Fisk interview with BirGün: 'The greatest mistake was to allow Turkey to become like Pakistan'

BİRGÜN DAİLY 26.07.2016 13:04
Fisk interview with BirGün: 'The greatest mistake was to allow Turkey to become like Pakistan'
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BURAK ABATAY / @abatayburak

Prominent expert on Middle East, Robert Fisk had previously had an article published in the Independent on July 16, with the title of ‘Turkey's coup may have failed – but history shows it won’t be long before another one succeeds’, which we had also published a translated Turkish version of it in our paper.

A week after the failed coup attempt of July 15 in Turkey, as BirGün, we talked to Dr. Fisk about this attempt, as well as, other pressing topics –such as Turkey’s foreign relations, the Kurdish question, comparison of Turkey and Pakistan, and more - regarding the country and its surroundings.


Turkey has just faced aterrible coup attempt. As in many instances of this sort, there have again been speculations and conspiracy theories thrown in with regards to the possible involvement of a foreign plotter. What would you say about that?

Actually, I always have a problem when one discusses the plot. In Arabic, it’s ‘al-muammara’, I don’t know what it is in Turkish but I suspect it’s similar. The plot, the conspiracy, the ‘la com-plot’ in French... You know, I have learned in the Arab world, always when I interview someone, to have another chair in which sits ‘the plot’, if you understand me. We, westerners, are very cynical about the plot but we shouldn’t be cynical, because, if you look back, the Americans and the British intelligence services were involved in the successful plot to get rid of Mosaddegh in Iran. Iran in history is replete with plots that turned out to be real, not imaginary. So, you can never rule out the idea that foreigners are involved in the international affairs of the Middle Eastern states; and, that includes Turkey.

One can go back and look at the events that overwhelmed, or almost overwhelmed Turkey, at the weekend, after Friday...Yes, it took the Americans a bit of a long time to support the Erdoğan government, ‘the democratically-elected government of Turkey’. In another word, they did not come out the minute they heard that tanks were on the streets. They waited to see what the outcome might be, before they gave their point of view. Did this mean that the Americans perhaps wanted to find out whether the coup will be successful before they supported Erdoğan? Well, that might be the case. Does that mean they were behind the coup or knew it was coming? Probably, not!

If you look back at various events that have occurred in the Arab world, the Americans have almost always been wrongfootted. They didn’t get or learn in time or understand the Arab forces building up against the dictators; against Bin Ali in Tunisia, against Mubarak in Egypt, against Gaddafi in Libya. They really, despite all their intelligence services, and all their embassies, and all their experts, simply did not see it coming. So, the idea that the Americans have predicted or been involved in the coup in any way, which is I think the background of your question...The answer is ‘quite possibly not’! Now, you can say, ‘well İncirlik, which is where Americans are based in there in hundreds; surely, some of them realized. Surely, some of them talked to their Turkish colleagues there and realized something was coming...’ Well, maybe! But on the other hand, we all knew that elements within the military in Turkey were already unhappy with the part that Erdoğan was taking. There was nothing new in that...

My overall feeling is that very often events occur for very simple, straight forward reasons. Erdoğan has been leading Turkey into very dangerous paths for quite a long time. I think, it started in 2011 when he suddenly assumed that mentally the Ottoman Empire was going to be recreated.

I've written many times but I've never expected to see the Turkish flags flying over Gaza, or being waved by Egyptians..But sure enough, it was..Because Erdoğan was quick enough and smart enough to spot the real, initial significance of the 2011 revolutions. And, he was very intelligent in spotting that. Others did not, including the Americans, and the Europeans, and so on. Erdoğan was much quicker in seeing what this represented. Unfortunately, his swiftness of mind, his acute political sensibilities let him down. But as I said in my article, the one that you read, I think the greatest mistake was to allow Turkey become like Pakistan in the 1980's... Allowing involvement money, guns, and with illicit support for armed groups, trying to overthrow a regime... Once you do that, you will get unrest within the country, within the Islamist movements, within the military, within the intelligence services. That is exactly what happened in Pakistan, and, it's exactly what happened in Turkey; except, you also had the Kurdish question.

So, my understanding is, you’re referring to Turkey’s support of jihadists in southeastern and eastern Turkey and in Syria. Did this eventually cause Turkey to become like Pakistan?

You see, what happened in Pakistan is that the Americans wanted to use Pakistan as a staging post to arm and fund the resistance to Soviet occupation. In the same way, the Americans have used, as we know, Turkey - as a staging post for weapons and money going to armed groups in Syria. I'm not comparing the armed groups in Syria to the armed groups in Afghanistan; although, they are all ‘parallel’. I'm just saying that once you allow your country to be a camp for other major nations, in which they can use your country to funnel arms to their own armed groups in a neighboring country, you put your country in danger. And, the moment that Turkey permitted USA to use it in this way, Turkey was in danger. And, we've seen what happened. Just as Pakistan had bombs, you've had bombs. Just as Pakistan's government was effectively subverted by events, so has the government of Turkey. Just as the illicit use of smuggler trailers – like across the Turkey-Syrian border - to send in men, equipment, money was used by the Pakistanis, so, there became eruptions within the armed forces. The intelligence service of Pakistan became split between those who wanted some form of democratic government for Pakistan and those who supported the Islamists for various reasons. And, corruption became an endemic part of Pakistan society. It always was, but never to this degree. It's up to you to decide how deep corruption is in the Turkish state.

A moment earlier, you also mentioned the Kurdish movement. That topic is actually very important to us; there is still a lot we don't know. How do you think the Kurdish movement will be affected in the aftermath of the attempted coup?

I can only speak in very broad terms. You realize that I cover the Arab world rather than the Turkish world. Of course, I do go to Turkey quite often, at least twice a year. You see, I see the Kurdish question as a historical tragedy, ever since the Americans declined the League of Nations' mission to create state for the Kurds and the Armenians. We're talking about after the WWI, of course. The Armenians effectively lost any chance of a state at that time. And, the Kurds have in fact been born to be betrayed. They have constantly been betrayed by the British, by the Iraqis, by the Shah of Iran, by Henry Kissinger, and, will be betrayed again, I think. You know, Americans are supporting a version of PKK on the Syrian side of the Turkish border, YPG. And, always, when you go and talk to people, they have the natural undisguised feelings that one they there could be some sort of... I don't want to say state but I suppose that's what's in their minds. Kurdish nation exists in their mind anyways. But if you actually look at Kurdistan, - I'm talking about the geographical, linguistic boundaries of Kurdistan, not the national boundaries in between- we see already that Kurds themselves are divided, as they have always been; remember the Iraqi Kurds, when they lived in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, for example.

So, what of the future of Kurds in Turkey? Based on my own experience in European history: we suggest that where countries go out of their way to embrace their minorities and regard them as their closest friends, slowly but surely the nationalist question dims and becomes less important. But where your minorities will always be regarded as a threat and a danger and wanted to be despised and hated, that problem will always continue. Look at Ireland, which is, by chance, where I happen to be now, for three days... And, I can tell you that the exact same thing happened here in Ireland. It did not matter how small were the minority of Catholics in Northern Ireland... As long as the Northern Protestant majority treated the Catholics as people to be despised rather than people to be loved, the war went on. And, it went on decade after decade.

Do you want the same thing to happen with the Kurds in Turkey? There you go! How do you deal with PKK? How did the British deal with the provisional IRA, which is the nearest ‘parallel’ in Northern Ireland? Eventually, they actually had to talk to them. And, we know that there have been Turkey-PKK talks in the past. But again, you're placing this in the middle of muddling context. I saw what happened with the Turkish elections when suddenly the Kurds had a chance of a serious representation; and, then, we had the second election. We know why they were held. And, we saw the results of that. Is the smashing of Diyarbakır and the smashing of other cities and towns around it, is the deaths of Kurds and deaths of Turkish security forces worth it? What is it for? What's its purpose other than political? In that context, you can place this as a background as to what's happening now.

There must be many Turkish military officers who feel that the PKK is a danger to the body politic of Turkey but there must also be others who say 'well, I don't know why we're fighting the Kurds.' One of the interesting aspects, I think, of the current Turkish crisis is the vast ignorance of what the Turkish military actually think. I know it is not easy, especially in a middle eastern society and you are a middle eastern country, to get what they want: what the army thinks, let's put it that way. Yet, I've been going to Syria over and over again for five years and beginning to learn the Syrian army. There must be journalists or people in your country who know the way in which the military is shaped. I don't...but maybe, you know! By the way, I mean shaped politically. The idea that when generals sit down and have dinner together, they don't talk about politics is ridiculous. Of course, they do.

I guess, I've got to ask this question. Turkish media and the government see ISIL, PKK, and the Gülen organizations, all of these, as terrorists...

Before anything, I don't use the word terrorist in anything I write unless I put it in quotation marks. Because, the word 'terrorist' has totally been so debased that it has no meaning anymore. It's a generic word now. It has reached the point now where it has no meaning. Anyone is a terrorist if you don't like them or if you hate them or if they said something you don't like. On the internet, the social media as we call it,- though it is not social at all, it's extremely unsocial - everyone is a terrorist; everyone calls everyone else a terrorist... The word has no meaning now... The boundaries of terrorism are now being extended to any member of anyone's family who may have committed a violent act. Anyone you hate, any group you feel is involved in subversion of peace or otherwise violent become a terrorist. So, then, what's the point of using the word terrorist?...

I'm merely saying that the use of the word terrorist has become purposeless. The word terrorist no longer has any effect. Who began the word? I suppose we refer to the word terrorist to Czarist Russia using it for who set up bomb against the Czar. The Germans used to use the word 'terifliga'.... But at the moment, the Americans have led the way with the use of the word terrorist. And, since then, every democracy, every dictator, every brutal police state owner has used the word terrorist. Assad in Syria uses terrorist, Erdoğan uses terrorist, the Americans use terrorist, Putin uses terrorist, Bin Ladin used to use the word terrorist about the Americans. And, I always say 'can we please stop using the word terrorist and find a different word?’ But that's difficult because if you hate someone, there is only the word terrorist to use; and, that is become worthless. Part of the problem at the moment in the Middle East and the rest of the world is not the inability to identify the enemy, it's the inability to find the semantics to describe them...

My next question is should we think of it as a mere coincidence that the attempted coup took place one week after the relations with Russia and Israel started to normalize?

I obviously spotted the time sequence there and I simply don't know. It cannot be unconnected but don't ask me what the connection is, I don't know. From the start, I have not been able to understand how Erdoğan could make such apparently emotional breaks with relations between countries, and, then, suddenly realize that was a mistake. I mean, couldn't he have realized that Russia could simply switch off the majority of Turkey's tourist income if it chose to do so? And, it did do so! All you have to do is look at the beaches of Antakya; and, Erdoğan was starving his country of money, over a plane shutdown. And, why was that plane shutdown? That must be a talking point in Turkey within the Turkish military. If, for example, an American aircraft had flown a few meters to Turkish airspace, let's suppose, when it wasn't supposed to, -now, of course, they fly into İncirlik -, but let's suppose it did; would the Turks shut it down? No, they would not, would they? So, why did they shoot the Russian down? Now, suddenly, we're told 'oh, there's been these new relations with everybody, including Israel.' Fine but what was the whole Israeli-Turkish dispute about? Well, it was about Mavi Marmara, of course, we know that. Was there not a different way to approach of reestablishment of relations rather than couple it into with the reestablishment of relations with Russia, with Moscow? It happened at the same time, you would remember. Certainly, you were having new lead, a new Prime Minister, and everything was going to be changed like...

One of the problems, I think, west has with Turkey at the moment, is not per se the coup or the attempted coup. You know, we're used to reading modern Turkish history or the history of army coups in Turkey. It's the unpredictability of Turkey and its leadership that worries the west most. Quite apart, of course, from refugees, EU, and occupations, and so on. Two nights ago, I watched the chief EU negotiator in Turkey, raging on about terrorists and Gülenists and completely ignoring the fact that everything that he was saying was totally against what EU stands for… You could recognize him and you knew his name, and he was a different person, he was totally unpredictable… If you're in the west and you keep hearing very senior members of the Turkish administration talking about Gülenists, - of course, we know who Gülen is- it sounds very peculiar. People outside of Turkey, including the Arab world -where I've just come from- say, 'How could this man in Philadelphia possibly run a coup d’état in Turkey?’ But most people in the west don't know who Glen is, by the way. And, Gülen just sounds like an alien out of space. So, when Turks refer to Gülen, they need to think what they actually mean, because, to the outside world, it is incomprehensible. I know, of course, because I know the story. But an average European, who is well-educated about the history of the world, when they hear this, they shake their heads in disbelief.

What do you think of Gülen’s actual role?

I've always been interested when I go to the States, in finding the various Middle Eastern personalities who live there and who supposedly organize the history of the Middle East about 8 - 9 thousands miles away. And, I never got a chance trying to see Gülen... So, I really can't answer your question...

In your article published on July 16, which we’ve also read and also published in Turkish in our paper, you state that there would be another coup attempt.

What I was trying to do - what I always try to do- is to broaden the picture from today's news. I think, one of the sins of journalism, especially the technology of modern journalism, -social media, TV, etc.- is that everything happens in 24 hours... But you have to see things a little further than that. Remember, when I wrote that article, the total number of military arrests were not more than 600. Since I wrote the article, they've gone into thousands, which suggests that indeed the coup was much larger than I thought when I wrote the piece. So, when you quote it back to me now, it's rather more accurate than when I wrote it; that it was in a much bigger scale. When you've got this sort of problem, you have to assume and you must assume that we will never get to the bottom of it. There will always be another plotter somewhere around the corner who knew and was not found. Why else would you arrest so many civil servants, policemen, force academics, and people out of their jobs and tell civil servants that they can't go on holiday, so on, so forth? Obviously, the administration in Turkey feels there is more to come. Obviously, otherwise, they wouldn't have these arrests... The proof of the putting to you, - it's a horrible expression but it is the actions of the current Turkish government. Now, will it be successful in the future? Well, obviously, that's what the government fears. Otherwise, it would not be taking the current steps, would it? If the current government believed there were no danger of a future successful coup, they would be sitting back and saying 'everything is normal, tourists come back, no state of emergency, we don't ask to be relieved from the standards of European Human Rights Commission, everything is normal.' The mere act of the government proves that they are still fearful of a successful coup. You don't need to say 'Robert Fisk said it in an article'. Mr. Erdoğan proves it every second.

There are two ways of looking at this nowadays. Yes, the fear is emphasized but there are also arguments and assertions about the opportunistic aspect of these arrests and operations. How would you make the distinction of the motive?

Yes, I think, they are opportunistic. It is preposterous to think that the military coup must automatically be accompanied by a purge of the institutions of state. Is it a military coup or is it a political coup? Well, it's always been represented as a military coup but really that's not the view of the President of Turkey, is it?... One has to assume that Erdoğan on holiday did not suddenly sit down and draw thousands and thousands of names of people to be arrested. They were already on list, weren't they? I mean, even Superman couldn't do all that in such short period of time available. So, you have to have the common sense element to this. What the government is doing now had to be planned long in advance. Because, it's physically impossible to do it in the short period of time, between say the last 7 days. It's not possible. You know, no state, not even a super-technology state, can possibly implement all of those various restrictions, firings, and arrests which Turkey has implemented within the past 7 days, without it being having a considerable period of pre-planning. But I come back to it again, one of the things that surprised people in the west was the ‘robert-bumbling’ nature of the coup. The fact that social media was not shut down... Erdoğan was quick to use social media, to get on television, to get out the message to people to get out to the streets. It was immediate.

Blocking the Bosporus bridge was a very blundering 1940's 1950's way of staging a coup, wasn't it? Attacking the parliament and intelligence headquarters, and the newspapers. This is the sort of stuff that people did in 50's or 60's. Haven't anyone read any books since then? My amazement with it is, here you have a 600,000 strong army, a huge army; you're in NATO; you're a successful economic country. And, the best the military could do is block the Bosporus bridge? There was a certain blundering nature about it, which does suggest that it was not meant to succeed.

I will tell you that one of the problems today is, I think, because of social media, a lot of people think they are journalists, though they have different jobs. Everyone convinces themselves that there is a plot, that there are hidden figures,etc. History may prove them right. But I have been covering the Middle East for 40 years now, including Turkey, of course. And, I've come to the conclusion that while there are huge political movements which we may not be fully aware of, the sort of Hollywood type of plot tends to be a myth.

You know that people ran out to the streets in masses. What are your observations about that?

I haven't been in Turkey since the coup but they remind me very much of the crowds in Egypt, which urged the army to overthrow the democratically elected government of Mursi. The same phenomenon but vice a versa. They wanted the army to stage a coup in Egypt, whereas your people wanted to keep the army out. But again, you see, this obsession to blame the foreigners - the fact that foreign journalists have been pushed around in Taksim Square - is a very Arab phenomenon which I'm surprised to see in Turkey. The idea that foreigners are always behind the attempts to instabilize the state, whether or not it's true... At the end of the day, unstable countries usually have to fix their own countries, and, of course, once something goes wrong that dangers others, then, the outsiders will turn up to interfere. As they did in Lebanon, as they are in Syria, as they are in Iraq, and as they are financially in the Gulf, of course, and, as regards with in Egypt. Once you have a problem in the state, others will interfere.

One last very straight-forward question. Do you think the US will extradite Gülen?


That’s a straight answer. (Both laughing) But why not?

If you have such an important person, you keep them. You don't hand them over...

Transcripted/Translated/Edited by Burcu Gündoğan, BirGün Daily

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