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Muslim Press Interview With Rob Prince: Post “Coup” Turkey

October 4, 2016


Interview with Rob Prince, Senior Lecturer (Retired) University of Denver Korbel School of International Studies  by Muslim Press. September 30, 2016

Mohammad Homaeefar, Muslim Press: Where do you think the post-coup Turkey is headed?

Rob Prince: To give the situation a regional context of sorts, my starting point for the events in Turkey, the “so-called” coup, is the deteriorating situation of U.S.-Turkish (and other) allies fighting in Syria in the hopes of bringing down the government of Hafez Assad. Since the aid to Assad from Iran, Russia and Hezbollah has stepped up, the situation on the ground has increasingly isolated the so-called rebels (some of them are rebels, most of them are outside mercenaries from Tunisia, Libya, ISIS, etc). This has created a political crisis for Turkey which has been one of the main, if not the main conduit for troops, supplies arms to the rebels. As the Syrian situation deteriorated, events boomeranged in Turkey itself – the bombings, etc.

Add to this that Turkey’s economic situation, which had greatly benefited from the US-European sanctions against Iran. Now that those sanctions have been, at least in part lifted, investment flows are dramatically shifting away from Turkey to Iran creating economic tensions for Ankara. As the combination of the political and economic tensions continued to mount, Turkey’s President Erdogan found himself increasingly cornered and in need of some kind of dramatic action. So like the Saudis and Israelis of late, Erdogan’s Turkey is falling back on a kind of xenophobic nationalism as a way to consolidate his base of support.

The short answer, now that some of the dust has cleared and it is possible to evaluate the “tango” of President Erdogan’s maneuvers more soberly, I would say, that despite appearance, Post-coup Turkey is essentially, with a few minor adjustments on the same course it was regionally prior to the coup. Little has changed in terms of regional policy. There was a brief visit by Vice President Joe Biden after which, probably not accidentally, Turkish forces entered northern Syria. It is possible that to some degree Erdogan has improved economic relations with Russia and Iran – his natural regional trading partners, but politically, deep fissures remain over Syria policy. Whatever, these improved Turkish-Russian-Iranian relations are something far less than a strategic shift. In fact there is none, none at all.

In terms of the Turkish domestic situation of course, what the world is seeing is one of the most extensive and nasty purges in the entire post World War II period, most of whose seamier, more oppressive aspects have disappeared from the mainstream media here in the United States and Europe. 80,000 (some reports say 100,000) people purged from their jobs, tens of thousands arrested, hundreds already executed and, after the first week or so, hardly a peek from the New York Times or CBS, CNN. Curious, no?

To elaborate: Turkey remains an important U.S. – NATO ally committed to supporting the over-arching U.S. strategic policy in the Middle East. That has not and probably will not change. Despite Erdogan’s political gymnastics – protests at the NATO – Incirlek military base, publicly accusing U.S. (C.I.A.) complicity in a so-called coup attempt in late August, Erdogan’s trips to Russia and Iran, it is surprising how little in Turkish policy has actually changed. Impressive even, how little has changed!

Mohammad Homaeefar, Muslim Press: To what extent has Turkey distanced itself from Washington since the failed coup?

Rob Prince: As suggested above, the answer to this question is: hardly at all, despite appearances.

There is a “move” in American basketball, where the player appears to go one way when he (or she) actually intends to go the other way – faking to the left while moving to the right. That is essentially what I make out Erdogan’s apparent open criticisms of Washington. True enough, it is unusual to see an American ally – one of long-standing at that – publicly and harshly criticize Washington, going so far as to blame a well-known (and hardly respected) American institution, the Central Intelligence Agency, for helping plot the “so-called coup.”

I am sure it gave some members of Congress and the U.S. military upset stomachs when the idea of closing down the Incirlek military base, with its arsenal of nuclear weapons. They did take notice in Washington. But there really wasn’t that much concern, evidenced by whom the Obama Administration sent to Turkey both to get an explanation and to offer Mr. Erdogan a bone (a go-ahead to invade N. Syria)…Vice President Joe Biden. No disrespect to the vice president, but his weight and influence in the administration is lighter than a feather.

I would add here, that the tensions between the United States and its regional allies in the Middle East and North Africa are “par for the course.” The personal relations, tensions if you like, between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu could not be greater, no love lost between the two as Netanyahu brazenly tries to intervene in the U.S. congressional discussion over the Iran deal. But did that effect the overall relations between the U.S. and Israel? The recent announcement of the largest U.S. aid package to Israel in American history – some $38 billion over ten years suggests that however much Obama and Netanyahu might dislike or even despise one another that the strategic relations between the two countries remain as strong as ever.

The same goes for U.S.- Saudi relations. The Saudi royal family is livid over the Obama Administration’s insistence on pushing ahead with the Iran nuclear deal (The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) but this has had no – absolutely no impact on U.S. Saudi arms purchases and Obama Administration’s support for the Saudi cruel war against Yemen.

So viewed from this context, how different are Turkish – U.S. tensions? Not very different at all from where I am sitting. In fact, we are in a new era of sorts where in exchange for giving regional allies a bit of what might be called “horizontal latitude,” a Washington nod for the expression of a narrow, expansionist nationalism in all three countries (Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia), these allies will continue to support the overall U.S. strategic goals. Any notion that Turkey has somehow crossed the “red lines” dictated by Washington and is seeking new strategic alliances with the Russians, Iranians are utter nonsense.

Mohammad Homaeefar, Muslim Press: How has Turkey’s relations with countries in the region changed?

Rob Prince: There is a slight change within the overall continued strategic partnership with Washington. For some time now Turkey has hoped to extend its influence and trade relations both west and east, west with the European Union and east, especially with the now independent republics with strong Turkic-speaking populations of Central Asia. As is well-known, Turkey’s efforts to enter the European Union, which could have been mutually beneficial to both parties, have been stymied at every turn. It is hard to conclude that it is anything but anti-Islamic racism on the part of Turkey’s European partners that has led to the roadblock here.

And so to a certain degree, Turkey has, economically anyhow, turned east, which makes sense from a regional perspective. In the end Iran, Turkey, Russia, Iraq, Syria share a certain geographic space, not shared either by Washington at all nor by most of Turkey’s European partners, other than a few Balkan states. But there are limits to this economic cooperation…and Turkey finds itself caught in the middle of regional “pipeline politics.”

In the same light, Turkey’s recent improved relations with Netanyahu’s Israel should not come as much of a surprise, if a surprise at all. As you recalled those relationships were publicly strained in 2010, when a Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara, attempting to bring medical supplies to besieged Palestinians in Gaza, was attacked by Israeli commandos killing ten Turkish citizens aboard (one of whom had dual citizenship with the US). At that time, Erdogan trying to act as the Muslim vanguard in support of Palestinian rights, got his hands burnt, although he did gain some regional prestige. There was talk of Turkey breaking relations with Israel, of another attempted shipment, etc. But the fact of the matter is that despite the political media ping-pong in which the two sides threw insults and threats at one another, on the more fundamental level of strategic, military and economic contacts, virtually nothing changed. And so here they are six years later, “making nice” to one another, patching things up. No surprise here, really.

Mohammad Homaeefar, Muslim Press: Do you think Erdogan will change his position regarding the Syrian conflict? (why/why not?)

Rob Prince: No, not at all. As is well-known, Turkey has territorial ambitions in Syria dating back to the 1920s when sections of the old Ottoman Empire were torn away from Istanbul and given to Syria and Iraq. Those territorial disputes were long settled, or should have been. But like most xenophobic nationalists, Erdogan has two maps concerning Turkey’s border with Syria: there is the map on the wall which represents borders based on international law and agreements, and then there is “the map in his drawer,” a map of an expansionist Turkey that includes northern Syria. (The Israelis and Saudis have similar “maps in the drawer” by the way).

The collapse of the Cold War, and the changing national boundaries and instability in both Central Asia and the Middle East has whetted Turkish expansionist appetite. Erdogan probably spends as much time looking at the “map in his drawer” as he does praying. Turkish expansionist thinking coincides with Washington’s plan to dismember Syria (as shown in the Doha Protocols and in the recent and failed U.S. diplomatic initiatives over Syria rejected by the Russians, Iranians and Syrians themselves). As the military situation on the ground for the so-called rebels, Turkish allies, continued to deteriorate and as the Kurds continued to make progress in recouping territory from ISIS and like elements, Turkey was forced to move.

With very minor alterations, Turkey continues to be a steadfast ally of the United States in Syria, nothing short of that. That it has been forced to close the flow of arms, money into Syria, or cut back on these activities, is simply a result of the shifting military situation on the ground. It has nothing to do with a Turkish shift in its alliances or its attempts to bring down the Assad government, a prospect which becomes dimmer each day.

Mohammad Homaeefar, Muslim Press: What’s your take on Erdogan’s crackdown on his critics in recent months? Has he gained what he wanted?

Rob Prince: Erdogan’s crackdown is one of the most massive violations of human rights in the modern era, the full extent of which, as noted above, remains to be seen. As for the causes of it, I admit that I don’t know. There is much confusion and not much evidence to support the two main hypotheses – ie, that it was a C.I.A. operation in collusion with the Gulen Movement or on the other hand, that it was actually something fabricated by Erdogan himself, a “false-flag” operation, a pretext for a massive purge.

I admit that at this point I simply do not know who or what is behind the coup, but expect, as has happened elsewhere, that in time the whole dirty story will become known, and known in some detail. So rather than waste my time and the time of your readers in developing the arguments for both cases, I prefer to look at the consequences of the so-called coup. And here several rather salient points emerge rather quickly:

  1. One does not execute a purge of this magnitude without long and careful planning, without preparing the forces involved (the police) to jump into action and quickly. This purge has been long in the making
  1. Prior to the coup-purge, Erdogan spent more than a year, eliminating or neutralizing his critics and opponents in the left of the political spectrum, human rights groups concerned with the fate of Turkey’s Kurds, journalists, professors, etc. So he has already largely eliminated his opposition “to the left” of him, prior to “the big sweep.” After the coup, his targets tended to come from the political center and right, including the many supporters of the Gulen Movement in Turkey as is well-known.
  1. The domestic purge and orchestrated demonstrations (like those at the Incirlek base) were meant to give his supporters the appearance of being radical nationalists, to consolidate his base, eliminate all opposition so that he can in the future maneuver regionally precisely in the manner he has done. I think it is a mistake to view Erdogan as either some kind of Muslim or even Turkish nationalist. He is little more than a supremely narcissistic demagogue who has no policy, beyond staying in power. With this coup, in the short run, he has won the day, in the long run, my sense is he has just placed the first nail in his political coffin for as powerful as position might seem at present.

Mohammad Homaeefar, Muslim Press: Did Fetullah Gulen play a role in the attempted coup? (if so, how?). What about the Obama administration and the CIA?

As mentioned above, at this point it is impossible (for me) to tell who was behind the coup, nor the role that Fetullah Gulen played, or that of the C.I.A. My commentary on the American role at this point: I would be surprised if at this venture with Syria, Iraq and Libya such a mess, messes largely caused by U.S. military intervention (or U.S. directed intervention by others), that the United States, the C.I.A. would want to overthrow Erdogan. Believe me, the more serious analysts in Washington have his number. Not all of American analysts are as stupid as Donald Trump. Those at the high levels of the State Department, C.I.A. and other intelligence agencies are well-informed and savvy (unfortunately). They are thinking long-term about U.S. interests in the region…and for some time in the future, regardless of how the Syrian drama plays out, Washington needs a stable (and not necessarily democratic) Turkey, in the same way it needs, Israel, the Saudis, Egypt and more and more in N. Africa, Algeria – all with “strong records” of human rights violations.

But when did the violation of human rights, Obama’s rhetoric aside, ever have much to do with U.S. Middle East policy?





2 Comments leave one →
  1. margy stewart permalink
    October 6, 2016 9:52 pm

    Very informative & interesting!

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