Turkey, once a pillar of Mideast stability, looks increasingly like a slow-motion truck crash. What makes this crisis so tragic is that not very long ago Turkey was entering a new age of social harmony and economic development.
Today, both are up in smoke as this week’s bloody bombing in Ankara that killed 99 people showed. America’s ham-handed policies in the Mideast have set the entire region ablaze from Syria to South Sudan and Libya. Turkey sits right on top of the huge mess, licked by the flames of nationalist and political conflagrations and now beset by 2 million Syrian refugees.
As Saddam Hussein predicted, George W. Bush’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq opened the gates of hell. Attempts by Washington to overthrow Syria’s Alawite regime – a natural US ally - have destroyed large parts of that once lovely nation and produced the worst human disaster since the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in the late 1940’s and 1967.
Washington’s bull-in-a-China-shop behavior in the fragile Mideast came just as the Turkish government of Recep Erdogan had presided over a decade of stunning economic growth for Turkey, pushed the intrusive armed forces back to their barracks, and achieved friendly relations with neighbors. No Turkish leader in modern history had achieved so much.
Equally important, the Erdogan government was on the verge of making a final accommodation with Turkey’s always restive Kurds – up to 20% of the population of 75 million – that would have recognized many new rights of the “people of the mountains.”
This was a huge achievement. I covered the bloody guerilla war on eastern Anatolia between Turkey’s police and armed forces, and tough Kurdish guerillas of the Marxist-Stalinist PKK movement. By 1990, some 40,000 had died in the fighting that showed no hope of resolution.
Thanks to patient diplomacy and difficult concessions, PM Erdogan’s Islamist –Lite AK Party managed to reach tentative peace accords with the PKK and its jailed leader, Abdullah Ocalan in spite of fierce resistance from Turkey’s generals, violent semi-fascist nationalist groups and equally dangerous leftist revolutionaries.
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Peace with the Kurds went down the drain when the US intensified the war in Syria and began openly arming and financing Syria’s and Iraq’s Kurds. Various Kurdish groups became involved in the Syria fighting against the Assad regime in Damascus and against the Islamic State – which had been created by Saudi Arabia and the CIA to attack Shia regimes. Turkey struck back, and the war with the Kurds resumed. A decade of patient work kaput.
Turkey’s prime minister – and now president – Erdogan had led his nation since 2003 with hardly a misstep. Then came two disastrous decisions. First, Erdogan dared criticize Israel for its brutal treatment of Palestinians and killing of nine Turks on a naval rescue mission to Gaza. America’s media, led by the pro-Israel Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Fox News have made Erdogan a prime target for savage criticism.
Second, for murky reasons, Erdogan developed a hatred for Syria’s leader, Bashar Assad, and allowed Turkey to serve as a conduit and primary supply base for all sorts of anti-Assad rebels, most notably the so-called Islamic State. Most Turks were opposed to getting involved in the Syrian quagmire. Doing so unleashed the Kurdish genii and alienated neighbor Russia.
Turkey’s blunder into the Syrian War has enraged the restive military, which has long sought to oust Erdogan and return the nation to Ataturkism, the far-right political creed of Turkey’s anti-Muslim oligarchs, urban and academic elite. Now, Turkey’s long repressed violent leftists are stirring trouble in the cities. Fear is growing that Turkey might return to its pre-Erdogan days of bombings, street violence, and assassinations – all against a background of hyperinflation, soaring unemployment and hostile relations with its neighbors.
One hears rumbles of a Turkish conflict with Armenia over its conflict with Turkish ally, Azerbaijan. Greece is nervous and moving closer to Israel. Oil and gas finds in the eastern Mediterranean are heightening tensions.
With the biggest and best armed forces in the region save Israel, Turkey may yet intervene in Syria – which used, before 1918, to be part of the Ottoman Empire.
The US often accuses Erdogan of wanting to be an Ottoman Sultan, yet is pushing him to use his army in Syria.