Turkey’s Referendum Pushes Country Toward Authoritarianism, Attack Targets Civilians in Syrian Ceasefire Deal, New U.S. Escalation in Yemen Takes Shape

By J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, April 18, 2017, 9:30 AM

Erdogan Strengthens His Authority with Passage of Constitutional Reforms

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan achieved a major victory on Sunday in his years-long effort to apportion his executive office more authority. Unofficial results from a referendum that changes the constitution to grant Erdogan sweeping powers and diminish the role of the parliament show Erdogan eking out a narrow victory that opponents of the measures have already called into question.

The vote on Sunday was the culmination of a long, controversial, and hard-fought campaign that spanned countries. Turkish officials’ efforts to advocate for the referendum among expat voters in Europe prompted political battles that escalated into callous rhetoric; Erdogan has made a frequent refrain in his speeches accusations that European countries are acting like the Nazis and it seems understood that the referendum’s passage will be the end of the long-running pretense that Europe is considering Turkey for accession to the European Union.

Domestically, the referendum campaign has coincided with the aftermath of the attempted coup that targeted Erdogan last July. Since then, Turkish authorities have arrested at least 41,000 people, fired 130,000 public- and private-sector employees, and revoked the passports 140,000 citizens. The purge has particularly affected political dissidents, professors, and journalists; Turkey is now the leading jailer of journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Prominent opposition politicians were also arrested for alleged ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Those still free and advocating against the referendum claimed that they had been blacklisted and couldn’t book media appearances to make the case against the constitutional amendments.

Debate over the referendum is continuing and questions about its legitimacy will persist.

In a speech last night announcing the referendum’s success, Erdogan tried to move past the contentious campaign. "The president will serve the country bearing in mind one nation, one flag, one state,” he said. “The referendum is over and the debate prior to that is over." He also called on foreign governments “to respect Turkey's decision."

Erdogan won’t get his wish: Debate over the referendum is continuing and questions about its legitimacy will persist. Opposition politicians are arguing that the government agency overseeing the vote, the High Electoral Board, legitimized voter fraud by changing the rules on Sunday to accept ballots that did not have an official seal on them. They have also pointed to suspicious discrepancies between tallies reported by the Board and state-run media, and said some polling places did not allow people to vote in private. Election monitors from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe concurred, saying that the "referendum took place on an unlevel playing field” that skewed the vote in favor of Erdogan. “Up until today, Turkey's opposition always thought that it lost fair and square...This, however, is a game-changer,” Selim Sazak, a fellow at the Delma Institute, told the Washington Post.

All this means that the purge is likely to continue. “Even if they are demoralized in their defeat, Erdogan’s project will arouse significant resistance among the various ‘No’ camps. The predictable result will be the continuation of the purge that has been going on since even before last July’s failed coup including more arrests and the additional delegitimization of Erdogan’s parliamentary opposition,” Steven Cook wrote on Monday for Foreign Policy. Erdogan has capitalized on narrow victories as if they were political mandates before and will “treat the referendum as authorization to do as he likes,” Daniel Serwer writes for his Peacefare blog. He has secured his authority for now, though Serwer warns that Turkey’s flagging economy presents a weak flank that may undermine him politically in time.

Tillerson Makes No Progress Splitting Russia from Assad

Despite the Trump administration’s airstrike on the Assad regime’s al-Shayrat airbase, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made no apparent progress toward his stated goal of driving a wedge between Russia and the regime during his visit to Moscow last week -- an outcome that surprised exactly no one following the Syrian civil war. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Russia would restore a hotline used by U.S. and Russian forces to deconflict operations in Syria, but when Tillerson posited that the chemical weapons attack that struck Khan Sheikhoun was directed by the Assad regime, Lavrov denied the accusation, saying, “This is obviously the subject where our views differ.” Lavrov claimed that Russia supports an international investigation of the chemical weapons attack, but Russia later vetoed a resolution calling for an investigation at the U.N. Security Council; Lavrov said that the U.N. proposal was not balanced and aimed “more at legitimizing the arguments against Damascus.” On Friday, a day after Tillerson’s departure, Lavrov met with Syrian and Iranian diplomats and warned that any additional U.S. strikes targeting the regime would have "grave consequences not only for regional but global security."

The Syrian civil war continued last week while diplomats were posturing in Moscow. Regime forces advanced in Hama province, retaking territory lost in a rebel offensive last month, but rebels and regime forces also began transferring thousands of people out of besieged towns and neighborhoods as part of a ceasefire agreement. These deals have been carried out elsewhere in Syria to end sieges, but the one that started last week is the most ambitious; if it is completed, it will involve bussing approximately 30,000 people across conflict zones to end rebel sieges of the Shia towns of Fuaa and Kefraya and regime sieges of Madaya and Zabadani. Negotiations between rebels and the regime to reach the deal began more than a year ago, but reportedly gained steam when Qatar and Iran got involved last year. Middle East Eye reports that the ceasefire agreement was linked to Qatar’s recent agreement to secure the release of members of the Qatari royal family who were abducted (most likely by an Iran-linked Shia militia) while on a hunting trip in Iraq in December 2015. The implication is that Qatar used its influence with Ahrar al-Sham to push through the deal in exchange for the release of Qatari hostages.

The Syrian civil war continued last week while diplomats were posturing in Moscow.

Not all Syrian rebels support the ceasefire agreement, and on Saturday an attack targeted a convoy of buses carrying displaced Syrians. While the buses were halted while a dispute about the terms of the evacuation was resolved, a man lured children to a nearby car with bags of potato chips before detonating a bomb. At least 126 people, including more than 60 children, were killed in the blast, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. No group has claimed credit for the attack.

U.S. Preparing to Escalate in Yemen

The United States has been deepening its involvement in Yemen for months, since the Trump administration designated parts of the country an “area of active hostilities” to allow more aggressive strikes targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As U.S. forces have escalated against AQAP, reports have suggested that the United States is preparing to escalate in its other, somewhat separate war in Yemen against the Houthis. Last month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis sent a memo to National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster advocating greater U.S. support for a planned Emirati-led offensive to retake the Houthi-occupied port of Hodeida on the Red Sea.

That anticipated battle is coming up, and Pentagon officials are making preparations to provide intelligence and logistical support. At a meeting last week, BuzzFeed reports, defense planners presented an extremely optimistic scenario, suggesting the offensive could be “clean” and gain control of the city in under a month and a half. That assessment has been met with resistance from State Department and USAID staff who attended the meeting and worry that the battle could incapacitate a major port and tip the country into a devastating famine.

The Saudi-led coalition has been lobbying the United States to increase its role in Yemen for months, and as Andrew Exum, the previous deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, wrote last week, “It’s entirely possible and even reasonable that Trump administration officials have concluded the Saudis and Emiratis have to feel the administration is serious about their security needs to climb down in Yemen.” But that will require reallocating U.S. military assets from more higher priorities, like the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, he warns, and even that won’t be enough to end the war definitively. “The Saudi military, in particular, has been exposed as a paper tiger by the Yemen conflict,” Exum says. “I struggle to see how the Saudi-led coalition can terminate this conflict through military means—and without some kind of embarrassing climb-down.”

Mattis, who previously served as commander of CENTCOM, will make his first trip to the Middle East as secretary of defense this week. His first stop will be in Saudi Arabia, where he is expected to discuss the U.S. role in Yemen.