January 20, 2020 | The Jerusalem Post

Turkey’s elite unsure whether Soleimani was hero or war criminal

Underscoring the absence of any clear position, Erdogan’s spokesperson called on all sides to act with “common sense,” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry invited “restraint and discretion.”
January 20, 2020 | The Jerusalem Post

Turkey’s elite unsure whether Soleimani was hero or war criminal

Underscoring the absence of any clear position, Erdogan’s spokesperson called on all sides to act with “common sense,” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry invited “restraint and discretion.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is best known for his passionate outbursts, yet he had very little to say in the days after the January 3 killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

Underscoring the absence of any clear position, Erdogan’s spokesperson called on all sides to act with “common sense,” and the Turkish Foreign Ministry invited “restraint and discretion.” Ankara’s taciturn response, which some analysts argued was a calculated policy designed to restore Turkey’s strategic value as a regional broker, is better understood as an expression of genuine confusion within the ruling elite, which could not decide whether to denounce Soleimani as a murderer of fellow Sunni Muslims, or to celebrate Soleimani’s resistance to alleged US and Israeli malevolence.

The Iranian Embassy in Turkey stirred things up when it tweeted on January 4 about a phone call between Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, quoting the Turkish president as saying, “Martyr Soleimani’s absence troubles us deeply. I am aware of your and the supreme leader’s rage.”

A Turkish official denied the claims shortly after, shielding Erdogan from potential criticism at home and abroad.

If Erdogan had a clear position on Soleimani’s death, the country’s docile pro-government media were unable to divine it. Some outlets cast the Iranian commander as a killer. The editor-in-chief of the daily paper and government mouthpiece Yeni Safak referred to Soleimani as “the murderer of Aleppo” and a “war criminal,” adding: “There was no savagery he didn’t do for Armageddon within Islam.”

In another daily Erdogan mouthpiece, Sabah, a columnist close to Erdogan argued that Soleimani’s “success was directly proportional to his murders,” and accused the Quds Force of “crying with joy” during Turkey’s failed coup attempt in 2016.

In stark contrast, the editor-in-chief of the pro-Iranian Islamist broadcaster Kudüs TV praised Soleimani’s critical role in defending Erdogan during Turkey’s abortive coup in 2016, claiming the Quds Force commander “did more than anyone else to foil the coup attempt of July 15,” thereby preventing “the American and Israeli projects.”

This Islamist broadcaster’s sentiments were echoed by the Maoist-secularist-neo-nationalist Aydinlik daily, one of the inapposite constituents of Erdogan’s hodgepodge coalition. The newspaper, notorious for its pro-Russian, pro-Chinese and pro-Iranian stance, praised Soleimani, who “got in touch with Turkey and conveyed that they are with the [Turkish] government against the coup attempt.”

Indeed, on the night of the coup, Iran was reportedly the first country to reach out to Erdogan with support, and Soleimani was one of the senior Iranian officials who called the Turkish president.

Similarly, a former editor-in-chief of a broadcaster linked to Aydinlik reacted to those welcoming the killing of the Quds Force commander, asking, “Aren’t you embarrassed to welcome the backstabbing murder of Qasem Soleimani alongside the US, Israel, England, Saudi, ISIS, PKK/PYD et al.?”

Islamic and secular groups outside of Erdogan’s ruling circle also displayed conflicting sentiments. Ahmet Mahmut Ünlü, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the Ismailaga branch of the Naqshbandi religious order known as Cübbeli Ahmet Hoca, tweeted that Allah “has taken his revenge from Qasem Soleimani and his man through the hand of infidel and cruel America.”

Ünlü also stated that although Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei called Soleimani “a living martyr,” he considered him an “apostate.” Ünlü emphasized that the “Hashdi Shabi under Soleimani’s command not only killed Muslims but also ripped their livers and chewed on them,” warning that if Iran’s proxies find the opportunity, they would repeat the same atrocities against Turkey’s Sunnis.

What best epitomizes the ambivalent sentiments across Turkey’s political spectrum are the tweets by the Marxist journal Teori ve Politika. The publishers stated, “Great causes have great warriors, and even if they deserve to be killed, they deserve respect,” and added, “even if we are the enemy.”

Meanwhile, Rusen Cakır, one of Turkey’s leading independent journalists, who spent 18 months in prison in the aftermath of the 1980 coup d’état for his Marxist activism, reminded patrons of his digital outlet Medyascope of the role Soleimani’s Quds Force is believed to have played in assassinating Turkey’s secular and left-leaning intellectuals in the 1990s and in turning Turkey’s Syria policy into a “fiasco” during the last decade.

Fittingly, Turkey’s ambivalence toward Soleimani was matched by Soleimani’s ambivalence toward Turkey and its leaders. Although Soleimani possibly played the most important role in thwarting the Erdogan government’s ambitions to topple Syrian strongman Bashar Assad and replace his regime with a Muslim Brotherhood administration loyal to Ankara, he appears to have perceived some of his top adversaries as role models. According to leaked Iranian spy cables, until 2014 Soleimani used to compare his role in Iran to then-Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu. From then onward, however, he began to see himself more as a “military and intelligence chief comparable to Hakan Fidan,” Turkey’s top spy boss.

THE LEITMOTIF of this cacophony of sentiments is that whether on the Right or the Left, Islamist or secularist, the Turkish mind-set bears an eerie resemblance to the sectarian, conspiratorial, antisemitic, and anti-Western thinking in Iran.

Regardless of their take on Soleimani, Turkish commentators, in and out of Erdogan’s ruling circle, come across less as nationals of a NATO member state allied with the US, and more as zealots hunting for secret cabals.

The resonance between Turkey’s political psychology and that of Iran, and the ways in which it manifests itself in foreign and security policy debates are testimony to how Shia jihadists like Soleimani and the Turkish Islamist adversaries he battled have succeeded in poisoning the policy thinking and rhetoric in what was, once upon a time, the leading Muslim-majority ally of the US and its transatlantic partners.

Aykan Erdemir is a former member of the Turkish parliament and the senior director of the Turkey Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Erdemir on Twitter at @aykan_erdemir.

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Issues:

Iran Iran Global Threat Network Iran-backed Terrorism Turkey