Anglo-Turkish Society

A talk by Dr. & retired General Haldun Solmaztürk ‘In Stormy Waters: Turkey’s Foreign and Security Policy Challenges’ - Director, 21st Century Turkey Institute’, 26 April 2016, Royal Anthropological Institute – London.

Click video to view

1- In January 2017 there is was a parliamentary debate in the Turkish parliament to approve the presidential system in Turkey, that was approved in principle which will then be put to the public on the 16th April 2017. Under this system there will be no prime-minister, the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will have full executive powers. Do you think this is dangerous?

Well beyond being ‘dangerous’.. Now the constitutional amendment package is out for a referendum—on 16 April 2017. If it is approved by the Turkish people the outcome will be catastrophic for Turkey. It will replace ‘democracy’ with ‘sultanism’, just like former Romania under Ceauşescu, Belarussia today or North Korea with a bit of flavour of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia. It will almost completely reverse the very hard-won democratic, social and intellectual developments of the last 90 years for good. Turkey will go back to square 1.

It eliminates each and every check and balance within the political system and gives to the sole decisionmaker full political power. This ‘change’, if passed, will not end but start a rapid transformation of Turkey in every respect. Many, many presidential decrees—with equal power with laws—will follow soon. Turkey may enter into a twilight era of authoritarianism for about 25-30 years. The fact that it has been approved by the Turkish Parliament — despite the fact that it was open-voted in violation of the Constitution and the Grand National Assembly’s Bylaw — has already left a lasting stain on Turkish political history.

This will be—if approved by referandum—first time, since 1933, a democracy is destroyed by using its inherent weakness, a combination of popular vote and populist politicians ending in the tyranny of majority—represented by a single decisionmaker. In a normal or even nominally democratic country, the Constitutional Court would definitely declare the open-voting in the Parliament as void. This will probably be taken in front of the Court by the main opposition party — it has to be.. But the Court itself has already refrained or abstained from its basic functions, as the highest judicial authority, by refusing to decide if emergency law decrees by the Government, were withing the parameters given by law and the decision of the parliament..

2- In July 2016 there was an attempted coup by a section of rebel soldiers, with reports stating the Gülenist Movement was behind it, yet denied by Fettullah Gülen, the exiled leader who lives in Pennsylvania. Do you think Gülen was behind it, and what do you think the motive was? Do you think US should extradite him to Turkey for a trial?

I do not have even the slightest doubt that Gülen was behind this coup attempt, masterminding and orchestrating its execution at each stage. His basic motive was to gain the full, unchallenged political power which is possessed by President Erdoğan alone today. They have been closest, intimate partners for years and I was on record several times that they were doomed to clash because of the political culture they belong to. Power-sharing (essential feature of democracy) or anything short of absolute power is an alien concept to both. US will never extradite him to Turkey. US never (or very seldom) betrays those who served it. Besides, Turkish political leadership — Erdoğan before all others — gave them the best execuse by proudly boasting about reintroducing the death sentence — even hinting, retrospectively. Apart from the primordial nature of the life penalty, this was a stupid rhetoric — intended as usual for domestic consumption — if they really wanted him back.

3- Post this attempted coup there has been a major crackdown on anybody considered close or a supporter of the Gülen movement, with around 40.000 arrested and over 100.000 fired from civil service jobs, the army, police, universities etc. Do you think this reaction was proportional or do you think an over-reaction can create its own backlash in the future, so rather than healing divisions, creating new grievances?

This is absolutely disproportional and illegal which has only been possible thanks to emergency rule which will continue at least until the end of 2017 they argue. Most of these people — those who really had connections to Gülenist network — made so because they were encouraged even obliged by the governing party to do so. Without such connections it was close to impossible to be hired by certain ministries, universities, schools etc. They did not become ‘members’ because they supported ‘coup’ but simply sought employment. And all these people are not only necessarily—allegedly—Gülenists, but they include anybody who is not an open supporter of the governing party—personified by Erdoğan. Yes, this is deepening divisions—and we are trying to make people see this very fact and use this opportunity to unite for democracy, rule of law and justice for all.

4- Early in 2016 the youth wing of the Kurdish militant PKK organisation attempted to take over a whole number of cities in the South-East of Turkey and the army using air force and tanks at times recaptured those urban centres, though often at the cost of total destruction of neighbourhoods. It appears the destruction was compounded by a new policy of eliminating ‘rebel sympathetic neighbourhoods’, with bulldozers that worked for months afterwards. In addition many municipalities in these troubled areas were fired and replaced by unelected officials sent from Ankara. Do you think this collective punishment could be counter-productive in the future? Do you think the atmosphere is now too poisoned to talk about ‘relaxation of Kurdish cultural rights’ etc.?

I don’t agree with the description of ‘collective punishment’. I have seen or heard of examples of collective punishment during my professional carrier several times, in Turkey and elsewhere in the world. These were not ‘punishments’. However, these military operations could have been better conducted—at least I as a former infantry officer believe so. But they were inevitable—so were the destruction and casualties, although it was probably possible to minimize both. Honestly, I believe, the West — which encouraged, masterminded and moderated political negotiations with PKK — is as responsible as the AKP leadership that consciously tolerated PKK replacing state authority and taking over the political, social even judicial control of such towns in front of the very eyes of the governors assigned by Ankara. Once PKK firmly established itself, so-called military operations in build-up areas was a must. There is no other option militarily. Politically, giving up territory—in the form of regional autonomy—was not an option. However, the atmosphere is now much better to allow a lasting resolution of the question. However, ‘cultural rights’ have already been well ‘relaxed’ but the main problem is political which has been made much more complicated and difficult to solve with the developments in the neighbourhood.

5- The Turkish army entered Syria in late August to fight against Islamic State forces and assist the Free Syrian Army to create a ‘security zone’. The depth of the penetration is about 30 km with this joint force now appearing to struggle against determined IS defence around Al-Bab and satellite towns and villages. This has gone in tandem with warming relations with Russia, which clearly allowed for this penetration into Syrian lands. Do you think these decisions were made more by the military or the political establishment in Turkey? Do you think the long-term consequences of possible ‘mission creep’ have been well assessed and if Al-Bab continues to resist conquest, do you this could lead to a crisis in the armed forces?

All decisions—this includes military ones—in Turkey are made by the very small political decision-making group. I don’t see any indication that the military’s professional views are respected, even sought. Military operations across the border, beyond securing the Syria-Turkey border do not make any sense militarily, nor have they a legal basis. Unless Turkey goes to close cooperation with Russia and Damascus, Al Bab operation is a quick-sand for Turkey, actually it has been a self-set trap from the beginning. There is no such thing as Free Syrian Army to support. Now that the real Syrian army closes on al Bab, PYD/YPG in Menbic, ISIS inside al Bab, and other opposition armed groups in the vicinity (majority of them are jihadists), Turkish army is stuck there. (Russian air forces mistakenly attacked Turkish positions with large scale casualties on 9 Feb).

Crisis: Turkish army suffering from the fake criminal cases for years in the hands of Gülen/AKP partnership was in crisis even before the coup attempt. The fact that President Erdoğan apologized publicly to the military, and asked for forgiveness from the Turkish people and even from ‘Allah’, does not make the grave damage already done to army’s combat capability and moral go away. Then came the coup attempt which was devastating for the army. And finally the ‘measures’ taken by the government in the aftermath of the coup attempt are unprecedented in modern history. To name a few: in addition to thousands of officers and generals, they sacked thousands of cadets—which means army, navy, air forces will not have junior officers nor junior NCOs for years to come. They disbanded a whole military medical system to include military hospitals—this is insane for an army in battles inside and beyond Turkish borders. They crippled army’s command and control system and ‘redesigned’ it in a way with no examples in the world. No army could survive such a massive scale, systematic and conscious assault from its own government. (The European Parliament—not a very sympathetic body to Turkey—had warned the Turkish government about this developing situation as early as 2012 because they were worried about the degredation of the combat capability of the Turkish army) The excuse of purging Gülenists does not make this situation acceptable, nor less detrimental.

6- Turkey is very annoyed that over 2 years the US and allies have used the Syrian Kurdish YPG forces as their allies in their fight against Islamic State and currently these forces with around 600 US special forces embedded are about 10 km from the IS capital of Raqqa. Do you think Turkey could force Americans to make a choice by threatening the closure of İncirlik base in South Turkey, used by the anti-IS coalition, if the Trump presidency continues this policy of favouring this militia over Turkish supported forces?

Raqqa is encircled by the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (a façade name for PYD/YPG) as of 10 Feb. Turkey does not have the political power to force US to stop supporting PYD, even if it is prepared to close Incirlik to Western use—which is unlikely. Turkey lost time and opportunity by supporting Syrian opposition and allowing any ‘fighter’ to move into Syria to join whatever group he/she chose to, just because Turkish leadership was obsessed with removing Assad. The West is no less responsible because they wanted to repeat Libya, and when it became obvious that this was not the case, resisted cooperation with Russia. Now both the situation on the ground and political aims have changed. For the West, establishing Kurdish autonomy has gained priority, for Russia it is Assad’s survial. Neither is wished by the Turkish leadership and this is where the reluctance to cooperate with either, comes from. Turkey is sitting on the horns of a dilemma.

7- With the ongoing presidential system arguments and Syria crisis still going on, it is not surprising that the Turkish Lira is still losing value and this has accelerated since the start of 2017. Do you think sometimes economic stability has to be sacrificed when the nation is facing an existential threat, such as the possibility of the Rojava entity being recognised by major powers? Do you think Turkey could even attack Rojava while US Special Forces are still operating in that region? Could this even lead to Turkey being forced to leave NATO?

The ‘system’ they aspire for is NOT a presidential system, in political science terminology it is ‘sultanistic’, no resemblance to a democratic presidential sytem.
I don’t think Turkey is faced with an existential threat except for regime change.
Rojava has already been recognized by Western powers as an ‘entity’. And, strangely, even the Turkish government sounds happy with it as long as it stays East of the Euphrates.
Bearing in mind the measures taken by the government and international rating agencies’ evaluations of Turkish economy, not only the present but also the future of the Turkish economy looks very bleak.
Beyond this, anything is speculation, particularly leaving NATO.

8- President Trump has stated he is prepared to alter NATO, so perhaps he wouldn’t fight if Turkey decides to leave NATO. Do you think Turkey could then forge new alliances that may suit its interests better, such as the cooperation it is engaged in with Iran and Russia, with the ongoing Astana peace talks for Syria? Do you think if Turkey deepens its alliances with these new players, this could change the whole dynamic of the Middle East, but also possibly mean an end to the Western looking Ataturk vision on which the Republic was founded?

NATO/West and ‘Western-looking Ataturk vision’; these are like apple and pear, look like similar but not exactly the same, even connected. ‘Western looking vision’ has already been damaged—if referendum approves the new ‘constitution’, irreversibly.. All of Turkey’s Western/NATO friends helped in getting this outcome. The West is not interested in a democratic Turkey, but a Turkey that serves Western interests—that is a moderate Islamist, model partner, within ‘NATO’. Now that the West achieved what it has struggled for, for decades, it is ironic that some people are worried.

On the other hand, there is no alternative to NATO. I don’t think Mr Trump is more capable of understanding what NATO is about or offering a credible alternative better than President Erdoğan is capable of understanding UN—and UNSC.

Unless Turkey (Turks themselves) can resolve its own problems, Turkey will not become a credible partner neither for the West, nor the East. Astana, if anything, simply proved this simple fact.

9- It is currently uncertain if the Astana / Geneva peace talks for Syria will go anywhere, but if there is a deal whereby in exchange for concessions against the moderate rebels, Turkey has to stop all support to its allied forces in Euphrates Shield theatre, thus also removing its leverage against Assad, such a deal could be seen as a betrayal of the Free Syrian Army by Turkey, and leading to its own problems in the future, particularly since Turkey currently hosts over 3 million Syrians mostly allied to this cause?

Things have completely got out of Turkey’s control in the region. The longer Turkish leadership delays cooperation with Damascus, Iran and Russia, the damage to Turkish national interests will multiply.

“Three million Syrians mostly allied to Turkey’s cause” probably is not reflecting the reality. They simply want to return to a kind of normalcy, if possible at all, in Syria. As I said before Free Syrian Army never existed. Turkey, particularly France — and some other Western countries until a certain stage of the conflict — pretended as if there existed such an animal. This was a major mistake.

Geneva peace talks have to succeed. This is the only way out of this crisis. And this takes more than ideological rhetoric, but some sort of statesmanship which is very short-supply throughout the world nowadays.

10- Clearly Turkey is in cross-roads of a crisis due to its geography. Do you think the current parliamentary system does need re-assessing so it can navigate safely to a more secure future, through more concentration of power in the centre?

Parliamentary system has never worked properly in Turkey. It has always been de-facto semi-presidential system—constitutionally, which is stretched to its extremes by Erdoğan. These powers were intended to be used by a four-star army general in the post of the President of the Republic. Yet, Turkey is familiar with how a parliamentary system works—even under tutelage. Presidential system is not good for Turkey because Turkey already has a history and culture of centralized power. This is based on ideological/religious bases. If Turkey goes in the direction of centralization, this will inevitably end up with sultanism, not an American type presidential system. In the projected system which is due to go to referendum, by design, Turkish judiciary would be unable to challenge the decree/order signed by the Turkish president, even if this is attempted, nobody or no other authority would exist to enforce a judicial decision against the will of the ‘sultan’. For that matter, Mr Trump might well think about adopting (!) the new Turkish presidential system. He sounds as if he is very much in favour of this ‘type’ of presidency, extremely intolerant of any check, control, balance, particularly of criticism.

11- Do you think the Western governments and press approach Turkey with wrong pre-conceptions based on their safer geography where issues such as minority rights would never slide into demands of splitting the unitary state? Do you think western agencies even encourage rebellion through their statements under the guise of human rights?

Yes, there has always been a bias against Turkey just because it is Turkey—Muslim invaders coming from the East, before, from the South to Spain, even before, from the steps as Huns. And Turks are still not seen even as original people of the region, but foreign settlers. Armenian and Cyprus problems and the propaganda associated with them play a big part in this. But this is not about history or social psychology, but real politik. Western interests simply clash with those of Turkey. Statements, actions, inactions of Western leaders, agencies all depend on clearly set policies which do not favour Turkey.

But, at the end of the day, as there isn’t one Turkey, there isn’t one West. I believe in the existence of good people in the West who are more than willing to fairly balance interests and create a favourable environment for a harmonious coexistence. I do not believe in a clash of civilizations but a clash of ideologies (good versus evil, just versus unjust) across civilizational boundaries. Having seen populist, racist, xenophobic tendencies spread throughout the world, I wish to see this as an opportunity to attempt a global awakening against common threats while giving up narrowly formulated, selfish, unilateral interests.

Interiew conducted by Craig Encer, February 2017.