The nine lives of Erdoğan

The day after the Turkish parliamentary elections last Sunday, the Brookings Institution hosted a panel to discuss the results, ‘Turkey’s Snap Elections: Resuscitation or Relapse?’ The panel featured Ömer Taşpınar, professor of National Security Strategy at the National War College and nonresident fellow at Brookings; Kadir Üstün, executive director of the SETA foundation; Gönül Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute; and former congressman Robert Wexler, currently president of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Kemal Kirişci, director of Brookings’ Turkey Project, moderated the discussion.

The election results proved a surprise to most observers, with the AKP winning nearly 50% of the vote after they had been expected to gain perhaps 43-44%. As Kirişci established, they took back about 4.5 million votes in 5 months, including 2-2.5 million from nationalist party MHP and 1 million from the ‘Kurdish’ party, HDP. This places the AKP in a position of strength similar to that of 2011.

Taşpınar highlighted the disappointment that followed the June elections upset, including the failure to negotiate and build a coalition. It had been thought that disappointed voters for the MHP would migrate to the other nationalist party, CHP, but instead they switched to the AKP. Taşpınar stated that the surge in AKP voters from all parties stemmed from Erdoğan’s strategy of ‘controlled chaos,’ demonstrating that failure to vote for the AKP would mean instability, violence, and economic decline.

Üstün agreed that the electorate decided only the AKP, out of all available options, could deliver on the central concerns of Turkish voters today: security, stability, and economic development. No other party presented a positive platform, only setting themselves up as anti-Erdoğan. The HDP in particular, as a Kurdish party, had promised to the people to become an all-Turkey party, but failed after June to distinguish itself from the PKK insurgency, especially after the ceasefire ended and conflict resumed.

Tol discussed the Kurdish dynamic of the elections: after Kobani, observers had assumed the Kurdish vote had deserted Erdoğan and the AKP. However, it is now clear that the current security situation, AKP’s local electoral strategies in Kurdish areas, and conservative Kurds’ disappointment in the HDP resulted in a resurgence of Kurdish votes for the AKP. The standing conflict with the PKK, Tol observed, hurts local Kurdish civilians the most. Nevertheless, these elections are still a win for the HDP, as they attained the 10% threshold for participation in parliament.

Wexler opined that Erdoğan had the chance, during the Gezi protests in 2013, to exhibit become a transformational leader for Turkey, but he failed. Now, Wexler believes that he has a second chance, but Erdoğan must improve his relationships with Israel and other US allies in the region before the US can offer more support.

Taşpınar sees the elections as free but not fair, since media expression is increasingly restricted and opposition voices curtailed. Indeed, just two days before the election several opposition newspapers’ offices were raided. However, Wexler disagreed outright that access to information through free media had any effect on voters’ opinions, stating that voters simply had come to the conclusion that the AKP was the best party to deliver on their central interest, security.  Üstün saw a more general ‘sea change’ in public opinion, but he also disagreed that the media played a large role in the election and did not support Taşpınar’s view that censorship today is comparable to the situation under previous military dictatorships.

The unexpected election result refocuses attention on consolidation of AKP rule, with potential for a renewed push for a referendum to create a stronger executive power under a presidential regime, as Taşpınar sees it. Reconciliation with the PKK is crucial to the stability of the country, but Tol does not believe the AKP is interested in giving up the fight yet. Until that happens, it is also unlikely there will be new developments in Turkey’s foreign policy towards Syria especially.

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Its Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU signed, Kosovo is currently campaigning to join UNESCO. This would enable its educational and cultural institutions to benefit from international privileges reserved in practice to UNESCO  members. The General Conference, which convened Monday in Paris, is expected to vote on the issue this month, perhaps as early as Monday.

That at first glance is about as far as you can get from a war and peace issue. But unfortunately it matters, mainly because Serbia is trying to block Kosovo’s move with an intense diplomatic countercampaign. Belgrade sees international organization membership for Kosovo as a back door to recognition of its sovereignty.

That’s silly. Recognized by 111 states, Kosovo is already a member of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, as well as other “country” clubs. That is surely more testimony to its sovereignty than membership in UNESCO, which comes with obligations as well as privileges. Someone in the Serbian Foreign Ministry must get a point for every blocked Kosovo effort to enter an international organization.

UNESCO membership for Kosovo is particularly appropriate. The country has elaborate obligations to protect Serbian religious and cultural property under the Ahtisaari plan that paved the way for Kosovo independence. Belgrade rightly expects Pristina to fulfill those obligations. Its leadership is committed to doing so. Since declaring independence in 2008, it has substantially done so. But extremism is gaining in Kosovo, as it is throughout the Balkans. Denying Kosovo membership in UNESCO would strengthen more radical political forces there and increase potential threats to Serbs and Serb cultural and religious property.

The authorities in Pristina will have to be ready to meet those threats effectively, but even better protection would come from improved relations between the Serbian Orthodox Church and the local communities in which Serbian churches and monasteries are located. Albanians and Serbs of good will should be trying to ensure proactively that the local population appreciates this commitment and that the local authorities and police give high priority to ensuring its fulfillment.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has taken a position against Kosovo membership in UNESCO, enunciated here in reasonable terms by Father Sava, for whom I have a lot of respect:

This I don’t buy. A sovereign Kosovo can’t be put in the position of taking every issue Belgrade suggests to “the dialogue” the EU has sponsored. That is explicitly aimed at normalizing bilateral relations. Multilateral acceptance of Kosovo needs to proceed in the normal fashion, decided in accordance with each international organization’s normal procedures.

Kosovo is still struggling to gain full international recognition, which is an issue the more nationalist forces use against its current government. Failure to get into UNESCO will encourage this bad habit. There is nothing that could set that cause back more dramatically than a repeat of the disgraceful pogrom of March 2004, in which Albanians strove to drive Serbs out of Kosovo and destroyed churches and other Serb monuments. Most Kosovo Albanians understand and appreciate this now. But there will always be a fringe that wants revenge against Serbs for the injustice and crimes done to Albanians in the past. It is up to Kosovo’s citizens and police to prevent them from acting in ways that most Kosovars would disapprove.

But it is up to Belgrade to appreciate that denying Kosovo membership in an organization devoted to culture, education and science undermines the responsibility and accountability the Pristina authorities and the majority of moderate Kosovo citizens need to accept as their own. UNESCO membership does nothing to hurt Belgrade. Opposing it is unwise and should stop.

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Aleppo under fire

While talk of a ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria along the Turkish border was fairly commonplace toward the end of the summer, the current state of the conflict has changed considerably, due especially to Russian air strikes. The proposed safe zone would have fallen within Aleppo governorate, to the north and east of Aleppo city, and it is around Aleppo city that much renewed conflict is currently being waged.

Opposition groups and civilians have experienced the most significant setbacks in the past month and a half, in military and in humanitarian terms. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled westward, and the latest clashes in the southern countryside have more fleeing to Aleppo’s southern quarters. Current UN estimates put newly displaced Syrians in Hama, Aleppo, and Idlib at 200,000.

Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes have mostly targeted opposition militias, rather than ISIS, providing the latter with an opportunity for making gains. One of the biggest blows came on October 9, when ISIS took several villages, a prison and the Infantry Academy on the northern outskirts of the city. While Ahrar al-Sham and other rebels regained some ground, there have been no significant rebel advances.

Opposition territory around the city has contracted slightly, and much of it remains contested. The narrow corridor north from the city to the Bab al-Salama border crossing, north of A’zaz, is sandwiched between the PYD-controlled canton Afrin to the west, and ISIS to the east. The Kurdish PYD, though not hostile to the opposition, is not an ally either. It has continued to consolidate its control in Afrin and its cantons east of the Euphrates, most recently announcing the full annexation of Tel Abyad to its administration.

Syria’s second-largest city, Aleppo has long been important as a commercial and industrial center, but hundreds of thousands of its inhabitants have fled, putting the estimated current population at 900,000. The city is split between regime and opposition, with security of different neighborhoods falling to whichever militia or FSA brigade is in control. All armed groups participate in one or both ‘operations rooms’ in the city: Fateh Halab and Ansar al-Sharia. These are in charge of security and offensives, but do not fully coordinate with each other (though individual militias may). Because of complaints and the need for more fighters in the current battles, the prominent coalition Levant Front has just suspended its security services.

There are tensions and open hostilities among rebel groups. In late September, clashes flared between more hard-line Islamist groups, including Jabhat al Nusra, and the PYD’s military arm, the YPG, in a traditionally Kurdish neighborhood, Sheikh Maqsoud. The conflict was over access to the opposition’s sole access-point between rebel Aleppo and the countryside, Castello Road. The Local Council and various militias accused the YPG of attempting to open a crossing into regime-controlled areas. Kurdish and Arab residents protested for or against both sides.

With the reassurance of Russian air cover, regime forces have commenced an offensive in the southern countryside, seeking to secure its supply route, the Aleppo-Damascus International Highway, which is close to the front with ISIS. On October 26, ISIS captured a portion between Khanasir and Ithriyya, with the regime only recapturing it yesterday. If ISIS were to wrest control of this road, regime forces in Aleppo city would lose much of their external support.

Regime forces are also advancing toward Kweiris airbase east of the city, besieged by ISIS. They have been engaging the rebels directly south of the city around the towns of Hader, El-Eis, and Tel Hadya, as well. Outcomes remain indeterminate, with back-and-forth between all sides – a tank destroyed here, a hill taken there – but it appears that the regime will continue to advance for now.

The living situation inside the city has worsened in the past eleven days: fighting in northern Hama has resulted in Aleppo’s electricity supply being cut and much of the city has been days in the dark. Lack of electricity also effects other basic services, including water and health. The Local Council of Aleppo City has been striving to repair local electrical grids to the city’s inhabitants, together with the Nusra-run General Administration for Services. Lack of electricity and daily shelling and barrel-bombs from the regime, and Russian air strikes, are the biggest challenges facing Aleppo in this moment.

The Council lacks any control of internal security and judicial systems. On November 1, the Nusra-run shari’a court executed seven men, four of them for collaborating with the regime. Nusra’s court is the most prominent, though the smaller militia Fastaqim Kama Umirt also operates a shari’a court in western Aleppo, with marginally more legal legitimacy. Both, however, apply relatively arbitrary versions of legal codes.

That said, Aleppo’s Council has achieved a lot in maintaining provision of health, water, maintenance, and education services in rebel-held neighborhoods in the past two years. Schools have this autumn moved underground, while the Council strives to continue humanitarian aid to residents and IDPs. With factories closed and destroyed infrastructure – including a large pharmaceutical plant on November 1 hit by a Russian airstrike – citizens are increasingly dependent on aid.

It is crucial, however, that civil society efforts continue and receive external support, both the Aleppo Council and various pro-democracy organizations. Strong civil society remains the best hope that cities like Aleppo will come out of this conflict with something to rebuild.

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The name problem is Greece’s, not Macedonia’s

Regular readers of will have noticed the inordinate number of comments attached to some of my posts on Macedonia (see here and here for examples. Many of the comments are presumptuous (they assume I have opinions I have not expressed) and offensive, in particular anti-Jewish. I will seek to clarify in this post a small number of the many silly issues my critics raise.

First on the personal side. I am a Jew not only because my parents, grandparents and great grandparents were Jews (I really have no idea about their predecessors), but because I choose to associate myself with that family tradition. My wife is no less Jewish because she was brought up a Christian. In fact, she is a bit more devout than I am, as many converts are.

I support a Palestinian state and full respect for the human rights of Palestinians and other non-Jews in Israel. I make no claims to territory based on Bible stories, many of which may not be literally true. The United Nations General Assembly decided the partition of Palestine in 1948 and the ensuing war confirmed it. I see no viable alternative. Nor do most Palestinians and Israelis, including Israelis who are Arab.

Genes are little relevant to my religion and personal sense of identity, though if anyone is curious some of mine do show origins in the Middle East. On the genetic origins of people in the Balkans, see this. Here is the short version: none show more relationship to the Ancients than others, except perhaps for the Vlachs.

Why do I publish the claptrap of ideologues who claim descent from ancient populations whose language, culture and gene pool have long since mixed with those of many others? Because it is so transparently claptrap. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, though I admit it doesn’t seem to have occurred to the authors of the offensive comments posted on that everything they write confirms one of my main points: that the “name” issue comes from Greek insecurity about Greek identity. Which means “the name” is not really Macedonia’s problem but Greece’s.

Macedonia has other problems. It needs to sort them out quickly and justly if it wants its friends to continue speaking up for it without embarrassment.

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Peace picks November 2-7

  1. The Iran Deal and the Future of US-Iranian Relations | Monday, November 2nd| 4-5:30 | American University | Email for more information | Join the United States Foreign Policy Program to welcome Ambassador Pickering back to SIS. He will discuss the recent Iran accord and its implications for the future of US-Iranian relations. Speakers include: Ambassador Thomas Pickering, former U.S. diplomat and founder of the Iran Project.
  2. Blood, Oil, and Cast: Confronting Terror Finance in Today’s Middle East | Monday, November 2nd | 10:00-11:00 | Center for American Progress | REGISTER TO ATTEND | In the years since 9/11, the United States has built effective tools to disrupt funding for Al Qaeda. More than a decade later, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and similar groups that extract resources from the land and people they control challenges the existing policy framework that focuses on safeguarding the formal international financial system. Meanwhile, Iran continues to destabilize the region through direct support to proxy groups such as Hezbollah. Although key U.S. partners in the region have taken action to crack down on terror financing, others have yet to take the necessary steps to counter terrorist fundraising in their own borders. Speakers include:  Juan Zarate, former Deputy National Security Adviser for Combating Terrorism, William F. Wechsler, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combating Terrorism, and Hardin Lang, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress.
  3. Turkey’s snap elections: Resuscitation or relapse? | Monday, November 2nd | 3:00 – 4:30 | Brookings Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND |As Turkey prepares for highly-contested elections on November 1, concerns are growing about the country’s politics, economy, security, and foreign policy. Just a few years ago Turkey was recognized as a model of democracy and beacon of stability and economic growth in a challenging region. However, more recently, Turkey’s economy has lost its dynamism, its leaders’ commitment to democratic principles seems to be eroding, and doubts are emerging about the country’s interests and engagement in the region. Even more disturbing, as the conflicts in Syria and Iraq continue unabated and massive refugee flows spill over into Europe, violent Islamic extremism has now surfaced in Turkey. With the government and opposition trading accusations, the horrific, recent bombing attack in Ankara has further polarized an already deeply-divided and anxious country. Panelists will discuss how recent events might influence voters what the election results might portend for Turkey’s strategic orientation. Speakers include: Ömer Taşpınar, National War College and Brookings, Gönül Tol, Middle East Institute, Kadir Üstün, SETA Foundation; and Robert Wexler, S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace.
  4. A Conversation with Tunisian Nobel Prize Laureate Hussein Abassi | Wednesday, November 4th | 9:30-11:00 | Atlantic Council | REGISTER TO ATTEND | unisia has made tremendous efforts since its 2011 revolution to establish the institutions and practice of pluralistic democracy, and on October 9 the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized Tunisia’s achievements. The committee awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a group of four civil society groups including the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT). The UGTT, led by Mr. Hussein Abassi, played a powerful leadership role in the National Dialogue and in making Tunisia a model country for the region. The Atlantic Council is pleased to invite you to a discussion with Mr. Abassi on the role of institutions in pluralistic democracies in the Middle East. Other speakers include: Ambassador Thomas Shannon, and former Slovenian President Danilo Türk.
  5. Syria webinar: Putin in Syria- does it change anything? | Wednesday, November 4th | 10:00-11:00 | Aegis Advisory | REGISTER TO ATTEND | On 30 September, Russia began its airstrikes in Syria ostensibly against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Aegis Advisory is offering a webinar which will provide a framework for understanding the ever more complex situation, offering a privileged understanding of the environment in country and the likely range of scenarios. Why did the Russians decide to intervene now in the Syrian conflict? Would their intervention help in “degrading and destroying” ISIL? Should we expect a breakthrough in the security and political stalemate that will result in a meaningful solution?
  6. Kirkuk: Iraqi Keystone and ISIS Target | Wednesday, November 4th | 12:00-1:15 | Middle East Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | While ISIS militants control the western reaches of Kirkuk, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and local police have prevented the fall of Kirkuk city and most of the oil-rich province. Kirkuk hosts hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons who have fled ISIS aggression. With funding and support from the Baghdad government disrupted, the challenges facing Kirkuk are mounting. The Middle East Institute is pleased to host Dr. Najmaldin Karim, governor of Kirkuk province since 2011, for a discussion about the province’s precarious place at the center of the Iraq war against the Islamic State. Governor Karim will review the threat posed by ISIS and how local government is trying to deliver for Kirkuk’s Kurdish, Arab, Turkmen, and Christian citizens while in the grip of a security and humanitarian crisis. Gönül Tol, director of MEI’s Center for Turkish Studies, will moderate the audience discussion with Dr. Karim following the governor’s opening remarks.
  7. Roundtable with the Leadership & Advocacy for Women in Africa | Thursday, November 5th | 11:00 – 12:00| Georgetown University | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Leadership and Advocacy for Women in Africa (LAWA) Fellowship Program was founded in 1993 at the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., in order to train women’s human rights lawyers from Africa who are committed to returning home to their countries in order to advance the status of women and girls in their own countries throughout their careers.
  8. Afghanistan Today: Facing Challenges, Opening Opportunities | Thursday, November 5th | 5:00 – 7:00 | SAIS | REGISTER TO ATTEND | Speakers will provide in-depth knowledge of current developments, as well as prospects for the future in Afghanistan, as seen from the perspectives of the government, media, and the private sector. Speakers: TBA.
  9. The state of Africa’s Great Lakes region | Friday, November 6th | 10:00 – 11:30 | Brookings Institute | REGISTER TO ATTEND | The Great Lakes region of Africa is crucial to Africa’s general stability, yet it remains plagued by a number of ongoing security and development challenges. A broad question, among others, is how or if the United States should try to promote democracy and security in these key countries at this crucial juncture? Other concerns include how to ensure stability and continue to protect human rights. Speakers include: Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow and Co- Director, Center on 21st Century Security and Intelligence , The Brookings Institution, Anthony Gambino, Former USAID Mission Director in Congo, Kristin McKie, Assistant Professor of African Studies & Government, St. Lawrence University, The Honorable Thomas Perriello, Special Envoy, Africa Great Lakes Region, U.S. Department of State.
  10. Rising Tides: a simulation of regional crisis and territorial competition in the East China Sea | Saturday, November 7th | 11:30am – 6:00 pm | George Washington University | REGISTER TO ATTEND |  This simulation will examine the complex maze that actors must negotiate when dealing with the tense social, political, and military dilemmas currently occurring in the East China Sea. Participants will assume the roles of influential policymakers, and must work with both state and non-state regional actors to execute comprehensive and multilateral government responses to issues ranging from great power politics, piracy, and natural resource conflicts; to state bargaining dilemmas, humanitarian assistance, and collective action problems. Participants will have the unique opportunity to grapple with serious questions of national interest through the eyes of the government of the United States and the People’s Republic of China as they are divided into teams in order to develop their respective policies and agendas. Participants will need to develop strategies in line with their team’s objectives to manage a variety of crises and react to actions from other teams.
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A small step forward, a big step backwards

Yesterday’s communique after Vienna talks is classically ambiguous. It represents a small step forward, and a big step backward. It raises as many questions as it answers.

The step forward is this: Iran is included in the 19 parties issuing the statement. It had not previously been party to multilateral talks on Syria, even though it plays a vital role in sustaining Bashar al Assad in power. Without Iranian troops, weapons, command and control as well as oil and other assistance, he would be long gone by now.

Much of what Iran has agreed to is not controversial in principle: Syria’s unity, independence, territorial integrity, the continuity of its state, human rights for its citizens and humanitarian access. However difficult to implement in practice, none of Assad’s international opponents has wanted anything else. Nor does Russia, though its concept of human rights might not coincide with ours (Saudi Arabia’s doesn’t either). There is value in getting Iran to sign on to things already agreed in the 2012 communique that until now has been the touchstone of international diplomacy on Syria. It was in fact Iran’s refusal to sign on to that communique that prevented it from attending the January 2014 Geneva 2 conference, which was the last time something resembling the “international community” met on Syria.

But there is a big piece of the 2012 communique missing from yesterday’s document: the provision for a transitional governing body with full executive powers based on mutual consent. This is a big step backwards. In its place, we got this much vaguer promise about the transition:

a political process leading to credible, inclusive, nonsectarian governance, followed by a new constitution and elections. These elections must be administered under U.N. supervision to the satisfaction of the governance [sic] and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, free and fair, with all Syrians, including the diaspora, eligible to participate.

Herein lies the devil of all details: what to do about President Assad between now and elections. The Iranians have not signed on to delegation of his authority to a transitional governing body, but only to his fate being decided in UN-supervised elections. And implicitly the Americans and their partners have backed off the demand that he give up power at the start of the transition process, settling instead for his removal at the end, if the voters so decide (or perhaps earlier if the Russians are prepared to prevent him from standing at the elections).

The Americans will argue that this is really not the case because “no credible, inclusive, nonsectarian governance” can be established with Bashar still in place. But they have certainly lost something important in the omission of reference to a transitional governing body with full executive powers established by mutual consent. That was far more explicit than the reference to “a political process.”

Were I in the Syrian opposition, I would be concerned about this step backward. But a lot still depends on whether the Russians are prepared to continue to support Assad, who is costing more in blood and treasure than Moscow can afford. The Americans believe the fight against the Islamic State in Syria can’t succeed with Assad still in place, because his brutality pushes so many Sunnis in the extremists’ direction. They need to convince Moscow that they are correct. Peeling Russia away from Assad and Iran has long been critical to prospects for peace in Syria. It still is.

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