Turkey on the warpath
From his proposal to reinstate the death penalty to his attacks on various world bodies, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is pushing assertive local and regional agendas.
"I ask them: How is it possible that someone who killed 77 people is sentenced to only 21 years in prison? They told me he would never leave prison and that they would find a reason to keep him in prison for another 21 years." This angry and surprised reaction was expressed, at a meeting of the Democracy Forum in Bali last week, by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was directing his barbs this time at the Norwegian government and the European judicial system.
Erdogan was referring to the Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik, who in July 2011 blew up government buildings in Oslo and afterward opened fire at a summer camp of the Labor party youth wing on Utoya Island. "How can I be sure that Breivik won't be released from prison?" asked Erdogan. "It's true that the death penalty was abolished in Europe, but it remains in force in America, Japan and China. Therefore, there is justification for leaving the death penalty in place."
Ankara abolished the death penalty in 2004 as part of its effort to meet the requirements of the European Union, which made abolishment of that punishment one of the basic conditions for Turkish membership.
"In light of the acts of killing and terror by Kurdish terrorists, there should be a renewed discussion about restoring the death penalty," said Erdogan this week at a conference in Istanbul. "We don't think the government has the authority to pardon a murderer. That authority belongs to the families of the victims, it cannot belong to us."
The prime minister's anger and his proposal to restore the death penalty were not merely a passing whim. Dozens of Turkish soldiers and civilians have been killed in recent weeks in the southeast part of the country, in attacks by militants from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, PKK. Polls indicate that large segments of the public are demanding the death penalty for the terrorists.
Moreover, at a time like this when about 1,800 Kurdish prisoners in Turkish jails, who are demanding an improvement in conditions, have been on a hunger strike for over two months and have been joined by five Kurdish members of Parliament, and when the leader of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party, Selahattin Demirtas, is demanding installation of a statue of Abdullah Ocalan, (the jailed PKK leader whose death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment) - there is a good political opportunity here for Erdogan to ride the nationalist wave and suggest reinstatement of the death penalty.
Erdogan achieved the public upheaval he sought: The death penalty was placed on the agenda and the prime minister won points for his toughness and determination. Now the time has come to calm down. After the European Parliament "expressed concern" about the leader's intentions, Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin, a founder of the Justice and Development Party, announced this week that his ministry has no intention of bringing back the death penalty.
Erdogan's frustration does not end with the undecided war against Kurdish terror. His foreign policy, especially regarding the Syrian crisis, is turning out to be ineffective; furthermore, the goal of spearheading a decisive move against the regime in Damascus was "stolen" from Turkey by Qatar, of all countries. Ankara waited for months before deciding to cool relations with Syrian President Bashar Assad, later attacked him directly, severed relations with Damascus - and came out full force in favor of the Syrian political opposition.
The Turkish assessment was and remains that Assad's regime cannot continue to exist and that close ties should be formed with whomever seems to have the best chance of succeeding him. But the opposition organization that calls itself the Syrian National Council has turned out to be a helpless bunch, without any real connection to the fighters on the ground, divided, and controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.
All this led U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to declare about three weeks ago that the council was an irrelevant organization, and to demand that a new opposition group be established to represent all the factions. For Turkey that was a slap in the face. Qatar, of all countries, won the "honor" of uniting the opposition, which then established the new National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, in the Qatari capital of Doha. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was invited there only as a guest.
When representatives of the new opposition organization began to arrive in Doha, the embittered Erdogan had something else to say, this time about the structure of the United Nations. "What use is the United Nations except for the Security Council?" asked Erdogan at the recent Bali conference. "Everything there is decided by the five permanent Security Council members. If one of them casts a veto you can't find a solution to any crisis. The United Nations has not succeeded in solving the Israeli-Palestinian problem, it is unable to solve the crisis in Somalia or in Myanmar. [How] will the United Nations act if it is incapable of solving those problems?"
For those reasons, Erdogan believes it was impossible to embark on a military rescue operation in Syria, and thus Turkey also lost an opportunity to prove its ability to help, or lead a move against the Syrian regime.
Confronting the IMF
In an effort to strengthen Turkey's influence in Arab countries that have undergone revolutions and are suffering from economic problems, Erdogan has also confronted the International Monetary Fund, which in his opinion has caused tremendous damage to various countries in need. In this case too Turkey is finding it extremely difficult to exploit its economic strength to gain a political foothold in Arab countries. It cannot compete with Qatar, which deposits and invests billions in Egypt and Tunisia, or with Saudi Arabia, which gave Egypt a "deposit" worth $2 billion.
Between coping with the bloody war Turkey is waging against the Kurds at home and on Iraqi soil, and the crisis in Syria that has brought into his country more than 90,000 refugees who constitute a social and economic burden, Erdogan also has to prepare for the coming elections. Although they will be held only two years from now, it's never too early to try and boost public opinion.
A taste of the agenda the prime minister is expected to present in the near future was seen on the 74th anniversary of the death of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, which took place last Saturday. Erdogan did not attend the official ceremony, which took place in Ataturk's magnificent mausoleum. His excuse was a sudden visit to Brunei on his way home from Indonesia, and he said: "Is it a constitutional crime not to participate in the ceremony? In that case, why didn't the head of the opposition participate in the official ceremony for the day of the founding of the republic, which took place on October 29?"
Opposition leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu preferred to take part in an alternative ceremony held by nongovernmental entities rather than in the official government-sponsored ceremony. Erdogan's absence has already aroused a storm, as well as commentary to the effect that he plans to sever himself from the Kemalist legacy, one of whose basic tenets is secularism.
"Erdogan thinks that he is the new sultan of the Ottoman and he can control the region as it was during the Ottoman Empire under a new umbrella. In his heart he thinks he is a caliph," said Syrian President Assad in an interview last week on the Russia Today TV channel, accusing the Turkish leader of the deterioration in Turkish-Syrian relations. "Erdogan thinks that if Muslim Brotherhood takes over in the region and especially in Syria, he can guarantee his political future."
This time, there were many people in Turkey who actually agreed with Assad's diagnosis.