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In the eye of the storm

November 29, 2015


The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Istanbul was calm, normal towards the end of last week as I spent 24 hours there while in transit. But reading local English-language newspapers another realisation hit home: how drastically Turkey may have changed from the country of Mustafa Kemal Pasha’s vision.

Mustafa Kemal, Ataturk (father of the Turks), visualised a democratic, secular society embracing modern values, Western attire and even the Roman script. He rose to power after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War and believed the religion of Islam will be “elevated if it ceased being a political instrument” like it was in the past.

Today, some 90 years on, Turkey seems split down the middle among Islamists such as President Erdogan whose party is in power, and the fragmented secularists who failed to win a majority in the recent parliamentary elections.

Erdogan’s critics believe he cynically manipulated the election result by provoking a confrontation with traditional Kurdish adversaries in its run-up and was able to galvanise support for his own party by spreading fear of what would happen if the other side won.

Whether this criticism is valid or not is for another day. What is clear is that Turkish society is divided into those who believe Erdogan offers a solution for all that is wrong with the country, and those who feel appalled that he is altering Ataturk’s Turkey beyond recognition.

What happened at a football match over the past week, following the Paris carnage carried out by the militant Islamic State group, was utterly shocking. During a minute’s silence to honour the memory of the Paris victims, a section of the crowd raised ‘Allah-o-Akbar’ slogans.

This left many Turkish media commentators distressed. However, one of them pointed out in a column that it reflected what many have known in Turkey: that about a 10th of the country is sympathetic towards IS and supports it.

It seemed like yesterday Turkey was steaming towards membership of the European Union, working hard at goals such as economic criteria and at bettering its human rights record. It was seen as an economic powerhouse knocking at EU’s door. It seemed to be swallowing the bitter pill of making concessions to the Kurds.

But despite all its incredible hard work and the aspirations of not just its secular population, but also Islamist leaders such as Erdogan, as it approached the point where its request could be considered Ankara was blackballed by France’s then right-wing president Nicolas Sarkozy. His reasons seemed less about economic and political concerns and more about the faith of a majority of Turks.

Who knows then whether those breaking the silence in honour of the Paris victims were raising Allah-o-Akbar slogans as a gesture of support to the IS or merely thumbing their nose at what they saw as French racism. Even if it was the latter they ended up firmly placing themselves in a category of people who chop off the nose to spite the face.

I wonder what the mood would be like in Turkey after their air force shot down a Russian bomber which allegedly violated their airspace for some 17 seconds. This shooting down of the Russian warplane came after weeks of criticism in the West that the Kremlin’s warplanes were targeting the Syrian dictator’s opponents other than those of IS, which everyone now agrees is a fair target.

The area which the Russian SU-24 was bombing is seen as inhabited and controlled, mostly by Turkmen who speak a language similar to Turkish and for whom Ankara’s rulers seem to have considerable empathy.

Erdogan makes no bones about his opposition to Bashar al-Assad and blames him for the mess Syria is in today and how it is destabilising the whole region with Turkey having to bear the brunt of the refugees’ presence.

There can be no doubt when the ‘Arab Spring’ reached Syria, Assad responded with customary Ba’athist brutality, killing not hundreds but thousands within a matter of weeks and razing to rubble entire urban centres seen as strongholds of the rebels.

If this wasn’t bad enough, the minority Alawites, who have ruled Syria for decades now via their somewhat secular Ba’athist party, supported by Shia Iran and Lebanon’s battle-hardened Hezbollah militia, were seen as oppressors of the majority Sunni Syrians by other regional powers including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Those arrayed against the Syrian regime first tried to convince the Western powers of direct military intervention, even if it meant only an air campaign, but when that failed each chose an armed rebel group and started supplying and arming them. As did the US for that matter.

Paradoxically, in the area it downed the Russian jet, Nato-member Turkey backs Turkmen Syrian rebels who have allied with Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda). The Russian bombing runs in the area were said to be aimed at disrupting rebel supply routes through the mountains.

The rise of IS with chunks of Iraqi and Syrian territory under its control owes much to the influx of foreign fighters from the UK, France and other European counties to India, Pakistan and Bangladesh besides North Africa and Middle Eastern nations.

It is not a secret that Turkey has been a preferred route for both fighters and supplies to all denominations of Syrian rebels. In all likelihood Turkey believes backing those who are striving to topple Assad will lead to a friendly Damascus regime in future and also undermine the growing influence of the secular Kurds who are emerging as a bulwark against IS in northern Iraq.

But some analysts are expressing the concern that Ankara may be committing the same mistake Islamabad did when it allied ideologically with one side in a foreign war in the 1980s. While some of the key Middle Eastern backers of the Syrian rebels are physically at a distance from the conflict zone, Turkey seems in the midst of it. It needs to remember that.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.