Friday News & Propaganda: May 29 on the Road Edition

May 29, 2015

Greetings from Istanbul, Borderheads, I hope you're doing well. This has been a busy week for me, one involving travel and making plans for future escapades. But don't worry! I still haven't lost my connection to the mothership.  

Just let me put on my sunglasses so I can see what I'm doing

But more on my travels below. For now, I think it's worth indulging in a little taste of N & P...

Syrians in Turkey

Reading Cumhuriyet earlier this week I was reminded yet again of how serious the Syrian refugee situation is in Turkey these days. Here is a brief story (in Turkish) about the plight of a group of 40 refugees from Aleppo who had been living in a park in Bodrum for the past ten days. 

Bodrum is located in the south of Turkey and is a major tourist destination--I visited last year during my Anatolian Express tour. Apparently shopkeepers in Bodrum had complained about the refugees, arguing that their presence was bad for tourism. The Syrians were then sent to Söke, near the western Anatolian city of Aydın. 

I also read an opinion column on Turkey's Syrian refugees by Cumhuriyet columnist Mustafa Balbay. I've written a bit about the numbers before, but still was taken aback by some of the statistics he provided. Such as: 
* There are approximately 1.75 million Syrian refugees officially living in Turkey now. This is in a country with a population of around 80 million.
* Half of all Syrian refugees in the country are under the age of 18.
* 100,000 babies have been born to Syrian refugees living in Turkey.
* In Istanbul alone there are more than 330,000 Syrian refugees.
* In the south-central Anatolian city of Kilis, near the Syrian border, there are 86,000 Syrians. Kilis has a non-refugee population of 128,000.
I think it should be pretty obvious to anyone looking at these numbers that, no matter what happens in Syria, a large percentage of these refugees are in Turkey to stay. It would hardly be the first time that Turkey has found itself home to a large number of refugees from neighboring countries. Back when I lived in Istanbul in the 1990s, there were tens of thousands of Bosnian and Chechen refugees living in Turkey who had fled conflict in the Balkans and Caucasus. Just a few years prior to my arrival in 1992, more than three hundred thousand Muslims from Bulgaria had been pushed into Turkey. 

Bulgarian Turks arriving in Turkey in May of 1989

The theme of Muslim migration into the Ottoman Empire and today's Turkey constitutes one of the main components of my book--Turks Across Empires. Indeed, one of the arguments that I make in the book is that, to a generally unrecognized extent Turkey is an immigrant country. Starting with the massive influx of Tatars and Nogay Muslims into the Ottoman Empire after the (first) Russian annexation of the Crimea in 1783, successive waves of massive Muslim immigration took place in the Ottoman Empire, with most of the incoming populations coming from the Balkans and Russia. 

Of course, not all of this migration was unidirectional, and many people ended of traveling back and forth between their lands of origin and the Ottoman Empire during the course of their lives. In an article that I first published when I was in graduate school, I argued that human mobility between Russia and the Ottoman Empire was a lot more complicated than it has traditionally been viewed. Whereas historians have typically seen Muslim migration from Russia in terms of one-way travel, Muslims in fact often maintained contact with their lands of origin, traveling back and forth between the two empires and making the most of the de facto dual subjecthood that their circumstances afforded them. 

Muslim refugees fleeing Balkans, 1912

It's estimated that about 5 million Muslims came to the Ottoman Empire between 1783 and 1908. In 1914, there were approximately 14 million Muslims in the entire empire--which consisted of not only today's Turkey, but also much of the Arab Middle East. Especially when you consider the fact that most incoming Muslims were settled in what is today Turkey, it seems pretty clear that most people who self-identify today as "Turks" can probably trace at least some of their family roots back to the Balkans and Russia. 

Many of these incoming refugees were ethnically "Turkish," or at least "Turkic" such as in the case of Crimean Tatars and other groups speaking languages related to Turkish. Many other refugees, however, were Muslims who descended from non-Turks (such as Greeks, Bulgarians, or Serbs) who had converted to Islam at some point during the course of more than 400 years of Ottoman rule in the Balkans. Many Muslims coming from the northern Caucasus, meanwhile (such as Chechens and Circassians) are similarly not ethnically Turkish.
The northern Caucasus today

This was, I think, a major impetus behind Mustafa Kemal's embrace of Turkish nationalism in the 1920s, when everyone who was Muslim in the new country became instantly re-branded as "Turks," whether they liked it or not. In the 1930s, the new government slogan "Ne mutlu Türküm Diyene" ("How happy to call oneself a Turk") appeared to acknowledge this. Just call yourself a Turk, the state seemed to be saying, and we won't give you any more reasons to be unhappy. 

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that, if past migrations of Muslims into Turkey is any indication, some of the Syrians will eventually go back home. Many others, however, will end up staying in Turkey and, eventually, becoming "Turks" in the way reminiscent of Muslim Slavs, Greeks, Chechens, and other non-ethnic Turks who made their way to Anatolia seeking shelter. 

Today the slogan is seen mainly in the southeast


In the meantime, however, the sheer size of the Syrian presence in Turkey suggests that the assimilation of these mainly non-Turkic refugees (there are some Turkmen populations in both Syria and Iraq who speak a language related to Turkish) will be a very difficult task, one that may never really be accomplished. 

Syrian Endgame?  

Correspondents and pundits have been predicting the end of the Assad regime for years now, but perhaps there's something more to it this time. According to this piece which ran earlier this week in the Guardian, rebels have been able to rout the Syrian Army in recent weeks thanks to an uptick in support from Saudi Arabia and Turkey. 

From the piece:
One evening at the end of March, a Syrian rebel leader returned from a meeting across the border in Turkey and called an urgent gathering of his commanders. The five men turned up at their boss’s house in Idlib province expecting to receive the same pleas for patience that they had always heard and more grim news about cash and weapons being hard to find. This time, though, they were in for a shock.
“He arrived looking eager,” said one of the commanders. “That caught our attention straight away. But when he started to speak, we were all stunned.”
The leader, who asked that his unit not be identified, said he told his men that the grinding war of attrition they had fought against the Syrian government since early 2012 was about to turn in their favour.
“And the reason for that was that I could now get nearly all the weapons I wanted,” he told the Observer. “For the first time they were not holding anything from us – except anti-aircraft missiles. The Turks and their friends wanted this over with.”
I'll bet they do. And according to some reports, the government of Turkey is doing a lot more than just train rebels alongside the Americans. Here's what a recent McClatchy story sez:   
Governments throughout the Middle East and well beyond look with suspicion on Turkey’s role in the war against the Islamic State.
“Turkey’s policy is either a double or triple game,” a senior official in Jerusalem said recently, speaking, like most officials in this story, on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive diplomatic and intelligence matters involved.
“Turkey’s connections with terrorism need to be investigated,” a senior Egyptian official in Cairo said.
And in Amman, the capital of Jordan, a former top Jordanian intelligence official was more direct. “They are collaborating with Daash, but they just don’t say it,” he said of Turkey, referring to the Islamic State by its pejorative Arabic acronym.

Read more here:
Ouch! Meanwhile, in this report, a distinction is made between Turkish efforts to control the border with parts of Syria controlled by ISIS, as opposed to the stronger effort that is being made to prevent weapons smuggling into Kurdish-held regions of Syria. 
The low-key Turkish security presence in Akcakale stands in marked contrast to other parts of Turkey’s 501-mile border with Syria. About 130 miles to the west, the border gate at Kilis, opposite mainly FSA units, has been closed officially since the end of March, although humanitarian aid is allowed through. Turkish border guards recently fired on Syrian refugees trying to flee into Turkey illegally through a smuggler’s tunnel near Kilis, according to a Syrian journalist who was also attempting the illegal crossing. 
At Suruc, the mainly Kurdish border town adjacent to Kobani, the Turkish security presence remains high, with paramilitary gendarmes well supported by armored vehicles patrolling the streets.
But here at Akcakale, there is no serious military presence, there are no checkpoints as you enter town on the road from Urfa, the Turkish city half-an-hour’s drive away that many foreign recruits have passed through on their way to join the jihadis.
Meanwhile, an important factor in the Islamic State's recent successes appears to have had a lot to do with the fact that the Islamic State has been training its fire on the Syrian Army for now, mainly because they continue to lose against Kurdish forces in the north of Syria

This makes sense to me. As I've mentioned elsewhere, it seems pretty clear that the most effective forces fighting ISIS are the Kurdish and Shiite forces--and emphatically not the state-run forces of Syria and Iraq. I've kind of been assuming, then, that the Obama administration would work more closely with Iran and the Kurds--sub-contracting the fight against ISIS to Kurdish and Shiite militias in the region. Americans might not like the idea of Iran gaining influence in the region, but it's too late now to be concerned about that now. If anyone has any complaints to make about this, they should talk to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld, as these were the three individuals most responsible for making this happen in the first place. 

It seems pretty clear that, not only in Syria and Iraq but in Yemen now as well, Iran is facing off against both Saudi Arabia and Turkey in a series of proxy wars. Somehow, the United States has ended up supporting the Saudi/Turkish side of this conflict, meaning that US forces and funds are now being directed toward raising an Army to help overthrow Assad. The idea, of course, is that the US is actually training so-called "moderate rebels" who will fight principally against the Islamic State. But Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu is making absolutely no pretense about the fact that the forces will also be used against Assad

It's a rather odd situation. The US is working with Turkey, whose government is easily one of the most eager in the region to get rid of Assad. The US-Turkish trained forces, meanwhile, are going to end up being used against the Assad regime, which I think would most definitely be good news to supporters of ISIS. 

Feeling Bearish in Bozeman

Okay, I've had enough with this--let's move on to a lighter topic: bears! A few hours after arriving in Istanbul on Sunday I received a link from a friend about a story taking place right in my neighborhood. From the Bozeman Daily Tattler
A juvenile black bear added some excitement to a damp afternoon in central Bozeman on Saturday, scampering across several blocks and raiding multiple bird feeders, attracting attention from an array of bystanders and law enforcement officers. As of deadline, it remained at large.
The bear was initially reported in the family/graduate housing section the Montana State University campus but then spent several hours moving through neighborhoods between College and Main streets.
Who says nothing exciting ever happens in Bozeman?

We actually get bears all the time in Bozeman, especially in the spring and fall, and the bear sightings in town inevitably find their way into the police reports that are published in the local newspaper. In this case, it sounds like the bear was in my neighborhood at around the time that I was loading up the car to head to the airport on Saturday morning. It's a good thing I wasn't wearing my salmon sportcoat at the time. 

Anyway, I never thought I'd say this but I'm starting to feel kind of glad that I live in a place where all I have to worry about are the bears roaming the streets. 

On the Road

Speaking of excitement, this has been a cool week for me in many ways. First of all, I need to say that the past month or so since school got out has been really fun--I got a lot done in Bozeman once school got out. Nevertheless, I've been really looking forward to taking this trip. 

On Saturday I flew out of Bozeman--apparently with a narrow escape from being viciously torn to shreds by a blood-thirsty baby bear--and stopped first in Minneapolis, where my older brother lives. In many ways, my brother was, at least as far as my life has been concerned, the original Turk across empires. It was my brother, after all, who first got me interested in teaching English as a second language long before I moved to Turkey in 1992. He had taught English for years in Hong Kong in the 1980s and 90s, and wrote a book about his travels in China and Tibet. He had a huge influence on me and, back when I was thinking of looking for work as an English teacher in eastern Europe when I was finishing up college, it was my brother who first suggested that I check out Istanbul. 

After spending the day in the Twin Cities with my bro, I went back to the airport and flew to Paris, and from there, Istanbul. I finally got into town late in the afternoon on Sunday. It's been a good week in the City of the Sultans but busy, of course. I've been meeting up with friends, planning my upcoming travels, and--bien sûr!--reading archival documents on my computer. I've also taken a few photos--mostly the sort of shots that I always post when I'm in Istanbul, but I'll put them up here anyway. 

The rest of my photos can be found in an album I've set up in the Borderlands Lounge. 

Moving On

And now I need to get ready for my next stop. Before I do, however, why not listen to a bit of Erkin Koray to get the old heart pumping, eh?

I may be feeling a little şaşkın, but I'm still ready to travel

I love the zurna solo with which this song begins--it always gets me moving. And moving is what I'll be doing again soon, but I'll write more about that later.

109 libraries can't be wrong! Ask yours to order a copy of Turks Across Empires at the OUP website or from Amazon

More links, commentary and photographs available, mint mindig, at the Borderlands Lounge.   


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