Tag: Turkey

Will Turkey’s referendum mark the end of democracy and the birth of ‘Erdoğanistan’?

Turkey is approaching a critical juncture in its long-term political development. Irrespective of the outcome, the country’s April 16 referendum, which proposes changing the constitution to concentrate power in the hands of the president, heralds a new political era.

Many signs seem to point to a narrow victory for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in his attempt to establish an executive presidency a la Turca, but the result is not a foregone conclusion.

Should Erdoğan’s suggested reforms be rejected, Turkey’s near future would be defined by its president’s next move. Without a formal shift in constitutional structure, Erdoğan could resort to nefarious means to consolidate his grip on power. Alternatively, given his long-standing ambition to establish what we call a “constitutional Erdoğanistan”, he might simply pause briefly before attempting a second bite at the cherry.

Turkey on the brink

Turkey has a strong parliamentary system with a prime minister as its head. The referendum proposes to abolish the role of prime minister and replace it with an executive presidency. A major shift like this is something that has only happened a handful of times since the republic was founded in 1923 according to a renowned historian of Turkey, Erik J. Zürcher.

The country’s political system has already undergone significant economic, social, and political changes since the Justice and Development Party (known by its Turkish acronym AKP) came to power in 2002. The AKP was an eager champion of legal reforms relating to Turkey’s EU candidacy and accession starting in 2004. And in September 2010, it successfully shepherded changes aimed at bringing the constitution into compliance with EU standards.

Still, were the Turkish people to vote “yes” on April 16, the changes would be fundamental and irreversible. The referendum proposes 18 amendments that will abolish nearly 70 years of multiparty parliamentary government, moving Turkey away from the core norms of a pluralist, parliamentary state of law by reducing the separation of powers and the checks and balances system, among other changes.

Erdoğan’s aim is to transform the country into a majoritarian authoritarian system centered on one man. What Turks are risking is nothing less than “democide” – the scholarly term for voting to abolish democracy itself.

A critical juncture

Since the birth of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey’s parliament, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, has been the place where national sovereignty resides.

In the early republican period, it was dominated by the party of modern Turkey’s revered founding father, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (1881-1938). Since the transition from single-party rule to a multiparty democracy in 1946, the parliament has been the crucial institution in the political life of the country.

President Atatürk leaving the Grand National Assembly of Turkey in 1930.

Elected lawmakers have long shared power with strong guardians of institutions such as the military, the judiciary, and Turkey’s government bureaucracy – all Kemalist-dominated – in a kind of hybrid political system not unlike that of contemporary Iran, Thailand, Pakistan and Myanmar.

The parliament has also served as the site where governments have been formed, thrown out of office and restricted.

As the scholar of Turkish constitutional development Ergün Özbudun notes, “even at the height of Atatürk’s prestige, the Assembly rejected a proposal to give the President of the Republic the power to dissolve the Assembly”.

Under Erdoğan, the AKP has worked through the parliament to legitimize its rule. By 2010, it had vanquished the last Kemalist bastions within the state thanks to successive landslide electoral victories and a now-defunct strategic alliance with the Gülenists (members of a Muslim-organised educational community who follow the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen).

Since then, Turkey has been a weak electoral democracy, with the power of the National Assembly slowly eroding. A “yes” victory in the April 16 referendum could permanently diminish the authority of this venerable institution.

An unbalanced campaign

The authoritarian style Erdoğan has in mind for the future was already on display during the referendum campaign itself.

Erdoğan’s tone has been aggressively nationalistic and populist. He compared European countries’ criticism of the campaign with the attempts of the Allies to dismember Turkey at the end of the first world war, for instance. And he promised to reinstate the death penalty after the referendum.

In the first ten days of March, the government allocated television airtime to various parties to promote their positions on the referendum. The president saw 53.5 hours in newscasts, and the governing AKP was granted 83.

Meanwhile, the Republican People’s Party (Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi), the main opposition, which draws its support primarily from Turkey’s secular and Alevi minorities, was allocated 17 hours, while the less influential Nationalist Movement Party (Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi) enjoyed just 14.5 hours. The Peoples’ Democratic Party, (Halkların Demokratik Partisi), a pro-minority party that is advocating a “no” vote, saw only 33 minutes of news coverage.

A March 2017 report from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe confirms that state officials have leaned heavily on the scales to support the “yes” campaign. By occupying the bully pulpit of the presidency, with all the resources of the government along with privileged access to media at its disposal, the “yes” group has had an overwhelming campaign advantage.

A ‘yes’ vote means more Erdoğan

If Erdoğan prevails in the April 16 referendum, the plan is to hold presidential and general elections together in 2019. Were he to win these, Erdoğan would be eligible to serve two additional five-year terms, allowing him to stay in office until 2029. His previous terms in office (2003-2014) would not count toward the two-term limit.

As president, by current law, Erdoğan had to resign from his party and officially assume a politically neutral stance.

But under the new rules, he could rejoin the AKP, which, according to opposition parties, will abolish any chance of impartiality. The proposed amendments also make it harder to remove the president from office.

The proposed changes will grant the president wide-ranging powers to issue binding decrees with the force of law. And even though these will be subject to judicial review, the president himself will appoint most of the judiciary.

With his new presidential powers, Erdoğan would also be enabled to indefinitely extend the current state of emergency that was put into effect following the failed July 2016 coup against him.

A ‘no’ vote

Despite the uneven playing field, surveys show that the referendum race is tight, and Erdoğan could be defeated.

Currently, both the opposition Republican People’s Party and pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party are advocating a “no” vote in the referendum. DİSK, a left-wing trade union body, and numerous other NGOs and civil society groups have also come out against the proposed changes.

A narrow loss on April 16 would be a blow to Erdoğan, but it is unlikely to kill his ambition. He is expected to simply regroup and try again, including by renewing the state of emergency that gives him wide-ranging authority to continue bypassing parliament. Such a move would allow for continued purges of those deemed in opposition to the government, including Kurdish groups and Gülenists.

This is Erdoğan’s modus operandi: to foment and instrumentalise social crises to centralize power. After the 2013 Gezi park protests against urban development in Istanbul developed into a wider movement against the regime, for example, the government severely clamped down on individual rights, including media freedom. Erdoğan claimed that Gezi protesters and their supporters were a threat to the national will.

The president used a similar argument to banish the Gülen movement, deemed a terrorist organisation since May 2016.

Thus, rather than stabilize the situation, a “no” vote is likely to induce further volatility in Turkey. Erdoğan can be expected to quickly introduce a new package of “constitutional reforms” – a move that would require either a national crisis or a new “enemy of the Turkish people” as a pretext.

Rhetorical attacks on Europe are likely to intensify. Earlier this year, charges of Nazism leveled against Germany, and criticism of interference in campaign rallies by Austria and the Netherlands, were widely cheered in Turkey, giving Erdoğan every incentive to double down on the EU animosity if he loses his referendum.

In a sense, no matter who prevails on April 16, Erdoğan may remain undefeated.

Simon P. Watmough, Postdoctoral research associate, European University Institute and Ahmet Erdi Öztürk, Research Assistant, Université de Strasbourg

Photo Credit: Kremlin.ru

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The latest bump in the road of Turkey’s quest to join the EU: European ultra-nationalism

The rift between Turkey and Europe is growing. From a Turkish perspective, Ankara’s long and winding quest to join the European Union, which began in 1987, has never been less likely than it is today.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has invoked Nazism in his criticism of his European counterparts. And a recent dispute between the Turkish government and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte over Turkish ministers campaigning in Rotterdam cast a shadow over the March 15 Netherlands election.

This is only the latest in a long history of self-defeating conflicts between Turkey and EU leaders. But this time around, the diplomatic crisis goes beyond European anti-AKP sentiments toward Turkey’s ruling party. It relates also to social and political transformations underway in the EU itself.

Turkey’s EU bid

After positive early signs, Turkey’s EU accession process stalled in 2006 when an additional protocol, related to the division of Cyprus, was implemented to the opening of Turkey’s ports and airports to trade with Cyprus.

Cyprus was partitioned in 1974, divided between the Greek Cypriots and the Turkish Cypriots. Greek Cypriots have been integrated into the EU since 2004 as the sole representatives of the whole island, while Turks there live under isolation in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara.

In 2011, the EU Commission proposed a positive agenda for Turkey’s accession to the EU. But thanks to growing European fatigue over the enlargement of the bloc and the numerous economic and political crises it was then facing, the process again quickly ground to a halt.

By 2015 Turkey’s EU process had been revitalized while refugee migration to the EU was on the rise. However, in 2016 the EU Parliament proposed a temporary freeze on talks.

Loss of faith

Today’s EU is not as same as the one Turkey first sought to join. For Turkey, the European ideal has deteriorated as some European countries have increasingly embraced xenophobia, islamophobia, and anti-immigration sentiments.

All of these issues – which are in one way or another associated with Turkey – are discussed in the context of Turkish accession to the block. Europeans are also raising concerns about Turkey, especially after the state of emergency declared in the aftermath of the July 15 failed coup attempt.

The EU is of the view that some of the measures taken during the state of emergency pose problems for freedom of expression and rule of law in Turkey. Europe wonders whether the country is experiencing a democratic backlash.

Meanwhile, Europe’s weak response after the failed coup was disturbing for Turkish policy-makers and for President Erdoğan.

Many European leaders stayed silent during the event and in its immediate aftermath. EU officials’ later condemnation of the attempted coup was ambiguous, and they waited two months to visit Ankara.

Additionally, the failure of some EU countries to uphold European values in the context of the Arab Spring and the refugee crisis have exposed the limits of EU’s capacity to adapt itself to shifting domestic, regional and global conditions.

Turkish leaders have said several times that the refugee problem is a humanitarian crisis, warning that the EU perception of refugees as a security threat is not a solution.

Although it is true that the EU turned its eyes to the refugee crisis only when it started to be directly affected, some European countries, namely Germany, were the first to open their borders and integrate refugees. Therefore the main problem is not about a common European anti-refugee sentiment but rather the lack of a jointly undertaken, systematic European response to a crisis that’s banging up against the union’s door.

The image of a declining EU weakened by its institutions and threatened with post-Brexit disintegration seems to be growing in Turkey.

The “other” and ultra-nationalism in Europe

For Turks, this is further complicated by European foreign policy that has long perceived Turkey as the “other” in its backyard.

During the period of positive relations in the late 1990s and early 2000s, this stance was largely publicly disavowed. But more recently some EU leaders have used Turkey as a political instrument, building their strong rejection of its possible accession to the EU on this view.

The domestic and regional challeges Turkey faces – and more importantly the EU’s perception of them – have hampered the possibility of building a stable relationship with the EU and creating a new roadmap for Turkey to join the European bloc.

Another piece to this “otherness” puzzle is the rise of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, from the National Front in France and Alternative for Germany to the Freedom Party in the Netherlands.

Opposing Turkish membership of the EU has become a useful posture for some European capitals in mustering domestic support in the age of right-wing populism. Take, for example, the dense debates on Turkey’s EU campaign during Brexit vote, and the Dutch and Austrian elections.

This anti-Turkey discourse is likely to reinforce European ultra-nationalist parties in terms of obtaining more votes from the euro-sceptical, anti-Turkey electorate. But catering to nationalist instincts also makes it harder for the EU to defend its democratic credentials and to cast judgment on Turkey’s democracy.

Finally, it is damaging the institutional and formal character of relations between a candidate country, Turkey, and an international organization, the EU. A political schism among member states prevents the EU from acting as a unified, coherent potential partner.

Countries that, like Turkey, are engaging in institutional relations with the EU, must now deal with many different leaders, all of whom represent not only the EU but also the various domestic shifts in their own countries.

A rational common ground

Derailing Turkey’s accession process is counterproductive. It distances Turkish society from European societies and cuts off existing societal, historical and cultural ties between the two sides. Today, what remains of the progressive relation between the EU and Turkey is a loose network of institutions.

This does not serve the interest of either party. It is in the direct interest of Turkey to put the progressive relations of the past back on track and draw a renewed framework based on the shared value of democracy within the EU bloc. Both parties should also boost mutual understanding by searching the possibilities of further inclusion, rather than by playing on xenophobia and exclusion.

In the short term, a renewed Turkey-EU cooperation could help Europe to manage better the consequences of the Syrian crisis.

For the EU, then, a stable, democratic and prosperous Turkey in its neighborhood acts as something of a guarantee to its members’ own economic development, security, and democracy.

And in the long term, perhaps more importantly, such rational cooperation would bring new life to the belief in internationalism in an era marked by the rise of nationalism and populism.

Emel Parlar Dal, Associate Professor of International Relations, Marmara University; Ali Murat Kurşun, Research Assistant, Marmara University, and Hakan Mehmetcik, Assistant researcher, Marmara University

Photo Credit: Middle East Monitor

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Will Dutch immigrant voters fight back at the ballot box?

The recent dispute between Turkish President Recip Tayepp Erdoğan and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, concerning Rutte’s refusal to allow Turkish ministers to campaign abroad, has only made life worse for Turks in the Netherlands.

People from a Turkish background in the Netherlands are being forced to take a side in an unpalatable diplomatic dispute in which they have nothing to win and everything to lose. Erdoğan uses them to strengthen his position ahead of a referendum to increase his own powers, and Dutch politicians use them to show voters how tough they are on immigrants refusing to integrate.

The person who benefits, of course, is Geert Wilders: the most famous man in Dutch politics right now.

Wilders has had an enormous influence on the Dutch political debate. His harsh anti-immigrant and anti-Islam rhetoric has completely transformed the Dutch integration debate. Because of Wilders, all mainstream parties have shifted to the right on immigration, Islam and integration.

This means that Dutch voters with an immigrant background, especially Muslims, are increasingly less represented by secular progressive parties, such as the Social Democrats and the Greens, which have traditionally received the most support from immigrant voters.

An open system for minority representation

Almost 20% of the Dutch population is from a first-generation or second-generation immigrant background; around 12%, or two million people, have a “non-Western” background. This group is the main target of Wilders and his Freedom Party.

The Dutch political system of proportionality generally favors the representation of minorities in terms of gender, ethnicity and social background. Elections in the Netherlands use a party list system with pure proportionality, very low thresholds, and the ability to cast preferential votes.

Party lists compete in elections. The order of candidates is decided upon by each party, though voters can select a listed candidate who will independently earn a seat upon getting enough votes. Parties only need about 60,000 votes (in a country of almost 17 million) to win one of 150 seats in the Dutch parliament.

As a result of this open political system, the percentage of politicians with an immigrant background in the Dutch parliament is among the highest in Europe.

The birth of DENK

As mainstream parties moved further to the right in order to defend themselves against Wilders, these politicians and their constituencies have become increasingly frustrated.

Two politicians of Turkish descent, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, who have strong ties to the conservative religious part of the Turkish-Dutch community, left the Social Democratic Party after intense internal fights about the extent to which Turkish religious organizations are an obstacle for integration and should be monitored and perhaps even forbidden. Kuzu and Öztürk started their own party, DENK, meaning “think” in Dutch and “equality” in Turkish.

Our research shows support for secular progressive parties among immigrant communities has decreased rapidly, and their trust and interest in Dutch politics has further decreased, affecting participation rates significantly.

Studies of young people from an immigrant background illustrate that an ever-increasing proportion of this group does not identify with Dutch society or politics any more, feels frustrated and stigmatized and believes that their interests are not represented by the mainstream political parties.

DENK is projected to win two seats in parliament. Considering that the conservative Turkish-Dutch community is relatively large, well-organized and politically active, this does not seem unreasonable.

But whether this will signal a process of emancipation of voters with an immigrant background, and whether DENK will be able to represent their interest successfully, remains an open question.

Although the main message of the DENK party program is “connection”, their campaign strategy so far is to aggressively attack political rivals (especially if these rivals have an immigrant background themselves), along with the media and Wilders’s supporters.

In the short term, this tactic may fulfill their constituents’ need to voice anger and frustration. But in the long term it will further fuel polarization and possibly segregation, two things that are certainly not in the interest of this group.

The future of Dutch integration

Voters with an immigrant background both need to believe that it still matters to fight for something and to receive some commitment from and connection to their country of settlement, our studies illustrate.

Current political debates tend to focus whether immigrants are assimilating to Dutch culture. This approach portrays a connection with migrants’ origin country as a problem, leaving no room for dual identification. It will only lead to further polarization and segregation rather than create a political discourse that allows everyone to participate.

Who will take the first step to build bridges between the Netherlands’ different groups and constituencies? The longer we wait, the more difficult it will get.

Floris Vermeulen, Associate Professor, University of Amsterdam and Maria Kranendonk, Phd Candidate, University of Amsterdam

Photo Credit: Xinhuanet.com

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Terrorism, the far-right and Russian meddling: the biggest threats to Europe in 2017

The European Union endured a series of political shocks and strains in 2016 that threatened to tear the bloc apart: an ongoing migration crisis; the United Kingdom’s vote in June to exit the union; lackluster growth and stubbornly high unemployment in the euro zone; terrorist attacks that killed and injured scores; and surging support for populist and anti-EU political parties.

Against this recent history, there can be no doubt that 2017 will be one of the most important and fateful years in the EU’s six-decade history.

There are five acute dangers facing the EU in 2017. These are not isolated challenges. Instead, they are intertwined and mutually reinforcing. Addressing one of them would be a formidable test. That all five are happening simultaneously presents an unparalleled trial for European leaders.

The rise of the far-right

Voters in France, the Netherlands, Germany, and possibly Italy will vote in national elections in 2017. Populist, anti-EU parties are expected to perform strongly in all four contests.

France’s presidential election is likely to pit former prime minister François Fillon and nominee of the center-right Republicans against Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, in the second round of voting in May.

Marine Le Pen- Far Right leader in France-Wikipedia

Support for the National Front has surged in recent years. In the 2012 presidential election, Le Pen received less than 18% of the vote, failing to make it to the second round runoff. But recent polls show her receiving as much as 24% of the vote in the first round this year.

While polls suggest that a Le Pen victory is unlikely (current forecasts show Fillon getting 65% of the votes to Le Pen’s 35% in the second round), following a year of electoral surprises — from Brexit to Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – it would be foolish to write Le Pen off completely.

In the Netherlands, polls show the anti-immigration, anti-EU Party for Freedom in the lead ahead of parliamentary elections in March. Party leader Geert Wilders proposes the closure of mosques in the Netherlands, as well as a Dutch exit from the EU.

Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel-Wikipedia

In Germany, for the first time since the end of World War II, the far-right could make substantial electoral gains in parliamentary elections, likely to be held in September. The Alternative for Germany party is currently polling around 13%, virtually ensuring that it will clear the 5% threshold and attain representation in Germany’s federal parliament.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel remains popular, and her Christian Democratic Union party leads comfortably in the polls. But her decision to allow more than a million migrants into Germany last year has been attacked from all sides of the political spectrum, and her position could be weakened further if there are additional terror attacks in Germany, following the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market in December 2016, which killed 12 people.


The Christmas market attack in Berlin showed that Europe remains vulnerable to terrorist violence.

According to Europol, the EU’s law enforcement agency, 151 people died from terrorist attacks in the EU in 2015, and a further 360 were injured. The same year, there were more than 200 failed, foiled, or completed terrorist attacks in EU member states, and more than 1,000 people were arrested on terrorism-related charges.


Berlin Terror Attack- The Duran

These trends continued in 2016. Scores have been killed and hundreds more injured in attacks in Belgium, France, and Germany. French police arrested five Islamic State operatives in Strasbourg and Marseilles suspected of planning an “imminent” attack.

Europol estimates that as many as 5,000 Europeans have gone to fight in Syria or Iraq, and hundreds have returned home. Many others across Europe have become radicalized online or by local recruiters. They have formed terrorist cells across the continent, lying dormant but capable of planning, financing, and executing deadly attacks.

As a result, many Europeans fear that terrorist violence in their homelands has become the new normal.

Watch out for Russia

Tensions between the West and Russia are at their highest level since the end of the Cold War. Over the past several years, Russia has emerged as a much more aggressive and unpredictable power, invading and annexing Crimea in 2014 and supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

Russian Troops in Crimea-ScrapeTV

Since 2012, Russia has been rapidly modernising its military, making it a much more formidable threat to European and NATO defense planners. Russia is building and expanding bases in the Arctic, has made big increases to its military budget, conducted several large-scale military exercises that simulate war with NATO, deployed its military in foreign conflicts such as Syria, stationed nuclear weapons in the Kaliningrad region bordering Poland and Lithuania, and upgraded its military equipment. Russian fighter planes also regularly enter or skirt the airspace of NATO countries.

European and NATO military planners worry that Russia might seek to expand its power and influence in the Baltic states. A recent war-gaming exercise from the Rand Corporation showed that Russia could seize one of the Baltic capitals within 60 hours.

Following revelations that Russia had interfered in this year’s US presidential election, signs indicate that it may try to do the same in European elections this year. In an attempt to destabilize or disorient Europe, Russia is pursuing a disinformation and propaganda campaign intended to bolster politicians and political parties sympathetic to Russia and its interests in Eastern Europe.

Russia has also cultivated a number of fringe or extremist political groups across Europe, such as the far-right Jobbik party in Hungary and the National Front in France.

A new migration crisis

Following a controversial agreement reached between the EU and Turkey last March, the number of migrants reaching Europe dropped dramatically in 2016. According to the UN refugee agency, 359,000 migrants and refugees reached Europe in 2016 — down from more than a million in 2015 – with Italy now the top destination.

Refugee Camp in Europe – Bambinoides

But the EU deal with Turkey appears on the verge of collapse. EU-Turkish relations have become increasingly strained following July’s failed coup attempt in Turkey, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s subsequent crackdown on dissent. Following a non-binding vote by the European Parliament in November to suspend EU membership negotiations with Turkey, Erdoğan threatened to cancel the agreement and let the flow of migrants into Europe resume.

The United Nations estimates that 2.8 million refugees are currently in Turkey. A return of migration on the scale of 2015 would put significant stress on Europe’s system of open internal borders, threatening to permanently undo one of the EU’s signature achievements.

A teetering euro-zone

For almost a decade now, the euro-zone has been in a near-permanent state of crisis. Far from ushering in a period of greater political unity and economic integration in Europe, the euro has introduced new grievances and inequalities among the countries that use it.

Fed up with austerity, tepid economic growth, and an unemployment rate of just below 10% in the euro-zone, which is much higher for young workers, many Europeans have become disenchanted with the single currency. Across the 19 countries that use the euro, only 56% of respondents in a recent poll said it was “a good thing” for their country, down five points from last year. Only 41% of Italians polled thought the euro was good for Italy.

The European Commission’s Autumn 2016 economic forecast warned that “uncertainties and vulnerabilities” in the European economy remain “large and widespread”. Greece is in a veritable economic depression. Its economy has shrunk by more than a quarter since 2010 and 23% of its available workforce is unemployed. Italy’s economy is smaller than it was a decade ago, and its national debt stands at more than 130% of GDP.

Italian banks — hobbled by €360 billion of bad loans and a weak national economy — are in desperate need of recapitalization. Monte dei Paschi di Siena, Italy’s third biggest bank, flunked the European stress test on financial institutions in July, ranking last of the 51 banks tested.

The failed referendum on constitutional reforms in December 2016 presented a further dose of economic and political uncertainty for the euro-zone’s third-biggest economy. Italy’s anti-establishment, anti-euro Five Star Movement is currently polling neck-and-neck with the Democratic Party, still led by Matteo Renzi, who resigned as prime minister after the referendum.

Five Star Movement Co-Founder and leader, Beppe Grillo – Polikracia

Parliamentary elections could be held as early this year. The Five Star Movement advocates a non-binding national referendum to determine whether Italy should abandon the euro.

One country’s exit from the euro-zone could set in motion an unraveling of the entire currency area. The political fallout from the economic pain and uncertainty that would result would be immense.

End of an era?

The European project of political and economic integration has been one the greatest achievements in modern history. For decades, it has brought peace and prosperity to a continent shattered by cycles of war, economic turmoil, and political extremism.

But European integration has never proceeded in a linear manner. For much of its history, the EU has stumbled through one crisis after another. As Jean Monnet, one of the founding fathers of European integration, said, “I have always believed that Europe would be built through crises and that it would be the sum of their solutions.”

But Monnet also said that solutions had to be intelligently proposed and skillfully applied. That is the challenge that confronts European leaders today: can they apply the right solutions to Europe’s present troubles? They must show citizens that the EU can help address the current difficulties, rather than making them worse. Otherwise, the very future of the union may be at risk.

The Conversation

Richard Maher -Research Fellow, Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies

Photo Credits: The Moderate Voice

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This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Assassination of the Russian ambassador is a big loss for Turkey

The latest victim of Turkey’s climate of insecurity is Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey.

Karlov was assassinated Dec. 19 by a 22-year-old police officer. Disguised as a security guard in a black suit, the gunman stood behind Karlov as the ambassador was speaking in an art gallery just yards from the U.S. embassy.

“Don’t forget Aleppo! Don’t forget Syria!” he shouted as he pulled the trigger.

Karlov’s death will have consequences reaching far beyond Ankara.

Following the terrorist attack at Istanbul’s Ataturk airport in June 2016, I explained Turkey’s foreign policy sins and argued that Turkey’s row with Russia over Syria was one of them.

Let’s consider what the ambassador’s assassination could mean for ongoing efforts by Turkey and Russia to repair that strained relationship.

What happens in Syria

To understand the latest tensions between Turkey and Russia, look to war-torn Syria, where the two countries have clashed.

Since the start of the Syrian unrest in 2011, Turkey has supported a gamut of rebel elements ranging from the Free Syrian Army to Jabhat al-Nusra to – allegedly – the Islamic State to topple Bashar al-Assad. At that time, the Syrian president was on good terms with then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Their relations soured when Assad began to brutally repress civilian demonstrators inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings elsewhere.

Russia, on the other hand, still supports the Assad regime. So do Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah. The conflict is a sectarian clash, but it is also an opportunity for regional powerhouse Russia to assert control. With the help of Iran, Syria and the lack of a U.S. presence, Russia is exploiting the power vacuum in the neighborhood.

When Turkey downed a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015, it was not only an attempt to make space for the rebels on the ground but also a show of force to undercut Russian influence in Turkey’s backyard.

Predictably, Turkey’s belligerence backfired. Imposing bans on trade and tourism, Putin delivered a powerful punch to Turkey’s economy. Paralyzed in Syria and constrained by the economic situation at home, President Erdogan formally apologized to the Russian leader in June.

The thawing of the crisis continued in July. When factions in the Turkish military staged a coup to remove Erdogan, the Russian leader was the first to condemn the failed takeover attempt and stand beside his counterpart. Meanwhile, the U.S. and Europe were urging restraint and respect for the rights of those involved in the coup attempt. Not the best way to support Turkish democracy, Erdogan scolded. Putin did not have to lift a finger to pull Turkey closer.

The apology also cleared the way for Turkey’s ground offensive, Operation Euphrates Shield, which began in August. The operation has removed IS from Turkey’s border region with Syria. It also seeks to stop the Syrian Kurds from expanding their presence in northern Syria, where Turkey’s security interests lie.

Russia’s shadow on the operation remains undeniable, however. Erdogan said on Nov. 29 that Turkey entered Syria to “end Assad’s rule.” He revised his remarks two days later, stressing that “the aim of the Euphrates Shield operation is against terror, not against anyone or any country.” Reports suggest that it was the Kremlin’s reaction that caused the change in rhetoric.

Russia continues to tip the balance in favor of Assad. Aleppo, which was once Syria’s biggest city, has long been a haven for the rebels. The ongoing battle for the city took a new turn in November when the Russian-backed Syrian offensive began to purge the rebel forces. Turkey, a long-time supporter of the rebels, is currently part of a triad with Russia and Iran to bring the conflict to an end. Yet its role is currently limited to assisting efforts to evacuate civilians and rebels from the devastated city.

The gunman’s final words before he was shot on the scene suggest he was outraged by this Russian devastation in Syria. We may never know if he was a lone wolf influenced by the recent public outcry in Turkey regarding the carnage in Aleppo.

The fallout

Andrey Karlov’s death is more than a glaring display of Turkey’s incapacitated security and intelligence apparatus. It is a diplomatic fiasco that the Russian administration will make sure to milk to the fullest. This does not mean that Putin will publicly shame and denigrate Turkey. Rather, Russia will use this fiasco to diminish Turkey’s influence in Syria, especially in the context of post-war transition. For all intents and purposes, the sun has set on Turkey’s Syria policy.

Both leaders agree that this was an act of “provocation” by forces upset about their warm relationship. Whether words are as powerful as deeds is yet to be seen.

Russia has already sent a group to Turkey to investigate Karlov’s assassination. Turkey suspects that the assailant was a Gulenist – a follower of the U.S.-based cleric, Fethullah Gulen, who is also believed to have orchestrated the July coup. Incidentally, Turkey has also claimed since July that it was a Gulenist officer who downed the Russian jet in November 2015.

Russia could not care less who’s who. Turkey, on the other hand, does.

If the Turkish investigation concludes that the assailant had ties to Gulen, this would be the government’s golden ticket. Since the July coup, Turkish officials have been asking the U.S. to extradite the cleric. Finding a link between Gulen and the gunman could provide Turkey with the much-needed impetus to make it happen. Considering the Putin-friendly actors in the incoming Trump administration like secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, we might be closer to seeing Gulen on an Ankara-bound flight than we have ever been.


-Assistant Professor of Political Science and Global Studies, University of Illinois at Springfield

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Photo credit: Any Gator


This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

What’s in store for Syria after Aleppo falls? Russia and Iran will decide

Let us be clear. The imminent victory in Syria’s largest city of Bashar al-Assad’s government – and of its essential supporters, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah – is built on war crimes.

For months, hundreds of thousands of people in opposition-held areas of Syria’s largest city have been besieged and bombed. Thousands have been killed. Men of fighting age seized in recent days by pro-Assad forces face conscription into the Syrian military or detention and torture. Scores of residents reportedly executed in the 24 hours before a ceasefire was announced on December 13.

Rebels and civilians will get some respite if yesterday’s agreement for their removal from Aleppo to other areas in northwest Syria is implemented. But this is only the end of one chapter: the war goes on, as it has since the uprising against Assad in March 2011.

Opposition forces are still holding out in some areas near Damascus and in southern Syria; more importantly, they control much of Syria’s northwest, including almost all of Idlib Province and parts of Hama, Aleppo, and Homs provinces. A joint Turkish-rebel offensive has captured a significant part of northern Syria. The so-called Islamic State (IS) is far from gone: only days before Aleppo really began to give way, it recaptured large parts of the historic city of Palmyra from the Assad regime. Syria’s Kurds have their own areas, especially in the north-east of the country.

In this multi-sided conflict, will there be more Aleppos? Or will there finally be a period without quite as many war crimes and bloodshed?

Assad doesn’t have the answer, however much he claims control of his “Syrian nation”. The US has little more to contribute, now effectively sidelined after years of indecision and a misguided decision to follow Moscow’s lead. As things stand, much of the future of Syria is at the mercy of Russia and Iran.

Assad’s bluster

In a recent interview with the regime-friendly Syrian newspaper, al-Watan, Assad was clear that he still aims for a total victory, with Aleppo as “a huge step towards this end”. But while he’d never admit as much, he simply doesn’t have the resources to achieve such a thing.

The sudden fall of Palmyra to IS made clear once again that Assad’s depleted military is now little more than a figurehead for the real forces propping him up: Russian air power, Iranian commanders and troops, Hezbollah fighters, Palestinian brigades, Iranian-trained Iraqi and Afghan militia, and Syrian paramilitary units.

Even if he conscripts men captured in Aleppo, Assad will remain a military dependent rather than a force to be reckoned with. And with the Syrian economy only kept from total collapse by international sponsors, it is unclear whether the president’s supposedly loyal public will keep supporting him post-conquest.

So what Assad can’t or won’t acknowledge is that the future of his regime depends on others in Syria. As has been the political and military reality for months, Russia is in the driving seat.

Leading them on

Having saved Assad with aerial intervention in September 2015, Vladimir Putin and his inner circle decided to go further and erode the opposition and rebels with thousands of airstrikes, advanced weapons, and special forces – all helped along by Iran and Hezbollah.

Despite a seriously tense relationship with Turkey, which shot down a Russian fighter plane at the end of 2015 – Putin recently achieved a political breakthrough in talks with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, defusing tension over the downed jet and apparently agreeing to pursue their Syrian aims on different fronts.

Russia played for time by leading the US on a snipe-hunt for a “political resolution” that would never occur. By early December 2016, Moscow even agreed to a US-Russian proposal to evacuate those in opposition-held Aleppo districts – but then pulled back when the pro-Assad forces advanced further into the areas concerned.

With Aleppo effectively crushed, Moscow’s focus turns to opposition-held Idlib Province. Does it back Assad’s fervent desire to wipe out the rebels, with the prospects of weeks and possibly months of bombing, killing of civilians, and further displacement? Or does it settle for what has been achieved, allowing the opposition an enclave in Syria just as the Kurds are (at least for now) allowed theirs?

That decision probably hasn’t been made yet – and what’s more, not even Russia is in full control. Russia may hold sway in the air, but Iran remains the key military player on the ground. It began training Syria’s militias back in 2012, and then put in its own forces and Iranian-led foreign units. It’s invested far more than Russia since the Syrian uprising began in 2011, sinking billions into preserving the regime. It has lost more than a dozen commanders and many hundreds of troops, not to mention the large uncounted casualties among the Iraqis and Afghans whom it leads.

Iran also consistently goes further than Russia in its private and public support for Assad. In autumn 2015, when it appeared Moscow might accept a settlement in which the regime remained but the president went, senior Iranian officials made clear that Assad’s departure was a red line which could not be crossed. And when the prospect of conquering Aleppo finally arose in 2016, Iran pressed Moscow not to settle for a deal which would leave the opposition in any part of the city.

This will go on. Because of its huge investment so far and its stake in Syria as a secure corridor to Lebanon and Hezbollah, Iran may not be willing to tolerate any opposition area in Syria whatsoever. And that means it will almost certainly insist on pushing into Idlib, despite the inevitable financial, military and human cost.

To complicate things further, another major player is waiting to see what comes next: Turkey.

Balancing acts

Beyond the drama over Aleppo city, Turkey has gained more ground than anyone in Syria in the last few months. Having reconciled with Putin, an emboldened Erdoğan duly intervened.

Along with Syrian rebel groups, his forces of territory – and, far from incidentally, a “safe zone” for civilians along the Turkish-Syrian border and into Aleppo Province. That offensive is now trying to drive IS from its last major position in the area, the town of al-Bab.

A longtime backer of the opposition and rebels, Turkey has traded in its unqualified support for the anti-regime forces for a balancing with Moscow and Tehran. In exchange for accepting their advances, Erdoğan now has his area to push back his main foe – Syria’s Kurds – and to exercise leverage over the future of the country.

All the while, conspicuous by their near-total absence are the Americans. Once the ultimate power throughout the Middle East, they are sidelined. Secretary of State John Kerry, desperate to claim success before the Obama administration humiliatingly gives way to Trump’s, continues his quixotic pursuit of a resolution.

Even after months of Russian manipulation ended in the carnage of Aleppo rather than that outcome, Kerry may well try once more. Meanwhile, President Obama’s UN Ambassador, Samantha Power, continues her rhetorical offensive against Moscow and the Assad regime.

This is all little more than a performance. The US’s marginality was evident in the December 13 ceasefire announcement. Kerry was nowhere to be seen; instead, it was Turkish intelligence services and the Russian military that reached an agreement. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov summed it up: “It is easier for Moscow to reach deal with Turkey on Aleppo than with the US.”

The US has been reduced to a policy of trying to exert influence by supporting the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in an offensive against IS in northern Syria. That offers some traction in a corner of the Syrian conflict, satisfying Washington’s rhetoric that IS – rather than the Assad regime – is the primary concern. But it is only a corner: the US is now on the bench.

Although Aleppo may be important, that stage is far bigger. With Russia, Iran, and Turkey as well as Assad all invested in the outcome, the catastrophe is all set to continue.

-Professor of International Politics, University of Birmingham

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Photo credit: middle east monitor



This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.