Put out more flags

Put out more flags

In the dead heat of the Cypriot summer in 1996, a young Greek Cypriot, Tassos Isaac, was beaten to death by a group of ultranationalist Turks.

A few days later, in the aftermath of his funeral, one of the Greek Cypriot protesters, Solomos Solomou, broke off from his group and started to climb a flagpole in order to remove a Turkish flag from its mast in the United Nations Buffer Zone near Deryneia. Just before he reached the flag, he fell. He died after being shot in the neck. The scene had been taped by journalists, showing the 26-year-old Solomou with a cigarette in between his lips, trying to climb the mast, then being shot.

The man who pulled the trigger was a sharpshooter from the Turkish Special Forces. The sharpshooter had preferred not to prevent Solomou from removing the flag by shooting him in the foot or the hand, or by using a plastic bullet. Later, in a public statement the then-Turkish Prime Minister Tansu Çiller said: “Turks will break the hands of anyone who insults their flag.” It would have been much nicer if the sharpshooter took her words literally.  

More recently, a younger Kurdish man did what Solomou failed to do 18 years ago. Ironically, he was not in a U.N. Buffer Zone. He just sneaked into an Air Force base in Diyarbakir, climbed the mast, removed the Turkish flag and threw it on the ground surrounded by cheering Kurds.  

More ironically, as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s foreign policy doctrine pledges to wave the Turkish flag in all of the former Ottoman territories, a Turkish flag in Turkey had been thrown on the ground – shortly before the one at the Consulate in Mosul was put down by jihadists. And a new act in the Turkish political theater has opened: The new act is an opera buffa.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has pledged that both the perpetrator and the local military officials “will pay for this.” The military HQ defended itself saying the soldiers did not shoot the militant Kurd because he was a teenager.  

Someone from the main opposition has revived Mrs. Çiller’s challenge and talked of “breaking hands that touch the Turkish flag.” The leader of the junior opposition, Devlet Bahçeli, was less merciful. “He should have been shot right in his forehead,” he said. So, big angry Turks are angry – once again.  
The bad, insane man of the opera buffa, no doubt, is Mr. Bahçeli. He looked so convinced and serious when he talked about “shooting the Kurdish boy right in his forehead” just for removing a flag. The main opposition looked more reasonable, but miserable too, trying to garner a few more votes with its “we’ll break your hands” rhetoric. Mr. Erdoğan’s vague rule of engagement, that “whatever necessary should have been done” was vague, but at least did not sound as violent and inhuman as Mr. Bahçeli’s advice to “shoot him right in the forehead.”  

The tragicomic part of the story is how it unveiled how the Turkish military is exposed to the risk of operational mistakes due to too much alignment with (ruling party) politics. The commanders always miss the point and become the target.  

Once they mistook terrorists with shepherds and decided not to bomb them and came under public fire as the terrorist group raided a military outpost. Not to repeat that mistake, this time, they bombed another group, killing 34 teenagers who happened to be smugglers instead of terrorists. HQ is still under fire for that. And to avoid another grand mistake like that, and also not to harm Mr. Erdoğan’s shaky peace process with the Kurds, they preferred to ignore the removal of the flag, and they are guilty once again.  

In the last flag incident, the commander of the air base did the right thing. No feeling of humiliation because a flag has been thrown to the ground can be worse than loss of life.

But we will see many more of such operational mistakes as the generals view military things from a strictly “do-everything-but-don’t-offend-our-prime minister” lens. Sadly, the Turkish generals have the habit of preparing for the last war.