“Millions of Kurds are not scapegoat for Erdoğan’s ambitions”

Tsukerman said: “Erdogan dehumanizes millions of Kurds and claims that they are a "bogeyman" that threatens Turkey ... and the Turkish regime takes the Jewish community as a hostage ... and occupies Arab lands while criticizing the French colonial past."

American lawyer and analyst Irina Tsukerman, who specializes in national security affairs, said that the regime of Turkish President Erdogan is using hate speech against Kurds, Arabs, Jews and European powers such as France to justify its aggressive policy.

Tsukerman explained the nature of the expansionist policy pursued by the Turkish president to keep society under his control and suppression, including keeping society divided and promoting hate speech at home and abroad, especially against millions of Kurds inside and outside Turkey, where a folk of millions of people who have lived on their lands for centuries is depicted as a "bogeyman" that threatens Turkey's security, in order to use them as a scapegoat to mobilize support for his extremist agenda.

The American scholar said that the current US administration is betting on the success of the security, naval and military alliances emerging in the region in placing a strict response to the Turkish aggressive policy, ruling out a fundamental shift in US policy that leads to a comprehensive confrontation with the Erdogan regime unless Trump achieves tangible successes against Iran first if he wins a second term. Regarding the continuing pressure against Iran first, she explained that the ball is now in the court of the forces facing Turkey and affected by its politics, especially the European Union and the Arab countries, considering that the threat of the American candidate Biden to topple Erdogan lacks credibility in light of the traditional support of the Democrats for Ankara.

ANF’s Cairo office ​​conducted an exclusive interview with Irina Tsukerman, an American lawyer and analyst based in New York. She has written extensively about foreign policy and security issues for a variety of local and international think tanks. Her writings have been translated into Arabic, Farsi, Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, and Indonesian.

Your latest article “From Tripoli to Tripoli, Turkey’s Real Aim Is Egypt” dealt with many and complex aspects of the Turkish policy and the Ankara’s wider and provocative agenda... But what about the dimensions related to the religious and nationalist discourse “Hagia Sophia” for example... and Turkey's support for the Brotherhood and the “political Islam” in the region?

Appeal to Islamists through populist demagoguery is certainly part of the tactics Endogan utilizes to achieve his objectives. There is no doubt that his outreach for support to Islamists and Brotherhood is real, concrete, and rooted in common goals, and shared views. At the same time, when he first came to power Erdogan stayed away from extremist rhetoric and sought to portray himself as a moderate.  There is an argument to be made whether he would have ever gone as far as he has by now if the economy has not tanked and if AKP has not started losing popularity and he had some other strategic way to recover from the morass.

There is also a question whether Turkey would have been restrained from such blatant promotion of Islamists around the world if it had been accepted into the European Union. Based on Erdogan's actions it seems that sooner or later he would have employed such methods out of necessity if not out of ideological inclination because no party can stay in power forever without taking hits and experiencing economic and political challenges, and the political landscape in Turkey has always been complex. 

But Erdogan is above all else is a politician. We see that from the way he came to power promising Kurds who had been alienated by Kemalists & ultranationalists the support for Kurdistan and how quickly he turned on them some years later when he needed a scapegoat and to unite people around AKP and against some issue that would explain the troubles the country had been undergoing. Let's remember also that Erdogan has been personally corrupt from the start, which is at least part of the mismanagement that led to internal problems, and which also explains why Turkey and Iran had been working early on to circumvent sanctions.

Given Erdogan's willingness to hold off on taking such drastic measures as the Hagia Sophia move to please his supporters until such time when there is a dire need to gain popular support rapidly, it is quite clear that he is a manipulator and a pragmatist long before being an ideologue, but that he is perfectly willing to use real ideologues to stay in power and to promote and support his overall agenda.

Let's ask ourselves how he manages to keep these Islamists satisfied with these populist moves, go on rants about invading Jerusalem, while maintaining uninterrupted diplomatic relations with Israel and having trade relations with Israel at an all times high!

How does Turkey currently employ hate speech against the Kurds, Arabs, Jews and France, as we recently heard from the Turkish foreign minister about the French colonial past, for example?

Regarding hate speech: once again, let's note when he first came to power Erdogan, had sought to portray himself as pluralistic and open minded - your friendly moderate Islamist who just wants Muslims to be able to wear hijabs openly in public and not be harassed etc. The use of open xenophobia was a strategic choice that came from the top alongside other measures meant to divide and separate the society. The most important issue concerning the Kurds has been equating the entire 20 million population living in Turkey alone (and their counterparts in Syria) with the PKK. This has been a rhetorical device used not only to whip up anti-Kurdish sentiments on the Turkish street (and let's remember that many are intermarried or come from mixed backgrounds!)  But to promote Turkey's geopolitical agenda through Western lobbies. So he dehumanized millions of people equating them with a "boogeyman" of an organization listed as terrorist in part due to the past activities it has renounced and in part due to political pressure from Turkey itself, which makes it a self-perpetuating self-referential cycle.

Of course, constant agitation created a backlash which caused more people to seek parties and organizations that would protect their rights against Erdogan, which gave Erdogan more ammunition etc. This sort of strategy however was also employed against Jews; the Jewish community in Turkey is essentially held hostage. If they leave, they will lose all their property, therefore they cannot criticize Erdogan's policies or excuse the comments that are being regularly made at universities, in the media, etc. The media has become an agent of spreading Jew hatred and stereotypes, and the Jewish community is being held responsible for Israeli-Palestinian issues, and being Jewish is being equated with being a "foreigner" or "cosmopolitan" (similar to what is being done even to Kurds who've lived in Turkey since centuries ago and were part and parcel of the Ottoman empire), but also "Zionist" in reference to political support for the existence of Israel as a Jewish state and historical home of the Jews, but this is being of course portrayed in derogatory way not as a fact of a historical movement which eventually led to the creation of the state, but as an inherently anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, "European Colonialist" ideology.

Ironically, Turkey's own empire-building agenda is not being sold as colonialist or imperialist nor detrimental to the rights of the Arab or other residents of the territories Turkey is now coopting or invading.  Similarly with the French, there is the same idea - Turkey is selling the image of the French as a neo-colonial country which stands in the way of Turkey's "protection" of its "brethren" with Ottoman roots in Libya, Lebanon, and other places. This is somewhat bizarre because at the very least France and Turkey have competing claims and French claims are more recent than Turkey's, and the French are not sending in forces to invade their spheres of influence nor are they backing terrorist groups and funding any extremist ideology.

Of course, where they can they try to develop relationships that will be pro-French but they are not doing so through blatantly illegal activities, acts of aggression, and so forth. It's interesting that there is no logical explanation for why the "French colonial past" is any more exploitative and illegitimate than the Ottoman imperial past!

But this concept that "they" are "foreigners" and "we" are the benevolent beneficiaries of humanity is what makes all such rhetoric successful. It's always being sold as a defense measure against "hostile foreign influences" seeking to undermine Turkish businesses, culture, and political standing, even if the local Kurdish and Jewish residents have been living in the area for hundreds of years and are fully integrated with the state, and even if Turkey's loss in economic or political standing is due to corruption and its own disputes with neighboring countries rather than some internal conspiracies by specific ethnicities!

Erdogan is appealing to conspiratorial mindsets, victim mentality, and cultural biases coupled with economic recession to create the atmosphere present in all totalitarian and authoritarian states that have ever embarked on mass atrocity or extermination policies against particular groups while also pressing outwards in search of resources, land, and glory instead of dealing with internal issues and gaining strength through competent economic policies and effective trade relations.

Austria announced that Turkish intelligence activities against some Kurdish opponents and opposition activists in the country revealed a network of agents for Turkey in Europe.. How do you see those destabilizing activities on the European continent, especially as it mostly targets Turkish opponents in those countries?

Austria is not the only such country. Similar strategy has been previously been revealed by Germany, and also by the United States. Turkey has accomplished these activities through networks of expatriates, mosques filled with agents and imams acting as agents of influence and spies, cultural centers, and even gas station workers in areas with high number of community members from Turkey or Syria of Kurdish descent, not to mention restaurants, coffee places, and other attractive gathering spots where they can identify and target political opposition including Kurds and accused Guillen followers.

They have also infiltrated all of Europe with a movement of "Grey Wolves" which are more closely associated with the ultra-nationalists but perform the same function and largely align with the MIT and Erdogan's agenda on this issue. Another way is through well-funded Turkish gangs who become embedded in European organized crime networks, but also work with Iranian intelligence and local crime gangs, in part to fund other activities and in part in terms of gathering intelligence, instituting active measures, and intimidating opponents and silencing European descent.

Needless to say none of that constitutes legitimate intelligence gathering activity aimed to identify and prevent security threats to the Turkish citizens.

This is aggressive and illegal espionage; it puts European citizens of all backgrounds at risk, and feeds on European bigotry and the fact that some parties in European countries and many people don't see Kurds or Turkish oppositions as "European" and are willing to overlook these activities so long as their own private interests and security is not at risk.

Turks have been more careful than Iranians to that effect; rather than staging mass terrorist attacks, they do more specific targeting of the at-risk communities to avoid scrutiny and excessive response from the Europeans on a political level.

So although there are reports circulating about Turkish gang and intelligence activities and the mosque, the Europeans have only paid lip service to addressing these issues.

Do you think that there is an American bet on a change in Turkey? Or do you expect some transformations that may limit Turkish expansionist agenda and aggression practiced by Erdogan in the entire region?

There's been some evidence of a more critical approach by the Trump administration towards Turkey, evidenced by the partial lifting of the Cyprus embargo and a reprimand of Turkey for hosting Hamas leaders recently. The administration is showing that its red line in this sense is European maritime security and anything that can jeopardize US freedom of navigation or put its allies at direct risk of confrontation.  Nevertheless, most of these signals for now are mixed, because simultaneously to issuing a statement on Hamas, the administration sent a very pro-Turkish delegation of officials to Turkey, which signals that they are not yet at a stage where they are ready to reorient the foreign policy.

In other words, is the policy of President Trump, who recently boosted his chances of winning a second term, will encourage the Turkish president to continue his interventions, especially in arenas in which the United States had a strong presence, such as northern Syria and northern Iraq ... where the Kurdish "allies" are under Turkish invasion and daily strikes?

In fact, the record on Turkey has been mixed as initially with Iran, where the administration was willing to respond to specific and direct threats and red lines (with Iran - targeting of US forces, with Turkey, the purchase of the Russian S400) but prefers not to shift entire policy and to use the minimal possible reorientation to avoid conflicts, even diplomatic ones. Now US is also 2-month away from elections, so at this point in time no administration likes to take particular drastic action on any long term issue and focuses its energies on campaigns and addressing immediate security problem.

It is possible that the embargo lift may signal a tougher stand on Turkey after the election. It is hard to say right now because there has been no shift at all on Libya or other major issues and only some rather mixed and mild statements on Turkey's aggression in general. It's also important to remember that the administration has been focusing its energy on putting through snapback sanctions on Iran. It remains to be seen whether it is successful; if that is accomplished sooner rather than later, this may signal a shift towards other foreign policy priorities such as dealing with Turkey, otherwise it's possible that the administration simply sees Iran as a more direct threat and will not deal with anything else until it feels it has done "sufficiently" on that front.

However, it is true that there is increasing pressure on the White House with respect to these issues; NATO is essentially falling apart, and while the administration has optimistically put in a lot of time into developing a strategic alliance with Israel and UAE against Iran, in reality there is not yet a cohesive and effective substitute to NATO on major geopolitical issues. Egypt, Russia, France and other shave formed maritime groups to counter Turkish activity, however, there is no evidence so far that anything done in the East-Med by Europeans and their allies has been in any way an effective deterrent against Turkey, if anything Turkey took it as a red flag to continue escalating and being provocative.  Part of the reason is that it's counting on the US to step in in the event of a major conflict. US position is to try to let others handle as much as possible at the moment; however, if it becomes evident that these new emerging alliances simply cannot handle Turkey's rise, US is more likely to step in.

What about Biden and his strong rhetoric against the Turkish regime?

Biden has given tough talk on Turkey, but he is not credible on this issue. He has been in Washington for 47 years, during which time Turkish lobbyists have become entrenched on both sides of the aisle; Democrats have shown zero effort to contain Turkey at any point in the past decades; Obama, in fact, welcomed Erdogan and also had made Turkey's entry to Syria possible, and many of the current policies are continuation of what started under Obama during the Arab Spring in Libya and elsewhere. Therefore, Biden for sure cannot be counted on to drastically change course on Turkey.

What do you expect for Trump's second term to confront Turkey's behavior?

If Trump does it, it will be gradual and it's quite possible that Turkey may yield on some issues under some pressure in order to bide time. Until the administration casts aside Turkey oriented advisers a complete change of course is fairly unlikely; alternatively if there is a third party involvement of some sort and some "deal" to be made emerges that can effectively constrain Turkey's advance and resolve ongoing issues politically without requiring a great deal of American investment that may also change things.

For instance, if the Israeli integration into the Arab defense groups continues, and especially if Saudi Arabia joins on the one hand, and Egypt formalizes its involvement with these defense activities on the other hand, that bloc can play an additional role on constraining Turkey in various ways. We can see some signs of policy shift on Yemen, for instance, where Turkey has been a growing presence, with the recent Saudi reshuffle of the Coalition leaders and signals that the Turkey backed Islamists will be pushed out and constrained.

The problem is that the European states are heavily dependent on Turkey's counterpart Qatar and also concerned about the new migrant crises Erdogan threatens to unleash from Syria. They may try to come to some understanding with Russia, but that creates its own set of problems.

So far there is no magic bullet solution simply because Turkey has managed to spread soft power in so many places and is also acting in concert with Qatar and Iran on many issues, and more clandestinely with Russia on others. IT will be very hard to disentangle, and will require a great deal of multilateral coordination and cooperation which is not yet in place, and there are various conflicts of interests in the existing alliances, such as the Egypt-France-Russia bloc.

I think several things need to happen: some external factor that will intervene with the US political course and at least gives an opening to some limited tougher action on Turkey, the growth of the Israel-UAE bloc to include other members (but only those that aren't already deeply entangled with Turkey and will be ready to lend full cooperation), and more European members being recruited to offset some of those who have already been coopted or have some conflicts of interests regarding Turkey.

Ultimately, I think various private parties and entities will come to play a much more significant role in foreign policy and anti-Turkish efforts in the next few years.

For now, President Trump is sending very mixed if not to say tacitly encouraging signals to Erdogan, but it will be up to all these allies to provide a more concerted political, not just military response, to the proliferation of Turkish and Qatari lobbyists in Washington.

I think thus far it has been an issue of overwhelming noise on the one side and silence on the other. Plus, count in the fact that the administration is angry with France, Germany, and other concerned European partners over Iran, and essentially sees Iranian and Turkish activities in Europe as distinction without a difference.

Europeans have been trying to have their cake and eat it too in that regard - expecting US help where they are threatened but continuing to deal with the same actors on issues that are to their advantage. Until Europe starts sanctioning these actors and taking tougher more consistent action, they can hardly count on the US to take their concerns seriously.