It’s a bridge too far to say that the Turkish opposition is responsible for a decade and a half of losses to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
But there’s no doubt that his opponents certainly haven’t posed an effective brake on Erdoğan’s accelerating chokehold on Turkish democracy.
Turkish voters, according to official tallies, narrowly approved sweeping changes to the Turkish constitution on April 16 that bring far more powers to the Turkish presidency with far fewer checks and balances against the newly empowered executive.
This was always Erdoğan’s plan.
It was his plan in August 2014, when the longtime prime minister stood for (and won) the presidency, introducing a de facto presidential system in Turkey. Prime minister Binali Yıldırım essentially serves at the pleasure of the Turkish president today.
It was his plan last weekend, when he won (or possibly stole) a victory for a de jure presidential system through 18 separate constitutional amendments, many of which take effect in 2019 with a likely joint parliamentary and presidential election. Most immediately, however, Erdoğan will be able to drop the façade of presidential independence and return to lead the party that he already controls indirectly. (It’s a step that apparently won praise, almost alone among Atlantic leaders, from US president Donald Trump and Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán.)
But as it turns out, orange is also the new bulwark for liberal democracy.
Mark Rutte’s governing center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) performed better than polls predicted in The Netherlands, and Rutte will now return as Dutch prime minister — perhaps through the end of the decade — as head of a multi-party governing coalition.
Conversely, Wednesday’s election amounted to a disappointing result for Geert Wilders and the sharply anti-Europe, anti-Islam and anti-immigration Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom), which blew a longtime polling lead that it had held from the middle of 2015 up to just a couple of weeks ago.
As Dutch voters took a harder look at the campaign, however, they turned away from Wilders’s populism and to the balmier vision of Rutte’s VVD. But they also turned to three other parties that ranged from conservative to liberal to progressive. Indeed, over 65% of the Dutch electorate supported parties that are, essentially, in favor of moderate policymaking, European integration and basic decency to immigrants.
Given that the Dutch election is the first of a half-dozen key European national elections in 2017, all of which are taking place in the dual shadows of last year’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in the United States, everyone was watching this vote in particular as a harbinger for European elections this year.
Mark Rutte, that is — the prime minister of The Netherlands who will almost certainly find his way to a third term as prime minister after tomorrow’s election.
Even earlier this year, when Geert Wilders’s hard-right Partij voor de Vrijheid (PVV, Party for Freedom) held a substantial lead, it was always virtually assured that Rutte would return as prime minister. Consistently, even as the PVV topped polls, Rutte’s center-right, liberal Volkspartij voor Vrijheid en Democratie (VVD, the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) continued to follow behind in second place, leading the race among the PVV’s mainstream opponents. All along, Wilders’s goal was never forming a government, but the hollow victory of placing first among a half-dozen parties bunched together between 10% and 20% in the polls.
Over the last two weeks, even that has changed to Wilders’s detriment.
The VVD eclipsed the PVV in polls at the end of February, and one shock poll from Ipsos on the eve of the election showed the PVV sliding to fifth place. At a time when Rutte is embroiled in a high-profile diplomatic spat with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (over whether Turkish ministers should be holding campaign rallies in The Netherlands for next month’s Turkish constitutional referendum), Wilders still seems to be losing steam.
Both inside Europe and beyond, the Wilders threat was always smaller than the amount of coverage he’s received. Even when the PVV was leading, no other major party was willing to work with Wilders and the PVV’s toxic brand. Even with the highest number of seats in the Tweede Kamer (House of Representatives), the PVV would fall far short of the majority it would need to form a government. Mostly, that’s due to the PVV’s hardline views on immigration, Islam and the European Union. But it’s also because Wilders proved an unreliable ally to Rutte when he withdrew the PVV’s support for Rutte’s minority government in 2012 over spending, forcing snap elections — a gambit that backfired when the PVV lost nine seats.
What’s very much true — and always has been true — is that support across all parties in tomorrow’s election in The Netherlands could be so dispersed that no party wins more than even 17% of the vote. It could usher in the most fragmented parliament in postwar history, and it will force Rutte to navigate coalition negotiations that include four or even five parties. Don’t hold your breath for the kind of quick deal that followed the 2012 election, the ‘purple’ coalition between Rutte’s liberals and the social democratic Partij van de Arbeid (PvdA, Labour Party).
Labour’s support has collapsed in the ensuing five years. Junior coalition parties are rarely rewarded by voters, but many Labour supporters believe the party far too willing to compromise with Rutte on spending after Labour waged a popular campaign against budget austerity. (It is still projected to win between nine and 14 seats in the election under a new leader, Lodewijk Asscher.)
If the VVD and the PVV finish first and second, respectively, as most polls still forecast, the race for third place is murkier. The conservative Christen-Democratisch Appèl (CDA, Christian Democratic Appeal), the center-left/liberal Democraten 66 (Democrats 66) and the leftist GroenLinks (Green Left) are all surging, and the CDA and D66 are widely tipped to enter government after coalition negotiations. GroenLinks is likely to make the strongest gains of any party (more even than Wilders) after the successful campaign of its fresh-faced 30-year-old leader, Jesse Klaver.
If there’s any consensus among the Dutch electorate, voters are choosing from a group of five or six parties, each dedicated to European integration, liberal democracy and moderate policy prescriptions — not fear-mongering xenophobia. No matter what happens tomorrow, Wilders will have a smaller role in shaping Dutch policy than, say, the more circumspect D66 leader Alexander Pechtold, who could become Rutte’s deputy prime minister in a new coalition. Pechtold may not have the international profile that Wilders has acquired with his ‘Make The Netherlands Ours Again’ histrionics, but he could be in a position to push the next government to a more pro-immigrant and pro-European orientation.
None of this, most especially the PVV’s apparent collapse, should be shocking.
Yesterday was the anniversary of Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s birth date in 1883.
It was his assassination by a Serbian nationalist in 1914 that set off a chain reaction leading to World War I.
The world is, rightly, alarmed today with the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, who had served in one of his country’s most delicate diplomatic roles since 2013 and whose experience included long stints in North Korea, including as ambassador from 2001 to 2006.
The gunman reportedly shouted ‘Allahu akbar,’ and ‘Do not forget Aleppo! Do not forget Syria!’ as he shot Karlov from behind at a gallery exhibit of Turkish photography.
The assassination comes at a crucial time for relations between Russia and Turkey. Karlov’s killing could immediately chill the fragile diplomatic gains of the last half-year, however, especially at a time when no one really knows what kind of global leadership that president-elect Donald Trump will provide after his inauguration in just over a month in the United States. On the campaign trail, Trump repeatedly praised Putin as a strong leader and promised to escalate US efforts to push back against ISIS in eastern Syria.
But no one should start preparing for World War III just yet.
Much now depends on how Putin responds — and how nationalist hard-liners within Russia also respond — considering that the gunman seems to have acted with the precise aim of destabilizing the Russia-Turkey relationship. Though Russian nationalists are wary of Turkey, they’re far more hostile to the threat of Islamic extremism. Moreover, the two countries have found common ground when it comes to the threat of Islamic extremism. Karlov’s assassination might ultimately Turkey and Russia together more closely Turkey in efforts to eradicate ISIS and other jihadist elements in the Middle East. The incoming Trump administration would almost certainly welcome and join that common front.
It’s clear that things are looking up for the bilateral relationship between Russia and Turkey.
At the beginning of last December, the two countries locked into a troubling standoff after Turkey shot down a Russian airplane that had repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace. The diplomatic standoff came at a time when Russian president Vladimir Putin was using Russian military force to boost the efforts of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to push back Sunni rebel forces. In response, Putin slammed trade restrictions against Turkey.
A lot can happen, however, in nine months, and yesterday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan traveled to Moscow to mend somewhat broken relations with Putin, who announced that the country would slowly lift economic sanctions against Turkey on the path to restoring normalized relations.
Erdoğan, last month survived a coup attempt from within elements of the Turkish military that, for a few hours at least, seemed like it had some chances of success. The first world leader to call Erdoğan to pledge his support?
With Erdoğan placing blame for the coup on the shoulders of Fethullah Gülen (who lives in exile in Pennsylvania) and his Gulenist followers in Turkey, the crackdown has been swift and deep. In the past four weeks, Erdoğan has purged many Turkish institutions of tens of thousands of officials suspected of having any ties to Gulenism. That includes the military and the police forces, but also over 20,000 private school teachers, 10,000 education officials and agents within other government ministries. Erdoğan has also ordered the shutdown of around 100 media outlets, which echoes a decision earlier in March to seize Zaman, one of Turkey’s most popular independent newspapers.
Last May, prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu resigned after a series of files (the so-called ‘Pelican Files’) were released to the public and that showed the former foreign minister, who led the governing Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) to a minority victory in June 2015 and a majority victory in November 2015, was increasingly uncomfortable with Erdoğan. His misgivings included both the push to concentrate power within the Turkish presidency (following Erdoğan’s shift from prime minister to president in 2014) and with the increasingly militant approach to Turkey’s Kurdish population — after over a decade of progress for Kurdish minority rights and a detente with the PKK, a militant, communist Kurdish militia.
Binali Yıldırım, the new prime minister, formerly a transport, maritime and communications minister and a loyal Erdoğan supporter, has been far more willing to countenance the shift from a powerful parliamentary government to a presidential one.
It has been clear since the late 2000s that Erdoğan was not the pure democrat that his supporters (and many sympathizers in the United States and Europe) once believed, and it’s been clear since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 that Erdoğan has no respect for the kind of liberal freedoms — expression, assembly, press, speech and otherwise — that are so important to a functioning democracy. In the wake of the July coup attempt, Erdoğan’s instinct towards the authoritarian has only sharpened. (Though, to be fair, imagine the kind of response that would follow from an American president if a military coup managed to shut down New York’s major airports, take control of public television and bomb the US Capitol).
That his first post-coup visit abroad was to Russia to visit Putin will, of course, be a source of increasing anxiety among US and European officials, who need Erdoğan’s assistance on at least two fronts: first, stemming the flow of migrants from Syria that cross through Turkey en route to Europe and, second, facilitating US, European and NATO efforts to weaken and ultimately displace ISIS from their territorial berth in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Continue reading Why Erdoğan is not — and will never be — Putin→
Something like tense calm seems to be settling on the streets of Istanbul and Ankara after an attempted military coup in Turkey early Saturday morning.
But the reverberations of the failed ouster will be felt for months and possibly years to come. Though the coup didn’t enjoy the full support of the Turkish military, it was something of a shock — and a throwback — to see tanks rolling through major Turkish cities. Amid the chaos, there’s still much that we don’t and, perhaps, cannot know about the fallout of the July 16 coup.
Turkey is not going to become a member-state of the European Union anytime soon.
No matter what joint talks take place next week, next month or next decade between Turkish and European diplomats, it is absolutely incomprehensible that the European Union, with or without the United Kingdom, would be willing to grant membership to a state with the level of economic corruption and political authoritarianism as Turkey. Full stop.
Even if European diplomats did, though, and even if each of the other 27 member-states of the European Union wanted to admit Turkey — which today borders war-torn Syria and destabilized Iraq — all it would take is for a British prime minister to say, simply, ‘No.’
That’s because EU membership is one of a handful of issues accomplished only by unanimity of the European Union’s member-states. For example, Greece has held up Macedonia’s EU accession hopes for years over a long-simmering conflict over the name ‘Macedonia,’ and the Greeks, for the better part of the last century, have been none too keen on doing many favors for their Turkish rivals, either.
Last week, EU officials cheekily informed Turkey that the country has not yet met all of the EU conditions for visa-free travel to the European Union, one of the rewards that Turkey received as part of a controversial deal to stem the flow of Syrian and Iraqi migrants from Turkey into the European Union. Though critics of German chancellor Angela Merkel argue that she sold out EU values in exchange for a Turkish solution to the EU migration crisis, Europeans are holding firm in requiring that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stop using ‘anti-terror’ laws to arrest journalists, academics and political opponents. This is hardly the stuff of happy Turkish-EU relations. Continue reading ‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics→
With much of Europe focused on a deal with Turkey to stem the flow of Syrian refugees into the European Union, the critical Middle Eastern country took another large step toward illiberalism over the weekend.
Following a court order, riot police on Friday took control of the country’s Zaman newspaper, with by far the highest circulation in Turkey. Police forcibly entered the news offices on Friday, firing its editor, Abdülhamit Bilici, and using tear gas to dispel any lingering protests from reporters and readers who might oppose one of the most shamelessly heavy-handed attacks on press freedom in Turkish history.
To put this in perspective, Poland’s opposition and much of the European elite rang alarms late last year when the new, conservative Polish government pushed to take aggressive control of the state media.
With British prime minister David Cameron’s victory in the House of Commons last week, fully four of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, plus NATO member Turkey and several regional allies, will now be engaged in the fight against ISIS (ISIL/Islamic State/Daesh) in eastern Syria. Following last week’s fatal shooting in San Bernardino, California, by two jihadist sympathizers, US president Barack Obama reassured the United States in a rare Sunday night prime-time address that his administration will continue its intensified airstrikes against ISIS in eastern Syria, increasingly targeting the oil tankers controlled by ISIS that fund its jihadist mission.
Cameron’s team, including foreign minister Philip Hammond, argued that a force of 70,000 ‘moderate’ Syrian forces would be willing and ready to take on the ISIS threat in the event of a coordinated allied campaign to deploy sustained airstrikes against ISIS, both reducing the terrorist threat to Europeans at home and establishing the conditions for peace abroad (and the Obama administration has more or less echoed this sentiment). That seems optimistic, however, given that ‘radical’ rebels, like ISIS and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra quickly overpowered ‘moderate’ rebels like the Free Syrian Army throughout 2012 and 2013.
In reality, there’s no bright line among anti-Assad Sunnis in Syria. Although Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is Alawite, 75% of Syria’s pre-war population was Sunni, which means there’s a lot of room for variation. Nevertheless, after more than a year of U.S. airstrikes, moderate Syrians (whether 70,000 or 7,000) and Kurdish peshmerga forces have not effectively dislodged ISIS, particularly outside traditionally Kurdish areas of Iraq and Syria.
Though U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is still boosting peace talks in Vienna in early 2016, neither the Assad government nor the anti-Assad rebels have indicated they will join those talks. What’s more, it’s not even clear who would ‘represent’ the anti-Assad rebels, who are fighting as much against each other as they are against Assad.
Even as countries from four continents are running air campaigns in Syria, they are acting in far from a coordinated manner. Tensions are already rising after Turkey downed a Russian military jet late last month, despite repeated warnings that the jet was infringing Russian airspace. Imagine how tense the situation could become if a Russian jet attacks an American one in the increasingly crowded Syrian skies. None of the actors, including Russia or the United States, has any clear strategic plan for an endgame in Syria. Russia still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Assad rules a united postwar Syria, and the United States still can’t articulate a credible scenario where Sunni and Shiite factions can work together to govern Syria — or even Iraq, for that matter.
The descent of the world’s major powers upon Syria was accelerating even before jihadist terrorists left 130 innocent civilians dead in Paris, and the manner in which Syria has now become a proxy war for so many other regional and global actors is starting to resemble the domino trail of alliances and diplomatic errors that began World War I. It’s irresponsible to argue that the world is plunging into World War III, but the escalations in Syria reflects the same kind of destructive slippery slope that began with the assassination of the heir of a fading empire by a nationalist in what was then a provincial backwater. Continue reading ‘Coalition of the frenemies’ is bombing Syria for all the wrong reasons→
Though there’s plenty to be pessimistic about in the five months since Turkey’s last parliamentary election in June, the result in today’s repeat snap elections is perhaps the best possible outcome for the various domestic and international actors with a state in Turkey’s continued stability.
The Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party), the conservative Islamist party that has dominated Turkish politics since 2002, scored the most crushing victory in its history — more than when it initially came to power and more than its prior peak in the 2011 elections. That’s despite a turbulent election campaign marred by an early October suicide blast in the capital city of Ankara, the deadliest terrorist attack in the history of the modern Turkish republic.
Though the AKP will not win the two-thirds majority that it hoped for to enact the constitutional changes that president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to rebalance powers away from the national assembly and to the presidency, the result gives the AKP a clear mandate to govern without seeking a coalition partner. The AKP’s path to a majority victory wasn’t pretty, and there’s a compelling case that Erdoğan has seriously damaged his legacy and, he further undermined the rule of law, fair elections, internal security and press freedom over the past five months. But the victory means that Turkey will not face a third election in the spring and all the destabilization that another months-long campaign period would mean.
Most surprisingly, the AKP managed its overwhelming victory while the leftist, Kurdish-interest Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party) still won enough support to win seats in the national assembly. That feels like something of a miracle, given the increasingly tense atmosphere across southeastern Turkey, where polling took place under conditions of near civil war between Turkish military forces and the radical guerrilla group, the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party).
While HDP leader attorney Selahattin Demirtaş has called for a peaceful approach to the fight for greater Kurdish autonomy, AKP officials, including Erdoğan and prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu have tried to tie the party to the more militant PKK as a years-long ceasefire, the product of advanced peace talks between the Turkish government and PKK leaders, unravelled in July in the wake of a suicide bombing in Suruç (and attributed to the jihadist ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh). Turkey’s hurdle rate for winning seats in the national parliament is 10%. That means, with around 10.6% of the vote, the HDP is entitled to 59 seats, but with just 9.99%, the HDP would have won exactly zero seats. The latter outcome, just five months after the HDP celebrated the first time an expressly Kurdish party won seats in the Turkish assembly, would have greatly undermined Demirtaş’s argument that Turkish Kurds can work through the democratic system for greater autonomy, self-government and other minority rights.
It’s certainly not the outcome Erdoğan would have been hoping for because, had the AKP taken those 59 seats, it would have the elusive two-thirds majority Erdoğan has sought since winning the Turkish presidency last August. In the long run, however, even if Erdoğan dislikes it, it’s much better that the Kurdish minority feels like it can benefit through democratic participation. Continue reading Turkey’s election result the best possible outcome→
Since the initial June parliamentary elections in Turkey, the country has weathered more instability than at any other period since the Islamist Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) came to power.
On the eve of fresh elections this weekend, consider all that’s happened since the June elections when the AKP lost its parliamentary majority:
Coalition talks failed between prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the two secular opposition parties that were most likely to support an AKP-led government.
Since 2011, the value of the lira has fallen by 50% against the U.S. dollar and Turkey’s once galloping economic development is slowing — to just a projected 3.2% in 2015.
A suicide bombing on July 20 in the southern city of Suruç killed 33 people. In response, Kurdish forces attacked Turkish police after Turkish officials downplayed the need to secure areas of southeastern Turkey that are most heavily populated by the Kurdish minority.
Turkish forces responded to the Suruç attack by joining the military effort against ISIS/Islamic State/Daesh, the Sunni radical group that has extended its ‘caliphate’ across eastern Syria and western Iraq.
Turkish forces also used the Suruç attack to wage a much more aggressive attack against the militant Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), escalating a conflict that had previously been working its way toward a peaceful settlement between Turkey’s government and the PKK’s jailed leader, Abdullah Öcalan.
Another suicide bombing on October 10 in the Turkish capital of Ankara at a peace rally became the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Turkish history, further polarizing Turkish voters who alternative pointed fingers at ISIS, the government and the PKK.
Critical media voices have been harassed or prosecuted by a government whose record on press freedom was already deteriorating.
In the June elections, the AKP won just 256 seats in the Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly), 20 short of a majority. It was the first time since the AKP first came to power in the 2002 elections that it failed to win a majority, scuttling Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s to consolidate power in the Turkish presidency after won Turkey’s first-ever direct election to the mostly ceremonial office last summer.
The AKP fell so low because, for the first time in Turkish history, a pro-Kurdish party, the leftist Halkların Demokratik Partisi (HDP, People’s Democratic Party), ran for election on a unified list and won enough support to meet the 10% electoral hurdle for winning seats in the National Assembly. With the HDP taking 80 seats, it made it that much more difficult for the AKP to reach an absolute majority. Continue reading A deadlocked assembly could mean a third election in Turkey→
Arguably no one can claim that he or she speaks more for the Turkish conscience than Orhan Pamuk, the only Turk to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
In unusually strong terms, Pamuk told the Italian daily La Repubblica yesterday that the divisive policies of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are partially to blame for creating an environment of instability and chaos that served as the backdrop to Saturday’s deadly bombing in Ankara:
“The electoral defeat enraged Erdogan,” Pamuk told the daily, arguing that the setback, which resulted in new elections being scheduled for November 1, was also behind the recent resumption of hostilities between the army and Kurdish militants.
“He didn’t succeed in convincing the Kurds to give him their votes for his plan to create a presidential republic,” Pamuk said. “That is why he decided to go to the polls again on November 1. But neither the government nor the army were satisfied with how things were going and they agreed to resume the war against the Kurdish movement.”
The country now finds itself even more divided in the wake of a terrorist bombing that has now killed more than 100 people, the deadliest such attack in the history of the modern Turkish republic.
The Ankara attack and its political fallout are now set to dominate the last 19 days of the election campaign, and it augurs the possibility of ominous threat to Turkish democracy.
Erdoğan, elected president two years ago and whose Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) rose to power initially in 2002, has not yet delivered more than a short statement in response to the bombing. Prime minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s remarks Saturday initially blamed ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State, Kurdish nationalists or left-wing activists for the attack, though the government says it now believes, on the basis of hard evidence, that the Islamic State is behind the bombings. The attack is similar to a suicide bombing in the southern border town of Suruç that killed 33 people in July — and that set Turkish armed forces in action against Islamic State. Nevertheless, ISIS militants, who are never incredibly bashful about such attacks, have not taken credit for the bombings.
The Suruç attack also brought angry reprisals from Kurdish militants against Turkish police and military personnel. Erdoğan responded by escalating tensions, thereby bringing to an end a years-long ceasefire with the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party), an armed Marxist group that has intermittently fought the Turkish military since the 1980s. Until this summer, greater cultural autonomy and political freedom for Turkey’s Kurdish population, and a growing sense of security and peace under the mutual ceasefire, had been one of Erdoğan’s most crucial legacies.
In the wee foggy hours of January 21, 1994, a speeding Mercedes crashed on the highway en route to Damascus International Airport.
Its driver was 31-year-old Bassel al-Assad, the eldest son of Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, and he died instantly. His death scrambled what had been a long-planned succession for Syria’s aging ruler. From an early age, it had always been clear that Hafez was grooming Bassel — by far, the most popular and charismatic of Hafez’s sons — to succeed him.
His death forced Hafez to switch plans, despite more than a decade of work preparing Syria for Bassel’s eventual ascension and preparing Bassel to one day rule Syria with the same grip as his father had.
Bashar al-Assad, Bassel’s younger brother, was immediately recalled from London, where he had lived for two years engaged in post-graduate studies as an ophthalmologist. For the next six years, until his father’s death, Bashar underwent a transformation to prepare to take the reins of the family business.
Photo credit to Reuters.
Like Che Guevara in Cuba, Bassel’s face routinely greets everyday Syrians alongside Bashar and Hafez. Or at least it does in what little Syrian territory remains dominated by the Assad regime these days. As Syria’s hell continues through its fourth year, many Syrians must wonder whether their lives would have turned out differently under the other Assad son.
So as Russian fighter jets land at Bassel al-Assad airport in an escalating effort this month to boost the struggling Assad regime, it’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if the Latakia airport’s namesake had survived.
As Roula Khalaf wrote for The Financial Times in 2012, no one ever expected Bashar to one day become Syria’s president — least of all, probably, Bashar himself:
“Growing up, Bashar was overshadowed by Bassel,” says Ayman Abdelnour, a former adviser who got to know Assad during his university years. “That seemed to be a complex – he didn’t have the charisma of Bassel, who was sporty, was liked by girls and was the head of the Syrian Computer Society.” Bashar was “shy; he used to speak softly, with a low voice. He never asked about institutions or government affairs.” Assad was also close to his mother, Anisa Makhlouf, whose family played a central part in the regime. “A mama’s boy more than a papa’s boy,” is how one western politician describes the president.
In 2000, ready or not, Bashar assumed the presidency at age 35.
Even before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the eye doctor-turned-strongman showed signs of weakness. There was an initial period of political freedom in the first year of his regime — though the period became known as the ‘Damascus Spring,’ the term now rankles with irony, and the thaw on political dissent clearly ended by 2002. In the wake of the US military’s overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East, Assad spent much of 2003 and 2004 worried that neoconservatives might attack him next (a fear that was not entirely unfounded).
Bashar’s biggest miscalculation came in Lebanon, where nearly everyone believes Syrian forces assassinated former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, a galvanizing moment for Lebanon that generated backlash among Lebanese of all backgrounds and religions. Ultimately, the furor over Hariri’s shooting forced Bashar to withdraw the Syrian troops that had occupied much of the country since Lebanon’s own civil war began in 1976.
Beleaguered emerging markets across the globe breathed a sigh of relief Thursday afternoon when the chair of the US Federal Reserve, Janet Yellen, explained that the Federal Open Markets Committee would not (yet) be raising the federal funds rate, expressly due, in part, to weak economic conditions in emerging economies where tighter US monetary policy could exacerbate macroeconomic conditions.
When it comes to world politics, the FOMC’s decision could give the strongest boost to the ruling party’s presidential candidate in Argentina, who currently leads polls ahead of the October 25 general election.
Many economists argue that seven years of interest rates at the zero lower bound have created a bubble in emerging economy assets. Investors looked to developing economies with potentially higher rates of return outside the developed world while the Federal Reserve was flooding the global economy with liquidity, not just by lowering interest rates to zero, but through several rounds of quantitative easing.
It’s already been a tough couple of years as investors have pulled back from developing economies, beginning with the Fed’s decision to begin tapering off from the peak of its QE bond-buying program. But the slowing Chinese economy and depressed prices for oil and other commodities (not, perhaps, entirely unrelated) have made life particularly difficult for emerging economies.
Unable to form a governing coalition with any of Turkey’s opposition parties after more than a decade of one-party rule, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s strategy for scrambling politics prior to the country’s return to polls on November 1 is becoming increasingly clear, and it’s a cynical maneuver that could ruin one of Erdoğan’s most important legacies.
What’s clear is that Erdoğan and his chief lieutenant, prime minister and former foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu are determined to take back their majority in the 550-seat Türkiye Büyük Millet Meclisi (Grand National Assembly), even if it means bending the rules of traditional democracy. With each passing day, the Turkish military’s intensifying engagement both against the Islamic State/ISIS and Kurdish militants within the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK, Kurdistan Workers’ Party) seem designed to shake up Turkish politics enough for the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (AKP, the Justice and Development Party) to return to power without resorting to a governing coalition.
While there were already worrying signs that Erdoğan was attempting to harass Turkish media in the lead-up to the June campaign, he now seems to be going even farther by arresting and raiding the most critical voices in the press. As Erdoğan’s push against Kurdish militants increases, he has openly discussed persecuting all Kurdish politicians, even those with few ties to the PKK.
To understand what’s going on requires an understanding of the arithmetic of Turkish politics, especially because many polls show that voter preferences haven’t particularly changed since June.