EP’s Lambsdorff: EU, Turkey should be in strategic dialogue on eastern Mediterranean

As tensions are high in the eastern Mediterranean — from Cyprus to Syria and from Gaza to Egypt — European and Turkish leaders should talk with each other more than ever as their interests and strategic goals in the region overlap, according to this week’s guest for Monday Talk.

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (Photo: Today's Zaman)
Alexander Graf Lambsdorff (Photo: Today's Zaman)

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, member of the European Parliament from Germany and vice chair of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE Group), has said Europe and Turkey have a “real interest” in having a strategic dialogue.

“We need to talk about these things and find solutions to these questions. It’s very difficult, takes a long time sometimes, but we must avoid developing political ideas that would lead to a divergence of European interests and strategic goals and Turkish interests and strategic goals,” he said in relation to challenges in the stability of the eastern Mediterranean.

In a recent visit to İstanbul, he elaborated on the issue while answering our questions.

You stress the point that the EU and Turkey need to renew their dialogue. Would you elaborate on this idea? Why is it important?

Turkey is an extremely important country, and the European Union is very important, too. We have had a long and close relationship for many decades, but paradoxically, with the opening of the accession negotiations we’ve seen a cooling of the relationship because the process does not work well enough. That has led to loss of interest on both sides. Therefore, I suggest to continue with the accession process but also to look at other options for cooperation, integration and for common strategies between Turkey and the EU because I believe we need a positive atmosphere just as we need technical and political negotiations.

The EU seems to have other priorities at this time other than the accession process.

The EU is trying to stabilize the euro, and that takes a lot of energy as this concerns the welfare of our society. Enlargement is indeed much less of a concern to our citizens right now.

There is a belief in Turkish society that Turkey’s accession process has been stalled because of some of the leaders in the EU — like Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy — and there are anti-Turkey and anti-Turkish feelings in Europe. What do you think about this?

In certain parts of Europe there are anti-Islamic feelings. I would not call this anti-Turkish; it is different. For me, a member of a liberal political party that advocates the strict separation of the religious from the political sphere, this is a completely unacceptable position in any kind of political debate. On the other hand, there is a legitimate political argument about the merits of Turkish accession, and there are some leaders in Europe who say it would be better if Turkey were not to accede to the European Union. As nobody expects that the negotiations will conclude in the next few years, however, this is not so important, as the entire European and Turkish leadership will have changed before a decision on Turkish accession has to be taken in earnest.

‘It is utterly unacceptable that the EU is incapable of admitting a majority Muslim country’

You said there are anti-Islamic feelings in Europe. There is also Islamophobia. Which one do you think is more prevalent? What is the distinction between the two?

I would not make a great distinction between the two. Some conservatives in Europe think of the EU as a club of countries that is incapable of admitting a majority Muslim country. This is utterly unacceptable. It is a minority position, not a position that is widely shared by citizens. If we reintroduce religion into politics, we open a Pandora’s box. Europe has much experience with religion trying to dominate politics; indeed, our most terrible war was fought over that question, the Thirty Years’ War from 1618-1648. At the end, the peace deal made sure that religion and politics were to be kept separate.

Would Turkey’s inclusion in the European Union help or not in eliminating Islamophobia or anti-Islamic feelings?

The accession process of Turkey to the EU is a political process. It is not a social process, and it is not a religious process. From a political point of view, one needs to analyze whether it is economically feasible, whether it has political support and whether Turkey fulfills the acquis. All of those things must be checked but people should not have high hopes that membership of any particular country is going to change the minds of prejudiced people.

Now that the French elections are coming up, do you expect that more anti-Turkey positions will be highlighted?

I hope not. You may hear about two issues: one related to the Armenian question and the other to Turkey’s possible European Union membership. On the Armenian question, everyone knows what the discussion is about, and on the EU accession, a clear majority of the French population, not just the leadership, is against Turkey’s accession. So some politicians may choose to exploit those feelings by linking the Armenian issue with EU accession, and therefore create an atmosphere that makes it difficult for France and Turkey to rebuild a constructive relationship.

‘Strategic dialogue not replacement of Turkey’s accession process’

You also stress that Turkey and the EU need a strategic dialogue, aiming at cooperation rather than competition, especially in the eastern Mediterranean.

The entire issue of stability in the eastern Mediterranean is difficult right now. We have a terrible situation in Syria, tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis, extremists in power in Gaza, a changing Egypt that becomes more difficult to predict, hardly any progress on the island of Cyprus and now in addition to that we see the exploration of resources off the coast of Cyprus. So the entire eastern Mediterranean right now is an area where challenges for the EU, the Middle East and Turkey overlap. Turkey and the EU member states are nearly all NATO allies. We need to talk about these things and find solutions to these questions. It’s very difficult, takes a long time sometimes, but we must avoid developing political ideas that would lead to a divergence of European interests and strategic goals and Turkish interests and strategic goals. Therefore, starting in the eastern Mediterranean, we have a real interest in having this strategic dialogue. But if you look at other areas around Turkey like Central Asia, the Caucasus or sub-Saharan Africa, you have an active Turkish role in all of those areas, and you have an active European role in all of those areas. So why not compare notes and see where we can cooperate. There might be instances where we will have to agree to disagree. But then, as allies, we should be aware of that because if we disagree, we must be able to manage that responsibly.

Do you hear any arguments in Europe against strategic dialogue with Turkey?

No, not at all. The only argument I hear sometimes is from Turkish friends who are concerned that such a dialogue may become a replacement for the accession process, which is definitely not the intention. I’m glad therefore that the Turkish government has accepted this invitation to enter into a strategic dialogue.

‘Turkey’s exclusion by France to participate in discussions over Libya was profoundly wrong’

You emphasize Turkey’s position more than the EU’s, especially in relation to the Arab Spring. Would you explain the reasons behind this?

If one looks at a map, it is clear that Turkey is a very important country in a very delicate area and has assets that it can bring to the discussion in relation to what is going on in North Africa and the Middle East. The Europeans should try to use these resources as we have a role in NATO. We are well advised in Brussels and in national capitals — London, Paris, etc. — to have a constant dialogue with Ankara. One thing that completely baffled me is that in the early stages of planning the Libyan military campaign, Turkey was not invited by France to participate in the discussion. This was profoundly wrong. Because whatever you think about accession, denying that Turkey has an important strategic role and is a crucial player is very short-sighted. After all, Turkey is the ally with the second largest armed forces inside NATO.

Is the axis shift debate regarding Turkey still continuing in Europe?

There was a fear for some time that Turkey may turn away from Europe and turn its back on NATO. In 2003, Turkey did not allow American troops to use its territory for the war in Iraq, and then came the deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. Having said all this, a closer analysis of Turkish foreign policy in its immediate neighborhood and in the regions with which Turkey was supposed to construct new axes does not make us think that the fears are justified. There is no Ankara-Tehran axis; there is no Ankara-Damascus axis; there is no Ankara-Moscow axis. Ankara’s strongest axis is with Brussels and Washington, D.C. Strategically speaking, that makes sense. Europe is Turkey’s economic future if the country wants to become a high-tech nation, and I believe it does. The US is the leading power in NATO and Turkey’s security guarantee. Turkey’s strategic interests are best met in the West and the North, even though the South and the East may be a bit more interesting than they used to be.


‘First, UN should try its best to resolve Cyprus issue’

Turkish officials have said that Turkey will freeze relations with the European Union if Greek Cyprus is given the EU presidency in 2012. Do you think this would lead to a new low point in ties between the European Union and Turkey?

Announcing a freeze of Turkish-European relations was not wise. One should recognize that Cyprus is not the only small country in the EU with a big neighbor who may not always like all the policies the small member decides to pursue. For example, if Latvia or Estonia holds the EU presidency and Russia is unhappy with some of the policies of these countries, Russia may decide to boycott the EU, and you could certainly expect that the rest of the EU would close ranks around these countries. For a candidate country — and Turkey is a candidate country — it is necessary to think through the implications of such a statement. I hope a constructive way of handling this issue can be found for the second half of 2012.

If there is no solution found despite all efforts of the UN to the problems on the island of Cyprus, do you think the European Union should assume a role in solving the problem?

We have had United Nations efforts for decades trying to resolve the situation on the island. Let’s now have the UN try their best; they have our full support. If there is no solution found by the end of this year, it is everyone’s concern — the EU, Greek Cypriots, Turkish Cypriots and Turkey — to find a new approach in solving this problem. If that means Europeanizing the process, it may be worth trying also because as an EU member state, Cyprus will have a special obligation to engage constructively in an EU-led process.


‘Turkish politicians say Europe is less important for them, but…’

You hold talks with both ruling and opposition party politicians in Turkey and talk about the accession process. Do you see serious divergences in their approaches toward Turkey’s EU accession process?

While there is a certain frustration with the accession process on all sides, no responsible politician from either the government or the opposition has indicated to me that Europe was becoming less important in their opinion. There has been a set of developments in the Turkish neighborhood that has led to more activities vis-à-vis the countries in Turkey’s immediate neighborhood. However, as I said above, if one takes a closer look at this trend, one sees that this has not always led to an improvement, be it with regard to Syria, Iran or Armenia. Europe is still Turkey’s largest trading partner, the largest partner in direct foreign investment, the largest destination for migration and remigration, the source of high tech and know-how and so on. With 500 million people and high purchasing power, the EU is the largest single market in the world. The proximity to Europe and NATO membership are the source of Turkey’s strength, and responsible leaders in Turkey recognize this full well.


‘Regardless of accession, we must continue to work together’

Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Germany recently to celebrate the 50th year of the start of Turkish migration to Germany. At a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel, Erdoğan complained that the [terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK was able to collect 6 million euros in Germany, and Erdoğan has criticized Germany for not dealing with the PKK, echoing similar remarks during a visit in February to Düsseldorf. What do you think the German government can do to deal with the PKK?

Let me start by saying that in comparison to the resources available to the Turkish state and taking into account the wealth of Germany, 6 million euros is a very small amount of money. It is surprising that the prime minister should even mention such a small sum. As for the PKK, it is considered a terrorist organization by German authorities. It is monitored by our domestic intelligence service; its activities are followed very closely by the police. As far as I know, no terrorist acts have been prepared, planned or carried out by PKK activists from inside Germany in a very long time.

In an interview with the German Bild newspaper, Erdoğan criticized Germany’s stand on Turkey’s EU aspirations, saying the EU’s largest member state had “abandoned” Turkey on the issue of EU accession. Your ideas on that.

When negotiations started there was no political consensus about Turkish accession in Europe. Because of this, the negotiations were structured in a way that each and every member state can legally block each and every chapter of the negotiations. So now, we are faced with a blockade in the Council. But that is not Germany’s fault. At the time, Turkey pushed for negotiations despite the obvious lack of support for Turkish accession in some very important member states. So when the prime minister criticizes Germany, he should consider that Turkey bears part of the responsibility for the current difficulties as well. All of us must recognize, however, that mutual recriminations are not helpful. We face so many challenges that we must move ahead and define a new positive agenda. We need a re-launch of a meaningful Turkish-European dialogue. Turkey and the EU must engage with one another in a constructive and respectful manner because no matter what happens regarding accession, we must continue to work together as neighbors, allies and friends.


‘We strongly favor a liberalized visa regime with Turkey’

Is there any progress regarding visa liberalization?

As European liberals, we strongly favor a liberalized visa regime with Turkey. We must make progress with visa facilitation for groups of travelers like students, business people, academics, artists and so on. In Germany, where we are in government, the talks are going on to find a solution to this problem. We try to push the conservatives on this.


PROFILE

Alexander Graf Lambsdorff

Member of the European Parliament and vice chair of the Group of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE Group), he is from Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), which currently serves as the junior coalition partner to the Union (Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union) in the German federal government. He is the founding member of both the Atlantic Initiative Germany and the German-Turkish Foundation. He served in the German Foreign Office in 1995-2003.

 

 

 

13 November 2011, Sunday / YONCA POYRAZ DOĞAN, İSTANBUL

Imran Khan: Pakistan caught in the grip of a political mafia

Imran Khan, world famous cricketer turned politician, is running for president in the upcoming elections in Pakistan.

 

Imran Khan
Imran Khan

He aims to succeed the husband of assassinated Benazir Bhutto, “Mr. 10 Percent” President Asif Ali Zardari — a vision he lays out in his latest book, “Pakistan: A Personal History.” The book is semi-autobiographical while also serving as a political manifesto and a fresh perspective on Pakistan’s troubled history.

Khan has already faced criticism for entering politics, with some labeling him a celebrity politician. However, Khan hits back, saying he believes Pakistan needs a real leadership change to move away from being a nation wrapped in turmoil to a successful, prospering country. “Unfortunately, Afghanistan and Pakistan do not have democratic institutions and we need leadership to give these two countries such institutions,” he told Sunday’s Zaman last month.

A household name after having served as captain for the Pakistani national cricket team, Khan set up the Shaukat Khanum Memorial Cancer Hospital & Research Centre, named after his mother, who died of cancer.

In 1996, Khan founded the party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) and became its president. Between November 2002 and October 2007, he represented the district of Mianawali as a member of the National Assembly. In 2007 during President Pervez Musharraf’s declared state of emergency, Khan was placed under house arrest. Having escaped, Khan then went into hiding after it became apparent that Musharraf’s government wanted him for supporting opposition protests. In November, in front of crowds of protesters at a university in Lahore, Khan turned himself in to police who then arrested him under anti-terrorism laws. He was released later that month after his hunger strike made news around the world. That same year, former President Benazir Bhutto returned from exile only to be assassinated in December. Her husband, accused of financial corruption and embezzling millions of dollars to store in Swiss bank accounts, is the current president.

Khan is passionate about bringing change to his country and in particular about the eradication of a culture of corruption and corrupt leaders in Pakistan.

“A homeland is where your roots are; it is where your history and ancestors are. That is important to me,” he said. “All the country’s current top politicians are corrupt and are involved in corruption charges,” he added. “What Pakistan needs now is change.”

Sunday’s Zaman spoke with Imran Khan about his politics, his faith and his vision for his country.

Under President Musharraf you were placed under house arrest and some politicians attempted to have you disqualified from the National Assembly. How is this linked to the Pakistani constitution?

Yes, they tried to disqualify me. It’s called Article 62 of the Constitution and it means anyone with a bad character can be disqualified. Aspects of the constitution are too wide-ranging, and if the government doesn’t like my view, they can use the article to disqualify me. But no one has been disqualified as a result of the article yet, so in a sense it’s not effective. What should happen, however, is that people with bad reputations who have been involved in financial corruption should not be able to run in elections.

How important is your faith in your life and how does it guide you in your politics?

What faith does for me is that it changes your life in the sense that you realize there is a reason for your existence which is not based on yourself. So your existence means the more the Almighty gives you, the more responsibility you have over what you do for society, or what you do for the less-privileged human beings. So faith should make you compassionate and selfless; it should make you just. We should be just human beings and fair. All this [is] because we believe in a hereafter. So therefore if we believe in a god that is a god of justice, we should believe we will be judged by how we treat our fellow human beings. So really, faith has made me a responsible member of human society and that is why I have entered politics. Otherwise, I would not have entered politics.

Your party’s slogan is “Justice, humanity and self-esteem.” In the Middle East, before the Arab Spring, there was always a lot of hope and cries for change. Do you feel there is the same sense of self-esteem and optimism in Pakistan?

I have optimism. In one way, Pakistan is going through the worst of times and in another way, there is actually more hope for change now and that signals the best of times because the only thing that can save Pakistan is change. We are currently caught in the grip of a political mafia that is plundering the country and that comes in to politics to loot the country. It’s a total criminal takeover of the country. On the other hand, there is a desire from a very politically aware section of Pakistan who now wants a change. And because of a very vibrant electronic media and print media, that political mafia has been exposed in Pakistan. So change is really where hope lies in this country.

What are your party’s chances for success in the upcoming elections?

Well, it’s the only party that people trust and we are the only party that distributes money. I am the leader that runs the biggest charitable institution in this country. Pakistanis don’t trust any other politician, and the top politicians are all involved in corruption or have corruption cases against them. So the biggest advantage we have is our credibility.

In your opinion, what do people deserve from their government and what can the government expect from its people?

It’s a two-way contract between the people and the government. The people’s responsibility is to give taxes and the government’s responsibility is to collect taxes and spend them on the welfare of the people. The government’s responsibility lies in spending that money responsibly to provide the basic necessities of the people — [to] provide security, justice, education, take care of their health and look after the weaker sections of society.

How much do you think you can empathize with the poorer sections of society and how can you know what they need?

If you have compassion, then you are able to empathize with people who are suffering anywhere in the world. As a person who is very privileged and who the Almighty has given everything, I feel I should try to do my best for my society and for those less-privileged than me. That is what my religion tells me, too. Pure religion should make you into a good human being; that was the purpose of every prophet on Earth. They wanted us to be decent human beings rather than just intelligent animals.

You were obviously well-educated and you gained your degree at Cambridge — a top English university. If your party is successful in the elections, how will you ensure that politics and political leadership is open to everyone, regardless of class and social background?

Well, we have to create a level playing field in Pakistan and that happens when you create equal opportunities in education — give education justice, in other words. Then we have rule of law, which provides traditional justice and, finally, we have economic justice, which means there is [a] fairer, more just society.

For instance, I built a university in the countryside because there was massive unemployment … there. I thought I would build a technical university so that young people could get employment. It’s the first private sector university in the rural area.

You once called for the death penalty for former President Musharraf. Do you still believe in capital punishment?

I’m afraid for certain crimes I do believe in capital punishment, the first being first degree murder, so that is cold-blooded killing. Secondly, I believe that pedophiles — people who destroy the lives of children — should face the death penalty. So in those senses, I do believe in capital punishment when human lives are destroyed.

Edward Said believed the world is based on the idea of the West and “the rest.” How true do you think this is?

In a sense, what we have to be careful of is what is called “cultural imperialism” and that [the] whole world is looked upon through Western eyes and they look upon our society through Western values. But the problem is Western values keep shifting. There are certain values which are universal values, like freedom of speech, democracy, human rights and the welfare state. These are great ideas, but they are not Western; they are universal. But then there are other things which are completely against the values of our country [that] are imposed on us, and many of those impositions can be in bad taste. You would expect that people coming from Pakistan should respect the values of the West, but so too should people not impose their values here in Pakistan. So, I guess that is what I would say in answer to Said’s idea.

You are heavily critical of Pakistan as a mercenary state in that it is almost completely reliant on aid. Why is aid such a bad thing?

Because aid is a curse. Remember, aid has never helped any country — except for the Marshall Plan, which was a great success — and it has never helped any country stand on its own two feet. When people get together in a society and make collective sacrifices, they are the ones who are helping the country and putting it back on its feet. So aid has been a curse for Pakistan, and what it has done is propped up very corrupt governments and it has stopped us from making the very important reforms necessary to make Pakistan a viable state. It has not helped the people but instead helped the crooked politicians whose corruption is fed by the aid.

What has the “War on Terror” done to the region?

For a start, the war has given us a very corrupt leadership and taken us into a conflict which we have nothing to do with. No Pakistani was involved in 9/11 — neither was there Taliban or al-Qaeda in Pakistan. It was all in Afghanistan. We had nothing to do with the war. It was just about [Musharraf’s] dictatorship that wanted US support. We have thousands dead and over $70 billion lost to the economy. We have 3.5 million refugees internally displaced. There is growing extremism and radicalism, so the “War on Terror” has been a disaster and after fighting this war for the US, we are still not trusted, given all the sacrifices we have made. I blame our leadership for taking us into this war.

What kind of relations would you like Pakistan to have with Turkey, particularly as a country that is becoming popular amongst Muslim nations?

Well, let me say that what your prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has done in Turkey has been one of the biggest success stories in the Muslim world. The democratic trail has bought so much prosperity to the country, and Erdoğan has strengthened democracy and also given leadership to the Muslim world. The only other leader who has given us such pride was Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia, and in the same way he changed Malaysia and brought so much prosperity to his people, and that is exactly what Erdoğan has done. The people of Pakistan have always considered Turks as their brothers and, ever since the Khilafat movement in the 1920s, people have looked to Turkey with pride. So there will always be a deep emotional connection with Turkey.

How would you envisage relations with India?

Well, I would like relations with India to improve, but it takes two to untangle a knot. We need good leadership in both countries to settle relations. Regrettably, there is so much suspicion and we regard each other with so much animosity and terrorism on each other’s soils. So unfortunately, relations with India have not always been what they should have been, but the two countries will benefit a lot if we resolve differences politically rather than using secret agencies, which we currently do. Pakistan was created to be the Muslim country for the Indian subcontinent.

What do you think about what is happening with the Muslim minority who live in India, particularly at the hands of the Hindu nationalist party the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)?

Well, you know I am against anyone — particularly political parties — who cash in on hatred. So any such party who whips up hatred to gain votes — I find they do a lot of damage to human society. When the Ajodhya Mosque was destroyed, it whipped up a lot of anger and fanaticism in India and a lot of people were killed, especially Muslims. But when the BJP came into power, they weren’t as right-wing as we predicted they would be and they moved a bit to the center. It sometimes comes down to that: When you are in the opposition you are more extreme than when you are in the government.

One of your inspirations was the poet Muhammad Iqbal. Which is your favorite verse?

There is so much of his work that inspires me. Iqbal is an ocean. But one of his verses, from his poem “The Eagle’s Advice to its Youngster,” goes like this:

“I remember this of the words of the old falcons:

‘Do not make your nest on the branch of a tree.’

We do not make nests in garden or field,

For we have a paradise in mountains and deserts.”

He was one of the most dynamic voices of our subcontinent and [had] one of the greatest Muslim brains.

PROFILE

Imran Khan Niazi is a Pakistani politician and a former famous cricketer that played for two decades in late 20th century. He was born in Lahore on Nov. 25, 1952. After retiring from cricket, he entered politics aiming to use his popularity for his success. In April 1996, Khan founded and became the chairman of a political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice). Khan’s proclaimed political platform and declarations include: Islamic values, liberal economics, decreased bureaucracy and anti-corruption laws, the establishment of an independent judiciary, and an anti-militant vision for a democratic Pakistan. Currently, besides his political activism, Khan is also a philanthropist, cricket commentator and chancellor of the University of Bradford in the UK.

 

 

 

06 November 2011, Sunday / TAHMEENA BAX , LONDON

Unfortunately biased: The latest IISS strategic survey on Turkey

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) is one of the world’s leading think tanks focused on international security.

Its Annual Review of World Affairs is read by security community diplomats and foreign policymakers across the world. Its 2011 edition was just released and it is unfortunately biased. The nine-page section on Turkey is titled “Turkey’s Diminished Role,” an immediate indication of what to expect. On seeing this title, the question which springs to mind immediately is, is it fair to characterize Turkey as playing a less important part in world affairs in 2011? I raise this question even if we can possibly forgive this UK-based organization for adhering to a clear Western slant of world affairs. Many of this report’s analyses are clearly unfair. Here are some examples:

The Arab Spring

According to the IISS, Turkey was “caught unprepared” by the Arab Spring, which “should have been the AKP’s [Justice and Development Party] finest hour.” Instead, it claims, Turkey sided with the region’s ruling elites, with which it had extensive economic ties and alliances, and was late to support the “Arab street,” the sole exception being Egypt because of its threat to Turkey as a political leader in the Arab world.

In comparison, its assessment of the United States on the same issue is far more lenient: “The decision to help push President Hosni Mubarak out of office thus entailed real dilemmas for US policy” and Obama “justified his caution by insisting that real empowerment of the Egyptian people required less rather than more association with American aims.” Nor is there any mention of Hillary Clinton’s support for the Ali government in Tunisia and her constant reference to reforms and “stability” interests almost until the government fell and he fled the country. Moreover, the survey fails to note that the entire world was unprepared and caught by surprise by the Arab Spring, as Western governments grappled with balancing their long-term alliances and economic interests in the Middle East with the democratic aspirations of the people in the region. The EU in particular advocated and also preached stability and urged “reforms” on the part of repressive governments as they watched to see how events transpired. If advocacy for democracy were the only factor determining foreign policy, would any country engage in trade with China and Saudi Arabia? However, almost every government does, regardless of their lesser protestations of human rights violations.

It’s unreasonable to expect Turkey, which is located in the Middle East and has the Arab states as its neighbors, and a long economic relationship with several countries, to be any less bifurcated in its foreign policies. Had Turkey advocated revolutions in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia at the first sign of street demonstrations and had the street protests failed, resulting in more violence, it would have been censured by the West for causing instability in an already unstable region.

Diminished role?

Regardless of the missteps in reaching full democracy, and apart from Turkey’s support for a particular democratic movement at a particular time, the obvious popularity of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during his tour of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, even when advocating a secular government in Egypt, is obvious. Given that economically, politically and culturally, Turkey has an obvious large role to play in the Middle East, and then labeling its role as “diminished” is inaccurate and misleading.

The IISS evaluation of Turkey domestically is likewise slanted and not reflective of reality. Here is one example: “Buoyed by a booming economy, the AKP won 49.9 percent of the popular vote.” Later it stated that “one of the main reasons” for the AKP’s victory was that “Turkey’s GDP grew by 8.9 percent in 2010” (actually it was 8.2 percent). It’s as if the AKP could not be popular on its own apart from the economy and ignores the Erdoğan government’s record of extending social services, such as available healthcare, to Turks. Moreover, the government gets no credit for contributing to its spectacular growth over the years, in contrast to Europe and the US. Turkey’s economic growth in 2010 was ranked 18th in the world, ahead of every European and Middle Eastern country by far. The best performance by a European country during the same year was Germany, ranked 100th, at 3.5 percent. Is this a country with a “diminished role”?

Denying Ergenekon

Regarding domestic politics, the report is similarly one-sided. The most egregious statement is the following: “By mid-2011, almost 300 people had been formally charged with membership in Ergenekon, although prosecutors had yet to produce convincing evidence that the organization even existed.” Is the writer, who leaves no doubt that s/he is one of those ardent Ergenekon deniers who continue to influence international public opinion, not aware that the charges are not even denied by the former chief of General Staff, retired Gen. Işık Koşaner? Or supported by Adm. Özden Örnek’s diaries? Or documented in several books, articles and news reports? Or the fact that these arrests are coming from the judiciary and not the government?

No credit for judicial reforms

Equally upsetting is the report’s giving credence to claims that the AKP was “politicizing the judicial system” and that its proposed constitutional amendments, approved by 58 percent of voters in a referendum, “appeared to reduce judicial impartiality by increasing political control over the appointment of judges and prosecutors.” It’s as if there is no history of the judiciary being a key part of the secular bloc in Turkey which closed down the predecessor parties of the AKP and almost shut down the AKP itself in 2008 (short just one vote) because of its initiative in Parliament to lift the headscarf ban. Nor does the writer on Turkey like readers to know that Turkey’s main opposition parties oppose and still oppose the constitutional amendments approved by voters even today as a new constitution is about to be debated in Parliament. Instead of giving some credit to the Erdoğan government for its democratizing efforts, it takes the identical position of its opposition parties, which have even nominated for Parliament people jailed for alleged coup plotting. Another jab at the government blames “another rise in violence in the long-running insurgency by the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK” on the AKP’s “abandonment of a strategy of engagement and conciliation.” At the very least, this issue is hardly as simple as it is made to appear and, at worst, gives ugly justification to the PKK’s killing of innocent civilians. Given the latest attacks by the PKK, this part of the report is embarrassing. In fact, opposition parties criticized the AKP government for its informal talks with Abdullah Öcalan.

Western and eastern alliances

Finally, there is the ever-present criticism that the AKP government is shedding its close alliance with the West, has lost interest in EU membership and is “less amenable to US pressure to take tougher measures against Iran.” It also claims that Turkey has “Ottoman nostalgia” which “erroneously” underlies its strategy regarding the Middle East, which could result in it being neither an alliance partner nor a regional power. The writer of the Turkey section completely ignores the fact that Erdoğan has a good relationship with the Obama administration and has signed a missile-defense agreement with the US, which Iran has criticized. But Turkey is not a satellite country of the US and has an independent foreign policy. After all, the Cold War has been over for two decades. In summary, Turkey deserves a more objective analysis from the IISS. The AKP government is not without its problems, such as the issues regarding press freedoms, as much a reflection of current law in Turkey as a long legacy of restrictions. But Turkey’s evaluation should be balanced and this report is not, giving Turkey little credit for its economic development, political stability and progressive reforms. The IISS should be apart from and above the polarization of Turkey’s political scene and its charismatic leader.

*Richard Peres is a writer living in İstanbul. His latest book, “The Day Turkey Stood Still,” will be published this winter.

http://richperes.blogspot.com

 

 

 

30 October 2011, Sunday / RICHARD PERES*,

Arab wave sweeps Iran model out, Turkey ‘in’

Turkish premier’s call for secularism in Arab Spring countries has raised Turkey’s stature as a model for democracy, Paul Salem tells the Daily News

The Arab Spring has not had a major impact on regional balance of power so far, but this could change if there is a regime change in Syria, says Paul Salem.
The Arab Spring has not had a major impact on regional balance of power so far, but this could change if there is a regime change in Syria, says Paul Salem.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s call for secularism has calmed the fears of those concerned Turkey was about to create a network of Muslim Brotherhood-led governments to control the Arab world, said a regional expert. His statement also relieved the secularists who feared the Islamists, said Paul Salem, the director of Carnegie Middle East Center. Turkey stands as the most attractive model, since other models like Iran have failed, Salem told the Daily News in a recent interview in Beirut.

Q: Where are we with the Arab Spring?

A: It is a changed Arab world. Peoples’ mentalities have changed. Even if conditions in certain countries have not changed, people have changed. This change has gone in the direction of people prioritizing democracy and pluralism. This was clearly a pro-democracy revolution.

Now we are entering a new era. We had the era where political Islam in a non-democratic, often violent, format was the proposed solution. This is the era where democratization is the key. Political Islam is coming under the context and conditions of democracy. And obviously the Turkish example of a party with Islamic roots successful in a democratic state is the most attractive model for the states that have been through a revolution.

Today the majority of Arab citizens by number are either living in countries transitioning to democracy like Egypt, Tunisia, Libya or semi-democracies like Iraq or Lebanon or in countries in revolutions asking for democracy like Syria or Yemen. This is significant. But the process is filled with uncertainties, risks and challenges.

Q: How about the impact on international and regional balances?

A: It did not so far have a major impact on regional or international balance of power. This could change if the uprising in Syria reaches its end point with a regime change. If Syria changes its leadership this will mean the new regime will probably not have the same deep relations with Iran or Hezbollah. And it might lose access to Hamas and the Palestinian issue. This will be a major loss for Iran. It will retreat and focus more on Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. has lost in the Arab Spring, but it has lost much less than it thought. The relationship with Egypt like the one with Turkey will be more challenging.

Turkey is one of the slight winners. The revolutionaries did not say we want to be like Iran or Saudi Arabia or America. Most of them were saying we want to be something like Turkey.

And these revolutions are pro-globalization and pro-business. That is good for Turkey. Egypt wants trade and economic progress. The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist forces, which are likely to be important players, are looking to the Justice and Development Party (AKP) to see if they can learn anything. Now they realize being in the opposition is easier than being in the government. Arab Spring was about poverty and lack of economic progress.

The Muslim Brotherhood is realizing that if they cannot get jobs and the economy going, people will not like them either. And they are aware of that. They look to Turkey for advice. It is not a model. But they know that they have more to learn from Turkey than from Saudi Arabia or Iran.

Q: For “political Islam” to function under democracy, isn’t there a need to reconcile with secularism? Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s call for secularism was not welcomed by all.

A: Secularism has failed as a word and as a strong philosophy to build legitimacy in the Arab world. But what is meant by secularism has legitimacy in the wider Arab world.

Many parties and citizens participating in the Arab uprising actually believe in the details of secularism. Islamists won the argument that if you say you are secularist it means you are atheist. But Islamic slogans were hardly visible during uprisings even though Islamists were there. They agreed on the words “civil state”; they are the new buzz words.

This is where they disagree with Erdoğan: While accepting the civil state, the Islamist say “since we are mostly Muslim, we should include in the constitution a reference to Islam and sharia,” but they don’t say “we want to be an Islamic state.”

Q: So will the Islamist parties be the dominant players in the region?

A: They will do quite well in the elections. They will be the biggest single blocs, but not majority blocs. This partly reflects the strategy of Islamists. They are aware that they are feared.

Their strategy is to move gradually and to enter coalitions.

Q: There are fears that like in the Iranian example, the Islamists will soon get rid of their coalition partners and impose a less tolerant rule.

A: The risk is there, definitely. But, had the revolutions been an Islamist revolution, with millions on the street with Islamist slogans, that would have been a different situation. Second, the biggest Islamist movement, for example the Muslim Brotherhood, has certain Islamist ambitions, in which secularists and Christians disagree. But they are also aware of the Iranian experience and they are aware that it has failed. They don’t like it because it is not popular with its people. It is repressive and people see that it ended up very corrupt and unsuccessful at building jobs and economic progress.

They don’t look at Saudi Arabia as an attractive model; they don’t look to Taliban or al-Qaeda. This movement is coming to power after people have seen the extremists and made a judgment about it. Ten years ago Iran could have been a much more popular model. Ten years ago Turkey was not an attractive model, but it just so happens that it is now.

So 2011 is significant.

Also, in Egypt and Tunisia these parties are not entering into a vacuum. There are military, bureaucracy and business circles. The Islamists will be one among several players.

Any government in Egypt will be pleading for investment and money, so they cannot be extremists. The economics are not there. But in Libya or Syria that could be different.

Q: What makes Turkey so attractive?

A: It is the only real democracy in the entire Middle East. People are impressed that the AKP found a balance between cultural issues like faith, religion, nationalism and globalism. The extremists are anti-globalists. And obviously the economy. It the only rapidly growing non-oil economy in the region.

Q: Is this image not shaken by Erdoğan’s staments on secularism?

A: Muslim Brothers did not like it, but they had always said: “We have a lot of respect for Turkey and the AKP and have a lot to learn from them. But don’t assume everything is the same. We will not follow Turkey’s model as if it is a magical recipe.”

On the other hand it actually calmed a lot of fears. There was a rapidly growing concern that Turkey was building a network of Muslim Brotherhood-led governments to control Arab world. It was drawing hostility. Some started saying “Turkey is becoming too ambitious. It cannot rule the Arab world through Muslim Brothers.”

And also, Islamists were pointing at Turkey, saying “Look at them. Turkey is going Islamic too.” But Erdoğan said, “Wait a minute, we are a secular state.” So that was also welcomed by those who feared the Muslim Brotherhood.

Q: How was Turkey’s assertive role perceived in the region prior to the Arab Spring? There was criticism of neo-Ottomanism.

A: It was assertive toward Israel. But with the Arab world it was engaged with trade relations, visa abolitions. This was nice and welcomed. The neo-Ottoman argument is a bit silly. They are not establishing an empire; they are just engaging in a region that was part of the Ottoman region and are entering for good things like trade. Nobody can blame them.

Q: Is this image changing with the Arab Spring?

A: There is a new image. Before Turkey was about the “Zero Problems Policy.” It was about dealing with the status quo. Stabilize it and establish business deals. But now this has changed. It is not about trade any longer; it is about democratic change. Turkey has a role to play; it has responsibilities. Its position relates to different questions. Will Turkey help democratic change to succeed? Will it play a positive role?

Who is Paul Salem?

Paul Salem, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, works and publishes on the regional and international relations of the Middle East, as well as issues of political development and democratization in the Arab world. Prior to joining Carnegie in 2006, Salem was the general director of the Fares Foundation. In 1989, he founded the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies, Lebanon’s leading public policy think tank, directing the center until 1999.

In 2002, Salem was a member of the Senior Review Committee for the United Nations Development Program’s Arab Human Development Report. In 2006, he served as a member of the National Commission for Electoral Law Reform in Lebanon.

A graduate of Harvard University, he has also held various positions at the American University of Beirut. Salem is the author of a number of books and articles on the Middle East, including “The Carnegie Papers, Building Cooperation in the Eastern Middle East” and “The Arab State: Assisting or Obstructing Development?”

Friday, October 28, 2011
BARÇIN YİNANÇ
BEIRUT – Hürriyet Daily News

Three ways to save the eurozone

BRUSSELS –- Since the summer, the continuing installments of the Greek crisis have concealed a worrying process of fragmentation in the eurozone. Indeed, there are several grim indicators of this development.

First, the spread between banks’ borrowing rate and the zero-risk rate has been climbing since July. Financial institutions with liquidity increasingly prefer to deposit their cash with the European Central Bank, which has had to resume its lending to banks. The same thing occurred in the 2007-2008 crisis, though the shift is less acute this time, and is confined to the eurozone. In London and New York, the interbank market is still working; nevertheless, there is reason for concern.

Second, cross-border banks are charging higher interest rates to firms in southern Europe than they are to comparable firms in northern Europe, which is worsening the situation for crisis-hit economies. This fragments Europe’s supposedly unified market. And, instead of combating this trend, northern European regulators are amplifying it by limiting financial institutions’ exposure to southern European banks.

Third, international investors no longer view southern European government bonds as in the same asset class as northern European ones. This is not simply about the price of risk, which is easily reversible. It marks a deep change in attitude. If this lending approach to southern countries continues, their solvency and economic recovery will suffer.

Eurozone officials’ decision to reform the surveillance of governments and banks, and to boost the European Financial Stability Facility, is a welcome response, but, unfortunately, a partial one. Beyond firefighting, the key issue is the need to construct a more robust monetary union.

The eurozone’s creeping fragmentation is primarily the result of the mutual dependence of banks and governments. In the eurozone, banks are vulnerable to sovereign-debt crises because they hold a lot of government bonds – frequently issued by their country of origin. Governments, for their part, are vulnerable to bank crises because they are individually responsible for rescuing national financial institutions. Each episode in the current crisis illustrates the fragility caused by this interdependence.

There are three possible responses to this state of affairs. The first relies on intervention by the central bank in the event of a threat to the sovereign-debt market. The United Kingdom’s budget situation is worse than Spain’s, but the certainty that the Bank of England would prevent speculation on the UK’s debt is sufficient to reassure investors.

The ECB, however, has not been equipped with this mandate. It has played this role with Italy and Spain, but it has met stiff opposition internally and may capitulate soon. The newly-created European Financial Stability Facility may play a similar role, but its war chest is limited. As for changing the ECB’s mandate, Germany would protest, if only for constitutional reasons.

The second response consists in strengthening the banks through recapitalization, and removing the regulatory walls that separate national banking systems in order to limit overexposure to the risk of their own sovereign’s default. The eurozone would be healthier with a properly capitalized banking system that holds diversified assets and is subject to a common supervisory framework and deposit insurance. But European leaders may not be bold enough to embrace such a plan in full. This is likely to become clear when the details of the recapitalization program are revealed.

The third response is to reduce sovereign risk by establishing a system of surveillance and mutual guarantees between the eurozone countries. This would be tantamount to a fiscal union, which could be empowered to issue Eurobonds, coupled with ex ante control of the issue of public debt. Politically, this is a very tough choice, both for guarantor and guaranteed countries, but it is probably the most practical way forward of the three alternatives.

These responses are, of course, partly complementary. Even espousing one of them would be a positive sign. But ultimately, the challenge for Europe is to decide what to tell markets to give them a good reason to regain trust in the eurozone’s credibility.


*Jean Pisani-Ferry is Director of Bruegel, an international economics think tank. © Project Syndicate 2011.

23 October 2011, Sunday / JEAN PISANI-FERRY , SUNDAY’S ZAMAN

We were afraid to publish when we got the coup diaries, Birand says

Veteran journalist Mehmet Ali Birand made striking confessions about the contribution of the mainstream media to the military in anti-democratic practices over the years in May, triggering the debate on the role of the media during military coups.

MEHMET ALİ BİRAND
MEHMET ALİ BİRAND

Noting that most journalists and media channels acted in favor of the military to guarantee the hegemonic position of the secular and Kemalist establishment in the political landscape thus excluding important segments of society from the decision-making process, Birand said that democracy had not been as important as retaining political power by using any means, including supporting coups, for secular intellectuals and journalists.

His self-criticism was welcomed by liberals and democrats in the press, while some of his former colleagues blamed him for abandoning his position. In speaking to Sunday’s Zaman, Birand maintained his earlier standpoint with regard to his previous confessions that caused a media storm when they were released and made further assessments on Turkish politics, on the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party), his self-evaluation of journalism regarding his own experiences, relations between the media and the military, the role of the media in Turkish politics and in other areas.

He said that he was scared when he got the coup journals in 2007; he dismissed the opportunity to publish them, whereas Nokta magazine [which stopped publishing after 20 volumes due to pressure from the military] published and occupied the public agenda at that time by revealing the fact the some generals in the army had been planning to overthrow the ruling AK Party government when they came to power in 2003.

Although he admires the AK Party’s success in Turkish politics, he clearly reiterated his life-long involvement with the CHP by elaborating on the psychological roots of such engagement. According to Birand, there is an irreconcilable difference between him and the AK Party that prevents him from voting for the ruling party.

Birand noted that his self-criticism was not welcomed in secular circles. Additionally, he pointed out that some former secular intellectuals have become champions of democracy today. But, Birand has underlined that it is impossible to be a democrat without facing up to the past, referring to those in the media who turned their back on Birand when he faced great pressure from the army in 1998.

Birand’s relations with the army

You were one of the journalists that the military’s General Staff mentioned in their memorandum of 1998. A small number of people believed you had followed a zigzagging path when it came to military-civilian relations, leading to some self-criticism on your part.

Ever since 1983, I have opened my mouth on topics such as the Kurdish issue and military problems during periods when no one else was talking about these things. I have never been opposed to the military! Because to oppose the military is foolishness! But when it comes to the intervention by the military into politics, I have been opposed to this from the start. Personally, I never saw any zigzagging in my stance. Anyway, whatever has happened to me has happened as a result of the above. The TRT case, [in which Birand had been accused of forging documents when he was working at the TRT channel. The case was dropped recently due to the statute of limitations expiring.] The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) actually does not act institutionally; did you know that? They do whatever the General Staff leader and deputy leader say. When the head of the General Staff turns out to be anti-democratic, he simply folds up that which stands before him and sweeps it away. I felt that when I was mentioned in the memorandum. At the time, many commanders even came to me at book signings of mine and told me: “We are not of the same mind as that memorandum. But we will follow it.” One day, I even entered a soldier’s barracks. The commander on duty was pained when he told me, “Actually, we are forbidden from letting you in, but never mind, you go through that door over there.”

Turkish society is not democratic. It pays allegiance to the state!

Which of your aspects seemed worst to Çevik Bir and his team?

There were three things in 1996, 1997 and 1998 that really bothered them. The first was my firm opposition to official ideology on the whole Kurdish question. The second was my praise for the Fethullah Gülen schools. And the third was my opposition to the ban that was brought about at the time concerning headscarves in Turkish universities.

But there were other writers embracing the same stance at the time. Why you?

Because the foreign press was quoting from my articles. And this was making the General Staff extremely uncomfortable. “Why are you supporting Fethullah Gülen? Why are you backing his schools?” I would explain to them: “I went, I saw them, I toured some of them. And they are not at all like you say they are. And for another matter, your own officers are bringing their kids to those schools, so either you don’t know anything, or they don’t!”

The same Çevik Bir had to answer your questions on a television program when he was a candidate for the presidency!

I never took the whole Çevik Bir memorandum situation seriously at all! I was very saddened because they come at you like tanks here. When the state turns against you in Turkey, no matter who is running the administration, everybody turns on you! The people of this country are very interested in the state. Never mind! With Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in power these days, let the voice of the military come out differently. Just take a look around you, around 80-90 percent of the people have begun to change their tune. I never believed to begin with that Turkish society was a democratic one! Turkish society is one which, when forced some, can appear to be democratic, but it stills pays its main allegiance to the state. Thank Allah we are at the breaking point. If this period goes on for one more term, it will really take root. Otherwise, you’d begin hearing people raising their voices: “Hey commander, where are you?”

When you say “one more term” what do you mean?

We have 10 more years. From then onwards though, society will find its own path.

Approach to AK Party and lifelong involvement with CHP

Do you think that the 50 percent vote [for the AK Party] is enough and meaningful for the course of social and political change in the country?

I don’t think it’s meaningful. Half of that same 50 percent could just as easily drop Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at the halfway mark and turn back. Our history is full of situations like this. I voted for the CHP, but I wanted the Justice and Development Party to win.

You received a lot of reaction for an interview you did with Erdoğan in the run up to the election. Especially for your question, “Will we see you on the balcony?” [where Erdoğan traditionally delivers a speech to the public to celebrate his victory on the night of elections as happened in the 2007 and 2011 elections and gives messages promising more democracy, especially to those who didn’t support Erdoğan in the elections] Also, when you asked candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu on a TV program, “We will win, right?”

For some reason, whenever a journalist interviews someone in Turkey, people expect us to fight or something. People criticize, saying, “You didn’t ask this…” What was I supposed to ask? Was I supposed to say, “You are incapable of leading this country”? The role of a journalist is to ask as many questions as possible and to be able to repeat the answers accurately. I did say, “The prime minister of Turkey needs a bigger, [luxurious and comfortable] airplane [He refers to a trip which he took with the prime minister on an official visit to the US. He flew on the PM’s plane, and he said on Twitter that it wasn’t comfortable when he returned to Turkey. “Its time to buy a bigger and comfortable one,” he said.].” So there’s really nothing I didn’t say [laughs]. But before the election, I did say something very clear.

What was it?

I said, “I am going to vote for the CHP, but I want the AK Party to come to power.”

Gülay Göktürk wrote that intellectuals who maintained they were voting for the CHP but wanted to see the AK Party come to power were deeply rooted within the state itself.

It has nothing to do with that [what she said]. That was actually a criticism of the CHP that I leveled. What I meant was that “my heart is filled with your ideals, your social democracy. But when you come to power, I have no sense of trust that you [CHP] can run this government.”

What was it that kept Birand from voting for the AK Party?

[He thinks] Perhaps the fact that we come from such different worlds. My world, the way I was brought up, the way I think. But would I vote for the AK Party today? I don’t know! The AK Party is still difficult for me to choose.

In which sense [do you have difficulty with the AK Party]? Do you have worries about secularism?

No, I don’t worry about that anymore. The AK Party has not transformed this country into a religious state in the course of nine years; so if that had been their aim, they would have been very capable of imposing a religious state. They have proved in these nine years that that is not their aim. What they have also shown is that this country needs a different definition of secularism.

Are they right [in this case]?

They are right. Why do I keep my distance from the AK Party? I am very opposed to ruling parties in general. I am against the state. The arrogance of the state has always prevented me from choosing the AK Party.

But isn’t the CHP you voted for more engaged with the state mechanism?

But my pro-CHP stance is something that derives from childhood, which is why I cast my vote for the CHP — perhaps for the last time. I want to see a real social democracy, an order in which people will live equally. But it’s ridiculous at the same time because what we have seen is that the AK Party is actually headed more towards creating a more equal order.

‘I faced pressure from my own environment’

The fact that you say “we are from different worlds” regarding the AK Party brings up the image of a man from a specific class?

No, no, it’s not about class. “They wear hasema. [Muslim clothing for swimming when swimming in the sea] I wear a swim suit [when I go swimming].”[He refers to a debate in Turkey in which seculars criticized Muslim men and women for their choice of clothing when they go swimming, labeling these clothes backward, out of fashion, as a sign of fundamentalism, etc.] It doesn’t matter at all for me. The job of a journalist is to supervise the work of an administration, not be entangled with the ruling party. When [Bülent] Ecevit was in power, I was opposed to him too.

Cüneyt Özdemir said that he faced pressure and exclusion from his environment because of his visit to Fethullah Gülen. Additionally, writer Ahmet Altan said that his friends have urged him to “go back to writing novels” when he became editor-in-chief of the Taraf daily. Did you experience any similar pressure after you said, “Supporting coups is rooted in our [secular intellectuals and journalists] genes?”

[I faced] A lot of pressure. There were those who made comments from nearby tables in restaurants or even close friends who called and yelled over the phone. I got thousands of emails and Twitter messages, things like “How could you do this? You handed the other side [conservatives, the AK Party, democrats, etc.] a trump card.” That was the comment that angered me the most actually. What does that mean, handing them a trump card? What are they going to say now? “See, the secular side has begun to collapse?” Let them say it though. Didn’t we support all those other coups? We did. Didn’t we say “bravo” regarding Sept. 12. [military coup in 1980] We did. But at the same time, I have come across some people who criticize the military and who make me sick to my stomach when I hear them.

Why?

Well, they are the same people who didn’t even know where to place the military in their lives: “My commander, my commander, my commander. … Yes, sir.” [I do whatever you order me to.] This is how they would go around, talking like this. I get angry at the writers who ruined my life not so long ago, and who are now trying to give lessons on democracy. At least tell me “I think more now these days.” But don’t come to me without facing up to your past and accepting your own mistakes. This would just make a mockery of me!

Birand’s secret story with coup journals in 2007

Did the coup journals come to you before they were published in Nokta?

They did.

And why didn’t you publish them?

We were afraid.

Of whom?

It wasn’t clear what would happen during that period.

Did you doubt the authenticity of those journals?

No. When I read them, it was clear that they were true. But I didn’t know how the administration would have taken them. We could have been in danger.

What did you think when Nokta published them?

Of course, it was incredible that Nokta published them. Beyond that it was a disaster that the police conducted a search in the office of the magazine. When it happened, I raised my voice [in my office] and asked: “Why did we leave this man by himself? Why didn’t we back him?”

Why didn’t you write about this?

Because just as we didn’t publish those journals, we also didn’t really know what the ruling party would think or what they would do. This business is not powered by pangs of conscience.

But does journalism really need the backing of the ruling party? Is that what journalism is?

It has always been a need in Turkey!

Is the media then an actor for change?

The media has just begun to change. If the AK Party were to fall from power tomorrow, you would see all sorts of new changes in the media. As I said, Turkish society generally pays allegiance to the state, especially in the past. The situation with Nokta magazine was actually the greatest embarrassment for the media in recent years. I include myself in that.

I am losing my hope on [the solution of] the Kurdish issue

How strong are your hopes when it comes to solving the Kurdish issue?

I have begun to lose hope. If we carry on with this reciprocal stubbornness, we will separate and enter into civil war. Is a human life worth that? I wonder if any improvement can be made in the conditions at İmralı prison [in which Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), stays in solitary confinement] for Öcalan; could they be relaxed a bit? Can you measure a person’s life this way?

Is that the whole story? [improvement of conditions for Öcalan]

No. It’s not so important. If you, as the Turkish Republic, wish to make peace, this is not the way. Especially if the only leader capable is Erdoğan and the only party capable is the AK Party. We are really missing out on a lot of opportunities.

What did you feel when you read the part in the Oda TV indictment that includes a dialogue between Sirin Payzın and Soner Yalçın about you?

I was really saddened. I didn’t expect it at all. What can I do? I am used to these sorts of things now. And Sirin [CNN Türk correspondent] was someone I really respected. Too bad. I guess I ought not to have.

After the sale of Star TV, there is speculation that Uğur Dündar will head the Kanal D TV channel. Will you continue to hold your previous position of editor-in-chief of the main news program?

I will continue for as long as I am standing. One day though, the doorbell will ring, and a letter will come from the boss saying such and such. And then it all ends.

 

 

23 October 2011, Sunday / FATIH VURAL, İSTANBUL

Turkey emerging as leader in North Africa, Arab world, says EP member

A former Belgian prime minister and a member of the European Parliament has said Turkey is emerging as a leader of the North African and Arab world while praising the country’s attitude toward the public demand for democracy and reforms in those regions.

guy Verhofstadt
guy Verhofstadt

Guy Verhofstadt, who served as the Belgian prime minister from 1999 to 2008 and is currently a member of the European Parliament and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), spoke to Sunday’s Zaman in an exclusive interview. ALDE is the third-largest political group in the 736-member European Parliament.

“I find the position of Turkey very courageous [toward public revolutions in the Arab world and North Africa] and very important for the rest of the world. And I don’t think that Turkey is isolated. Actually, the opposite is true — because Turkey is becoming the political leader, I should say, of a whole range of countries from reformed Morocco, democratic Tunisia, Libya without Gaddafi and Egypt that still has to find its way in the next month, in the next year and a number of other countries.

I see Turkey emerging as a leader for a whole new region in North Africa and the Arab world,” Verhofstadt said.

Since the beginning of the public revolts in the Arab world and North Africa early this year, which has so far resulted in the toppling of some long-time dictators, Turkey has been calling on these countries to heed the demands of their people to expand democracy and freedoms while calling on them to avoid the use of violence against anti-government protesters.

Verhofstadt also praised Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s messages on secularism during a tour of Arab Spring nations last month, saying that he found Erdoğan’s remarks honest.

During a televised interview in Egypt, Erdoğan urged Egyptians to not be afraid of secularism and that they should embrace it. “A devout Muslim can successfully govern a secular state,” he said.

“I think he is very honest about what he said in Egypt. Mr. Erdoğan is personally a Muslim, that’s very clear; he has repeated that several times already. But on the other hand, when it comes to the political aspect of the issue and the way a state is organized, the state has to be secular. Otherwise you end up mixing up religion and politics and that’s always a bad thing. So I think it is one of the big achievements of Turkey that it has created a society that is democratic, albeit with some problems from time to time, but it is basically democratic and secular and thus keeps religion and politics separate and gives freedom of religion to everybody. The values that are emerging now in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are not Western values; they are values for the whole world. They are universal values, indeed,” he said.

Verhofstadt was in Turkey earlier this month with an EU delegation. They visited the party groups in Parliament. Sharing his impressions from the Turkey visit, he said he saw a Turkey that is in good shape economically, with growth figures around 9 to 10 percent.

He said the reason for his visit was the relationship between Turkey and the European Union, which is not in a good state at the moment. Verhofstadt acknowledged that Turkey’s negotiations with the EU are blocked at the moment while voicing his belief that the year 2012 could be a crucial year for unblocking the negotiations.

EU countries unanimously agreed to open official accession talks with Turkey in 2005 before German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy came to power. Sarkozy claims Turkey does not belong in Europe, while Merkel promotes a “privileged partnership” that falls short of membership, a formula Ankara categorically rejects. In Berlin in May 2009, Merkel and Sarkozy made a joint statement declaring that they shared a common position regarding Turkey’s accession to the EU in that it should be offered a privileged partnership, not full EU membership.

Although having started accession negotiations with the EU in 2005, Turkey has only been able to open talks on 13 out of 35 chapters thus far, and talks have been provisionally completed on only one chapter.

Verhofstadt said he is in favor of full accession for Turkey into the European Union, and he does not believe in other alternatives such as privileged partnership.

“Because, in fact, Turkish people also don’t want this [privileged partnership]. They want to be part of the European Union. And I think because of the economic strength of Turkey and at the same time the political weight of Turkey in the region, there are more reasons today than there were two or three years ago to support the full accession of Turkey,” he said.

When asked whether progress in Turkey’s accession talks is possible without a change of attitude by Germany and France regarding Turkey’s membership, he said he finds the year 2012 crucial as change is possible in the political leadership in Europe and in a number of other countries.

“That’s one of the opportunities. The second opportunity is that I think everybody accepts that we create a new, positive political agenda between Turkey and the European Union based, for example, on the facilitation and liberalization of visas. This is a very important thing,” he added.

The EU offers a limited explanation as to why Turkey is the only EU candidate country that is not exempt from visa requirements, while the usual spectacle of long lines and waiting times for Schengen visas in front of EU member country embassies significantly add to the distaste felt by society.

Verhofstadt also dwelled on the claims of some Turks who say Turkey no longer needs the EU because it has a very strong economy. He said this kind of thinking is wrong because a huge part of the gross national product of Turkey is created by exports to the EU.

“Look to the European Union and certainly the eurozone as an internal market of 400-500 million people, who are consumers at the same time. I think Turkey has an enormous interest in investing in that internal market and having full access to that. And in the end, that is the aim of full membership in the EU, naturally, that Turkey becomes a part of that internal market. So, I think it would be a mistake to follow those who say ‘the center of gravity is shifting to the north of Africa.’ I think Turkey has a role to play as the bridge between the European Union on the one side and the democratic Arab world and a democratic North Africa on the other,” he said.

 

23 October 2011, Sunday / SELÇUK GÜLTAŞLI, BRUSSELS

Turkey discusses where it went wrong in fight against terror

[NEWS ANALYSIS] — Flaws in intelligence, security weaknesses, a conflict of authority between different security units, Turkey’s preparations to draft a new constitution and many other items could all be factors behind Wednesday’s attack of the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that killed 24 security officers and the failure to prevent it, according to experts, policy makers and academics.

,” Özener said, referring to a large-scale operation against the KCK, an umbrella organization that controls the PKK and related groups, which Turkish prosecutors say is attempting to form an alternative state with its own executive, legislative and legal systems. Many BDP mayors have also been arrested. Özener said the PKK was putting pressure on the people of the region as well. “They are trying to take back what they have lost in the urban centers by staging attacks in rural parts,” he said. “]The attack, which came hours after five police officers and four civilians were killed in another terror attack in Bitlis, has shocked Turkey. It resulted in the deaths of 24 soldiers and police officers. It isn’t clear how Turkish security forces could be unprepared for such an attack at a time when the military is conducting operations against PKK bases in the region. In addition to apparent flaws in intelligence, or failing to act on intelligence, there seem to be serious security weaknesses as the PKK recently stepped up attacks on both military and civilian targets and all units have been on alert for a while. These and other questions beg answers in the immediate aftermath of the attack.  Security expert Lale Kemal told Today’s Zaman that even if those who are responsible for negligence or other security weaknesses were found and punished, this alone would not be enough to avoid a repetition of similar attacks in the future. “There is no meaning in punishments unless the top dogs are punished. There are many issues that need to be addressed, but a strong political will is absent. Mine-resistant vehicles were added to the inventory of the military just a few months ago. There are flaws in intelligence. The military fighting terrorism domestically was wrong,” she said.  The government, after an attack in Silvan on July 14, announced plans to transfer anti-terror operations to the police force, but for many, the change in plan came much too late.  Former gendarmerie special operations officer İrfan Çalışkan said: “The method used in fighting terror over the past 26 years has been the same. There is some intelligence, and then there are operations in line with that intelligence, and then all go back to the barracks. This should be changed, and there should be special units that will be in the field and in pursuit at all times.”  The concerns about the lack of a professional army and infrastructure are in line with similar points made by military officials. In August, a voice recording featuring statements made by former Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner regarding the shortcomings and negligence of the military in the fight against terrorism was made public. Koşaner, explaining the reasons behind Turkey’s failure in the fight against terrorism in the secretly recorded clip, spoke about many problems including shortcomings in cooperation between different units and the troops’ unfamiliarity with the terrain where they are expected to fight.  Mithat Işık, a retired colonel, expressed a similar sentiment in comments on Wednesday’s attack. “It is not true that our troops aren’t trained properly. They should be shown the territory to see the terrain, though. Turkey can’t make use of its terrorism experts. Lessons should be learned from the ambushes and attacks,” he said.  Koşaner’s complaints were echoed in confessions by Lt. Col. Onur Dirik made earlier this week. Dirik, who was the commander of a battalion that lost 12 soldiers in Dağlıca, Hakkari province, in an attack on an outpost in 2007, claimed that a planned operation to counter the terrorist activity was given a no-go hours before the attack by his commanders. Dirik, who is being blamed for failing to prevent the attack although he has not yet been convicted in relation to the attack, said he was turned into a scapegoat by his commanders, who were guilty of dismissing crucial intelligence prior to the Dağlıca attack.  However, concentrating on security flaws alone without paying attention to the root causes of the problem, according to retired military judge Ümit Kardaş, is the main reason why Turkey finds itself in a vicious cycle of violence. “We can’t minimize violence as it has been going on for 30 years. We also have been staging operations. There can be negligence, security weaknesses, problems in intelligence, but this will not solve the problem. Why can’t the government solve the problem?” Kardaş said politicians should do more to solve the problem. “Focusing on security alone doesn’t solve the problem, there is a bigger message in it. This can’t be done through security measures only, even if you have a professional army.”  Mehmet Yegin, a terrorism and strategy expert with the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), said: “Honestly, this is not the right time to talk about flaws or weaknesses. The PKK and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in particular should be put in the spotlight here. The PKK has been squeezed badly in the past few months, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay recently made a statement indicating that the group is dissolving.” Yegin said the PKK, panicked and losing control, not wanting to lay down arms but at the same time aware that more attacks will not get it anywhere, is frantically escalating violence. “It also weakens support for the PKK in the region. As long as Turkey acts on a rational plan, without emotion and with composure, the loser will be the PKK,” Yegin said.  Mazhar Bağlı, a sociologist from Diyarbakır Dicle University and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), agreed. “The most important thing is to stay calm and continue fighting terrorism without panicking, which is what the PKK is aiming for,” he said. Timing of the attack  Bağlı also noted that the attack came one day before a parliamentary commission to discuss a new constitution for Turkey convened for the first time. He said the timing of the attack clearly indicated that the PKK is working together with elements that want to undermine work on the new constitution.  Alpay Yıldız, a retired captain, believes the PKK’s target was Turkey’s new constitution. “The attack was staged to block the ongoing work on the new constitution,” he said. However, others, such as Mustafa Hacımustafaoğulları, a retired major, assert that Wednesday’s attack was staged in retaliation for a major Turkish armed forces operation last week that destroyed the PKK’s Kavaklı base in Hakkari, seen as a stronghold for the group.  The attack also comes a few days after President Abdullah Gül visited troops serving near the border in Hakkari. It also coincides with the second anniversary of a group of PKK militants surrendering to Turkey, as part of a deal with the government. However, their arrival turned into a show of power for the PKK, which stalled a government initiative to facilitate a cease-fire. The returnees were recently sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for crimes of terrorism.  Security expert Süleyman Özener said the PKK was attempting to create the perception that the Turkish state has no power in the region. “They have lost so much with the operations against the Kurdistan Communities’ Union [KCK],” Özener said, referring to a large-scale operation against the KCK, an umbrella organization that controls the PKK and related groups, which Turkish prosecutors say is attempting to form an alternative state with its own executive, legislative and legal systems. Many BDP mayors have also been arrested. Özener said the PKK was putting pressure on the people of the region as well. “They are trying to take back what they have lost in the urban centers by staging attacks in rural parts,” he said.
The attack, which came hours after five police officers and four civilians were killed in another terror attack in Bitlis, has shocked Turkey. It resulted in the deaths of 24 soldiers and police officers. It isn’t clear how Turkish security forces could be unprepared for such an attack at a time when the military is conducting operations against PKK bases in the region. In addition to apparent flaws in intelligence, or failing to act on intelligence, there seem to be serious security weaknesses as the PKK recently stepped up attacks on both military and civilian targets and all units have been on alert for a while. These and other questions beg answers in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

Security expert Lale Kemal told Today’s Zaman that even if those who are responsible for negligence or other security weaknesses were found and punished, this alone would not be enough to avoid a repetition of similar attacks in the future. “There is no meaning in punishments unless the top dogs are punished. There are many issues that need to be addressed, but a strong political will is absent. Mine-resistant vehicles were added to the inventory of the military just a few months ago. There are flaws in intelligence. The military fighting terrorism domestically was wrong,” she said.

The government, after an attack in Silvan on July 14, announced plans to transfer anti-terror operations to the police force, but for many, the change in plan came much too late.

Former gendarmerie special operations officer İrfan Çalışkan said: “The method used in fighting terror over the past 26 years has been the same. There is some intelligence, and then there are operations in line with that intelligence, and then all go back to the barracks. This should be changed, and there should be special units that will be in the field and in pursuit at all times.”

The concerns about the lack of a professional army and infrastructure are in line with similar points made by military officials. In August, a voice recording featuring statements made by former Chief of General Staff Gen. Işık Koşaner regarding the shortcomings and negligence of the military in the fight against terrorism was made public. Koşaner, explaining the reasons behind Turkey’s failure in the fight against terrorism in the secretly recorded clip, spoke about many problems including shortcomings in cooperation between different units and the troops’ unfamiliarity with the terrain where they are expected to fight.

Mithat Işık, a retired colonel, expressed a similar sentiment in comments on Wednesday’s attack. “It is not true that our troops aren’t trained properly. They should be shown the territory to see the terrain, though. Turkey can’t make use of its terrorism experts. Lessons should be learned from the ambushes and attacks,” he said.

Koşaner’s complaints were echoed in confessions by Lt. Col. Onur Dirik made earlier this week. Dirik, who was the commander of a battalion that lost 12 soldiers in Dağlıca, Hakkari province, in an attack on an outpost in 2007, claimed that a planned operation to counter the terrorist activity was given a no-go hours before the attack by his commanders. Dirik, who is being blamed for failing to prevent the attack although he has not yet been convicted in relation to the attack, said he was turned into a scapegoat by his commanders, who were guilty of dismissing crucial intelligence prior to the Dağlıca attack.

However, concentrating on security flaws alone without paying attention to the root causes of the problem, according to retired military judge Ümit Kardaş, is the main reason why Turkey finds itself in a vicious cycle of violence. “We can’t minimize violence as it has been going on for 30 years. We also have been staging operations. There can be negligence, security weaknesses, problems in intelligence, but this will not solve the problem. Why can’t the government solve the problem?” Kardaş said politicians should do more to solve the problem. “Focusing on security alone doesn’t solve the problem, there is a bigger message in it. This can’t be done through security measures only, even if you have a professional army.”

Mehmet Yegin, a terrorism and strategy expert with the International Strategic Research Organization (USAK), said: “Honestly, this is not the right time to talk about flaws or weaknesses. The PKK and the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) in particular should be put in the spotlight here. The PKK has been squeezed badly in the past few months, Deputy Prime Minister Beşir Atalay recently made a statement indicating that the group is dissolving.” Yegin said the PKK, panicked and losing control, not wanting to lay down arms but at the same time aware that more attacks will not get it anywhere, is frantically escalating violence. “It also weakens support for the PKK in the region. As long as Turkey acts on a rational plan, without emotion and with composure, the loser will be the PKK,” Yegin said.

Mazhar Bağlı, a sociologist from Diyarbakır Dicle University and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party), agreed. “The most important thing is to stay calm and continue fighting terrorism without panicking, which is what the PKK is aiming for,” he said.

Timing of the attack

Bağlı also noted that the attack came one day before a parliamentary commission to discuss a new constitution for Turkey convened for the first time. He said the timing of the attack clearly indicated that the PKK is working together with elements that want to undermine work on the new constitution.

Alpay Yıldız, a retired captain, believes the PKK’s target was Turkey’s new constitution. “The attack was staged to block the ongoing work on the new constitution,” he said. However, others, such as Mustafa Hacımustafaoğulları, a retired major, assert that Wednesday’s attack was staged in retaliation for a major Turkish armed forces operation last week that destroyed the PKK’s Kavaklı base in Hakkari, seen as a stronghold for the group.

The attack also comes a few days after President Abdullah Gül visited troops serving near the border in Hakkari. It also coincides with the second anniversary of a group of PKK militants surrendering to Turkey, as part of a deal with the government. However, their arrival turned into a show of power for the PKK, which stalled a government initiative to facilitate a cease-fire. The returnees were recently sentenced to up to 10 years in prison for crimes of terrorism.

Security expert Süleyman Özener said the PKK was attempting to create the perception that the Turkish state has no power in the region. “They have lost so much with the operations against the Kurdistan Communities’ Union [KCK],” Özener said, referring to a large-scale operation against the KCK, an umbrella organization that controls the PKK and related groups, which Turkish prosecutors say is attempting to form an alternative state with its own executive, legislative and legal systems. Many BDP mayors have also been arrested. Özener said the PKK was putting pressure on the people of the region as well. “They are trying to take back what they have lost in the urban centers by staging attacks in rural parts,” he said.

 

 

19 October 2011, Wednesday / E. BARIŞ ALTINTAŞ, TODAY’S ZAMAN

Leadership Vacuum. Jailed Admirals’ Absence Poses Problem for Turkish Navy Ops

ANKARA – Despite progress in its MILGEM ship construction effort and other landmark programs, the Turkish Navy, with more than half of its admirals in prison, faces new security challenges in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts wonder if the situation could disrupt the service’s operational effectiveness.

Twenty-five of the Navy’s 48 active-duty admirals are in jail pending trial on charges connected with a plot to overthrow Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s moderate Islamist government. The admirals are widely known to be staunchly secular. Nearly 20 retired admirals and several more junior Navy officers also are accused and in detention.

“The admirals in jail could well make the entire Navy command of a moderately sized country,” a defense analyst here said. “It is out of the question that this situation should not create any operational weaknesses.”

A top military official did not echo that pessimism, but admitted that the arrests are bad for top management of the Navy.

“In comparison, the Navy is in a more vulnerable situation than the Air Force, where base commanders are in charge of daily operations,” he said.

Twelve of the Air Force’s 69 active-duty generals are in jail pending trial for their alleged part in the coup d’état. The percentage of arrested generals in the Army is the lowest, 14 percent.

Meanwhile, tensions with Israel, Cyprus and Greece are increasing. Turkey’s former alliance with Israel has deteriorated over the past three years, finally reaching its nadir after Turkey in August froze diplomatic ties and scrapped all military deals with Israel. In September, Erdogan pledged to increase the Turkish naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to challenge Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Turkish frigates also are to challenge a joint Israeli-Cypriot natural gas drilling campaign off southern Cyprus, which Ankara claims is a violation of international law, although the U.S., European Union and Russia back the effort.

In September, Turkey sent a seismic research ship to the same region accompanied by battleships and fighter jets. Washington has since then advised restraint on both sides, fearing military conflict among its allies.

“The new tensions in the eastern Mediterranean has added new roles and responsibilities on the Turkish Navy’s shoulders at a time when the Navy command may not be fully prepared to tackle these challenges,” the defense analyst here said. “But the United States, a close ally of all countries involved, is following the developments very carefully, and the risk of a physical confrontation still is very low.”

Meanwhile, Turkey’s vessel acquisition plans, mostly through local production, remain on track.

The corvette Heybeliada, the first major warship built in Turkey, entered service Sept. 27. A second Turkish-built corvette, the Buyukada, was launched.They are the first two ships of the $3 billion MILGEM, or National Ship, program, which calls for the design, development, outfitting, integration and construction in Turkey of eight patrol and anti-submarine warships, with an option for four more.

These corvettes are capable of performing reconnaissance and surveillance; target detection, recognition and identification; early warning; base and coastal defense; anti-submarine, surface and anti-air warfare; amphibious operations; and patrols, according to Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM), the country’s procurement agency.

The MILGEM program, which began in 2004, aims to reduce the country’s dependence on foreign shipmakers for ship design, construction and systems integration; and to boost the construction and integration of naval shipyards and private shipyards.

MILGEM’s prototype, the Heybeliada, was built by the Istanbul Naval Shipyard of the Turkish Naval Forces Command. The SSM, the government’s arms procurement office, procured supplementary design and construction services, systems and materials.

One MILGEM corvette can carry a 10-ton helicopter. The Heybeliada is a 99-meter monohull vessel that displaces 2,300 metric tons.

In another naval modernization effort, German shipyard Howaldtswerke-Deutsche Werft (HDW) is co-manufacturing with Turkey six modern U 214-type diesel submarines for the Navy. Turkey earlier built 14 U 209-type submarines, which Indonesia now wants to buy, with HDW.

 

 

 

DefenseNews

By BURAK EGE BEKDIL and UMIT ENGINSOY
Published: 17 October 2011

As Syria Conflict Continues, More Weapons Smuggled In

BEIRUT – As the revolt in Syria drags on, experts say weapons smuggling into the country has flourished, especially from Lebanon, with automatic weapons, grenades and hunting rifles in high demand.

A picture from the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows weapons Syrian security forces said were seized after being smuggled into the country from neighbouring Iraq. (Syrian Arab News Agency via AFP)
A picture from the official Syrian Arab News Agency shows weapons Syrian security forces said were seized after being smuggled into the country from neighbouring Iraq. (Syrian Arab News Agency via AFP)

They say that those behind the trafficking are smugglers in search of quick profits rather than political parties backing protesters against the Alawite-dominated regime in Syria.

“Smuggling networks that for years have operated along Syria’s borders seem to have turned to weapons trafficking in recent months,” said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based expert with the International Crisis Group.

“It appears that a market has quickly developed in a country which, contrary to Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen or Libya, had few weapons circulating beforehand,” he said.

He said smugglers were motivated by money, at least for the time being.

“I don’t think that at this point we can say, as the Syrian regime claims, that foreign powers are playing a significant role in this,” Harling said.

“People on both sides in Syria are buying weapons to defend themselves,” he added.

“Residents in Alawite villages are arming themselves for fear of reprisals and the [mainly Sunni Muslim] opposition is increasingly doing the same given the regime’s harsh crackdown against any form of protest.

“So the temptation for people to defend themselves is growing.”

A Western diplomat in Beirut who did not wish to be identified confirmed that weapons smuggling from Lebanon into Syria was on the rise, but also stressed he believed this was the work of individuals rather than parties.

“Those sending weapons may sympathize with a certain party but you can’t say that a political faction as such is behind the smuggling,” the diplomat said.

He noted the situation was ironic given that for years weapons had been smuggled from Syria into neighboring Iraq and Lebanon. “The tables are turned now, and it’s a case of the biter getting bitten,” he said.

Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising in mid-March, Damascus has accused loyalists of former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri, a Sunni, of sending cash and weapons to the opposition in Syria. Hariri has denied the allegations.

Lebanese authorities have arrested a number of Lebanese and Syrian nationals on charges of weapons smuggling. A judicial official said the arms seized in those cases were either hunting rifles or light weapons.

The smuggling has led to a hike in prices on the black market, notably for hunting rifles, automatic weapons and grenades.

“The Syrians are raking in all the weapons and driving up prices,” said one licensed weapons dealer who did not wish to be identified.

He added that much of the weapons on the black market in Lebanon date back to the country’s 1975-90 civil war or were smuggled in from Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

An underground weapons dealer in north Lebanon, also on condition of anonymity, said the price of a used Kalashnikov assault rifle has risen from $800 (575 euros) to $1,500 (1079 euros) since the Syria uprising began.

The price of a grenade has also doubled, from about $5 to more than $10, he added, while rocket-propelled grenades are now fetching $200 a piece as opposed to $70 previously.

“There is high demand for Kalashnikovs and ammunition as well as pump-action shotguns which usually come from Turkey and are sold for $500, compared to $200 normally,” he said.

He said the weapons are smuggled by foot or by car through remote areas along the 205-mile (330-kilometer) border between Lebanon and Syria.

“There are more than 50 illegal crossings between the two countries, and there is no way to station enough troops to control them all,” said retired Lebanese Army Gen. Elias Hanna.

The Western diplomat said that the militant group Hezbollah, a staunch supporter of Assad and a key player in the Beirut government, had boosted its presence along the border in the eastern Bekaa region to stem the smuggling.

The Syrian Army has also stepped up security along the border.

Hanna said that while the arms being smuggled into Syria at this point were light weapons and unlikely to upset the current balance of power, the situation could change if neighboring countries decided to arm the opposition.

“When countries like Turkey change their stand and allow the transfer of heavy weapons through the border, then the balance of power will change,” he said. “But I don’t think this is going to happen anytime soon.”

By RITA DAOU, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Published: 16 Oct 2011