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Parliamentary Brawl Marks Erdogan’s Syria Policy

By Anthony Sherwood | American Herald Tribune | March 7, 2020

Needless to say, the punchup in the Turkish parliament on March 4 was a disgrace. Supposedly elected to discuss matters of national importance in a calm and dignified manner, scores of MPs behaved like football hooligans.

The occasion was a debate on the presence of the Turkish army in Idlib. Earlier, President Erdogan had described the opposition’s criticism of Turkey’s Syria operation  as “dishonorable, ignoble, low and treacherous.” This was followed by a press conference in which the parliamentary chair of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), Engin Ozkoc, directed exactly the same words against the president personally. He also accused Erdogan of showing disrespect by laughing and joking in a speech he made after 34 Turkish soldiers sent to Idlib were killed in an airstrike.

In a later Twitter message, Ozkoc wrote that “a person who became the co-chair of the Greater Middle East project, who approved of the slaughter of three million Muslims, who calls martyrs ‘heads’ is undignified, dishonorable, without honor. This person cannot be the president of Turkey.”

The brawl broke out when Ozkoc took the rostrum in the Grand National Assembly to talk about Idlib. In a country where a rude hand gesture or a slighting remark about the president can land the speaker in prison, his earlier remarks were inflammatory stuff and the MPs laid into each other. Erdogan launched a civil action against the deputy, demanding one million lira (about $164,000) in damages, and an investigation was launched by the state prosecutor’s office.   Under article 299 of the penal code, insulting the president is criminalized.

Ozkoc cannot claim automatic parliamentary immunity as MPs voted to lift it in 2016. The prosecutor’s office quickly sent a brief to parliament with a request that his immunity be lifted so he could be prosecuted. By May 2019, the prosecutor had presented the parliament with 608 requests for the lifting of immunity, so Ozkoc’s name has now been tacked on to a long list. The targeted deputies are mainly from the largely Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP), along with a sprinkling of deputies from the CHP, including the party leader, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

The parliamentary stoush was hardly an aberration. Brawls in recent years, with deputies swinging punches, standing on desks and hurling various objects at each other, include the melee over a bill of ‘homeland security’ in 2015 that widened the use of force police could use against demonstrators. On that occasion, four MPs were so badly hurt they needed hospital treatment.

The debate over the lifting of parliamentary immunity in 2016 was marked by another furious brawl before the legislation was passed. In 2017 the MPs brawled over the plan to turn the parliamentary rule into an executive presidency. In 2018 the cause was the redrawing of electoral boundaries. The fist-fighting inside the parliament can be seen as a microcosm of the angry atmosphere outside, fuelled by the government, in which criticism is quickly turned into support for terrorism.

Whom the parliamentary deputy Ozkoc meant by three million slaughtered Muslims is not clear but his reference to the ‘Greater Middle East’ project should be noted by attentive readers. Years ago Erdogan described himself as the “co-chair” of the Greater Middle East project without saying who was the other chair. Reporting the occasion, Breitbart thought it was a euphemism for “an Islamic Turkish caliphate,” with Erdogan at its head. Perhaps the other chair was the US, where in the 1990s the neocons had laid their own plans for a ‘Greater Middle East’ but Erdogan undoubtedly would have had his own aspirations as a world-historical Muslim figure in mind.

The phrase ‘Great East’ if not ‘Middle East’ has deep roots in modern Turkish history, arising from the writings of  Necip Fazil Kisakurek, whose Islam-based nationalism is clearly the ideological mother lode for the direction in which Erdogan has taken Turkey. Buyuk Dogu (Great East) was Kisakurek’s central contribution and the name of the magazine he founded.

Born into an upper-class family, a student in Paris of the philosopher Henri Bergson, who favored intuition over rational analysis, Kisakurek (1904-83) was simultaneously poet, novelist, university professor, Sufi,  Islamist and nationalist who in the 1930s and 40s sought to replace Kemalist nationalism with Islam.

It was, however, a narrow and restrictive Islam. For Kisakurek Islam was only Sunni Islam,  with antipathy to Judaism and Christianity added to his hostility to Shia and Turkey’s large Alevi (Alawi) population.

In 1970 Salih Erdis (Salih Mirzabeyoglu) founded the Great Eastern Islamic Raiders’ Front (IBDA-C), which, based on Kisakurek’s teachings, called for the restitution of the caliphate and carried forward Kisakurek’s hostility to non-Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Jews.  In 2001 Erdis was sentenced to death for undermining the secular state. The death penalty abolished in 2002, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment in 2004.

Outside prison, his followers continued with his mission. In November 2003 they exploded truck bombs outside Istanbul’s two main synagogues, killing more than 20 people. Elsewhere a few days later they launched terrorist attacks against the British consulate and the Istanbul headquarters of the HSBC bank.

Having been released from prison in July 2014, Salih Erdis gave a talk later in the year at a congress center in Istanbul. Finding out that Erdogan would be speaking at the same location the same day, Erdis passed on a message that he would like to meet him and the president agreed. What they discussed remained between them but it has to be regarded as significant that the president would agree to sit down for a chat with a man who was both anti-secular and a convicted terrorist.

The parliamentary brawl over the Idlib operation captured in essence growing public disquiet over Turkey’s presence in Syria,  especially since the airstrike in late February that killed  34 soldiers (the rumors quickly spread that the real toll was upwards of 200). The disquiet is not sudden, however, and not just over Syria,  but has been growing steadily over the years, with a flailing economy among the many causes of disaffection with Erdogan and the AKP government. Beyond Turkey’s borders, Erdogan has fallen out with Russia, the US and the EU over a host of issues. They clearly have run out of patience with him.

Elections and public opinion polls show a consistent downward trend. In June 2015 the ruling party lost its absolute majority in parliament, recovering it only after an election campaign fought around the theme of national solidarity against Kurdish terrorism. In local elections in March 2019, repeated in June after AKP protests of irregularities, the government was defeated by CHP candidates in five of Turkey’s biggest cities (Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Adana, and Antalya).

While Turkish opinion polls are not the most reliable, the net result can hardly be ignored. In February 2020  a Metropoll survey showed Erdogan’s popularity (41.1 percent) down by seven percent from October 2019. Disapproval of the president rose to 51.7 percent, compared to 38 percent last October. Turkey’s military presence in Idlib was regarded as unnecessary by 48.8 percent of those surveyed, with only 30.7 percent approving, but as this was before the national outrage generated by the killing of the 34 soldiers, these percentages have no doubt changed. These figures have to set against the 68 percent approval rating for Erdogan after the 2016 coup attempt.

Another February 2020 poll, taken by AREA research in Istanbul, Ankara, Izmir, Antalya, Samsun, Malatya and Gaziantep (conservative, close to the border with Syria and hosting a Turkish-backed proxy Syrian government) showed that only 30.3 percent of respondents would vote for the AKP if elections were held now, with 20.8 choosing the CHP and 10.8 the HDP.

Of the respondents,  57.3 percent favored a return to parliamentary rule and 56.7 percent did not regard the presidential system as “successful.” Only 35.7 percent regarded the presidential system as “successful.” Asked who they would vote for now, in a presidential election, 35.3 said Erdogan, 52.4 percent were against him and 12.3 percent were undecided.

Compounding economic and other problems for the AKP and Erdogan are serious splits within the party, with two influential figures, former economy minister Ali Babacan and former foreign minister and prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu resigning to form parties of their own. Furthermore, the AKP is losing members:  membership in 2016 stood at 10.72 million, but by 2018 had dropped to 9.87 million and is bound to have declined further since then because of the state of the economy and the war in Syria and the problems it has created,  not just the death of young soldiers but the presence of several million refugees in Turkey.

Elections (presidential and general) are not due again until 2023. Erdogan is an experienced and wily political practitioner so it would be most unwise to count him out but definitely the luster has worn thin if not completely worn off for a lot of people.

The deal with Putin allowed him to save face at home, at the cost of giving up the fight for control of the strategic M4 highway. The government has regularly issued details of Syrian soldiers it says have been “neutralized” along with figures of destroyed artillery and armor but it has taken heavy punishment itself, losing between 10 and 13 large armored drones apart from the death of its soldiers and the army’s “Syrian national army” takfiri auxiliaries.

Ceasefires may put off the evil day of withdrawal but Syria has turned into a cul de sac for Erdogan and a dead-end for his country. To public pain at the death of Turkish soldiers in Syria has been added anger at Erdogan’s almost casual reference to the death of “a few martyrs” in Libya.

In short, 2020 is not opening well for Tayyip Erdogan.

March 7, 2020 - Posted by | Militarism | , ,

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