A tragedy made of divisions and violence threatens the Turkey we knew

When terrorism is exploiting a much deeper and internal problem of polarization, where we have to look at is not the attacks, but the forces that caused that tragic polarization

On Saturday 10thOctober, Turkey and the world stopped astonished and incredulous at the suicide attack that took the life of 97 people and injured more than 200.
The target of the attack – occurred tree weeks before November elections – was (again) a peaceful rally organized in Ankara by the pro-Kurdish HDP party, convened to the streets to ask for a cease of the hostilities between Kurdish separatists of the PKK and the Turkish government.
Not immediately clear who was concealing behind the attacks, each party began accusing the other (as it is almost the rule in all cases of internal civil tensions).
Some voices were pointing to the PKK – the number one enemy of the government that though would have little interests to fulfil in hitting a demonstration of pro-Kurdish supporters. Other voices were pointing at ISIS – whose immediate aim could be that of creating turmoil in another Middle Eastern country. ISIS’s long-term hope with such an attack, then, would be to lead Turkey to abandon the air campaign against the Caliphate (that though has not thus far been particularly assertive) and to reach the same objective with respect to the Turkish Kurds (whose commitment to fight ISIS has been more resolute than the government’s). Finally, there were some voices coming from the HDP side accusing of the attack radical elements close to the government – whose logics could be that of creating insecurity to lead an exasperate and scared Turkish population to vote for Erdogan’s AKP party in November, so as to allow the President to build the stable government the country desperately needs.
All these internal mutual accusations, though, have been (partially) silenced by the findings of the Turkish police, a few days after the attack, who identified the bombers as two individuals apparently linked to ISIS.

End of the story? Not at all.
Found the culprits and mourned the death of those innocents whose only fault was their belief in the right of free political association and free political expression, the question “how could it happen?” is still open.
How could such an attack be perpetrated in Turkey – a unique country with an Eastern soul and a Western mind that since its earliest days has been regarded as one of the most positive examples of fusion between Islam and democracy?

To answer we should look at the reality that, over the past few years, Turkey – guided by a leader who seems to have forgotten that it is the President who is supposed to mirror the country, not the other way around – has been moving along a dangerous path that is putting at risk the country’s stability.
Therefore, if Yunus Emre Alagoz and Omer Deniz Dundar are the perpetrators of the attack, the roots that created a favorable environment for it would better be found in the most recent developments that saw Erdogan as protagonist and Turkey as his theatre. A story that the latest acts now risk to turn into a tragedy.
Often regarded – and admittedly not wrongly – as the most prominent figure of politician Turkey has had after Ataturk, Erdogan has over the past years embarked on a political project that (rightly) looks to many liberals as being too authoritarian and too Islamic.
Erdogan’s intention of turning Turkey into a Presidential Republic to increase the powers of a figure that hasn’t traditionally been the pivotal one (role that the Turkish Constitution attributes to the PM) has worried many of those who had until that moment been AKP supporters.
How not to be worried by a leader who changes rules as the cards in his hands change?
Moreover, for a Turkish population that has always been proud of its being a religiously Islamic country without being a politically Islamic Republic, the renewed focus put by Erdogan on Islam and on the role it should have in Turkish public life has created some concern among those who believe in a Western-inspired separation between politics and religion.

The blow suffered by Erdogan and his AKP party at summer elections, then, didn’t come as a surprise to anyone.
Of those elections, what did surprise was the high percentage obtained by the HDP, a leftist largely Kurdish party emerged in the last years that won more than 10% of votes. Outcome that was important not only because it showed how Erdogan has to move more carefully in the Turkish political arena, but because from that moment on the situation has been a downward spiral.
In July, in the majoritarian Kurdish city of Suruc, an attack was perpetrated by ISIS’s affiliates against activists gathered there to discuss and plan the reconstruction of the neighboring Syrian city of Kobane. The consequence was that the PKK accused Erdogan’s government of lack of protection – when not of compliance with ISIS’s terrorists – and a ceasefire between the PKK (that spent the last three decades fighting to see more rights and possibly independence granted to the 14 million Turkish Kurds) and the government was revoked.
After elections that had already sown the seeds of tensions by changing a political environment that had remained unchallenged since 2002, Suruc emerged as the event that definitely opened the Pandora Box. Attacks from each side against the other, in fact, have been marking since then Turkey’s political dynamics, and have been particularly exacerbated by the intervention of the Turkish government in the international fight against ISIS – whose price, though, is paid more by PKK’s members than by ISIS’s apphiliates.

This said, when Erdogan defined Saturday’s tragedy as “a heinous attack against our unity, solidarity, and the peace of our country” I am personally unable to tell which unity is he referring to.
In a moment in which those differences that are the heritage of the Ottoman Empire’s millennial history of pluralism are progressively being turned into sources of conflict, Erdogan’s words couldn’t be further from what the reality actually is.
It is undoubtedly true that the transition from Empire to State is always a delicate process. It is equally true that since 1923 one of the major challenges the new Turkish Republic had to deal with was how to balance the new national identity with the traditional ethnic and religious pluralism. And History is something not even Erdogan can change. However, it is also true that if the issue of minorities has hardly been tougher than it now is, the fault is not of History’s dynamics but of a man’s errors.
It is indeed that man’s party that has adopted a divisive politics and a divisive language that have created an unprecedented polarization, not only in the political environment but also – and more worryingly – in the societal one.

How November elections will go is something only time has the power to foresee, and only the Turkish people have the power to decide.
No one will ever be able to cancel what happened in Ankara, nor what has been going on since summer, or since the past few years, but it is now up to the Turkish people to decide through their November vote that internal divisions and tensions (and the violence they bring about) deserve to be left behind. A message that only a united people can send to their government.
Because whatever the outcome will be and whoever will take the reins in Ankara, everything has to change so that nothing can stay the same.

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Are we risking to lose Afghanistan again?

The taking of Kunduz by part of the Taliban not only gave the group a material success, but it seems to have cancelled any hope of political solution.

The fall of Kunduz, on the eve of Ghani’s first anniversary at the government of Afghanistan, represented for the President the most dramatic blow suffered thus far. The ability with which the Taliban entered Kunduz and took the city projected – both in Afghanistan and abroad – the image of a weak President, victim of his own strategy aimed at seeking the dialogue with a group with whom – probably – dialogue could never exist.
That said, the manifestations in Kabul on 1stOctober, calling for the dismissal of the President, as well as the proposal of the former Interior Minister to resort to anticipated elections, do not surprise. Nor does it matter that Ghani announced that Kunduz had been re-occupied by the Afghan army. Not only because the Taliban are still in control of parts of the city, but because by now then Afghan people have lost faith in one more of their leaders and in one more of their governments – a feeling Afghans are used to as much as they are to the snow on the peaks of Panshir, to the poppy fields in Halmand.
Indeed, the opinion on Ghani’s government one year after elections were held cannot but lead us to wonder what has actually changed in Afghanistan and for Afghanistan, and if his policy centered on re-approach to Pakistan to induce the Taliban to negotiate has been nothing more than a painful illusion.
Despite the hopes that the meeting in Murree had initially lit, in fact, from that moment on it started a spiral of events that revealed how – perhaps – the idea of opening a negotiating table with the group that for almost three decades has been an undeniable part of the Afghan political life had value for Ghani only. Not for the Pakistani ally (as ambiguous as always), nor for the Taliban.
One year after elections, Kunduz’s fall could come to symbolize the fall of the internal support for a President who had changed the cards in the game of Southern Asian alliances – shifting away from the traditional Indian ally and getting closer to Pakistan and China – to bet on the possibility to insert the Taliban in some sort of political dialogue.
Bet that the Ghani cabinet seems now to have lost.

Proving wrong all those who in the past years, and especially in the past months – after the announcement of Mullah Omar’s death and the internal discussions and rivalries emerged over succession – had considered the Taliban a group deemed to implosion, division and dispersion, the fall of Kunduz represented the greatest success since 2001.
Not only has the group been able to take Kunduz and give a blow to the credibility of Ghani, of the Afghan Army and the Afghan Police, but it managed to do all this in a few hours, exploiting the surprise effect, the weak organization of the Army deployed there, and offensive capacities clearly not in decline.
And taking Kunduz is important for the Taliban for two main reasons.
Above all, it is important because Kunduz had been until 2001 a Taliban’s bulwark in the North. Moreover, it is one of Afghanistan’s biggest cities and a fundamental transport hub: thanks to its geographic position that easily connects the city to Kabul, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Tagikistan, it is indeed a crucial juncture in the illegal poppy trade that from Afghanistan reaches Central Asia and from there Europe.
Above all, though, the taking of Kunduz has the importance of projecting the image of a group still cohesive and dynamic, still capable of crucial offensive capacities. It has indeed strengthened the Taliban’s image at the expenses of Ghani, of the forces of the Afghan Army and Police, of the NATO and the United States that spent 14 years trying to train those forces. A reality that could now lead Washington to rethink the project of total withdrawal by 2017 – a dangerous rethinking that would provide the Taliban (who declare to be fighting for the withdrawal of all foreigners from Afghanistan) with the pretext to proceed with their attacks.
The taking of Kunduz, moreover, puts light on what has been the real driver of the Taliban’s action over the last year.
With the attacks in the rural parts of the country protracting for the whole summer, and with this last proof of operative capacities, it is difficult to think the group had ever been sincerely intentioned to negotiate. It rather seems that the meaning of the Taliban’s action was to exploit the NATO’s progressive withdrawal and the reduction of the number of USA troops stationed in the country, to exploit the divisions on policy and security matters within the national unity Government, as well as the ambiguous position of Pakistan, in order to reorganize under the new leadership and better plan its actions.
After all for the Taliban the final aim – between nostalgia for the past and hope for the future – remains taking Kabul. Not negotiating with Kabul.

With a terrorist group such as the Taliban, that controls various rural areas of the country and enjoys no little popular support by local tribes, it is difficult to foresee a scenery of peace and security for the country any time soon.
Definitely collapsed the faint hope of negotiation, the only way to resist the threat now incumbent over Afghanistan goes through two crucial elements: the strengthening of both the Army and the Police, and the strengthening of the relationship – weak and deteriorated decades ago – between Kabul and the rural population.
Regarding the first point, it implies not only a more specific and coherent training – that takes into account the peculiarities of the country in terms of territory, technological capacities, and tribal dynamics – but also (and especially) a fight against defection, against the phenomenon of the so called “ghost soldiers”.
This can be done by building a sense of unity among the members of the Army and the Police, by stimulating a feeling of belonging and brotherhood on which any cohesive Army should be founded, and by strengthening the image of the Army and the Police in the eyes of the population through their direct and constant involvement in social activities.
Regarding the second point, the Government in Kabul should focus its efforts on the instauration of a direct relationship with the population of the rural areas – especially in the South East – through a constant presence at the political and civilian level, not merely military. Providing the population with services such as health and education is crucial to prevent the Taliban from exploiting the absence of the government in those areas. There in fact, the group has been able to present itself as alternative, to legitimize itself in the eyes of the population through the provision of alternative institutions (the so called “shadow government”), of which Deobandi madrassas are just an example.

Until this slow but fundamental process is implemented it will be difficult to hope in a more safe future.

Yemen’s biggest but least reckoned threat

While Saudis and Houthis fight to the death, terrorism is the one gaining the upper hand
With the world focused on other Middle Eastern areas and other Middle Eastern tragedies, Yemen is finding itself abandoned to a civil war that over the last 6 months has been tearing the country apart.
After the Houthis occupied Sanaa and forced President Hadi to flee to Saudi Arabia (where he remained until recently) the country has abruptly become the battlefield of one of the most cruel and most complex civil wars that the region has known, and us forgetting about it doesn’t make it less brutal. Just less likely to reach an end.
Thus far, in fact, despite shocking figures released by the UN on the human tragedy Yemenis are now suffering, there is no sign that the war will come to end any time soon, as all the attempts to reach an agreement through diplomatic dialogue have inexorably failed for the lack of points of contact between Houthis and Saudi-backed Sunnis.

And though, a common interest between the two sides of Yemen’s war does exist: defeating that common enemy that thanks to war is now on the rise. Jihadist terrorism.

Yemen’s war, in fact, with the flee of a President not reckoned as legitimate by everyone (as a President should) and with the lack of an alternative unity government capable of giving representation to all the country’s religious groups (as governments should), has inevitably created a power and security vacuum. And terrorist groups in all times and places have always proved able (or at least willing) to take advantage of this kind of vacuum. We have seen it in Colombia with the FARC’s rise, in Afghanistan after the war between the Soviets and local mujahideens, in Syria when the civil war broke out in 2011, and more recently in Iraq last year. And we could now see it in Yemen too, if the international community doesn’t give the country (and its people) the attention it deserves and – above all – if the parties directly involved make of any effort of dialogue a lost cause.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is no new actor in Yemen. It has always tried to use the country and its internal tensions as a preferred base to plan and conduct attacks and as a starting point to maximize its power and influence in neighboring Gulf countries.
However, not even in its brightest days could the group hope to get as far as it has now come thanks to the outbreak of the civil war. In fact, exploiting the vacuum the flee of President Hadi created, and taking advantage from its enemies killing each other while carefully avoiding direct involvement in the war, the group has known an increase in capabilities, profile and power, and is now obtaining a success that few other Al Qaeda-linked groups can boast.
How did this happen? Not only has the group conducted attacks in the country’s most important cities to boost its credibility within a global jihadist movement that is now less Al Qaeda-centered than it used to, but it has also been able to get an actual control over swaths of Yemen – with the best example of that being the southern city of Mukalla. Here in fact – far from establishing a counterproductive regime of terror aimed at subjugating the local population – the group has revealed its threatening modern pragmatism by allying with local Sunni tribes. With them AQAP built the Hadromouth National Council (HNC) that, providing services and guaranteeing security to the population, is now deeply integrated in the local dynamics and joins a considerable support from the people of the area. A sequence of events, this one, that worryingly reminds of the strategy embraced in Syria by the Al Qaeda-linked Jabat al Nusra, and that made it possible for the group to get support from disillusioned Sunnis.
Perhaps more threatening than the territorial control, in fact, is the support AQAP is gaining from locals. With Houthis and Saudis fighting against the each other on Yemeni soil and from Yemeni skies, and destroying what remains of a country that violence has never spared, to the eyes of many Yemenis AQAP is now appearing as the only actor capable of concretely guaranteeing a minimum level of security and subsistence to a population that has lost everything. Above all trust in politics and trust in a Yemeni government that has abandoned them.

Yemen’s problems, though, are not limited to the al-Zawahiri-linked group. As if AQAP’s advancing was not already enough, a new threat is now on the rise: that of ISIS and its affiliated groups/individuals.
Taking advantage – just like AQAP – of an authority-lacking country, the group and its supporters are expanding their activities in Yemen, and though still far from catching up with AQAP (especially in terms of territorial control), it is to be noted (and feared) that the group is proving its dangerousness in two main respects.
Firstly, ISIS is challenging AQAP’s previously undisputed status as Yemen’s most active terrorist group – something that increases the prestige of ISIS in the jihadist universe and creates the risk of having an increase in the number of ‘wanna-be-jihadists ‘ who choose to join the Caliphate and its affiliated cells wherever they are present and operative.
Secondly, the group is proving its ability (the same that led Iraq to collapse and that exasperated sectarianism in Syria) in getting support by part of the population – mainly youngsters who interpret the attacks on Shia sites conducted by ISIS as a proof of the group’s determination to protect Sunni Islam in a concrete and assertive way.
Moreover, ISIS’s new presence in Yemen is threatening not only for the destabilization it directly creates through attacks, or for the support it is getting from disillusioned youngsters. It is even more threatening because it is opening a front within jihadist terrorism, a front between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State that reminds of that in Syria at the end of 2013, when ISIS and Jabat al Nusra fell apart after and began fighting against each other (with tragic consequences for the Syrian civilian population).
The threat of such a competition between AQAP and ISIS is that if the former sees itself challenged by the latter, it will try to maintain its status, profile and support base by widening its range of operation and – if necessary – by trying to strengthen its legitimacy through a higher toll of attacks against Shias. In fact, though for the time being it is unlikely that the Islamic State will overtake AQAP as the predominant jihadist group in Yemen, if AQAP is to prevent the Islamic State from making further gains it cannot but maintain its momentum with a strong narrative of victory. Something that Yemen and the Yemenis will be the ones paying the price of.

The rise of terrorism in Yemen is clearly no good news for the country nor for its population, but it could turn into an effective starting point of dialogue. In fact, none of those who are directly involved in the civil conflict – Houthis, Yemeni Sunnis, Saudi-led Coalition of GCC countries – can gain anything if talks are obstructed and Yemen falls to terrorism.
Houthis and Yemeni Sunnis, in refusing to work towards a coalition government, aren’t but playing the jihadists’ game as they are leaving them free hand in the country. By continuing on this path, thus, they would have to deal with a strengthened internal enemy competing for power, and it would become even more difficult (read impossible) to reach an agreement and put in Sana’a a government accepted by everyone.
On their part, GCC countries (and in particular Saudi Arabia, that shares with Yemen an important border) in refusing diplomatic dialogue and in closing the door to any possibility of compromise, risk continuing to favor the strengthening of a terrorist group whose power and influence could be easily projected from Yemen to neighboring countries.

If the two sides of the conflict realized how the real threat for Yemen’s future, for the Houthis’ survival and for the Saudis’ security is represented by the rise of AQAP and ISIS, they could start their dialogue from the necessity to oppose the common enemy. They could make of this common point of interest the starting point of peace negotiations aimed at the creation of a government that represents all Yemenis – thus cancelling the roots of AQAP’s and ISIS’s legitimacy and the reasons of their support.
It is now time to realize that it is in everyone’s interest to rely on political cooperation to fill the vacuum created by the war, and that this has to be done before it is too late, before terrorism leaves no room to peace, and before the definite collapse of Yemen that is now on the horizon reaches its shores.