Streetwise Professor

October 18, 2020

Eight Is Not Erdo’s Lucky Number

Filed under: Economics,Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 5:58 pm

Tayyip Erdoğan has been on a real tear. Most recently, the Turkish military test fired S-400 missiles that Turkey had bought from Russia over strenuous US objections. This is a real Kim Jung Un move, the kind of provocative acts that unhinged dictators under pressure undertake. This puts him even more on the bad side of the US.

Moreover, Erdoğan has stoked the fires of conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, clearly having given the green light to Azerbaijan to escalate the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, and providing extensive military support to Azerbaijan. This puts him on the bad side of Russia.

He has ramped up conflict with the EU, and with France in particular, through his provocative drilling expeditions in waters claimed by Greece. Today, according to a connection in Turkey–who sent pictures–this involved sending a Turkish warship to the waters outside of Patara–and therefore close to the Greek island of Kastellorizo.

Which raises the question of why Erdoğan would pick fights with forces far more powerful than he. Perhaps he figures that neither Russia nor the US nor the EU are in a position to do anything to him. (The EU–totes understandable!) The US is embroiled in a contentious election. Russia is facing numerous problems, including covid, protests in the Far East, and the fallout from the Navalny poisoning.

But I think that is only part of the picture. If you’ve watched the Turkish Lira recently (USDTRY) you’ll see that it has plummeted to all-time lows, flirting with 8: it reached 7.94 on Friday. When I was in Turkey a few years ago, it was around 4. This is a good indicator of how parlous Turkey’s economic position is. Eight is a lucky number in China, but not for Turkey, when the lira is involved.

So what’s on the first page of the autocrat’s playbook? When facing domestic economic trouble, create international incidents. This is an especially important play in a non-post-modern country like Turkey, in which nationalism–chauvinism, really–is a potent political force, unlike in Old Europe and wide swaths of the US.

Perhaps a more interesting question relates to Putin’s extremely passive reaction to Erdo’s provocation in a region that Russia considers part of its post-Soviet space. Especially given the large Russian military presence in Armenia. Contrast Putin’s current passivity to Russia’s growling reaction to Turkey’s downing of a Russian Su-24 over Syria in 2015. Putin made harsh threats, and Erdo folded almost immediately.

Today, with Erdo romping in Russia’s backyard–nothing.

Perhaps this reflects Putin’s own problems. While the lira is flirting with 8, the ruble is flirting with 80, having fallen dramatically in recent months. Russia’s economy is stalled, and there is widespread discontent with its handling of covid. Putin has retreated to not so splendid isolation (though he is no doubt isolating in splendor), requiring those who wish to see him to quarantine for 14 days–a dramatic contrast with his “don’t worry, be happy” message to the public on covid. He’s also at loggerheads with Europe over Navalny, though given Europe’s anger at Erdo, Putin could probably earn Brussels brownie points by standing up to him.

Or maybe Putin wants to teach Armenia a lesson. But frankly, it would be stupid to encourage conflict in the post-Soviet space merely to chasten a recalcitrant satrap–especially when that chastening comes largely due to the intervention of a foreign power. I would have thought that a major red line for Putin.

So Erdoğan’s behavior, though extremely rash, is fairly understandable in conventional terms. Putin’s, not so much.

Would that the American establishment pay more attention to that puzzle, rather than descend into another frenzy of allegations about “Russian disinformation campaigns,” this one involving Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Just how would that work exactly? In 2016, Russia allegedly interfered in US elections by buying less than $100K cheesy Facebook ads. Yet apparently within a mere 4 years Russian disinformation has reached such levels of sophistication that it can create a laptop filled with forged material about Joe and Hunter Biden–including lurid photos of the latter doing what the latter is known to do, i.e., smoke crack and patronize hookers, not to mention incriminating emails–get it to some repair guy in Delaware who just happens to give a copy of the hard drive to Rudy Giuliani (after he had told the FBI about it).

Amazing tradecraft, if true. But to anyone who shaves with Occam’s Razor, it’s not true. The story that passes the Occam’s Razor test is that a drug addled Hunter–who, recall, in the past left a crack pipe and cocaine in a rental car because he saw an owl flying over him and thought it was following him so that he figured he might be hallucinating–dropped off the laptop and didn’t pick it up. Probably because he was distracted by too many lap dances, and paternity litigation involving lap dancers.

But what matters now to Biden and the establishment–including the traditional media and especially Twitter, Facebook, and Google/YouTube–is that Joe is able to dodge this until past the election.

At which time this October surprise could turn into the national November hangover.

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July 23, 2020

What To Do With With Erdo?

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:06 pm

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems hell-bent on making enemies. Indeed, other than Qatar, it’s hard to point to any nation that is allied with Turkey. Turkey doesn’t even seem to have frenemies, only real enemies.

The FT had a long piece detailing how Erdoğan is using force and threats of force to prevent other nations, notably Cyprus, from drilling for gas in the eastern Mediterranean. He has also entered into a deal for what passes for a government in Libya to develop its offshore gas, and to build pipelines that deny that Crete is part of Greece. (Hey, it was Ottoman once, right?)

Speaking of Libya, Erdo has intervened in the conflict there. Turkey has supplied advisors, drones (including armed UAVs), anti-air defenses, and electronic warfare systems to support the “government.” Further, Turkey haas shipped in thousands of Syrian jihadi-types to provide the ground forces to fight against the force led by warlord Khalifa Haftar, who is trying to overthrow the UN-recognized government.

This has led to a confrontation between French and Turkish ships off the Libyan coast. Turkey has demanded an apology, and Macron trumpeted a call with Trump during which Libya was discussed–a clear indication to Turkey that the US was leaning towards France and against Turkey.

To make things even more complicated, Egypt supports Haftar and is threatening to intervene with its ground forces to combat the Turkish-supported troops. Turkey has made stern warnings to Egypt to stay on its side of the border.

To make things even more complicated, Russia is Haftar’s biggest backer. Russian mercenaries operate there. So in Libya Erdoğan is risking conflict with Russia, France (and hence the rest of the EU–yeah, I know), and Egypt.

The correlation of forces here is definitely not in Turkey’s favor, especially if Egypt intervenes on the ground. Egypt shares a border with Libya, and as the Desert Campaigns of 1940-41 showed, an armored force can race across Libya and achieve operational dominance. Egypt’s logistics would also be relatively simple, and it would be operating well within range of its air forces. Turkey, on the other hand, has no direct land route to Libya, and would have to reinforce and supply by sea. If shit gets real, it is highly doubtful that such a supply line would be sustainable. It would certainly be highly vulnerable to attack from air and sea.

Turkey has some submarines, some frigates (including some old US Perry Class ships) and corvettes, and some small landing craft. Egypt’s forces are comparable, with the big difference being the French-built (originally for Russia) Mistral assault ship, for which Turkey has no counterpart.

So Turkey would be in a very weak position if it indeed attempted to challenge an Egyptian incursion.

Libya is not the only country where Turkey and Russia are at loggerheads. They are also on opposite sides in Syria, and Russian-supported forces have killed well over 100 Turks. There is an uneasy coexistence between Russian and Turkey in Syria, nothing more.

But there’s more! The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (which has been going on since 1988 or thereabouts) is heating up again. Armenia is close to Russia, but Erdo is rallying behind Azerbaijan.

It’s not surprising, then, that Russian helicopters flew along the Turkish border soon after the initial Armenian-Azeri clash in mid-June, and Turkey’s condemnation of Armenia for that fighting.

Erdoğan also has a very strained, and strange, relationship with the US generally, and Donald Trump in particular. Given Trump’s mercurial nature, Erdoğan would be a fool to expect Trump to pull his irons out of the fire in a Turkish dust up with Russia. Or France. Or Greece. Or Egypt.

The Turkish economy is also in a parlous state, meaning that the country is extremely vulnerable to economic pressure. The lira has depreciated badly in recent years, is near all time lows against the dollar, and could easily tip–or be tipped-off a cliff. Turks of a certain age remember the extreme privations that followed US sanctions imposed in the aftermath of the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Younger generations don’t have that experience, and have (at least in the big cities) attained a degree of affluence that could be gone in a trice. It is an open question whether they would, in a fit of nationalist pride, forgive Erdoğan for that.

Erdoğan also outraged much of the Christian world with his conversion (on extremely dubious legal grounds) of the venerated Aya Sophia/Hagia Sofia from a museum (established by Ataturk) back to a mosque.

Erdoğan’s political situation is shaky–which may be why he is engaged in so much adventurism. He lost the big cities–Istanbul and Ankara notably–to the opposition CHP. He still has very strong support in the Anatolian heartland, especially among devout Muslims there (and in the cities as well). But the country is divided and Erdoğan has a lot of domestic enemies, and is making more by the day.

In sum, Erdoğan has picked a fight with pretty much everyone with a stake in the eastern Mediterranean. Why he’s doing so is not completely clear. In part, it’s delusions of grandeur: he envisions himself as the emerging dominant power in that region. But he can be so only at the sufferance of the US and Russia in particular. He is appealing to a highly chauvinistic populace–Turks are arguably the most chauvinistic nation in the world–in order to bolster his political situation.

But strategically his actions appear to be incredibly foolhardy and shortsighted. It is hard to see the upside, especially in Syria and Libya. The downsides are huge. He must be counting that the big boys in the neighborhood are willing to put up with his bumptiousness. But if he’s wrong, Turkey will be in a world of hurt.

He needs to be most careful about the Russians. After Turkey shot down a Russian jet over Syria, the furious Russian reaction forced Erdoğan to back down. Now he is risking confrontation with them not only in Syria, but in Libya and Armenia/Azerbaijan. With Putin too perhaps needing a wag the dog moment again (given the uninspiring results of his constitutional referendum, growing discontent as illustrated by open protests in the east, and chronic economic difficulties), Erdoğan could be made to order.

Fools rush in where angels fear to tread. Erdoğan is rushing in where angels avoid, and doing so very likely because he is a fool.

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March 8, 2020

Erdoğan Harvests the Fruits of His Strategic Genius

Filed under: Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:20 pm

Apropos my earlier post on Erdoğan’s strategic brilliance, after Turkey’s army inflicted some serious damage on Assad’s armed forces, the Russians evidently made it clear that he would not be allowed to have his way in Idlib. So Erdoğan scuttled to Moscow, and emerged with a ceasefire agreement (not that he wanted one) which basically brought his campaign to a screeching halt.

The optics tell all. The fact that Erdo had to go to Moscow for one thing. But it was worse than that. Putin really rubbed the would-be sultan’s nose in it.

The same week a delegation from Zimbabwe–yes, Zimbabwe–visited Putin in the Kremlin. The entire delegation was seated. There was no statuary in sight.

When the Turkish delegation visited, all except Erdoğan were forced to stand. In front of a statue of Catherine the Great, no less, which had been moved into the room specifically for the Turkish delegation.

Catherine, of course, waged war against the Ottomans during her entire reign, and seized vast territories from them. Catherine epitomizes Russian domination of Turkey. As Russians well know–as do Turks.

After leaving the Turks to shuffle cravenly before Catherine’s bronze gaze for a few moments, Putin beckoned them to approach with a dismissive wave of his fingers, like he was calling his dogs. He was trying to humiliate. He succeeded.

Erdoğan has been flailing desperately for US and European support to counter Russia. Trump acknowledged that Turkey and Syria were fighting, but said he didn’t care.

In so many words: You’re on your own, Erdo! You made your bed with Putin, hope you stocked up on the KY.

The refugee gambit has only infuriated the Europeans. Not as if they would be willing to risk confronting Russia anyways.

Yes. Quite the genius Erdo is. Quite the genius.

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February 29, 2020

The Sultan’s New Clothes

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia,Turkey — cpirrong @ 12:28 pm

Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan imagines himself to be a modern Ottoman sultan. Presumably he has in mind, say, Suleiman I (“The Magnificent”), but if he keeps it up he is more likely to be a reincarnation of Osman II.

The first object of Erdo’s imperial ambitions is nearby Syria, all but destroyed after 9 years of civil war–not that it was a paradise before 2011. Erdoğan supported the Muslim Brotherhood/Sunni jihadi anti-Assad forces early on, and worked hard to overthrow Assad. He failed: the Russian intervention in particular turned the tide in favor of Assad.

Erdoğan’s air force shot down a Russian SU-25 in November, 2015. This led to a tense standoff with Putin, and given the correlation of forces, Erdoğan was forced to back down. This led to a rapprochement with Russia, resulting in gas deals and most importantly an agreement to purchase S-400 air defense systems.

This mightily irritated the United States. Tensions between the ostensible Nato allies were already high in the aftermath of the July, 2016 coup, which Erdoğan blamed in large part on the US because of its giving asylum to erstwhile ally and subsequent arch enemy, Fethullah Gülen: Erdoğan believes that the coup was a FETO (Fethullah Terrorist Organization) plot.

Relations between Turkey and the US had been fraught since Erdoğan’s decision (when he was prime minister) to deny the use of Turkey to stage the 4th Infantry Division for the offensive against Iraq. Things have gotten progressively worse, as Erdoğan’s Ottoman pretensions have become progressively more grandiose. Moreover, the war on ISIS, which required the US to rely on the Kurds–the only force in the region that can fight its way out of a piss-soaked paper bag–further aggravated the relationship, because Erdoğan considers all Kurds terrorists too.

In sum, Erdoğan has been burning his bridges with the US for years. Decades even.

But now he needs us. The war in Syria has turned sharply against Turkey’s jihadist (Al Qaeda, actually) allies. Regime forces have made steady gains against the last rebel stronghold, Idlib. To try to stave off complete defeat, Erdoğan sent Turkish army units into the neighboring country.

Assad has responded predictably. He has bombed and shelled Turkish army outposts, killing dozens: last week, an airstrike killed 33 Turkish soldiers.

Assad’s calculus is quite simple and quite rational. He knows Russia has his back. Push comes to shove, if Erdoğan launches a full-scale offensive against Syrian Arab Army forces and their supporting militia units, Putin will almost certain order Russian forces (air forces in particular) to strike hard at Turkish units. So Assad has no compunctions about bombing Turkish forces. Indeed, he has an incentive to do so because this may bring the Russians in even more forcefully on his side.

Caught in a trap of his own making, Erdoğan is now spinning desperately–and pathetically–to find a way out. Amusingly, yesterday he asked Putin to “step aside” in Syria. Quite a plan there, Erdo! I’m sure Vova will graciously respond to your request!

Erdoğan is now appealing to the US for help–after years of chest thumping denunciations of the country. Most amazingly, he asked the US for Patriot air defense systems–presumably to shoot down Russian airplanes. (This further convinces me that the real purpose for the S-400s is to use against his own air force in the event of another coup.)

The Pentagon is adamantly opposed to this–good! But elements of the (Deep) State Department insanely and inanely want to accede to this request. FFS:

A senior State Department official is at odds with the Pentagon over sending additional military equipment to help Turkey fight against Russian-backed Syrian government forces, four people familiar with the matter tell POLITICO.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative for Syria engagement, has been pressing the Defense Department to send Patriot missile defense batteries to Turkey to help it repel the Syrian government’s assault in Syria’s Idlib province, the people said. But Pentagon officials are worried about the global ramifications of a move they see as reckless.

Just to be clear: Jeffrey wants to run the risk of an armed confrontation with Russia to protect “rebels”–who happen to be, to a man, Sunni jihadis who are basically just rebranded Al Qaeda.

I have still to hear a remotely persuasive argument as to why the US should give a tinker’s damn about Assad winning in Syria, especially since the alternative is Al Qaeda in all but name. To risk a confrontation with Russia over this is beyond insane.

Erdoğan is also playing the refugee card in an attempt to force the pusillanimous Europeans to intervene on his behalf. What they would do–or are even capable of doing–is a mystery. But Erdoğan is desperate, and flailing about in the hope something or someone will save him.

All he is succeeding in doing is making the Europeans even more sick of him than they already are. Oh, and risking a naval conflict with Greece. As if he didn’t have enough fights on his hands.

Oh, and as if he didn’t have enough problems, Erdoğan has intervened militarily in the only country in the Middle East that could make Syria look at least somewhat functional–Libya. Moreover, he has intervened in opposition to the faction that Russia supports, thereby aggravating Putin either more, and making it less likely that Putin will “stand aside” in Syria.

There’s an acronym in the military–PPPPPP. Prior planning prevents piss-poor performance. Turkey’s new sultan is obviously unfamiliar with this. He plunged into Syria with little thought, and apparently no prior planning regarding Russian and Syrian countermoves, and his ability to counter those countermoves. And predictably, piss-poor performance has been the results.

It will be interesting to see how the US responds. Presuming that Trump overrules the lunatics in the State Department, I am guessing that the administration will give Erdoğan lip service, but leave him twisting in the wind.

Which raises the question of the political reaction within Turkey. A humiliated Erdoğan should be politically vulnerable, but he has succeeded in de-fanging the military and so the historical response to political failure in Turkey–a coup–is probably out of the question. The opposition in Turkey is divided, and its national leadership is hardly inspiring. The country is divided between the Rumelian fringe and the Anatolian heartland. Erdoğan still has strong support among the religious portions of the populace, especially in Anatolia. Meaning that I expect that he will be weakened, but will survive.

Indeed, I anticipate a crackdown on the opposition. The threat to dispossess the opposition CHP of its stake in İşbank  is perhaps a harbinger of such a move.

Watching Erdoğan’s pathetic, incompetent performance also highlights the pathetic, incompetent performance of the United States’ foreign policy elite, which viewed him as a harbinger of an enlightened political Islam that would prove a model for improved governance throughout the region.

They sure can pick ’em, can’t they?

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October 20, 2019

Howdy Doody Dilanian Reports All the “News” the Intelligence Community Wants You to Believe

Filed under: Military,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 4:11 pm

The conventional wisdom in the US is that Turkey’s president Erdogan totally pwned Trump over Syria. The most extreme example of this is a Tweet by NBC’s Ken Dalanian, aka the Howdy Doody to the CIA’s Buffalo Bob Smith:

You wouldn’t know it from the US media, especially from reporters like Dilanian who are nothing but conduits for what the anti-Trump elements in the intelligence community (i.e., pretty much the entire intelligence community) wants you to hear, but the view from Turkey is somewhat different.

A Turkish friend tells me that the boastful Erdogan’s mien changed notably after Vice President Pence’s visit last weak. Whereas Erdo was at his chest thumping best (or worst) prior to that, he has been restrained and sheepish since. Moreover, there are many in Turkey who claim that Erodgan is (in the words of my friend) “Trump’s dog” and that Trump is the actual president of Turkey.

Now, there may be some sample selection bias here. My friend’s father was a leader of the May 27, 1960 coup against the proto-Erodgan (Menderes) and was on the tribunal that sentenced Menderes to hang. My friend is an ardent Kemalist and has a social network that is rooted in Rumelian Turkey and in the CHP. So what he sees (on Facebook, for instance) or hears (from friends and colleagues) is not necessarily representative of Turkish opinion.

It is interesting to note, however, that things look very different to many Turks than they do to American journalists. So don’t take the vaporings of the likes of Ken Dilanian at face value, and keep in mind that he (and most of the rest of the media claiming to report on views of those in the defense and intelligence communities) is essentially the ventriloquist’s dummy–and the ventriloquists are carrying out guerilla warfare against Trump.

Another Howdy Doody report illustrates how intense this war is:

A review launched by Attorney General William Barr into the origins of the Russia investigation has expanded significantly amid concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis, multiple current and former officials told NBC News.

. . . .

Durham has also requested to talk to CIA analysts involved in the intelligence assessment of Russia’s activities, prompting some of them to hire lawyers, according to three former CIA officials familiar with the matter. And there is tension between the CIA and the Justice Department over what classified documents Durham can examine, two people familiar with the matter said.

In other words, Barr and Durham have many in the intelligence community shitting themselves.

Well it’s about ‘effing time.

“Concerns about whether the probe has any legal or factual basis.” LOL. Just who is concerned, Howdy? Your IC buddies? Good!

How many times during the Mueller probe did we hear “if Trump has nothing to hide, why should he fear an investigation?”

What’s the expression? Oh yeah. Turnabout is fair play. And payback is a bitch.

As if Barr or Durham (amazing isn’t it how their like are characterized as “career federal prosecutors” when investigating Trump or other Republicans, but not when they are investigating Democrats or deep staters?) would engage in baseless probes.

So things are heating up. And this means that the stream of leaks to the likes of Ken Howdy Doody Dilanian will build into a torrent in the coming weeks. Ignore their content, and take them as a positive signal that some people are afraid, very afraid.

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June 23, 2019

You Should Have Been Careful What You Asked For, Recep. You Got It.

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:07 pm

I ask for very few things in life, because I am a firm believer in unintended consequences, as summarized by the adage: “Be careful what you ask for–you might get it.”

Recep Tayyip Erdoğan should have heeded this adage when he asked for–and got–a rerun of the Istanbul mayoral election. I guarantee he hadn’t bargained for the way his wish was granted–a humiliating loss to CHP (pronounced “jay hey pay”) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu.

İmamoğlu had won by a mere 14,000 votes in the 31 March election that Erdoğan claimed was tainted by fraud (in a first where the opposition allegedly won by fraud, rather than the party in control): he won by over 700,000 votes today. Meaning that by insisting on a mulligan, Erdoğan succeeded in increasing his opponent’s margin of victory by a factor of a mere 50. That takes talent!

There is rejoicing in the streets of İstanbul, and elsewhere in Turkey, especially in places like İzmir. But there is no joy in Mudville, er, the massive (as in 3.2 million square feet) presidential palace in Ankara, which is symbolic of Erdoğan’s sultanic pretensions. So far, over 8 hours after the polls closed, he has been silent. Only his hapless and comically uncharismatic candidate in İstanbul, former prime minister Binali Yildirim, has made a monotone concession speech.

Erdoğan has straddled Turkish politics like a colossus for almost 20 years. This is his first major defeat, which raises questions about his future.

In the near term, İmamoğlu’s control of government in İstanbul will allow him to uncover and publicize the massive corruption of AKP/Erdoğan rule there. Further, money the the lifeblood of politics, and the CHP victory will allow it to sharply reduce the flow of this lifeblood to AKP’s pockets.

Over the longer run, there is now a credible personality to oppose Erdoğan. The national CHP leader Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu (who was almost lynched by an AKP mob near Ankara recently) is not a threat, for many reasons. He is deemed an elitist, and worse, he is Alevi, a religious group that is scorned by most Turks.

İmamoğlu’s biography has eerie parallels to Erdoğan’s. Both are from the Black Sea region who moved into national politics in İstanbul. Erdoğan gained considerable sympathy as a result of his jailing 20 years ago: denying İmamoğlu victory in March gained him considerable sympathy too. Both figures have a common touch. Unlike many in the CHP, İmamoğlu is not viewed as a hard-core secularist, or anti-Islam. Indeed, his name denotes a Muslim heritage. (An ardent secular Turk I know says he is glad that is not HIS name.)

Meaning that Erdoğan like faces the biggest political threat in his life, and it comes at a time when Turkey’s economy is teetering, and its international position is fraught.

Top at the very long list of Erdoğan’s foreign policy headaches is his testy (to say the least) relationship with the US. Matters are coming to a head here, with Erdoğan swearing that Turkey will cross a US red line, and buy S-400 SAMs from Russia.

I have been wondering for some weeks whether Erdoğan’s chest thumping on this issue has been driven by his need to look tough before a largely anti-US Turkish electorate in the runup to the rerun of the İstanbul election, and that he would back down once the results are in. He has backed down before after claiming he would never concede to Trump (on the issues of the American missionary and the NSA employee imprisoned in Turkey). It’s hard to know how the crushing defeat will affect his calculations. Will he realize that in his weakened domestic situation he can’t afford to confront the US? Or will he figure that he can’t afford to look weak now?

I don’t know, but I do know that as consummate a domestic politician as Erdoğan has been, internationally he has been a disaster for Turkey. Turkey has alienated the US and Europe, has bungled in Syria, and is at odds with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Turkey literally has no friends or allies now, except for Qatar, which is itself isolated in the Arab world. Given this record, I think it is highly likely that Erdoğan will make the wrong choice.

We should see within days. He is to meet Trump at the G-20 this week. Perhaps Trump will offer him a face-saving way out of the dilemma he has put himself in. Whether Erdoğan is wise enough to take it is another matter.

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April 28, 2019

Erdogan: Cruisin’ For a Bruisin’

Filed under: Economics,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 7:18 pm

I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that Turkey is ruled by a lunatic–Recep Tayyip Erdogan. His increasingly autocratic rule is putting Turkey at serious risk of an economic and geopolitical crisis.

Erdogan dreams of Turkey becoming the dominant power in the Middle East, a modern day version of the Ottoman Empire, including an explicit Islamic orientation–a decisive break with the founder of the Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who eschewed imperial ambitions, and who was avowedly secularist, and indeed, harshly anti-Islam. (Which is one reason Erdogan despises him.)

These ambitions have led Erdogan into some foreign policy disasters, most notably in Syria. At the outset of the Syrian civil war, Erdogan was supporting the rebels and foursquare behind attempts to overthrow Assad. In this he failed utterly. But in the attempt, he (through his intelligence services) provided support to the most radical Islamist elements in Syria–including ISIS.

The Syrian debacle contributed to a serious breach with Europe which has all but eliminated the prospects for Turkish accession to the EU. In particular, his cynical unleashing of waves of Syrian refugees into Europe, and his threats of sending even more, thereby blackmailing the EU into providing Turkey financial aid, have left Turkey friendless in Europe.

Even worse, from a geopolitical perspective, has been his picking fight after fight with the US. The list is long. The extended standoff over an American minister he had imprisoned. His rapprochement with Iran in Syria (which in effect was a concession of his failure to achieve his objectives there), and generally cooperative relationships with Iran, including most notably helping the Islamic Republic circumvent US sanctions by exchanging Turkish gold for Iranian gas. His strident opposition to Israel. His cooperation with another American pariah–Venezuela–which Turkey is helping evade sanctions by agreeing to refine Venezuelan gold. His burning desire to destroy America’s Kurdish allies who have been the only effective local force in the battles against ISIS, said desire driven by Erdogan’s burning hatred of the Kurds in Turkey. This desire to attack Kurds in Syria has led to standoffs (with the serious risk of escalation) with US troops working with them. And last, but by no means least, an agreement to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia despite the information this could provide the Russians about US F-35 aircraft–which Turkey wants to purchase.

Some of these things–canoodling with Iran, opposing Israel–were not a problem with the Obama administration. They are a big deal with Trump.

The real lunacy is that Erdogan is risking a confrontation with the US at a time when his economy is teetering–in large part due to his mismanagement. The lira dropped significantly last summer, and although it has recovered (a) it is still substantially below the level of 2017, (b) has been dropping steadily since topping out in December, and (c) is poised for another drop due to Erdogan’s inveterate hostility to higher interest rates–well, to interest rates period, which he calls “the mother and father of all evil.” The Turkish Central Bank has been playing games to conceal how weak its reserve position is. These include borrowing dollars from Turkish banks via swaps, putting the dollars as on-balance sheet assets, but treating the swaps as off-balance sheet.

The Turkish economy is in recession, has heavy external indebtedness (which makes its low reserve position all the more dangerous), and has an economic management team that is universally considered to be greatly out of its depth. Erdogan did not help matters when he declared:

The main issue is interest rates. As interest rates are brought down, inflation will fall. The real problem is interest rates. I’m also an economist.

Not only is he not an economist (as his getting the Fisher effect exactly backwards shows), I don’t even think he’s ever even stayed at a Holiday Inn Express. Combining his economic stupidity with his autocratic behavior is a recipe for disaster.

Given this fraught economic situation, Erdogan courts disaster by continuing to pull Uncle Sam’s beard. He is very likely to need the US’s help to stave off economic crisis, and on the flip side, if sufficiently provoked the US could smash the Turkish economy with a mere flick of its fingers.

Erdogan also has domestic political problems. After prevailing in a surprise national election last summer that cemented his changes to the constitution creating a presidential system, his AKP party suffered some stunning losses in local elections last month, most notably a (narrow) loss in Istanbul. Erdogan is attempting to get a do over in the Istanbul election, claiming systemic voting abuses–in a city his party controlled at the time of the election. It is something akin to the Chicago Democratic machine blaming a loss on nefarious Republican voter fraud.

There are many reasons for Erdogan’s near panic over Istanbul. It will give his CHP opponents a highly visible platform and power base, in a city that is widely viewed as the launching pad for Turkish national leaders. (Erdogan was mayor there before becoming prime minister, then president.) Perhaps even more importantly to Erdogan, CHP control of Istanbul threatens to undermine his vast patronage system there (which will undercut his power), and also threatens to expose equally vast corruption (of which Erdogan has already been very credibly accused in the past).

Erdogan is not the type of man who will trim his sails in the face of such fierce headwinds. He will more likely redouble his confrontational efforts, both internationally and domestically, despite his extremely weak economic situation. This is not wise, and will not end well. A bad end to Erdogan is hardly something that should be rued, but his bad end will also mean serious and extended misery for the Turkish people, and a serious potential for even more instability in the Middle East.

This last prospect may be the only thing that saves Erdogan. The potential for turmoil may be the only reason why the Trump administration does not give Erdogan the brusin’ he has been cruisin’ for, not just recently, but since 2003.

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October 27, 2018

When You Strike at a King, You Must Kill Him

Filed under: Military,Politics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:44 pm
Ralph Waldo Emerson penned those lines in a letter to Oliver Wendell Holmes more than 150 years ago: in the last 27 months, a latter day sultan, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has put them into practice.  In the aftermath of the July, 2016 coup that failed to topple him, Erdogan has ruthlessly cracked down on anyone he or his minions even suspected were involved in, or even supported, the coup.  The military and civil service have been purged, and Turkey lives in fear.  Anyone with the even remote ties to the Gulenists whom Erdogan believes were behind the coup is at risk of losing his/her job, and even his/her liberty.  People struck at Erdogan, failed to kill him, and he is taking his revenge.

Today, Erdogan is taking advantage of the Khashoggi killing to strike at a monarch–in this case, an actual monarch, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (and by extension, his father, King Salman).  One wonders if Erdogan is paying proper heed to Emerson’s warning, or whether he is merely an arrogant chancer who is failing to recognize that MBS will respond as ruthlessly to an existential threat as Erdogan did to his own.

Erdogan imagines himself the leader of world Islam, and views this as his chance to strike at his main rival for that distinction.  Indeed, MBS (or his creatures) committed a blunder by killing Khashoggi, and on Turkish soil no less.  But despite this blunder, Erdogan’s success is far from certain.

Turkey is only months past a near collapse of its currency, and its economy: only a climb down in the Brunson conflict with the US bought Erdogan some breathing room. (At the cost of considerable ridicule within Turkey, I might add, given Erdogan’s boasts that he would NEVER let the American pastor go.)  But the fundamentals that led to the crisis over the summer–not merely huge debts, unfavorable foreign balances, and most notably, Erdogan’s impetuosity, arrogance, and economic idiocy–remain.  Turkey is still divided.  Although Erdogan won an election that effectively granted him an imperial presidency, it was by a narrow margin.  Turkey’s position in Syria is problematic.  And crucially, its relationship with the US is still fraught.

If Erdogan truly tries to go so far as to threaten MBS’s and King Salman’s preeminent position in Saudi Arabia, MBS will have no compunction about responding in kind.  And they have weapons at their disposal.  No not military–there is no common frontier, and regardless, the Saudis have proven themselves to be militarily inept (something KSA shares with most Arab militaries).  But economic?–Definitely.  It is well within Saudi capability to launch a speculative attack on the lira.  And the KSA has other financial weapons it can wield.

Indeed, the Khashoggi affair shows how ruthless the Saudis can be when confronted by even a rather trivial challenge.  Think of how they will respond if they really feel threatened.   Turkey’s currency and economy are an Achilles Heel that they could readily strike.

Further, the United States could squash Turkey financially like an overripe grape.  Even modest US measures, like tariffs on Turkish metal imports into the US, greatly exacerbated the swoon in the TRY–think of what would happen if Trump really put his mind to it.  This is not something that the US would want to do, given that Turkey is a Nato member, and has some strategic value to the US.  But KSA has strategic value too, arguably greater than Turkey’s, and if Erdogan overplays his hand with Saudi Arabia, and/or continues to be a pain on issues like the US support for Syrian Kurdish forces, Trump could bring a world of hurt onto Turkey and Erdogan.

So Erdogan must tread very carefully indeed, and keep Emerson’s injunction in mind.  And what are his odds of knocking off MBS, or even damaging him all that severely?  Not great, given the nature of the Saudi regime, MBS’s obvious willingness to use all measures necessary against internal opponents (who can disappear with far less attention than Khashoggi did in Istanbul), and its economic and geopolitical leverage.

But one should never underestimate Erdogan’s arrogance.  Given this arrogance, it is quite possible that he will ignore Emerson, overplay his hand, and be the ultimate loser in this Game of Thrones.

 

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August 12, 2018

As the old adage says, Erdo: Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.  

Filed under: Economics,Turkey — cpirrong @ 6:40 pm
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is clearly insane, by the doing/saying-the-same-thing-repeatedly-and-expecting-different-results standard.

Apparently not content with the mere 22 percent drop in the TRY on Thursday and Friday which was attributable completely to his overheated, boneheaded economic rhetoric and his egging on a confrontation with the US, today he gave not one, not two, but three speeches that put his economic idiocy and bullheadedness on display.  And the markets reacted immediately, with the lira breaching 7 to the USD in early Asian trading.

Among the howlers:

Speaking in the northeastern city of Trabzon on Sunday, Erdogan warned business executives to not “rush to banks to withdraw foreign currency.”

He added that businesses should “know that keeping this nation alive and standing isn’t just our job, but also the job of industrialists, of merchants.”

“We are working day and night for alternative markets.”

Just what alternative markets is he talking about? Presumably steel and aluminum, which Trump imposed higher tariffs on on Friday.  But those aren’t the markets that matter now: it’s the currency and capital markets that matter, and every word out of Erdoğan’s mouth freaks out those markets even more.  Not least because talking about metals indicates a complete failure to grasp the true nature of the situation.

Importuning “industrialists and merchants” to take one for the team is futile.  They have already conceded, after taking brutal losses for heeding his earlier call.  The fact that Erdoğan seems oblivious to the fact that his previous nostrums have been disasters only convinces further those at home with money and those in the financial markets that he is utterly clueless–as do his continued imprecations against evil interest rates.

His chucklehead finance minister (whose main attributes appear to be that a) he is Erdoğan’s son-in-law, and b) he is less of a chucklehead than Erdoğan’s son) gave a don’t worry-be happy-everything will work out great talk to a group of assembled business leaders.  A Turkish friend said that Berat (not Borat!) Albayrak’s clownish performance was met by long faces from the assembled bankers and industrialists.

Erdoğan’s other stock response is that Turkey’s economic fundamentals are sound, but the country is being subjected to an economic attack from the US, and that he will fight back.  Arguendo, assume it is true that the US has targeted Turkey.  What is the best response, especially when someone like Trump is doing the targeting? Defiance is foolhardy, though perhaps emotionally gratifying in the short run, both to Erdoğan and his fervent followers.  A prudent leader would execute a tactical withdrawal in the face of overwhelming odds, and live again to fight another day.  You don’t fight battles you can’t win.  And again, Erdoğan’s apparent willingness to do so just stokes the panic.

Erdoğan says that he will find other allies.  Like who, exactly?  Speculation is that Russia, Qatar, and/or China might contribute financial support.

The first name makes me laugh.  Russia has its own issues right now, to put it mildly.  Its access to capital markets is extremely limited, and its currency is also under pressure.  Qatar is still battling an economic embargo with its Arab neighbors.  China’s own financial situation is somewhat tenuous now, and although it has shown a willingness to throw money down ratholes (cf. Venezuela) it is doubtful that it will stump up the tens of billions of dollars necessary to rescue Turkey from the brink, especially in the very limited time–maybe even hours–available.

And all of these candidates will no doubt think twice, and then think again, based on uncertainty of how Trump would react to their riding to the rescue of his current target.

Nope.  Erdo is on his own here.  And that’s the irony of all this.  Erdoğan asked for supreme power in Turkey.  He got it.  Now he owns all of it: the bad as well as the good.  As the old adage says, Erdo: Be careful what you ask for.  You might get it.

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