Turkish Invasion of Northern Syria

Podcast available here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/48-turkish-invasion-in-syria

With President Donald Trump’s decision to unilaterally pull out US military forces from the northeast of Syria, which is held by the Syrian Kurds, including the YPG (Kurdish militia) and the SDF (Kurdish military units), Turkey saw its path cleared to invade that northern part of the country. Trump sees himself delivering on his campaign promise to end US involvement in foreign wars. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to occupy a 30 km deep strip along the Turkish-Syrian border to (1) drive out the Kurdish population, (2) cut communication links between SDF/ YPG and Turkish-Kurdish militia called PKK, which the Turkish government regards as terrorist organization (while PKK regards itself as righteous protectors of Kurdish interests and Kurdish independence), and (3) resettle the over 3.5 million Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey.

The Syrian Kurds perceive the US retreat as a betrayal. Since Turkish troops and pro-Turkish Syrian militias have pounded northern Syria with superior military might, especially artillery, tanks and airplanes, and the Kurds lack anti-tank weapons or air cover, they have cut a deal with the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, who had previously relinquished control over northeast Syria for the last few years, having had to concentrate his military near the capital to fight ISIS. Syria Kurdistan, or Rojava, had about five years of effective control over northeast Syria after seizing ISIS-controlled land with US military support. With the Syrian government pushing toward the Turkish-Syrian border, Rojava can no longer persist as an independent Kurdish region, similar to the arrangement of the autonomous Kurdish province in northern Iraq. The price of cooperating with the Syrian government is that nearly all the territory that was given up to other factions are returned back to the Syrian government.

Erdogan announced that despite the Syrian government intervention he is going to continue with the operation, even if that comes at the heavy cost of human life. It comes also at the cost of international isolation. The first challenge is that with a potential confrontation with the Syrian Army, which is backed by Iran and Russia, the Turks would come up against their erstwhile allies in Moscow and Tehran. Russia and Turkey are exchanging military communication and have avoided a direct clash. Russia informally approved of the Turkish invasion in Syria, because Russia has no attachment to the Syrian Kurds, who have sided with the US in the struggle against ISIS. From President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, the only legitimate government in Syria is Assad’s Damascus government. With the potential showdown between the Syrian/ Russian and Turkish armies, Russia will turn toward more skepticism against the Turkish invasion. Iran has already condemned the Turkish invasion.

President Trump has realized that the US withdrawal would lead to a Turkish invasion and by wiping out YPG/ SDF, the west is essentially giving up control of Syria to Russia and Iran. Trump issued a series of tweets to warn Turkey of “not doing anything out of the ordinary” without specifying what he meant by that. The Republican Party in the Senate led by Lindsey Graham and the rest of the foreign policy establishment in the US is up in arms about Trump’s withdrawal order. Graham claims that the betrayal of the Syrian Kurdish allies is unacceptable, but the real concern of the foreign policy establishment is the surrender of Syria to the Iranian and Russian sphere of influence. The US is announcing sanctions against Turkish officials.

The EU plans a more meek arms embargo on Turkey, which is a NATO ally. The EU has every reason to be self-restrained in their action, because Erdogan has been threatening to open the border to Greece and Bulgaria, thus releasing over 3 million Syrian refugees back to Europe, thus reviving the anti-refugee hysteria of 2015-2016. The refugee wave to Europe stopped not with the stabilization of the political situation in Syria, but with a bilateral deal in which the EU promised Turkey 6 billion euros in payment in return for keeping the border closed. There has been a slight uptick in refugees to Greece, but there is no doubt that many more may be waiting. The Europeans are, thus, trapped in their desire to help the Syrian Kurds but their complete unwillingness to risk the floodgates of refugees opening up again.

A more reasonable fear is that in the chaos of the Turkish invasion, jailed ISIS fighters in northeast Syria are released and restore terrorist cells that restore the destructive caliphate. All the western and Russian efforts to contain ISIS could at least partially be undone. The release of the ISIS fighters is backfiring on Turkey as well, because the lack of political stability in Syria will keep many of the refugees in Turkey, an outcome Erdogan wants to avoid. It also raises the specter of terrorist attacks inside Turkey.

Given the high risk of the Turkish invasion backfiring on Turkey both regarding the threat of ISIS and its international isolation, why did Erdogan decide to launch the invasion anyway? Turkish domestic developments play a role here. First, there have long been tensions between the Turkish state and the Turkish Kurds (about 18% of the population), some of which support the PKK militia that support violence against Turkey on behalf of independence from Turkey, an unacceptable position to Turkey. In the early years of Erdogan’s rule, the Kurdish-Turkish relations actually improved because his Islamist-conservative AKP promised infrastructure and jobs for all Turks including Kurds, and many Kurds voted for the AKP, which explains their continued electoral success. Since the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK was weakened, and Erdogan’s administration took the pains to negotiate a ceasefire treaty with the PKK from 2012 to 2015.

But in 2015, the Turkish parliamentary election put the pro-Kurdish left-wing HDP into parliament, crossing the very high 10% threshold of getting into parliament. The AKP lost its parliamentary majority for the first time, and Erdogan decided to crack down in the southeast, the Kurdish heartland in Turkey, thus ending the peace process with the PKK and resulting in the deaths of Turkish soldiers and many more Kurdish fighters and civilians. This was a very costly political move, because it meant that no Kurd could ever contemplate voting for the AKP, and the AKP turned on the Turkish nationalist MHP to run the government in Ankara.

Given the worsening relations with the Turkish Kurds, Erdogan perceived the Syrian Kurds as a grave threat, because the YPG could provide material support to wage uprising inside Turkey. Capturing the northeast corridor of Syria would allow Turkey to weaken the Kurds, and with the recapture of Kurdish regions by the Syrian army, Turkey might just be getting its way.

Elements within the Turkish military that (supposedly) stood close to the preacher Fetullah Gulen, who is in exile in the US, plotted a military coup against Erdogan in 2016. Military coups to avoid Islamist rule is not uncommon in Turkish history, having occurred four times previously. But in 2016, the military no longer was so united, and the loyalist wing of the military stopped the coup, thus consolidating Erdogan’s power. Using the failed coup as a pretext, Erdogan ordered the dismissal of all Gulenist judges, military officers and civil servants, which removed 5% of the state apparatus from their jobs. The thorough purge surely strengthened Erdogan, but also convinced him that the military would have to be used to avoid future plots against him. By intensifying the crackdown in the Kurdish regions in the southeast and now the invasion in Syria, the Turkish military would be engaged in continuous fighting, thus keeping them loyal to the government.

The Turkish economy has been in recession since the beginning of 2019, revealing the underlying weakness of Turkey’s economic model, which is not built on innovative products and export competitiveness, but rather capital imports that go toward fancy construction projects like new airports, roads and real estate. Whenever interest rates in the US rise, capital would flow out of the semi-peripheral economies like Turkey, which immediately puts a downward pressure on its economy and weaken the lira currency. Central banks usually react to a weakening currency by raising the interest rate, thus ensuring foreign investors keep their capital in the country. For Erdogan, raising the interest rate is complete anathema, and has been delayed until mid-2018, thus promoting capital flight. The Turkish government wants a low interest rate, so that the credit taps for real estate construction could keep flowing. Since 2012, the unemployment rate has been on an upward trend, hovering between 13 and 15% this year. Since 2018, the manufacturing index is below 50, which suggests shrinkage.

Realizing the economic headwinds and taking advantage of the wide-scale purges (including imprisonment of critical journalists and intellectuals), Erdogan promptly moved to push through a constitutional change to abolish the post of the prime minister and delegate that power to the president, himself. Erdogan promptly won the first election with the new constitution in 2018. But things went south for him since then. The March 2019 municipal elections in Istanbul led to the victory of Ekrem Imamoglu, a candidate of the opposition CHP, the Kemalist center-left, who have traditionally enjoyed about 25% of national voter support, primarily in the urban west coast, the so-called “white Turks” (as opposed to the pious, conservative “black Turks”). By that point the economy has been deteriorating, and enough people were fed up to put the CHP candidate into office. Erdogan could not tolerate the loss of his AKP candidate, Binali Yildirim, and convinced the election council to annul the election for “irregularities” because the vote margin was tight.

The repeat election in June increased the CHP’s margin of victory, which is an extreme blow to Erdogan, as he was Istanbul mayor himself in the 1990s before ascending to national power. Istanbul has nearly 20% of the Turkish population and is, thus, an important pillar for rule over Turkey, and is a reminder for Erdogan that his power is undermined. Imamoglu’s first action in office was to defund the Islamic centers that were lavished on by the AKP predecessors and to display the luxury cars of former AKP officials in a central parking lot, pointing to his predecessors’ wasteful spending. Imamoglu is also courting international connections and building sister-city relations, emphasizing his cosmopolitan intentions. While not directly condemning the Turkish invasion, he is “praying for peace”.

Another blow to Erdogan has been his former political allies’ defection, including Ahmet Davutoglu, Ali Babacan and Abdullah Gul, who form their own political party to challenge the AKP. The weakening Turkish economy and fraying political power of AKP embolden Erdogan to launch the military invasion in Syria to unite the country behind him, which is how Vladimir Putin began his reign: wage a war against Chechnya.

No one knows how the Syria conflict will continue, but the trend allows for some speculation. It is almost certain that the Syrian government and their Iranian and Russian backers are the winners. The Kurds are going to be weakened regardless as the fight with the superior Turkish forces will wear them out. ISIS could rise back up again.

Turkey’s advances will stall following a confrontation with the Syrian army, and their plans to build a “safe zone” (a quite Orwellian choice of words given the many deaths happening there) for Syrian refugees will fall through because (1) the Syrian Arabs have no ancestral ties with the Kurdish area and, more importantly, (2) shelling and fighting will deter any long-term settlement of any civilian population. One cannot know what will convince Erdogan to surrender Turkish claims to Syrian territory, as it is conceivable to maintain a long-term foothold in the regions they have now conquered and are about to conquer at minimal cost to Turkish troops, as most of the pro-Turkish fighters are Syrians. Expect the conflict to continue for a while.

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The Turkish Coup and Its Fallout

Published: July 2016

10 days ago a group of Islamist-inspired military generals and colonels took it upon themselves to overthrow the government of Turkey. The coup largely failed because only a core of maybe 1,000 officers participated in the coup, while enough others vowed loyalty to the current government. Erdogan, returning from a vacation in south Turkey, called on his supporters to take to the streets and prevent the tanks from taking the political buildings, largely with success. The police immediately cracked down and imprisoned the coup plotters. The coup collapsed in less than 24 hours, taking the lives of 200 people. The financial markets recover (RT 2016). But Erdogan’s pushback is harsh. He already fired more than 60,000 academics, judges, soldiers, prevented them from going abroad, and imprisoned and tortured thousands of soldiers suspected to have taken part in the coup against him (Mirror 2016; Mintpressnews 2016).

Erdogan and his followers suspect that a group of Islamists is responsible for the coup (Rodrik 2016). (But are all of the civil servants he fired part of that Islamist group? I think he also just wanted to get rid of any of his critics.) They are followers of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric, who has been in exile in the US since 1999 after falling out with the then-government. Ironically, Gulen was an ally of Erdogan’s AKP, itself considered to be moderate Islamist. Erdogan found the coalition with the Gulenists quite useful, because he wanted to get rid of the Kemalist-secularist establishment, which has pervaded the civil service in Turkey, and replace them with his Islamist loyalists. The secularists have now been largely purged.

But the Erdogan and Gulen faction were always separate power-bases, and the two fell out of favor, when Gulenist civil servants and prosecutors (appointed by Erdogan himself) decided to prosecute people close to Erdogan (including his son) on corruption charges in 2013. Erdogan took revenge by closing down Gulenist schools, which were previously supported by the government. He then went on a purge of Gulenists in the civil service with the exception of the military. There were plans to purge Gulenists from the military staff too, and they probably found out about these plans and decided to risk the coup to get rid of Erdogan before they got to the chopping block (NY Times 2016).

But who are the Gulenists? Gulen does not seem to have a coherent political philosophy, and his Islamic ideology is considered to be moderate Sufism (according to Wikipedia “Fethullah Gulen“). I don’t think that his political ideology is as important as the fact that he wants to influence Turkish politics and work to get rid of Erdogan, who himself has the desire to stay in power for as long as possible (prime minister from 2003 and president since 2014). Erdogan has replaced the quite independent-minded prime minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, with the loyalist Binali Yildrim. He is proposing to amend the constitution to transform Turkey from a largely parliamentary to a presidential republic, concentrating more power into his own hands. When it comes to policy initiatives, no one hears of the prime minister, only Erdogan.

But even worse than the presidential power grab is the decision to purge the Turkish civil service from Erdogan’s opponents. Erdogan cannot tolerate to have Gulenists in positions of power, who will rival his power in the future. But by carrying out such a massive Stalinist purge, he is also risking to undermine his country by depriving it of technically competent civil servants. Stalin decided to purge his foes (including many former friends) from the Red Army, who were then brutally crippled when the Nazis invaded them a couple of years later. The only capable general to emerge in the battle against Nazi Germany was Georgy Zhukov, one of the few survivors of Stalin’s purge. Most of the generals left in charge were political appointees and junior officers, who had little battle leadership experience, which partly explains why they were routed by the Germans in the initial years of the war. (The Soviets largely won the war with US material support and because they had much larger number of military reservists to call upon than the Germans.)

Turkey is not fighting an existential war with another country, but it is fighting quite a brutal war in the southeast of the country against the Kurdish PKK, who have long called for autonomy if not independence. Erdogan, therefore, needs military loyalty, which might have made him rather reluctant to vengefully purge the military from Gulenists. There are no longer any inhibitions to purge Gulenists since the coup.

But the war against the PKK is another strange twist of fate for Erdogan, which I think was foolish and unnecessary. Turkey had largely abandoned the war against the PKK and negotiate a peace settlement since 2012. Then in June 2015, the Kurdish-based HDP under the leadership of Selahattin Demirtas surpassed the 10% mark (quite a high threshold) to receive 80 seats (13%) in the parliamentary elections, thus diminishing Erdogans AKP majority. Some CHP (Kemalist, secularist) voters had apparently defected to HDP to weaken the AKP, which had been in power for over a decade (since 2002). Every normal democrat would consider this to be a win for democratic pluralism. Erdogan saw it as a threat to his power. He immediately called for new elections and suspended peace talks with the PKK, which was linked to the HDP. The November 2015 elections reduced HDP vote to about 10%, but they still had 59 MPs. These MPs now have their immunity revoked by Erdogan, which resulted in some physical clashes in the Turkish parliament, creating a sham of democratic institutions.

In July 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group detonated a bomb, killing 20 Turkish Kurds, who promptly accused Turkey of supporting ISIS. The PKK assassinated two Turkish police officers in revenge. Erdogan found his casus belli against the PKK. On the military front, Erdogan deployed 10,000 Turkish troops to the southeast of Turkey, pummeling the PKK stronghold around Diyarbakir, which turned into a ghost city following weeks and months of fighting between the military and the militants. PKK can at most be weakened but unlikely to be defeated, because the PKK is a guerrilla organization, hiding in the villages and in the mountains and striking Turkish troops (who are clearly visible with their military gear) when they are the most vulnerable.

The Kurds are also in an unusually strong position securing strongholds in neighboring Iraq and Syria, which has to do with the western military interventions in Iraq and Syria. The logic is as follows: under Bashar al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, the Kurds in Syria (10% of population) and Iraq (15% of population) could never have hoped to have their own province or state, and were subsequently oppressed and disadvantaged in resource access. Then the US invaded Iraq and the reward for backing the US in overthrowing Saddam was to get a province in the northeast of Iraq with the capital Arbil. The Kurds now had their autonomous province and their share of oil revenues.

That proved crucial when the Islamic State made gains in Syria and threatened the Rojava, the Syrian Kurds, in the northeast of Syria. Iraqi Kurdistan deployed the peshmerga (with US financing), crossing Turkish territory, i.e. receiving the explicit backing of Erdogan, who find Iraqi Kurds to be a valuable ally to rout Assad as opposed to Turkish Kurds, who threatened his power in Ankara. The Syrian Kurds held their ground, and whatever post-ISIS arrangement will be negotiated, the Syrian Kurds now have their own little territory. All that naturally gives a moral boost to Turkish Kurds, who are more inspired than ever to have regional autonomy since the resumption of military hostilities last year. Erdogan has played with fire unnecessarily, and would be better off to return to the negotiating table with the PKK.

What is going to happen next in Turkey? Will we see another military coup? It could very well be the case. But what is more likely over the short term is that the massive internal purge will result in a consolidation of power for Erdogan. After the failed coup against Hitler in July 1944, Hitler was as secure in power as he never had been and could now only be removed by complete Allied annihilation which happened in April 1945.

Erdoganis similarly interested in power consolidation. He never had a liking for free-roaming journalists, and was prompt to imprison 42 journalists, who apparently threaten “national security” (Reuters 2016). L’etat c’est moi- I am the state, proclaims Erdogan, which is not uncommon for authoritarian rulers. He calls for the reintroduction of the death penalty, which he cancelled in 2004 as a precondition to initiate talks on Turkish EU membership.

But that effort had been put on ice long ago. First, many European governments are wary to accept a majority Muslim nation into the EU. Second, European countries did not want to deal with the crisis in the Middle East, which they would have to engage in with Turkey in the EU, because it borders all the other crisis countries. Third, Erdogan sees himself in a strong position now that he controls the border to the EU, where most refugees are headed. The EU showered Turkey with concessions, primarily visa-free travel for Turkish nationals in the EU (not yet implemented) and 6 billion euros in EU subsidies to stem the refugee tide. EU appetite for more refugees is unlikely to be increased after the string of terrorist attacks in Belgium, France and Germany, some of which were carried out by refugees. Erdogan can cancel the refugee agreement with the EU anytime he wants to.

The EU will talk tough about the many human rights and freedom of speech rights violations by the Turkish government, but they really don’t have much leverage against their NATO partner. I would not find any EU intervention helpful either. Turkey is facing a constitutional crisis following Erdogan’s consolidation of political power, but the Turks have to figure out themselves how they want to manage the situation and restore democratic institutions, which is unlikely to happen with Erdogan (only 62 years old) at the helm. I wish them the best of luck.

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Turkey’s Path to Authoritarianism

Published: January 2019

With the June 2018 general elections in Turkey, President Erdogan could extend his power further by abolishing the post of prime minister and merging it with the presidency, an important provision of a narrowly approved popular referendum in 2017. He has already served as president since 2014 and as prime minister from 2003-2014. When asked by reporters about the wisdom of such a constitutional change, he compared his move to Adolf Hitler, who first became reichschancellor at the end of the Weimar era in 1933 before merging the presidency with the chancellorship after president Hindenburg’s death one year later. The Hitler comparison is certainly not mincing words. Dictatorial powers are undergirded by the imprisonment of hundreds of journalists deemed critical of his government, and the sacking of 160,000 officials like judges, academics, army and police officers, who were deemed too close to Fetullah Gulen, the imam and former Erdogan ally, who was accused of plotting the military coup against Erdogan in July 2016. To understand the descent into authoritarianism in Turkey, a look into its history is relevant.

Ancient History

Turkey takes up much of what is known as Anatolia, and is the site for what is among the oldest civilizations in the world. Anatolia is regarded as the center of origin for Indo-European languages. Gobekli Tepe in southeast Turkey is the site for the oldest known man-made religious structure, a temple that was built in 10,000 BC. Catalhoyuk is a large Neolithic and Chalcolithic settlement in southern Anatolia that dates back 7500 to 5700 BC. The earliest recorded inhabitants have been the Hattians and Hurrians dating back to 2300 BC. Indo-European Hittites came to occupy Anatolia around 2000 – 1700 BC forming the first empire in the region. The Phyrgians, another Indo-European people, replaced the Hittites around 1180BC, who were replaced by Cimmerians in the 7th century BC. Then came the Medes around 590BC.

Starting from 1200BC, Aeolian and ionian Greeks settled the western coast of Anatolia, founding cities like Miletus, Ephesus, Smyrna and Byzantium. Turkey was conquered by the Persian Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BC, but the Greek city states soon began to rebel against Persian rule, and beat back the Persians under Alexander the Great in 334 BC, which Hellenized most of the Middle East including Anatolia. The Roman Empire conquered Anatolia in the first century BC, who ended up deepening the Hellenization of Anatolia, resulting in the displacement of ancient Anatolian languages. The Parthians came to dominate eastern Anatolia throughout Roman occupation, thus challenging Roman rule around the edges of the empire.

When the Roman Empire split in two, Constantine I chose Byzantium (today’s Istanbul) as capital for the East Roman Empire in 295, which came to outlast the Western Roman Empire by about 1,000 years. The East Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire experienced challenges to its rule through the Sassanids, the successors to the Parthians. The greatest challenge to the Byzantines came with the Seljuk Turks, who descend from the Caspian and Aral seas and started migrating to eastern Anatolia in the tenth century. In 1071, the Seljuks defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikert, thus beginning a Turkification process, converting the Christian empire into Islam. The Seljuks themselves were defeated in 1243 by the Mongols, and the Mongols established Turkish principalities, which gradually evolved into the Ottoman Empire, which defeated Byzanz/ Constantinople in 1453. Further Ottoman conquests were successful like the capture of Algeria and Egypt in 1517. As the Ottoman Empire expanded the rising Portuguese sea power was perceived as a threat, even as Ottomans continued to benefit from flourishing trade with Asia. By the 1600s, the Ottomans established a presence in the Balkans, thus challenging the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Empire for supremacy.

The rising fortune of the Ottoman Empire ended in the late eighteenth century, when the newest military, technology and commercial advances increasingly came from Europe. The Tanzimat reforms of the nineteenth century, which was about copying many of the western advances failed to catch on. The empire shrank in size, military power and wealth, which was aggravated by a severe economic crisis and debt default in 1875. The declining fortune of the Ottoman Empire resulted in a rise of nationalist sentiment, undermining further the central power of the Empire. The sultanate was weakened by a 1913 coup d’etat, which placed the Empire under the control of the Three Pashas. The death knell of the empire came in World War I, when the Ottoman Empire joined the losing side of the war, the Central Powers. The Armenian genocide, which was about the resettlement and killing of millions of Armenians from Anatolia to Syria, happened throughout the war, and came from the resentment of Turkish-Muslim nationalists, who blamed the losing war effort on the “treacherous” Armenians. The rising nationalist spirit played out in the form of racial and ethnic hatred against the Other, as Turks increasingly believed that Anatolia is reserved for Turks. Nationalist sentiment was ironically reinforced by US president Wilson’s post World War I vision of national self-determination, which linked ethnic-national identity with a given territory, which resulted in forced resettlements of different populations. The victorious British and French enforced the 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which would have partitioned the Ottoman Empire successor states into British, French, Greek and Italian spheres of influence.

The Early Days of the Republic of Turkey, 1923-1950

Turkish nationalist sentiment was channeled by the successful military general, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who sought to overthrow the terms of the Treaty of Sevres and led the Turkish War of Independence from 1919 to 1923. After decisive victories over Greek troops, Ataturk was in a strong position to declare Turkish independence, which was formally recognized by the other powers in the Treaty of Lausanne. Most importantly, the establishment of the Republic of Turkey allowed Ataturk to abolish the Sultanate and the Ottoman Empire. Ataturk wanted nothing less but the abolition of the old ways, which means an adoption of western customs in civic, social and political life, the transfer of political power from the caliphate to the General Assembly (parliament), prime minister and president, the enforcement of laws by independent courts, the secularization of political life, the relegation of religion to the private sphere, the equalization of rights among men and women, the adoption of a Latinized script of Turkish to facilitate literacy (1928), the advancement of science, technology and education, religious instruction to be taught in Turkish (rather than old Arabic, which only priests understood), the Turkification of society (i.e. only speaking Turkish, having a Turkish name, giving Turkish names to cities) and the pursuit of state-controlled economic policies with the state controlling tobacco, cotton, banks and railways (the latter of which only built in the Turkish era).

Ataturk had also envisioned a multi-party democracy, even though between 1925 and 1945, Ataturk’s Republican People’s Party (CHP) was the only party represented in parliament. Ataturk, a military general, also gave enough power to the military to “preserve the constitution”, which later generals interpreted as allowing them to commit coup d’etats against democratically elected governments, including the CHP, which the generals later felt no longer represented Kemalism as they participated in competitive politics. Given the variety of political reforms, it is not surprising that every successor to Ataturk regards himself as following the spirit of Ataturk, even when political opponents and the military accuse those later leaders for falling away from Ataturk.

With regard to the economy, Turkey developed industrial capacity in the 1920s and 1930s, as Ataturk believed that without economic development it would be difficult to push through his social reforms. The question was how this could be done, especially with the backdrop of the Great Depression beginning in the late-1920s. Ataturk chose a state capitalist strategy, rolling out two five year plans beginning in 1929, and deciding strategically which industries to invest in. State investments created the railroads and aviation industry. One has to consider that free market policies would not have worked as the private-sector was either very small or non-existent and foreign investors are unwilling to invest in another country during the Great Depression. From the 1950s onward, however, the NATO integration of Turkey and the rise to leadership of more liberal leaders resulted in a classical capitalist development strategy.

Beginning in 1937, Ataturk’s health markedly deteriorated as his heavy alcohol consumption produced liver cirrhosis. There were two strong potential successors. One was the liberal economist Celal Bayar, who first became economy minister in 1921 and then prime minister in 1937. He advocated for a mixed economy and the nourishment of a private sector. The other was Ataturk’s right-hand man Ismet Inonu, who served as prime minister prior to stepping down in 1937. He was a statist, who believed in the Five-Year Plan and holding most of the land in state property. When Ataturk died in 1938, Inonu was elected as second president. Bayar initially stayed on as prime minister, but resigned his post in 1939, citing deep disagreements with Inonu on policy. Inonu’s major challenge as president was how to position Turkey during World War II. Having served as a general in the Ottoman era, Inonu was determined to keep Turkey neutral during the war, and only declared war on Nazi Germany in February 1945, when the end was near.

Multi-Party Rule, 1950-2002

The end of World War II resulted in increasing pressures on Turkey to adopt a multi-party democracy. In 1930, Ataturk had encouraged Ali Fethi Okyar to develop a second party next to CHP, but he disbanded the party again, claiming that it was too Islamist. In 1946, Inonu permitted the first democratic elections, but it was not a secret ballot, as there were onlookers in the voting booth ensuring that the voters elect the CHP. The first free and fair elections occurred in 1950, when the CHP was defeated by the economically liberal and socially conservative Democrat Party led by Adnan Menderes (1950-60), who became prime minister, while Celal Bayar became president. The transition to multi-party democracy happened in the context of an unstable party structure (unlike in other western countries, where the big parties, once founded, would endure) where military coups can result in the dissolution of an old party and the founding of new parties. Additionally, the center-left CHP could not dominate Turkish politics especially after the 1970s, as their regional stronghold in the richer portions of Thrace and the western seaboard of Anatolia provided an insufficient electoral basis for power.

Menderes reign meant a greater focus on the private sector, agricultural mechanization, and investments in transport, energy, education, health care, insurance and banking. The economy flourished with the aid of the US Marshall plan and the integration into NATO, the US-led security alliance. However, a backsliding economy in the mid-1950s resulted in Menderes hoping to distract from economic problems by orchestrating the Istanbul pogrom, which was about destroying properties of the Greek ethnic minorities. Even worse, as public criticism against his administration increased, he instituted press censorship, arrested journalists, suppressed opposing political parties and brought universities under his control, thus setting a precedent for Erdogan to emulate 60 years later. Toward the end of his reign, the government established the Commission of Inquiries, consisting of Democrat Party MPs, which was charged with the authority of judges to prosecute individuals, thus undermining the rule of law. These policies created substantial military resistance. A military junta at the level of colonels initiated a coup d’etat in 1960. Menderes and two high-level cabinet ministers were condemned to death and executed, while the president Bayar was sentenced to life imprisonment, although he was pardoned in 1966.

The military junta appointed general Cemal Gursel as prime minister and president. Remarkably, Gursel, who initially was skeptical of the coup and was put in charge by the coup plotters below his rank, was a very self-restrained leader, approving of freeing of imprisoned students and journalists, permitting previously banned newspapers. Gursel retained the presidency until sickness made him resign in 1966. He returned the premiership and cabinet to civilian control in 1961, which returned a relative majority to the CHP, as the Democrat Party was banned and later scooped up by the Justice Party (AP) (1961-81). The former president Inonu became prime minister, but could not hold onto power for long. The 1965 elections delivered an absolute majority to the AP under Suleyman Demirel. The AP made strong gains on the western coast, being supported by smallholder peasants, small commercial and industrial groups. Demirel was a political talent, who was discovered by Menderes, serving as high-level engineer in the 1950s.

The AP retained a relative majority until the 1973 elections, when the CHP attained a relative majority of one third of the vote. Henceforth, the political party system became increasingly splintered, forcing the two larger parties to form coalitions with the smaller parties and making government terms short. Demirel himself served as prime minister in five different time periods (1965-71, 1975-77, 1977-78, 1979-80, 1991-93). Bulent Ecevit, another political talent, who followed Inonu as chairman of the CHP in 1972, served many different times as prime minister (1974, 1977, 1978-1979, 1999-2002). Ecevit’s notable action has been the invasion of Cyprus in 1974 in order to “protect the Turkish Cypriots”. Both Ecevit and Demirel dominated state politics in the 1970s, usually with changing majorities and coalition partners. The 1977 elections delivered an even greater majority to the center-left CHP, but the lack of a coalition partner meant that the CHP lost a vote of confidence and had to return power to a coalition of right-wing parties led by the AP. The inability to provide a stable government, an economic crisis linked to rising inflation, and incommensurate interests between small and big business, business and landlords, rural and urban, resulted in increasing political violence, which organized in the extreme left and the extreme right and resulted in the deaths of thousands of people.

In 1980, the military had enough and carried out a coup under General Kenan Evren. The military junta banned all trade unions and political parties, suspended the constitution, abolished parliament and declared martial law. Ecevit and Demirel were both banned from running for office. These measures were much harsher than in the 1960 coup. The junta justified its act by invoking the preservation of the Kemalist tradition of state secularism and the unity of the nation. Economically, foreign investors were hopeful about the military takeover. The foreign exchange rate was floated, foreign investment was encouraged and a land reform project to help develop southeast Anatolia was implemented. General Evren led the National Security Council (1980-82) and then became president (1982-89). Evren’s takeover was condemned later on in his life, as a court sentenced him to lifetime imprisonment in 2014. He died barely a year later in a military hospital.

With regard to the 1980 coup, the junta did not grant civilian premiership until 1983, when Turgut Ozal from the Motherland Party became prime minister. Evren and the military leadership trusted Ozal, and appointed him deputy prime minister in 1980. He was the dominant figure in Turkish politics in the 1980s, and became the first partisan, non-military president since Celal Bayar in 1989. Ozal died four years into his presidency, presumably by poisoning, even though there never was a formal investigation into his death. His death was likely linked to his desire to negotiate a peace treaty with the PKK (which was founded in 1978), the Kurdish militia organization which commits terrorist attacks to create a Kurdish state in southeast Anatolia. After Ozal’s death in 1993, the peace talks with the PKK were put on ice. Ozal defined a strictly neoliberal policy, and cracked down on coal miner strikers, fitting in line with the broader neoliberal sentiment that began in the UK and US.

With the 1980 coup, the center-right regrouped with the Motherland Party (ANAP) and the True Path Party (DYP), which won elections until the mid-1990s, when the Welfare Party (RP) under Necmettin Erbakan, an explicitly Islamist Party began to win an election, thus setting the stage for the merger of the center-right (economic liberals) and the Islamist conservatives in the early-2000s. Actually, the Islamist political parties go back to the 1970s, when the National Salvation Party under Erbakan even served as junior coalition partner, but they were banned by the military in the 1980 coup. Islamist parties captured the sentiment of the rural countryside, which harbored suspicions against the western-oriented cosmopolitanism that Kemalism reflected, and generally benefited least from economic development.

For the center-left, the 1980 military coup was devastating. It could regroup as Populist Party (HP), Social Democracy Party (SODEP), the Social Democratic Populist Party (SHP) and the Democratic Left Party (DSP), but it rarely gained a relative majority in the elections, and only briefly had the prime minister post (Erdal Inonu in 1993) when Suleiman Demirel was elected president and the SHP held the seat warm for Tansu Ciller to succeed him, and when Ecevit led the DSP to a coalition government in 1999-2002. The SHP served as junior partner in a coalition government with the True Path Party in the early-1990s, but was soon supplanted by the re-founding of the CHP, which contested the 1995 elections. The CHP under Deniz Baykal was decimated in the 1999 election, as the left-wing voters switched to the DSP and the nationalist Kemalists switched to the MHP.

The 1990s marked unstable governments and the return of Demirel and Ecevit in the top positions, as a 1987 constitutional referendum allowed them to return to politics. Unlike Menderes who was executed in 1960, these two politicians were allowed to live. The 1991 elections returned Demirel as prime minister in a coalition with SHP, and after Ozal’s death the parliament appointed him as president, from which he retired when his term expired in 2000. Ecevit sat in jail after the 1980 coup, became the chairman of the DSP and re-entered parliament in 1991. By the late-1990s, the two center-right parties, ANAP and DYP, were a spent force, and the DSP became the biggest party in the 1999 elections with the nationalist MHP becoming the second largest party, which resulted in a DSP-MHP-ANAP coalition government led by Ecevit. Ecevit’s task was to stabilize the Turkish economy to make it amenable to join the EU, but a financial crash in 2001, the defection of DSP MPs, who did not like Ecevit’s rule, allegations of corruption and Ecevit’s poor health destabilized the government, resulting in snap elections in 2002. In the 2002 elections, the DSP was eliminated from parliament and the center-left became absorbed by the CHP, which thereafter never generated more than a quarter of the national vote, and mostly along the more developed western coast of Anatolia. Ever since the 1980 military coup, the center-left Kemalists were not able to dominate the political system, and they could not check Erdogan’s power grab since the 2016 military coup.

AKP Rule, 2002-Present

In 2001, a group of former Islamist Welfare Party (RP)/ Virtue Party (FP) and center-right ANAP and DYP politicians joined forces and founded the Justice and Development Party (AKP) under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who himself was a mayor of Istanbul (1994-98) on the RP ticket before joining the FP after the RP was banned. A secondary figure in the AKP has been Abdullah Gul, who co-founded the AKP with Erdogan. The consolidation of the center-right and the Islamist parties simplified the messy party structure that dominated politics in the 1960s, 1970s and again in the 1990s from 5-6 parties down to 3 until 2015, when the Kurdish HDP entered the political arena, and concentrated the Kurdish vote, which previously went to the AKP. Political party consolidation in the early-2000s is the opposite trend to most western European political systems with proportional representation, as Green and new left and right-wing parties joined the party structure beginning in the 1980s. Party consolidation also was the premise for Erdogan’s power grab since 2016.

Erdogan has been the most important political talent in the circles of conservative Islamist politics, but the Kemalists were concerned about the threat to secularism, which such Islamist political movement would produce. The constitutional court banned Erdogan’s RP, which forced the Islamists to converge around the FP. When Erdogan recited a poem by Ziya Gokalp, which included the verse that “minarets are bayonets and the faithful our soldiers”, the courts in 1999 sentenced him to a ten month prison sentence (he served four months) for inciting violence and religious hatred. The imprisonment forced Erdogan from the mayoral office and he also could not stand in the general elections in 2002, even though he was the party leader. The electoral coalition worked out splendidly for the AKP, which promptly became the biggest political party, winning in all regions except Thrace, the west and south coast and the Kurdish provinces in the southeast, producing 363 out of 550 seats obviating any need for a coalition government, the first time since 1987. Abdullah Gul became prime minister.

The new AKP government with the help of the main opposition CHP promptly lifted the political ban on Erdogan, who could run for a seat in the March 2003 by-election, which made him prime minister of Turkey. Similar to the early years of the republic under the CHP and in the 1960s under the Democrat Party, the AKP became the undisputed and dominant force in Turkish politics. The 2007 and 2011 elections increased Erdogan’s vote share (although by 2009, allegations of voter fraud benefiting the AKP began to be documented), and in 2007, Abdullah Gul became president, thus handing full control over the top offices to the AKP. The law no longer allowed Erdogan to be party leader for a fourth time, so he ran for president. In 2014, Erdogan became elected president (the first to be won by popular vote rather than parliamentary approval after a 2012 constitutional change), which is generally a ceremonial role, but with Ahmet Davutoglu and later Binali Yildirim as prime minister he appointed loyal party officials to lead the cabinet, and was an activist president. Davutoglu, however, was forced to resign in 2016 as he opposed the constitutional changes to eliminate the post of prime minister and merge it with the presidency. Yildirim had no such qualms to support Erdogan’s power grab. Yildirim is now speaker of the parliament for the AKP, funneling the votes for Erdogan’s policies. The lack of charismatic party-internal rivals have helped cement Erdogan’s claim to power, even as he surrendered the premiership in 2014.

The main draw to Erdogan’s leadership has been his mixing of Islamist identity politics, such as allowing women to wear the headscarf in public service jobs or reaffirming his Muslim faith as important part of his identity, with growth-oriented economic policies that bring down inflation, pay down debts to the IMF, attract foreign investment and even expand labor protection laws. Foreign direct investment was $195 billion from 2003-2018 compared to $15 billion in the 80 years prior to 2003. (As it turns out, one of the risks of Erdogan’s development model is the high reliance on private sector debt, which is at the basis of the current financial crisis.) The economic basis for the AKP electoral support were increased social, health and educational spending in the countryside (which tended to be neglected in previous phases of economic expansion), i.e. regions outside of Istanbul, as well as business and growth and development in the “Anatolian tiger” cities like Konya, Kayseri and Gaziantep. Only the unraveling of the growth miracle in the late-2000s, the end of the EU accession talks, the rise in the unemployment rate (reaching more than 10%), the suppressed Gezi Park protests, the revelation of corruption scandals beginning in 2013, and the discontent over Turkey’s involvement in the Syrian civil war started to produce an electoral backlash in June of 2015, which for the first time allowed a Kurdish Party (HDP) based in southeast Turkey to cross the 10% threshold, enter the Turkish parliament and, thus, rob the AKP of a governing majority.

Originally, Erdogan had advocated for a pan-Muslim agenda including Turks and Kurds and he initiated a peace talk process with the PKK (the armed Kurdish organization in southeast Turkey) in 2012, but the increasing success of the Syrian Kurds in their fight against ISIS emboldened the Turkish Kurds in their quest for greater respect and regional autonomy. The Turkish government continues to take great interest in Syrian affairs, opposing he Kurdish YPG, which shoulders the brunt of the fight with ISIS, and the Assad regime. Turkey took an ambiguous position on ISIS, as they secretly hoped their fighting would weaken Assad and the Kurds. But from 2015 onward, Turkey took a more hostile stance to ISIS, as they organized terrorist attacks inside Turkey. The YPG continued taking more territory from ISIS being explicitly helped by the US and the EU. To prevent YPG domination along the Turkish-Syrian border, which could embolden the PKK in their independence struggle against Ankara, Turkey provided arms support to the Free Syrian Army and allowed it to use Turkish territory as a safe zone and base of operation. In August 2016, the Turkish military invaded and occupied the north of Syria, then in early 2018 expulsed the Kurdish base in Afrin. ISIS has been decimated in Syria, and the country is currently divided among the Syrian Army under Assad, the Free Syrian Army aided by the Turks and the Kurdish YPG.

The HDP, formed in 2012, as an electoral coalition of the far-left Turks and Kurds, capitalized on the discontent about the AKP. The June 2015 elections shifted the AKP’s strategy vis-a-vis the Kurdish issue from conciliation and negotiation to conflict and suppression. The predictable further loss of the Kurdish vote to the AKP would be compensated by increasing turnout among ethnic Turks, who agreed with tougher policies on the Kurds, thus stealing the votes from the nationalist MHP.

The collapse of coalition talks led to snap elections in November 2015, but the context of voting changed. In August, the collapse of PKK-Turkish government talks resulted in an outbreak of violence in the southeast of Turkey, which deteriorated the security situation for voting and depressed the vote for the HDP. In the November vote, the HDP lost 21 seats, while the AKP gained 59 seats, thus restoring the governing majority to Erdogan’s AKP. Erdogan saw himself emboldened to deploy the Justice Department to prosecute high-ranking HDP officials, imprison, exile, revoke immunity and/or ban them from office. His administration’s reasoning is that HDP is close to the militant PKK, which the Turkish government classifies as a terrorist organization, even though some HDP officials call for a resumption of bilateral peace talks and condemn PKK violence (while others remain silent on PKK violence). The former party leader Selahattin Demirtas, who contested the 2014 and 2018 presidential elections, sits in jail as of November 2016.

Erdogan’s increased power was also made possible by the gradual institutional weakening of the military, which carried out two coups (1960, 1980) and two interventions that brought down the existing government (1971, 1997). When the AKP’s Abdullah Gul was nominated as president in 2007, the military considered another strike against the AKP to safeguard the Kemalist heritage, but this time, their intervention could not take off the ground. The public bureaucracy was staffed with AKP loyalists, the military general staff lacked broader support for a coup (which was restricted to a memorandum written by chief of general staff Yasar Buyukanit warning about the rise of Islamism in Turkish politics), the EU an important negotiating partner with the Turkish accession talks opposed military intervention, and even the CHP opposition did not want a military coup. The failure of the EU accession talks given the slow pace of pro-market reform and preservation of human rights and the anti-Turkish spirit among many EU members unwilling to accept a Muslim country in their midst further emboldened Erdogan in his entitlement to authoritarian politics.

The military was further weakened by trials and purges against so-called Ergenekron conspirators. These conspirators were replaced by junior officers, who were vetted for being loyal to the AKP. Erdogan and Fethullah Gulen-loyal judges alleged that conspirators in the military were responsible for an attempted coup against the Erdogan government in 2004. Gulen himself is a cleric, who has been in exile in the US since the late-1990s, and he funded a giant network of loyal judges, police officers and academics. For many years, Gulen has been a loyal ally to Erdogan, as both confronted the military as self-declared guarantors of Kemalist traditions, thus potentially challenging Erdogan’s leadership. 500 military and security officers were prosecuted and removed from their position. The rift between Gulen and Erdogan occurred beginning in 2012, when Gulen began to believe that the AKP and Erdogan became too powerful. Gulenist judges began corruption prosecutions against AKP officials, which came to the chagrin of Erdogan, who in turn ordered lists to be prepared to organize a purge against Gulenists in the Turkish civil service. In 2014 and 2015, the government ordered arrests of journalists and media executives suspected of links to Gulen. By May 2016, the Turkish government declared the Gulen movement as a terrorist organization.

The July 15, 2016 military coup against the Turkish government provided the opportunity to crackdown against the Gulenists en masse (even though the still exiled Gulen denies any links to the coup). Over 8,000 Turkish army soldiers or only 3% of the army were coup plotters, which indicates the quite successful recoloring of the army brass in favor of the AKP government. The chief of the general staff, the head of the intelligence agency, the head of the naval forces and the first army were government loyalists. The head of the coup plotters General Semih Terzi was killed at the outset of the coup, thus weakening the resolve of the plotters. The putschists failed to capture President Erdogan, who was in a beach resort in Marmara and got into an airplane, heading to Istanbul. They also failed in identifying the plane that flew Erdogan and could not shoot it down. Erdogan used Face Time to communicate to his supporters via a CNN Turkey broadcast to go on the streets and stop the military coup. Thousands of Erdogan supporters rallied on the street, blocking the putschist tanks from advancing, even though they were able to attack the parliament and presidential palace. When Erdogan arrived in the Istanbul airport, he was welcomed by cheering crowds, forming a human shield. By the morning hours of July 16, the coup was doomed, as loyalist troops and police surrounded the army staff headquarters where the coup plotters gathered.

The 2016 coup was the first coup in the history of the Turkish Republic, which had failed, indicating the weakening of the military as a pillar to undermine authoritarian rule. Once order was re-established, Erdogan declared a state of emergency. In a short period of time, 77,000 academics, soldiers, judges and journalists have been arrested and 160,000 were fired from their jobs for their alleged connections to Gulen (even if many of those fired are likely not affiliated with the Gulenists). Only 1,000 wrongly dismissed employees were reinstated in their job. The emergency situation of the coup gave Erdogan the justification to finally purge all of his political enemies, which includes the Gulenists, the military, the courts, the media and academia. In a recent speech, Erdogan joked that he cannot be a dictator, because the opposition leader Kilicdaroglu (CHP) is still free (without mentioning that with only a quarter of electoral support, the CHP can scarcely do damage to AKP rule).

With potential enemies in the civil service, military and civil society purged, Erdogan could push for a constitutional change that would merge the presidency with the premiership; allow that president to appoint and dismiss cabinet members according to his will; serve for two 5-year terms maximum. The parliament retains the right to make laws and pass the budget; impeachment against the president is only possible with a two-thirds majority; the size is increased from 550 to 600; the eligibility age is reduced from 25 to 18; military officers are banned from serving. Two thirds of the parliament needed to approve the constitutional change to send it to a referendum, and the AKP and MHP votes guaranteed that outcome (with CHP and HDP opposed). The 2017 referendum was narrowly approved by the public with 51.4% support, which is reminiscent of the narrow Brexit referendum. The big cities, the west and south coast, as well as the Kurdish regions in the southeast voted against the constitutional changes. The ‘Yes’ campaign received state-funded advertising money, while the opposition faced violence and campaign restrictions. The ‘Yes’ campaign did receive campaign restrictions in the other European countries with significant Turkish minority populations (like Netherlands, Germany or Austria). The US, China and Russia openly congratulated Erdogan for the electoral victory, though the EU under Jean-Claude Juncker criticized the “irregularities” in the referendum, but given that the EU continues to be dependent on Turkey for keeping the Middle East refugees out of the EU, there is not much foreign opposition against Erdogan’s power grab.

The 2018 parliamentary and presidential elections were the first using the new constitution, and Erdogan promptly received 52% of the vote. If he gets re-elected in 2023, Erdogan will have served as president for 14 years, only beaten by the founder of the Republic Ataturk by length of tenure. His AKP lost 21 seats in the parliamentary elections, but given that the MHP, which had also approved of the constitutional changes, joined the People’s Alliance, Erdogan has a comfortable governing majority of 64% of seats in parliament. Erdogan declared that increased presidential powers would allow him to address the Kurdish problem in the southeast and restore economic growth (BBC 2018). As for the former, no talks with the Kurds are scheduled, and military strikes against Afrin and PKK posts in northern Iraq suggest further escalation of violence and killing.

As for the economic malaise, it is linked to a high current account deficit, which comes from private businesses borrowing money from overseas. The construction industry encouraged by the state made large investments into real estate even if that meant empty houses that could not be sold. The government continues to hope that construction projects in infrastructure and housing can restore economic growth and return international investor confidence. As foreign investors, who became skeptical of the rising private debts, started selling the Turkish lira in greater amounts, Erdogan interfered in the central bank decisions and prevented interest rate rises, lowering the demand for the lira, which contributed to rising inflation. Erdogan’s finance minister recently vowed to hunt down suspected onion hoarders, who are apparently responsible for rising onion prices (similar to Nicolas Maduro in bankrupt Venezuela). The lira crisis, in turn, made foreign investors skeptical about holding lira, which forced the Turkish government to hike the interest rate paid on government bonds, which increased from about 10% in mid-2017 to nearly 22% in August 2018 before it declined to 16% in November. Qatari investments in Turkey have somewhat relieved the pressure to devalue further, default on debt or even go to the IMF for loan assistance.

Public debt remains low at 28.3% of GDP, but private debt to GDP increased from 131 to 170% of GDP between 2011 and 2016. The domestic credit to the private sector as percent of GDP increased from 13 to 67% from 2003 to 2017. The coup and the crackdown on selected foreign assets made foreign investment even scarcer as they undermined confidence in the business climate. Finally, the improving US economy is associated with rising US interest rates, which tends to pull more global savings to the “safe haven” US economy and away from emerging markets like Turkey. It is an open question whether a full-blown Turkish financial crisis that would deplete Turkish foreign exchange and result in substantial debt default will have a contagion effect on the global economy as the big foreign creditor banks would be on the hook for defaults, and this time the interest rates of the big central banks (Japan, US, Europe) are already very low, which means limited tools to address a global financial crisis.


As for Turkish domestic policy, the continued crackdown on Kurds, the civil society, the news media or business “hoarders” and certainly the permanent agitation against enemies-imagined or real- permit Erdogan to further consolidate his power. Furthermore, the challenge to his rule will no longer come from the military. The only democratic hope is that he has not abolished the constitutional limitations to his rule, and the existence of a parliamentary opposition waiting in the wings for when a political or economic crisis can no longer be controlled by Erdogan gives reassurance that there could be a return to more normal democratic structures in the future. Ataturk’s legacy of western secularism and rule of law has a path dependence, which makes Turkey different from more classic despotic states in the Middle East. Alternatively, Erdogan will hold on to power for as long as possible (i.e. until his death), using some constitutional machinations to abolish the term limit like Xi Jinping did in China. He certainly is of similar age to Xi and Putin.

Further readings:

Turkey’s economic model 2002-2015: https://economics.mit.edu/files/11509

“The Military Institution, Ataturk’s Principles, and Turkey’s Sisyphean Quest for Democracy” https://www.jstor.org/stable/40262642

Wikipedia entries:


History of Turkey

History of the Republic of Turkey

Ataturks Reforms

Multi-Party Period of the Republic of Turkey

2016 Turkish coup d’etat attempt

Turkish constitutional referendum, 2017

Turkish currency and debt crisis, 2018

Turkish general elections before 1980

Turkish general elections after 1980

General election articles on Turkey (1946-2018)

Biographies of

Kemal Ataturk (Republican People’s Party)

Ismet Inonu (Republican People’s Party)

Celal Bayar (Democrat Party)

Adnan Menderes (Democrat Party)

Cemal Gursel (Military)

Suleyman Demirel (Justice Party, True Path party)

Kenan Evren (Military)

Bulent Ecevit (Republican People’s Party, Democratic Left Party)

Turgut Ozal (Motherland Party)

Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Welfare Party, Justice and Development Party)

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Comment on Benanav Article on Output, Productivity and Automation

Podcast available here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/47-comment-on-benanav-article-on-output-productivity-and-automation

This post is a direct comment to Aaron Benanav’s (2019) article in the New Left Review titled “Automation and the Future of Work 1”. Benanav claims that the slowdown in employment growth cannot solely be traced back to rapidly rising automation which should be reflected in large annual productivity growth. Instead, it is economic stagnation reflected in slower output growth. Employment growth is computed as the difference between output growth and productivity growth.

I think the argument in the article is spot-on, at least for France (see graphs in the Benanav article). For the US, there is a three-period story to manufacturing from the graph below. In the 1990s, productivity and output increased in lockstep, which held employment steady. This is a positive automation story as existing labor can still benefit from economic growth, although the signs were already pointing in the other direction. Given that the population and the labor force has been growing, manufacturing employment share is declining, although net employment effect has still been positive because of the demand-stimulating effect of cheaper manufacturing goods in the service sector. In the 2000s, we see a slowdown in output growth which corresponds with China joining the WTO and import penetration from China increasing. Productivity kept the pace, so jobs are lost. In the last phase since the 2010s, employment reaches further lows, but output and productivity both stagnate. Why should companies invest in more automation if output is stagnant? The very high levels of productivity, low wages and weak unions are even prompting some rehiring in the manufacturing sector, though never reaching the prerecession peak or 1990s levels.

Source: NCCI

I had never analyzed the automation story from this angle. We are back to the world of secular stagnation, which invalidates Say’s Law, according to which new supply should create new demand. Human needs and wants are supposedly unlimited, but the fact that manufacturing growth is less than in the prior period suggests that this is not true. Once everyone has a refrigerator, car, cell phone, microwave and a list of other gadgets, what else do we need? Growth enthusiasts point to the service sector absorbing any surplus labor, but some of the labor-intense service sector like health and education is even more stagnant regarding productivity growth, which has employment-sustaining effects even as output remains constant. (Who wants a doctor or teacher to be more productive, which would mean reducing patient visit time and increasing class sizes?) In transportation, productivity growth may be larger but employment isn’t growing as fast (see charts in BLS 2016 for productivity figures, see New Geography 2009 for employment trends). There is a negative correlation between employment growth and productivity growth, which suggests that output is not endlessly expanding, see graph below.

Image result for productivity employment by industry

Source: BLS 2013

The technology and automation story is still quite important, because in the counterfactual world of sticking with horse and mule, we would have full employment with low output. Technology is doing what it is supposed to do, which is to reduce aggregate demand for labor once we reach demand saturation (which is reflected in stagnating output figures).

Another variable that has to be analyzed is demographics. Output growth is possible even if per capita consumption remains stagnant, so long as the population is producing more consumers/ workers. Is output stagnation linked to a lack of humans? It appears to be the case in the rich countries, although the poor countries are still growing by leaps and bounds and more of them are pushing into the labor force expecting jobs. In the case, where the population is insufficient, employment decline is actually not a social problem, and most of the robot density is located in the old manufacturing power houses with old workforces, i.e. Germany, Japan, South Korea.

Nonetheless, I am quite worried that because of the political instability (rise of the far-right, increase in suicide, opiate addiction, social dislocation, lack of taxation of the rich, receding welfare services etc.), the lack of employment is quite a serious problem, and it is surely even worse in the less developed countries like in the Middle East and North Africa, where population bulge and lack of development mean mass protests against corrupt despot rulers.

What each of these analyses show is that the social crisis emerges out of the presence of the capitalist economy itself. I don’t know what it takes to overthrow the capitalist order, but we have to do it, because profit obsession is no longer ecologically sustainable. The NY Mag interview with Jared Diamond (2019) is quite instructive. I agree with the late Erik Olin Wright that capitalism can only be eroded from the margins via a “realistic utopia”, which include universal basic income. I think taking the existential fear from people will relax calls for job creation, which at present fulfills the dual purpose of (1) economically sustaining the population, and (2) feeding the labor force to produce additional output to create more profits (or exchange-value in the Marxian lingo).

Some of you may argue that a third reason for job creation is to fulfill the human desire to be needed by others, because work gives meaning. I should remind those people that humans have always worked and that will and should not change, but the job (selling labor to others in the labor market) is a modern social arrangement, which we should be able to eliminate or reduce its scope to what is socially necessary.

The maintenance of the status quo means that we have to maximize job creation (1) at the expense of limiting technological progress, which is highly unrealistic given that every technology is cumulative, i.e. building on previous progress, i.e. we can’t unlearn advances in artificial intelligence. (2) The other option is to ramp up output growth, i.e. produce more crap that does not make us happier. This option is limited by how much natural resources like zinc and cobalt exist, and how much we can tolerate climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions based on our consumption and production patterns. (The weather patterns these last few years suggest we can’t tolerate any more emissions, and we might still be screwed. Thanks for pointing out Greta and Co.) It is also limited by total population and the population with first world consumption patterns (e.g. the rich in the poor countries or newly industrialized countries like China). The dystopian narrative comes from anyone, who promotes more jobs, more technology and more output in an endless treadmill.

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Challenges of Decentralized Capitalism

Podcast available here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/46-challenges-of-decentralized-capitalism

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 it could do so because the command economy relied on the directives from Moscow and with the takeover of Gorbachev’s government that was committed to liberalization, privatization and decontrolling prices there is no way that the communist system could survive. A second example is Deng Xiaoping deciding to decentralize the Chinese economy after the death of Mao Zedong. Mao centralized the economy via five-year plans, and Deng did the opposite by permitting farmers to sell their crops for private profit after delivering a minimum of grain to the central state. He designated several coastal cities as special economic zones with low taxation and investor-friendly regulations. The Chinese economy decentralized, created super-wealthy entrepreneurs and became the second-largest global economy.

It is possible to go from centralization to decentralization. The opposite movement from decentralization to centralization is much more difficult if not impossible.

Experts of political science have long observed the disputes across different levels of government in a federal system. If the federal government wants to provide a health care program, but mandates the states to implement the program there is firstly going to be variation about how the policy gets implemented, and there is a dispute about who funds it. If the federal government becomes impatient and sees the states as an obstacle to carry out policies that the federal government wants to see implemented, the federal officials want to centralize competency, but that is nearly impossible because the state officials have developed their fiefdom and are unwilling to surrender their power. The state officials might conspire against the federal state, which convinces the federal officials to abandon centralization attempts in frustration.

If we translate the social dynamics in a political system to the economic system one finds the very same complication to centralize the decentralized capitalist economy. Marx had pointed out that the cheap commodities of the capitalist are irresistible and “all that is solid melts into air”. The bourgeois capitalist society which values wealth, savings, investment, frugality (and in the late-capitalist version spendthrift, credit-addiction) prevails against the feudal lords, the church and religious institutions, and against the few bands of hunters/ gatherers that still roam the remote corners of the world.

Friedrich Hayek, the father of neoliberalism, argued that bourgeois society has to be scared of the state deciding to take over more functions and gradually squeeze out and “crowd out” private capitalists such that we are in a “road to serfdom”. He published his work in the 1940s, when Stalin consolidated communist power in the Soviet Union and the Nazis instituted a semi-controlled armament economy in Germany. But what is remarkable is quite the contrary, i.e. once bourgeois society has been put into place a centralized socialist economy does not prevail. The communist systems were implemented in quasi-feudal and peasant societies, but the old bourgeois societies like France, UK and US never introduce a centralized command economy. Nazi Germany was, indeed, a totalitarian political state, but economically it left the private property structure in place, even though the state favored certain private industries over others. The private armament industry, especially Thyssen Krupp, benefited like bandits from Hitler’s world conquest plans.

After the fall of the Nazi regime, the East Germans introduced socialism, but only under the external duress of the Soviet Union, which was also true in the other eastern European countries. East Germany and Czechoslovakia had fairly developed bourgeois societies prior to the Soviet takeover of their political realm, which might explain why there were attempted uprisings in 1953 and 1968 respectively (which the Soviets crushed with tanks).

The US-occupied countries West Germany and South Korea were able to develop under capitalist premises, although it was easier in Germany where bourgeois capitalism already had an extended history. In South Korea, the creation of bourgeois society was favored by the Confucian ideology focused on hard work and the US -the richest world economy- providing an easy export market. North Korea, in contrast, became a centralized communist state, and has been the only truly committed communist regime to this day.

During the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev tried to impress Richard Nixon in the 1950s in the “kitchen war”, showing how well off the Soviets apparently were compared to the Americans, proving how superior communism was to capitalism. It was all for show. The capitalist west offered a greater variety of commodities than the communist east, and the evidence is that there have been many documented cases of East Germans fleeing to West Germany but almost no cases the other way round. The permanent comparison between the rich capitalist West and the poor communist East undermined the legitimacy of the communist regimes.

By the 1980s, the Soviet foreign debt to the capitalist west made it clear to the Soviet leadership that their dependence on the capitalist west made the inefficient communist economy unsustainable. Perhaps, if communism or feudalism were the only game in town, the autarkic Soviet Union could persist for many more years, but it wasn’t so. Marx was right: decentralized bourgeois capitalism arrives, comes to dominate society and pushes out alternative socio-economic systems. Hayek was mostly wrong. In some limited cases, you can point to a turn toward centralization (as under external duress), but the overarching movement is toward decentralized capitalism.

The benefit of decentralization is the bourgeois promise of individuality and doing what one wants in private life. The Chinese Communist Party, which has been overseeing economic decentralization, now realizes that economic individualization creates a middle class, which in turn has higher demands on political decentralization, including democratization. These demands become more acute as economic growth is declining and the old social contract between party state and citizenry is fraying, thus challenging the party state. The CCPs pre-emptive response is to use surveillance technology to create a social-credit scheme, which lowers citizens’ scores for criticizing the state while raising it for being obedient. It isn’t clear whether China is going to decentralize, and the party state is putting up the fight of their life to remain in power.

Decentralized bourgeois society offers (though does not guarantee) social progress in the form of better treatment of women and racial minorities. It is true that the capitalist order can inscribe domination to the detriment of women and racial minorities, but capitalism pulls more and more people, including women and racial minorities into wage labor. If they organize and resist mistreatment they can take on high positions in society, which some white men regard as threat to their high social status.

So it sounds like decentralization is the greatest thing in the world, but the truth is that it is only better than the old systems it defeated (communism, feudalism etc.), but has some inherent flaws. Firstly, despite the decentralized economy there is a movement to centralize economic and political power in a few organizations and individuals. There are a few big corporations such as in the technology sector (Google, Facebook etc.), who dominate the economy. The movement toward automation, which is encouraged by international competition (who will dominate AI? China or US?), eliminates jobs and pushes more people into low-paid gig work or unemployment, while benefiting the owners of technology and robots disproportionately.

The social costs of automation can be felt in capitalist societies with poor welfare redistribution such as the US, where life expectancy in the countryside is declining. That is where most of the manufacturing jobs had been lost due to automation. Immobile individuals can’t find equivalent employment, become depressed, the family abandons them and they commit suicide or take drugs/ alcohol. The political effect of automation is the rise of right-wing populism, where economic anxiety gets channeled into hatred against foreigners, who are blamed for things they are not responsible for. In the midst of economic plenty, western societies degenerate into tribalism, anti-liberal values and rage because of the pockets of perceived and real material deprivation among segments of society. We can only turn away from a mindset of scarcity, not by looking for new sources of economic growth, but by systematically redistributing existing wealth.

The second externality of bourgeois capitalism is ecological disaster, because of climate change, i.e. rising temperatures due to carbon emissions. Even an aggressive movement to eliminate carbon emissions now does not reverse the impacts of climate change. A related problem is the issue of depleting natural resources like ground water or forests. We need a radical reconfiguring of social priorities away from economic growth, otherwise it will be difficult to reduce human carbon footprint.

An end to economic growth is a frontal assault on capitalism and the bourgeois values that carry the present political economy. In western countries, economic growth isn’t high enough to maintain full employment, which suggests that in the present economic regime social stability via full employment can only be purchased by ever more growth. We can’t afford to abolish growth, because the loans and debts we have taken out as households, corporations and countries have to be repaid, and a debt is a promissory note that in the future, I will produce added economic output (i.e. present output plus some more) in the future. One might argue that we should be content with buying social peace with endless economic growth, but the ecological boundaries imposed by planet earth both regarding the availability of scarce natural resources and the deleterious effects of climate change negate the endless growth logic if what we care about is long-term human survival. (In the case of “fuck future generations”, carpe diem, I guess climate change should not matter, but most people don’t take these fatalist views. And Greta Thunberg and her fellow activists won’t allow political leaders to be fatalist in the first place.)

The smashing of the endless growth logic, which implies a smashing of the capitalist economy, i.e. an economy based on the accumulation of capital, and the bourgeois values of Puritanism (work hard or starve!), are only possible if economic controls centralize toward the state at a global level (yes, that means a powerful United Nations), i.e. political power returns back to the center to deliver economic goods as a social utility and entities no longer rely on debt-financing given the nationalization or high taxation of private wealth, which forms the basis of debt-funding in the present political economy. The provision of economic goods as a public utility and the elimination of debt-funding is the only way to ensure an economy that produces exclusively based on need rather than profit. The central planner would have to figure out how to avoid the brutal dictatorship and the inefficiency of prior communist regimes.

The anti-capitalist sociologist Wolfgang Streeck argues to the contrary that to free ourselves from the shackles of the neoliberal global regime that is destabilizing local societies is a return to the local. Why? Because only the local state can dictate all the rules toward the social actors by manipulating rules/ regulations, fiscal policy, state enterprises, central bank/ money printing, and thereby constraining the private corporations, investors and workers, thus allowing for a balancing of interests between capital and labor and perhaps even humanity and nature. In the context of Keynesian economics and the Bretton Woods system this made a lot of sense, and it also sounds reasonable because the nation-state is a late nineteenth century product, i.e. it doesn’t have to be invented again. But a central state system in a decentralized world system makes it very difficult for some countries to resist the temptation to open up to global capital and attract investors, who are not happy enough with the low returns offered in their home country. Streeck’s approach could work if all 200+ countries in the world agree simultaneously to transition to state socialism, but that is an unrealistic assumption.

I am not saying that a UN world government is any more realistic, at least not until we have fought World War III, including with nuclear weapons (yikes!). The political elites of the big states are unwilling to surrender power to the center, which we already see with the disintegration of the EU and Brexit. The broader challenge is that decentralization and the lure of bourgeois capitalism is like water flowing downstream, following the laws of gravity; while centralization, which could effectively address human alienation (consumerism, workaholism, inequality, poverty amid plenty) and alienation from nature (resource scarcity, climate change), is like water flowing upstream, thus defying the laws of gravity.

Among the two great German sociologists, Karl Marx and Max Weber, perhaps Weber was right and Marx was wrong. In Marx, one had the hope that the working class will take over the means of production, smash bourgeois capitalism, introduce luxury communism and get rid of human alienation. In Weber, the logic of rationality, i.e. bourgeois capitalism, the pursuit of profit, efficiency and calculability of all aspects of life, forms an iron cage that no one can escape. The genie of rationality is out of the bottle. Good luck pushing it back into the bottle. For the sake of human freedom and ecological sustainability, we’ll have to keep trying.

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Attack on Saudi Oil Facilities

Podcast available here https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/42-attack-on-saudi-oil-facilities

On September 14, foreign drones attacked Saudi oil facilities, knocking out nearly half of its oil production. The global oil prices spiked from $54 to $62 per barrel, but declined immediately after that. The economic effect is limited, even as Saudi Arabia has 17% of the global oil reserves (OPEC 2019). Countries like the US and Brazil are exporting more and more oil, which means that the world economy is not as dependent on Saudi oil as it had been in the 1970s. Back then, Saudi Arabia upset about US support for Israel decided to reduce oil production and hurtled the oil-dependent western economies into a severe recession.

The bigger concern of the present revolves around politics. Who is to blame for the attacks on the oil facilities? The Houthi rebels in Yemen claim responsibility for the attacks, but the US and Saudi Arabia insist that the drones originate from Iran. The Iranians have been aiding the Houthi rebels under Ali Abdullah Saleh in their fight against the Saudi-backed former president Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi. 50,000 children in Yemen have died from starvation in 2017 alone. Famine and cholera has become rampant in Yemen as Saudi Arabia has been blockading the rebel-held region. The Yemeni civil war had started in 2015 and continues to today.

Saudi Arabia is fighting a proxy war with Iran and strongly believes that Iran is behind the drone strikes against the heart of the Saudi economy. Despite the third highest military spending in the world, the Saudis think that their standing in the region is getting diminished over time. In 2003, the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime following a US military invasion resulted in the majority Shia backed by Iran to take over the central government. The Kurds in the north got their autonomous province, but the Sunnis had boycotted the elections, thus being pushed out of the Iraqi power structure.

Iran has been supporting the Shia political organization Hezbollah in Lebanon. It started off as a revolutionary group in the 1980s to attack and harass Israel, but since 1990 added a political party. Many Western countries and Saudi-led Arab League regard Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. Since 2008, Hezbollah has been represented in government. Iran along with Russia have been backing the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, who is an Alawite Muslim. With generous foreign support, Assad could not be overthrown, which came to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, which funded various Sunni rebels. Assad’s other opponents have been the al-Nusra front, the Kurds (who were supported by the US) and ISIS, which consisted of Iraqi and Syrian fighters discontent over Assad rule.

The Saudis experienced another major setback as Qatar became increasingly friendly with Turkey and Iran, because Egypt, Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar. Qatar is only occasionally aligned with Saudi Arabia as is the case in the fight against the Houthis in Yemen. But Qatar has also supported other anti-Assad factions than the one supported by the Saudis. Despite the small size of Qatar, the transnational TV station Al-Jazeera has a substantial effect on public opinion in the Middle East. Al-Jazeera covered the anti-government protests in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain, which came to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia, which supported each of these regimes.

Qatar is quite favorable to democratic Islam (in other countries, not in its own country that mixes civil with sharia law), and Al-Jazeera coverage was crucial in successfully overthrowing the Saudi-backed Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak regime in Egypt, while nearly overthrowing the Khalifa monarchy (Sunni rulers backed by Saudi Arabia in a majority Shia country) in Bahrain. Mubarak’s rule was followed by an interregnum with the Qatar-backed Muslim Brotherhood in charge. The Saudis backed general El-Sisi to overthrow the Muslim Brotherhood, which he promptly did in 2013. Qatar has been backing the Libyan government in Tripoli following Gaddafi’s overthrow in 2011, but the Saudis back the Libyan House of Representatives, which has a government based in Tobruk. In June 2017, the Saudis have had enough of the different positions that Qatar is taking and the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council)-critical coverage of Al-Jazeera, and convinced its allies to sever diplomatic ties with Qatar, which came at the cost of Qatar having to develop closer ties to Iran and Turkey. What likely hindered a full-scale invasion of Qatar was that their common ally, the US, maintains a military base in Qatar.

Saudi fears that Iran could overwhelm them but could most recently rely on the support of Donald Trump and the US, although it can be doubted how deep Trump’s commitment is. US and Saudi Arabia have been allies since the 1940s, when oil discoveries were made. Since the Second Gulf War in 1991, the US has stationed thousands of troops in Saudi Arabia and is making huge arms sales to them in exchange for oil. The US has assisted Saudi Arabia in its fight against the Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The first rift in diplomatic relations occurred in the early-2010s.

Firstly, the US developed the shale gas extraction technology, which unearthed substantial US oil reserves, making the US a net oil exporter and reducing US reliance on Saudi oil. The US became an energy competitor rather than a dependent client. In 2014, the Saudis tried to fight back by flooding the world market with oil, thus lowering the cost of oil and making many US rigs uneconomic. Venezuela and Russia’s economy went into a tailspin with plummeting oil prices. Secondly, the Saudis were rightly concerned that the increasing concerns about climate change and improvements in non-fossil fuel powered technology like electric cars would reduce oil output, thus convincing the oil-dependent Saudis that they had to milk the oil revenues as much as they can now (Fawaz 2016). Lower oil prices harm the Saudis who are drawing down on their savings and having to reform their economy to attract foreign investment, cut the welfare budget and push the Saudi residents to take proper jobs rather than rely on state largesse. Even permitting women to drive cars has to be seen in the light of the perceived need to liberalize the economy and reduce reliance on oil revenues.

The Saudi assassination of the regime-critical journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who has been living in the US was harshly criticized by high ranking US officials and civil society, but the official administration view was to ignore Khashoggi’s death, because the businessman Trump was perfectly happy that the Saudi Crown Prince decided to purchase billions of dollars of US military equipment.

The real diplomatic conflict between the US and Saudi Arabia occurred with President Obama’s intention to reset relations with Iran, which came to the chagrin of its traditional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. The US was the only major power standing in the way of diplomatic rapprochement with Iran. The EU officially backed the anti-Iran sanctions, but only because of US pressure, while Russia and China have never heeded the anti-Iran position regarding them as a strategic ally. But with Obama opening the doors to diplomacy, the major powers agreed on a multilateral agreement (JCPOA) to disarm Iran’s nuclear facilities in exchange for economic liberalization and an end to the economic sanctions against Iran.

The Saudis under the new ruler Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran. Fortunately for them, the 2016 US Republican presidential candidates all vowed to cancel the JCPOA, claiming that it is not right for the US to support the Iranian regime and doubting that the nuclear disarmament was genuine (despite foreign controls showing that disarmament was real). The Republican Party candidates including President Trump doubled down on classic neoconservative positions to restore sanctions on Iran and mending ties with Saudi Arabia and Israel, which certainly was welcomed by these respective governments.

The EU, Russia and China insisted on carrying out the JCPOA, although without US support it is difficult to stay true to it. The US has re-imposed sanctions on Iran and includes sanctions on any company operating in the US seeking to trade with Iran, which has entangled the Chinese company Huawei, whose CFO Meng Wanzhou was detained in Canada for apparently violating US terms on prohibiting Iran trade. (The anti-China trade war of the US citing intellectual property theft is certainly also playing a role in targeting Huawei.)

Despite the deteriorating Iranian economy, there are no direct indications for mass discontent resulting in political instability in Iran. The moderate factions in Iran seeking diplomatic relations with the West seem to be weakened while the extremist factions seeking provocation and escalation are gaining the upper hand. The Saudis, thus, feel vindicated in turning up the pressure against Iran, although they are unwilling to back explicit military confrontation against the formidable Iran. Any strikes against Iran would have to come from the US.

The US was awfully close to launching a war with Iran in June this year. The first indication was to have the war hawks in the US cabinet. These include Mike Pompeo as secretary of state (who had followed the middle of the road former oil executive Rex Tillerson) and John Bolton as national security adviser. Bolton was one of the chief architects of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars during the Bush administration next to Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Paul Bremer, Doug Feith, Scooter Libby and Donald Rumsfeld. Bolton has openly demanded for a war with Iran long before he was appointed by Trump. The second indication was to exploit the shooting down of an unmanned US drone in the Gulf being shot down by Iran. Trump had convened the situation room, deciding on whether to launch the air force strike against Iranian military installation as retaliation but apparently rescinded the order last minute because he wanted to avoid the casualty of 150 Iranians, which he felt would be a “disproportionate” response.

The drone attacks against the Saudi Aramco facilities are more serious, and the US announced to dispatch some more troops and put up more missile defense installations in Saudi Arabia. However, it is questionable whether the US would fight a war on behalf of Saudi Arabia. Despite trying to please the neoconservative establishment, Trump has won the presidential election based on his promise to not sacrifice more US lives on endless foreign wars in the Middle East, which is even more relevant during this upcoming election year (and potential struggles of impeachment coming from the Democrats in the House of Representatives). War hawk John Bolton was recently ousted as national security adviser to the president.

Thus, Saudi Arabia is effectively on its own. Outside of clandestine attacks, it is not evident what the Saudis can do to retaliate against Iran, which is denying any involvement in the attack to begin with. Instead of focusing on diversifying the domestic economy, the Saudis are quite intent on realizing their regional power claims. It doesn’t help that sanctions-battered Iran further promote their own war hawks in the region. Any hopes of resolving the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in the immediate future have to be disappointed. We can only hope that it does not get any worse.

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Kashmir Conflict

Podcast available here: https://soundcloud.com/user-280580802/41-kashmir-conflict

With India’s decision to unilaterally revoke Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy status (Article 370), the uneasy equilibrium in the volatile region was upset. The Pakistani government sees itself as the informal protector of the largely Muslim population of Indian-occupied Kashmir. Pakistan immediately took the case to the United Nations asking the other countries to condemn India for fully incorporating Jammu and Kashmir into India. India claims that they have full sovereignty claims over the parts of Jammu and Kashmir they control. Kashmir has been under dispute by Pakistan, India and China since the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.

India had expected the security situation to deteriorate immediately after giving Kashmir statehood. The government immediately cut off internet and telecommunications and beefed up the military presence. Separatist militants increase their attacks. India accuses Pakistan of supplying these militants with weapons and financial support. Civilians find themselves trapped between the militants and the Indian military, as both sides shoot, resulting in civilian deaths. The Indian Supreme Court called on the Indian government to lift the shutdown of Kashmir. Protests on the ground against the Indian move continue.

Kashmir valley was first settled around 3000 BC, switching control from Vedic tribes, the Maurya Empire, the Hepthalites, the Karkota Empire, the Kashmir Sultanate, the Mughal Empire, Sikh Rule and Dogra Rule before being divvied up by Pakistan and India. During this period, religion has shifted as well. The Maurya Empire introduced Buddhism in the third century BC. In the 14th century, Islam spread throughout Kashmir, which became the dominant religion especially in the Kashmir Valley, which is currently controlled by India.

Dogra Rule (1846-1947) occurred after the British defeated Sikhs with the help of Gulab Singh, who was given the Vale of Kashmir, thus making him the Maharajah of Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmir remained a majority Muslim area (mostly peasants), but the Maharaja and the elites in the bureaucracy were Hindu, which resulted in oppressive rule in the form of high taxes, unpaid forced labor and discriminatory laws against the majority population. Muslim peasants lacked education, awareness of rights and were in debt to landlords and moneylenders. This social situation made Kashmir rife for political conflict.

During independence a 1947 peasants revolted against oppressive taxes by the Maharaja. The Azad Kashmiris declared their independence and were, in fact, closely aligned to Muslim-dominated Pakistan. With a powerful foreign backer, the Maharaja realized the untenable situation and agreed to a standstill agreement with Pakistan, which ensured continued trade relations between Dogra-controlled and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir.

Riots occurred in Jammu, the southern part of Kashmir, which was majority Hindu but with a significant Muslim minority. Pakistan and Muslim-Kashmiris became so incensed about the mistreatment of Muslims in Jammu that they sent in fighters to challenge Maharaja power. The guerrilla warfare became an existential challenge to the Maharaja, who appealed to the Indian government for assistance. India promptly complied and sent troops to occupy Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh (further to the east, which is very mountaineous and inhabited by Tibetans). The Maharaja’s rule ended, as the Indian-controlled Kashmir became an autonomous province to India. Kashmir’s accession to India was a demand by British Governor general Lord Mountbatten. Pakistan seized the heavily populated Azad, and the sparsely populated Gilgit-Baltistan. Azad Kashmir was formed after Muslims led an uprising against the Maharaja. China took Aksai Chin and Shaksgam Valley, which was part of their larger conquest plan of Tibet post-1949. Aksai Chin was gained after the 1962 border war with India, and Shaksgam Valley was a Pakistani gift to China in 1963, thus entrenching an alliance between Pakistan and China.

The Indo-Pakistani War in 1947 resulted in a ceasefire, where Jammu and Kashmir were acceded to India, Pakistan consolidated control over Azad and Gilgit-Baltistan, and a UN ceasefire line of 1949 became the line of control. The first Kashmir war fixed the line of control, thus creating an uneasy peace among the two sides. Lord Mountbatten and India made an attempt in late-1947 to conclude the military conflict with a referendum, where people in Kashmir were given the choice which country to join. Pakistani leader Jinnah rejected the offer, sensing that Pakistan might lose the plebiscite. India attempted in early-1948 to refer the Kashmir conflict to the UN Security Council.

The UN Security Council Resolution 47 called for an immediate cease-fire, a Pakistani withdrawal from Kashmir and a reduction of Indian troops to a minimum after which a referendum would be held. Pakistan and India ultimately refused to comply with the resolution, as they both disagreed on whether to disband the Azad Kashmiri army (Pakistan against, India for it). Pakistan claimed that it has a standstill agreement with Jammu and Kashmir, which would prevent the Indian-occupied region from entering into agreements with other countries, while India considered itself to be the rightful owner of Jammu and Kashmir, accusing Pakistan of unjustly interfering in Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, UN conflict resolution attempts were doomed to failure.

Sir Owen Dixon proposed a plan of a limited referendum in Kashmir Valley only, while Jammu and Ladakh would join India, Azad and Gilgit would join Pakistan. Dixon also demanded the bilateral withdrawal of Pakistani and Indian troops, which was not acceptable to India, which argued that maintaining Indian troops was essential to the security of the minority Hindus.

In 1954, Pakistan joined a military alliance with the US, which provided important military and logistical support to Pakistan. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 was another big blow to India, which lost Aksai Chin to China. Beginning in 1965, Pakistan dispatched guerrilla warriors into Kashmir. The infiltrators were supposed to mingle with the local population and incite rebellion. They also organized strikes against Indian military installations, bridges, tunnels, highways and airfields. Pakistan’s plan failed as the local population refused to cooperate, and handed over many infiltrators to the Indian army. Pakistan lost patience and sent the regular army to launch attacks on Akhnoor to disrupt Indian communication with Kashmir. India retaliated by launching attacks on Pakistani Punjab. The 1965 Indo-Pakistan war resulted in another stalemate with both sides retreating back to their boundaries. The Tashkent Declaration of 1966 restored the status quo ante.

The tide turned against Pakistan in 1971, when internal leadership rift led to the split-up of West and East Pakistan. East Pakistan became Bangladesh with the help of India. Pakistan fought a ferocious war with India, which India responded by capturing parts of Pakistani Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh, which were returned to Pakistan after the ceasefire agreement. Pakistan lost a substantial portion of its military with that war.

The Simla Agreement of 1972 formulated the bilateral desire to settle the Kashmir conflict by maintaining the Line of Control between the two sides. Both sides would also agree that Kashmir is a bilateral problem, which can not be solved by the UN. Pakistan, however, maintained the implicit interpretation that because the document references the UN charter the case could still be referred to the UN.

In the 1980s, anti-Indian protests took place in Kashmir. The Afghan jihad that was waged against the Soviet occupiers motivated young Muslims in Kashmir to clamor for independence from India. Terrorist violence against Hindu minorities increased. Jammu and Kashmir’s chief minister Ghulam Mohammad Shah called in the army to curb violence, but it had little effect. Governor Jagmohan dismissed the chief minister and governed the province directly. Jagmohan was more Hindu nationalist and harsher on cracking down against anti-Hindu violence in Kashmir. This in turn mobilized the Muslims in their violent acts, and brought about the Muslim United Front which first participated in the 1987 legislative elections. The election was perceived to be rigged to favor the Hindu parties, which fueled the Muslim insurgency. In 1989, with a waning confidence of the Indian central government, Jagmohan was recalled as governor. In 1990 facing increasing violence, India again returned to governor’s rule from 1990 to 1996. This has happened several times in Kashmir’s history thereafter (2002, 2008-9, 2015, 2016 2018-Present), usually following a failure to form a state government.

The escalation of violence pushed out the Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) in 1990. Of the roughly half a million Pandits only 2-3,000 were left in 2016. As a result of this population shift, only 4% of the population in Kashmir Valley were Hindu, which further increases alienation among the Muslim population facing what they perceive to be an occupying foreign Indian army. The lack of Hindu inhabitants emboldened India in its repressive policies. The Indian government increased its crackdown during this period, culminating in the January 1990 Gawkadal massacre, where Indian security forces killed at least 50 pro-independence protesters. The many deaths incensed the protesters even more, resulting in more protests and more police-directed killings.

In 1999, Pakistan made another attempt to capture Indian-controlled Kashmir. Pakistani soldiers infiltrated Kargil during the winter season when Pakistani and Indian armies usually retreat from the higher mountain latitude. Their plan was to cut off the highway that connects Kashmir Valley with Ladakh. India responded to the incursion with a counter-offensive and retook most of the territory. 5,000 Pakistanis faced off with 30,000 Indian soldiers. There was a threat of a nuclear escalation as both countries already acquired nuclear weapons (India in the 1970s and Pakistan in the 1990s). The US government put pressure on Pakistan to withdraw their troops from Kashmir, and after heavy losses (4,000 Pakistanis killed) complied with that request.

There is dispute about who in the Pakistani command launched the Kargil War. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif claims that he was unaware of the invasion plans, blaming it on Army chief of staff Pervez Musharraf, who himself asserted that he had informed Sharif of the invasion plans 15 days before the launch. Musharraf, incensed that the civilian leaders had undermined the military during the operation, launched a coup in October 1999 and seized political power.

The Kargil War was the last major war between India and Pakistan, but numerous border skirmishes since then have resulted in military deaths. Skirmishes generally begin on the Pakistani side, and are retorted by retaliation from the Indian side. In the 2016-2018 border skirmish over 50 soldiers died on each side (though the exact count varies by country). Aside from direct military confrontation, Pakistan condones, equips and trains Kashmiri fighters’ infiltration into Indian-controlled Kashmir, which forces India to heavily guard the line of control with as much as 600,000 soldiers, making it one of the heaviest guarded borders in the world. Heavy guarding and the permanent threat of being killed builds up substantial stress, which induces Indian soldiers to commit extrajudicial killings, abductions and rapes, which undermines the legitimacy of the Indian state.

The 2000s saw the rise of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda. A 2001 US military invasion dislodged the Al-Qaeda from central power in Afghanistan, although US and allied military control was not very extensive beyond the capital. Whenever the US launched attacks against Al-Qaeda positions they could safely retreat to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. The US claimed that Al-Qaeda also implanted cells in Indian-controlled Kashmir to cause a war between India and Pakistan, though the Indian army denied the existence of such cells. Pakistan offered much needed shelter for bin Laden. When he was located by US intelligence, Navy Seals descended on his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan and assassinated bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 strike in New York which killed 3,000 people.

Despite Al-Qaeda, civilian and military fatalities markedly declined after 2001, reaching a low-point in 2016 (see Satp.org). Pakistani governments were more concerned with their domestic problems rather than fund militant fighters. Human rights groups claim that 100,000 people have been killed since 1989, which is higher than the official estimate of over 20,000 deaths.

Over the years, the Kashmir conflict became less of a secular, local struggle and more of a pan-Islamic religious struggle supported by foreign militants and Pakistani training and financing. Pakistan is keen on keeping the militants out of Pakistan and engaged in Kashmir. Using militants is also a cheap form of opposing Indian occupation as previous wars with the more formidable opponent usually ended up in costly losses (Chalk 2001).

What accounts for the escalation this time? Since the takeover of power by Narendra Modi and the BJP in India, a new Hindu nationalist wind rose up in Indian politics. Modi raised the specter of resolving the Kashmir conflict from India’s perspective by ending the autonomy status of the southern half of Kashmir, which it holds. Modi was further encouraged by previous events and shifts in geopolitical positions of Pakistan’s allies, China and US. After a Kashmir terrorist attack on Indian military units, Modi launched a military incursion into Pakistan-held Kashmir (the northern part), thus rooting out an important supply path for Muslim militants in Indian-held Kashmir. Previous Indian governments continuously backed off from striking into Pakistan-held territory believing that it would result in unnecessary military escalation. The perceived success of the military operation emboldened Modi in giving statehood to Kashmir, which occurred promptly after his reelection in the May national elections.

Important geostrategic shifts occurred with Trump’s election to the US presidency, which focused its foreign policy effort to narrow nationalist “America first” trade conflicts and less engagement as international police force. Trump takes virtually no interest in the India-Pakistan conflict. China has been a traditional partner to Pakistan, having started a border war with India in 1962 over disputed Kashmir territory, but also to relieve Pakistan. China has also funded the port of Gwadar and the highway linking the port to the border of Pakistan and China as part of the Belt and Road initiative. This time China is busy with its own domestic politics, especially with regard to Hong Kong (Bagwe 2019). China is also not known for strongly interfering in the domestic politics of other countries.

Modi saw an opening for giving Kashmir statehood and thereby also feeding the Hindu nationalist voters some red meat. It is questionable whether India’s decision can stabilize the region. Sayed Bukhari, government minister from Pakistan, warns India that the Kashmir move could result in a nuclear war (O’Connor 2019). Prime Minister Khan does not officially endorse Pakistani nationals from infiltrating Indian-controlled Kashmir, fearing that it would give India the excuse to further repress Kashmiris. But he also refuses to directly engage with India unless they revoke the statehood bill. He further hopes that the West will intervene on behalf of Pakistan (Al Jazeera 2019). Azad Kashmir president Masood Khan accuses India of causing one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent years due to “Hindu fundamentalist nationalism” targeting Muslims and other minorities (Apelblat 2019). Bin Laden associate and Pakistani cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz has been calling for an outright jihad against India (Tomlinson 2019).

In a further escalation, Indian foreign minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar stated that Pakistan-controlled Kashmir will one day belong to India (Firstpost 2019). The Indian government announced 15 new power projects in Jammu and Kashmir promising a restoration of electricity supplies, which, according to J&K Governor Satya Pal Malik will encourage the “People of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to revolt against Islamabad and join India” (All India Radio 2019).

It is difficult to imagine how to deescalate the bilateral tensions. In the past, Pakistani infiltration of Indian-controlled Kashmir and Indian domination over majority-Muslim territory was fueling the conflict. Pakistan initiated at least three of the past wars (1947, 1965, 1999). At the moment, India seems to have the upper hand, altering Jammu and Kashmir’s status without much expected pushback from China or the West, as India has increasingly become an economic power. Pakistan, on the other hand, is going through an economic crisis and recently applied for an IMF loan to pay off its unsustainable foreign debt. It is not surprising, therefore, that Pakistan is appealing for international support, while India regards the Kashmir issue a domestic issue. When the weak Melians were given the choice to surrender to the all-powerful Athens or die a gruesome death, the Melians insisted on being left alone based on morality and justice to which the Athenians bluntly replied that justice is only relevant for equals, and otherwise the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.

However, it would also be misguided to equate Pakistan with Melos. Both Pakistan and India have nuclear weapons. The tensions can only be resolved via bilateral negotiations, although the facts on the ground involving a lockdown, lootings and killings make such compromise difficult and spur a cycle of resentment and violence. From a Hobbesian perspective, there can only be one supreme nation if genuine peace is the objective. In the messy world of the present, a half-hearted peace is to be preferred over full-throated chaos.

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