told an economic meeting in the city of Sivas on Sept. 4 that Turkey was considering building nuclear weapons, he was responding to a broken promise.

 

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused the government of Iran of lying about its nuclear program, he was concealing one of the greatest subterfuges in the history of nuclear weapons.

 

And the vast majority of Americans haven’t a clue about either.

 

Early in the morning of Sept. 22, 1979, a US satellite recorded a double flash near the Prince Edward islands in the South Atlantic. The satellite, a Vela 5B, carries a device called a “bhangmeter” whose purpose is to detect nuclear explosions. Sent into orbit following the signing of the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963, its job was to monitor any violations of the agreement. The Treaty banned nuclear explosions in the atmosphere, underwater and in space.

 

Nuclear explosions have a unique footprint. When the weapon detonates, it sends out an initial pulse of light, but as the fireball expands, it cools down for a few milliseconds, then spikes again.

 

“Nothing in nature produces such a double-humped light flash,” says Victor Gilinsky. “The spacing of the hump gives an indication of the amount of energy, or yield, released by the explosion.” Gilinsky was a member of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission and a former Rand Corporation physicist.

 

There was little question who had conducted the test. The Prince Edward islands were owned by South Africa and US intelligence knew the apartheid government was conducting research into nuclear weapons, but had yet to produce one. But Israel had nukes and both countries had close military ties. In short, it was almost certainly an Israeli weapon, though Israel denied it.

 

In the weeks that followed, clear evidence for a nuclear test emerged from hydrophones near Ascension Island and a jump in radioactive iodine-131 in Australian sheep. Only nuclear explosions produce iodine-131.

 

But the test came at a bad time for US President Jimmy Carter, who was gearing up his re-election campaign, a cornerstone of which was a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.

 

If the Israelis were seen to have violated the Partial Test Ban, as well as the 1977 Glenn Amendment to the Arms Export Control Act, the US would have been required to cut off all arms sales to Israel and apply heavy sanctions. Carter was nervous about what such a finding would have on the election, since a major part of Carter’s platform was arms control and non-proliferation.

 

So Carter threw together a panel of experts whose job was not to examine the incident but to cover it up. The Ruina Panel cooked up a tortured explanation involving mini-meteors that the media accepted and, as a result, so did the American public.

 

But nuclear physicists knew the panel was blowing smoke and that the evidence was unarguable. The device was set off on a barge between Prince Edward Island and Marion Island (the former should not be confused with Canada’s Prince Edward Island) with a yield of from 3 to 4 kilotons. A secret CIA panel concurred but put the yield at 1.5 to 2 kilotons. For comparison, the Hiroshima bomb was 15 kilotons.

 

It was also clear why the Israelis took the risk. Israel had a number of Hiroshima-style fission bombs but was working on producing a thermonuclear weapon—a hydrogen bomb. Fission bombs are easy to use, but fusion weapons are tricky and require a test. That the Vela picked it up was pure chance, since the satellite had been retired. But its bhangmeters were still working.

 

From Carter on, every US president has covered up the Israeli violation of the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, as well as the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So when Netanyahu says Iran is lying about its nuclear program, much of the rest of the world, including the US nuclear establishment, rolls their eyes.

 

As for Turkish President Erdogan, he is perfectly correct that the nuclear powers have broken the promise they made back in 1968 when the signed the NPT. Article VI of that agreement calls for an end to the nuclear arms race and the abolition of nuclear weapons. Indeed, in many ways Article VI is the heart of the NPT. Non-nuclear armed countries signed the agreement, only to find themselves locked into a system of “nuclear apartheid,” where they agreed not to acquire such weapons of mass destruction, while China, Russia, Great Britain, France and the US get to keep theirs.

 

The “Big Five” not only kept their weapons, they are all in the process of upgrading and expanding them. The US is also shedding other agreements, like the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Agreement. Washington is also getting ready to abandon the START treaty that limits the US and Russia to a set number of warheads and long-range strategic launchers.

 

What is amazing is that only four other countries have abandoned the NPT: Israel, North Korea, Pakistan and India (only the latter three have been sanctioned by the US). But that situation cannot hold forever, especially since part of Article VI calls for general disarmament, a pledge that has been honored in the breach. The US currently has the largest defense budget in its history and spends about 47 percent of what the entire rest of the world spends on their militaries.

 

While the US doesn’t seem able to win wars with that huge military—Afghanistan and Iraq were disasters—it can inflict a stunning amount of damage that few countries are willing to absorb. Even when Washington doesn’t resort to its military, its sanctions can decimate a country’s economy and impoverish its citizens. North Korea and Iran are cases in point.

 

If the US were willing to cover up the 1979 Israeli test, while sanctioning other countries that acquire nuclear weapons, why would anyone think that this is nothing more than hypocrisy on the subject of proliferation? And if the NPT is simply a device to ensure that other countries cannot defend themselves from other nations’ conventional and/or nuclear forces, why would anyone sign on or stay in the Treaty?

 

Turkish President Erdogan may be bluffing. He loves bombast and effectively uses it to keep his foes off balance. The threat may be a strategy for getting the US to back off on its support for Israel and Greece in their joint efforts to develop energy sources in the eastern Mediterranean Sea.

 

But Turkey also has security concerns. In his speech, Erdogan pointed out “There is Israel just beside us. Do they have [nuclear weapons]? They do.” He went on to say that if Turkey did not response to Israeli “bullying,” in the region, “We will face the prospect of losing our strategic superiority in the region.”

 

Iran may be lying—although though there is no evidence that Teheran is making a serious run at producing a nuclear weapon—but if they are, they in good company with the Americans and the Israelis.

 

Sooner or later someone is going to set off one of those nukes. The likeliest candidates are India and Pakistan, although use by the US and China in the South China Sea is not out of the question. Neither is a dustup between NATO and Russia in the Baltic.

 

It is easy to blame the current resident of the White House for world tensions, except that the major nuclear powers have been ignoring their commitments on nuclear weapons and disarmament for over 50 years.

 

The path back to sanity is thorny but not impossible:

 

One: re-join the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty, thus making Russia’s medium range missiles unnecessary, and reduce tensions between the US and China by withdrawing ABM systems from Japan and South Korea.

 

Two: re-instate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Agreement and find a way to bring China, India and Pakistan into it. That will require a general reduction of US military forces in Asia coupled with an agreement with China to back off on its claims over most of the South China Sea. Tensions between India and Pakistan would be greatly reduced by simply fulfilling the UN pledge to hold a referendum in Kashmir. The latter would almost certainly vote for independence.

 

Three: continue adherence to the START Treaty but halt the modernization of the Big Five’s nuclear weapons arsenals and begin to implement Article VI of the NPT in regards to both nuclear and conventional forces.

 

Pie in the sky? Well, it beats a mushroom cloud..

 

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A New Middle East Is Coming

Middle East: A Complex Re-alignment

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 28, 2019

 

 

The fallout from the September attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities is continuing to reverberate throughout the Middle East, sidelining old enmities—sometimes for new ones—and re-drawing traditional alliances. While Turkey’s recent invasion of northern Syria is grabbing the headlines, the bigger story may be that major regional players are contemplating some historic re-alignments.

 

After years of bitter rivalry, the Saudis and the Iranians are considering how they can dial down their mutual animosity. The formerly powerful Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Persian Gulf monarchs is atomizing because Saudi Arabia is losing its grip. And Washington’s former domination of the region appears to be in decline.

 

Some of these developments are long-standing, pre-dating the cruise missile and drone assault that knocked out 50 percent of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. But the double shock—Turkey’s lunge into Syria and the September missile attack—is accelerating these changes.

 

Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, recently flew to Iran and then on to Saudi Arabia to lobby for détente between Teheran and Riyadh and to head off any possibility of hostilities between the two countries. “What should never happen is a war,” Khan said, “because this will not just affect the whole region…this will cause poverty in the world. Oil prices will go up.”

 

According to Khan, both sides have agreed to talk, although the Yemen War is a stumbling block. But there are straws in the wind on that front, too. A partial ceasefire seems to be holding, and there are back channel talks going on between the Houthis and the Saudis.

 

The Saudi intervention in Yemen’s civil war was supposed to last three months, but it has dragged on for over four years. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was to supply the ground troops and the Saudis the airpower. But the Saudi-UAE alliance has made little progress against the battle-hardened Houthis, who have been strengthened by defections from the regular Yemeni army.

 

Air wars without supporting ground troops are almost always a failure, and they are very expensive. The drain on the Saudi treasury is significant, and the country’s wealth is not bottomless.

 

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is trying to shift the Saudi economy from its overreliance on petroleum, but he needs outside money to do that and he is not getting it. The Yemen War—which, according to the United Nations is the worst humanitarian disaster on the planet—and the Prince’s involvement with the murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, has spooked many investors.

 

Without outside investment, the Saudi’s have to use their oil revenues, but the price per barrel is below what the Kingdom needs to fulfill its budget goals, and world demand is falling off. The Chinese economy is slowing— the trade war with the US has had an impact—and European growth is sluggish. There is a whiff of recession in the air, and that’s bad news for oil producers.

 

Riyadh is also losing allies. The UAE is negotiating with the Houthis and withdrawing their troops, in part because the Abu Dhabi has different goals in Yemen than Saudi Arabia, and because in any dustup with Iran, the UAE would be ground zero. US generals are fond of calling the UAE “little Sparta” because of its well trained army, but the operational word for Abu Dhabi is “little”: the Emirate’s army can muster 20,000 troops, Iran can field more than 800,000 soldiers.

 

Saudi Arabia’s goals in Yemen are to support the government-in-exile of President Rabho Mansour Hadi, control its southern border and challenge Iran’s support of the Houthis. The UAE, on the other hand, is less concerned with the Houthis but quite focused on backing the anti-Hadi Southern Transitional Council, which is trying to re-create south Yemen as a separate country. North and south Yemen were merged in 1990, largely as a result of Saudi pressure, and it has never been a comfortable marriage.

 

Riyadh has also lost its grip on the Gulf Cooperation Council. Oman, Kuwait, and Qatar continue to trade with Iran in spite of efforts by the Saudis to isolate Teheran,

 

The UAE and Saudi Arabia recently hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pressed for the 22-member Arab League to re-admit Syria. GCC member Bahrain has already re-established diplomatic relations with Damascus. Putin is pushing for a multilateral security umbrella for the Middle East, which includes China.

 

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not,” Middle East scholar Mark Katz told the South Asia Journal. And while many in the region have no love for Syria’s Assad, “they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s ally.”

 

The Arab League—with the exception of Qatar—denounced the Turkish invasion and called for a withdrawal of Ankara’s troops. Qatar is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia and the UAE for pursuing an independent foreign policy and backing a different horse in the Libyan civil war. Turkey is Qatar’s main ally.

 

Russia’s 10-point agreement with Turkey on Syria has generally gone down well with Arab League members, largely because the Turks agreed to respect Damascus’s sovereignty and eventually withdraw all troops. Of course, “eventually” is a shifty word, especially because Turkey’s goals are hardly clear.

 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to drive the Syrian Kurds away from the Turkish border and move millions of Syrian refugees into a strip of land some 19 miles deep and 275 miles wide. The Kurds may move out, but the Russian and Syrian military—filling in the vacuum left by President Trump’s withdrawal of American forces—have blocked the Turks from holding more than the border and one deep enclave, certainly not one big enough to house millions of refugees.

 

Erdogan’s invasion is popular at home—nationalism plays well with the Turkish population and most Turks are unhappy with the Syrian refugees—but for how long? The Turkish economy is in trouble and invasions cost a lot of money. Ankara is using proxies for much of the fighting, but without lots of Turkish support those proxies are no match for the Kurds—let alone the Syrian and Russian military.

 

That would mainly mean airpower, and Turkish airpower is restrained by the threat of Syrian anti-aircraft and Russian fighters, not to mention the fact that the Americans still control the airspace. The Russians have deployed their latest fifth-generation stealth fighter, the SU-57, and a number of MiG-29s and SU-27s, not planes the Turks would wish to tangle with. The Russians also have their new mobile S-400 anti-aircraft system, and the Syrians have the older, but still effective, S-300s.

 

In short, things could get really messy if Turkey decided to push their proxies or their army into areas occupied by Russian or Syrian troops. There are reports of clashes in Syria’s northeast and casualties among the Kurds and Syrian Army, but a serious attempt to push the Russians and the Syrians out seems questionable.

 

The goal of resettling refugees is unlikely to go anywhere. It will cost some $53 billion to build an infrastructure and move two million refugees into Syria, money that Turkey doesn’t have. The European Union has made it clear it won’t offer a nickel, and the UN can’t step in because the invasion is a violation of international law.

 

When those facts sink in, Erdogan might find that Turkish nationalism will not be enough to support his Syrian adventure if it turns into an occupation.

 

The Middle East that is emerging from the current crisis may be very different than the one that existed before those cruise missiles and drones tipped over the chessboard. The Yemen War might finally end. Iran may, at least partly, break out of the political and economic blockade that Saudi Arabia, the US and Israel has imposed on it. Syria’s civil war will recede. And the Americans, who have dominated the Middle East since 1945, will become simply one of several international players in the region, along with China, Russia, India and the European Union.

 

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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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The Syrian Chess Board

Syria’s Chess Board

Dispatches From The Edge

Oct. 10, 2018

 

 

The Syrian civil war has always been devilishly complex, with multiple actors following different scripts, but in the past few months it appeared to be winding down. The Damascus government now controls 60 percent of the country and the major population centers, the Islamic State has been routed, and the rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are largely cornered in Idlib Province in the country’s northwest. But suddenly the Americans moved the goal posts—maybe—the Russians have fallen out with the Israelis, the Iranians are digging in their heels, and the Turks are trying to multi-task with a home front in disarray.

 

So the devil is still very much at work in a war that has lasted more than seven years, claimed up to 500,000 lives, displaced millions of people, destabilized an already fragile Middle East, and is far from over.

 

There are at least three theaters in the Syrian war, each with its own complexities: Idilb in the north, the territory east of the Euphrates River, and the region that abuts the southern section of the Golan Heights. Just sorting out the antagonists is daunting. Turks, Iranians, Americans and Kurds are the key actors in the east. Russians, Turks, Kurds and Assad are in a temporary standoff in the north. And Iran, Assad and Israel are in a faceoff near Golan, a conflict that has suddenly drawn in Moscow.

 

Assad’s goals are straightforward: reunite the country under the rule of Damascus and begin re-building Syria’s shattered cities. The major roadblock to this is Idlib, the last large concentration of anti-Assad groups, Jihadists linked with al-Qaeda, and a modest Turkish occupation force representing Operation Olive Branch. The province, which borders Turkey in the north, is mountainous and re-taking it promises to be difficult.

 

For the time being there is a stand down. The Russians cut a deal with Turkey to demilitarize the area around Idlib city, neutralize the jihadist groups, and re-open major roads. The agreement holds off a joint Assad-Russian assault on Idlib, which would have driven hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and likely have resulted in large numbers of civilian casualties.

 

But the agreement is temporary—about a month—because Russia is impatient to end the fighting and begin the reconstruction. However, it is hard to see how the Turks are going to get a handle on the bewildering number of groups packed into the province, some of which they have actively aided for years. Ankara could bring in more soldiers, but Turkey already has troops east of the Euphrates and is teetering on the edge of a major economic crisis. Pouring more wealth into what has become a quagmire may not sit well with the Turkish public, which has seen inflation eat up their paychecks and pensions, and the Turkish Lira fall nearly 40 percent in value in the past year. Local elections will be held in 2019, and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party ‘s power is built on improving the economy.

 

In Syria’s east, Turkish troops—part of Operation Euphrates Shield—are pushing up against the Americans and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces fighting the Islamic State (IS). Erdogan is far more worried about the Syrian Kurds and the effect they might have on Turkey’s Kurdish population, than he is about the IS.

 

Ankara’s ally in this case is Iran, which is not overly concerned about the Kurds, but quite concerned about the 2,200 Americans. “We need to resolve the difficulty east of the Euphrates and force America out,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in early September.

 

That latter goal just got more complex. The U.S. Special Forces were originally charged with aiding the Kurdish and Arab allies drive out the IS. President Donald Trump told a meeting in March, “we’ll be coming out of Syria like very soon.” But that policy appears to have changed. National Security Advisor John Bolton now says U.S. troops will remain in Syria until Iran leaves. Since there is little chance of that happening, the U.S. commitment suddenly sounds open-ended. Bolton’s comment has stirred up some opposition in the U.S. Congress to “mission creep,” although Trump has yet to directly address the situation.

 

The Kurds are caught in the middle. The U.S. has made no commitment to defend them from Turkey, and the Assad regime is pressing to bring the region under Damascus’ control. However, the Syrian government has made overtures to the Kurds for talks about more regional autonomy, and one suspects the Kurds will try to cut a deal to protect them from Ankara. The Russians have been pushing for Assad-Kurd détente.

 

Turkey may want to stay in eastern Syria, but it is hard to see how Ankara will be able to do that, especially if the Turks are stretched between Idlib and Euphrates Shield in the east. The simple fact is that Erdogan misjudged the resiliency of the Assad regime and over reached when he thought shooting down a Russian fighter-bomber in 2015 would bring NATO to his rescue and intimidate Moscow. Instead, the Russians now control the skies over Idlib, and Turkey is estranged from NATO.

 

The Russians have been careful in Syria. Their main concerns are keeping their naval base at Latakia, beating up on al-Qaeda and the IS, and supporting their long-time ally Syria. Instead of responding directly to Erdogan’s 2015 provocation, Moscow brought in their dangerous S-400 anti-aircraft system, a wing of advanced fighter aircraft, and beefed up their naval presence with its advanced radar systems. The message was clear: don’t try that again.

 

But the Russians held off the attack on Idlib, and have been trying to keep the Israelis and Iranians from tangling with one another in the region around the Golan Heights. Moscow proposed keeping Iran and its allies at least 60 miles from the Israeli border, but Israel—and now the U.S.—is demanding Iran fully withdraw from Syria.

 

The Assad regime wants Teheran to stay, but also to avoid any major shootout between Iran and Israel that would catch Damascus in the middle. In spite of hundreds of Israeli air attacks into Syria, there has been no counter attacks by the Syrians or the Iranians, suggesting that Assad has ruled out any violent reaction.

 

That all came to end Sept 17, when Israeli aircraft apparently used a Russian Ilyushin-M20 electronic reconnaissance plane to mask an attack on Damascus. Syrian anti-aircraft responded and ending up shooting down the Russian plane and killing all aboard. Russia blamed the Israelis and a few days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Moscow was sending its S-300 anti-aircraft system to Syria, along with a series of upgrades in Damascus’ radar network. Syria currently uses the S-200 system that goes back to the ‘60s.

 

The upgrade will not really threaten Israeli aircraft—the S-300 is dated and the Israelis likely have the electronics to overcome it—but suddenly the skies over Syria are no longer uncontested, and, if Tel Aviv decides to go after the Syrian radar grid, the Russians have their S-400 in the wings. Not checkmate, but check.

 

How all of this shakes down is hardly clear, but there are glimmers of solution out there. Turkey will have to eventually withdraw from Syria, but will probably get some concessions over how much autonomy Syria’s Kurds will end up with. The Kurds can cut a deal with Assad because the regime needs peace. The Iranians want to keep their influence in Syria and a link to Hezbollah in Lebanon, but don’t want a serious dustup with Israel.

 

An upcoming Istanbul summit on Syria of Russia, France, Turkey and Germany will talk about a political solution to the civil war and post-war reconstruction.

 

Israel will eventually have to come to terms with Iran as a major player in the Middle East and recognize that the great “united front” against Teheran of Washington, Tel Aviv and the Gulf monarchies is mostly illusion. The Saudis are in serious economic trouble, the Gulf Cooperation Council is divided, and it is Israel and the U.S. are increasingly isolated over in hostility to Teheran.

 

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Turkey’s President: Short Term Victory, Long Term Trouble

Turkish Elections

Dispatches From the Edge

May 14, 2018

 

 

When Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a presidential and parliamentary election June 24—jumping the gun by more than a year—the outcome seemed foreordained: the country is under a state of emergency, Erdogan has imprisoned more than 50,000 of his opponents, dismissed 140,000 from their jobs, jailed a presidential candidate, and launched an attack on Syria’s Kurds, that is popular with most Turks.

 

But Erdogan’s seemingly overwhelming strength is not as solid as it appears, and the moves the President is making to insure a victory next month may come back to haunt him in the long run.

 

There is a great deal at stake in the June vote. Based on the outcome of a referendum last year, Turkey will move from a parliamentary system to one based on a powerful executive presidency. But the referendum vote was very close, and there is widespread suspicion that Erdogan’s narrow victory was fraudulent.

 

This time around Turkey’s President is taking no chances. The electoral law has been taken out of the hands of the independent electoral commission and turned over to civil servants, whose employment is dependent on the government. The state of emergency will make campaigning by anything but Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) and its ally, the National Action Party (MHP), problematical.

 

But Erdogan called for early elections not because he is strong, but because he is nervous about the AKP’s strong suit, the economy. While growth is solid, unemployment is 11 percent (21 percent for youth), debts are piling up and inflation—12 percent in 2017—is eating away at standards of living.

 

The AKP’s 16-year run in power is based on raising income for most Turks, but wages fell 2 percent over the past year, and the lira plunged 7.5 percent in the last quarter, driving up the price of imported goods. Standard & Poor’s recently downgraded Turkish bonds to junk status.

 

Up until now, the government has managed to keep people happy by handing out low interest loans, pumping up the economy with subsidies and giving bonuses to pensioners. But the debt keeps rising, and investment—particularly the foreign variety— is lagging. The Turkish economy appears headed for a fall, and Erdogan wants to secure the presidency before that happens.

 

To avoid a runoff, Erdogan needs to win 50 percent of the vote, and most polls show him falling short, partly due to voter exhaustion with the endless state of emergency. But this also reflects fallout from the President’s war on the Kurds, domestic and foreign.

 

The AKP came to power in 2002 with a plan to end the long-running war with Turkey’s Kurdish minority. The government dampened its suppression of Kurdish language and culture, and called a truce in the military campaign against the Kurdish Workers Party.

 

But the leftist Kurdish-based People’s Democratic Party (HDP) broke through the 10 percent threshold in 2015 to put deputies in the Parliament, denying the AKP a majority. Erdogan promptly declared war on the Kurds. Kurdish deputies were imprisoned, Kurdish mayors were dismissed, Kurdish language signs were removed, and the Turkish Army demolished the centers of several majority Kurdish cities.

 

Erdogan also forced a new election—widely seen as fraudulent—and re-claimed the AKP’s majority.

 

Ankara also turned a blind eye to tens of thousands of Islamic State and Al-Qaeda fighters who crossed the Turkish border to attack the government of Bashar al-Assad and Syria’s Kurdish population. The move backfired badly. The Kurds—backed by American air power—defeated the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda, and the Russians turned the tide in Assad’s favor.

 

Turkey’s invasion of Syria—operations Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield— is aimed at the Syrian Kurds and is supported by most Turks. But, no surprise, it has alienated the Kurds, who make up between 18 and 20 percent of Turkey’s population.

 

The AKP has traditionally garnered a substantial number of Kurdish voters, in particular rural, conservative ones. But pollster Kadir Atalay says many Kurdish AKP supporters felt “deceived and abandoned” when Erdogan went after their communities following the 2015 election. Kurds have also been alienated by Erdogan’s alliance with the extreme rightwing nationalist MHP, which is violently anti-Kurdish.

 

According to Atalay, alienating the Kurds has cost the AKP about 4 percent of the voters. Considering that the AKP won 49.5 percent of the vote in the last national election, that figure is not insignificant.

 

The progressive HDP is trying hard to win over those Kurds. “The Kurds—even those who are not HDP supporters, will respond to the Afrin operation [invasion of Syria], the removal of Kurdish language signs, and the imprisonment of [Kurdish] lawmaker,” HDP’s parliamentary whip Meral Danis Bestas told Al Monitor.

 

The HDP, whose imprisoned leader, Selahatt Demirtas, is running for president, calls for a “united stance” that poses “left-wing democracy” against “fascism.” The danger is that if the HDP fails to get at least 10 percent of the vote, its current seats will taken over by the AKP.

 

Erdogan has also alienated Turkey’s neighbors. He is in a tense standoff with Greece over some tiny islands in the Aegean Sea. He is at loggerheads with a number of European countries that have banned him from electioneering their Turkish populations for the June 24 vote. And he is railing against NATO for insulting Turkey. He does have a point—a recent NATO exercise designated Turkey “the enemy.

 

However, Erdogan’s attacks on NATO and Europe are mostly posturing. He knows Turkish nationalists love to bash the European Union and NATO, and Erdogan needs those votes to go to him, not the newly formed Good Party—a split from the rightwing MHP—or the Islamist Felicity Party.

 

No one expects the opposition to pull off an upset, although the centrist and secular Republican People’s Party (CHP) has recently formed an alliance with the Good Party, Felicity, and the Democratic Party to insure that all pass the 10 percent threshold for putting deputies in parliament.

 

That electoral alliance excludes the leftist HDP, although it is doubtful the Kurdish-based party would find common ground with parties that supported the jailing of its lawmakers. Of the Party’s 59 deputies, nine are in jail and 11 have been stripped of their seats.

 

There is an outside chance that Erdogan could win the presidency but lose his majority in Parliament. If the opposition does win, it has pledged to dump the new presidential system and return power to parliament.

 

The election will be held essentially under martial law, and Erdogan has loaded all the dice, marked every card, and rigged every roulette wheel.

 

There is virtually no independent media left in the country, and there are rumors that the AKP and the MHP have recruited and armed “supporters” to intimidate the opposition. A disturbing number of guns have gone missing since the failed 2016 coup.

 

However, as Max Hoffman of the Center for American Progress notes, the election might not be a “slam dunk.” A run-off would weaken Erdogan just when he is preparing to take on a number of major problems other than the economy:

 

 

  • *Turkey’s war with the Kurds has now spread into    Syria and Iraq.
  • In Syria, Assad is likely to survive and Turkey will find it difficult—and expensive—to permanently occupy eastern Syria. Erdogan will also to have to deal with the thousands of Islamic State and al-Qaeda fighters now in southern Turkey.
  • Growing tensions with Egypt over the Red Sea, and Ankara’s new alliance with Sudan, which is at odds with Cairo over Nile River water rights.
  • The strong possibility of a U.S confrontation with Iran, a nominal ally and important trading partner for Turkey.
  • The possibility—remote but not impossible—that Turkey will get into a dustup with Greece.
  • And last, the rising price of oil—now over $70 a barrel—and the stress that will put on the already indebted Turkish economy.

 

The Turkish president may get his win next month, but when trouble comes, he won’t be able to foist it off on anyone. He will own it.

 

—30—

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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New Alliance Could Re-shape Middle East

The Great Game Comes to Syria

Dispatches From The Edge

April 17, 2018

 

 

An unusual triple alliance is emerging from the Syrian war, one that could alter the balance of power in the Middle East, unhinge the NATO alliance, and complicate the Trump administration’s designs on Iran. It might also lead to yet another double cross of one of the region’s largest ethnic groups, the Kurds.

 

However, the “troika alliance”—Turkey, Russia and Iran—consists of three countries that don’t much like one another, have different goals, and whose policies are driven by a combination of geo-global goals and internal politics. In short, “fragile and complicated” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

 

How the triad might be affected by the joint U.S., French and British attack on Syria is unclear, but in the long run the alliance will likely survive the uptick of hostilities.

But common ground was what came out of the April 4 meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meeting in Ankara, the parties pledged to support the “territorial integrity” of Syria, find a diplomatic end to the war, and to begin a reconstruction of a Syria devastated by seven years of war. While Russia and Turkey explicitly backed the UN-sponsored talks in Geneva, Iran was quiet on that issue, preferring a regional solution without “foreign plans.”

 

“Common ground,” however, doesn’t mean the members of the “troika” are on the same page.

 

Turkey’s interests are both internal and external. The Turkish Army is currently conducting two military operations in northern Syria, Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield, aimed at driving the mainly Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) out of land that borders Turkey. But those operations are also deeply entwined with Turkish politics.

 

Erdogan’s internal support has been eroded by a number of factors: exhaustion with the ongoing state of emergency imposed following the 2016 attempted coup, a shaky economy, and a precipitous fall in the value of the Turkish pound. Rather than waiting for 2019, Erdogan called for snap elections this past week and beating up on the Kurds is always popular with right-wing Turkish nationalists. Erdogan needs all the votes he can get to imlement his newly minted executive presidency that will give him virtually one-man rule.

 

To be part of the alliance, however, Erdogan has had to modify his goal of getting rid of Syrian President Bashar Assad and to agree—at this point, anyhow—to eventually withdraw from areas in northern Syria seized by the Turkish Army. Russia and Iran have called for turning over the regions conquered by the Turks to the Syrian Army.

 

Moscow’s goals are to keep a foothold in the Middle East with its only base, Tartus, and to aid its long-time ally, Syria. The Russians are not deeply committed to Assad personally, but they want a friendly government in Damascus. They also want to destroy al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, which have caused Moscow considerable trouble in the Caucasus.

 

Russia also wouldn’t mind driving a wedge between Ankara and NATO. After the U.S., Turkey has NATO’s second largest army. NATO broke a 1989 agreement not to recruit former members of the Russian-dominated Warsaw Pact into NATO as a quid pro quo for the Soviets withdrawing from Eastern Europe. But since the Yugoslav War in 1999 the alliance has marched right up to the borders of Russia. The 2008 war with Georgia and 2014 seizure of the Crimea were largely a reaction to what Moscow sees as an encirclement strategy by its adversaries.

 

Turkey has been at odds with its NATO allies around a dispute between Greece and Cyprus over sea-based oil and gas resources, and it recently charged two Greek soldiers who violated the Turkish border with espionage. Erdogan is also angry that European Union countries refuse to extradite Turkish soldiers and civilians who he claims helped engineer the 2016 coup against him. While most NATO countries condemned Moscow for the recent attack on two Russians in Britain, the Turks pointedly did not.

 

Turkish relations with Russia have an economic side as well. Ankara want a natural gas pipeline from Russia, has broken ground on a $20 billion Russian nuclear reactor, and just shelled out $2.5 billion for Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft system.

 

The Russians do not support Erdogan’s war on the Kurds and have lobbied for the inclusion of Kurdish delegations in negotiations over the future of Syria. But Moscow clearly gave the Turks a green light to attack the Kurdish city of Afrin last month, driving out the YPG that had liberated it from the Islamic State and Turkish-backed al-Qaeda groups. A number of Kurds charge that Moscow has betrayed them.

 

The question now is, will the Russians stand aside if the Turkish forces move further into Syria and attack the city of Manbij, where the Kurds are allied with U.S. and French forces? And will Erdogan’s hostility to the Kurds lead to an armed clash among three NATO members?

 

Such a clash seems unlikely, although the Turks have been giving flamethrower speeches over the past several weeks. “Those who cooperate with terrorists organizations [the YPG] will be targeted by Turkey,” says Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said in a pointed reference to France’s support for the Kurds. Threatening the French is one thing, picking a fight with the U.S. military quite another.

 

Of course, if President Trump pulls U.S. forces out of Syria, it will be tempting for Turkey to move in. While the “troika alliance” has agreed to Syrian “sovereignty,” that won’t stop Ankara from meddling in Kurdish affairs. The Turks are already appointing governors and mayors for the areas in Syria they have occupied.

 

Iran’s major concern in Syria is maintaining a buffer between itself and a very aggressive alliance of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia, which seems to be in the preliminary stages of planning a war against the second-largest country in the Middle East.

 

Iran is not at all the threat it has been pumped up to be. Its military is miniscule and talk of a so-called “Shiite crescent”—Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon—is pretty much a western invention (although the term was dreamed up by the King of Jordan).

 

Tehran has been weakened by crippling sanctions and faces the possibility that Washington will withdraw from the nuclear accord and re-impose yet more sanctions. The appointment of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who openly calls for regime change in Iran, has to have sent a chill down the spines of the Iranians. What Tehran needs most of all is allies who will shield it from the enmity of the U.S., Israel and Saudi Arabia. In this regard, Turkey and Russia could be helpful.

 

Iran has modified its original goals in Syria of a Shiite-dominated regime by agreeing to a “non-sectarian character” for a post-war Syria. Erdogan has also given up on his desire for a Sunni-dominated government in Damascus.

 

War with Iran would be catastrophic, an unwinnable conflict that could destabilize the Middle East even more than it is now. It would, however, drive up the price of oil, currently running at around $66 a barrel. Saudi Arabia needs to sell its oil for at least $100 a barrel, or it will very quickly run of money. The on-going quagmire of the Yemen war, the need to diversify the economy, and the growing clamor by young Saudis—70 percent of the population—for jobs requires lots of money, and the current trends in oil pricing are not going to cover the bills.

 

War and oil make for odd bedfellows. While the Saudis are doing their best to overthrow the Assad regime and fuel the extremists fighting the Russians, Riyadh is wooing Moscow to sign onto to a long-term OPEC agreement to control oil supplies. That probably won’t happen—the Russians are fine with oil at $50 to $60 a barrel—and are wary of agreements that would restrict their right to develop new oil and gas resources. The Saudi’s jihad on the Iranians has a desperate edge to it, as well it might. The greatest threat to the Kingdom has always come from within.

 

The rocks and shoals that can wreck alliances in the Middle East are too numerous to count, and the “troika” is riven with contradictions and conflicting interests. But the war in Syria looks as if it is coming to some kind of resolution, and at this point Iran, Russia and Turkey seem to be the only actors who have a script that goes beyond lobbing cruise missiles at people.

 

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A Looming Crisis for Turkey’s President

Turkey’s Looming Crisis

Dispatches From The Edge

Dec. 18, 2017

 

Viewed one way, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan looks unassailable: He weathered last year’s coup attempt, jailed more than 50,000 opponents, fired more than 100,000 civil servants, beheaded the once powerful Turkish military, eviscerated much of his parliamentary opposition, dismissed almost half of the county’s elected officials, and rammed through a constitutional referendum that will make him an all-powerful executive following the 2019 election. In the meantime, a seemingly never-ending state of emergency allows him to rule by decree.

 

So why is the man running scared?

 

Because the very tools that Erdogan has used to make himself into a sort of modern day Ottoman sultan are backfiring. The state of emergency is scaring off foreign investment, which is central to the way the Turkish economy functions. The loss of experienced government workers has put an enormous strain on the functioning of the bureaucracy. And the promises he made to the electorate in order to get his referendum passed are coming due with very little in the till to fulfill them.

 

Part of the problem is Erdogan himself. In that sense he is a bit like US President Donald Trump, who has also alienated allies with a combination of bombast and cluelessness. The Turkish President is in a war with Washington over a corruption trial, at loggerheads with Germany (and most of the European Union) over his growing authoritarianism and, with the exception of Russia, China, Qatar and Iran, seems to be quarreling with everyone these days. It is certainly a far cry from a decade ago when the foreign policy of Ankara was “Zero problems with the neighbors.” As one Turkish commentator put it, it’s now “No neighbors without problems.”

 

What has thrown a scare into Erdogan, however, is not so much the country’s growing diplomatic isolation, but the economy and how that might affect the outcome of presidential elections in 2019.

 

In the run up to the constitutional referendum last year, the government handed out loans and goodies to the average Turk. Growth accelerated, unemployment fell, and the poverty rate was reduced. But the cost of priming that pump has come due at the very moment that international energy prices are on the rise. Turkey imports virtually all of its energy, but when the price of oil was down to a little more than $30 a barrel, the budget could handle it.

 

The price of oil in December, however, was close to $60 a barrel, and a recent agreement between the two largest producers—Saudi Arabia and Russia—to curb production will drive that price even higher in the future. Rate hikes for gasoline and heating will be up sharply in the coming months

 

Turkish unemployment is over 13 percent, inflation is close to 12 percent, and the Turkish lira has fallen 12 percent against the dollar. With energy costs rising and currency value declining, Turkey is struggling through an economic double whammy.

 

Economist Timur Kuran of Duke University says the Turkish economy is in serious trouble. “The AKP (Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party) is doing massive long-term damage to the Turkish economy. Corruption is up, the quality of education has fallen, the courts are massively politicized, and the people are afraid to speak honestly.” Kuran argues that any growth is based on short-term investments, so–called “hot money,” drawn in by high interest rates. “This is not a sustainable strategy. It makes Turkey highly vulnerable to a shock that might cause an outflow of resources.”

 

Under Erdogan Corruption does seem to be increasing. In 2013 Transparency International ranked Turkey 53ed out of 175 countries on its Corruption Perception Index. By 2016 the country had risen to 75th out of 176 countries.

 

Turkey’s economy is highly dependent on foreign money, but the continuing state of emergency and rule by decree is scaring off investors. Figures by the Central Bank show that Turkey is losing $1 billion a week in foreign investments. Britain, a major investor in Turkey, has reduced its investments by 20% since the declaration of the state of emergency.

 

The uncertainly has spread as well to Turkish citizens, who are putting their money into foreign investments in order to preserve their savings. From the end of 2016 to this November, Turks moved $17.2 billion to foreign firms.

 

Erdogan is blaming Turkish banks—in particular the Central Bank—for rising interest rates and the downturn in the economy. But Kemel Kilicdaroglu, leader of the centrist and secular opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) argues that “The real reason why foreign investments other than real estate purchases are decreasing is that [foreign investors] feel insecure in a country where law, justice and press freedom are non-existent.”

 

The state of emergency allows the government to suppress trade union strikes, but it has been less successful in damping down what was once a AKP strong suit: rural farmers.

 

One of Erdogan’s economic “reforms” was to open Turkish markets to foreign competition, which has resulted in losses for the country’s live stock and agricultural growers. Meat producers are up in arms over an agreement with Serbia to import 5,000 tons of red meat, and tea, grape, tobacco and apricot growers have been hard hit by falling prices and foreign competition. Hazelnut growers were so incensed at the government’s base price for their produce that they organized a large march under the banner of “Justice for Hazelnuts.”

 

A study found that foreign imports had reduced the number of families involved in growing tobacco from 405,882 families in 2002 to 56,000 in 2015.

 

It is not so much the marches that worry Erdogan, but the fact that some 20 million rural Turks are up in arms against the government, anger that might translate into votes in 2019. In the April 2017 referendum, rural votes solidly supported the AKP, while urban centers—particularly their youth—voted no. Losing cities like Ankara and Istanbul—the city where Erdogan began his political career—was a shock for the AKP, but losses in rural areas would be a political train wreck.

 

While Erdogan strains to keep the economic lid on long enough to get through 2019, there are fissures opening within his own party. A wing of the AKP is not happy with Erdogan’s foreign policy disputes and the impact that they are having on the economy.

 

On his right, former interior minister Meral Aksener has formed the Iyi Parti or “Good Party” and says she plans to challenge Erdogan for the presidency. Aksener appeals to the more nationalist currents in the AKP and hopes to attract support from the extreme right wing National Action Party (MHP). She is currently polling around 16 percent.

 

Polls indicate that the “Good Party” is cutting into the AKP’s support, which has dropped to 38 percent. Erdogan needs at least 51 percent, the figure that he claims he got in the referendum (outside observers called the election deeply flawed, however). Aksener could split Erdogan’s support within the AKP and the MHP, thus denying him a majority.

 

Nor has the CHP thrown in the towel, Besides organizing marches by angry rural residents, Party leader Kilicdaroglu pulled off a 25-day, 280-mile “Justice March” last summer that may have involved as many as a million people.

 

The Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), Turkey’s leftist party closely tied to its Kurdish population, has been decimated by arrests and seizure of its assets, but it is still the third largest party in parliament. “It may appear that injustice has won, but this will not last,” HDP parliament member Meral Danis Bestas told Al-Monitor. “Turkey’s future truly lies in democracy, rights and freedom.”

 

Erdogan has enormous power and has out muscled and out maneuvered his opponents for the past 20 years. But Turks are growing weary of his rule and, if the economy stumbles, he may be vulnerable.

 

That’s why he is running scared.

 

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