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Turkey In Crisis: Repress Everyone, Reconcile With Russia and Iran, Recognize Assad?

August 16, 2016

Turkish Peace Activist, academic, Esra Mungan

Turkish Peace Activist, academic, Esra Mungan, arrested in March, 2016, along with Dr. Muzaffar Kaya and Associate Professor Kivanc for protesting Erdogan’s repression of Turkish Kurds.



In March of this year (2016), some months before the start of the current Great Purge three Turkish academics held a press conference in Istanbul, four days after which they were arrested and charged with supporting terrorism for calling for a negotiated peaceful settlement of Turkey’s differences with the Kurds living largely in the country’s southeast regions.

The three were a part of a Turkish-Kurdish peace initiative, a petition signed quickly after it was initiated by 1100 Turkish academics and several hundred Western intellectuals, including linguist Noam Chomsky. The three were victims of Turkey’s Stalinist-like effort to rid its body of politic of the supporters of Fetullah Gulen and pretty much anyone else standing in the way of Tayyif Erdogan’s increasingly narrow and bigoted version of Turkish nationalism.

Associate Professor Kivanç (Minar Sinan Fine Arts University, Mathematics), Assistant Professor Esra Mungan (Boğaziçi University, Psychology) and Dr. Muzaffar Kaya (fired as a consequence of the academics’ statement from Nişantanşi University, History), representing Academics For Peace, were into custody on charges of “making terrorist propaganda” after calling for “an end to violence between government forces and Kurdish separatists in Turkey’s southeast.

Even prior to the recent mass purges were unleashed, some 30 academics, including Dr. Kaya, were fired from their posts and 27 others suspended, this according to Human Rights Watch, at the time of the press conference. What is the fate of these people? What mistreatment, torture, deaths have they suffered simply for calling on their government to respect the human and civil rights of Turkish citizens?

In retrospect, it now appears clear that prior to targeting his political opponents on the right, supporters of Gulen’s organization, that Erdogan had engaged in repression of those more on the country’s left, who might oppose his plans of mass repression. As a commentary on Human Rights Watch’s Turkish page notes:

“Elected to a fourth term in 2015, and enjoying a strong parliamentary majority, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has demonstrated a growing intolerance to political opposition, public protest, and critical media. Government interference with the courts, and prosecutors has undermined judicial independence and the rule of law. The breakdown of a peace process between Turkish security forces and the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in towns across the Southeast has led to mounting civilian deaths and multiple human rights violations. Turkey hosts 2.2 million Syrian refugees many of whom face obstacles accessing education and employment, and is the main transit route for asylum seekers trying to reach the European Union. Border restrictions and visa requirements impede the ability of Syrians to seek protection in Turkey.”

Erdogan’s pre-coup repression, a prelude for the big dark show now under way, a sharp deterioration of the overall human rights situation, increased reports of ill-treatment and torture, included shutting down critical media outlets and the detention of journalists, human rights defenders jailed, the killing and imprisonment of Syrian asylum defenders, and a wave of repression against demonstrations protesting the increasingly repressive atmosphere.


All this, which had been building in intensity over the past year, was a prelude to the extensive, if not unprecedented wave of repression which followed the failed post coup attempt. The victims include major elements of the Turkish military, its academic and journalistic institutions, the Turkish judiciary, at last count, it entailed more than 80,000 people, some arrested, many purged from their jobs. How far Erdogan will take the repression is unclear, but the revival of capital punishment suggests that this repressive wave knows no limits.

While the origins of this coup attempt remained mired in this or that conspiracy theory (one of which very well might be true) – whether this coup attempt was real (and organized by Gulen with the aid of the C.I.A.) or a kind of false flag operation engineered by Erdogan himself – akin to the Nazi claims of Polish aggression in 1939 or the Japanese rationalization for attacking Manchuria – one thing remains crystal clear: that Erdogan had extensive and detailed plans to put in motion a purge of what can only be described as monumental proportions. If the opponents have not yet been slaughtered yet a la the mass murder of Armenians from 1914-1915, still, the pretext is quite similar: a fifth column to Turkish national survival is perceived. An intensive vilifying media campaign is unleashed and then organized popular fascist-like support is organized targeting to so-called “unfaithful” population.

An old and very ugly story that has been repeated with genocidal results – so it is with all forms of narrow ethnic nationalism. A hundred years ago the “internal enemy” were largely Christian Armenians, with their ties to Russia. But the internal enemy has shifted to different trends within Islam, be it the Kurds, who the Turks employed a century ago to help murder Armenians, or now the followers of Fetullah Gulen. It is ironic how similar the tactics of the Islamic Tayyik Erdogan are to those employed a century ago by the secular Mustapha Kemal Atatürk, whose very underwear were considered sacred enough to be on display in an Ankara museum. Both leaned on a very narrow, fascist-like, appeal for Turkish ethnic unity – with all that means/meant for those who do not fit the bill, to achieve their political goals.


It remains to be seen how far Erdogan’s repression, with very little formal protest from Washington – more worried about the fate of its Incirlik military base than the fate of Turkish civil society – will go. Nor did Washington have much to say about the pre-failed-coup head-lopping. It is rather curious…or maybe it isn’t….that as Turkey lurches rightward, embracing a form of narrow ethnic nationalism that would have resulted in an involuntary erection from any early 20th century Japanese militarist, Italian enthusiast of Mussolini, goose-stepping Nazi SS trainee, that elsewhere in the Middle East, among Washington’s close allies, similar “cultural developments” are unfolding. As in the 1930s, narrow nationalism and regional expansion (granted within certain limits) seems to be the order of the day.

In Tel Aviv and Riyad – two longtime strategic allies by the way, leading politicians consider two maps. One is the map on their walls, that defines their legally defined boundaries. The other is their “hard on” maps, in their drawers, which they take out and drool over. For the Israelis the latter includes portions of Southern Syria near its already annexed Golan Heights, for the Saudis it includes, Yemen, Bahrein and more than likely portions of Iraq near its undefined border with that country. For the Turks, expansionism includes portions of Syria lost from Turkey in the 1920s and greater influence in Turkish speaking Central Asia.


The outlines of a new direction in the geopolitics of Turkey’s new situation are taking shape. While Turkey will remain, broadly speaking within the framework of NATO and the U.S. security “community” – breaking with it would be rather difficult – it will, within certain limits, pursue a more narrow, and hard-bitten nationalist regional policy as it seeks an element of rapprochement with regional allies, Russia, Iran and perhaps even Syria, policies which are bound to increase tensions, manageable but difficult all the same with the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. Turkey’s role in isolating both Russia and Iran have been undermined from the blow-back from what is increasingly becoming Obama’s Syria debacle.

Erdogan’s version of an increasingly narrowly focused fascist-like Turkish nationalism is in crisis. It is a mess, largely of his own making. With the Europe Union, having rejected Turkey’s bid to “turn west,” and be more fully integrated into European economic and political institutions, Turkey finds itself with little choice but to “turning east,” to seek its economic and political fortunes in its former territories of the Ottoman Empire which it ruled for nearly six centuries. Turkish cultural and economic expansion to the East is growing. Its expansionist appetite to increase its territorial base matches well with that of its long-time close regional ally (despite a few recent set backs in the relationship) Israel. It was in part this Turkish expansionist appetite combined with old grievances, and frankly, a not quite extinguished colonial attitude towards Syria, that were factors in Turkey’s coordination with the United States over its Syrian policy – ie, the goal of which was to overthrow the Assad government in Syria and fragment the country into smaller units, part of which would come under Turkish control.

Let us be clear – without Turkish complicity, its military, political and financial support of the Islamic radicals trying to tear Syria apart, the Syrian conflict would have never reached the tragic point it has come to. Most of the logical support for those rebels comes through Turkish access to northern Syria with the active support of the Erdogan government. For Turkey to win control of the Syrian territories bordering it would be both to further isolate and neutralize (in part) its Kurdish problem, and to expand geographically into a region it had previously controlled. But Turkey’s role in the U.S. led and inspired effort to overthrow the government of Syria backfired. Syria has not gone the way of Iraq and Libya, Assad, the British-trained ophthalmologist whom a number of former colleagues characterized as “an idiot” proved to have more staying power – and a broader domestic base – than Saddam Hussein and Moamar Khadaffi. Maybe he’s not so dumb?

Although mauled, Syria is not collapsing and indications are that it will survive. The Turkish venture in Syria has triggered a mammoth humanitarian crisis in Turkey itself, with 2.2 million Syrian refugees with nowhere to go. The Syrian Kurds have proven to be among the more resilient of Assad’s military allies with their growing strength spilling over into the Turkish population itself. Turkey was the economic beneficiary of the U.S.-European economic sanctions against Iran. Now that that particular form of economic warfare has (temporarily?) ended, investment flows and trade deals are blithely skipping Ankara for Teheran.

All this is to say that in the past year Turkey has entered into an all-round crisis.

Erdogan’s response has been to gird in his loins, purge everyone in sight from left to right, revive a form of Turkish nationalism bordering on primitive tribalism that has already marred Turkish history with a stain it will never overcome, the genocide against the Armenians. There is a foreign policy shift also taking place, albeit within certain well defined parameters, or “red lines” as my friend Ibrahim Kazerooni perceptively notes in our joint radio programs (KGNU Radio “Hemispheres”).

“Facts on the ground” have forced Turkey to realign its foreign policy towards Syria, and its regional alliances to be more open to cooperation with Russia, Iran and ultimately, probably, to recognize Assad’s Syria. The Obama Administration, whose Syrian policy has all but gone down the tubes, can do little but helplessly watch the shift occur…but then when it comes to Syria, as the basketball expression puts it “the ball is no longer in Washington’s court.” Is it?

What is the fate of Esra Mungan, Professor Kivanç, Dr. Muzaffar Kaya, arrested in March, 2016 and who have not been heard of since? As the saying goes, one can only hope for the best…but fear for the worst.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ambassador K P Fabian permalink
    August 16, 2016 8:01 am

    Please see my assessment at

  2. August 18, 2016 9:35 am

    Question: Would anyone attempt to stage a coup that does not, in its earliest stages, include a takeover of radio and television stations, newspapers, and trunk lines for browsers, email and social media? Those actions are usually the backbone of a coup, more so now than ever before.

    • August 18, 2016 11:34 am

      Answer: I dunno. Elaboration: You’re on to something. The whole coup attempt thing is fishy in a number of ways, the points you make being, all “on the mark.” Like Hitler’s claims that Germany was “attacked by the Poles”…this Turkish coup story takes some time to distill fact from fiction and while I wouldn’t put anything past the C.I.A and company, the more I study the coup, the less they seem the responsible party….this time. Still, at this point it’s all hypothesis. That said, a certain picture of Erdogan is forming in my mind – the supreme opportunist, willing to go to any length to retain, expand his power base. Right now he seems to be moving in the direction of a tactical alliance with Iran and Russia visavis Syria. Some deal seems to be working out along the lines, the Turks will close their border to the Islamic crazies they’ve been letting pass through these past five years in exchange for Russia opposing any attempt to set up some kind of Kurdish state in N. Syria (which would naturally link to the Kurds in Turkey).. We’ll see. To more important things – your back. Hope it is improving. Was thinking of you this morning after sawing up a cord of wood…and now cannot move. Would like to see you…one of the few people from the old academic shithole I actually miss. Oh well..

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