Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Turkey's Slide

This article was first posted in Eagle Rising.

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As I follow events in the Middle East, I am often angered by the actions of Turkey, a country that is supposed to be our NATO ally, but which seems to be drifting off into some other camp under the leadership of their Islamist and anti-Semitic leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Not only has Turkey turned in a hostile direction toward Israel under Erdoğan, the Turks seem more interested in fighting the Kurds (who are their arch enemy) than helping the West fight ISIS. Turkey has not only served as a transit point for Western-based Muslims seeking to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but the country has been a transit point for tens of thousands of Middle East migrants, refugees, and terrorists headed to Europe. With friends like this, well, you know how the line goes. Of course Erdoğan and Obama get on quite well, but that doesn't qualify the former as a friend of the US.

I also view it with a touch of sadness. I visited Turkey twice during the 1980s while I was stationed in Milan, Italy with DEA. I had worked a case in Milan that resulted in the seizure of 15 kilos of heroin and the arrests of several Turks. As a result, my Italian counterparts and I traveled to Ankara and Istanbul to share the details of the case with our Turkish police counterparts in the hope of seeing additional arrests in Turkey. In fact, this first case and trip helped the Italian and Turkish police to establish direct ties between their respective law enforcement agencies, which was vitally important since Turkey was a major source country for heroin entering Italy at that time. My Italian counterpart eventually became Italy's first drug attache in Turkey a few years later.

Prior to leaving the first time, we were advised that the best way to make a positive impression on our Turkish hosts was to request a visit to the tomb of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk , who was Turkey's national hero and founder of the Turkish Republic after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. It was Atatürk who secularized the country, introduced the Latin alphabet to the Turkish language, and removed the veil from Turkish women. Accordingly, the Turkish police arranged an escorted tour of Atatürk's mausoleum in Ankara. (We repeated the process on our second visit as well a couple of years later.)

Our principle counterpart was Attila Aytek, the head of the National Police drug enforcement. He was no nonsense and a straight shooter whom we could trust. (The police in Istanbul were a somewhat different story.) Aytek had us all to his house for dinner one night. It was during Ramadan, and we had to wait until 8 pm before we could sit down to eat. They, also had to wait before they could smoke, so it was a smoky dinner table.

Turkish food was a delight, and so was the excellent Turkish beer, most notably Efes Pilzen, their top brand. I recall there was also a Tuborg brewery in Turkey and its product was better than the Tuborg in Denmark in my opinion. Though Turkey is a Muslim country, many Turks drink, and they are especially fond of Raki, a drink similar to the Greek Uzo.

At any rate, while Ankara was a drab city, Istanbul is one of the most fabulous cities I have ever visited. On our first visit, we stayed at the historic old Pera Palace Hotel, where Agatha Christie turned up at a time she was considered "missing." Turkey is also a great place for souvenirs, from great carpets to samovars. Istanbul's famed Covered  Bizarre is a place you could spend the whole day shopping for treasures.

Finally, the people were friendly, and I came to like them.

Under Erdoğan, however, Turkey is changing. He seems to be undoing many of  Atatürk's secular reforms and the country is getting caught up with the increasing radicalization within Islam. Whereas Turkey had a good relationship with Israel before Erdoğan, relations are now badly frayed. The Mavi Marvara boat incident in May 2010 off the coast of Gaza involved a Turkish boat and several Turkish fighters who were killed trying to sail through the Israeli Navy's embargo. Under pressure from Obama, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkey. It should have been the other way around.

I used to tell Turks I met that I couldn't understand why the country wanted to join the European Union. Now I think they should not be admitted-at least until Erdoğan is gone. Hopefully, when that day comes, Turkey will return to the time when they were considered the ideal secular Muslim nation.

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