Security or Protectionism?

New flying rules are afoot:

The US has announced a ban on large electronic devices from cabin baggage on passenger flights from eight Muslim-majority countries.

Bombs could be hidden in laptops, tablets, cameras, DVD players and electronic games, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said.

Well yes, they could be. Which is generally why everyone has to go through that pantomime of taking out all electronic items and scanning them separately. Or doesn’t this actually work?

The nine airlines affected are Royal Jordanian, Egypt Air, Turkish Airlines, Saudi Arabian Airlines, Kuwait Airways, Royal Air Maroc, Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways.

The cynic in me thinks this is less about security and more about hobbling Middle East airlines which are cheaper, cleaner, better, and have nicer staff than airlines operating out of the US.

The UK is due to announce shortly a similar ban on certain flights.

Which is good news for British Airways, no doubt.

[A]viation security experts were alarmed by an incident in Somalia last year when the insurgent group al-Shabaab smuggled an explosive-filled laptop on a flight out of Mogadishu, blowing a hole in the side of the plane.

Somalia. On Daallo Airlines, whoever the hell they are. But this might be a concern:

A suspected suicide bomber on a Daallo Airlines flight was originally meant to be aboard a Turkish Airlines plane, Reuters cited Daallo’s CEO Mohamed Yassin as saying. A separate report claimed the blast had come from explosives hidden inside a laptop.
The majority of the passengers on the bombed Airbus A321 flight were scheduled to fly with Turkish Airlines, but were redirected after the Turkish carrier cancelled the flight due to bad weather.

I’m a bit concerned about Turkish Airlines. They have done an impressive job of becoming a very good, high-profile airline offering flights practically everywhere through an airport which I’ve been told is excellent…but at the same time, as I wrote here, Turkey’s state security services might have been severely compromised. If so, their national airline makes for a ripe target indeed. I sincerely hope this is not the case because, regardless of what I think about Turkish politics right now, plane bombings is something we really need to see eradicated.

The problem is, aircraft security has been so badly handled what with so many senseless, arbitrary rules applied inconsistently across airports and jurisdictions and the ubiquitous security theatre seemingly designed to make passengers docile and compliant rather than safe, trust in the authorities is pretty low these days.

Jamil al-Qsous, a former Jordanian aviation security official, told the Associated Press news agency that the ban meant “one less headache” for security agencies.

And for the passengers? Who cares about them? Presumably they will be invited to fly with a different airline, an American one, onto which they can bring their electronic devices. Yeah, it’s all about security.

A Rare Case of Uzbek-Kyrgyz Cooperation

I see the police in Turkey have caught the man they believe carried out the attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul on New Year’s Eve. He appears to have spent the interim period at a bare-knuckle boxing gym:

Abdulkadir Masharipov is believed to have mounted the assault on the Reina club which left 39 people dead.

The Uzbek national is said to have been caught in Istanbul’s Esenyurt district.

Uzbek, you say? So not an Uighur, then? Didn’t think so.

There had been fears that the gunman had managed to escape Turkey, perhaps to territory held by so-called Islamic State, which said it was behind the attack.

I must say, this surprises me a lot. One of the features of al-Qa’eda and ISIS-driven gun attacks and bombings is that the perpetrators treat it as a suicide mission and don’t make much of an attempt to escape. The Charlie Hebdo gunmen fled initially but fought to the death when cornered in a warehouse; the Bataclan attackers died at the scene; the Nice lorry driver was shot to death in the cab. The policeman who murdered the Russian ambassador in Ankara didn’t seem much interested in getting away either. The inability to capture these people alive after an attack is what makes ISIS-inspired terrorists so dangerous because, as the Western films taught us, dead men can’t talk.

The guy who drove the lorry into the Christmas market in Berlin on 19th December broke the trend by fleeing Germany to Italy via France, and only got shot and killed when policemen in Milan asked him his identity during a random stop in Milan. Where he was headed is anyone’s guess. And now you have this Uzbek fleeing the scene of the crime and attempting to lie low instead of remaining in the club and making the victim count as high as possible until his ammunition runs out or the police kill him. You’d have thought that if he was intending to escape he’d have got the hell out of Istanbul and over the border into Syria somehow, but he seems to have stuck around. This might be because the Turkish security forces are so efficient they sealed off the entire city and closed the borders so tight nobody could slip through, but I’m a little skeptical of that.

My theory is this: ISIS are finding it more difficult to recruit suicidal fanatics and are having to use slightly less fanatical people who are happy to carry out an atrocity but not so keen on committing suicide in the process. The Arab-speaking world has at this point a lengthening history of supplying suicide attackers, but Uzbeks aren’t generally known for it. Ethnic Uzbeks fought in Afghanistan, switching loyalty between various sides under the leadership of Abdul Rashid Dostum, but in a manner more akin to tribal self-interest than the religious fanaticism shown by the mujaheddin and later the Taliban.

There are certainly religious fanatics in Uzbekistan however, but their numbers and capabilities are often exaggerated either by westerners through ignorance or locals for political convenience. Following 9/11 the president of Uzbekistan, the late Islam Karimov, established his pro-Western credentials with the United States by allowing them to use the Karshi-Khanabad airbase in the south of the country to attack targets in Afghanistan. He also promised to root out extremist elements in Uzbekistan which pleased the US, only he used this as cover to crack down on his domestic political opponents who had nothing to do with Islamic terrorism, earning his government a reputation as a serial abuser of human. Eventually the complaints got so bad the relations between the two countries soured.

My guess would be that ISIS has successfully recruited a few thousand Uzbeks to their cause but their levels of fanaticism and commitment are questionable, at least in comparison to their Arabic comrades.

Police reportedly found the suspect along with his four year-old son at the home of a Kyrgyz friend in the city. Turkish media say that his friend was also detained, along with three women.

This surprises me as well. Despite being close neighbours and sharing an insanely complicated border which completely (and deliberately, thanks to Stalin) dissects ethnic groupings, Uzbeks and Kyrgyz are widely different peoples. The main difference is that Uzbeks are Turkic people who are settled, meaning they live in towns and villages. The Kyrgyz, like the Kazakhs, are traditionally nomadic and more akin to Mongolians. From my own experience and readings, Uzbeks tend to be more aggressive and take their religion a little more seriously. You rarely hear of Kazakhs or Kyrgyz throwing their lot in with al-Qa’eda or ISIS, although no doubt some do. My guess would be they’d number in the low thousands at most, if that.

Despite their common Soviet history, the Uzbeks are hardly natural allies with the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs. In September 2015 I attended an Uzbek wedding near Shymkent in Kazakhstan, close to the border with Uzbekistan. The town of Shymkent is 14% Uzbek, and the village where the wedding took place was pretty much 100% Uzbek. I noticed that there were a few ethnic Russians at the wedding but no Kazakhs; and I happened to be in the venue of a Kazakh wedding the day before and didn’t see any Uzbeks (after a while you can tell them apart by looking at them; of course the locals can do this from a mile away). I asked my friend, who was the one getting married, if there is much mixing between Uzbeks and Kazakhs and he said there wasn’t. You occasionally see some mixing with the Russians and sometimes the Korean minorities, but not between Uzbeks and Kazakhs. I’ve not been to the Ferghana Valley region where Uzbekistan borders  Kyrgyzstan, but I would guess much the same thing applies there.

Ethnic tensions between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz came to a head in 2010 when the two groups clashed in the Kyrgyz cities of Osh and Jalal-Abad, leading to around a thousand people being killed and over a hundred thousand displaced during the fighting and the aftermath. In short, the Istanbul gunman hiding out at the home of his mate appears to be a rare case of Uzbek-Kyrgyz cooperation rather something to be expected.

One would hope that now the Turkish authorities have captured him alive we’ll find out some answers as to who he was working for and his motivations. I doubt they’ll get much useful information out of him regarding ISIS as a whole, if it was indeed they who put him up to it. They’d have known he wasn’t keen on dying at the scene and as such wouldn’t have given him any information that wasn’t pertinent to the job in hand, and as an Uzbek of questionable commitment he would unlikely be included in high-level meetings. I don’t know what methods the Turks use to extract information from foreigners who have murdered 39 people in Istanbul nightclubs, but I suspect he’ll spill whatever he has and then some. Whoever is in charge of the translating might want to spend the day brushing up on Uzbek phrases such as “Please take these crocodile clips off my bollocks!”

Picking Sides

In an effort to understand what is happening in the Middle East, I recalled the introduction to Part III of this excellent book: Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe.

The Second World War was never merely a conflict over territory. It was also a war of race and ethnicity. Some of the defining events of the war had nothing to do with winning and maintaining physical ground, but with imposing one’s own ethnic stamp on ground already held.

The problem for those pursuing this racial war was that it was not always easy to define a person’s race or ethnicity, particularly in eastern Europe where different communities were often inextricably intermingled. Jews who happened to have blond hair and blue eyes could slip through the net because they did not fit the Nazis’ preconceived racial stereotype. Gypsies could and did disguise themselves as members of other ethnic groups just by changing their clothes and their behaviour –as did Slovaks in Hungary, Bosniaks in Serbia, Romanians in Ukraine, and so on. The most common way of identifying one’s ethnic friends or enemies –the language they spoke –was not always an accurate guide either. Those who had grown up in mixed communities spoke several languages, and could switch between one and the next depending on whom they were speaking to –a skill that would save many lives during the darkest days of the war and its aftermath. In an effort to categorize the population of Europe, the Nazis insisted on issuing everyone with identity cards, coloured according to ethnicity. They created vast bureaucracies to classify entire populations by race.

Those who did not have their ethnicity chosen for them had to make the decision for themselves. This was not always easy. Many people had multiple options, either because they had mixed-race parents or grandparents or because they saw no contradiction in being simultaneously, say, Polish by birth, Lithuanian by nationality and German by ethnicity. When forced to make a choice, their decision was often naively random at best, perhaps inspired by a parent, a spouse, or even a friend. The more calculating chose an identity according to what benefits it might offer. Claiming German ethnicity, for example, could confer exemption from labour round-ups and eligibility for special rations and tax breaks. On the other hand, it could also mean liability for military conscription: the decision sometimes boiled down to whether the Russian front was preferable to a slave-labour camp. The choices that people made regarding their ethnicity would have implications far beyond the end of the war.

The fascist obsession with racial purity, not only in those areas occupied by Germany but elsewhere too, had a huge impact on European attitudes. It made people aware of race in a way they never had been before. It obliged people to take sides, whether they wanted to or not. And, in communities that had lived side by side more or less peacefully for centuries, it made race into a problem –indeed, it elevated it to the problem –that needed solving.

In previous years, Arab nationalism was the big thing.  Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Jordan defined themselves firstly by their nationality and only perhaps as a secondary concern did they bring ethnicity or religious affiliation into play (with the exception being they were absolutely opposed to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Israel).  Nasser’s Egypt didn’t promote itself on the basis of religion or ethnicity, but as a regional power allied to the Soviet Union.  Colonel Gaddafi spent years trying to set up and lead some sort of African Union grounded in nationalism and anti-colonialism, not a common religion or ethnicity.  I am told in Syria people were Syrians first and Muslims and Christians second.  Despite his growing a beard and waving the Koran around once he’d been captured, Saddam Hussein ran a largely secular regime based on nationalism and (in theory) socialism via the Ba’ath party, which they shared with Syria.  These countries were based on political doctrines, not on religious or ethnic ones.

That’s not to say that Christians didn’t face discrimination in Egypt, the majority Shia were not oppressed in Iraq by the minority Sunnis, and the Kurds didn’t get gassed by Saddam Hussein.  And one must also look at Saudi Arabia – a nation whose foundations are religious – and the Lebanese Civil War which saw all the different religions and sects fighting one another.  My point is not that one’s religion or ethnicity didn’t matter at all, but that they were considered of secondary importance to the political entity that was the nation state (or, more accurately, the guy in charge).  Provided you were prepared to pledge your loyalty to the political regime, you stood a good chance of being left alone.  Saddam Hussein didn’t gas the Kurds because he objected to their religious beliefs, he did so because they were not sufficiently loyal and didn’t want to live under his rule.  One must remember that Tariq Aziz, a long-serving minister in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, was Catholic.

Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the sectarian fighting that followed, and then the Arab Spring, all of that has gone out of the window.  The Muslim Brotherhood popped up in Egypt and promptly won an election; jihadists ran rampage in Libya once Gaddafil was removed; ISIS tore through Iraq and Syria, ethnically cleansing any territory they captured as they fought a religious war for control of the Levant.  The two regional superpowers – Saudi Arabi and Iran – are fighting a proxy war in Yemen and fuelling the conflicts elsewhere with money and weapons as each backs their own religious brethren.  No longer are Iraqis, Syrians, Egyptians, and Libyans allowed to state they are nationalists first and foremost and want only what’s best for the country: they must pick a side and in a lot of cases fight for that side.  Within a relatively short time ethnicity and religion has become the determining factor in one’s identity across swathes of the Middle East, taking over from nationality.

Perhaps more worrying is the degree to which this might be happening in Turkey.  The Kurds always had a rough time of it, and Armenians would probably have a few rather blunt words to say were any to read this (and justifiably so), but under Ataturk’s secular republic people were Turks first and committed to a Turkish identity and Turkish nationalism – be they Muslim or Christian, conservative, moderate, or secular.  Sure, some of the more conservative Turks might have gotten a bit hot under the collar over pretty girls wandering the beaches at Izmir in pink bikinis, just as the educated, Westernised Turks in Istanbul thought the rural folk in the north and east were ignorant, backward, and best ignored.  Whatever one’s affiliation or religious fervor, everyone was a Turk and the country came first.

The election of Recep Erdoğan has changed all that.  By running on an Islamist platform, he has driven a wedge between the more conservative Muslims and the secularists, non-Muslims, and the rest.  Now it is starting to matter whether you are secular or Islamist, moderate or conservative.  Last evening a friend showed me a photo that had been posted on Turkish social media a few days ago, before yesterday’s bomb in Izmir.  It was of a Turkish woman in her 20s in a headscarf suggesting that the city – which has a reputation as a centre of secularism and having a Westernised population – be attacked because it is full of infidels.  The number of people approving her remarks was well over a hundred.  This would have been unheard of a generation ago, Turks wanting other Turks killed and maimed over religious differences and being prepared to say so in public.

We have already seen what happened in Europe when people who had never wanted labels were forced to wear one and fight each other.  We are currently seeing what happens in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere when choosing a side becomes compulsory.  I really hope that Turkey avoids this fate, but it is heading in that direction.

More on the Turkish Nightclub Shooting

I’m not convinced by this:

Turkey has arrested a number of people of Uighur origin over a deadly nightclub attack that killed 39, the state-run news agency reports.

Those detained are believed to have come from China’s Xinjiang region with ties to the attacker, Anadolu says.

Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak also said the suspect was probably Uighur, and acted alone but may have had help.

Bombings and shootings aren’t normally the modus operandii of the Uighurs, who prefer to appear out of nowhere in a large group, attack people with knives, and then disperse (see here and here, for examples).  If the attack was indeed carried out by ISIS, which is most likely, rounding up Uighurs isn’t going to do very much.  ISIS aren’t generally too fussy as to where their terrorists come from; an insane level of commitment is what they look for in team members, not shared ethnicity or nationalities.  However, what arresting hapless Uighurs might do is deflect attention from the obvious failings of the Turkish security services.

The authorities have reportedly tightened security at Turkey’s land borders and airports to prevent the attacker from fleeing the country.

Turkish media have run images of a suspect, saying the pictures were handed out by the police. But the police have given no official details.

The Turkish foreign minister has said the authorities have identified the attacker, but has not given further details.

In other words, we don’t know if he’s an Uighur or not – something which could be ascertained in ten seconds flat by the name alone – but the Deputy PM is fuelling rumours that he is.  I’d say that if he was an Uighur then the government would have confirmed this by now: what reason could they have for not saying so?

Special forces made the early morning arrests at a housing complex in Selimpasa, a coastal town on the outskirts of Istanbul, after police were reportedly tipped off that individuals linked to the attacker were in the area.

Uighurs were among those arrested – the number was not confirmed – on suspicion of “aiding and abetting” the gunman, the Anadolu news agency reports.

It is usually the case in the wake of a terrorist attack that the local minorities get dragged over the coals as the authorities scrabble around trying to catch the perpetrator.  Us Brits did just that with the Guildford Four and Birmingham Six, so it’s not just limited to places where the traffic lights are advisory.  It’s probably not much fun being an Uighur in Turkey right now.

At least 39 people were already in custody over suspected links to the attack, many of whom were picked up in an earlier police operation in Izmir, western Turkey.

Several families had recently travelled there from Konya, a central city where the main suspect was said to have stayed for several weeks before the attack.

No fun at all.

Separately, Deputy Prime Minister Veysi Kaynak told Turkish broadcaster A Hamer that the authorities knew where the suspect, who he described as “specially trained”, was hiding, without giving further details.

Presumably they’re waiting for him to finish his lunch.

Witnesses to the new year attack said more than 100 rounds of bullets were fired which, the BBC’s security correspondent Frank Gardener says, indicates the gunman had at least some rudimentary military training.

Which narrows it down to 100% of men over the age of 15 in the nations surrounding Turkey.

Previous media reports incorrectly suggested the culprit was a national from Kyrgyzstan, after a passport photo claiming to show the attacker was circulated.

Rumours persist that several of the terrorist attacks in Turkey have been carried out by people who come from the countries of the former Soviet Union.  I have no idea whether this is true, but I suspect the rumours stem from the fact that a lot of the ISIS military commanders and their most experienced and competent fighters are Chechens, Russian converts to Islam, and the Central Asian states.

It later emerged the passport belonged to someone unrelated to the attack.

I bet he was happy about that.

All in all, it seems to be a bit of a clusterfuck, doesn’t it?

UPDATE

Just as I published this post, this news broke:

Two attackers, a policeman and a civilian have been killed in a car bomb and gun assault on a courthouse in the Turkish city of Izmir, state media say.

At least 10 people were reportedly wounded in the explosion.

Images showed two cars ablaze and the body of one man carrying a weapon. Reports say a third attacker is sought.

Word is that this is the PKK who are behind this latest attack, though.

Elif Şafak on Identity Politics

A friend, who will shortly be sending me invoices related to research assistance if this keeps up, sent me a link to this 20 minute talk by the Turkish author Elif Şafak in which she talks about the politics of fiction.  I have not read any of her works but my friend, who is herself Turkish, thought I’d find it interesting and she was right.  There is a transcript of the talk at the link, and the bit that I found most interesting was as follows:

Yet as much as I love stories, recently, I’ve also begun to think that they lose their magic if and when a story is seen as more than a story. And this is a subject that I would love to think about together. When my first novel written in English came out in America, I heard an interesting remark from a literary critic. “I liked your book,” he said, “but I wish you had written it differently.” (Laughter) I asked him what he meant by that. He said, “Well, look at it. There’s so many Spanish, American, Hispanic characters in it, but there’s only one Turkish character and it’s a man.” Now the novel took place on a university campus in Boston, so to me, it was normal that there be more international characters in it than Turkish characters, but I understood what my critic was looking for. And I also understood that I would keep disappointing him. He wanted to see the manifestation of my identity. He was looking for a Turkish woman in the book because I happened to be one.

We often talk about how stories change the world, but we should also see how the world of identity politics affects the way stories are being circulated, read and reviewed. Many authors feel this pressure, but non-Western authors feel it more heavily. If you’re a woman writer from the Muslim world, like me, then you are expected to write the stories of Muslim women and, preferably, the unhappy stories of unhappy Muslim women. You’re expected to write informative, poignant and characteristic stories and leave the experimental and avant-garde to your Western colleagues. … Writers are not seen as creative individuals on their own, but as the representatives of their respective cultures: a few authors from China, a few from Turkey, a few from Nigeria.

The writer and commuter James Baldwin gave an interview in 1984 in which he was repeatedly asked about his homosexuality. When the interviewer tried to pigeonhole him as a gay writer, Baldwin stopped and said, “But don’t you see? There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me.” When identity politics tries to put labels on us, it is our freedom of imagination that is in danger. There’s a fuzzy category called multicultural literature in which all authors from outside the Western world are lumped together. I never forget my first multicultural reading, in Harvard Square about 10 years ago. We were three writers, one from the Philippines, one Turkish and one Indonesian … And the reason why we were brought together was not because we shared an artistic style or a literary taste. It was only because of our passports. Multicultural writers are expected to tell real stories, not so much the imaginary. A function is attributed to fiction. In this way, not only the writers themselves, but also their fictional characters become the representatives of something larger.

She’s not a fan of identity politics clearly, and she makes a good point above: if a westerner (man or woman) writes a novel then it can be about absolutely anything, but if a non-western woman writes a book then it is expected that it will be a vehicle to champion whatever trendy, lefty cause the western literary set subscribe to in her country.  Anything else and the chattering classes start scowling and wishing she’d written something else, something that confirms their prejudices and, as always, makes everything political.  How condescending is this?

It appears that Ms Şafak just wants to write stories about anything she likes, stories that she thinks people will enjoy.  Good for her.

Of Posters and Murders in Turkey

The picture below is of a poster which appeared in Istanbul in the run-up to Christmas, and a Turkish friend has confirmed its authenticity after I saw it on Twitter.  The writing is to the effect of “We’re Muslims, we don’t want Christmas and New Year celebrations!”

It is safe to say that such a poster would not have been tolerated by the Turkish authorities prior to Recep Erdoğan’s ascension to power and his subsequent efforts to move Turkey away from the secularism of Ataturk and towards some sort of Islamic theocracy.

On  New Year’s eve a gunman murdered 39 people in a nightclub in Istanbul that was popular with secular Turks and foreigners.  News is breaking that ISIS is claiming responsibility.  Following the murder of the Russian ambassador to Turkey a couple of weeks ago by a Turkish policeman, I said:

What must now be causing Erdoğan to break out in a cold sweat is whether by neutralising all threats from the secualrists in Turkey he has overlooked the threats posed by extremists, who are now seeing opportunities to make inroads into that country which didn’t exist before.

Erdoğan has shifted Turkey to a position where large posters promoting violent Islamist intolerance against secularists are permitted on the streets of Istanbul (and presumably other cities) because his political power is strongest with the nation at this point on the spectrum between secularism and religious fundamentalism.  However, in doing so he has severely weakened the institutions which protected Turkey from fundamentalist religious elements such that he might now be unable to stop any slide along the spectrum from the position of his choosing to one much worse.  In short, Erdoğan has allowed the extremist camel to stick its nose inside the Turkish tent.

According to the news reports, the perpetrator of the nightclub attack is still at large.  In my earlier post I speculated as to what degree Turkey’s security forces have been infiltrated by extremists like the one who shot the Russian ambassador:

It’s all very well him chucking secular journalists in jail and kicking professors out of universities, but this isn’t going to make Erdoğan any more secure if Turkey’s riot police has been infiltrated by ISIS.  And what about the army?  Who replaced all those secular officers that were purged?  Officers who were on board with Erdoğan’s programmes, presumably.  But were they screened for extremism?  I doubt it.

I wonder how many Turkish policemen are helping the nightclub gunman to evade capture?

Turkish Soldiers Killed in Syria

In August I said this regarding Turkey’s foray into Syria ostensibly to fight ISIS:

But the Turkish army has already taken its first casualties, and the longer they stay in Syria, the deeper they penetrate, and the longer their supply lines become the more likely they will be to incur more.  The Turkish military was stripped of much of its leadership in 2010 following the foiling of the alleged “Operation Sledgehammer” coup plot, and then last month subject to sweeping purges in the aftermath of the more recently bungled coup.  A military which has had its officer and NCO cadres purged for political reasons and replaced with loyalists tends to lose a lot of its effectiveness, and the degree to which this happens is dependent on how many key, competent personnel have been replaced by idiots.  The Turkish army hasn’t done any proper fighting in generations and few of its personnel will have seen real combat.  They are going up against Kurdish forces who have been doing nothing but fight for years, and unless they finish the job quickly they might find them a tough nut to crack.

Today’s news is as follows:

Fourteen Turkish soldiers have been killed in fierce fighting against so-called Islamic State in Syria, the Turkish army said.

Wednesday’s clashes happened in the town of al-Bab, which Turkey is helping rebels take from IS control.

A further 33 Turkish soldiers were reported wounded.

It is the Turkish military’s biggest loss in a single day since launching its military operation in Syria in August.

I suspect that is the Turkish military’s biggest loss in a single day for over a generation. Probably only the fighting in Cyprus saw more, and possibly not even then: we might have to go back to Korea.

The soldiers Turkey sends into Syria will most likely be conscripts led by officers who were selected for their loyalty to Erdoğan rather than their military competence.  I wonder how many more stories like this we’ll be reading in 2017.

How badly has Erdoğan blundered?

One of the most disturbing aspects of yesterday’s murder of the Russian ambassador in Ankara, particularly from Turkey’s point of view, is this:

The gunman has been identified as Mevlut Mert Altintas, a police officer at Ankara’s riot police. It is not clear if he acted alone or had links to any group;

Had the assassin been an outsider who sneaked over the border, or was a foreign student, or even a Turk who ran a yogurt stall and was posing as a policeman in order to get close to his target, then things would be bad enough.  But this guy was Turkish and a sworn police officer, which raises the immediate and very worrying question of how many others are out there in uniform.  There are two possibilities: either radical Islamists are joining the Turkish police forces and going undetected, or serving officers are being targeted and radicalised.  I’m not sure which one is worse.

It’s hard to imagine this happening ten or twenty years ago, but things have changed in Turkey.  Recep Erdoğan has deliberately taken Turkey away from the secular principles established by Ataturk and towards a more Islamist state, and has enjoyed substantial support from certain sections of Turkish society in the process.  Apparently, this is what a lot of Turks want although Lord knows why.  It would be bad enough if Turkey lurches Islam-ward to become a version of Iran, but this latest incident has me wondering if things might go catastrophically wrong.  For all of Erdoğan’s beating of the Islamic drum and waving his Islamic credentials, there will be plenty of people in the region who consider him an apostate, about as much a true Muslim as a Whirling Dervish.  In the past, Turkey was able to identify the fanatical Islamists and keep them from causing trouble, either by chucking them in prison, booting them out of office at the end of a gun, or by browbeating Ataturk’s secular principles into the population over and over again.

Unfortunately, Erdoğan got rid of Turkey’s capability to do this and trampled all over Ataturk’s principles so he could attain and hold onto power himself.  He’s neutered the army, making sure it can never again intervene to stop Turkey becoming too Islamist for Ataturk’s liking, and the recent coup saw Erdoğan’s supporters engaging in some pretty radical behaviour against hapless conscripts followed by a thorough purging of all state and influential private institutions of anyone who wasn’t on board with Erdoğan’s plan to make Turkey more Islamic.

What must now be causing Erdoğan to break out in a cold sweat is whether by neutralising all threats from the secualrists in Turkey he has overlooked the threats posed by extremists, who are now seeing opportunities to make inroads into that country which didn’t exist before.  It’s all very well him chucking secular journalists in jail and kicking professors out of universities, but this isn’t going to make Erdoğan any more secure if Turkey’s riot police has been infiltrated by ISIS.  And what about the army?  Who replaced all those secular officers that were purged?  Officers who were on board with Erdoğan’s programmes, presumably.  But were they screened for extremism?  I doubt it.

I hope I’m wrong about this, but Erdoğan may well have made the mistake moderate left wingers made time and time again: they purged the opposition of right-wingers but failed to notice the hardcore Communists sneaking up on their left flank, and by the time they realised the danger they were being stood against a brick wall facing a machine gun.  In his hurry to neuter his political opponents and boost his support, Erdoğan may have done away with the very people he now needs to tackle extremism within Turkey and allowed extremists elements to infiltrate those institutions on which the survival of the Republic depends.  If things go down this route he will make Mugabe and Chavez look like Benjamin Franklin.

Russian Ambassador Murdered in Turkey

In November 2015 I wrote a post about how Russia ought to tread a little more carefully now they had decided to get embroiled in Middle East conflicts.  My post came shortly after a Russian passenger plane had seemingly been bombed on its way to Saint Petersburg from Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, and I said:

It ought not to have escaped Putin’s attention that while he envied America’s occupying the role of sole global superpower, as with all superpowers before them this position comes at a price.

It has taken a while, but Americans have slowly hardened up to this.  Getting anywhere near an American embassy – even in a benign location like Singapore – is extremely difficult these days, and American companies, businessmen, and tourists are flooded with security advice which has led to an overall heightened awareness.

One would hope that Putin thought about this before he intervened with great fanfare in Syria, but in doing so he has now opened up Russia to terrorist attacks by the most fanatical people on the planet.  At home, Russia is probably geared up to deal with this: they inherited the security apparatus from the Soviet Union and have plenty of experience dealing with Chechen terrorism over the years, albeit with mixed results at first.  But abroad, Russia must look like a very ripe target for jihadists based overseas.  I’ve walked past Russian embassies and they are often protected by a crumbling breeze-block wall with a rusty coil of barbed wire fastened on top.

For the first time in a long time, Russians are now seen as the bad guys by a whole swathe of the Middle East, and among their ranks are no shortage of nutcases – including ISIS.

If it turns out this Russian plane was indeed brought down by a bomb put aboard in Sharm el-Sheikh airport (a soft target if there ever was one), then there will probably be more such attacks, and Russia is ill-equipped to prevent them.

I post this now because this story is breaking:

A gunman has shot dead Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrei Karlov, apparently in protest at Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict.

Several other people were reportedly also injured in the attack, a day after protests in Turkey over Russia’s military intervention in Syria.

The camera pulls back to show a smartly dressed gunman, wearing a suit and tie, waving a pistol and shouting.

He can be heard yelling “Don’t forget about Aleppo, don’t forget about Syria” and uses the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar” (God is great).

I don’t think I can add much to what I’ve already said, other than there is no way an American ambassador would be in a room with people who haven’t gone through a metal detector and been screened for weapons.