Sarah Parker and Phil Hearse analyse recent developments in politics in Turkey
On March 21 hundreds of thousands of Kurdish people in Diyarbakir, unofficial capital of Kurdistan Turkey, flocked to celebrate Newroz, the Kurdish New Year. This year’s celebrations had a more than usual political angle – not just celebrating Kurdish identity but demonstrating opposition to the dictatorial actions of Turkish president Recep Erdo?an and his ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party).
The politics of Newroz are well understood by the regime. In Istanbul, tens of thousands of people tried to reach the Bakirköy district to join the massive Newroz celebration banned by the city governor. In a scene repeated in many cities, people who did reach the celebrations were attacked by police. Dozens were arrested and many injured.
Erdo?an and the AKP are carrying through an all-out attack on civil liberties, opposition parties and media, critical academics and most of all against the Kurdish population of South East Turkey and northern Syria.
Linking the different aspects of this offensive is an overarching ‘strategy of tension’ which uses streets bombings – probably carried out by agents of the regime – to justify the AKP’s own ‘war on terrorism’ – a wave of mass imprisonment and torture, closures of newspapers, legal action against the opposition HDP (People’s Democratic Party) and merciless military assaults on Kurdish cities.
On 14 March a car bomb exploded in an Ankara killing 37 people and wounding 125 others. That evening the Turkish army launched attacks against Kurdish self-defence militias defending the cities of Nusaybin, Sirnex and Gever. Tanks, artillery and mortars attacked residential areas.
Responsibility for this bombing and some other attacks has been claimed by a shadowy organisation calling itself the Kurdish Freedom Falcons (TAK), which claims to be a split from the PKK, though the PKK leadership have denied any connection with it. Selahattin Demirtas, HDP co-chair, has repeatedly condemned the bombings, as has the co-ordination of the self-governing councils in south-east Turkey.
On February 16 Erdo?an had said that concepts of freedom and democracy in Turkey “have no value” and “these conversations are useless”. In a statement eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush he stated, ““Those who stand on our side in the fight against terrorism are our friends. Those on the opposite side, are our enemies.”
He is redefining terrorism. He says, “It is not only the person who pulls the trigger, but those who made that possible who should also be defined as terrorists, regardless of their title.” He has in mind all his critics, academics, journalists but in particular the leadership of the HDP.
Moves are underway to deprive joint HDP leaders Selahattin Demirtas and Figen Yüksekdag and several other HDP deputies of parliamentary immunity. Deputies are accused of “provoking the people” and “being a member of an armed organisation,” – i.e. the PKK, and the measure is being driven through Parliament by the AKP, and attempts so far to defeat it have failed. This is likely to be the first step to outlawing the HDP. Hundreds of supporters have already been imprisoned. Cases are also underway against other opposition MPs.
On January 11,over 1000 academics in Turkey issued a statement calling for peace and for an end to repression .“The petition, signed by scholars from 89 Turkish universities, as well as more than 300 scholars from outside the country, demands an end to fighting between Turkish forces and members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). It accuses the government of the “deliberate massacre and deportation” of civilians, and calls on the government to allow independent observers into the region, end curfews, and renew peace efforts.
Erdo?an has called the academics “pseudo intellectuals” who are traitors to Turkey and supporting terrorism. All signatories are under criminal investigation, many have been arrested, some have been sacked, particularly in public universities. Prominent marks appeared on signatories’ office doors, some have had to leave their homes. A significant international movement rapidly grew in their defence, including in Britain.
The clampdown on the media was highlighted by the March 5 occupation of the best-selling Daily Zaman newspaper, owned by the network associated with US- based cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen, leader of a major Sufi Muslim sect, was previously supportive of the AKP, but fell out with Erdo?an two years ago. The paper was not closed down but editor in chief Abdulhamit Bilici and columnist Bulent Kenes were fired: staff now work under the supervision of hundreds of soldiers, and unsurprisingly the paper is now very friendly to the AKP.
The AKP government has also repeatedly cut access to social media sites as a way of controlling the news.
Rise of HDP
To understand more about where things are now, it is useful to look back at the events of the recent past.
On 7 June 2015 the broad left HDP achieved over 13% of the vote in the Turkish general election, apparently a big victory, breaking the electoral threshold to win 80 seats, and depriving President Erdo?an’s AKP both of his overall parliamentary majority needed for the AKP to govern alone, and the supermajority he needed to move to a stronger presidential system of government.
Between June 25 and 28 more than 200 civilians were killed in Kobani in a surprise attack by ISIS, as the Turkish army continued to ignore or assist ISIS attacks on the Syrian Kurds. On July 11 the KCK (Kurdistan Communities Union) issued a statement explaining that the numerous Turkish military violations of the 2 year old ceasefire would no longer be tolerated.
On July 16 the People’s Defence Forces announced that guerrillas were conducting warning actions in response to sharply increased Turkish military activity . On July 17 Erdo?an repudiated the “Dolmabahçe Accords” as a basis for peace between Turkey and the Kurdish side; the peace process was over and the war beginning again.
On July23, the US and Turkey reached agreement that Turkey would enter the so-called anti-ISIS coalition and that the US could use the Incirlik airbase near Diyarbakir . This was spun by a sceptical media as a sign that Turkey might confront ISIS, as opposed to ignoring it or assisting it. Within 48 hours, Turkey made a few bombing runs over ISIS territory in Syria, (after which little more was heard about this campaign) and began a systematic air campaign against the guerrilla camps in Northern Iraq.
After half-hearted attempts to form a coalition government, on August 24 Erdo?an called a fresh election for November 1, which was run in an atmosphere of blatant intimidation. There were more than 100 attacks on HDP party offices and the bombing of a peace rally on 10 October in which 102 people were killed and more than 400 injured. No group claimed the bombing but it is widely thought to have been carried out by people connected to ISIS. The HDP’s vote still got them over the threshold, but the AKP just got an overall majority.
Self-rule and resistance
From early August 2015 local assemblies in Kurdistan Turkey began declaring self-rule. This was confirmed by a meeting of the Democratic People’s Congress in December 2015 after the AKP stole the re-run election. The goal was to build strong local self-organisation as a means of self-defence and as a step on the road to freedom from the persecution of the Turkish state. Youth dug ditches and put up barricades to deny entrance to the police and army. Even though many of these neighbourhoods have now been under siege by 10,000 or more troops on and off for months, the Turkish army, police and special forces have not been able to retake them fully though they have driven out thousands of residents. The worst sieges are of Cizre and Silopi, and Sur, the historic old city centre of Diyarbakir, and now Nusaybin, Sirnex and Gever. Hundreds of Kurdish civilians have been killed and hundreds arrested. On March 19, local people claimed a chemical attack killing 40 people had been launched in Gever, a mountain town in the province of Hakkari, near the Iranian and Iraqi borders.
According to Jesse Rosenfeld, one of only two Western journalists to get access to the besieged area of Cizre:
“The streets here are almost desolate, except for the armoured personnel carriers that patrol this war-wrecked Kurdish city. The few children who have recently returned or withstood two and a half months of curfew and intense fighting kick around a ball, while their parents salvage the remnants of their homes, scorched black and blown apart by intense shelling. Pavement ripped up by tank tracks is pocked with craters where Kurdish rebels detonated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against their enemy. Pain and suffering are etched on the faces of survivors, who now live under the close surveillance of an invading army.”
The Kurdish war has come down from the mountains into the cities and thousands of people are putting up a heroic resistance to a major NATO member. The centres of resistance are Kurdish cities in the south east which have suffered repression, discrimination and high unemployment, for seventy years and where HDP received very high votes in the elections both in June and November 2015, and are near to Rojava and Kurdistan Iraq.
As People’s Defence Forces commander Murat Karayilan said in his New Year message: “The AKP has unleashed a furious attack on us. The guerrillas and also the youth in the cities, all parts of Kurdish society, are playing their part in the resistance”. The Kurdish movement wants peace, and calls for a return to negotiations, but is facing a brutal onslaught which seems set to continue through the spring.
The participation of women in the struggle grows all the time, and clearly the resilience of the women and their determination to fight for freedom is a huge strength of the movement. Overall the resistance against the might of the Turkish state is a remarkable achievement and perhaps goes some way to explain the silence of other NATO members.
Relating to the rest of society
Tariq Ali did an interview on Telesur (“Turkey is a boiling society”, October 2015) in which activist Sungur Savran singled out recent landmark events: June – September 2013 the Gezi uprising, 6-12 October 2014 the serhildan (uprising) in Kurdish areas with millions on the street, ‘when it became clear that PKK had armed units in even the smallest towns’, and the metal workers’ strike in May 2015 when tens of thousands rose up first against yellow unions and then against the bosses – a promising development because the workers movement had been quiet for many years.
Savran argued that secular forces in big cities, layers that used to vote CHP (Ataturk’s old party, nationalist but social democratic) now understand what is being done to the Kurds and are starting to vote HDP, while Erdo?an has begun to mobilise right-wing death-squads (partly because he cannot rely entirely on the still-secular army linked to NATO) against the working class in Turkey, and against leftists, Alevis and Kurds. His success in pushing back this whole movement by the atmosphere of fear bore fruit in the re-run election in November 2015.
Turkey in Syria and Iraq
Looking at the activities of the Turkish state only inside Turkey itself in isolation would be misleading. It is deeply involved militarily and in other ways in northern Syria and northern Iraq.
It has sometimes been said that the US armed forces are the military wing of the big US corporations. One could adduce evidence from most places in the world that the neo-liberal economic regime requires increasingly harsh measures to keep it “working”. This is true of Turkey as much as of anywhere else. The people who currently run Turkey combine the neo-Ottoman dream of rebuilding the Caliphate with recovering “their” old lands, projecting their regional power, and making the region friendly for Turkish businesses to accumulate wealth.
The resistance of the Kurdish people and the working class in Turkey are an obstacle to these projects, so they and their allies which include Britain find an unbending policy of repression the most suitable for reclaiming their former regional power, via self-serving attempts to exploit the legitimate grievances of the opposition to the regime in Syria, along with a last-ditch attempt to block the struggle of the Kurdish people and their allies both in Syria and northern Iraq.
The same violent reaction against signs of Kurdish self-government that we have seen in Kurdistan Turkey has led the Ankara to shell forces of the pro-Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Syria. YPG units distinguished themselves as the most effective force to stand up to and defeat Islamic State in their heroic defence of the besieged town of Kobani, where with the support of US air strikes, ISIS was defeated. In this and other battles against ISIS women fighters have been to the fore.
The YPG is trying to link up the three ‘cantons’ it controls on the Turkish border. On 17 March a Constituent Assembly of 200 delegates and 31 other representatives meeting in Rmeilan in Hasakah declared the “Democratic Federal System of Rojava-Northern Syria”, a self-governing region for the Kurds and other peoples of Northern Syria. The intention is that this region would be a part of an overall federal Syria, and the model is being put forward as something that the rest of the country could follow as a way out of the deep crisis that the peace talks in Geneva have so far not resolved. The declaration was immediately opposed by Damascus, Ankara, the HNC in Riyadh, the Arab League, and the White House.
Erdo?an and the AKP are open about their view that any Kurdish/ independent self-governing entity across the Syrian border is a dagger pointing at the heart of Turkish domination of Kurdish areas in Turkey. Given the presence of Russian forces, and given de facto US military support for the YPG, an all-out military assault by Turkey across the border is for the moment impossible, however shelling is likely to continue. On 8 March an attack involving what was thought to be phosphorus was launched on Kurdish fighters and civilians in Sheikh Maqsud in Aleppo.
Turkey’s policy in Syria tilts towards sympathy with ISIS and other jihadi groups. Kurdish fighters accuse Erdo?an of allowing weapons and equipment for ISIS to go across the Turkish border, buying oil from ISIS which is a key part of their funding, and sending Turkish special forces to train the ISIS fighters.
Two important questions are posed for the left about Syria and Turkey. Why did the US and EU, who claim to represent the most advanced, civilised societies in the world, refuse to arm the mainstream opposition in Syria in the early days of the revolution, once the government started shooting protesters, or wait until the last moment before giving grudging help to the YPG to prevent the fall of Kobani? Why do they consistently support the Turkish state as it viciously attacks the Kurdish movement in Turkey?
There was initially a lot of rhetoric from the US and the EU about the cruelty of the Assad regime, but almost all military assistance was funnelled from Turkey and Qatar and Saudi, key “western” allies, to assorted jihadi groups. These consequently became stronger at the expense of the rest of the opposition. The US-Russia-Iran alliance has nearly finished imposing a brutal military victory against both the revolutionary and jihadi forces in central and south-eastern Syria including Aleppo. Either the US changed its mind half way or never seriously intended to help remove the regime.
This reminds us of Iraq, where extreme air and ground campaigns weakened the regime, allowing mass uprisings in the southern Shia area and in the northern Kurdish area. These were encouraged by George Bush, but when push came to shove, the US didn’t want revolution, only to cut the regime down to size. So the defeated regime was allowed access to its helicopters and put down both uprisings bloodily.
So it’s no good appealing to the humanity of the US and EU governments – their enthusiasm for “human rights” and “democracy” is usually confined to polemic, and it is no good relying on them.
The security of the areas in Rojava that the Kurds have defended is by no means certain – US air support there when it was given was for their own purposes. Groups that relied on Turkey for support against Assad have been ill-served – it made working with PYD near impossible. Turkey seems to have underestimated the depth of Russian and Iranian support, and the reluctance of the US to allow the regime to be demolished.
Perhaps there will be a Round Two in which the regime or part of it will go, as in Iraq. Alternatively as Gilbert Achcar says, the revolutionary process in the Middle East will be lengthy. But at any rate, the price that has been paid thus far has been very heavy.
The attitude of the US seems to be that the Syrian Kurdish forces are currently useful for keeping ISIS within bounds, as are the PUK peshmerga in Iraq; and that in due course Turkey will be free to deal with both. Obviously most of the Kurdish people have a different ambition – survival, self-determination, peace, and democratisation of the whole of the Middle East, and socialists must stand with them.
The Turkish state wants to crush all resistance and retrieve the lands lost by the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Turkish army established bases in Northern Iraq in 1991 under the cloak of the no-fly zone, ostensibly set up to protect the Kurds of Iraq from Saddam Hussein. The bases were used in 1996 in co-operation with the KDP to attack PKK guerrillas. The Turkish army again attacked Qandil, Iraq, in December 2007, and after fierce fighting with PKK and also PUK peshmergas who rushed north from Sulaimaniyah, the Turkish army had to retreat hastily with heavy losses.
The new Kurdistan Parliament voted in 2008 that the bases should be removed, but nothing happened. At the end of 2011, US and NATO “troop trainers” left Iraq over failure to agree immunity from prosecution for US troops’ actions; the withdrawal of most American forces took place between December 2007 and 2011. In 2012, the Iraqi government said that the Turkish bases must be closed. By this time US and other NATO forces that had been in Iraq since 2003 had largely withdrawn; but the number of Turkish forces increased. Their presence was not popular: a petition with 470,000 signatures was collected in 2012, and one with almost 1,000,000 in 2015, but both were ignored.
The situation in Kurdistan Iraq is potentially explosive. Turkey and other NATO members know that people in South Kurdistan are furious at the corruption and inefficiency of their government, even if the situation is less calamitous than elsewhere in Iraq; a new wave of strikes has taken place recently. NATO supports Barzani’s KDP as a counterweight to the more radical base of the PUK in Sulaimani and Kirkuk, and to the increasing presence of PKK guerrillas in South Kurdistan since the rise of ISIS and the fall of Shengal and Mosul in 2014. The Turkish airforce have been bombing the mountain bastions of Qandil since summer 2015, and overflying with drones. Virtually impregnable, these mountains are known to be the headquarters of the PKK military leadership. Perhaps NATO even sees an increasing presence of the Turkish army in Northern Iraq as a substitute for the US army, which maintains limited forces at its new airforce base in Erbil and alongside Kurdish and Iraqi units facing ISIS.
Turkey and refugees
The dictatorship offensive has another important international dimension. A key part of the ‘strategy of tension’ is to garner European and American support for the AKP regime. Erdo?an has personally denounced the United States for giving the Kurdish fighters air support in the battle for Kobani and for their perceived tactical support for the YPG as the best fighters against ISIS.
But Erdo?an’s strongest card with the Europeans is his ability to turn the tap of refugees crossing into the EU on and off. The AKP government is using the migrant crisis to pressurise the EU states into stopping any criticism of Turkey’s human rights violations, and demanding that the EU states clamp down on supporters of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) in their own countries – as graphically shown by the stories now flooding out about tensions between Turkey and Belgium in the run up to and aftermath of the ISIS attacks in Brussels of 22 March .
Officially the deal between the EU and Turkey gives Turkey €6 billion and concessions on visa free travel to Europe in exchange for Turkey controlling the flow of refugees from its shores. Unofficially Turkey is demanding political support against the PKK, silence about its human rights abuses, a speeding up of the process of admitting Turkey to the EU, and a clampdown on PKK supporters inside the European Union.
The Turkey-EU deal to send back refugees landing on Greek shores is shameful. If it is followed by the EU making the political concessions Turkey demands it will be doubly so.
Peace in Kurdistan campaign
Stop the War on the Kurds
Solidarity with the peoples of Turkey https://www.facebook.com/groups/868318019911351/
Plan C Rojava solidarity
Bianet news site (carries news on Academics for Peace etc)
Kurdish Red Moon (collects money for material aid)
Syria Freedom Forever
 (See the YPG account of this on their Twitter feed https://twitter.com/RedurXelil/status/707208737979768832)