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Letters from Turkey: Ankara shifts away from Israel/Palestine

Rabbi David Wolpe of Los Angeles’ Conservative synagogue Sinai Temple once said during a Friday night sermon, “People don’t think about you as much as you think people think about you.”

It might thus come as a shock to some readers that amid the campaign rallies leading up to Turkey’s parliamentary elections on June 12th, not a single Palestinian flag was waved among the crowds, nor was an anti-Israel banner held or slogan chanted. Turkey’s economy, its constitution, the rights of its women, and the rise of nationalism were on the agenda. Israel and Palestine were not.

Religious Muslim women are among the supporters of Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at his victory rally in Istanbul's AK Party headquarters (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

Riding back to my hotel from Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, I was asked by my 30 year-old computer salesman-turned-taxi driver, Mete Soner Seylum, where I am from. When I respond, he says, “The Israelis own everything.” Curious, I ask him to qualify his declaration. “The Israelis? Or the Jews?” “Ah, the Jews,” he responds. “The Jews own everything.” His views on Israel, its domestic and/or foreign policies and its treatment of the Palestinians just happen to be limited to a socio-economic stereotype. But oddly enough, it was followed by a compliment. “The Israelis are a very smart people,” he adds. “They always help each other whenever one of them needs it. Not like us here in Turkey.”

Flattery the first part may be, but accurate the last part is not. Turkey has recently displayed a true sense of altruism, absorbing thousands of Syrian refugees who have crossed its southern border. And the people of Turkey reflect the policy of its government. In the sleepy Turkish village of Guvecci, in Hatay Province near the Syrian frontier, I come across a number of Syrian refugees who have fled clashes in Jisr al Shurghour in Northwest Syria. They are aided by villagers who give them whatever little they have: bread, water, diapers, and a glass of ayran (a local drink that mixes water and yoghurt, which I am invited to sample, as well). Some take the goods and return over the border back to Syria, knowing that despite having fled, their families need the supplies.

Syrians amass at the border with Turkey, housed only by blue tents. Crossing is a last resort, as they must leave everything behind. (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

Syrians amass at the border with Turkey, housed only by blue tents. Crossing is a last resort, as they must leave everything behind. (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

I meet Mohammad, a 21 year old Syrian who speaks excellent English. He is from Jisr al Shurghour but had left the city in recent years to go study at university. He says he witnessed the confrontations between residents of his city and the military earlier this month, and adds that two members of his family were shot dead, something obviously I am unable to confirm. He is in Guvecci only for the day, looking for bread to take back home to his extended family of forty people. But he heads back empty-handed, this time unable to find any and afraid they will be worried he has been gone too long. He intends to return to Guvecci the following day, but I do not see him again.

Syrian refugee Mohammad, 21, looks for bread in the Turkish village of Guvecci before returning across the border (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

The road that leads down the hill from Guvecci to the border is a mixture of dirt, gravel and pavement. It is sometimes sheltered by towering trees and bushes that line the sides of trails, which also provide a cloak of cover from the sight of a Turkish military compound hovering over the hills. But in most parts, the path is very exposed to the summer sun’s rays. Thousands have come into Turkey this way, and it is likely as the violence continues, thousands more will follow.

For now, the Turkish government – on the heels of Prime Minister’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s popular re-election for a third-term – says it will continue to absorb them, even though it has faced criticism for closing off the refugees (those it manages to detain) from the outside world. And the refugees appear to be grateful to their hosts, at one point breaking into abrupt protest and chanting, “Erdogan! Erdogan!”

Turkish man overlooks camp for Syrian refugees in Yayladagi (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

But it is unclear whether this policy will remain unchanged if, for example, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launches attacks on Kurds in Northern Syria, who in turn will then likely flee to join the Kurds in Southeastern Turkey. In the elections, Erdogan took a small but significant beating from Turkey’s Kurdish politicians who, in a work-around to Turkey’s high (and undemocratic, many will argue) ten-percent parliamentary threshold, managed to secure thirty-two seats. The last thing Erdogan would have wished to deal with as he prepared to write a new constitution for the country is a strong, Kurdish bloc. And while he may not want to see more ethnic Kurds arriving in Turkey, even less desirable will be his lose all international credibility if he refuses their refuge while allowing it for others.

A confident Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan campaigns for 2011, but boasts of his vision for 2023. (photo: Roee Ruttenberg)

Naturally, for Erdogan and even for Turkey as a whole, oppression in Syria has become a more crucial and urgent rallying call than the suffering in Gaza, as reflected in the current debate over the “Freedom Flotilla II” (scheduled to set sail later this month). Large demonstrations are now frequently held in various Turkish cities, but the protestors are calling for the end of Assad, not Netanyahu.

Telling Israelis that I was heading to Turkey drew a strange reaction, one I might have expected were I heading to Lebanon or Iran. But beyond Syria, Erdogan has lots to worry about: Libya, the EU, an aging military hardware, economic default in nearby Greece, and growing economic disparity among his own population. “Ending the occupation” and the latest episode in the love-hate relationship of Hamas and Fatah are not his top priority, even if he tried to get involved in the past. Grandstanding in front of Israeli leaders, as he did in Davos, has taken a backseat. Let’s face it: he doesn’t think about us as much as much as we think he thinks about us.

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    1. Ben Israel

      Israelis of all political stripes think that Israel’s problems are at the center of the world’s attention. I recall reading that after the Labour landslide in the British elections of July 1945 in which Labour’s platform included plans to liquidate the British Empire and a pro-Zionist declaration, the telephone wires and telegraph lines were choked day after day with messages from the Jews in Palestine to London wondering why the new Labour gov’t hadn’t yet moved on creating a Jewish state. They were told that it just wasn’t an important issue to the gov’t (i.e. until the Tenuat HaMeri alliance of ETZEL, Lehi and Hagana started blowing things up here).
      I think what Roee says is true of how most of the world relates to the Arab/Israeli conflict. Don’t forget that Turkey is a Muslim country looking towards taking a leading part in the Muslim world. How much more so would be the disinterest of the rest of the non-Muslim world to the problems of Israel, the Palestinians, the settlements, etc. I am convinced most people couldn’t care less about them. Yes, radical Leftists/Progressives, particularly Jews do seem to have an obsession with our problems, for ideological reasons and foreign governments do take an interest due to Arab petrodollar influence in gov’t circles. But for the average person, the Arab-Israeli conflict represents just another intractable problem the world has learned to live with.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Carl

      I think you’ve got it right there Ben. Though it’s common to hear people go on about Israel/Palestine, the world is personal, meaning that while many people might get exercised about X, Y or Z around the world, the A, B, C on their doorstep is what matters.

      One interesting point about Turkey and Syria though is Turkey’s NATO membership. NATO members have repeated that military involvement is not an option, and given the low standing of NATO especially in the US, they’d have a hard time acting. That said, if the Assad clan continues to be so vicious and stupid, fighting could well erupt around the Turkish border. If Turkey were to invoke the ‘attack on one is an attack on all’ principal of NATO (as the US did in 2001) then how would NATO react? Weakly is my guess, but still, who knows.

      Reply to Comment
    3. max

      Carl, that’s an interesting aspect.
      I’d suspect that Turkey, if it indeed feels it’s forced to act militarily, will not call for NATO involvement, as this will weaken its leadership standing.
      In addition, it has to manage its relationship with Iran. While it collaborates with it much closer than NATO members would like to see, eventually their relationship will have to build a conflict of interest, as both are vying for the top dog position in the region.
      In both cases, NATO would be counterproductive to Turkey’s interest.
      The flotilla part is interesting insofar as the Turkish government stated that it could not have pressured the IHH in the previous one…

      Reply to Comment
    4. Martin Sandberger

      thanks for the concise analysis. we dont get this in the mainstreem news

      Reply to Comment
    5. Bronxman

      Turkey could indeed start switching priorities now that the elections are
      over and Erdogan won with a comfortable majority. Look at the quick switch
      in cancelling the Mavi Marmara in the upcoming Gaza Flotilla. And since
      Turkey is very commercialy oriented, given the realization that they really
      don’t have much control over what goes on in the general neighborhood,
      we may very well see some reaching out in new (actually, old) Western
      directions. Consider this: Trade between Israel and Turkey increased by
      25 percent between 2009 and 2010, and by 40 percent in the first quarter
      of 2011 compared with the same period last year. And, should Syrian forces
      get too close to the Turkish/Syrian border and start harassing refugees, Turkey has sufficient force to handle Syria without any help from NATO.

      Very informative commentary Mr. Ruttenberg.

      Reply to Comment
    6. David

      Turkey should stop its war against the Kurds ( 20.000 murdered/dead.
      900+ villages razed ) and prosecute all rapists in uniform and install a truth commission to investigate the brutal torture it inflicted on Kurdish prisoners over decades.
      If it has not done so already, it should make speaking Kurdish legal and permit a free Kurdish speaking press.
      The AKP should come clean on its hidden agenda regarding a Neo-Ottomam empire and National Islamism while withdrawing from Cyprus, which it illegally occupies.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Serah Dilara

      @David, interesting you comment about the kurds, they are not even indigenous to Anatoilia, a massive hurricane of “kurds”-originally yezidis, ran into our borders as refugees during the Iraq and US war in the 1990’s.Now they are claimign to historically have a country called “kurdistan”lol, my ass. As for Cyprus, the Turks have lived there for thousands of years, how can you possibly call them an occupier?, Free Palestine!! free Eastern Jerusulum, you have killed, murdered, and ethnically cleansed Palestinians, and Lebanese, Syrians, for the last 60 decades, you are ILLEGALLY occupying Muslim holy lands, MOVE BACK TO KHAZARIA, YOU ARE NOT EVEN INDIGENOUS TO THE MIDDLE EAST!A REALLY GOOD BOOK “THIRTEENTH TRIBE”, BY ARTHUR KOESTLER.

      Reply to Comment