19 December 2015

Was Turkey Downing Russian Jet a Pre-planned Incident?

As you know, two Turkish F-16 fighter jets shot down a Russian Su-24 attack aircraft on 24 November.

Since then the focus has been on the growing tension between the two countries and the Russian reaction and sanctions. Yesterday Putin escalated the war of words when he stated that "Turks decided to lick the Americans in a certain place."

None of this high drama and crude accusations are of interest to me. That's for the mainstream media. What I want to do here is to try the answer the question posed at the outset: was it a pre-planned attack or a legally defensible but unnecessary overreaction?

Let's start with the Turkish claims.

Right after the incident, Turkey's ambassador to UN sent a letter to the Security Council to inform them that his country shot down one Su-24 of unknown nationality near Yayladagi. He noted that the planes were warned over 10 times before aggressive action was taken.
Both planes disregarded the warnings and then flew 2.19km (1.36 miles) and 1.85km (1.15 miles) into Turkey for 17 seconds from 09:24:05 (07:24:05 GMT), according to Mr Cevik. 
"Following the violation, plane 1 left Turkish national airspace. Plane 2 was fired at while in Turkish national airspace by Turkish F-16s performing air combat patrolling in the area. Plane 2 crashed on to the Syria side of the Turkish-Syrian border." 
The Turkish military also published what it said was the radar image of the path the Russian plane took, showing it briefly flying across Turkey's southern-most tip.
This is the map released by the Turkish military.

Note the little dip that goes into Syrian territory, this is where the alleged airspace violation occurred.

The Russian countered this by maintaining that their plane was never in Turkish airspace and called the attack a pre-planned ambush and a provocation. They also claimed that no warning was issued by the Turkish F-16s or the ground control.

This is their map of the conflict.

The trajectory of the Su-24s is marked on the map and you can see where the missile hit the plane and it is inside Syrian territory.

These are clearly conflicting narratives. Which one is true?

Ten days after the downing, Harper's published an interview with defense analyst Pierre Sprey who was also part of the team that developed F-16s. Which is important to note as he makes certain claims regarding F-16's capabilities.

Sprey examined Russian maps and briefing notes and checked out the evidence presented by the Turkish side. He says that the incident was almost certainly an ambush.

Here is what happened.

Russian Mission 

Two Su-24s leave the Latakia airbase, as you can see in the Russian map and fly east to position themselves for an attack. It is about 9:45 and they are loitering at 18,000-19,000 feet to conserve fuel while waiting for their orders. They are in full view of Turkish radars.

They get their orders: they are to attack a convoy going towards the Yayladag crossing (you can see it in the Turkish map).

This is the main crossing in that region and this is also where oil tankers move to Turkey. The Su-24s hit their target at about 10.15 and go back to their loitering area to wait for another order. They maintain high altitude to save fuel and they are visible to all radar systems.

They receive another set of orders and hit more targets at about 10:24 and right then one of the Su-24s is shot down bu a Turkish F-16.

Turkish Mission

Two Turkish F-16 leave the Diyarbakir airbase before the Russian planes left their Latakia base en route to the Yayladagi crossing. The base is 250 miles away from the crossing.
Interestingly, they arrived in that area to loiter just about the time that the Russian pilots were being assigned their targets, and the F-16s loitered over that mountainous area for about an hour and fifteen minutes.
There is a very damning twist here.
Here’s the crucial thing. They were not loitering up at high altitude—say twenty to thirty thousand feet—to conserve fuel, which is where you would normally be loitering if you were simply doing a routine border patrol. They were loitering quite low, at about seven thousand five hundred to eight thousand feet, which, first of all, is below the coverage of the Syrian and Russian radars that were down around Latakia, and which is a very fuel-inefficient altitude to loiter. You suck up a lot of gas down at those low altitudes.
Besides hiding from radars, which suggests some pre-meditation for what happens afterwards, Sprey argues that it would have been impossible for them to fly from their base and to loiter there at low altitude without getting refueled on their way to that crossing.
That tells you right away, if they hung out there for seventy-five minutes, they must’ve been tanked on the way in to that mission, because they were quite far from their home base—two hundred and fifty miles—so they must’ve topped up on fuel to have enough to even last for an hour and a quarter at this inefficient low altitude. The Turkish Air Force does have a number of American tankers that they own, so they certainly could’ve and almost beyond a shadow of a doubt did tank these F-16s before this whole engagement.
If true, that would be another indication of pre-planning.

After the first attack, Russian planes go back to their loitering area to wait for their next set of orders.
At that point, the two F-16s break out of their loiter patterns to fly in a straight line south, quite certainly under Turkish ground control because they clearly are not hunting for the Su-24s and following a curved path, they’re heading straight for an intercept point that apparently ground control has  provided them—a point that’s very close to the target that the Su-24s have just bombed. That’s clearly the point they’re coming back to bomb again.
The F-16s' next move is to position themselves for a strike.
The F-16s arrive quite nicely and precisely timed to a missile-shooting position very near the border and three to four miles from the second Su-24—who has just finished bombing his second target—at about 10:24. One of the F-16s  locks onto him, launches a missile—an infrared missile according to the  Russians—and  immediately dives down to get back under the Syrian radar coverage. 
What about the alleged violation of airspace, you might ask.

If you look at the Turkish map above, you see that little finger sticking into the Syrian territory. The Turkish side claims that this is where the violation occurred. The Russians deny it vigorously.

Pierre Sprey examined the Russian maps and he says that it is likely that the 17 second incursion occurred. But he adds that, if it did, it must have taken place during the first bombing mission at about 10:15.

The F-16s struck the Su-24 during the second run at about 10:24.
This border-violating incursion was on the first run to the target at around 10:15. On the second run to the target the Russian planes were clearly further to the south. This is according to the plots and maps released in the Russian briefing, which are very, very detailed with exact time marks every minute. The seventeen-second crossing of the border alleged by the Turks happened at about 10:15, but the Turks waited. They didn’t come in and attack the airplane that had crossed the border at that point. They simply sat and waited until the plane flew a long re-attack pattern and came back on a second run seven or eight minutes later, and that’s when they attacked and shot him down.
When you consider these elements and add them up, the case for a pre-planned attack begins to look quite strong.

But didn't Turks warn them repeatedly, I hear you say.

Here is the recording released by the Turkish ground control.

Clearly they state, "you are approaching Turkish airspace, change your heading South immediately."


But this is the last bit of damning evidence.

How Not to Warn

Turkish ground control did issue a warning. The question is, was it heard? Or was it meant to be heard?

Emergency messages are issued either on UHF frequency, which is civilian or VHF, which is military. Pierre Sprey points to an interesting fact.
The Americans were quick to confirm that their monitoring equipment picked up the Turkish ground-station radio warning calls, but they’ve been careful not to say what frequency they heard. Now it so happens that Su-24s have no radios onboard for receiving UHF-frequency signals, a fact which is well known to American, NATO, and Turkish intelligence. 
 I got curious and did a little bit of digging. Here is what I found.
From a radar picture released by the Turkish military shortly after the incident that shows the radar tracks of the Russian plane and voice recordings of warnings issued by Turkish planes, it is understood that the Turkish air force used UHF 243.000 MHZ emergency call channel to warn the Russian plane 10 times in five minutes, and only then shot it down for violating Turkish airspace.
In other words, the repeated warnings from UHF channel could have not been heard by the Russian aircraft.

So let me summarize the whole setup for you.

Two Russian planes are on a bombing mission. It is highly likely that NATO is informed and the aircraft are visible to radar systems.

Two Turkish F-16s fly to that mission point way before Russians left their base. They fly at low altitude to avoid detection.

To maintain that altitude they almost certainly get refueled in and out of the mission.

They wait for Russians to hit their first target, during which a 17 second air space violation occurs.

Then the F-16s fly directly to the attack point to wait for the Russian aircraft, hit one of them as soon as they appear, even though at that point, the planes are inside Syrian airspace.

Finally, just before the actual strike, Turkish ground force warn the Russian aircraft on a channel that is not available to them.

Was it an innocent overreaction?

Or a planned ambush?

You tell me.

By the way, why did no mainstream media outlet pick up Harper's piece?

The Signal Intelligence (SIGINT) unit formerly known as GES which stands for Genelkurmay Elektronik Sistemler Komutanligi (General Staff Electronic Systems Command) was removed from the army in 2012 and attached to the Turkish Intelligence Agency (MIT). They were given the task to monitor all radar and missile activities.

Which explains how the official Anatolian Agency, citing Presidential Palace as its source, was able to report that a Russian aircraft was shot down 11 minutes after the incident, whereas the General Staff was still unsure about the nationality of that plane a good half hour later. [Link in Turkish]

In 2014, MIT's activities were substantially expanded and the agency was no longer subject to judicial and legislative oversight. The Agency was to report directly to the Prime Minister (and now to the President). More importantly, it was no longer an intelligence gathering organization and was given operational capabilities.

07 December 2015

Sigmar Gabriel Thinks Saudi Arabia Was Looking Away

Some days I feel like a hamster on a wheel.

This is what the German Vice-Chancellor said a couple of days ago.
The German vice-chancellor has publicly accused Saudi Arabia of financing Islamic extremism in the West and warned that it must stop. 
Sigmar Gabriel said that the Saudi regime is funding extremist mosques and communities that pose a danger to public security. 
“We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over,” Mr Gabriel told Bild am Sonntag newspaper in an interview.
Are you kidding me?

If you are one of my regular readers you know that I am obsessed with Saudi Arabia's direct and pernicious role in radicalizing Muslims and supporting terrorism.

They are not looking away, they are the ideological source of radical Islam, the financier of the largest social engineering project in history to turn Muslims into angry blasphemy zealots and the main force behind every Jihadi movement in the last 35 years.

Their current king Salman was and has remained the point man for money raising activities for Jihadis and terrorists everywhere.

If anyone was looking away it was the Europeans and the Americans.

And I keep asking why.

And, as before, please don't tell me it is the oil.

06 December 2015

Passport Found in Paris Attacks

When I expressed my incredulity by noting an intact Syrian passport was "conveniently" found near the body of a suicide bomber, I knew that it would earn me some snickering remarks from my friends.

And it did.

But anybody who ever read a Barry Eisler novel knows that, when operational, trained assassins are supposed to be "clean" meaning no keys, no ID, no identifiable items on their person. This guy had his passport with him and the blast that killed him did nothing to the document.

This is the passport. It belongs to a man named Ahmad al-Mohammad.

Here is where it gets interesting.
Serbian police have arrested a man carrying a Syrian passport with the same details as one found near the body of one of the Paris suicide bombers, police sources told the Guardian. 
The passport bears the same name and details – but a different photograph – as the document found near one of the men who attacked the Stade de France.
According to the Guardian, one of the few papers to report this incongruity, the finding suggests "that several may be in circulation, and throwing doubt on whether one of the attackers had indeed used the Balkan refugee route."

The terrorist who blew himself up at Gate D was supposed to be al-Mohammad but his fingerprints did not match the ones in the Greek registry. Instead the prints of the suicide bomber at Gate H were a match.

In other words, the passport was found next to the wrong guy.

Curiouser and curiouser, cried Alice.

Especially when you consider that this passport could bring an end to the Schengen area and could herald electoral successes of anti-EU and anti-immigration parties like National Front.

28 November 2015

Is Putin Pulling Erdogan Into a Trap?

In my previous post I said that I did not expect a military confrontation between Russia and Turkey over the downed Russian aircraft.

Since then a couple of new developments made me think of a perverse scenario.

See what you think of it.

After the war or words between Putin and Erdogan, the first thing Russia did was to beef up its aircraft defenses.
Russia has strengthened its anti-aircraft defences in Syria by moving a cruiser towards the coast and deploying new missiles at its main base. 
The Moskva cruiser's long-range air defence system will provide cover for Russian aircraft, as will the S-400 missiles which arrived on Thursday.
S-400 is a mobile and highly effective system. If it is used as designed, it will shoot down any threat within its designated area.

Erdogan reacted to this by declaring that if one of Turkish aircrafts were downed inside Syrian airspace he would consider this an act of war and react accordingly. That is to say, Erdogan has just committed Turkey to declare war to Russia if they targeted Turkish jets that might operate inside another country's sovereign airspace.

A Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov called this absolute madness.
The President of Turkey made a statement in which he said that if the Turkish aircraft is shot down over the territory of Syria, it will be considered an act of aggression. How, then, to qualify what happened with the Russian plane ?
There is more to that story.

A month ago. Erdogan stated that Turkey will not allow YPG, the military arm of Syrian Kurds, to cross to the west of Euphrates.  And he added that Turkey would continue to hit YPG forces to prevent that from happening.
Turkish jets recently hit the Syrian Kurds' armed People's Protection Units (YPG) targets twice after they defied Ankara and crossed west of the Euphrates River.

"This was a warning. 'Pull yourself together. If you try to do this elsewhere - Turkey doesn't need permission from anyone - we will do what is necessary,'" Erdogan said, signaling he could defy Washington's demand that Ankara avoid hitting Syrian Kurds and focus its military might on Islamic State targets.
At the time YPG forces were advancing with American air cover. I explained here the relevance of Kurdish move in that area.  This is the map showing the significance of the region west of Euphrates.

From Kobani you will remember that the Kurdish region is to the East of Euphrates. If they move to the West they will cut off the Sunni groups and especially ISIS from the Turkish border.

Which means goodbye Sunni Pipelineistan for Qatar and Turkey and goodbye easy supplies and the steady stream of gun-fodder idiots for ISIS.

Now there are reports that Russia provides air cover to YPG and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who are fighting Al Qaeda affiliated Sunni militia north of Aleppo.

Take a look at the map and check out how that blocks the Turkish border.

Since the US backs both YPG and SDF and wants Al Qaeda affiliated groups like al-Nusrah Front to be destroyed, Russian actions are in line with the objectives of the anti-ISIS coalition. There is nothing to object to what they are doing since the US was doing the same thing a few months ago.

There is a final wrinkle to all this.

Der Spiegel reported that Russia has now 2,000 troops on the ground and according to a Kuwaiti publication, they are providing cover to Russian-operated T-90 tanks around Aleppo and Idlib.
A few days ago, the Kuwaiti daily ‘Al Rai‘ reported that Russian ground troops have been providing cover for T-90 tanks which have attacked Idlib and Latakia. According to the report Russian troops have taken over strategic positions. (Jerusalem Post, Nov 23)
These tanks are used by the Russian Armed Forces and were not exported to Syria.

A senior official was quoted in the Kuwaiti report: “Russian live maneuver required the use of 130 mm artillery battalion backed by a heavy air bombardment to the hill before the advance of the infantry as a test of the troops’ readiness and to raise the efficiency of engagement of the Russian forces in further battles on the Syrian soil.” (ValueWalk, Nov 24)
This, apparently, is the picture of troops belonging to 120th artillery brigade (normally stationed in Siberia) operating Mbsta-B 152mm howitzers around Hom.

Let me recap this setup for you.

Turkey downs a Russian aircraft because it violated its sovereign airspace for 17 seconds.

Turkish President refuses to apologize and NATO says that Turkey has the right to defend its borders.

Russia installs a highly effective anti-aircraft missile system inside Syria capable of shooting down any aircraft that strays into the airspace it is protecting.

Then it begins providing air cover to Kurdish forces in Syria fighting Islamist terrorists and particularly ISIS.

Russian actions are coordinated with the Americans and have their backing.

Erdogan is faced with a situation which de facto cuts off Sunni forces from Turkey, ends the Pipelineistan dreams and strengthens Kurdish hand.

And he had already committed himself to striking Kurdish forces if that happens.

Given this setup, what do you think he might do? Or could do?

If he strikes and Turkish planes are shut down, how likely is it for NATO to declare war to Russia over Turkish invasion of a sovereign airspace?

Especially after it backed Turkish actions over exactly the same scenario.

Plus, NATO is not at war with Syria and Russia's presence in Syria is not any different from American or French presence.

What would be the justification?

If Erdogan does not strike Kurdish forces, Russia will succeed in propping up Assad and his Alewistan along the Mediterranean coast.

Putin will become the kingmaker in the region.

Kurds will be a step closer to regional autonomy in Syria.

Erdogan's Sunni Pipelineistan dreams will go up in smoke.

And perhaps most importantly, his tough guy image in Turkey will be shattered.

You see, he will have been eyeball to eyeball with Putin and he will have blinked.

I am sure you remember the expression.

I have no idea if Putin devised such a strategy.

But if he did, I am thinking, maybe he doesn't even have to spill the family secrets.

26 November 2015

Turkey and Russia on a Collision Course

I was preparing a post on the growing animosity between Putin and Erdogan when the news of Turkey downing a Russian bomber aircraft broke.

While I don't expect this incident to have military consequences, it will certainly accelerate the retaliation plan Putin was slowly putting together.

You see, when Russia massively enlarged its military presence in Syria and began bombarding ISIS positions, Erdogan publicly threatened Putin about finding another natural gas supplier. Russia's response was to suspend the South Stream pipeline project and to refuse a Turkish request to buy an additional 3bcm of gas.

At the time, I called it a chin flick.

Putin did not stop there. The Director of the Middle East Institute in Moscow, Yevgeny Satanovsky accused Erdogan [link in Russian] of buying oil from ISIS and personally benefiting from the war. He also maintained that Erdogan was directly implicated in the illicit archaeological artifact trade.

This was different from his previous allegations where he accused Turkey of siding with ISIS. This time he was referring to Erdogan not just in his capacity as President but as a war profiteering individual. In the interview, he insinuates that Russia has solid evidence to back these claims up.

Yevgeny Satanovsky is not anybody. He was one of the directors of the pro-Kremlin Russian-Jewish Congress and he is known as Putin's mouthpiece for certain issues. Clearly, this was one of these instances.

A short week later, Putin showed up in G20 meeting with a startling declaration.
During the summit, “I provided examples based on our data on the financing of different Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) units by private individuals. This money, as we have established, comes from 40 countries and, there are some of the G20 members among them,” Putin told the journalists.
And he added this:
 "I’ve shown our colleagues photos taken from space and from aircraft which clearly demonstrate the scale of the illegal trade in oil and petroleum products," he said.
“The motorcade of refueling vehicles stretched for dozens of kilometers, so that from a height of 4,000 to 5,000 meters they stretch beyond the horizon," Putin added, comparing the convoy to gas and oil pipeline systems.
Of Syria's neighbors, only Turkey is a member of the G20 club and Putin was evidently hinting that if pressured Russia could provide proof of this illegal trade.

When Erdogan made the foolish decision to down the Russian jet fighter for having violated Turkish airspace for a grand total of 17 seconds, Putin's reaction was swift. He called it a "stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists."

His Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov cancelled his trip to Ankara and denounced the attack as a "planned provocation."

Putin is an hardened apparatchik and he would not use a phrase like "accomplices of terrorists" lightly. He is obviously very sure of himself.

What Will Putin Do?

Most Turkish pundits are concerned about a retaliation that focuses on energy. Turkey gets 55 percent of its natural gas and 16 percent of its oil and petroleum products from Russia.

I doubt that.

This would hurt both economies. Sure, it would be much harder for Turkey to quickly replace Russia with another supplier but Russia would lose an important customer in the long run.

Instead Russia will do what it did to other countries it wanted to punish. Like scrutinizing Turkish exports, especially perishable food stuff.

Or discouraging Russians from visiting Turkey, which is a market worth 5 billion dollars. Or harassing Turkish visitors and business people at entry points.

And it will probably make it very difficult for Turkish companies to bid for construction and infrastructure contracts. Currently, there are 1,923 Turkish firms in Russia working on projects worth $61.2 billion. That would be a severe blow to Turkey's ailing economy and Putin doesn't even have to acknowledge it as a sanction.

But above all, Russia will begin publishing whatever proof it has on Erdogan's complicity with ISIS.

I was told by a reliable source that there is too much evidence linking him to the kinds of illegal activities alleged by Satanovsky. In fact, my source claimed that the US used this evidence as a leverage to get Erdogan to allow coalition forces to use the Incirlik airbase.

If my guesses are accurate, I think Putin will not announce official sanctions against Turkey.

He will first try to create a significant economic problem by squeezing Turkish companies with the hope that they would put pressure on Erdogan to back down.

If Erdogan remains defiant, and I believe he will, Putin will simply reveal what he knows about his dealings with ISIS.

That would have very serious repercussions not only for Turkey but Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well.

We live in interesting times.



As I was saying:
Hundreds of trucks bearing Turkish fruits, vegetables and other products were lining up at the Georgian border with Russia, Russian news media reported, as inspections slowed to a crawl and Russian officials suggested there might be a terrorist threat from the goods. (...) 
In the Krasnodar region, a group of 39 Turkish businessmen attending an agriculture exhibition were detained for entering Russia on tourist rather than business visas — a common practice — and were slated for deportation, according to a report on the website of the Rossiyskaya Gazeta newspaper.

21 November 2015

Is Islam an Inherently Violent Religion? A Contrarian Perspective

This is a question that seems to preoccupy many people these days.

With ISIS gleefully sharing its horrific exploits in high definition clips, Muslim women shown to submissively follow their bearded husbands in grotesque burqas, Muslim minorities making the headlines as hyper sensitive murderous vigilantes, Islam is projected into the collective consciousness as an angry system of practices revolving around patriarchy and violence.

The issue does not have a binary structure, as in one side and the other side. For the sake of brevity, let's claim that there are three main perspectives.

One eclectic group brings together Pamela Geller, most GOP politicianstalk show host, all around liberal guy and proud Islamophobe Bill Maher and Muslim reformist Irshad Manji, the author of The Trouble with Islam. To them Islam is a terrible religion, which promotes barbaric acts of violence and relentless oppression of women.

I suspect the large majority of lay people in the West, whether on the left or the right, more or less agree with this view.

A second group, clearly worried about these generalizations, always start gingerly with the caveat that there are a billion and a half Muslims in the world and a great majority of them are peaceful law abiding citizens. They then put forward a series of non-religious causal factors like artificial colonial boundaries, oppressive rulers and a host of economic and social problems to explain away Al Qaeda, ISIS and all other idiot beheaders. The membership is as eclectic as the first group and ranges from polite Western politicians to concerned American liberals and Muslim intellectuals.

I would venture that this is a minority point of view in the West and something most people perceive as political correctness.

A third group consists of older Muslims who belong to a generation for whom religion was a vague anchoring belief in a benevolent deity and a sense of community with similarly minded people. And their religion did not have the strict social control, atavistic orthopraxy (a.k.a. Salafism) and savage enforcement.

Those Muslims, particularly the ones who live in the West, are simply bewildered as they do not recognize what passes as Islam these days, especially since both Muslims and non-Muslims maintain that what we see is the real thing.

A good friend of mine who belongs to this third category asked me to settle this issue for her.

Who better than a non-Muslim contrarian, right?

Here is my take.

Is There a "Trouble With Islam"?

"Trouble with Islam" was the title of a 2004 book by Irshad Manji and she was the first person to ask this question. Let me make her the spokesperson of the first group since I do not see any point arguing with the rest of them.

Manji believes that there is a strand in Islam which provides ample justification to all the excesses of ISIS and thugs of their ilk. She calls it the Medina Islam. The teachings and sayings of the Prophet and the Surahs he received while in Medina tend to be violent and bellicose, especially when you compare them with the previous peaceful Mecca period.

Her remedy to "fix" Islam is the separation of State and Church and Luther-style Reformation.

While I agree that the Koran includes many violent surahs, I am not sure I get their relevance.

And this, for two reasons.

The first one is obvious: in all religious texts, one can find passages to justify almost anything, including contradictory courses of action. I presented a comical example recently. Do you think Biblical literalists would kill someone for working on the Sabbath on the basis of Exodus 35:2?

Secondly and more importantly, I am certain that almost all of Jihadis are completely ignorant about the Koran. They have never read it, will never read it and if they did, they would only get what their imams told them to get.

Simple illustration: Since the Charlie Hebdo murders I have been asking Muslim friends to show me the blasphemy surah in the Koran, as they were all convinced that there was some dictum about it. Maybe not the execution of the blasphemer but something, right?

In fact, as I wrote before, it was revealed on two separate occasions to the Prophet that Muslims should simply walk away when confronted with offensive speech.That is it. They are forbidden to take matters into their own hands.

Yet, despite this crystal clear order from Allah, there is not a single Muslim country without blasphemy laws in their books. And I know no Muslim who does not believe in the legitimacy of some form of blasphemy punishment.

For the politically correct, anything-other-than-Islam argument, while I do not deny the relevance of historical and socio-economic variables, I believe we should not remove religion from the equation.

Because it is quite central to it.

But not for the reasons you think.

If you ever read "Islam: a Short History by Karen Armstrong, a former British nun, you will see that Islam has a couple of unique features. One is orthopraxy, which means purity of practice is more important than purity of belief.

The other is the continuous subjugation of religion to political authority. You see, Islam has never existed as a separate institution, like a Church, something that could give legitimacy to political power: Caliphate was never a Papacy. Caliphs were emperors first who used religion to justify their rule.

This has a serious implication. As a religion without a Church, in a given period, the mainstream Islam, that is to say, the accepted interpretation of the Koran, the teachings and sayings of the Prophet and Islamic jurisprudence, is what the political authority of that period says it is.

Why is that, you might ask.

In her short book, which I highly recommend to anyone interested in the subject, Karen Armstrong explains that Islam, in its origins, was a religion that searched for God in history and in a just and egalitarian society.

This is fairly unusual, she says, if you consider that Hinduism dismisses history as evanescent and unimportant and Christianity maintains Plato's duality of realms as the dichotomy of City of God and City of Man. Both equations put the emphasis on the higher realm and downplay the significance of the material world.

Islam, by contrast, orders Muslims to get involved in the creation of a just society as a way to find God's expression.
In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. Their sacred scripture, the Quran, gave them a historical mission. Their chief duty was to create a just community in which all members, even the most weak and vulnerable, were treated with absolute respect. The experience of building such a society and living in it would give them intimations of the divine, because they would be living in accordance with God’s will.
Consequently, Islam is inherently political and politics cannot be separated from religion.
A Muslim had to redeem history, and that meant that state affairs were not a distraction from spirituality but the stuff of religion itself. The political well-being of the Muslim community was a matter of supreme importance. (...)
Politics was, therefore, what Christians would call a sacrament: it was the arena in which Muslims experienced God and which enabled the divine to function effectively in the world. 
One of the consequences of this integral vision that blends history, society, polity, human happiness and the pursuit of God's vision in this world is to make Manji's reform idea, i.e. separation of State and Church, a logical impossibility.

More importantly, this idea of a religion that places itself within history represents a huge problem for political authority. This is the question to ponder: If Islam aims to enlighten the social order, principles of justice and political rule, could the political system, or "state" in Western parlance, leave it alone?

The short answer is that it couldn't and it didn't. Hence the subjugation of religion.

From very early on, including the Rashidun Caliphs, Islamic rulers tried to control Islam as a way to control Muslims. Which explains its often turbulent and violent history. Tellingly, three of the four Rashidun Caliphs were assassinated.

Moreover, the main schism in Islam, Sunni vs Shia has its roots in a political supremacy struggle known as First Fitna, which is the killing of Uthman and then Ali as the third and the fourth Caliphs of the Rashidun era and the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate.

From the Umayyad Caliphs onward, the Caliphate became synonymous with dynasties, culminating in the Ottoman Empire. To illustrate the subjugation of religion, as Caliphs, the Ottoman Sultans would ask their Shayk al Islam or the head of Ulema, to issue fatwas on something that was not sanctioned by Islamic jurisprudence, like fratricide. If one of them refused, he was summarily killed and the next guy happily obliged.

Similarly, every time esoteric Islamic thinkers or Faylasuf, as they were known, came up with a new reading of the holy texts and found followers, they were promptly executed by the ruler of the epoch. Armstrong's little book is full of examples.

In other words, instead of Muslims working continually towards a better and more just society through esoteric readings of the holy texts and active political participation, the "state" adopted a top down approach to remove any pluralistic elements in Islam, attacked and destroyed the unwanted offshoots and imposed a unified identity to the believers.

To do this, they dissuaded Muslims from reading and discussing holy texts and encouraged them to listen to the Ulema. In case you are curious, Ulema is the plural of Alim, which is "person who possesses knowledge." The root word is "ilm" which is "knowledge" in the Platonic sense of the word (episteme), encompassing what we would now call scientific certitude.

Given the political subjugation of Islam, the Ulema, and not the Koran, are the source of knowledge for Muslims.

Which is another reason why I do not attach much importance to elements of Medina Islam in the Koran.

In short, starting from the death of Mohammed, or perhaps more charitably from the end of the Rashidun period, political authority put the Ulema in charge of reformulating and dictating the Muslim identity. That identity conformed to the priorities of the ruler of that period and was enforced by the violent means at the disposal of the political authority. There are Ottoman Sultans/Caliphs who executed tens of thousands of people for consuming tobacco or alcohol, others who couldn't care less if they ingested opium.

This is why, despite Islam's emphasis on justice and equality, there has never been a democratic Muslim society. In fact, every time someone tried to set up a quasi-democratic system, the system threw up a strong man who either tried to suppress Islam as a control method or used it for his own purposes.

In modern times, look at Egypt, from Nasser to Mubarak, from non-Islam to full-on Islam. Or Turkey from Ataturk to Erdogan, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Indonesia, Somalia or Yemen. Not to mention Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Even Bangladesh which was supposed to be socialist and secular is inching towards an Islamist authoritarianism, with the battling begums encouraging Ansarullah Bangla Team murders to consolidate their power.

Of course, Islamic State is the clearest and most absolute example of political subjugation of Islam. And it is even more cynical than the previous empires.

That is the trouble with Islam.

Consequently, if you are genuinely looking for a solution (as opposed to reaping the benefits of Clash of Civilizations), instead of debating whether Islam is inherently violent or not, focus on the political authority behind the latest Muslim identity.

Saudi Arabia.

As I have been repeating endlessly, around 1979, the Saudis set out to hijack, reformulate and dictate a whole new Muslim identity. And this is why my Muslim friend is now looking at a system of practices revolving around patriarchy and violence.

The House of Saud and the Birth of New Islam

If you read my discussion of weak identities emerging from the ruins of the Ottoman Empire, you might remember how the House of Saud was unhappy with Nasser's Pan-Arabism. Reducing the primacy of Islam would rob Saudi Arabia of its leadership role as the latest controller of the faith.

But the real wake-up call came from the Iranian Revolution in 1978 and the creation of Islamic Republic in 1979. This was the unmistakable rise of a political authority that had the means to implement its own version of Islam.

The 1979 Mecca siege by Wahhabi warriors gave the necessary impetus to the Saudi King and in the next four decades, the House of Saud spent 200 billion dollars, built tens of thousands of madrassas around the globe and dispatched hundreds of thousands radical imams to reinforce this new version of Islam.

Saudi Arabia also spent billions of dollars to finance terrorist networks and to support Jihadi armies to wage war in any country where "infidels" were seen suppressing Muslims. As I wrote before, the current King was the point man for the Jihadi fund raising efforts.

Saudi Salafists who emanate from the House of Wahhab positioned themselves as the true believers of Islam by claiming to emulate early Muslims. But instead of rediscovering the message of equality, social justice, respect for the poor and for all members of society, they enforced three precepts as the foundation of the new Islam.

Emphasizing orthopraxy, they mimicked the appearance and limited knowledge of these 7th century folks. This is how they could claim the removal of music, radio, television, movies and most modern inventions. Their drive was so successful that there are now idiot imams who argue that the earth is stationary and does not revolve around the sun or the earth is flat only because this is what the early Muslims believed.

Those three precepts, namely covering up women, banning alcohol and violent reaction to blasphemy were not in the Koran, as I documented. But emphasizing them was very useful as they constituted an easily verifiable method of social control, ensured the ostracization of younger Muslims in secular societies and allowed their recruitment as angry individuals ready to explode when faced with perceived blasphemy.

It was and still is the perfect social engineering tool to hijack, reformulate and dictate a new and global Muslim identity.

There is one more dynamic that ensured that this new identity became a self-reproducing social structure.

I tried to explain this before but I think I now have a better emissary.

Reflexions Sur La Question Musulmane

Jean-Paul Sartre, now largely forgotten, was a brilliant philosopher and one of my early heroes.

In his seminal work on Jews and Antisemitism "Reflexions sur la question juive" he maintained that what makes Jews Jewish is the gaze of the anti-Semite.

According to Sartre, it is the anti-Semite that turns the Jew into "the other" and prevents their assimilation. Without that gaze and the ghetto of otherness, Jews would have been assimilated a long time ago, he said.

But, crucially, the anti-Semite removes the Jew from the here and now where he exists and creates a dubious historical narrative and a shoddy identity to substantiate the claim that he is something else.

You could agree or disagree with his analysis in the Jewish context, but for my purposes here, the dynamic he describes provides a powerful explanatory tool in understanding how Muslims in Western societies are rapidly becoming "the other."

The Salafist vision of Islam brought with it a powerful dynamic of segregation. Those Muslims who did not accept this new Islam, like my friend who asked me to write about this, found themselves on the defensive.

People in their neighborhood gave them furtive accusatory glances after each ISIS episode. In conversations, their friends made categorical remarks about women's status in Islam, Koran's inherent Antisemitism and anti-Christianity and the undisputed causality between Islam and ISIS.

You know, the ubiquitous "you people" discourse.

These Muslims now feel that the two options given to them are to either acknowledge their affiliation to that new angry and violent identity, in which case, they are no better than ISIS; or to repudiate their identity, so that they could be accepted as untermensch in their community.

Since, in many instances, especially in Europe, their kids are already radicalized and provide a visual reminder to their neighbors how utterly "other" they are, these people have been withdrawing from their community and becoming increasingly upset about what they see as Muslimophobia.

Some contemplate to go back to their country of origin without realizing how much these places have changed. Others resign to a bitter and lonely existence in what was their chosen country.

The latest murderous rampage in Paris will accelerate this process.

And this was exactly what ISIS wanted.
After all, that group’s goal, as they write in their magazine and online, is “the extinction of the gray zone” in our world.  In other words, they seek the sharpening of distinctions everywhere, which means the opening of abysses where complexity and interaction once existed.  Their dream is to live in a black-and-white world of utter religious and political clarity (and calamity), while engaging in what American pundits like to term a “clash of civilizations.” 
It is working.

Incidentally, I am not equating the millenia of Jewish suffering and persecution with the current ostracization of Muslims. You can find my views on that here, here and especially here. I am simply pointing to the fact that the dynamics in creating an isolated "other" identity are quite similar in both cases.

And, more importantly, I am hinting that unless we understand this situation and do something about it, the analogy might become more tragically comprehensive.
Yahoo News had asked him if he might require Muslims to register in a database and give them a special form of identification and Trump did not rule it out, saying,

    “We’re going to have to — we’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.”

The MSNBC reporter asked him why Muslims databases would be different than having Jews register in Nazi Germany. He replied, “You tell me.”
What To Do?

Tom Engelhardt believes that the National Security State has an incestuous relationship with the Islamic State. As in one relies on the other to expand its influence and power.

If that is true, there is not much anyone can do. This will end badly.

Even if there is way to stop all of this insanity isn't it too late? Even if one could convince this most cynical of armies, the Pakistani military to stop supporting Taliban and to close down madrassas and terrorist training facilities; or annihilate the House of Saud and the House of Wahhab; or expel all radical imams from Western Europe, there is still a lost generation of tens of millions of young and radical Muslims on the loose.

In that sense, I cannot advance policy solutions. Either they cannot be implemented because other parties benefit from the current situation or it is too late to stop the process.

Consequently, I will suggest the following.

If I were a Muslim, I would start by trying to get Muslims to learn their own religion. As I showed on the three Saudi precepts, the repeated notions are not necessarily accurate.

Let me show you an even better example.

Here is a detailed comparison of women in Islam with women in Judeo-Christian tradition. It is done on the basis of religious texts not rubbish pronouncements of the Ulema.

If you read it, I am sure you will be very surprised. Because it goes against everything you thought Islamic texts were saying.

Secondly, instead of debating whether one should separate State from Church in a Church-less religion, I would suggest Muslims should break the hold of the pernicious Saudi Ulema and liberate their religion from political subjugation.

But after centuries of repression and ignorance, I am not sure they are up to it.

And frankly, the Saudi-financed ignorance machine might be too powerful.

War it is, then.

18 November 2015

Francois Hollande's Patriot Act

I am sure you remember the Patriot Act which was passed after 9/11.

The acronym (or backronym as Wikipedia puts it) stands for "Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act."

This is what Hollande is preparing for France.
Speaking during a joint session of both houses of parliament, Mr Hollande said the constitution needed to be amended as "we need an appropriate tool we can use without having to resort to the state of emergency". 
If you are wondering what those appropriate tools are, here is a short list:
  • 5,000 extra police posts in the next two years and no new cuts in the defence budget 
  • Making it easier to strip dual nationals of their French citizenship if they are convicted of a terrorist offence, as long as this did not render them stateless
  • Speeding up the deportation of foreigners who pose "a particularly grave threat to the security of the nation"
  • Pushing for greater European action against arms trafficking and greater penalties for it in France
The first and the last items are routine stuff.

But the middle two are what I predicted a day before he went before the Parliament and announced these measures.

As I said, his plan is to look tougher than Front National (FN) and this is what the BBC reported today under the heading of "Hollande upstages the opposition" :
Monday's speech before the joint houses of parliament took his political enemies by surprise. By the end even the far-right National Front (FN) conceded that the president's ideas might have some merit.
Some of the president's ideas had the opposition gagging with disbelief.
A proposal to strip French citizenship from convicted jihadists who have a second nationality - for example Algerian - was consistently rejected in the past by the Socialists. 
Likewise, the call for tougher sentencing for crimes that have a terrorist motivation; or the proposed change in the rules of engagement for police officers, so they can shoot more quickly.
I remember clearly that the Patriot Act seemed like a reasonable response at the time and I am sure that it feels the same to the disoriented Parisians right now.

I can't blame them.

But I have seen this movie and I know how it ends.

No spoiler alert is needed.

15 November 2015

Thoughts on Paris Attacks

In my 11 years as a resident and forty something years as a visitor of Paris, I never thought such a horrible event could take place here.

As a human being, I am still in shock and my heart goes out to people who lost their lives and to those who had to live through that horrible tragedy.

I cannot imagine how they will cope with that kind of trauma in the coming months and years.

As a contrarian blogger, my mind shifted almost immediately to the aftermath and the consequences of these attacks. On Friday night, I heard a commentator pronounce this as France's 9/11. While I see the similarities, including perhaps this becoming a Bush moment for François Hollande, I fear that this will have deeper and more disastrous consequences for the whole of Europe.

In fact, it is likely that this will mark the end of the European project.

Let me start from the Muslim end of things.

I am preparing a post on whether Islam is an inherently violent religion, so I will have more to say on this a little later but for now, I just want to reiterate an important point.

Radicalized Second Generations

It now looks like the perpetrators were French-born Muslims. One has already been identified. He has a familiar story. Family from Algeria, 6 kids, parents unable to educate them properly, petty crime, radicalization at the hands of the local imam. I outlined the scenario here. It is incredibly common in Western Europe.

I have been trying to explain the main reasons behind the radicalization of Muslims, which, contrary to what most people think, has only taken place in the last 35 years. The link in the previous sentence is my most comprehensive discussion of the subject, but you can find a more succinct summary here.

Essentially, it stemmed from a systematic and Saudi-financed religious assault on the weak and artificial national identities that emerged after the collapse Ottoman Empire. The Saudi effort, which was undertaken by radical imams in their freshly built madrassas and mosques around the globe, focused almost exclusively on reducing Islam to three precepts, namely, Islamic garb, alcohol ban and blasphemy vigilantism.

This social engineering project was designed to isolate Muslims in their communities and to radicalize their second generation. And the European reaction to these Muslims, especially after 9/11, deepened their isolation and helped the recruitment efforts of radical imams.

Paris attacks are the culmination of that plan.

Europeans were already leery of their Muslim minorities. But from this point onward, Europeans in general and French people in particular, will see every Muslim as a potential terrorist and will act accordingly. And understandably, they will demand their government to protect them from "these people."

The "us and them" divide is now fully in place.

When the heightened level of animosity is eventually coupled with the inevitable harsh state actions, those Muslims who do not approve terrorist acts will simply run out of choices. They will no longer be able to pretend that they are French. And most of them will have no "mother country" to which they can return.

The blurred map lines in the Middle East will make things especially difficult.

This will also take all refugee solutions off the table. As I will discuss it a little later, there is no way European governments could accept Muslim refugees in any significant numbers after the Paris incident.

That is the first fault-line.

The most important question in that respect is what would the French government do next?

France's 9/11: Hollande's Bush Moment?

My liberal friends who called me after the attacks were unanimous in their worry that these events might help Marine Le Pen's presidential bid. She is on record that she does not want these immigrants to stay in France.

I am not so sure.

I believe the rise of the extreme right in France (Europe is another matter) will depend on François Hollande's reaction to this crisis. In fact, this tragic event might make him more electable than ever before.

You see, as the dictum "only Nixon could have gone to China" makes it clear, only a socialist government can take very harsh measures. No one would suspect Hollande of nurturing a secret fascist agenda.

Consequently, I think he will throw the book at France's Muslims.

My guess is that, at first, they will round up hundreds of known terrorists. I am told that there are roughly 600 hardcore Jihadis in France. You know, the kind that received some training abroad and happy to wear a nicely fitted bomb vest. That means we are talking about 5-6 thousand people including their families.

Parading these bearded men and their hijab (or niqab) wearing women in handcuffs would do wonders for any politician's popularity after the cold-blooded Paris murders. They are now the face of the evil also known as "the other."

French courts already approved the stripping of citizenship of dual nationality Jihadis. The government will remove their citizenship and expel them to their country of origin. Moreover, they will apply this rule to anyone who is suspected of Jihadi connections. This will be presented as both a security measure and a deterrent.

And it will be very popular.

Suspects with a single French citizenship will be placed under surveillance and some might even be moved to special camps or confined areas. Which, after all, is cheaper than round the clock surveillance. Budgetary discipline matters.

Anti-niqab laws will be extended to cover other Islamic garb, including and especially shalwar kameezes for men. Gender equality matters. The justification would be that, as a secular republic, France could not allow openly religious symbols to be displayed in the public realm.

Municipalities will start closing Islamic centers and mosques. After all, they are the source of radicalization.

Muslims will protest and cry discrimination. Those who scream the loudest will also be stripped of their citizenship and be deported.

You might think that I am exaggerating but I actually look at it from the disinterested perspective of their political survival. You know, as if I were Hollande's campaign manager. If this hypothetical scenario is enacted, either Francois Hollande or his current Prime Minister Manuel Valls, already popular for his tough immigration stance, will likely be elected President in 2017.

If they don't do it, expect President Le Pen to take the baton and implement an even harsher series of measures. Actually, her popularity rose after this incident and analysts expect her party to be the big winner in local elections in December.

So either way, I believe that these will come to pass.

What especially worries me is the effect of these measures on non-radicalized Muslims. As I noted, these people will soon run out of options, identities and places to go.

Then what?

I am also concerned about what these measures will do to the French psyche. My long time readers will remember my discussion of the Rafle du vel d'hiv and the effects of dehumanizing the other.

The second fallout of these events will be the open border policy of Europe.

End of Schengen?

This summer's Syrian refugee crisis has already shown the deep schism on Schengen Europe.

Eastern European countries, most of which had elected right or extreme right-wing governments, expressed their disagreement on having open borders with other European countries. They did not want Muslims to even pass through their territories and to stop the flow they did all kinds of horrible things.

What a conservative news outlet called the anti-Muslim fervor in Eastern Europe was expressed as "today refugees, tomorrow terrorists."

It was prescient.

The Syrian passport conveniently found near the body of one of the assailants, and confirmed as belonging to a refugee that was processed by Greek authorities in October, was promptly used by Konrad Szymanski, Poland's European Affairs minister as the definitive reason why his government will not accept EU-allocated refugees.

Nor surprisingly, following the Paris attacks, Marine Le Pen went on TV to state that "it is absolutely necessary that France regains control of its borders." In case it is not clear, she is talking about leaving the Schengen Area.

Merkel's decision to accept one million refugees, roundly criticized at home, will be another reason for other European countries to opt out of Schengen. They will claim that there is no guarantee that those refugees will stay in Germany.

And they have another miraculously convenient case to support their argument. A man was arrested last week in Germany en route to France with an interesting cargo.
Officers discovered two pistols and a hand grenade in the man’s car during a routine check on the main highway from Salzburg, Austria, to Munich on Nov. 5. Closer inspection of the vehicle revealed eight Kalashnikov rifles with ammunition, two handguns, a revolver, two hand grenades and 200 grams (7 ounces) of TNT, the criminal investigations office in Bavaria said in a statement.
No one knows whether this incident was connected to the Paris attacks, as the man is not talking, but you have to grant that this provides the perfect cover for the anti-Schengen position.

As you know, the EU is based on four freedoms brought about by the Treaty of Rome, which established the European Economic Community (EEC), the precursor of EU.
This common market is founded on the famous "four freedoms", namely the free movement of persons, services, goods and capital. It creates a single economic area establishing free competition between undertakings. 
If Schengen is abolished, free movement of persons (i.e. labor), services, goods and capital will become much more difficult. European market will once again become fragmented and, already unwieldy with 28 member states, EU will have a hard time to simply function properly.

In that sense, an end to Schengen could be the beginning of the end of the European Project.

Incidentally, this is already taking place as several border fence projects are underway: Austria and SloveniaSlovenia and CroatiaHungary and Romania, Hungary and Serbia and Bulgaria and Turkey, to name just a few.

In this context, Eastern European leaders like Viktor OrbanEwa KopaczBoyko Borissov and Robert Fico are more likely to pursue ultra-nationalistic policies and distance themselves from Brussels. As you might remember, when the first-tear EU countries led by Germany insisted on EU refugee quotas these politicians simply refused to accept the new EU rules.

A fragmented market and an East-West rift will exacerbate the existing economic woes of the Union, like the return of socialists to government in Portugal, the likely economic implosion of Italy, the continuing Greek saga and the possible British exit.

In that sense, I believe that the terrorists who shot hundreds of people and killed 128 innocent victims have just destroyed not just the French vision of liberty, equality and fraternity but they reinforced the processes that are likely to end the European dream.

Final Thought

When I started blogging, I had no idea that Saudi Arabia spent 200 billion dollars to bribe military regimes around the world for them to accept madrassas; built thousands of mosques and madrassas all over the place; dispatched and paid for tens of thousands or radical imams -especially in the West- to make these institutions operational; and financed this project to reduce Islam to an angry religion focusing on just three precepts.

I simply looked around for an hour or two and it was all out there.And it was not presented as a conspiracy theory. I could and did double and triple check everything.

In light of this, here is my problem:

How come no mainstream media outlet would ever mention their role in this?

How come no politicians would say anything against Saudi Arabia, including, American Presidents even after 3000 Americans died on 9/11?

How come no European government would expel radical imams and replace them with imams on their own payroll?

How come no one noticed this 35-year long radicalization and/or did absolutely nothing about it?

As I said before, please don't say it's oil.

03 November 2015

What's Next for Turkey?

A couple of months ago, I confessed to be puzzled by what is know as Erdogan's gamble, a strategy to polarize the country and to attack Kurds and their political representatives. It didn't make any sense to me and I asked if somebody could explain it to me.

Well, last Sunday's electoral results provided a clear explanation, thank you very much.

Clearly, Erdogan and his lieutenants know the Turkish and Kurdish voters better than me. The ruling AKP got one of every two votes cast and increased its support by an astounding 20 percent across the board. Even in Kurdish regions, AKP got respectable results proving that polarization and voter suppression constitute a viable solution.

This is the electoral map.

These results are also a partial answer to my other question regarding the governability of Turkey. With such a mandate, AKP will be able to implement its platform without any foot dragging from a coalition partner. In that limited sense, the results should be seen a positive development.

You see, a hung Parliament would have led to a political impasse or a civil war. As I stressed before, Erdogan would never have allowed an AKP-CHP coalition. There were already talks of a third election and probably serious carnage in the interim.

The only other option was an AKP-MHP government. Given their collective nationalistic tendencies and MHP's hatred of anything Kurdish, such a partnership would have led to large scale violence and potentially a civil war.

Having said that, there is a flip side to the governability issue. If AKP simply continues to goad the PKK and bomb Syrian Kurds, that is, act as if an ultranationalistic government was in place, Turkey will quickly become a ticking time bomb.

And the signs are not very good.

A day after the elections, Turkish fighter jets bombed many PKK positions in Northern Iraq. Security forces fatally shot three people in the predominantly Kurdish region of Turkey and in some towns like Silvan a curfew was imposed.

Clearly, the aim is not to destroy PKK. It this was possible, it would have been achieved in the last 40 years. The aim is to punish and terrorize the local populations. And to hope to weaken PKK to eventually negotiate with them from a position of strength, something I called the Netanyahu tactic in the past.

Unfortunately, this will not end well. PKK will retaliate and the whole thing will escalate rapidly with no clear winners.

Besides obstinately trying to vanquish the PKK, a very capable and experienced guerrilla outfit, Turkey seems to also want to attack its Syrian offshoot, the PYD. The problem is that the US is siding with PYD as they are the only "boots on the ground" that can help the Administration achieve its goals. They even sent Special Forces troops to coordinate these activities.

Bombing PYD, as Turkey did recently, will put them on a collision course with the US. And the State Department already announced that it would not allow Turkey to do that.

That is on top of the obvious threat posed by the massive Russian presence in Syria. PYD co-leader Salih Muslim recently stated that Russia will prevent Turkey from intervening in Syria.

If you are counting, that makes two superpowers willing to stop Turkey's Kurdish adventures.

As for Turkey's influence as a regional superpower, well, Iran was invited to Syria talks and Turkey was not.

Besides the Kurdish issue and the risk of escalating violence, there is the fundamental question of what to do with the economy. To put it simply, if the economy tanks, so will Erdogan's reputation as a comeback kid.

There two difficulties with the economy. One is the lack of qualified personnel among the AKP faithful to provide a coherent economic vision and to implement complex strategies. Ali Babacan, widely credited for AKP's past economic success, was a Gulen sympathizer and is likely to be sidelined. And there are no obvious replacements. As I mentioned previously, the graduates of Imam Hatip schools, like Erdogan himself, are not equipped to manage large bureaucracies or tackle tough issues.

The second problem is Turkey's growing isolation and its economic implications.

When Erdogan recently threatened Russia with economic sanctions, something interesting happened. Russia stopped issuing transit visas to Turkish trucks going to Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Mongolia. That is a 2 billion dollar market gone overnight.

Then Gazprom rejected a Turkish request for an additional 3 billion cubic meters of natural gas for 2016. And announced that the capacity of the planned Turkish Stream gas pipeline will be reduced and its implementation postponed.

Russia continued to exert pressure by stiffening its inspections of Turkish foodstuffs and making border crossings more tedious. By rejecting tons of Turkish fruits and vegetables, Russia has been warning that it is capable of inflicting severe damage to Turkey’s exports.
Exports to the Commonwealth of Independent States (including Russia) are down 27.2 percent and to Russia alone the drop was 34.6 percent.

Besides Russia, Erdogan alienated many regional players and this has adversely affected Turkey's exports. For instance, Egypt refusal to renew its Ro-Ro deal with Turkey is a direct result of the animosity between Al-Sis and Erdogan and it is something that will hurt Turkey's exports..
Signed in March 2012, the agreement allows the use of Egyptian seaports for the transport of Turkish foodstuffs, electrical appliances and textile products to markets in the Gulf.
Turkish exports to the Middle East decreased by 7.22 percent in the first half of the year.

In fact, despite a weak currency, Turkey's exports plunged significantly this year.
Turkey’s foreign trade is navigating troubled waters. Despite a significantly weakened Turkish lira, exports have kept dropping over the past six months. According to the Turkish Exporters’ Assembly (TIM), exports stood at $73.26 billion in the first half of 2015, down 8.1% from the same period last year.
Actually, the decline was a staggering 19 percent in May. Overall, until October, exports shrunk by 8.6 percent.

Given this overall picture, the results are somewhat positive if they convince Erdogan to reduce his polarizing rhetoric, curb some of his authoritarian tendencies and return to the Kurdish peace process.

If, on the other hand, he continues his previous trajectory and feel emboldened by the results to do even more, Turkey will quickly find itself facing political violence and economic ruin.

And that, by definition, is an ungovernable country.

28 October 2015

Turkey's Elections and Opinion Polls

On 1 November, that is this coming Sunday, Turkey will be holding a re-run of the June elections.

Opinion polls generally indicate that the same hung Parliament will return. I already posted my views on that outcome.

This post is about the percentages and the results of various opinion polling firms.

Below is a confusing table summarizing the current predictions of leading companies. You do not need to pay attention to it. I will explain its relevance in a minute.

Poll Date
Sample Size
24–25 October
21–24 October
17–21 October
16–20 October
(Published 21 October)
16–20 October
13–19 October
17–18 October
10–16 October
12–16 October
12–17 October
10–15 October

A Turkish social scientist studied 88 recent polls [link in Turkish] to determine the standard deviation for each political party. Since standard deviation is a measure of how dispersed the data are, he was trying to see how far off poll results were and their overall distribution.

The findings are startling. The standard deviation for AKP is between 4 and 12 percent. An overwhelming majority of polling firms predicted much bigger AKP majorities.

Similarly, the results were quite skewed for HDP. Except it was the other way around. Most polling companies predicted dismal showings.

What is interesting is the fact that for CHP and MHP the standard deviation was 1 and 2 percent (a standard deviation of 0 would indicate a perfect distance from the mean value).

In other words, since their methodology was accurate and reliable for two of the parties, it is hard to blame technical error.

Why am I talking about this?

Well, for the first time in Turkish history, a Kurdish polling firm (out of Erbil, no less) conducted an opinion poll on Turkish elections. That is the company on the third row, Kurd-Tek.

Notice the AKP and HDP results?

Theirs is the only prediction placing AKP below 40 percent mark. And it is one of the only two putting HDP above 14 percent.

If, on 1 November, AKP stays below 40 percent and HDP above 14 percent, there will be many polling firms with a lot of 'splaning' to do.