This week is notable for what didn’t happen. In some cases, the absence of action was predictable. No-one really expected world leaders to commit to changes that would save humanity from catastrophic climate change, but President Erdoğan was expected to be among the world leaders gathered in Glasgow, and chose not to come. And his promised major assault on North and East Syria, which has cast a shadow over the region, appears to have been postponed. No-one would have expected, either, that the UK Government would respond with more than its usual mutterings of concern to the Westminster debate on Turkish oppression, or would show any interest in the call to reconsider the terrorist listing of the PKK – and there were no surprises here.
Erdoğan has made little attempt to pretend to any concern about the environment. His mega-projects – such as the numerous dams that have fundamentally altered the rivers in the predominantly Kurdish southeast of Turkey, and the planned Istanbul canal – have engendered widespread criticism, and the country gets over 1/3 of its energy from coal and is building more coal-fired power stations. Turkey only ratified the Paris Agreement last month, after objecting to being considered a developed and not a developing country and so not eligible for financial help. They have been exempted from making financial contributions and have been promised a financial deal put together by France, Germany and the UK and two development banks.
It was clear that Erdoğan’s only interest in going to Glasgow was to meet with President Biden – he made no attempt to hide that – and, since they met at the G20 in Rome, that incentive was no longer there. The official excuse for his cancelled appearance was a UK refusal to allow Turkey the security protocols that they expected – specifically, it seems, the number of vehicles asked for. This doesn’t present a very diplomatic message – though they are far from the only country that has failed to appreciate that large motorcades should have no place at a climate conference. The cancellation also fuelled speculation about Erdoğan’s health. Tweets started circulating with the hashtag ‘ölmüş’ – Turkish for dead – and, this being Erdoğan’s Turkey, thirty people are now being investigated for their Twitter posts.
What exactly took place at the much-anticipated meeting with Biden, we can only guess. It is clear from the photographs that there was no personal bond, as there was with Trump, but nor was this expected. The official briefing statement from the Whitehouse is fairly terse, and records Biden’s desire to ‘manage our disagreements effectively’. Former US diplomat, Edward G. Stafford, commented in Ahval, “When the president of the leading nation of NATO feels the need to emphasise his desire for ‘constructive relations’ with a NATO ally, then relations are not as they should be.” Stafford also warns against expecting the US to go beyond fine words and to put real pressure on Turkey to respect human rights and democracy.
For Erdoğan, the core of the discussion was Turkey’s ambition to purchase F-16 fighter jets in place of the F-35 jets they will not now be allowed access to due to their purchase of the Russian S-400 defence system. On the plane home, he told reporters that Biden had said that Congress was 50-50 on whether to allow the sale, but that he, Biden, would “do his best”. Erdoğan also declared that there would be ‘no step back’ from Turkish action against the Kurds in Syria. The Whitehouse briefing says only that, “The leaders discussed the political process in Syria”, however James Jeffrey, the Turcophile former US special envoy to Syria, observed in a TV interview, “I’m sure President Biden warned Erdoğan against any operation in northeastern Syria”.
On Thursday, Hawar News Agency reported that a US Defense Department official had told Sky News, “There is information indicating that Turkey, through a group of mercenaries, is planning to carry out a military operation in northern Syria against the Kurds. The Biden administration will not allow Turkey to threaten our Kurdish allies.”
Turkey’s room to manoeuvre is restricted by US and Russian control of the airspace, but there is much debate about how strong a stand either will be willing to take. The Russian Ambassador to Iraq told Rudaw TV, “We are only exercising the role of a referee. We are making every effort to stop Turkey and prevent it from attacking northeast Syria, because we consider this a very dangerous thing.” And he observed that although Turkey might be planning a new military operation against northeast Syria, “we have a clear attitude. It is not necessary for this to happen whether in Syria, Iraq or any other country. We are against the unacceptable outside interference.” However, there has also been speculation that President Putin could be negotiating to allow Turkey limited action against the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria in exchange for Turkey clearing the way for the Syrian regime to retake Idlib.
On Monday, people across the world commemorated Kobanê Day, which remembers the city that turned the tide against ISIS and, more specifically, the international solidarity given to Kobanê in that fight. The commemorations were haunted by the knowledge that Kobanê is one of the places on which Turkey has set its sights – for both strategic and symbolic reasons. And Turkey’s predilection for attacking on significant dates added an extra cause for concern that day. But Kobanê Day came and went without the feared attack. On Wednesday, the independent journalist, Lindsey Snell, tweeted, “Over the past couple days, several SNA sources mentioned leadership telling them the operation in NE Syria has been postponed.”
Meanwhile, leading figures from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria itself have been calling for talks with the Syrian regime – an approach that was focussed on by the PKK’s Cemil Bayik a week ago. Aldar Khalil, member of the co-chairmanship of the Democratic Union Party, told Rojava TV, “To reach a solution, an agreement must be reached with the Damascus Government… the solution must be with the regime, but not in Geneva… Damascus has become aware that the crisis, war and ongoing conflicts are the result of the lack of a democratic system in Syria. In order to reach a solution, we must agree on a democratic project that serves the whole of Syria.”
The call for dialogue was reiterated by Joseph Lahdo, Deputy President of the Autonomous Administration’s Executive Council; and Deputy Co-Chair, Bedran Çiya Kurd, told Hawar News Agency that although earlier meetings with the Syrian regime had proved fruitless, “Russia now wants to establish a process of dialogue and negotiations with Damascus”. He described Russia’s growing role, and how its recent military actions have been calculated to demonstrate Russian importance, and he mentioned talks between Russia and the US. He pointed out that it is in the interests of the US and Russia and other countries to prevent Turkish attacks that would serve to strengthen groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, which are organising from the areas under Turkish occupation.
Living with so much uncertainty is taking its toll on the people of North and East Syria, both materially and psycologically – especially on top of the continuous small scale attacks carried out by Turkey and its mercenaries, which are often expressly targeted to prevent the development of civil society and to fuel social discontent and inter-ethnic division.
Across the border, in the mountains of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Turkey’s war of invasion and occupation continues. Here, the US is supportive of Turkey’s actions, accepting Turkey’s classification of their PKK opponents as ‘terrorists’; but, generally, other countries have shown no interest in what is happening, and there has not even been much response to reports of Turkey’s use of chemical weapons.
On Wednesday, protestors in white protective overalls marched in The Hague from the International Court of Justice to the headquarters of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to demand an investigation into Turkey’s attacks; and a call for investigation has been made by the Kurdish Friendship Group in the European Parliament. In the UK, a new group, established by Peace in Kurdistan, the Campaign Against Criminalising Communities, and the Defend Kurdistan Initiative UK, is not only calling for an investigation by the OPCW, but is also responding to the lack of action by the designated authorities by preparing an independent delegation of journalists, politicians, and scientists to visit the region and gather information to present to the United Nations in Geneva.
As always, Turkish aggression abroad is paired with oppression at home. This week, the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) marked the anniversary of the detention of their co-chairs, Selahattin Demirtaş and Figen Yüksekdağ, and other HDP parliamentarians five years ago, which they describe as the beginning of a “political coup”. Commemorative protests took place in many cities, despite the predictable police blockades and clashes. In Van, six people, including the party co-chairs, were beaten and detained.
And yesterday afternoon, the case for the closure of the HDP proceeded a step further, as the party submitted its preliminary defence to the Constitutional Court.
Simply to summarise a week of judicial abuses would need a dedicated article. Every week, more journalists are dragged through the courts, and more reports appear of the abuse of political prisoners. All I will do here, is give a single example to illuminate the judiciary’s systemic decay. Mezopotamya Agency has reported that a 96-year-old bed-ridden woman, who lives in a shipping container, has been put through two years of legal proceedings for ‘insulting the president’, on the basis of a video taken without her knowledge and shared on social media. In response to the defence that she is incapable of criminal responsibility, the authorities made out an order for her to be sent to a mental health institution eight hours distant, which her lawyer has described as torture, and as no different from sending her to her grave.
One observation on which all Turkey watchers agree, whatever their political stance, is that support for Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) is on a serious decline, and he would currently lose any genuine election. The question is, of course, what might he do to hold onto power? But even without Erdoğan, problems for the Kurds will not be over. Their persecution predated the AKP, and will not be extinguished by the AKP’s removal.
Throughout the Turkish republic’s nearly 100 years of existence, there has been no official recognition of ethnic – as distinct from religious – minorities, and Turkish ethnic nationalism has been the accepted view of the state and its institutions. While some politicians, even outwith the HDP, are waking up to the need to address the Kurdish Question, recent comments from Meral Akşener, leader of the Good Party (İYİ), remind us that the compulsion to demonstrate ethnic nationalist credentials remains strong. Support for the İYİ has risen significantly, and they are in an election alliance with the mainstream opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP), which describes itself as social democratic. However, Akşener was Interior Minister in the 1990s, and an MP for the ultra-nationalist Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), before founding the İYİ in 2017. Commenting on her meeting with a Kurdish shop owner who insisted that they were in Kurdistan (and who was later detained for this insistence), and reacting to AKP criticism that she had failed to respond to him earlier, she described the man as an HDP member and parroted government calls that the HDP must “distance itself from the PKK”.
The parlous state of Turkish democracy, especially in relation to the Kurds, was the subject of a Westminster Hall debate by the UK parliament on Tuesday. A Westminster Hall debate is intended to “give MPs an opportunity to raise local or national issues and receive a response from a government minister”. The issues raised were those brought out in a report published in June by the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Kurdistan in Syria and Turkey, which was entitled ‘Kurdish Political Representation and Equality in Turkey’. The report looks at attacks on democracy, at ethnic discrimination, at the closing of women’s organisations and growth of violence against women, and at the clampdown on the press. It also makes the case for re-examining the terrorist listing of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK. It looks at the legal case – quoting the Belgian court case that found that the PKK should be considered a non-state actor in a civil war, and the case in the European Court of Justice. It also looks at the practical implications – how delisting would make it harder for Turkey to criminalise all Kurdish organisations and individuals, and how it would make it easier to pursue peace negotiations – and it acknowledges the PKK’s calls for a peaceful negotiated solution. It also draws on the UK’s experience in negotiating the Good Friday Agreement for Northern Ireland.
The response from the UK government minister, Amanda Milling (standing in for Wendy Morton), was mechanistic, and, for anyone who had thought to see progress, disappointing. When she came to the PKK, she spelt out that the government doesn’t share the view of the APPG that there are grounds to justify delisting, and, in another chilling echo of the Turkish government’s phrasing, she gratuitously added, ‘we urge the HDP to distance themselves from the PKK and its ongoing terrorist activity’.
The report is a useful document, but this kind of work on its own cannot act as a substitute for a grassroots campaign that can force politicians to take real action – a campaign that can highlight the links between the struggle for democracy and freedom by the Kurdish movement and the struggle for a better world currently being enacted on the streets of Glasgow.
I am very aware that these news reviews often have little to say about what is happening to the Kurds in Iran. This reflects the scarcity of reports from there, but a recent article on Iranian Kurdish resistance, by Allan Hassaniyan of Exeter University, paints a picture of growing activity both by guerrilla groups, which have bases in exile in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and by civil society activists in ecological movements or in Kurdish cultural and language associations. He describes this activity spreading to new areas, but he also describes the Iranian government crackdown, with Kurds suffering the highest rates of imprisonment and executions, and with Kurdish guerrillas targeted by high-tech missiles and drones; and he talks of Iranian pressure on Iraq to expel the guerrillas from the Kurdistan Region.