Turkish Tantrums

Turkey’s Erdogan, emboldened after being reelected for a third term, is more critical of the crackdown in Syria than one would expect – but isn’t rushing to repair relations with Israel.

By ELDAD BECK
June 30, 2011 14:14
Syrian refugee camp on the Turkish border

Syrian refugee camp in Turkey 521. (photo credit: REUTERS/Osman Orsal)

THE MOUNTAIN LANDSCAPE that forms the border between Syria and Turkey is calm and picturesque. From the Turkish side, there is little evidence of the terrible tragedy taking place a few miles away in Syria.

It was only a short while ago that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan referred to Syrian President Bashar Assad as “my good friend.” But the number of Syrian refugees knocking on the borders of his country continues to increase and Assad has responded particularly harshly towards the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, with which Erdogan, as a devout Muslim, feels a particular affinity.

In numerous interviews, Erdogan has spoken of the “unimaginable barbarism” of Assad and his men, handed Assad an ultimatum to stop his murderous actions against the rebels in northern Syria and even declared that the Damascus regime is not telling Turkey the truth.

The Syrians, for their part, contend that the “terrorist activities” carried out by the rebels are part of an American-Israeli-Turkish plot to enable Ankara to invade Syria and expand its territory and have warned Turkey that any attempts to aid the refugees will be seen as an act of belligerence.

Yet despite the harsh rhetoric, Turkish authorities have actually done all they can to ignore the tens of thousands of Syrian refugees who are attempting to flee the horror.

They have set up four refugee camps, almost overnight, on the outskirts of the cities along the border and maintain them under the strictest supervision of the Turkish police and military. Journalists, local and especially foreign, are forbidden to come even close. Only those Syrians who have found refuge with friends and relatives on the Turkish side of the border are able to tell their stories about the murder, rape and destruction perpetrated by the Syrian military forces.

No one knows how many refugees have found their way over the border between the two countries. Official figures, provided by authorities in Ankara, put the number at some 20,000 individuals.

Unofficial estimates, especially by NGOs, put the number as high as a quarter of a million.

DOZENS OF SYRIANS have arrived at a hospital in the Hatay region. At the entrance to the emergency room, one of the nurses tells The Report, “There are a lot of Syrians hospitalized here, but I am not allowed to give you any other information.

Talk to the head physician.” The head physician will not speak without permission from her superiors in the municipality who, unsurprisingly, refuse to grant it.

Fear of Syrian agents is palpable among the Syrian refugees. Most refuse to give their names.

M., a 28-year-old bearded farmer in dirty clothes, sits on the fence surrounding the small hospital in the town of Yladai, where one of the refugee camps has been set up.

He fled to Turkey with his 23-year-old wife from the besieged town of Jisr al-Shughour.

His wife has come down with a strange illness and M. says that the refugees have heard that the Syrian soldiers have poisoned the drinking water. Nervously sucking in the smoke from his cigarette, M. tells The Report, “Jisr has become a ghost town. It’s completely empty. The situation on the Syrian side is very dangerous. Assad’s men are shooting at people and houses from helicopters and tanks.

“I don’t know what will happen now,” he continues with a sigh. “Assad’s men aren’t afraid of anyone. Not even God. They claim that the demonstrators are terrorists. But we’re not terrorists. I saw with my own eyes that they gave commands to the soldiers to shoot at civilians and soldiers who refused were shot in the back on the spot.”

Naji, a 23-year-old law student from Aleppo University in Syria, stands on a dusty, winding path under a Turkish army observation post. When the revolt against Assad spread, he returned to his family home, in a village close to the Turkish border.

Like many of his fellow students, Naji sneaks, almost every day, through the fields and forests into Turkey, in order to bring food to his family. “The authorities have cut the electricity, water and phone lines,” he tells The Report. “Everyone is afraid. The official reports about more than 1,000 dead since the beginning of the demonstrations against the government aren’t true. The numbers are much higher.”

Naji has met refugees along the way who have told him about systematic murder in villages and forests, deliberate demolition of houses and wanton burning of fields.

Another young Syrian, who also came to get food, believes that the terror is just beginning. “There will be even more violence and much more blood will be shed,” he predicts. “People want their freedom… The government is showing its true colors.

The Allawites (members of Assad’s minority ethnic group) have killed sheikhs and imams in the mosques.”

Ahmed, a farmer from a village near Jisr al-Shughour, has found refuge in the apartment of his Turkish friend. In Jisr, he says, “I saw… dozens of corpses lying in the streets. The fact that the rebellion is so strong in such a small town, which has a population of only some 45,000, is what prompted Assad to send his younger brother, Maher, as head of a special military unit, to teach the rebels a lesson that no one will quickly forget.”

The refugees who have escaped from Jisr al-Shughour tell of mass killings by the army, aided by Iranian security personnel and members of Hizballah, while the Syrian regime has blamed the rebels for the murder of 120 Syrian security personnel. “That’s not true,” says a former Syrian security official who defected to Turkey. “We received orders by phone from our commanders to kill all of the demonstrators in Jisr al- Shughour. Five soldiers who refused to shoot demonstrators were shot on the spot, in front of my eyes. Then the rest of the soldiers began to fire on each other. Out of the 180 servicemen that were there, 120 were killed in the exchange of fire."



ERDOGAN’S EMOTIONAL response to the Syrian crackdown, even though it has not been accompanied by any action, was seen by some as a sign that Syria was attempting a rapprochement with the West, and especially with the US and Israel.

Turkish-Israeli relations have been in a freefall for several years and were all but severed in May 2010 after nine Turkish militants, who were part of an anti-blockade flotilla to the Gaza Strip, were killed by Israeli forces. Turkey has demanded that Israel end the siege on Gaza and, even more forcefully, has insisted that Israel apologize and offer compensation for the killings – demands that Israel has angrily rejected, saying that it would, at most, “express regret.”

But since it would appear to be in the geopolitical, economic and security interests of both sides to repair the relationship, observers have been quick to seize on what seem to be attempts in that direction.

In December 2010, Turkey sent in firefighting personnel and equipment to help Israel fight severe forest fires in its northern Carmel region. In June, the IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation announced that it would not take part in the second flotilla, scheduled for late June. According to Israeli authorities, the IHH is a front for terrorism and in the past had received support from the Turkish government. In late June, the Israeli media were full of reports of secret talks between Turkey and Israel, mediated by the US.

Improvement in the relationship could also be attributed to timing. The UN Inquiry Committee’s report on the flotilla is due to be released in the first week of July. With proper preparation, it could be used as an opportunity for both countries to put the crisis behind them.

Officials in Jerusalem also note that, until now, Erdogan could not be flexible towards Israel because he did not want to appear to be weak while in the midst of Turkey’s parliamentary elections. But on June 12, Erdogan and his party won an unprecidented third consecutive victory that gave them about 50 percent of the electoral power. While this is still not the absolute majority that he had wanted, “Sultan Erdogan,” as his opponents call him, is now clearly in control of Turkey and can therefore take a more pragmatic stance.

Indeed, Erdogan did not mention Israel in his rousing victory speech and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sent him a congratulatory letter calling for a renewed state of positive relations between the two countries.

But on June 25, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu issued a blistering statement against Israel, reiterating, even more forcefully than before, Ankara’s demands for rapprochement.

RIFAT BALI, 63, BORN IN Istanbul, a member of the Alberto Benveniste Center for Sephardic Studies and Culture at the Sorbonne and a historical researcher, is convinced that there will be no improvement in the relationship between the two countries in the near future.

The casualties on the flotilla are the immediate reason for this, he says. “The general Turkish position is that Israel should formally apologize… and pay compensation,” says Bali, the author of numerous books on Turkey, as well as an observer and member of the Jewish community. “Turkey will never be satisfied with less than a full apology. So without a gesture from Israel, there will not be any improvement in the relationship. “ In contrast to some observers, Bali does not believe that Erdogan is manipulating his relationship with Israel for domestic purposes.

“It’s true that it is very popular in Turkey to attack and criticize Israel. The general attitude among the Turkish public is anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. But Prime Minister Erdogan is so popular that he didn’t need anti-Israel policies in order to gain additional votes. His position comes from his heart – and that makes it very much more serious.”

Erdogan’s policies towards Israel, Bali says, have also been affected by what he perceives as a deep insult by former prime minister Ehud Olmert. Bali recalls that in December 2008, on the eve of the Israel Defense Forces’ Cast Lead Operation in the Gaza Strip, Olmert visited Ankara, in order to, among other reasons, promote the Turkish initiative to mediate between Israel and Syria.

Erdogan asked Olmert not to initiate any military action that would upset the negotiations with Damascus. Olmert came back to Israel and never filled Erdogan in about the planned operation in the Gaza Strip.

“Erdogan and his foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, are very egocentric,” Bali explains. “They hold themselves and Turkey in the highest regard. There is a lot of emotion involved in their foreign policy… The Turks in general are very emotional and have a sense of greatness. They believe they are the continuation of the Ottomans and that they are the ‘big brothers’ in the Middle East.”

And underlying all of these considerations, Bali says, is deeply rooted Turkish anti- Semitism.

Bali’s studies have shown that the Turkish Islamic movement’s anti-Semitism is based on conspiracy theories dating back to a visit to Constantinople at the end of the 19th century by Theodore Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism. Herzl had asked Sultan Abdul Hamid to permit Jewish immigrants to settle in the Land of Israel, which was part of the Ottoman Empire, and the sultan refused.

Several years later, in 1909, the sultan was deposed and replaced by the secular “Young Turks.”

Bali explains, “The Islamists view the deposing of the sultan as Herzl’s and Zionism’s revenge. In their eyes, the sultan’s fall led to the breakdown of the Ottoman empire, which is also seen as the result of a Zionist plot. They view Palestine as Muslim land that has been taken over by the Jews.

This is a very basic feeling. It finds expression in the daily press of all of the various political streams of Islam and in the popular literature that they publish. It’s been this way for three generations of Turks who read things like the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ and other anti-Semitic materials about blood libels.”

Turkish anti-Semitism, which embraces the current policy towards Israel, is rooted deeply in many sectors of Turkish society. To emphasize his point, Bali cites the “The Valley of the Wolves,” an anti-Semitic series shown on Turkish TV and in movie theaters.

“They wouldn’t have made the series if it didn’t have a market. There’s anti-Semitism in other countries, but there is also usually the political will on the part of the political and legal establishment, or from intellectuals, to fight it. In Turkey there’s no such will, not even from the intellectuals. In their eyes, the Armenians and the Kurds are victims, but not the Jews. In Turkey the Jews are alone, with no one behind them.”

In an attempt to discredit Erdogan and Davutoglu, opponents claimed that they are “secret Jews,” descendants of the Dönmeh, who were families that were forced to convert to Islam, along with Shabtai Zvi, a false messiah, in the 17th century. “That’s a pretty common accusation in Turkey,” Bali says.

“The Islamists, the nationalists and the Kamalist-seculars all use it to accuse one another – when you want to attack someone, you say he has Jewish, Armenian or Greek roots. But the real problem is that Erdogan doesn’t respond by saying that these are racist accusations and that there is no problem in having Jewish blood. Instead, he defends himself by denying the accusations.”

Erdogan, Bali continues, comes from an Islamic background and from the national religious party established by the previous prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan. “That party educated its activists and supporters on the basis of the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and anti-Israeli and anti-Zionist politices, and Erdogan views the Palestinians as victims and the Israelis as oppressors. Any small escalation in the region only strengthens these feelings and brings him to another outburst against Israel.”

Yet Bali says that Erdogan does not deny Israel’s right to exist. “I think he is smarter and more pragmatic than the average anti- Semitic Islamic type. His true feelings come out in his more emotional moments, but he does believe that Israel is a legitimate state with the right to exist. And he wants to play the role of mediator between Israel and Syria.”

But Bali warns that Israel should not count on Erdogan’s mediation. “He is not neutral.”

His criticism of Syria notwithstanding, Bali warns, Erdogan will remain loyal to the Muslims and will not act against Syria.

Until recently, Israel had preferred to ignore Turkish anti-Semitism, as did the American Jewish organizations. “It was more important to them to maintain good diplomatic, economic and military ties between Israel and Turkey than to deal with Turkish anti-Semitism,” he says.

He says he is not optimistic about the future. “It’s like a serious illness that no one is trying to cure. The authorities in Ankara are aware of the problem, but they don’t want to fight it… The constituency of the nationalist and Islamic parties has very negative opinions about the Jews, and there is no counter Jewish constituency – the Jews number only about 15,000 people, and only about 10,000 voters. So if you were a Turkish politician – would you neglect your constituent base?”


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