BORDER COUNTRY

Around five years ago I recall seeing a ‘Newsnight’ feature on female fighters of the Kurdish guerrilla army, the PKK, and I shamefully admit to being distracted by the fact that they were all stunning-looking women, each resembling a young Bianca Jagger in combat gear. I appreciate this is an exceedingly trivial reaction to a serious story on a serious subject; the PKK has been a bloody thorn in the side of Turkey for decades. But it was probably the last time I watched a report on the troubled fault-line between Europe and the Middle East and came away from it feeling anything other than despair.

Since 1984, the Marxist-Leninist group known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (AKA the PKK) has been engaged in a persistent armed struggle against the Turkish authorities. Although regularly denied by the organisation itself, the motivation behind the PKK’s paramilitary activities has been given as a desire for a separate independent Kurdish state within Turkey. The campaign has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the last four decades, and the aborted coup to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan from his throne in 2016 not only presented the Turkish President with wider powers to imprison his enemies, but also enabled him to publicly associate those of pro-Kurdish sympathies with the hated PKK, thus vindicating his authoritarian stance.

Erdogan was also uncomfortable with the Kurdish-Iraqi alliance against ISIS forces in Northern Syria. The PKK have launched many an attack from Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, and the realisation that the Kurds and Iraqis had combined into a formidable fighting force to take on an international enemy fed into the Turkish President’s paranoia that the Kurdish cause in Turkey would be further legitimised. For one thing, Erdogan and his party are Sunni Muslims, whereas the Iraqi forces in Syria are Shia; for another, the prospect of armed Kurds having both US and UN support in their incarnation as the Popular Protection Units (AKA the YPG) further weakened his argument, as did the YPG troops working alongside American comrades

Of course, things have changed over the past week. True, it can’t have been easy for Turkey over the last eight years with Syria as a neighbour, so a degree of anxiety regarding events on Turkey’s doorstep has been understandable. But from all accounts, YPG Kurds were doing a good job at preventing ISIS from encroaching closer to home, and US armed assistance was deemed vital to keeping the enemy at bay. Then President Trump, publicly declaring his weariness with Team America: World Police, decided to abruptly withdraw US forces from the region, a decision that left the YPG to not only fend for itself against the remaining ISIS insurgents, but to be confronted by the might of a Turkish Army overseen by a man convinced any Kurd with a gun in his hand is a PKK solider.

Trump’s sudden announcement could be regarded as an acknowledgement on the Donald’s part that there are bigger battles to be fought on home soil as impeachment proceedings provoked by the Biden/Ukraine affair progress; but it has inspired unprecedented expressions of opposition from within Republican ranks. Even the slavishly pro-Trump mouthpiece of Fox News has this week seen previously obedient Presidential cheerleaders publicly air their disgust at what is viewed as America abandoning its Kurdish allies in Syria. Of course, the mud-slinging of American politics will hardly trouble Erdogan, who wasted little time in launching an instant incursion into Northern Syria following what he perceived as Trump’s green light. Erdogan was never going to make a move that might risk spilling American blood, but now he has no such worries. And so a situation that was far-from stable has been destabilised even further.

Like most ongoing and seemingly never-ending conflicts, the Turkish-Kurdish grievance has a vintage of centuries rather than decades; it is rooted in ancient enmities stretching back to the Ottoman era, though the establishment of the modern state of Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI was the foundation stone of the PKK cause. Kurds have always seen themselves as second-class citizens in the eyes of their Turkish overlords, and Erdogan’s attitude in flexing his military muscles almost parallels Putin’s desire to recreate past glories – something that places Kurds back in their traditionally subservient role.

Purely by coincidence, I happen to be currently reading ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel that has bugger-all to do with an extinct English county, but begins with the chaos during the Turkish destruction of the ancient city of Smyrna in 1922 – a Greek enclave burnt to a cinder at the end of the Greco-Turkish War, with an estimated death toll ranging from 10,000 to 100,000. Most of the victims were Greek and Armenian. An early example of how warlike Turkish appetites remained intact despite the redrawing of the Middle Eastern map, the tragedy of Smyrna to outsiders a hundred years on is reduced to little more than a footnote in a saga that has added innumerable atrocities since; but it serves as a reminder of how far we haven’t travelled in a century.

The YPG alliance with Arab militias, along with accompanying American air-strikes, has successfully expelled ISIS fighters from a quarter of Syria; given the collective name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – apologies for all the acronyms), this essential bulwark against Radical Islam has nevertheless left a depressingly familiar tide of refugees in its wake, most of whom Erdogan plans to house in a safe-zone ‘corridor’ he intends to establish across a vast expanse of 480km. Following the overnight removal of their US allies, the SDF has good cause not to share Erdogan’s optimism of a safe-zone along the Turkish-Syrian border; declaring it has been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Trump’s decision, the SDF predicts the Turkish President’s safe-zone will instead become a ‘permanent warzone’ reversing the hard-won victories against ISIS. Some of the images that have emerged of the region in the media these past few days appear to confirm that bleak prognosis.

At one time, I’ve no doubt I would have written something about this days ago. But like many in the west, I suspect there is an inevitable fatigue surrounding so much of what we see from the Middle East; when nothing ever appears to improve, the natural conclusion to come to is that nothing ever will, and all you can do as a detached observer is shrug your shoulders and leave ‘em to it. It seems President Trump has come to the same conclusion, though, unlike the rest of us, he was actually in a position to affect events to a degree, and he has done precisely that this week – in the worst possible way. In response to the outrage his move has provoked, Trump has backtracked a little, threatening to ‘totally destroy and obliterate’ Turkey’s economy should the incursion into Kurdish territory involve any action the President regards as ‘off limits’. But one can’t help but wonder what the limits are now.

© The Editor

DUTCH COURAGE

One of the unavoidable side-effects of re-watching ‘The Thick of It’ (as I currently am) is the reinforcement of one’s instinctive cynicism towards politicians and politics in general; as funny as the series undoubtedly is – arguably one of the funniest ever made – one cannot help but suspect satire in this case is merely a smokescreen to disguise the fact we’re actually watching a documentary. I was reminded of the cynicism it generates this week with the canny timing of the spat between the Dutch and the Turks, coming on the eve of the General Election in the Netherlands.

Initially, it appeared the whole saga was a disastrous diplomatic faux-pas guaranteed to boost the prospects of far-right nationalist candidate Geert Wilders, vindicating his opinions of Muslim immigrants in Holland; now, however, with the polls having closed, it would seem the real beneficiary is the incumbent Dutch PM Mark Rutte. By standing up to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Rutte earned praise from all sides across the Dutch political spectrum and received an electoral thumbs-up as a consequence. Coincidence?

Erdogan’s idiocy in this particular clash was perhaps something Mark Rutte knew would work in his favour; all he needed was a little winding-up. To label the citizens of a former Nazi-occupied country as ‘Nazis’ themselves was hardly going to go down well; yet this is from a man whose ruthless suppression of his opponents at home following last year’s suspiciously convenient coup attempt has tightened his dictatorial grip to the point whereby the Nazi comparisons are far more applicable to his own regime. He also stirred the shit even further by accusing Dutch troops of carrying out the notorious Srebrenica Massacre in 1995. Although Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for that atrocity, the presence of Dutch UN peacekeepers and their failure to prevent the massacre means the issue remains raw in the Netherlands.

Mark Rutte’s decision to prevent two Turkish Ministers from addressing pro-Erdogan rallies in Holland kick-started the current unpleasantness between the two countries, leading to riots in Rotterdam at the weekend that seemed to play directly into the hands of Geert Wilders, who referred to the rioters with characteristic linguistic eloquence as ‘scum’. That these events should take place in a city that was all-but obliterated by German forces during the brutal conquest of Holland in 1940 seemed to rub salt into the Dutch wounds reopened by Erdogan’s war of words.

The rallies were cancelled under the guise of being a threat to public order, but no doubt the Dutch PM had an inkling what the response from the more strident pro-Erdogan Turks in Holland would be; his swift and decisive action in curbing the Rotterdam riots certainly portrayed him as a strong leader in the eyes of the electorate, which naturally did him no end of favours days away from the country going to the polls. Is it too cynical to view the whole nasty business as a carefully-coordinated incident requiring the kind of leadership that was destined to guarantee an upsurge of votes if carried out correctly?

An estimated 400,000 Turks live in the Netherlands and the rallies in question were intended to show support for a scheduled Turkish referendum designed to extend Erdogan’s powers even further; but what struck me as unusual about events in Rotterdam was that most ex-pats from a country with a regime as repressive as that of Erdogan often contain various dissidents and opponents of it, as happened for years in Florida, with first anti-Batista Cubans and then anti-Castro ones.

Yet with the Turkish President intent on tampering with the defiantly secular constitution of the modern nation founded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk in 1922, he has a large hardcore following of Muslim immigrants of a Radical bent in numerous European nations who are hardly going to oppose his plans to introduce a stricter Islamic form of governance in a country on the bridge between Europe and Asia. These have been the targets of Geert Wilders and his Freedom Party throughout the election campaign, but the opportunistic hitching of a ride on the ‘populist’ bandwagon by the man with the mad mane appears to have backfired re his Prime Ministerial ambitions.

The Dutch General Election was the first of a trio taking place in Central Europe this year, with Germany and France still to follow. With the rise of the Right on the continent receiving extensive coverage, it was seen as a tester of the post-Brexit climate; but Wilders’ failure to usurp the centre-right WD Party of a PM now looking forward to a third term at the helm – despite the Freedom Party becoming the second-biggest party in the Dutch Parliament – has been seen by some as putting the brakes on what Wilders himself has called ‘a patriotic spring’.

With the largest turnout in 30 years, it would appear fears of the far-right prompted voters to head for their local polling stations in unusually high numbers; Mark Rutte has indicated he will not work with Wilders’ party when it comes to forming the inevitable coalition government, but it’s doubtful Wilders will ‘do a Hillary Clinton’ in the wake of Rutte’s success; although he may spend his waking hours under virtual armed guard for his own safety, courting publicity is a speciality and he will most certainly remain a visible and contentious presence on the European political scene.

Had the spat with Turkey been a purely spontaneous outburst, it should have been precisely the kind of boost Geert Wilders was looking for to hammer home his message; that his centre-right rival benefitted from it does make one wonder just how accidental it was, let alone the timing of it. Then again, maybe I’ve been spending too much time in the company of Malcolm Tucker to judge events in the Netherlands with a sufficiently un-cynical eye.

© The Editor

A TALE OF TWO ISLANDS

chuckle-brosTwo divided islands have been back in the headlines this week, and we – that is, us Brits – have something of a history with both of them; in fact, we maintain an interest that means neither has never really fallen off our national radar. I’m talking about Ireland and Cyprus. One has been a crucial, not to say a controversial, element of this little land mass’s story for centuries, whereas the other is a military legacy of our imperial adventures when we began punching above our weight on a staggering scale. One appears poised to descend into depressingly familiar factions as another shaky coalition collapses, whereas the other finally seems to have reached a point whereby some form of reunification is being cautiously discussed.

In the case of Northern Ireland, the structure of the power-sharing Executive at Stormont means the resignation of decade-long Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness will have to be followed by the resignation of First Minister Arlene Foster, thus triggering an election. Sinn Fein have seven days to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, but they’ve dug their heels in and refuse to do so. One of the ironic consequences of the veteran republican’s decision is that, as of Monday, direct rule from Westminster will return to Ulster as the Northern Ireland Secretary takes charge; James Brokenshire then has six weeks in which to call an election.

Since the Northern Ireland Assembly was established in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement, every election has seen the DUP win the majority vote, relegating Sinn Fein to second place on each occasion. But the fact that running Stormont is a joint office means they can still bring the Executive to a standstill if they so wish; and they have.

This latest disagreement between the two parties has been brewing for quite some time. It stems from the Renewable Heat Incentive, a 2012 policy instigated by Arlene Foster when she held the post of Enterprise Minister; she introduced the ‘green energy’ scheme that became something of a black hole for the Executive’s limited funds and could eventually cost taxpayers an estimated £490m; Sinn Fein understandably reckoned she should take some responsibility for the disaster, while the DUP have responded by accusing Sinn Fein of deliberately sabotaging the continuation of the Executive with McGuinness’ resignation.

Despite the unexpected cordiality of relations between McGuinness and then-First Deputy Ian Paisley when they first worked together in 2007 (AKA ‘The Chuckle Brothers’), tensions are never far from the surface at Stormont; indeed, it’s been something of a minor miracle that the Executive has survived this long considering the intractable differences between the DUP and Sinn Fein. Having said that, the traditional enmities dividing Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland have at least been put aside for the sake of the country over the last decade-and-a half; the same can’t really be said when it comes to an island in the Mediterranean with an equally troubled history.

In the aftermath of the 1877/78 Russo-Turkish War, Britain’s mistrust of Russia led to a clandestine deal between the UK and the Ottoman Empire in which the running of Cyprus was ceded to Britain; the Ottomans needed an ally in the region to provide military support in the face of repeated Russian aggression, and Cyprus was a handy stop-off point on the route to India. Both parties were apparently happy until the outbreak of the Great War, when the Ottoman Empire threw in its lot with the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria), prompting Britain to annex Cyprus and make it a Crown Colony. Its significance as a military base proved vital over the following forty years. As the majority of the island’s population was Greek, long-held grievances over Turkish domination meant that British rule was deemed the lesser of two evils.

However, it didn’t take long before the Greek Cypriots began demanding the island be unified with Greece, leading to several violent protests in the 1930s not eased by the repressive regime instigated by the colony’s governor of the time. The Second World War suppressed such protests, with 30,000 Cypriots joining the British war effort; but the post-war era saw Greece drumming up international support for unification with Cyprus, something Britain resisted as the island’s Turks feared the worst.

The formation of the Greek Cypriot guerrilla organisation EOKA in the mid-50s unleashed a bloody campaign that became Britain’s key colonial battle in the Mediterranean following the withdrawal from Egypt. After Suez, Britain decided it would be preferable to grant Cyprus independence if it could maintain its military bases and this eventually came to pass in 1960. Britain’s military presence was called upon during a fresh outbreak of Greek-Cypriot violence in 1964, but the situation deteriorated further a decade later when Greeks overthrew the Cypriot President in a coup, prompting Turkey to invade Cyprus. The ultimate outcome of 1974 was the effective division of the island into Northern Cyprus (Turkish) and Southern Cyprus (Greek); and this state of affairs has been upheld ever since.

As Britain maintains Sovereign Base Areas in both Northern and Southern Cyprus, our commitment to the island lingers and, along with Greek and Turkey, we remain guarantor powers of Cyprus’ independence. Talks in Geneva at the moment are intended to review the situation and discuss possible reunification of the island, but the legacy of past clashes between Greek and Turkish Cypriots is a grim one that will take a considerable effort to resolve.

Over 2,000 members of both communities have been officially listed as missing persons for almost half-a-century; in recent years, the remains of more than 700 bodies have been exhumed, all victims of the atrocities that events in both 1964 and 1974 led to. If there is to be a resolution to Cyprus’ troubled history, there is still a hell of a lot to resolve.

On one hand, it could be said Northern Ireland is further along the road to recovery than Cyprus; and then we have to remember that we’re talking about just one half of a country that has been officially divided for ninety-five years, and the picture suddenly doesn’t seem much better at all. There’s a long way to go yet.

© The Editor

IT’S NOT OVER YET

cunt-2The decision of the ‘Newsnight’ production team and presenters to take an early holiday as of last Friday seemed to suggest 2016 had finished slinging shit at the world; paid vacations for BBC freeloaders doesn’t mean the most unpleasant twelve months in living memory has completed its catalogue of carnage, however, as yesterday’s events both in the centre and on the fringes of Europe indicated in the worst possible way. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in full view of TV cameras, swiftly followed by another horrible massacre – this time on the streets of a city with its fair share of past atrocities, Berlin – confirmed this year’s obituaries have been prematurely penned.

Not dissimilar to the gruesome scenes that accompanied the murder of Lee Rigby three years ago, the brazen pride in the killer of Andrei Karlov as he waved his weapon and ranted whilst the dying ambassador lay at his feet was an irredeemably ugly exhibition that suggested the secular constitution of Turkey isn’t merely under threat from the country’s dictatorial President Erdogan. The assassin, disconcertingly dressed like an extra from ‘Reservoir Dogs’, was apparently a serving police officer who quickly met the same fate as the man he shot in the back once Turkish security forces gate-crashed the incongruous surroundings of the Ankara art gallery where the murder took place.

Turkey has been a tense nation (to put it mildly) since the failed coup several months ago, but the ongoing crisis in Syria has added to the strained relations between the Turks and the Russians; lest we forget, it was only a year ago that a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey on the border with Syria. As Syria is on Turkey’s doorstep, a leader who makes no bones about his religious leanings, not to mention having purged the police, armed forces and judiciary of his enemies, is hardly in a position to dissuade his underlings from expressing similar beliefs with the kind of violent force Russia has unsurprisingly labelled ‘terrorism’.

Barely had the international community had the chance to react to that awful act before news began breaking of the latest slaughter of civilians on a European street. Echoing appalling events in Nice last July, the same method of murder was employed in an effort to maximise the body count, i.e. a lorry ploughing pedestrians down. Mercifully, the numbers killed at the Berlin Christmas Market were far lower than the 89 in France, but the incident will no doubt place further pressure upon Frau Merkel and her benign approach to immigration on the eve of a General Election in Germany, not to mention gifting Madame le Pen a fresh batch of headlines rich in exploitative potential when she prepares to sell herself to France’s own electorate next year.

Neither incident yesterday has yet to be connected to ISIS or any other Middle Eastern paramilitary organisation with a grudge against the west, though the one in Berlin does bear all the hallmarks. Mevlut Mert Altintas, the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, had included the words ‘Syria’ and ‘Aleppo’ in his post-assassination rant as well as the popular Radical Islam catchphrase ‘Allahu Akbar’, yet his actions seem more reflective of anti-Assad, anti-Russia/pro-Syrian Rebel Forces protests in Turkey over the days leading up to the murder rather than any suggestions of ISIS sympathies. Nevertheless, all major European cities are on high alert again, anticipating sleeper cells being triggered into action by news from Berlin in particular.

If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that all the worst bits of 2015 have simply been taken to the next level, and there’s little evidence that 2017 will see any improvement. Those keen to see the back of this year will probably find next year just as gloomy, but to turn Harold Macmillan’s trademark sound-bite on its head and say we’ve never had it so bad is to betray an ignorance of the past. The world has been here before, but I suppose to anyone born after, say, 1985, the current global turmoil is unprecedented within that short lifetime.

On a trivial, mildly inconvenient level, the concerns that claim tabloid column inches such as train and postal strikes were considerably more far-reaching forty-odd years ago. In the case of Southern Rail’s ongoing chaos, a nationalised railway industry would have seen the entire nationwide workforce come out in solidarity with their London colleagues and the whole country would have been affected over the Christmas holidays rather than just the capital and its Metroland commuter belt. But I wouldn’t expect people who weren’t even a twinkle in the milkman’s eye in 1974 to grasp that fact. Equally, the Daily Mail mindset that is forever lecturing those struggling in a zero-hours minimum wage ghetto where owning one’s home is a pipe-dream merely shows how long some have resided in a cosseted cocoon from the harsh realities of trying to make an honest living when wages and prices are such distant bedfellows.

It would be jumping the gun to compare 2016 to other seismic shifts in the world order – 1848 being the most obvious; a degree of distance is really required in order to measure the after-effects once the dust has settled, and we’re still too in the thick of it to make neat summaries of how this or that event altered things forever thereafter. But the pace of change, and the periodic bursts of violence that have characterised the change as it has unfolded with relentless aggression would, as I pointed out in a post a few months ago, make for a cracking edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ were we lucky enough to have some decent Rock n Roll; that we’re not seems to emphasise the absence of alternatives to the grim world about us; we’ve had to make do with overgrown school-kids dressing as clowns and people playing at statues for yet another tedious selfie fad; so much for cultural salvation.

Anyway, as the previous post attracted little in the way of attention, I’m optimistic enough to put that down to people having several distractions during a time of year when there are numerous demands on their time rather than attributing it to an especially uninspiring piece of writing. With that in mind, it’s probably best if I take a few days off myself – not that I don’t expect something else characteristically awful to occur before we hit January 1; and if it does, I’ll probably be compelled to comment, whether or not anyone is listening. Merry Xmas everybody.

© The Editor