MESOP SUMMARY : Erdogan intensifies assault on independent media

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s campaign against media freedoms stands out, even in a region where liberty of expression and journalists are often under siege.

Mustafa Akyol writes that the Turkish government’s seizure of Zaman newspaper March 4 “may have shocked outsiders, but in Turkey, hardly anyone was surprised. It was clear that Zaman and its entire media group, including Cihan News Agency, would be seized, as Ipek Media Group, which published the dailies Bugun and Millet, was seized in October and turned pro-Erdogan overnight. All these news outlets were affiliated with the movement of Fethullah Gulen, and the Turkish public is repeatedly told that every asset of his religious community will be confiscated by the state.”

US Department of State spokesman John Kirby said that the takeover of Zaman is “the latest in a series of troubling judicial and law enforcement actions taken by the Turkish government targeting media outlets and others critical of it. … We urge Turkish authorities to ensure their actions uphold the universal democratic values enshrined in their own constitution, including freedom of speech and especially freedom of the press. In a democratic society, as I’ve said many, many times, critical opinions should be encouraged, not silenced.” Amnesty International similarly characterized the action as “the latest deeply troubling episode of the Turkish authorities’ ongoing onslaught on dissenting media.”

Akyol concludes that “in the grand scheme of things, not just a few newspapers like Zaman, but the entire Turkish press is being taken over by the current regime. This is a regime that insists that democracy is about nothing but elections, and the winner of elections — as the embodiment of the ‘national will’ — has the right to dominate every aspect of society.”

Erdogan’s assault on free media is complemented by a cult of personality campaign with increasingly Islamic overtones. Kadri Gursel writes that “statements and behaviors adding transcendent and holy dimensions to the Erdogan cult have become more and more frequent. Take, for instance, the stunning remarks AKP lawmaker Yasin Aktay made during a parliamentary debate last week. Erdogan is ‘one of the best things, one of the best people this country has seen,’ Aktay said, adding ‘We say “Salli Ala Muhammad” when we see him.’ He was reciting an Islamic phrase, known as ‘salavat,’ used to salute and praise the Prophet Muhammad or to express allegiance to him.”

Despite Turkey’s failed Syria policy, a crisis of its own making with Russia and a seemingly endless and bloody civil war in southeastern Turkey, Gursel concludes, “Erdogan has shown no sign of giving up his dream to install a system of executive presidency, which would confirm him constitutionally as the ‘one man.’ To overcome internal and external obstacles and advance his goal, he is, as always, trying to generate support from his Sunni conservative base, which he sees as loyal backers and admirers.”

Ben Caspit reports that Israel has mostly rebuffed Ankara’s recent diplomatic outreach. “The Turkish tyrant is viewed in Jerusalem as a lost cause. The Israeli-Turkish military alliance will not be renewed so long as Erdogan’s party remains in power, and Jerusalem has no illusions. It is clear to Netanyahu that Erdogan is angling for a reconciliation with Israel only because of his political weakness, his problems with Russia, Israel’s natural gas and the fact that his standing in the region is not what it used to be,” writes Caspit.

Israel sees ascendant Putin

Caspit further explains that Erdogan’s painfully weak hand is magnified by Russia’s enhanced strategic importance for Israeli decision-makers.

“Putin wins out decisively on all counts: The path he adopted in Syria has upgraded Russia’s status in the region and beyond. Almost overnight, Russia has become an influential and dominant world power. Russia’s deep involvement in Syria proved itself a successful bet. Russia changed the regional reality, redirecting the bloody conflict from a dead end to another path, transformed Assad from a loser to a winner and reshuffled the cards in a Russian display of power and determination. Recently, I quoted a very highly placed Israeli military source as saying ‘even if a Russian jet flies over Tel Aviv, we will not take it down.’ There are endless reasons for the coordination and closeness between Israel and Russia, and Israel’s strategic decision not to do anything to rub the Russians the wrong way.

“Israel is now working diligently on tightening ties with Russia at almost any price. Higher-ups in Jerusalem, including in Tel Aviv’s security apparatus, are optimistic. According to senior Israeli sources, the Russians are cognizant of the damage perpetrated by the ‘axis of evil’ and have no intentions of letting Iran become a patron of Syria. Even with regard to Hezbollah, they understand Israel’s stance and are now reconsidering their missile deal with Tehran. The Russians have their own interests to promote, and they have no special commitment to Hezbollah. They will burn the candle at both ends, trying not to become embroiled in a crisis with Iran in an era when all the world’s global companies are trying to dive into the Iranian economy. On the other hand, they don’t want to help Iran gain the enormous power that it hopes to. Israel, meanwhile, is busy maneuvering within this game plan, while scoring a few considerable achievements for itself.”

This column, two years ago, identified a trend that Russia could be central to a broader, regional conversation to defuse tensions between Israel and Iran over Hezbollah. Caspit’s reporting reveals that Israeli national security decision-makers increasingly recognize the role that Russia can play in regional security. As UN-brokered peace talks are scheduled to resume March 14, there also seems a clear recognition in Washington that progress toward settlement of the region’s conflicts, beginning in Syria, benefits from collaboration with Moscow and avoiding getting drawn into the sectarian intrigues and proxy wars of the regional powers.