To believe the media narrative, the "Arab Spring" has arrived in yet another Islamic nation -- Turkey this time -- snowballing at record speed from a single protest over the fate of trees under an urban-development plan. This simplistic explanation might have more merit if Turkey wasn't the staging ground for Western interests in Syria.
Spontaneous, organic protest movements have certain characteristics. They're relatively small and easily contained. Without being fueled deliberately, they burn out quickly. Perhaps most notably, they have an acute, compelling genesis. Someone taking to Twitter to rile up the masses isn't going to have much luck compelling anyone to do much beyond creating a hashtag.
Many of the Occupy Wall Streeters were paid unionists. Similarly, Egypt's Arab Spring was influenced more by the omnipresence of crowds, inciting a flock phenomenon, than by any sort of social media impetus. Wanting to save a park in Turkey just doesn't meet the threshold for organic catalysis of mass unrest.
While it may be true that some of the Turkish population might not be fully enamored with their government (and really, what citizens of any country are?), an "Arab Spring"-style protest against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would be more feasible if any other "Arab Sprung" nation had given rise to a more democratic and less hard-line alternative. If anything, Erdogan's entire shtick seems like a careful, pragmatic balancing act to maintain his popularity in a nominally secular Muslim-majority country: mouthing off about Israel for the home crowd while simultaneously fostering intelligence cooperation between the two countries on the borders of Iraq, Iran and Syria; talking up Islamic values and denouncing gay rights while increasing free health-care accessibility.
The impetus for a sudden government overthrow in Turkey, especially over a pretext as petty as a park protest, makes little sense. So what else could be going on here?
Turkey has long been the staging area for Western interests in what is currently the world's most prominent geopolitical flashpoint: the Syrian civil war. More than just a physical launching pad for incursions, it's also where Qatari and Saudi assets and resources connect with those from the West through the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
Who might have an interest in disrupting this setup via the sufficient deployment of agents provocateurs? Someone who desperately wants Western involvement in Syria to end. Narrowing the list of suspects, we're left with Syria itself, Iran and Russia.
Erdogan's deputies already blamed Syrian intelligence operatives for car bomb explosions last month that killed at least 43 people, resulting in the detention of nine Turkish nationals believed to have been Syrian intelligence assets. A bombing in a Turkish border town is one thing, but the sophistication required for a subversion operation is another. Syrian intelligence tactics tend towards the thuggish and obvious -- showing up at mosques to beat people, for example. One might argue that this lack of finesse reflects the omnipotence of the head of state to whom Syrian intelligence operatives report. I'd assess the likelihood of their involvement in Turkey's latest flashpoints to be low.
Russia would like nothing more than a return to stability in Syria so it can restore normal military and trade alliances. And there's no question that Russian foreign agents are as brilliantly adept (linguistically, culturally and otherwise) at operating within Turkey, since they can feasibly be left in place for up to a decade-long rotation, as they are in classic subversion methods and tactics. But with one ally, Syria, already destabilized, and with refugees flooding into Turkey, would Russia really now want to further destabilize yet another regional trading partner? It would be like chopping off your arm to fix a broken finger.
That leaves Iran. There isn't enough space in this column to detail the laundry list of disruptive Iranian espionage activities in Syria. Couple this with the cultural and linguistic ease of Iranian agents, and Iran's penchant for black ops and proxies, and I think we have a prime suspect.
Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) has been trained by Russia's foreign spy agency. According to a Pentagon report, "MOIS infiltrates Iranian communities outside of Iran using a variety of methods. For instance, a society called 'Supporting Iranian Refugees' in Paris is used to recruit Iranian asylum seekers to spy on Iranians in France. ... MOIS's tactics of penetrating and sowing discord within the opposition abroad are discussed in an article on a Web site affiliated with the current Iranian government." The December 2012 report lists Turkey as a primary MOIS target country.
Or I suppose one could still conclude that this is all just about preserving a patch of grass in Istanbul.