Why Turks are fighting to take back Istanbul

When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave a speech in Washington two weeks ago, he didn't dwell on the crisis in Syria or the Middle East peace process. Instead, he wanted to talk about a construction project: His government had recently inked a $29 billion deal to build Istanbul's third airport. It would be able to handle 100 million passengers a year, he boasted, potentially making it the largest in the world.

"Turkey's not talking about the world now," Erdogan told the Brookings Institution, while an entourage of businessmen who made the trip with him to Washington looked on. "The world is talking about Turkey."

Listening to the Turkish premier, you never would have guessed that environmentalists had long bemoaned the ecological costs of the project, while urban planners worried that it could make the city's already severe traffic problem even worse.

Turkey's runaway economic growth, while undeniably impressive, also helps explain why citizens erupted in protest throughout the country this weekend. The spark for the demonstrations, which police tried to put down with massive tear gas use, was the local government's decision to turn Gezi Park -- a rare oasis of green in the center of Istanbul -- into a replica of an Ottoman-era barracks and a shopping mall. The Taksim Platform, a group of local citizens, had long called for revisions to the project to accommodate residents. But until the demonstrations on Friday, officials in Erdogan's party had pushed forward the project by decree, with little public discussion of their plans.

It's an old story in Turkey. A five-minute walk from Gezi Park lies Tarlabasi, a working class neighborhood that has long been home to those who live on the city's margins - a century ago, it was Greek, Jewish, and Armenian craftsmen; today, it is members of the Kurdish minority who migrated there to escape the bloody insurgency in Turkey's southeast. True to form, Erdogan's government soon stepped in to build a better Tarlabasi: As Piotr Zalewski wrote for FP, it used an eminent domain law to lay claim to much of the area, empowering a private development company to transform it into an upscale neighborhood of luxury apartment buildings and shopping malls. While Tarlabasi was declared an "urban renewal area" in 2006, residents did not learn about the planned demolition of their houses until 2008.

For Istanbulites opposed to Erdogan, the prime minister is not only remaking their city without consulting them -- he is empowering a new clique of businessmen beholden to him. The company that won the contract to rebuild Tarlabasi is owned by Calik Holding, whose CEO is Erdogan's son-in-law. The symbiotic relationship between businessmen and politicians appears alive and well in Erdogan's Turkey.

A half hour's drive north of Gezi Park lies the foundation for the Yavuz Sultan Selim bridge, connecting the European and Asian sides of Istanbul. While Erdogan once referred to a previous government's plans to build a third bridge as "a murder," complaining that it would amount to "massacring the remaining green areas" of the city, he has since adopted the massive infrastructure project as his own. Environmentalists worried that the bridge's construction would require cutting down 2.5 million trees and planners suggested it would generate urban sprawl -- but Turkey's Parliament nonetheless passed a bill authorizing the project to move forward without the approval of planning authorities. Even the bridge's name has provoked controversy: While many Sunni Turks honor Yavuz Sultan Selim as a conquering Ottoman Sultan, Alevis remember him as a leader who massacred members of their minority community.

Such controversial infrastructure projects are not confined to Istanbul. Writing in FP last year, Anna Louie Sussman described how Erdogan's government was using "urban renewal" efforts to implement its conservative social agenda in the capital of Ankara. Specifically, it has targeted the city's sex trade, which has long been regulated by the state -- directing the police to go after prostitutes on spurious charges, and tearing down brothels to construct upscale new neighborhoods.

To be sure, Turkey's eye-popping economic growth is a source of strength for Erdogan -- the prime minister never misses an opportunity to mention that GDP has more than tripled on his watch. And the protesters' complaints are not limited to urban development gone wrong: Many took to the streets to voice their discontent with what they view as the prime minister's imperious style, his slow-motion Islamization of the country, and the brutality of the police force. What Turkey has witnessed this weekend is the convergence of all these grievances in Gezi Park. 



PSA to prospective jihadists: The FBI will prosecute you if you join Jabhat al-Nusra

On Thursday, FBI agents reportedly informed the family of Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old resident of Flint, Michigan, that Mansfield had been killed in Syria while fighting alongside rebels there.

The news seems to have come as a shock to family members, who said they did not know when or why Mansfield had traveled to Syria. "I'm sick over it," Monica Mansfield Speelman, Nicole's aunt, told the Detroit Free Press. "I didn't think she was [a terrorist], but God only knows."

Mansfield reportedly died alongside two other foreign fighters -- at least one of whom was British -- and her death, if confirmed, makes her the first American killed in Syria's civil war. According to Syrian media linked to the government -- take the allegation with a grain of salt -- Mansfield was found carrying the flag of Jabhat al-Nusra, a group allied with al Qaeda in Iraq that the State Department has designated a terrorist organization. Raised Baptist, Mansfield converted to Islam after marrying an Arab-American but divorced him prior to arriving in Syria.

At this stage, it remains unclear how a Baptist-turned-Muslim ended up fighting in Syria. But  Mansfield's alleged ties to Jabhat al-Nusra raises another question: Were her actions legal under U.S. law?

That's a question we've considered several times here at FP, and the short answer is that, yes, Mansfield's actions may have been strictly legal. But that doesn't mean the U.S. government couldn't have come after her.

My colleague Josh Keating took up this question after Chris Jeon, a student at UCLA, took up arms alongside rebels in Libya. What he found is that U.S. law does not explicitly frown upon joining a foreign rebel movement -- so long as that group isn't fighting against the United States:

According to the U.S. code, any citizen who "enlists or enters himself, or hires or retains another to enlist or enter himself, or to go beyond the jurisdiction of the United States with intent to be enlisted or entered in the service of any foreign prince, state, colony, district, or people as a soldier or as a marine or seaman ... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both." But a court ruling from 1896 involving U.S. citizens who fought with Cuban revolutionaries against Spanish colonial rule interpreted this to mean that it was only illegal for citizens to be recruited for a foreign army in the United States, not to simply fight in one. (Note to Libya's National Transitional Council: It probably wouldn't be wise to set up a recruiting station on the UCLA campus in hopes of attracting more fighters.)

Since Jeon appears to have traveled to Libya without any encouragement (he bought a one-way ticket because he didn't want to risk losing $800 "if I get captured or something"), he's probably in the clear.

That, however, isn't the end of the story. Mansfield isn't the first American to join the Syrian rebels. She follows Eric Harroun, and his legal woes serve as a cautonary tale for any Americans thinking about joining the fight in Syria. After taking up arms with Jabhat al-Nusra, Harroun was arrested upon his return to the United States at Dulles Airport. He was slapped with what on its face looks like a pretty ridiculous charge: conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction -- specifically a rocket-propelled grenade. (The technical justification is that the weapon has a larger than half-inch bore.)

Since Harroun's arrest, federal authorities have been taking a more activist approach to U.S. citizens interested in joining with Jabhat al-Nusra. In April, for instance, U.S. authorities arrested 18-year-old Abdella Ahmad Tounisi before he boarded a flight to Istanbul, allegedly en route to Syria where he would link up with the group. In other words, while the letter of the law may be broadly permissive of joining foreign rebel movements, law-enforcement officials looks less kindly on that action when that rebel movement is a designated terrorist group.

Here's how the U.S. Code looks at material support:

(1) Unlawful conduct.— Whoever knowingly provides material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 15 years, or both, and, if the death of any person results, shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life. To violate this paragraph, a person must have knowledge that the organization is a designated terrorist organization (as defined in subsection (g)(6)), that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorist activity (as defined in section 212(a)(3)(B) of the Immigration and Nationality Act), or that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorism (as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989).

It's even enough to just receive military-style training:

(a) Offense.- Whoever knowingly receives military-type training from or on behalf of any organization designated at the time of the training by the Secretary of State under section 219(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act as a foreign terrorist organization shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for ten years, or both. To violate this subsection, a person must have knowledge that the organization is a designated terrorist organization (as defined in subsection (c)(4)), that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorist activity (as defined in section 212 of the Immigration and Nationality Act), or that the organization has engaged or engages in terrorism (as defined in section 140(d)(2) of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, Fiscal Years 1988 and 1989). 

Going abroad to fight alongside a rebel movement has a long, dignified history -- Lord Byron fighting for Greek independence and George Orwell fighting in the Spanish Civil War are just the most famous examples -- but taking up arms with jihadist groups is another story for Western governments. European governments in particular are terrified that their citizens will travel abroad and pick up the lethal skills necessary to carry out a terrorist attack back home. 

So if you're an American thinking of joining the fight in Syria, take note of your colleagues' mistakes. While the U.S. government is broadly supportive of the Syrian rebels, the FBI is decidedly not your friend.

Still not convinced? Just read the FBI complaint against Harroun: