Friday, November 21, 2014

This one is for Kobane: Kader will not return home, will the refugees be able to?

I wonder what is here (in Kobane)? Petrol? Gold? Diamonds? 
(Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, October 31, 2014)

Earlier this week, I took part in audience at City College in New York to hear Salih Muslim Muhammad (often referred only by the first two names) , the c0-chairman of the Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party), based in Northern Syria. Beaming live via Skype, he shared with the audience that victory was near in Kobane (Arabic-Ayn al-Arab). For the last 68 days, the PYD's main fighting force the YPG (People's Protection Units) has been holding ground to the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS).

Muslim provided the audience with an upbeat assessment, cautiously predicting that the city would be freed from the last snipers in a matter of days; however, he stressed that this was only the beginning and there was still much work to be done in clearing ISIS in the surround villages. He also clarified that US strikes played a crucial role, and remarked that it was disappointing that some regional powers were still making operations difficult, even when it came to assisting humanitarian aid. It seemed quite obvious he was referring to Turkey.

The news that Kobane's Kurdish forces have gained major ground is good news indeed, and will be welcomed by a coalition of regional and international voices. However, for Turkey, it marks a major miscalculation by its policy makers who even if trying to portray the country as leading a non-interventionist policy, could not cover up the fact that it appeared to most as a concerted demoralization campaign against the Kurds. Even with Turkey's legitimate concerns on how this would play out among their own Kurdish community, it was a short sighted strategy that left Turkey portrayed in world opinion as if it was hoping for an ISIS controlled Kobane. 

In fact, Erdogan numerous times stated that he was not at all sure why so many were supporting Kobane, when so many other cities in Syria did not receive half as much attention, as if this was some conspiracy against Turkey, to strengthen the Kurds vis-a-vis Turkey. Perhaps, Turkey should have placed it in the following terms: once Kobane is back in the hands of the PYD, it is highly likely that the recent 300,000+ Syrian Kurdish refugees will be able to return to their homes. With refugees placing a huge weight on Turkey, what could be better than this. 

Recent picture of Kader Ortakaya 
It was in fact the sheer simplicity of understanding that the people of Kobane were fighting for their homes, that caused so many Turkish citizens to cross the border to fight. Sadly, the fate of many of them was that they will not return, killed in street battles with ISIS. However, the tragic killing of Kader Ortakaya, which took place on November 6, was much different. She was not killed by ISIS, but as the result of a clash with the Turkish army that opened fire on protesters who were creating a human chain at the border. 

A declared revolutionary, and a graduate student at Marmara University, who was overtaken by the call to act, the 28-yr old Kader remained weeks at the border, with the a group called the Initiative of Free Art. Just days before her death in fact she was interviewed by Norwegian television, where she seemed full of hope (which was posted on her facebook). In her last letter home, she explained her convictions to her family, of why she had made her way down to Kobane, with her last sentence making sure her scholarship money went to buying medicine for her sick mother.  

The funeral of Kader Ortakaya
While Kader never made her way back home, let us hope that the refugees from Kobane will be able to in the near future. Even if Kobane does not have gold, the oil of Iraqi Kurdistan, or even diamonds, for hundreds of thousands of people it is their home. What more could one ask for than to be able to return home, rather than being subjected to the humiliating and poor lives as refugees. It seems that it is this part, the simple human side of the story, so many Turkish politicians clearly overlooked, without even taking into consideration the massacre that would have happened in Kobane had ISIS succeeded in taking the city.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

No Laughing Matter: Turkey's International Prestige Hits New Low

During last week's blog, I shared with my readers the ongoing saga of Turkish president Erdogan's palace and the bad rap it was receiving in the world press. And, with its costs possibly soaring to over a billion dollars, rightly so. If this was not enough, this past week Turkey once again made world headlines with a protest (attack) on US sailors, and with Erdogan providing the world with a revisionist history of the Americas.  

Last Wednesday, three American sailors (in civilian clothing) were attacked by a group of protesters, belonging to an extreme nationalist group. Although the perpetrators were eventually arrested, they were released shortly after. The sheer ugliness of the event is hard to describe in words. Even if I am not at all sympathetic to the US military, they were guests of Turkey and the humiliation the sailors endured was unjust. We can only praise the sailors for the restraint they showed since this could have ended much worse.

Clearly, even if this was a fringe group, the anti-imperialist Turkish Youth Union (TGB), imagine if this had happened to Turkish military personnel in the United States or Europe. This would have captured the headlines in Turkey, caused protests, most certainly including burning the flag of the country where it occurred, and most likely have ended with Erdogan scorning the country on live television, and his pro-government media smearing it the next day. 

It needs to be stressed that the fact that Erdogan did not stand up in a strong voice and condemn the attack was a missed opportunity, especially in light of tense relations between the US and Turkey concerning the Kobani crisis. Furthermore, his honorary first in charge, Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu,  also remained silent, with condemnation of the incident being issued by the Foreign Department.

No doubt that Turkey was caught off guard by the incident, while Americans sat at home watching it play out on their television screens. True, some US media outlets, seem to have got the story totally wrong, speculating the worst-that the group attacking the Americans were connected ISIS-something that could not be farther from the truth. Regardless, the damage had been done, and no Turkish spokesman was in sight.

Just days later, Turkey was back in the news following Erdogan's claiming at a conference of Latin American Muslims that in fact it was Muslims who had discovered the Americas in 1178, and not Christopher Columbus in 1492. In in no time at all the international media was all over Erdogan's preposterous claim that Cuba had served as a home to Muslims even before Columbus, making his proposal to rebuild the mosque that never was, even stranger (on that note, a Turkish proposal to build a mosque in Cuba was also recently rejected by its government). 

Once again, similar to last week's Palace incident, the "Muslims discovering Americas," quickly became the laughingstock of the world press. This coupled with the widespread negative coverage of the attack on American soldiers, not only surely strengthened the already negative perception of policy makers towards Turkey, but also gushed over to the general European and American public. 

As Turkey deals daily with its scorned relations it has with its Middle Eastern neighbors, these past weeks have shown that if it does not work hard to restore its international standing that it is in danger of hitting even newer lows in how its perceived in Europe and the United States, not to mention causing much damage in its relations with them. 

Yes, for the international press much of the recent news from Turkey has turned into a laughing matter, or in the case of the attack on the sailors, sheer disbelief; however, for the country's citizens and those who wish to see Turkey retain its international prestige, this is far from a laughing matter, but rather a tragicomedy playing out before our eyes.   

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The World Tour: The Top-Ten International Media Coverage of Erdogan's New Palace

Ever since the Gezi park protests, Turkey has taken numerous blows in its international prestige. This was exacerbated following the unfolding of last December's massive corruption scandal, a story more fitting of a Turkish telenovela, with the script including a pop-star, private jets, cash hidden in shoe boxes, and the rumors of billions of dollars being thrown around like small change.

Few in the world seem as if they bought former Prime Minister and newly elected President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's claim that these were all orchestrated attempts at overthrowing his government. While in Turkey, Erdogan and his close confidantes have clamped down on the domestic media, he has had to fight attempts by international media outlets to pose tough questions, often leading to him, or his pro-government press, to accuse international journalists of impartiality, or even being agents.

Apparently, however, Erdogan miscalculated the potential backfire his official opening of the presidential palace, coined the "Ak Saray," the White Palace, would cause. The international media seized this story, and rightly so. The $615,000,000 thousand-room palace, which once finished could reach one billion dollars, shows to what extent Erdogan's has fallen out of touch with reality (as if his new jumbo-jet was not proof enough).    

If not bad enough, this over-extravagant kitschy building was built on protected forests despite a court-order to halt the construction. Yes, what he did not succeed to do in Gezi Park, he succeeded to do in Ankara's Ataturk forest. Erdogan brushed off the opposition's criticism concerning the palace, simply stating "if you have the power and courage, then come and demolish the building." Further, just yesterday, Erdogan stated also that he was not sure what all the hype was about, explaining that one needs to take into consideration the fact that for the last 12 years as Prime Minister he has had to pay rent

What is clear is that this has turned into an international public relations fiasco; and, what makes this different than other past scandals is that in this case, he cannot blame this on an internal enemy or protesters in a park. This was his making, and his making alone. It is perhaps for this reason that the numerous international media are openly ridiculing Erdogan and his new palace. 

Below is a "top-ten" list I have compiled of international sites, which have subtly, or openly, mocked Erdogan and his new palace; with some going "below the belt," and others opting just to report the facts. It seems safe to say that Turkey's diplomatic corp has their work cut out for them. I myself cannot remember such a low-point of Turkey's portrayal in the international arena.   

1. BBC One minute video-new palace facts splashed across the screen; the background music says it all. And, they don't forget his new jet either (watch towards the end).

2. The New York Times was one of the first among the international press to break the story. We all know there has been tension between Turkey's President and the NYT. However, as others did below, the NYT allowed Erdogan's introductory film of the palace to do the talking. In short, it seems they understood that the video, with Turkish anthem redone to a new tune, explains it all:

3. Quickly becoming a major news source for Middle East issues, Al-Monitor's veteran Turkish journalist, Kadri Gursel, gets placed high on the list for bringing the palace to the English reader's attention already in mid-September, in an article entitled: Erdogan's $350M Palace (not a bad estimate even if it was $300M off). In fact, he too thought it was best to let Erdogan explain this new situation: 

4. Bloomberg cut right down to the core, featuring Erdogan's photo at the new palace, with its headline and starting the article with short sentences: A palace four-times the size of Versailles. A custom built airbus jet. Dozens of servants. 

 5. Egypt's Al-Ahram Weekly took a direct jab at Erdogan (and thus the saga of strained relations between the two countries continue) accusing him of trying to revive the wealth of the Ottomans, with him as Sultan, just as Turkey was faced with another mining disaster:

6. Al-Arabiyah news took a different route, taking ques from the Turkish opposition who compared Erdogan's new home to that of Ceausescu, but took it two more steps further, comparing it to palaces of a number of historical dictators, such as Saddam Hussein. Pictures were included: 

7. USA Today gets sixth place simply due to the fact that it was so desperate for a headline that they had to throw Ebola into the picture. Admittedly, this was a bit far-fetched to say the least! 

8. Financial Times opted to headline with another one of Erdogan's odd reasoning behind the palace's construction; solving traffic problems:  

9. Huffington Post gets on the top-10 for its inflation of adjectives to describe the "insanely opulent" Turkish palace: 

   10. And, last but not least, is the Times of Israel's article, which gets the good citizen's awards. Perhaps, in order to not create yet another diplomatic crisis, they stuck to reporting about the palace, leaving out analysis, and presenting both the opposition and government's take on the issue:

Postscript Flash: 

Not 24 hours has passed, when John Oliver also took head on Erdogan's Palace. Now this takes the cake! Click on this link to have a watch! (was not able to embed the video). In his words, "this palace is insane!" And laughs that after the 500th room, it must have been difficult what to do with the other 500 rooms."