05 August 2016

Turkish Coup Attempt: The Bigger Picture

My first reaction to the botched coup in Turkey was to lament the inevitable power grab that was going to follow it.

And in the first week or so, President Erdogan, moving ever so swiftly, ordered the expulsion or arrest of tens of thousands of military officers, civilian bureaucrats, school teachers and judges and prosecutors. 142 newspapers or media outlets were closed and many journalists were incarcerated. And scores of schools and universities were shuttered.

Things looked bleak as Erdogan seemed on his way to becoming Dear Leader.

Then I started thinking about the big picture and it dawned on me that there was perhaps a different playbook than the obvious but facile Erdogan=Sultan equation and the sinister false flag conspiracy theories surrounding this event.

Here is my contrarian take.

But first a short background for those who are joining us late.

The Middle East Playbook

When I first started this blog over five years ago, my primary focus was to introduce the new American playbook for the region. I suggested that the US was aiming to stabilize the Middle East by solving the Palestinian and Kurdish problems.

After all, roughly 70 percent of the world's oil and natural gas was going through this region. And stabilizing and controlling this hub meant controlling the energy needs of rising powers like China and India and also placing a check on the transactions of oil and gas selling countries like Russia and Iran.

But after the Iraq debacle, they wanted to do this through regional actors and their soft power.

Enter Turkey.

Erdogan was on board in exchange for Turkey being the pipeline hub of the region, Turkey was a regional superpower and the AKP government had already improved relations with most of its neighbors, erasing unpleasant memories of the Ottoman Empire.

Moreover, as an economically successful and moderate Islamist regime, it provided a convincing alternative to Saudi style Salafism. Fethullah Gulen was the theological voice of this moderate Islam and his intelligent and highly educated followers became the technocratic cadres of the AKP government. It was a match made in heaven.

In 2009, Erdogan's well-timed and well-choreographed outbursts against Israel made him the darling of Arab masses overnight. He was on his way to becoming the leader of the Sunni Muslim world.

Shortly after that, Erdogan started a peace initiative with Turkey's Kurds and cultivated extensive economic ties with Northern Iraq's Kurdish Regional Government.

It looked like America's plan was on track.

Pipelineistan and the Birth of ISIS

However, sometimes in 2011, something went terribly wrong.

When approached by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to sign off on a natural gas pipeline, which was supposed to take Qatar's gas from its North Dome field to Europe through Turkey, Bashar al-Assad, with strong arm-twisting from Russia, who did not appreciate competition to Gazprom in that market, said no.

Worse still, he simultaneously agreed on an alternate gas pipeline that would take Iran's South Pars (the other side of Qatar's North Dome) natural gas to Europe through Iraq, Syria and the Mediterranean, bypassing Turkey completely. This pipeline was immediately nicknamed Shia Pipeline to underline its sectarian and supposedly anti-Sunni nature, and it proved to be a colossal mistake for Assad.

Immediately after the Shia Pipeline was announced, Erdogan made a spectacular U-turn and became an implacable enemy of Assad. Qatar and Saudi Arabia began to finance the Syrian uprising and Sunni militias to dismantle Iraq and Syria and create a Sunni heartland that I dubbed Pipelineistan. The first breakout group was the Al Nusra Front, which introduced the blueprint that was later adopted and perfected by ISIS, to establish itself as the foremost Salafist group there.

And when the Sheikh of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani proved too squeamish to move to the next level, he abdicated (which never happens willingly in the Middle East) and his son Tamim bin Hamad al Thani green-lighted ISIS takeover in late 2013.

As you can glean from my previous posts, ISIS appeared with $4 billion in the bank, a couple of movie studios, several software development units, deep social media presence and the most slick marketing apparatus since Goebbels. And their initial military apparatus was provided by the Naqshibandi Army established by Saddam's Baathist officers.

Not exactly your regular Salafist outfit.

Erdogan Off the Reservation

Erdogan quickly aligned with this Sunni project and began to provide material and logistical support to ISIS.

He also stopped the Kurdish peace initiative in Turkey and began to distance himself from the American playbook.

Knowing he was off the reservation, in December 2013, Gulenists in the police and judiciary leaked audio tapes of damning conversations establishing the corruption that is at the heart of Erdogan government. In the ensuing survival struggle, Erdogan became a free agent.

Erdogan's friendly relations with KRG continued but he became a staunch enemy of Syrian Kurds primarily because they were in the way: the proposed pipeline was to pass through Syrian Kurdistan known as Rojava and Erdogan simply would not allow it.

In fact, if Turkish Air Force did not shoot down a Russian fighter jet last November, I am convinced, Erdogan was getting ready to enter Syria to create a buffer zone, more like a corridor in Western Kurdistan. The strange downing incident made this all but impossible.

By mid-2016 Erdogan was completely isolated as he had alienated every major power in the world. He blackmailed European Union with refugees, he turned Putin into a foe, destroying the tourism sector and jeopardizing Turkey's exports and he angered the US by assisting ISIS and hampering coalition campaign against them.

Actually, the Obama administration was so sick of him using the Incirlik airbase as leverage, they quietly moved a large chunk of ISIS operations to Iraqi Kurdistan and there are reports that they are building five new bases in KRG territory.

Besides global powers, Erdogan managed to insult the Egyptian President, Israeli Prime Minister, Jordan's King Abdullah and practically everybody who is somebody in the Middle East.

At home, polarization was at break point, with him goading the opposition every day, suing anyone who contradicted his views and jailing journalist who dared to express a dissenting opinion. A civil war was raging in the Southeast. The economy was in tatters.

Then something very unexpected happened.

Erdogan, the combative and belligerent man who has always refused to apologize to anyone and for anything sent an abject letter of apology to Putin for the downing incident. Something he vowed he would never do.

Then, after years of anti-Semitic rhetoric about Israel, he declared that he was resuming diplomatic relations with the Jewish State.

In both instances, the announcement came with a singularly curious addendum. In the Russian case, the previously cancelled Turkish Stream natural gas project was back on, with Erdogan and Putin meeting in Moscow on 9 August to announce it.

And Israel proposed a natural gas pipeline that would carry the Southern Mediterranean natural gas through Turkey.

A week later, the botched coup happened.

A New Middle East Playbook Featuring Erdogan

When you look at this larger picture, you can see that the events before and after the coup represents a major break with the past playbook.

For one thing, the abrupt about-face and the subsequent rapprochement with Russia means the Qatar gas pipeline is no longer a viable project.  This is a sine qua non condition for Russia. It is what motivates their Syria policy and all their efforts to bolster Assad's government.

In that sense, I expect Turkey to re-align some of its foreign policy priorities according to Russian and Iranian perspectives.

Tellingly, regional actors seem to be quite aware of this distinct possibility: Iran's Minister of Foreign Affairs Jawad Zarif was tweeting his country's support while to coup attempt was unfolding and President Rouhani called Erdogan right away to show his support. Whereas Turkey's Sunni ally Saudi Arabia congratulated him two full days after the attempt was suppressed.

If you take the Qatar deal off the table, you will make thorny issues like trying to destroy the Syrian Kurds and supporting ISIS pointless.

That means Erdogan could now work more closely not only with Russia but also the US in their fights against ISIS and other Salafist terror groups.

That is not all.

Around the time Erdogan approached Israel and Russia with an olive branch, his government began sending conciliatory signals to Egypt, the other Sunni power in the region.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim sent a conciliatory message to Egypt in a speech July 11, expressing Turkey’s desire to improve relations. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu raised the possibility of restoring commercial and economic ties and suggested holding a ministerial level meeting to reach a solution that serves the interests of both nations.
After years of heaping insult on Egyptian President Al-Sisi, it will take some time to fix that relationship but the about-face is remarkable.

Even more stunningly, two days before the coup, Turkish Prime Minister announced that he was ready to normalize ties with Syria.
Turkey's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said on July 13 that his country wants to normalize ties with Syria. "I am sure that we will return (our) ties with Syria to normal. We need it", he said in a televised address. 
"It is our greatest and irrevocable goal: Developing good relations with Syria and Iraq, and all our neighbors that surround the Mediterranean and the Black Sea", Yildirim noted. 
This was so surprising that the day of the coup, the Economist ran a story entitled: "Turkey is suddenly making friends, not enemies."

Suddenly, indeed.

A Softer Approach in Turkey

In Turkey, Erdogan is now presenting himself as a caring and understanding leader who almost died at the hands of shadowy terrorists just two weeks ago. Gone the angry Dear Leader foaming at the mouth.

Let's just look at some of his steps after the coup attempt.

First, he told to Al Jazeera that he was shelving his executive presidency plans and Turkey was going to remain a parliamentary democracy.

Then, he withdrew his thousands of insult and lese majeste law suits.

And he postponed indefinitely the investigation of Members of Parliament whose legislative immunity had previously been lifted.

On July 24, AKP and the main opposition party CHP had a joint rally in Taksim Square, a venue that had been closed to opposition parties since the Gezi incidents in 2013.

The following day, Erdogan hosted the leaders of the opposition at his presidential palace.
On July 25, Erdogan invited CHP leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu and the chairman of the Nationalist Action Party (MHP), Devlet Bahceli, to his palace to listen to their views on the coup attempt and its aftermath. He snubbed the Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), but Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said later in the day the HDP was welcome to come on board in a joint parliamentary effort, agreed to with the CHP and the MHP, for several constitutional amendments.
Also "there are rumors that Demirtas could be invited to the president’s next meeting with party leaders."

[T]he Justice and Development Party (AKP) hung a giant portrait of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk on the facade of its headquarters in Ankara, which left many stunned, given the Turkish Islamists’ aversion for the man who abolished the caliphate and founded modern Turkey as a secular republic.
My Turkish friends were speechless.

The coup also gave Erdogan license to turn Fethullah Gulen into a perfect scapegoat.

The two pilots that downed the Russian plane, well, they were just arrested for being Gulenist and suddenly what happened in November is no longer the government's fault.

The civil war that claimed thousands of lives and destroyed several Kurdish cities in the Southeast, why, it was the nefarious work the Gulenist of course. The commander of the Second Army was one of the first to be arrested. Poor AKP government had no idea of what was going on in that region.

What about the pilots who bombed a Kurdish village in December 2011 (the Roboski incident) and killed 34 people? Until a week ago, the government blamed the victims and continually harassed them. Thanks to the coup attempt, they now know that the pilots who murdered those poor souls were Gulenist.

They are in custody and a new investigation is underway.

So the obvious question at this point is "What is next for Erdogan?"

That is the subject of my next post.

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