A number of years ago we began moving our travel destinations further and further from home. Three of our grandchildren are the most adventurous in demanding the freedom to travel alone and as far afield as they desire. On the one hand I am thrilled and, yet, I closely follow their movements on a world-wide terrorist alert site. As I write this commentary, I realize that if there is a push-the-envelope travel gene imbedded in their psyche, in all probability they inherited it from me. At age 16, I couldn’t understand why I could not get a job working on international cargo ships. Forget that I looked like I was 12, had never been away from home and blamed by parents for my lack of success. In the mid-1950s, I and 3 other Americans “escaped “ from the violent chaos in Haiti as the only passengers on what turned out, for a long while, to be the last Pan Am flight out of Port a Prince, as rioting and political upheaval made the Island far too dangerous for us to remain. To complicate our trip, we were only able to fly as far as Kingston, Jamaica. Aside from the pandemic that is unsettling and complicating world, travel, there are parts of the world that I have happily visited and wished to have stayed, but in today’s world I would not return.
India is racked with the virus and in a volatile and violent boarder dispute with China during which lives have been lost. There is nothing like a Pitu – Cachaca as you get closer to Brazil but South America is…..
There is nothing like the sunset along the California coast, but aside from the fact that the coronavirus can provide an 89 percent jump in hospitalizations next month, the fires that are burning with a strange, dirty orange sky that are consuming the oxygen that our lungs thrive upon. And as I started writing this Commentary, there was an epic attempt to save the observatory on top of Mt. Wilson.
And then there is Turkey. When we landed in Istanbul 15 years ago, our flight having been delayed, I had lost the opportunity to speak at length with a dear friend, Joe Serio, who had attended an international conference on national security and terrorism. This would have been an important briefing for me. His parting comments to me were: “I think things might change here.” How perceptive of today’s Turkey. At that moment, there was nothing to dampen our excitement for the coming holiday, as we moved toward our first stop: checking into a marvelous hotel that had once been a prison, quickly unpacking and walking the streets. The smells, sounds and color that flew past us immediately told us that we were going to have a marvelous holiday. We did and we still speak of certain events with nostalgia. Today, I think: not. Today, Turkey is on the opposite end of a very long national strategic fence of international partners–NATO. The history of Turkey has turned increasingly and dramatically ugly within the last decade.
Some political history is necessary to understand the upheaval in Turkish political life and, in some instances, the overriding importance of its international aggressiveness:
Its president is directly elected by the citizens for up to two five-year terms, but is eligible to run for a third term if the parliament calls for early elections. Strong man President Erdogan began his rise and tightened the reigns of his political position in the Turkish government within his time as prime minister and his aggressive move toward the presidency in 2014. A constitutional referendum passed in 2017, during the time of an aborted coup while the State was under emergency control, and he manipulated the political system and created a new presidential hierarchy. It expanded his role and effectively consolidated the president’s position and power. Then in an early election in June 2018, at Erdogan’s request to allegedly implement the new presidential system, the prime minister’s role was abolished, leaving him with full control over the government. He is eligible for a third term, and could hold office through 2028, if he is, as expected, be reelected again.
Erdogan’s ruling political party, the AKP, has asserted control over the judiciary, the police and the media, and has aggressively manipulated national agencies either to eliminate or weaken his political opposition. The world has witnessed the Erdogan government arrest opposition leaders, educators, military personal and journalists, accusing them of crimes from terrorism to “insulting” the president. Non-Muslim religious groups are under tight government restraints regarding most of their activities. What was once a full secular state no longer exists. The separation of church and state, which was one of the historic foundations of what had become a vibrant modern Turkey, has been all but eradicated by Erdogan. Symbolically, this past July, in his attempt to reverse Turkish history, he began the process of converting the beautiful Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine church and then a popular secular museum, back into a mosque .
Internationally, Erdogan’s actions mirror one who has long been attempting to put Turkey, and thus him, at the controlling center of a geo-political sphere of influence reaching as far as Greece, Italy, infuriating France and supporting those who threaten Israel, as he also backs the Muslim Brotherhood in their conflict with the President of Egypt. Erdogan’s government early condemned the Syrian regime, attacked its leaders and supported the country’s rebels with arms and tactical advice. He also supports Hamas and their aggression against Israel. Presently, we witness Turkey’s growing aggression toward Greece and others in a contentious fight for control and domination in the Mediterranean Sea. In July of this year, Dr. Ilan Fuchs wrote in a long analysis that Turkey’s Erdogan is trying to replicate a “neo-Ottoman” sphere of influence, or as he notes a “Pan-Turkism and Pan-Islamism empire”. Any of the labels one might choose is immaterial, with an increasingly presence of blinking red lights– the results are clearly evident on the ground in Turkey and to the east and west and to the United States, half-way around the globe. We are all involved. Turkey is aggressively placing itself squarely in the critical conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in what is evolving into a full-blown out-and-out war. Mercenaries from various countries are pouring into the conflict. Erdogan has dispatched Jihadists in the Caucasus to aid Azerbaijan. European nations, practically France, who has long since had a voice in that region have let it been known to Turkey in a stern warning from its President that “France will play its role. Azerbaijan and Armenia then agreed to a “humanitarian ceasefire” in the conflict one week after a prior pause in fighting fell apart.
Most Americans learned in grade school that Turkey is unique in that it is a country that geography has one foot in Europe and the other in Asia, and your mother wished she had a rug woven in that Country. What most Americans are not aware of is that the United States Air Force has a major airbase in Incirlik. It is a mere 500 miles from the capital Istanbul, This air base is rated high in our military/strategic importance not only because of its proximity to Russia and other strategic capitals of the Mideast, but its unequal importance as a storage facility for our regional nuclear weapons.
Presently, the Turkish economy has been, as in all other countries decimated by the covid-19 virus pandemic, with spiraling double-digit inflation, soaring unemployment and a deep financial deficit. You might remember the uproar when Turkey announced that it would purchase its S-400 air defense system from Russia and not, as a NATO member, a NATO compatible system. The swords were rattled further after Erdogan announced: “The issue of the Aegean and the Mediterranean is one that Turkey will never take a step back from. We will resolutely continue to protect and defend our rights and interests at all times and under all circumstances.” In other words, notwithstanding his membership in NATO and our military presence in Turkey, he was moving toward a Russian partnership. Then at the beginning of this month, angering Greece, the Turkish government announced it is preparing live-fire exercises of the Russian tracking system in the Aegean Sea and has transported its Russian-made S-400 air defense system to international waters in the Black Sea.
This past August, it has been widely reported (again in the back pages of the international news) that as Tukey planned for testing both its offensive and defensiveness of its Russian tracking system, it programed its surface-to air-missile launcher system to track U.S. made, Greek F-16 fighter planes.
What I find amazing is how long it has taken for a bi-partisan group of United States’ Senators to speak out and address the issues of Turkey’s move not only toward a full dictatorship but their embrace of the Russian dictatorship as they seek the imposition of U.S. sanctions. Silence was the answer from the White House aside from the Secretary of State visiting Greece. The city he should have visited with a clear message was Istanbul not Athens.
One can only wonder could the delay or stalling by the present Administration’s response to Erdogan internal and international power grab be that the President openly admires dictatorial leaders: Kim Jon, Putin, and the Philippine’s Duterte. Or could it be that unlike dealing with a world power like China, where to the person in the street, the issues are fairly clear cut– financial and political world dominance. Turkey‘s unique position– political and geographical –in the international community requires, as a member of NATO, a more delicate touch and nuanced skills that are presently lacking in the Trump Administration. There is not much time left on the clock before Turkey is lost, and that would be catastrophic.