Posts tagged ‘turkey’

April 19, 2012

Turkey’s Alevis: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

There’s been attention on the Alawite sect of late. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad comes from the sect, and the sectarian implications of the violence in Syria is huge. I recently posted about members of the religion who live in the Turkish-Syrian border area and how their emotions could complicate Turkish intervention in Syria.

Another group weighs even more heavily on Turkish politics: the Alevis. Their name has a similar origin to the Alawis’, but there are few similarities after that, religiously. Both groups are outgrowths of mainstream Shi’a Islam. Politically, the two groups have been traditionally marginalized and faced discrimination for their unorthodox beliefs. But the ambiguity of both groups’ religious beliefs has caused a lot of confusion. Religion and Middle East scholars often mix the two groups up unintentionally, making studying the two minorities unnecessarily difficult. That confusion even runs through the groups themselves. Since Alawites kept many particulars to their dogmas under wraps to a degree and Alevis are both secularized and don’t emphasize religious practice, the two groups have members who think the two religions have a lot more in common than they actually do.

Their beliefs are much more esoteric than mainstream Islamic sects. There are ideas similar to the Catholic trinity, heavy borrowings from Sufi ideas & a heightened appreciation of Muhammad’s cousin Ali.

Alevis might make up as much as 20% of Turkey’s population, though that rarely factors into political analysis. The party of Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan is religious in nature, Sunni to be specific. Its popularity and indicator of resurgent religiosity in Turkey overshadow the diversity that actually does exist in Turkey. Alevis’ religion also has origins in the various Sufi sects that once had much more influence in Turkey during the period of the Ottoman Empire. It made telling the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims, in general, a difficult task. The groups has been influenced by Sufi spirituality, making their religious culture much richer in arts, dances and meditation. Because of the former influence of Sufis, Sunni Turks also felt their impact. That translates today in political terms.

Alevis have a tremendous but nuanced influence on the country. Because they are such a large group, their votes can make a difference. The fact the head of the Turkish opposition is an Alevi could spell future electoral trouble for Turkey’s leaders. Alevis also appreciate the secular traditions of modern Turkey much more than the current ruling party. Disenfranchised secular voters, combined with agitated minorities, could swing an election. In fact, it’s their religious beliefs that are actually a political issue in Turkey. Much of the ambiguity scholars reflect about Alevi and Turkish Sunni commonalities is because the Turkish government has maintained a policy that doesn’t recognize the minority as a separate religion. Recognition is important for many reasons, of late to avoid the mandatory Sunni-oriented Islamic classes in public schools. Because of that, the sect’s only institutions and places of worship don’t get the sort of government support that Sunni places do. Though the assumption they are Sunnis should enable money to flow to their centers, unofficial discrimination still exists.

On Syria, the confusion about Alevis’ connection to the Alawites isn’t the only thing that matters. Alevis might feel that an aggressive government policy toward Syria would actually be a Sunni push against a minority-ruled regime. If that were to happen, it could initiate the political backlash mentioned above.

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April 11, 2012

Syria’s Alawites: An Intro

by Gedalyah Reback

If you are trying to follow what’s happening in Syria, you’ve inevitably heard of the Alawites / the Alawis.  Bashar al-Assad is one of them, as is the rest of his family.  They are a religious group virtually unique to Syria, isolated to a few tribes along the Syrian coastline, living in the mountains.  They might number 2 million, but that’s only a fragment of Syria’s 22 million people.  It’s not quite the equivalent of a Jew becoming President of the United States in terms of numbers, but the chances of that happening you’d might have thought would have been a thousand times better after you hear their background.

There’s a lot of baggage that comes from their experience under the Ottoman Empire, but as of the 1920s they were living under French occupation.  They’d always had a tense time with their Muslim neighbors, but that didn’t make them automatic allies with the French.  They might have been the most anti-French of all the groups in the country, and the reasons are sort of complicated.  But as as the 20s and 30s rolled on, the community’s experience became interwoven with the rise of Arab nationalism.  The ideology promised equality among Arabs no matter their religious and no matter their tribe.  It had a massive appeal to Alawites, Druze and Shiite Muslims in Syria and Iraq, drawing a lot of minorities toward politics.

Politics

In Syria, the ideology was vibrant, and helped military recruitment.  Throughout the 40s and 50s, Alawites, Druze and Ismailis all disproportionately represented their groups in the army.  By the 1960s, these minorities were disproportionately powerful in the officers’ corps.  This was important politically, because Syria was going through a stream of military takeovers.  As governments fell, newer and newer leaders took control.  By 1970, Air Force Colonel Hafez al-Assad had enough support to make the effort himself.  He succeeded and named himself president of the country, eliminating rivals (even among his own Alawi kin) very quickly.  Until 2000, he ruled the country with an iron fist, leaving the country to his son Bashar when he died.  Things had been much less ruthless up until 2011, but that’s merely in body count.  Syrian human rights violations have been extremely prevalent.  Politically, he has also eliminated competition and allocated money and resources to Hezbollah and Hamas.

The Army

Today, the Syrian military is overepresented by the Alawite minority, but also has other minorities heavily involved.  Some estimates dare to guess as much as 70% of the military is Alawite, remarkable in a country where they are 12% of the population.  Their being the military elite is tremendously significant.

The ethnic tension between Alawites and Sunni Muslims (the majority), is absurdly high.  Most of the defections from the military have not been Alawite, but Sunni and maybe a few Shiites.  The opposition, specifically the “Free Syrian Army,” claims there are Alawite defections, but the evidence has been little and the speculation more prevalent.

The Minorities

Protesters, fugitives and the organized rebels have been fighting a PR war with the government in Damascus.  While Assad has made an effort to keep the wedge between his community and Sunnis alive, others have been trying to minimize it.  In the words of one protester, “It is a Syrian uprising against a dictator’s regime, and for that reason there are protesters from Alawite, Christian, Druze, Ismaili and other sects.”  So far, minority groups have not invested highly in the rebellion, so the most powerful men of Syria are still all in with the government.  As general a statement as that is, it is a fair intro or summary of the situation.

Just how many Alawites – or other minority Syrians for that matter – are defecting from the Syrian army?  There are ways of analyzing it, but for now I’ll leave you with that.

April 10, 2012

Israel, Azerbaijan & New Problems Recognizing the Armenian Genocide

by Gedalyah Reback

Israel will be testing its relationship with Azerbaijan much sooner than people would have thought. FP’s enlightening article on an Israeli-Azeri alliance surprised countless journalists, politicos and Israel enthusiasts, so hearing Israel might risk jeopardizing would seem downright stupid. But that assumes that everything you need to know about Azerbaijan was in that article. Like my previous post on Armenia, most of the focus has been on Turkey. Israel can’t commemorate the Armenian Genocide without drawing Turkish ire. That’s far less of an issue with Turkish-Israeli ties already so cold they couldn’t get more frigid. But with Azerbaijan, suddenly Israel might have the same problem as it did with Ankara and the Turks.

Azerbaijan is itself a Turkic country (as opposed to “Turkish,” “TURKIC” is a much broader category that includes a bunch of ethnic groups, countries and languages spread across Asia). It has a strong historical relationship with the Ottoman Empire and the Turkic tribes that eventually made their way to Anatolia and founded that empire. What separates Azerbaijan from Turkey and other Turkic countries is that it is Shi’ite Muslim, like Iran. Unlike Iran, Azeris are secular, mostly thanks to being a part of the Soviet Union until the early 1990s. The break-up though led to a reigniting of Azerbaijan’s historical rivalry with the nearby Armenians. With both groups having their own countries, the two have been at war since the end of the Soviets, with heavy historical baggage being carried by both sides of the conflict.

The war with Armenia makes recognizing the Armenian Genocide in some ways even touchier an issue than it would be for Turkey. The Armenians, for their part, also see Azeris as having been complicit in the entire episode. That being said, Azerbaijan also doesn’t recognize the massacres as having been anything other than the collateral damage of war and nowhere near anything as systematic as the Holocaust.

But the world disagrees, like has been said millions of times. So now Israel faces the Azeris and not just the Turks when it comes to putting this issue to rest. A diplomatic crisis might be in the offing. On April 6th, an Azerbaijani news outlet got to interview the country’s ambassador from Israel. What he said was disturbing:

Question: Recently, the committee of the Knesset has discussed so called “Armenian genocide”. Will this issue come to the agenda of the Israeli parliament?
Ambassador Michael Lotem: The committee will discuss, but I think it will not go beyond. This issue should be kept to historians, not dealt by the politicians.

Azeris are disturbed by the idea that more countries could recognize the event as a genocide, something publicly humiliating for Azerbaijan as much as it has been for Turkey. But why is Israel nervous about the entire thing? The questioner’s perspective seems to be one of anxiety, not anger. Despite the grandstanding and outrage from Turkey whenever a country brings up the historical calamity, it’s not power the Turks project but nervousness. Turkey and Azerbaijan need Israel as much as Israel needs them, and not just on this issue. More practical issues, like defense and the economy, have made the two countries’ relationship with Israel important. Azerbaijan might be an asset against Iran – a possible base for Israeli jets, rescue crews and monitoring technology – but Israel also has been big for the Azeri economy and giving Baku’s leaders more of an outlet to the outside world. The government there has a sullied rep, so good press fighting the dark side in Iran is welcomed press.

Members of the Knesset have always been split on the issue of disrupting ties with Turkey over this, but it’s an untested theory that Turkey would disrupt ties with Israel. It’s even further unknown, probably more improbably Azerbaijan would do such a thing. Armenia also has a border with Iran, and Azerbaijan would be in dire straits if it sacrificed all its connections with Israel in retaliation for the way Israel looked at history. It would be more ironic and humiliating if that resulted in Israel building up its ties with Armenia, creating a major problem for Azerbaijan’s security that wouldn’t have existed if not for a stubborn, emotional reaction to a token acknowledgement of an event 100 years in the past.

Israel lets other countries dictate its talk in the strangest ways, and the state is only undermining its assertiveness letting pressure from a non-ally, Turkey, bully the Jewish state into avoiding a simple moral statement. Turkey and Azerbaijan still need Israel as an ally against Iran; not just the other way around.

April 3, 2012

Israel Should Mark April 24th as Armenian Memorial Day

by Gedalyah Reback
Armenian school girls hold signs as they demonstrate in front of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem in October, 2007.

Armenian school girls hold signs as they demonstrate in front of the Israeli Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem in October, 2007.

Last May, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin pledged he would recognize the Armenian Genocideon the floor of the parliament. Rivlin is a careful and moderate member of the Likud Party, but he’s been hawkish about the issue. Since 2008, the Knesset has been debating (in closed committee) whether or not to officially recognize the genocide. Last year, they opened the discussions to the public. Why such difficulty recognizing the genocide that Hitler supposedly used as a model for the Holocaust? One so important to World War I and the direction of the Middle East in the 20th century? Quite simply, it would piss off Turkey.

Turkey still refuses to recognize the magnitude or viciousness of the slaughter, arguing the numbers of those killed and the circumstances – battle as opposed to systematic murder.

Armenia's Colors and Coat of Arms

Armenia's Colors and Coat of Arms

But Turkey’s on the outs with Israel. So, here we go. He should have the opportunity to bring up the issue again after the current Passover break. With Shaul Mofaz looking to make an impact, he should be able to bring Kadima on board. The coalition should support it. Last year, in a committee vote of 20-0, the issue was referred to the Education Committee for further review. Last December, when France passed a bill criminalizing Armenian Genocide denial, Rivlin came out again in favor of Israel’s official recognition of the disaster.

While Israel’s ally Azerbaijan doesn’t recognize it either, Azerbaijan would have little to gain from protesting Israeli recognition. The recognition will also deepen Israel’s relationship with Christian countries like Greece and Cyprus. Turkey loses credibility whenever it speaks about the diplomatic consequences of countries’ official recognition of the crime. Without leverage on Israel, the Jewish voice on the matter will weigh heavy against Turkey in the court of international opinion. Whatever problems Israel has diplomatically, its authority on genocide issues and its intimate connection to the Holocaust make the Jewish point of view extremely important to advocates of genocide prevention and recognition (see Armenia, Rwanda, Darfur).

Rivlin will have his chance soon. So will the entire Knesset. it’s a disgrace it has taken so long. Perhaps this year there will be something different.

The Breadth of the Armenian Genocide

The Breadth of the Armenian Genocide

Further Reading: Turkey loses its genocide-denying pals in the Israel lobby

April 2, 2012

Quick Thought: Israel Should Join the European Union

by Gedalyah Reback

It’s a topic that isn’t broached so often. The reasons aren’t clear. It might have to do with Israeli hesitation toward Europe because of historical baggage. But considering the idea Israel might join NATO comes up every so often, it isn’t so much of a leap. So what keeps this off the radar? Shouldn’t Israel want to join the group?

There are negatives that I can think of, but as a personal exercise I’d like to cover the positives. There are immediate benefits and potential in all of them.

1. Movement

The benefit to Israelis would be the ability to move about Europe more freely and for longer periods of time. It would give Israelis more opportunities to study abroad and build relationships with future business and political partners in important countries from the UK to Germany to Poland. The reverse would also be a benefit. European Jews would more often visit Israel, probably with a heavy level of extended stays by students and retirees. This is something Israel has coveted for decades, a way of channeling more European Jews to the Holy Land to become permanent residents and citizens. It would probably launch at the least a small rekindle of European Zionism in the Jewish community there.

2. Money and Energy

Really these two topics are linked. Since 1992, Europe has added 2.5 million jobs. The opening of borders has let new import/export relationships develop, plus there is a higher-level, professional exchange of knowledge and business that would be incredibly valuable to Israel’s high-tech sector. Israel’s joining the Union would serve as free publicity for Israel’s start-up industry, plus even work in the reverse. With so many foreign interests investing in Israeli companies, the time is coming for Israeli entrepreneurs to buy up foreign assets for themselves.

The opening to tourists is the obvious and most easy-to-understand benefit of the whole project. With easier access to Israel for travelers, that means more cash for the tourist industry, taxes for the government and eventually government investment in various sectors that would in turn sell to continental Europe. Even if Israeli prices were to be equal to Western European prices, there would be extra cash flow.

A major sector that would benefit would be Israel’s growing energy market. Israel has always needed oil, but soon it will be producing natural gas. Depending on how large the exports can be, an internal EU market for fuel would be a major boon for Europe to welcome Israel into the Union and for Israel’s economy. Plus, a massive amount of research & development for alternative energy is happening in Israel. There are infinite possibilities for exporting an untapped and extremely interested market like the one that exists in Europe. It goes hand and hand with Israel’s other R&D, in high-tech.

Other benefits would be in certain import/export markets like cars. The potential for more cars on the road here could mean lower taxes for Israelis and more infrastructure development also. It could even make negotiating building highways in Palestinian territory easier if European automakers and the EU’s political power are behind the push. It would open up access across the country.

3. Customs and Security

The major benefit would probably be in customs, not even the probably infinitely better relationship with NATO. On the customs front, Israel would have more ready access to European travelers and cooperation with other countries’ enforcement agencies and border patrols. It would make monitoring any threats from militant Muslims in Europe easier, particularly from France or Germany.

As mentioned before, entering the European Union would be more reason to join NATO. NATO’s major benefit is its collective defense protocols. First implemented after September 11th, the attack on the United States was defined as an attack on the entire alliance, making the invasion of Afghanistan, overthrow of the Taliban and crushing of Al-Qaeda all NATO priorities and missions, not merely those of the US. Thus, an attack by a foreign power, whether directly or via an affiliated terrorist organization, could be designated an attack on all of NATO, and automatically trigger a cooperative counterattack against an aggressive country like Pakistan, Iran or potentially a future hostile Egypt.

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This is a very blanket list of positives to the idea. Ideologically, economically and defensively, the move makes a lot of sense. It’s worth exploring for Israel’s future in terms of infrastructure, external security and even the potential to attract more Jews to become citizens of Israel.

April 1, 2012

Outside Arabia: Greece, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Israel’s Strategy

by Gedalyah Reback

Month to month, there is some report about Turkey’s distaste for Israeli policy or the Jewish state getting cozy with one of Turkey’s immediate neighbors. Today was Israel’s latest military exercise with Greece. The exercise involves the United States Navy and is actually the replacement for the NATO-affiliated exercises Israel once joined that had a central presence by Turkey. Israel doesn’t have to go far to find some way to exploit the divide between Greece and Turkey.

There isn’t the sort of tension that led to Greek revolutions against the Ottoman Empire of the past, but the diplomatic differences are still there. Issues revolve around Turkey’s ally Northern Cyprus, and Greece’s ally (the southern) Republic of Cyprus.

But the more important story this week was about Azerbaijan. Israel’s government has gone out of its way the last 15 years to create a strong relationship with Iran’s secular neighbor. The article speculated Israel could use Azerbaijan either to stage rescue missions and “clean-up” crews for the aftermath of a strike on Iran, or even use it to launch the operation itself. Despite the heavy political implications and exposure to Azerbaijan’s security, the story’s reporting does broaden our general perspective of how versatile Israel’s strategy is.

There are a bunch of other countries that Israel has interest in. It doesn’t have to involve Iran. But these stories and more in the pipeline should wake up anyone studying the country. There’s slightly more to Israel’s military and foreign interests than just the United States, Iran and the Palestinians.

April 22, 2009

Israel & NATO

by Gedalyah Reback

Support Growing for Idea

According to a poll conducted by Jerusalem-based KEEVOON Research, Israelis would generally support joining NATO (54%), and by a wider margin support joining the European Union (69%). There are major differences between the two and particular reasons why there is such a wide differential in support.

Advocates from the right wing, like Daniel Pipes, have generally smiled on the idea. But the gesture has much, MUCH, wider support than people may realize. Diplomats in Europe have been vocal the last several years, plus European governments. These are just a few of the deeply reasoned articles that have pushed Israel’s joining the military alliance.

In fact, the support for the move jumped suddenly after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s election as Iranian president. Simply, a threatened NATO member would be backed by the might of a 28-member military alliance that included the United States, Turkey and all the major Western European countries. Considering NATO’s declaration in 2001 that the September 11th attacks constituted an attack on the entire alliance, precedent is already in place to consider terrorist attacks as military aggression. Hezbollah and Hamas would be frozen strategically.

Drawbacks

But the obvious drawbacks would be the need to limit Israel’s offensive liberties at war. As regularly as Israel has had to go to war (three times in less than three years), Israel would have to exert an effort beyond any other country in the world to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties, otherwise risk weakening the alliance.

It might be used as an incentive to make a peace deal. But again this brings on the classic issues of hastey, unsubstantial accords that would break down like the Oslo agreements did in 2000. But joining a military alliance would partially necessitate Israel maintains its military strength, not reduces it.

Benefits

On the flip side, recent agreements between Israel and NATO might mean Israel would not have to make its joining depedendent on a quick peace deal. Entrance into NATO would allow the Israeli military more freedom of movement in the Mediterranean Sea and, for that matter, the Indian Ocean. It would be a strong deterrent if they were to join the alliance prior to a peace deal.

Israel and NATO have formally signed and implemented agreements to share intelligence and conduct joint exercises since this past December. Lobbying by the Israelis and an innumerable amount of Jewish and non-Jewish advocates abroad, in the US and Europe, has been strong since the aforementioned Iranian president’s election.

The major opposition to joining would probably come from Turkey, but the country already has a working military relationship with Israel. That relationship has even survived the second Gaza War. Israel and Turkey are holding more joint exercises soon.

Domestic Affairs

Joining the alliance would silence many isolationists and mutually empower those in favor of expanding Israel’s international relationships, plus activists for stronger social integration. Improving Israeli Arabs’ place in society with renewed socioeconomic and political attention would be a start, and would lead to a strong social core if Arabs can find themselves a place in a culturally Jewish country. So regardless of what deals the Israeli government does or does not make with the Palestinian Authority, there should be some benefit to domestic Jewish-Arab communal affairs.

Of course, opposition from the Israeli left might be stronger if it seems a NATO shield is being enveloped around Israeli military maneuvers in the West Bank and Gaza – not a major sticking point for Israeli Jews but certainly for Israeli Arabs. This again points to balancing military activity, which might be an impossibly vague requirement by some members of NATO in order to get full membership.

Like I said, there is a definite difference to the European Union idea, and I’ll give some attention to that in the next few days.

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