The disturbances engulfing Turkish cities since Friday left Western media readers asking: Who is the real Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan? The quintessential moderate Moslem leader, author of his country’s stability, democratic tradition and thriving economy, and strategic partner of US presidents – from G.W. Bush to Barack Obama – or the arrogant autocrat who jails critics?
Erdogan A was roughly unmasked and Erdogan B exposed by the speed with which a modest sit-down demonstration against the paving of a popular Istanbul park on May 31 ripped through some 100 Turkish cities, inflicting irreversible damage to his image and authority.
Erdogan’s “economic miracle,” which even took in Western credit rating agencies, showed its shaky foundations, when its supposed beneficiaries, Turkey’s middle class – secular students, lawyers, doctors and some observant Muslims – kicked back.
Erdogan has consistently denied the accusations leveled some years ago by former US ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman that he has “eight accounts in Swiss banks,” and offered the “lame” explanation that “his wealth came from the wedding presents guests gave his son.”
But a whiff of alleged political corruption tainted the air along with excessive police tear gas.
Erdogan won his third term in office two years ago by an impressive margin. He claims to be the most democratic ruler in the region. But ten years of his increasingly authoritarian and Islamist agenda appear to be more than important segments of Turkish society are willing to stomach.
Erdogan’s hubris cracked his image
The protesters shouting “Tayyip out!” swiveled the limelight onto some of the less attractive aspects of Erdogan-style democracy, such as his curbs on freedom of speech and incarceration of scores of Turkish army generals and hundreds of Turkish journalists, editors, artists and intellectuals, who criticized the increasingly Islamist bent of his Justice and Development Party (AKP)’s rule.
By avoiding covering the rising wave of dissent, Turkish media confirmed claims that they were under the ruler’s thumb.
Even foreign media were slow to catch on to the frailties of this respected head of a NATO member nation.
But Erdogan went too far when he sneered at middle class grievances. Many were already smarting over his pro-Muslim ban on the sale of alcohol after 10 p.m. and denial of alcohol licenses to establishments near mosques or schools. His response to their grumbling was: “Let them drink at home.”
In one Turkish city after another, banners held aloft vowed never to let Ankara and Istanbul become another Tehran or Beijing, where rulers tell citizens how to live their private lives.
As for his bridges to the Muslim world, his attempts to push himself forward as a moderate Muslim democratic ruler and exemplary role model for regional rulers to emulate, was brushed off in scorn by the parties which rose to power in the upheavals viewed in Washington as the “Arab Spring.” Even the Palestinians kept their distance.
His efforts to mediate regional conflicts were spurned by Egypt, Syria, Iran and the Gulf emirates. Some leaders like the Saudis ridiculed the Turkish leader’s regional hegemonic pretensions as a ridiculous bid to revive the Ottoman Empire.
Did a clandestine foreign hand stir up the protest?
President Obama must therefore be faulted with picking the wrong partner in Erdogan as his point man in the Middle East and Muslim world when, even on the Syrian issue, he proved wanting when it came to curbing Assad’s blood bath.
The US president partly redeemed this error by using his regular exchanges with the Turkish prime minister to remold Ankara into a more fitting role as Middle East military and diplomatic partner of the US, Israel and NATO.
But the depth of his unpopularity at home caught the Obama administration unawares. The disarray in Washington was betrayed by the incautious words of Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday, June 4: "Turkey's future belongs to the people of Turkey and no one else,” he said. “But the United States does not pretend to be indifferent to the outcome.”
Those words to the American-Turkish Council’s annual conference suggested that thought of intervening in the Turkish crisis had crossed some high-placed administration minds. Concern over the declining reputation of their ally in Ankara was registered in Biden’s next comment which urged the Turkish government “to respect the rights of its political opponents.”
However, the damage was done, with ramifications at home and abroad – at the very least, second thoughts in Washington, Brussels and Jerusalem about their close military, intelligence and economic relationships with Ankara.
Russian or Western agents at work – or paranoia?
In a bid for damage control, Erdogan on Monday, June 3, promised that Turkish intelligence would look into possible links between the disturbances in Istanbul’s Takism Square and “foreign powers.”
He said: “It is not possible to reveal their names, but we will have meetings with their heads,” hinting at clarifications Turkey will seek from the intelligence officials of certain foreign powers.
According to our sources, Erdogan’s most loyal adviser, Hakan Fidan, director of Turkey’s MIT intelligence service, raised the suspicion that the Russian secret service had manipulated Marxist student groups, which are influential among young Turkish intellectuals, into stirring up the unrest.
That suspicion is shared by a number of Mideast intelligence services.
The thinking behind this view is that Moscow, having helped Syrian President Bashar Assad's army and the Lebanese Hizballah militia pull off major victories over the Syrian rebels, turned its attention to frustrating any possible Western intervention in Syria by Turkey or from Turkish military bases.
To this end, the Russians are alleged by this theory to have taken action for discrediting the Turkish prime minister. With his country in turmoil, Erdogan would be in no shape to make the Turkish military and territory available for a US or NATO operation against Syria.
Other suspected engineers of the Turkish disturbances were Western intelligence agents with a view to using them to spark unrest on Iranian city streets in the overheated atmosphere of the run-up to the June 14 presidential election.
This theory was taken with the utmost seriousness in Tehran, where Iranian government and security chiefs, after urgent meetings this week, ordered the Revolutionary Guards Corps and Basij militia to stay alert and keep units readily available near the main towns.
Tehran fought back with a spate of spy fever, announcing mass arrests of Israeli and Qatari “spy rings” and the execution of two CIA and Israeli Mossad agents.
DEBKA Weekly's Iranian sources report that the spy stories were pure fiction, drummed up solely to deter foreign undercover agents from importing to Iran the popular unrest besetting Turkey.
The Kurdish key to Erdogan’s presidential ambition
One ingredient in the cauldron of unrest was to be found in the Turkish prime minister’s quiet effort to reach a peace accord with the Turkish PKK Kurdish separatists and end three decades of war while, at the same time, preparing the ground for Turkey’s transition to presidential rule. The two projects are closely interconnected.
In early May, he concluded a deal for the jailed PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan to order PKK forces to withdraw from Turkey to the autonomous Kurdish Region of Iraq – after Erdogan obtained the consent of its president Masoud Barzani. Ocalan would be released from prison and the Kurdish minority granted regional and cultural concessions.
At the same time, Kurdish representatives would be added to the parliamentary committee on constitutional reform to help carry the measure granting the president of Turkey the prerogative for dissolving parliament.
Erdogan would then run for president in 2014 with nine million Kurdish votes in his pocket.
This power grab would keep the new president and his Justice and Development party in power for many years to come with powers closely resembling those of the Russian president rather than the president of the USA.
The army bides its time
With these audacious projects moving forward behind closed doors, the prime minister and his advisers felt they could safely ignore a bunch of environmentalists protesting about the uprooting of a few trees in an Istanbul park.
Erdogan has typically kept his cards close to his chest. He has not shared with his government or his ally in Washington the substance of his accords with Ocalan – their future relations, Turkish-Kurdish diplomatic and military cooperation, the effect on the Kurds of Iraq and Syria and on Ankara’s policies toward those two neighbors.
Do those accords envisage the creation of a large independent Kurdish state spanning their regions in Iran, Syria and Turkey? And who will control the oil resources in this vast expanse?
But the Turkish bazaars are traditionally hives of information. Erdogan’s presidential ambitions were certainly no secret and the eruption of protest in so many Turkish towns radiating from Istanbul and engulfing the capital Ankara, almost certainly put a damper on his presidential prospects.
The protesters were saying they would not stand for the fulfillment of his aspiration to become his country’s first directly-elected president with virtual dictatorial powers.
Another striking feature of this week’s protest demonstrations was the silence of the military.
It is hardly surprising that none of the generals gave voice when so many languish in Erdogan’s jails. It is possible, however, that after a decade of humiliation at his hands, the army is biding its time ready for the first chance to regain its old position as guardian of secular Turkey, a role long suppressed by the Islamist ruler.