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    Middle East
     Aug 4, 2012

Obama brings Erdogan in to bat
By M K Bhadrakumar

The realization came only belatedly in Ankara when the White House released the photograph that United States President Barack Obama was holding a baseball bat with one hand as he made a phone call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday night.

The White House statement merely said Obama discussed with Erdogan how to "coordinate efforts to accelerate a political transition in Syria, which would include the departure of [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad" and to share the "growing concerns" about the violence in Syria and the "deteriorating humanitarian conditions".

Why hold a baseball bat while on statecraft - and then publicize


it? The Turks could see any number of reasons: Obama was likely grandstanding as a tough world leader; possibly, threatening Bashar; maybe, impressing Israel and Saudi Arabia - or, Iran and Russia. But they calmly concluded that Obama was conveying a blunt message to Erdogan to speed up the "regime change" in Syria: "Whack Bashar, ErdoganBey".

Indeed, the Turkish army is maneuvering with tanks on the Syrian border. But Erdogan is yet to take the momentous step of approaching the Turkish parliament for approval for the army to cross the border into the country. Erdogan is thinking furiously. He took a meeting of the Supreme Military Council in Ankara on Wednesday to oversee "war preparations" and inter alia realized that the Turkish armed forces are in great disarray.

Sixty-eight pashas (a title used for military and civil officers) are locked up in jail facing charges of treason. The meeting on Wednesday was called to decide on the annual promotions of the Turkish top brass, but the choice was severely limited, since something like 40 generals out of the 68 happen to be in the "promotion zone" but cannot be considered for promotion since they are in jail. The Turkish commentator Murat Yetkin surveyed the scandalous situation:
"Last year, Chief of General Staff Isik Kosaner resigned along with three force commanders in protest at the arrests. That puts even more pressure on the current Chief of Staff General Necdet Ozel, who is already under pressure because of the arrest of a former Chief of Staff, Ilker Basburg. Basburg has been accused of being the "chief of a terrorist organization". Another former Chief of Staff Hilmi Ozkok is expected to appear before the Istanbul criminal court today [Thursday]."

Ozkok has since pleaded that he was indeed aware of two possible coup plots hatched against the elected government by the Pashas during the period 2003-2004. But he went on to rationalize: "When the AKP [Erdogan's Justice and Development Party] came to power, the Turkish Armed Forces staff, including me, had concerns. Taking into consideration the [AKP officials'] statements in the past, we were worried about whether Turkey would roll back to old days [read Islamism]. We began discussing these issues. In the army everyone expresses their opinions even if they think differently from each other, this is normal, but they obey the chief of General Staff's orders in the end."

Erdogan has a formidable challenge on his hands - he is being exhorted by Obama for taking quick military action to expel Bashar, while the Turkish army itself is sinking into a morass, as Ozkok's testimony gets played out in the coming days and weeks in army barracks across Anatolia.

Meanwhile, Kurdish separatists watching from mountain hideouts have opened another front near the remote eastern town of Sendinli located in the tricky tri-junction between Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Turkish army has been fighting there for a week.

Concurrently, the incipient political rift between him and incumbent President Abdullah Gul (who used to be his deputy in the AKP), surged last week. Gul dropped a political bombshell by letting it be known Monday he probably would have an open mind about seeking a second term as president in the 2014 election.

Gul reset the kaleidoscope of Turkish politics. A riposte came from Erdogan camp within the day when AKP's deputy chairman and a confidante of Erdogan, Huseyin Celik reminded Gul that he owed his job as president to Erdogan and it was time to reciprocate goodwill by stepping down and opening the road to the presidency for Erdogan.

Gul himself responded Wednesday that there is still a lot of time to talk about what Celik said. Indeed, two years is a long time in politics and Gul is right, nothing is ever a done thing in politics. Both Gul and Erdogan are charismatic figures and the expectation among Turks was that they might opt for a Russian style switch of roles in 2014. But then, there is also an "ideological" content to the Gul-Erdogan rift.

Gul has some definite views about the shortcomings of the kind of constitutional reform that Erdogan is presently seeking, which is a presidential system with greatly strengthened executive powers. To quote prominent political commentator SemihIdiz,

"Gul is opposed to the kind of presidential system the AKP wants … Gul believes the present parliamentary system should be cleansed of its shortcomings and improved in order to further enhance Turkey's democracy… Neither the AKP nor Erdogan have talked about the checks and balances that would exist in the presidential system they desire. This is what is worrying for many, especially given Erdogan's well-known authoritarian tendencies."

But does the war in Syria come into all this? Sure it does. Both Obama and Erdogan are agreed that the Syrian crisis should end soon. Obama seems to think that if Erdogan can be persuaded to "do more" - to borrow from the US exhortation to Pakistan - the civil war will end and a "new Syria" can take shape. Just like that.

But Erdogan has a problem here. He has an "operational" problem, given the disarray in the Turkish military, and increasingly, perhaps, a political problem as well.

Turkey's military machinery needs to be toned up first, which takes time, and now Gul has opened a dicey political front. Syria is becoming a dangerous minefield for Erdogan. A perceptive and experienced Turkish security analyst, Nihat Ozcan, recently peered into Syria through the looking glass:

"In my opinion, we need to ask four questions to understand how the Syria model will be at the end of the process. Firstly, what does the changing character of the war mean in analyses? Secondly, how does the proxy war affect political development and the time period? Thirdly, how does the deep sociological division among the people in Syria shape the problem? Fourthly, if there is no authority or sufficient power and desire to end the interference, how will Syria turn out?"
Ozcan sees the insurgency masterminded from Turkey expanding rapidly into a civil war. The Syrian army could incrementally begin to lose its all-national character and assume a sectarian character, composed of Alawites. On the other hand, the insurgency's "Sunni political features" could be further reinforced.

Indeed, the rebels would never be a fully disciplined and regular armed force, which in turn opens the prospect of a war continuing "without front, irregular, facade, brutal and no rule and no moral block," and seriously threatening the future of Syria.

Again, this is a "proxy war" involving outsiders, which implies that it will be simply within no one's capacity to bring an end to the war anytime soon. "This situation increases the capacity of both [Syrian] sides and causes the war to continue." Meanwhile, deep-rooted sociological, psychological and religious prejudices and the historical traumas of the past will begin to feed into the civil war, bolstering the strength and verve of warring parties.

Ozcan explains that if the current processes go on, Syria would fall apart and a reunification would take a very long time. As a military analyst knowledgeable about Turkish capabilities, he assessed: "In the foreseeable future, it is difficult to have clandestine operations, air operations, punitive air operations, blockages from the sea, peace-making and peacekeeping operations that would provide an advantageous position to one of the sides compared to the other. Apparently, the fire in Syria will extinguish with its own domestic dynamics."

Simply put, Erdogan is highly likely to find himself trapped in a Syrian quagmire unless he exercised circumspection about these increasingly rare trans-Atlantic phone calls. (Obama and Erdogan apparently spoke on the phone 13 times last year whereas, they have had only two phone conversations so far in 2012.) Ozcan's gloomy message is that the "future picture" of Syria leaves little for Erdogan to be complacent about.

Erdogan never played baseball. But he was a good soccer player - a semi-professional, in fact, playing for a 90-year old local club in Istanbul. Erdogan would know that on the soccer field if he lost control of the ball, anything could happen; it could be an own goal, or, it could be that Gul simply nutmegs him to nudge the ball into the back of the net.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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