1- You lived in Turkey for 30 years, what brought you there in the first place?
I first visited Turkey from over the Syrian border in 1980 and 1982, as a break from life in Aleppo and Damascus. Ironically, back then Turkey seemed a much poorer and less well-educated country than Syria. But after a few years of covering conflicts in the Middle East, Turkey seemed much more attractive. So when I was offered a job in Istanbul in 1987 for my then employers, Reuters news agency, I was enthusiastic. I had also studied Persian and Arabic at University, so getting to know Turkey seemed like a vital third side of the Middle East triangle.
2- One of the two books you wrote is titled ‘Sons of the Conquerors: The Rise of the Turkic World’. In your opinion what set the Seljuk / Ottoman Turks apart from all the other pastoral nomads who entered the geography of Eastern Europe but have left little traces today?
Perhaps the Seljuks and Ottomans were both lucky, in that their moments of glory coincided with weakness in the older states and empires that they challenged, and they were able to capture territories that could be ruled sustainably. But the Seljuks and Ottomans also had talented leaders who not only made the most of existing populations, rarely indulging in Mongol-like towers of skulls and mass punishments, and, especially in the Ottoman case, were willing to graft their tribal leaderships onto existing state structures. Both dynasties have left wonderful monuments and other testimonies to cultures that valued far more than just booty and conquest.
3- Over all those years of journalism in Turkey, you must have an amusing anecdote with some of the politicians / celebrities there. Can you share one of them with us?
The politician I felt warmest to was the late President and Prime Minister Turgut Özal. He had a mischievous sparkle in his eye and had a way of making his visitors feel like insiders. Like many Turkish politicians he would talk for ages. As a journalist it was very exciting to feel that I was so close to the person making all the decisions, and that he was so ready to talk about it all. In those days my Turkish was shaky and Özal was hyper-confident in his English, so he would chatter on about his meetings with world leaders and regional events, often jabbing the air with his thick, short fingers to make his points. I would nod away, scribbling down half sentences here and there. But when I got home, listened to the tape recording and tried to make sense of the interview, all my excitement would evaporate. While I was with him I had felt I understood everything he wanted to say completely; when I read what he was actually saying, he never seemed to finish a thought or sentence. His English was much more of an emotional connector than a practical tool of factual communication. As his mentor and later rival Süleyman Demirel used to say, Özal was a pilot who could take a plane off, but he couldn’t land it.
4- Why do you think Turkey has / had a lack of ‘soft books’ on the gentler view of Turkey? Do you think this situation still has ramifications today in the West’s general perception of the country?
Very much so. Soft books about other countries often depend on a shared historical experience, usually one of colonial rule one way or the other, in which the elites of the one country have deep interactions and even childhood roots in the other. Normally this would also mean that the two countries shared a language as well. Think of the UK and the U.S., or the UK and India, or (increasingly now) the U.S. and the Middle East. This means that the two countries are much better equipped to understand the context of events and sometimes their own prejudices towards each other. For instance, torture was a grave problem in Turkey in the 1970s and 1980s, but it did not define the whole country and its people. But because Europeans had little other information about life in Turkey, the relentless sadism of the film “Midnight Express” inadvertently poisoned a whole generation of Westerners’ views of the country.
5- In researching your book ‘Turkey unveiled: a history of modern Turkey’, you list a range of eclectic literature to draw inspiration from including the memoirs of Kenan Evren, the head of the junta that ruled Turkey post the 1980 coup who introduced religious education in schools. Do you think this was a ‘pre-emptive strategy’ to block a future potential more Arab influenced Islam from taking root? Do you think like the Prime Minister Adnan Menderes before him, who ended up in the gallows on trumped up charges, also had this tension between secularism and the Turkish Islamic identity, when he changed the ezan back to Arabic?
Evren and Menderes had different agendas. Evren was a true Kemalist positivist, wanting to build up a national culture that would make Turkey separate from and stronger than the weaker Middle East states nearby. He drew, if memory serves me well, on family heritage from the Balkans, the more Westernised background of many Kemalists, and a grandfather who was a Muslim cleric. Kemalists have always had an uphill task, however, because society doesn’t like ideological change and Kemalists were a minority in Anatolian society. Menderes, however, was much more opportunistic. He wanted to give the country’s Anatolian conservative majority what they wanted in order to get votes and stay in power. Personally, Menderes, who was a well-off landowner, probably felt little contradiction between his personal secular lifestyle and the Islam of Turkey’s social majority, and was happy to live in both worlds.
6- You see a continuity from Adnan Menderes, Turgut Ōzal and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, all populist leaders who did get various infrastructure projects done, but all tainted by whiffs of corruption. Do you think the electorate in Turkey are quite forgiving of leaders who appeared to line pockets as an acceptable price for firm and strong government they craved?
Yes, Turkish society is quite accepting of the idea that an active leader will build a patronage network that includes their own family. But it’s not a blank check – the leader has to be successful, the roads have to be built, and the country should be properly ruled. The press is quite free to point out excesses in the leadership, even if it is sometimes done in code.
7- Turkish institutions have never been allowed to develop, particularly NGOs, allowing for conservative leaders grow in power until such a time to lead to alarm from the secular army that brought the edifice down with a coup. Do you think the independent and balancing institutions not developing was a management done by obstructing politicians who didn’t want to dilute their absolute power, or is it in your view more a reflection that the Turkish populace has never had good historical examples to follow?
Turkey does have successful NGOs and charities – think of the mountaineering club that specialised in emergency relief, or productive Ankara think tanks - but you’re right that they have often been swept aside in socio-political storms like the 1920s Turkish revolution or the later coups, especially the one in 1980-83. The problem doesn’t seem to be a lack of historical examples of non-state organisation, since some religious endowments (vakıfs) dating back centuries. The trouble is that the centralising ideas of 20th century Turkey crushed private organisation, especially after the loss of the minorities like Armenians, Greeks and Jews, independent Muslim groups and the mahalle- or district-based institutions that used to care for the poor. The state took over everything, and this meant that over the years much charity administration became inaccessible, bureaucratic or corrupt.
8- The Army today is clearly not a force it was, and yet it still does its job of guarding the borders, suppressing the Kurdish rebels etc. Do you think this unusual state for Turkey is inherently unstable in the long-term, as some in the forces must feel they now ‘do the dirty work while getting no credit’?
Some soldiers may well feel that, but while the political leadership enjoys such enormously high popular support, especially after the dismal fate of the 15 July coup attempt, I cannot imagine that such feelings will lead to command and control problems. There is a wider problem in all the security services that the recent purges may have weakened capacities, but that is another question.
9- The political patronage system is clearly very destructive in the long-term in Turkey and Erdogan seems to have perfected the system for him, but clearly when he goes one day the hang-over will be extensive. Presumably the next ruling elite will continue the system of placing their men in all positions of power. Do you think many Turks realise just how much internal damage is done by this system?
It’s hard to say – as you note, this is the system and people have to work with it. Many countries display what outsiders might say are self-destructive tendencies – see the UK and Europe. In Turkey, the patronage system is not just about the top leadership, it is fairly widespread, even in the private sector. Having a patron is one way of protecting oneself and one’s business against weak rule of law, and I guess it will continue until people have full trust in the judicial system.
10- Erdoğan and Putin have for the past year have become closer while relations with both countries visa vis Western powers are far from ideal. Do you think this is a dangerous game where Turkey may end up ‘out of its depth’ in the Russian sphere of cooperation regarding natural gas, Syria etc.
Turkey is trying to make the best of a terrible situation in which at one recent point all four of its main external relationships – with the U.S., the EU, the Middle East and Russia – were in deep trouble. Turkey’s improvement with Russia could also be seen as something fairly pragmatic, given the bad blood that exists between Ankara and Moscow over Syria. It is unlikely that the U.S. kicks Turkey out of NATO or that there is a real do-or-die moment in the EU accession negotiations, which would lead to Turkey being an easy target for greater Russian influence. But there are huge strains in both Western relationships, whose potential cost the leadership in Ankara currently seems strangely unworried about, given that its post-1980s prosperity has largely derived from its Western orientation.
11- Currently the Turkish forces are on the outskirts of IS occupied Al-Bab deep inside northern Syria, where the Syrian army is too weak to intervene and Russia seems only concerned in ‘liberating’ the core cities of that country. Clearly there are risks here in Turkey in its aspirations of becoming a key player in post-conflict Syria, or its hope is to be one. Do you think these decisions of level of intervention are driven by analysed and calculated logic or more fear of and reaction to regional Kurdish expansionism that has led to the Rojava entity?
Turkey’s intervention in Syria is a developing situation whose exact motivations historians will be in a better position to judge. For now, Turkish officials do both want to have a lever in Syria’s future, and to block the progress of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) there. It seems that the second is likely to be more dominant than the first. But no doubt that this is also leading to new internal problems – including suicide bomb attacks by both the Islamic State and the PKK – and of course the issue of growing Turkish military casualties in Syria. It’s not clear where all this will lead in the short term except to more violence, which will then bring new dynamics and priorities into play, especially inside Turkey.
12- How come the second largest army in Nato that is Turkey has not been able to defeat the PKK in over 30 years? Do you think political strategy was also to blame? Do you think there is now too much ‘bad blood’ for possible future negotiations between the militants and the Turkish military to ever take place?
The reason the insurgency has lasted so long is that Turkey, for ideological and political reasons, has been unable or unwilling to see that there are two challenges that need to be separated and dealt with separately to solve problem. One is to defeat the PKK insurgents, and the other to solve the underlying problem of Kurdish rights. There have been opportunities to solve both of these in the course of the years, but no leaders have been willing to pay the full ideological/political cost when the chance was there. These include the ‘Kurdish opening’ in 1990; the capture of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan in 1999; and the on-off Oslo Process talks after 2009-2015. During the flare-ups of violence, however, both sides have been taking actions that have made the price of a deal ever more difficult, especially since Kurdish and Turkish communities are becoming more polarised. But at the same time, both sides’ leaderships still know that they cannot win an outright military victory, so there is always a chance that negotiations can restart.