What a blessing for Erdoğan, the intensifying Israeli attempt to annihilate the Palestinians. He needs distractions from domestic problems, such as mafia, protests against environmental destruction and increasing poverty because of the government’s pandemic policy.
Many people see right through Erdoğan, of course, and many of them refer to Afrin, the northwest-Syrian enclave under Turkish occupation, to point out Erdogan’s hypocrisy. While of course Afrin needs to be mentioned, it’s essential to make it clear that Turkey’s crimes of occupation are much, much bigger.
Afrin was a Kurdish-majority enclave relatively untouched by the Syrian civil war and governed by an autonomous administration until Turkey occupied it in the beginning of 2018. Autonomous Kurds are Turkey’s biggest nightmare, so that’s why. Ever since, there have been grave human rights violations, ranging from looting, illegal confiscation of houses (see the parallel with Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah?) and olive groves (rings a bell?) to abductions, rape, torture and destruction of cultural and religious heritage. It is, in other words, fully justified to point to Afrin to make it clear that Erdoğan is only using the Palestinian cause for domestic purposes and that he is not principally opposed to occupation.
What hardly anybody points out though, is that Turkey has been engaged in occupational violence already for many, many decades. Many people don’t realize it, but the southeast of Turkey has been under occupation since the foundation of the Republic in 1923.
Before that, during much of the Ottoman Empire’s existence, these regions had a high level of autonomy. The Kurdish clans had a pact with Constantinople: if they defended the mountainous far away southeastern borders of the empire, they didn’t have to pay taxes or send their sons to the army. It was not a peoples’ autonomy, of course, but a feudal one, but nevertheless, the Ottoman authorities stayed away.
This started to change halfway into the 19th century, when the Ottoman Empire began to crumble, against which centralisation was supposed to be the remedy. Power balances shifted between the Kurdish landlords and the Sultan, until after 1923 autonomy was taken away from them. There was resistance, of course, but in vain. The state had made its entrance into Kurdish lands and would not go away again, up until this very day.
Yesterday, at Eid al-Fitr, Turkey’s Minister of Defense Hulusi Akar was in Şırnak once again, the province bordering the regions in the north of Iraq where operations against the PKK are taking place. He visited an army post, after which he went to the municipality building on foot. They felt the need to explicitely mention that, ‘on foot’. It suggests that he just had a stroll but of course, the pictures were strategically taken, not to show the contingent of protection around him.
At the municipality, the posse reportedly discussed the works of the municipality with the mayor, Mehmet Yarka. This AKP man won the local elections back in 2019, after the government dramatically increased the number of soldiers stationed there, who were subsequently eligible to vote – check out an excellent breakdown of the results here. The number of HDP voters in Sirnak had already been reduced in late 2015 and early 2016, during the city wars in which PKK-affiliated youth defended their neighbourhoods against the army. Whole neighborhoods were razed to the ground by the state to crush the uprising and to displace people opposing the state, not only in Sirnak but in Sur (the historical heart of Diyarbakır), Cizre, Nusaybin and other towns as well. Are these the tactics of an occupational power, or what?
And that’s not all, of course. Throughout the course of the republic’s history, Turkey has crushed uprisings, burned Kurdish lands, built dams to flood cultural heritage or hinder the movement of guerrillas, closed off meadows where people would go in summer to graze their herds and make it impossible for families to support themselves with animal husbandry, burned hundreds of Kurdish villages, and littered the landscape with army posts, fascists slogans and the Turkish flag painted on mountains, and statues of Atatürk.
Not to mention the plain denial of the very existence of Kurds, the forced assimilation, the suppression of the Kurdish language, music and culture, conscription of young men into the occupying army, and the foundation of the village guard system, in which Kurds are used to assist the army in the fight against their own people.
Afrin is occupied. And that occupation is part of an ever increasing, already century long operation of Turkey to make the Kurds disappear from the face of the earth, either by killing them or by forcing them into the Turkish identity one way or the other. In Syria, not only Afrin but regions east of the Euphrates are under Turkish occupation as well, and also in South-Kurdistan (in Iraq), the Turkish army’s presence in creeping up.
Erdoğan couldn’t care less about Palestinians. On the contrary: he shares a mindset and corresponding destructive methods with the Palestinians’ oppressor.
Fréderike Geerdink is an independent journalist. Follow her on Twitter or subscribe to her weekly newsletter Expert Kurdistan.