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While Turkey suffers through a currency crisis, authoritarian President Erdogan is expanding his aggressive militaristic foreign policy in Syria and beyond. TRNN’s Ben Norton speaks with political analyst Ekrem Ekici, co-editor of Rupture Magazine

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News. I’m Ben Norton.

As Turkey is being rocked by a political and economic crisis at home, it is also expanding its aggressive and militaristic foreign policy abroad. Today we are joined by Ekrem Ekici, an independent researcher and political analyst, and co-editor of the new online magazine Rupture. We recently interviewed Ekrem here at The Real News to discuss Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attempts to consolidate power and the surprise snap elections he called for on June 24. We also addressed the currency crisis in Turkey, and the economic crisis that is potentially looming.

Well, today we are going to discuss Turkey’s foreign policy. Turkey is a key member of NATO, and an ally of the United States. But in the past few years it has also moved closer to Russia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while amassing power and cracking down on dissent at home, has used conflicts abroad to help stoke nationalist fervor. Erdogan spent years supporting Islamist insurgents inside Syria to try to overthrow the Syrian government. And Turkey has also directly invaded Syria, and is taking over large swathes in the north of the country. So today we will be dissecting Erdogan’s foreign policy. Thanks for joining us, Ekrem.

So let’s begin here, let’s look at Erdoğan’s rhetoric. I’m interested, in the past several years, as Erdogan has further consolidated power and rewritten the constitution, changed the form of government to give himself even more power, he’s using neo-Ottoman rhetoric. So do you think that, that Erdogan has goals of expansionism, and potentially trying to revive elements of the Ottoman Empire?

EKREM EKICI: This is rather an ideological instrument, which is designed for the, for the domestic politics of AKP. Because AKP wants to instrumentalize and use the sentiments amongst the, the nationalist tendency in Turkey, with the rhetoric of neo-Ottomanism. And this, this ideology was instrumentalized especially during the conflict in Syria since 2011. And of course, this ideology allows AKP to justify their campaigns and intervention outside the borders of Turkey, like we have witnessed, one of which we’re witnessing late this year in January, and the military campaign in the Afrin region of northern Syria, which is a Kurdish-populated area.

So the debates about neo-Ottomanism and the AKP’s use of these ideological categories has two dimensions. One is, one is related to the international politics, of course, and the other is consolidating the support of the banks.

BEN NORTON: Yeah, and then talk more about that. I mean, we’ve heard a long history of what people call diversionary foreign policy, or diversionary wars; that wars abroad are not just fought for international reasons, but also domestic ones, and that wars abroad are just as much domestic as they are foreign.

EKREM EKICI: Exactly. That’s, we can also, as I said earlier, we can also, we can also look at the military campaign in Afrin against the, against the Kurdish population, the Kurdish resistance, is one of the best examples of this fact, because Turkey starts the propaganda for this campaign at the international level that it has the right to, for self defense and securing its borders. It was welcomed by NATO and European Union, and for the most part of the, of the active actors in the territory in the region. For example, NATO released a statement about this saying that Turkey is the only NATO member which has an active insurgency within its borders. And for that matter, it has the full right of securing its borders against the threats of growing supported sentiments by the Kurds within Turkey. So, as you said, all the, this war was fought by, both at home and also outside the borders.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And let’s talk more about Turkey’s role in Syria. We first saw, going back early on into the war, that Erdogan has been supporting Islamist insurgents inside Syria, including ISIS. I mean, this is pretty well documented at this point. I interviewed Ahmad Yalea, who is a former counterterrorism official in the Turkish National Police. He has said very clearly that Erdogan and the federal government were supporting ISIS. Also Jabhat al-Nusra, and other groups. And then in August of 2016 Turkey invaded northern Syria, ostensibly in order to fight ISIS, but mostly to beat back Kurdish groups from the People’s Protection Units, that’s the YPG. And then as you mentioned, in January of this year, 2018, Turkey launched another military assault targeting northern Syria, primarily on the city of Afrin. Can you talk about Turkey’s role in northern Syria and what you think its goals are? Turkey claims, Erdogan claims, that they’re interested in fighting ISIS and securing their borders. But what do you think Turkey’s real political and economic goals are?

EKREM EKICI: Turkey’s real political and economics economic goals are actually evolving based on what’s going on on the field, because the, the civil war in Syria changed the form, changes form after Russia intervened in October 2015, which means Russia openly showed that it’s the, it’s protecting the Syrian regime, and also is protecting the integrity of, of the country. So Russia invested a lot in the Syrian conflict, and they, they took side with the Syrian government. And this changed the picture, the landscape significantly, because Turkey is not a country, AKP, the government wouldn’t want an open conflict, a direct conflict with Russia. At the same time, Turkey is a major ally and NATO has its own agenda and procedures in Syria.

So this calls Turkey to [inaudible] change its position and make it more flexible on the ground. However, before Russia intervened, of course Turkey’s main goal was to, was to overthrow the Syrian governments by any means, and establish a control through the Islamist organizations and groups. For example, you can also see, you can also see the, during the operation in Afrin, Turkey’s land forces were mainly the so-called Free Syrian Army members. And they were the ones in the, plundering the town, and also attacking the civilians.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And we’ve seen photos and video of so-called Free Syrian Army fighters embedded in the Turkish army burning down and looting Kurdish homes. And in fact, the United Nations reported that two thirds, about 200000 of the population of Afrin, which was almost entirely Kurdish, fled, and many of those homes have been repopulated by Syrian rebels. Also Syrian refugees. There’s clearly a policy of Arabization. So can you talk specifically about what Erdogan is doing in northern Syria in towns like Afrin, but also al-Bab and Jarabulus, where clearly Turkey is controlling these areas. Even in Idlib. Turkey is appointing government officials, mayors, and has a policy of Arabization.

EKREM EKICI: That’s right. As you said, according to the official reports, around 167000 people were displaced during the operation, the two-month operation in Afrin region, and 300-500 civilians were reported to be killed. So after the takeover of the city, as you said, the region was repopulated. And there was, there was an Arabization process taking place. That’s true. And Erdogan is, by this, Erdogan is trying to show force [inaudible] Turkey is still a, a, how to say, game setter in this region. However, this operation, this campaign was, was conducted under under the supervision of NATO and Russia itself. So for example, Russia opened airspace for the Turkish airforce to conduct operations over there. And NATO openly stated that Turkey has the right to, to protect its borders, because there is already an ongoing, ongoing insurgency.

These Kurds in the region were left alone by all the major actors in the region. So Erdogan used this for his advantage, and he even explained that this will not stop in Afrin, and this will, this will, this will continue towards the [inaudible]. However, Turkey faced the direct response of the United States over this, so the United States openly, openly stated that if there was a provocation against U.S. forces in the region, which is, which we’re talking about Manbij region, it will, it will be responded very fiercely. So Turkey had to stop them.

What I’m trying to say is whatever operation Erdogan conducts, or AKP government, or Turkish armed forces conduct in this region, it will be based on the approval of NATO and the major forces in the region, like Russia. So we cannot say the Afrin operation was conducted on, against the will of NATO, or against the will of Russia. On the contrary, this operation was controlled and monitored by those two powers.

BEN NORTON: That’s a great point. And not only did Russia allow Turkey to use the airspace it controls under the deconfliction agreement, also it’s true that Russia removed its military forces from around the areas near Afrin to prevent Russian casualties during the Turkish assault. So you’re absolutely right that it was both approved by NATO and Russia.

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Ben Norton is a producer and reporter for The Real News. His work focuses primarily on U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East, media criticism, and movements for economic and social justice. Ben Norton was previously a staff writer at Salon and AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.