The world was barely recovering from the shock of the assassination of the Russian ambassador in an Ankara art gallery when Turkish government mouthpieces that pass for the Turkish media these days began playing a familiar tune.
“Assailant who killed Russian envoy suspected to be Gulenist as new evidence emerges,” ran a headline in the English-language Daily Sabah, just hours after Turkish officials confirmed that the attacker was an off-duty police officer. On Twitter, Turkish-language posts by pro-government commentators and supporters started featuring the term, “FETO” (Fethullah Terrorist Organization), the government-approved term for the movement founded by Fethullah Gulen, which has joined the ranks of “PKK” and “CIA” in the conspiratorial Turkish lexicon of villains.
The Russians are no strangers to the Turkish FETO blame game. In November 2015, when a Turkish fighter jet brought down a Russian Sukhoi SU-24 near the Syrian border, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was railing about Turkey’s right to defend itself.
By June 2016 though, he was apologizing for the incident.
This is a pattern repeated time and again, when Sultan Erdogan meets Tsar Vladimir Putin. It’s a textbook example of schoolyard bullies playing the power game. The irascible “Kasimpasa man” -- as Erdogan likes to describe himself after the hard-bitten Istanbul neighborhood of his childhood -- invariably wilts like a sick Ottoman sovereign under the steely gaze of the former FSB Russian president.
A month after Erdogan’s apology for the Russian plane downing, a group of Turkish military officials staged a coup attempt. The coup plotters failed, but they provide Erdogan an all-purpose, all-weather scapegoat. The two Turkish military pilots who brought down the Russian fighter jet were immediately deemed to be Gulenists.
Ankara Mayor Melih Gokcek deployed his characteristic salty language to slam the unfortunate pilots and “the parallel state,” another officialspeak for the Gulen movement. “That incident [the Russian jet downing] was orchestrated by a pilot who belongs to the parallel state,” he told CNN Turk. “I say this, as Melih Gokcek, these rascals caused the rift between Russia and us.”
Expect to hear more of FETO, or stray Gulenists, working for nothing less than a rift in Russian-Turkish relations in the days to come.
Turkish post-attack show in full swing
Moscow is never amused by what it sees as these Turkmen displays of tribal duplicity. Erdogan knows this only too well and so, he has conceded to an unprecedented joint investigation with Russia into Ambassador Andrei Karlov's murder.
There’s no shortage of theories behind the Russian ambassador’s killing. It could have been a lone wolf attack, or one ordered and planned by an Islamist group, or indeed by the Gulenists. We’ll simply have to wait for the results of that investigation, which is difficult these days.
What’s easy to predict though is that by the time this column is published, the Turkish post-attack show will be in full swing: the net of arrests will include all sorts of suspects, non-suspects and family members, the government’s hastily identified bogeyman will be adopted by Turkish media (or whatever’s left of it), and the nation will be split between those who suck the ruling AK Party koolaid and those who gag on it.
More troubling though is the likelihood that Russia will back the official Turkish version of the attack, despite Moscow’s superior power and the economic levers it holds over the Turkish economy.
Moscow has done it before, when it simply allowed Turkey to play the Gulenist card over the Sukhov SU 24 downing. The assassination of an ambassador is a serious incident and there’s little doubt Putin will leverage this to his advantage. But as I have been trying to tell friends and colleagues losing their marbles over the shocks 2016 has wrought, this one’s not going to spark a regional war and certainly not the “World War III” that some initially feared.
Old foes who know the score and work together
Turkey and Russia are on opposing sides in the Syrian conflict -- as they have been in numerous wars in history under various regimes, empires and autocrats. Relations between the two countries have historically been very unequal.
As Turkey expert Soner Cagaptay noted in a 2013 column in The Atlantic, “Between 1568, when the Ottomans and Russians first clashed, to the end of the Russian Empire in 1917, the Turks and Russians fought 17 wars. In each encounter, Russia was the instigator and the victor.” After World War II, Turkish fears of its giant neighbor across the Black Sea were so acute, it didn’t take Ankara much convincing to opt for NATO security cover.
Putin and Erdogan are two leaders with an acute sense of history and a heightened awareness of the perceived slights they believe “the West” has inflicted on their proud nations. It may be the US in Russia’s case and the EU in Turkey’s case, but Tsar Putin and Sultan Erdogan know how to milk grievances for their respective political agendas. They also know who’s the boss and respect the rules of raw power as only strongmen do.
And so, the two countries have managed to hammer away at bilateral relations even though they stood on opposing sides in the Syrian battlefields, overcoming temporary chills over the Russian plane downing to restart the flow of cheap gas, tourists and imported goods.
The real game in Syria
The recent Aleppo evacuations are the latest example of how Ankara and Moscow can put aside policy differences and work together.
The quid pro quo evacuations of mostly Sunnis from eastern Aleppo on one hand, and mostly Shiites from Kefraya and Foua in Idlib province, and Madaya and Zabadani further south near the Lebanese border on the other are the result of Turkey and Russia working together behind the scenes without any need for US intervention.
President Barack Obama opted not to actively engage in the Syrian conflict, it’s doubtful whether Donald Trump can wrap his ADD-addled brains around the crisis and it’s best if he doesn’t even try. Barely 24 hours after Ambassador Karlov’s assassination, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran sat across a table in Moscow to discuss a political solution to the crisis. The US wasn’t even invited.
Erdogan’s real enemies are the Kurds, especially the leftist ones immune to his Islamic charms and promises of affluence for the bazari set of traders and small businessmen.
The Aleppo debacle occurred in part because Turkish military units fighting inside Syria to ensure the Kurds do not control a contiguous zone across the Euphrates River drew FSA units from eastern Aleppo further north to aid the Turks in their strategic fight. For this, Ankara has only to whip up Sunni fears that the Kurds are out to steal Arab lands, a historic ruse that never fails to work.
The ‘Pakistanization’ of Turkey
The problem is not Turkey’s foreign relations with Russia, or even Iran and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for that matter. The real menace lies within Turkey and that is alarming because the US, EU as well as NATO needs Ankara, and the West has no bargaining chips over Erdogan.
For this, we have an Islamophobic EU to thank for systematically humiliating Turkey, crushing Turkish hopes of ever joining the EU and creating exactly the kind of nightmare situation that right wing, Muslim-bashing European politicians dreamed up decades ago.
Now the US and EU have what I call a full-blown “Pakistan problem” with Turkey. Erdogan has supported Islamists across the border just like Pakistan did in Afghanistan. He believed he could control his Islamist boys, but nobody’s ever managed that. Then he used the July coup attempt to purge the military of Gulenists, but also Kemalist secularists opposed to his Islamist flirtations across the border. Now, as in Pakistan, the military men and security officials are cut from an Islamist fabric that is radically different from the visions of their modernizing founding fathers.
If Pakistan's Islamization is bad for the West, Turkey’s only worse. This time, it’s much closer home and it involves a fellow NATO member with the second-largest army in the 28-member bloc.
The fact that an off-duty Turkish police officer targeted a senior Russian official should come as a shock to no one. The fact that he succeeded is the work of security experts who will have to examine Karlov’s security detail and the lapses that enabled 22-year-old riot policeman Mevlut Mert Altintas to casually lurk behind the Russian ambassador at the art gallery before pulling out a gun, shooting, and shouting and screaming like a Turkish Al Pacino having his Dog Day Afternoon moment.
Passions in Turkey over the Syrian crisis in general and the Aleppo siege in particular have been whipped so hard, there are plenty of Turks and Syrians willing, eager and probably armed and trained enough to kill a Russian official.
When pro-Erdogan Syrians in Turkey vote
Turkey’s hospitality to Syrian refugees – around 3 million of them – has been truly commendable, especially with fortress Europe running amok with right wing demagogues whipping up anti-immigrant fears. But the Syrian “guests,” as they are called since Ankara has refused to grant them refugee status, are also a potential vote bank for Erdogan.
Under Turkish law, foreign nationals who have lived in Turkey for five years can apply for citizenship, which means the “guests” who arrived shortly after the 2011 uprising started, will soon be eligible for Turkish nationality.
Erdogan has already started to roll out the welcome mat. At an iftar meal to break the Ramadan fast in the Turkish border town of Kilis this summer, the Turkish president announced the “good news,” as he put it. "We are going to help our Syrian friends in offering them the chance, if they want it, to acquire Turkish nationality," said Erdogan.
Turkish border cities and towns such as Gaziantep and Kilis have seen dramatic demographic changes since the Syrian conflict started. The prewar population of Kilis (130,000) has doubled over the past few years, and its Arab population has exploded: in the 1960 census, Kilis was less than 1% Arab, but that number is now 49.2%, according to an August 2016 Washington Institute report.
Even the composition of the Arab population in these areas is changing. In Hatay, the prewar Arab population was mostly composed of Alawites (Assad’s religious sect). Today, Sunnis and Alawites in Hatay are equally split and that’s good news for the AK Party. Turkey’s newly arrived Syrian guests are Erdogan’s biggest fans.
Parts of Gaziantep, the economic hub in this border region, have turned into a little Aleppo where Syrians profess their undying love for Erdogan and their venom for Assad. These are not Aleppines from the city’s minority groups of course. Syria’s Christians, Alawites, urban bourgeoisie and Assad cronies smelt which way the uprising -- which began in the countryside and peripheral areas -- was heading and decided to stick with the devil they knew.
The Syrians in Gaziantep and other Turkish border areas are mostly conservative Sunnis who have lived under one Assad or another since 1971 and have imbibed the Islamic lite, anti-US, anti-Semitic propaganda dished out by the Damascus regime.
Now they want their Islamism bigger, better, purer, more -- as does their nouveau Ottoman host sitting in the Ak Saray presidential palace with its faux Ottoman trappings. As long as they tow his line, they’re welcome to stay and grow.
That’s not the case with Turkish nationals who happen to be Kurdish or were swayed by Gulenist ideology or educated in Gulenist schools without realizing the ultimate aim was a military coup. They are the one who will bear the brunt of Erdogan’s shortsighted, politically expedient policies that have made Turkey a much more dangerous place.