Richard Chasman
Richard Chasman

Chaos in the Middle East

As we go to press, Turkish troops, with US air power backing, have gone into Syria. They are attacking Daesh (ISIS) to retaliate against a teen-age suicide bomber who killed more than 50 people celebrating a Kurdish wedding on the Turkish side of the border. There is a concern that Turkey will broaden its offensive to attack the Syrian based Kurds who are the US’s most reliable ally in the fight against Daesh. Turkey fears an expansion of Kurdish control in Syria. (See the discussion below.)

Turkey is going through a counter-coup that puts the coup to shame. As of August 17, roughly 20,000 people had been detained and about 10,000 arrested on charges of involvement in the coup. The military, the judiciary and the civil service are being scoured to remove all traces of those opposed to President Erdogan, who ascribes the attempted coup to followers of Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is an Islamic cleric who has lived in Pennsylvania since 1999. Gulen and Erdogan were allies in a war on secularists in the Turkish government. Gulen denies any involvement in the coup attempt. The Turkish government is trying to extradite Gulen.

A BBC article of July 16 analyzes the Gulen movement. ‘A well-organised community of people – not a political party – named after the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen. He is regarded by followers as a spiritual leader and sometimes described as Turkey’s second most powerful man. The imam promotes a tolerant Islam which emphasises altruism, modesty, hard work and education. The movement – known in Turkey as Hizmet, or service – runs schools all over Turkey and around the world, including in Turkic former Soviet Republics, Muslim countries such as Pakistan and Western nations including Romania and the US, where it runs more than 100 schools. Followers are said to be numerous in Turkey, possibly in the millions, and are believed to hold influential positions in institutions from the police and secret services to the judiciary and Mr Erdogan’s ruling AK Party itself.’

‘How did Mr Gulen and Mr Erdogan become rivals? With their focus on Islamic values, Mr Gulen and his followers were natural allies for Mr Erdogan as he took power. He first used the Gulenists’ bureaucratic expertise to run the country and then exploited their connections to get the military out of politics….Having dispatched the military, Mr Erdogan went after Hizmet in 2013 by vowing to shut down thousands of private schools that prepare students for exams, about a quarter of which were run by the Gulenist movement. He also began attempting to force people believed to be Gulenists out of the security services and government ministries, which he said constituted a “state within a state”.

The post coup purge includes news organizations that are critical of the government. Hurriyet of August 17 reports, ‘Police have staged raids on the houses of several writers for daily Özgür Gündem after detaining up to 24 journalists in a raid on the newspaper on Aug. 16 that followed the paper’s “temporary” closure. Police raided the houses of columnists and managers of Özgür Gündem, including Aslı Erdoğan, Ragıp Zarakolu, Eren Keskin, who is the former co-editor-in-chief of the daily, and Filiz Koçali.’

Erdogan still has a ways to go before his purge reaches the depths of the Stalin era purges following the murder of Kirov in 1934. Stalin used Kirov’s murder – which he may have instigated – as an excuse to consolidate his power by getting rid of other Bolshevik leaders. There was a rash of mysterious automobile accidents that conveniently got rid of his rivals.

Vladimir Putin, a former officer of the KGB, and now the President of Russia is trying to restore Russia to the the ‘glory days’ of Stalin. In the grand Stalinist tradition , he uses assassination to further his ends .A New York Times article of August 20 describes the many ways that opponents are killed. Poison is a preferred option. Victims include whistle blowers in the scandal of enhancement performance drugs used by Russian Olympic athletes in addition to the conventional critics of the regime.

To extend Russian influence in the Middle East, Putin is forming alliances with Turkey and Iran. As Iran and Turkey are long time rivals for hegemony in the Middle East, it’s hard to believe that their alliance will last. However, they do have a common interest in suppressing the Kurdish drive to carve out a homeland in territory that encompasses parts of Syria, Iran, Iraq and Turkey. It is strange that Turkey and Iran are so enamored of a homeland for the Palestinians but so adamantly opposed to a Kurdish homeland.

Semih Idiz writes in an article of August 16, ‘Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov also fueled speculation about a new axis when he said in a statement after Zarif’s {Iran’s Foreign Minister} talks in Ankara that the three countries could meet soon on Syria. However, prospects for a genuine “axis” between the three countries remain questionable at best, given the significant differences that remain between Ankara and Tehran, and Ankara and Moscow regarding Syria.

Ankara remains opposed to President Bashar al-Assad staying in power, even though there are signs that it will accept a Syrian administration that includes Assad supporters. Moscow and Tehran, however, have made it clear that they are not prepared to bargain over Assad’s future. Ankara is also unhappy about Russian military operations against what it considers legitimate anti-Assad fighters as well as Iran’s overt and covert efforts to keep the regime standing.

Russia and Iran, for their part, continue to believe that radical Sunni groups in Syria they call terrorist organizations are being facilitated by Ankara, which they claim has prolonged the Syrian crisis. There are areas, though, where Turkish-Iranian interests overlap. For example, both countries underscored the importance of maintaining Syria’s territorial integrity during Zarif’s visit. Both countries are also united in their desire to block the aspirations of Kurds for an autonomous region in northern Syria, although Cavusoglu {Turkey’s Foreign Minister} and Zarif did not spell this out openly during their press conference in Ankara.’

A New York Times article of August 16 details the Iranian decision to provide bases for Russian bombers to attack Syria. Historians and American officials said Tuesday that the Iranian decision to let Russia base its planes and support operations in Iran — even temporarily — was a historic one. “This didn’t even happen under the shah,” said John Limbert, a former American foreign service officer who was stationed in Iran, referring to the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi.

In the shah’s era, there were American military advisers who moved in and out of Iran, and a series of listening posts in the country’s northeast where the military and American intelligence agencies monitored the Soviet Union. Yet the sense of sovereignty runs so deep in Iranian culture that American efforts to have a bigger presence there were repeatedly rebuffed. Mr. Limbert, who as a young foreign service officer was one of the Americans taken hostage in 1979 at the embassy in Tehran, speculated that Russia was paying handsomely for the privilege. In Iran today, he said, the prospect of gaining revenue “can create a lot of flexibility.”

We have also included articles on the Egyptian economy (very bad) and the warming ties between Egypt and Israel in the full newsletter. Hopefully, Egyptian and Saudi cooperation, with tacit support from Israel, will provide a counterweight to Iran and Russia.

About the Author
Richard Chasman, 1934-2018, was a member of the Modern Orthodox community in Chicago. Professionally, he was a theoretical nuclear physicist. Richard, who described his perspective as "centrist," wrote a newsletter for more than 20 years called "Chovevai Tsion of Chicago," on subjects of interest to the Modern Orthodox community.