That power corrupts is well known, but even more corrupting is fear of the loss of power. President Erdoğan should face elections by June next year at the latest, while presiding over a Turkish economy that is driving ever greater numbers into poverty and distress. Almost nothing is off limits if it might help him regain support. (The unofficial inflation figure rose in April to 157%.) Erdoğan rules over a divided country, and he is prepared to increase those divisions in a gamble to win a majority for his intolerant Islamic Turkish nationalism. He is looking for an inspiring military victory from his aggressive actions in Iraq and Syria, and he also hopes to rouse popular support through scapegoating his opposition as enemies of the state.
Attacking Yazidi genocide survivors
The most alarming military developments this week were the intensified attacks on the Yazidis in Şengal (Sinjar), in northwest Iraq. These were carried out by the Iraqi army, but it is Turkey that is most insistent on destroying Yazidi autonomy, and Turkey was behind the scenes, pulling strings.
The Yazidis hit international consciousness in 2014, when ISIS took over their homeland, murdering the men and taking the women and children into slavery. ISIS was able to do this because the Iraqi army and the peşmerga forces of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) retreated and left the Yazidis unprotected. Tens of thousands of Yazidi survivors took refuge on Mount Sinjar, where they were under siege from ISIS until rescued by a band of fighters from the PKK and from Rojava’s Peoples Protection Units (YPG). The PKK and YPG then helped them to recapture their land and to establish their own autonomous administration with its own defence forces. But in October 2020, under clear pressure from the United States and Turkey, an agreement was drawn up over the heads of the Yazidis to divide control of Şengal between the Iraqi Government and the KDP – the two forces that had left the Yazidis undefended. The Yazidis have no intention to give up their hard-won autonomy, despite pressures to force them to do so.
As I have explained in more detail here, pressure on the Yazidis was increased in conjunction with Turkey’s attacks on northern Iraq, where the PKK has its mountain bases. On 18 April, the Iraqi army attacked a Yazidi checkpoint, and attacks escalated as the Iraqi’s brought in armoured vehicles, tanks, and military helicopters. There have been deaths and injuries on both sides, and the Yazidis, though determined not to surrender, were forced to retreat from some positions. Yazidi leaders have since accused the KDP of deliberately stoking fears of a more comprehensive attack so as to encourage the population to leave. Thousands of people packed up their possessions and hit the road once again; but, on Wednesday, the two sides agreed a ceasefire. The checkpoints are currently being manned jointly by the Yazidi Sinjar Resistance Units (YBŞ) and the Iraqi army, and residents have begun to return. However, as Êzîdî Press makes clear, “many Ezidis believe that this is not a long-term solution & fear that the Iraqi government will continue to allow itself to be pressured by Turkey.”
There is a long history of cooperation between Bagdad and Ankara, and, in the winter of 2020-21, top level visits and meetings discussed strengthening cooperation against the “PKK”, which in Turkey’s eyes includes the YBŞ. Turkey claims the right to destroy the YBŞ themselves, in the name of “self-defence”, if Iraq does not act. As Erdoğan put it four years ago, “If you can deal with them, deal with them, or else we will come to Sinjar and deal with them. We do not ask for permission from anyone”. Turkey wants to extinguish ideas of Kurdishness and autonomy, and to create an unfriendly border zone that will sever the possibility of links between the PKK in northern Iraq and the YPG in North and East Syria.
The KDP have allowed themselves to become completely subservient to Turkey, despite Turkey’s Kurdish oppression. They, too, have tried to browbeat the Yazidis with a show of military force, and they egged on the Iraqi attacks, but this week they also tried to woo the Yazidis with a brazen rewriting of history and a claim that KDP forces defended Şengal from ISIS. This was fooling no-one, and their rivals in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) reminded them, “You vowed that you would defend Şengal with twelve thousand peşmerga troops, but withdrew your forces without firing a single bullet when the ISIS aggression began.”
Invasion of northern Iraq
Turkey itself, with help from the KDP, continues to pursue its attacks in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, in search of a rabble-rousing victory. The PKK reports that Turkish forces have combined ground and air attacks with “massive” use of chemical weapons. Roj News recounts a claim that Turkey has moved 5,000 mercenaries, belonging to various violent Islamist militias, from Syria to the Iraqi border, where they are ready to support Turkey’s attacks. PKK Spokesperson, Zagros Hiwa, interpreted the Turkish actions in an interview with Frederike Geerdink: “The Turkish state under Erdoğan has irrendentist Neo-Ottoman ambitions. Erdoğan has for many times vowed to take back the control of Misaqi Milli (National Pact) borders, that is, Mosul and Kirkuk. This means the elimination of the political status of the Kurds in South-Kurdistan and wiping out all their gains. [Turkish Defence Minister] Hulusi Akar has said: ‘There is no place called Kurdistan neither within or outside the borders of Turkey.’ This is the mentality of the Turkish state towards the rights of the Kurds. Turkey has built 73 heavily fortified bases in South-Kurdistan. It has no intention whatsoever to withdraw from the areas it has invaded and plans to invade…” Hiwa also observed that the KDP’s support, as well as being helpful militarily, provides the invasion with a cloak of legitimacy.
Attacking the enemy within
Inside Turkey, attacks continue on the “enemy” within. May Day demonstrators met with the, now customary, police violence and detentions as they tried to reach Istanbul’s symbolic, and cordoned off, Taksim Square, site of a massacre of May Day demonstrators in 1977. And, on Thursday, the main office of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Ankara, was subject to a provocative attack by the police. Police officers had accompanied three anti-HDP protestors as they laid a black wreath to mark their claim that the HDP had abducted their children into the PKK. The police then remained in front of the building, blockading the entrance and attacking HDP members who protested. When Batman MP, Ayşe Acar Başaran, tried to give a press statement about what was happening, a police chief threatened to “nail her to a wall”. Later the police tried to enter the building, pepper-spraying HDP members at close range. Nine HDP members were battered and detained. The kidnap claim is a favourite ruse to tarnish the PKK – and, by extension, since the government refuses to differentiate them, the HDP. Frederike Geerdink commented on Twitter, “i met one of the women who was ‘kidnapped’, but of course she wasn’t kidnapped, she joined pkk voluntarily. pkk doesn’t recruit by kidnap.”
The statement on the attack put out by the HDP observes, “As in the periods preceding the 2015 June and November elections, the government is fighting for its survival by means of increasing repression and violence against the HDP. As we get closer to the elections, it is likely that such attacks will peak.” The elections – for parliament and president – are due on 18 June 2023, but, if Erdoğan were to be able to claim a military victory in one of his foreign adventures, he could bring the date forward to capitalise on the resulting support. And he could use his control over the judiciary to ensure that the court cases to imprison HDP members and to outlaw the party were brought to a speedy and fateful conclusion. The HDP has contingency plans, of course, but the ball is in Erdoğan’s court. Banning the HDP would alienate many people, but would secure the support of hard-line nationalists, which is a constituency that Erdoğan has been cultivating and expanding.
Playing politics with refugees
Migrants and refugees are every nationalist’s favourite scape goat, and refugees in Turkey have become a political football. Erdoğan’s recent announcements about refugee returns exemplify the brutal hypocrisy of the Turkish Government, and also the complicity of other governments in enabling this, and even in making it worse.
Turkey hosts the highest number of refugees in the world – around 4 million, including over 3.6 million Syrians. (Though, technically, it doesn’t award non-European refugees full refugee status.) The government has been happy to boast of these numbers as evidence of Turkish generosity, at the same time as using the deal made with the European Union – whereby the EU effectively outsources immigration control to Turkey – to put pressure on Europe. If Europe is critical of Turkish actions, Turkey threatens to open the borders for the refugees to enter the EU. For a time in early 2020, they followed through on these threats.
Turkey receives political concessions as part of the deal, besides EU money to support the refugees, but, as in the European countries that have offloaded their responsibilities towards refugees onto Turkey, there is a lot of anti-refugee sentiment, and welcoming refugees has become a political liability. The main opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP) has long courted popular support by playing to those who want to see the back of the refugees. They have been pledging that they would send all Syrian and Afghan refugees back to their countries within two years of coming into office. A new anti-refugee party has put out a widely-watched dystopian video. And now Erdoğan – ever the pragmatist when it comes to the pursuit of power – has abandoned his welcoming rhetoric. He is promising that a million Syrians will be returned to Syria this year, on top of the half million he claims have already gone, although Syria is far from a safe place to be. These returns are supposed to be “voluntary” but Turkey has a history of illegal returns, and human rights organisations are worried. To add a further twist, the refugees won’t be sent back to their home regions, but to the areas occupied by Turkey. The returnees have been promised new settlements – like the settlements built in Afrîn with funding from Qatar and Kuwait. Most of the original residents of these areas escaped the brutality of Turkish occupation to become Internally Displaced Persons in other parts of Syria, and Turkey’s continued attacks are driving more families from their homes. The “returned” refugees become pawns in Turkey’s project of ethnic cleansing.
Turkey has also added to the total number of refugees through the oppression of its own people. Last year 20,000 people from Turkey applied for asylum in EU countries.
Kavala and the European Union
Last week, the European Parliament passed a motion that condemned, “in the strongest possible terms”, Turkey’s aggravated life sentence for businessman-philanthropist, Osman Kavala – a sentence given despite lack of evidence, and in the face of the ruling for his immediate release by the Council of Europe’s European Court of Human Rights. Speeches in support of the motion came from all political groups in the parliament, and it was passed with an overwhelming show of hands. All of which raises three important questions: why has Turkey pushed this widely criticised vendetta against Kavala; why did the EU choose to focus on this case, yet not discuss Turkey’s invasion of Iraq and destabilising of the whole region; and will the European union follow its strong words with strong action?
Pinar Tremblay, in Al Monitor, suggests some answers to the first question. She notes that, “The verdict has widely been considered a message to both domestic and international society that dissent against Erdogan will be punished in the harshest way regardless of whether these punishments are lawful.” Also, that Erdoğan’s improved international status – thanks to Turkey’s strategic importance in the Ukraine war – has given him freedom to focus on pushing the narrative of the “enemy at home”. This is a narrative in which the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which Kavala is portrayed as organising, are presented as a Western anti-Turkish plot. Kavala has thus been built up into a symbolic enemy of Turkey.
For the European Union, too, Kavala is an ideal symbol of Western liberal values: a good man who can garner support across political parties. And – crucially – his case has reached crunch point with the Council of Europe, which must now decide how they will punish Turkey for ignoring their court ruling. (The Council of Europe is a completely different organisation from the EU – with a much broader membership, including Turkey – but they profess shared concerns over democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.) However, it was disappointing to see no reference in the written motion to the case of the HDP’s imprisoned former co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaş. Demirtaş also has a European Court of Human Rights ruling calling for his immediate release – though this has not yet progressed as far through the Council of Europe’s (very slow) system as the Kavala case. Demirtaş’ case, and Turkey’s wider crushing of rights and democracy, were relegated to the speeches of some of the motion’s more progressive supporters. Of course, it is hardly news that imprisonment of some democratically elected politicians, and the invasion of some countries, generates enormously more international outcry than of others.
The Kavala motion notes that “the current Turkish Government has deliberately destroyed any hopes of reopening its EU accession process” and “reminds the European [Union] Council that any improvement in official EU-Turkey relations… should be dependent on a real improvement in the civil and human rights and rule of law situation in Turkey”. However, when it comes to the European Union, there is an added problem. Power is concentrated in the European Council (made up of heads of state) and the European Commission (of appointed commissioners), and these don’t prioritise the MEP’s concerns over human rights.
International action – and inaction
There is a well-used quote, often misattributed to Edmund Burke, that states, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”. It is a quote that can easily come to mind in the face of the multiple horrors that are plaguing our world, and especially when we see politicians making statements that are not matched with deeds, or that fail to take on board the level of action needed. The quote is a call for action, but it can also serve as a reminder, in the midst of horrors of all kinds, that the state of society should not be taken to mean that mankind is intrinsically bad. The view of humanity as irredeemably sinful is a counsel of despair, made by people who themselves thrive in the current system and do not want others to try and change it for the better. Most of those leading us to hell in a handcart are not bad people. Their failure to act is still catastrophic, but it is not inevitable.
As I have written many times – and will go on writing – for politicians to disrupt the status quo, they need to be pushed and supported from below. And that needs a mass movement. There is no substitute for the hard slog of building up knowledge, interest, and solidarity. The Kurdish movement has an impressive record of mobilising the Kurdish diaspora, but is often less successful in engaging with the wider community. How many May Day demonstrators, for example, will have seen Kurdish flags, but not been given any idea of what they stand for or how the Kurds are under attack, though this could be explained in a basic leaflet. How many protests go by without alerting local media?
That said, this last week has seen some impressive demonstrations against Turkey’s ongoing attacks, especially in Germany, where thousands marched through the streets o Düsseldorf last Saturday. Public statements against Turkey’s attacks in Iraq had already come from various quarters, including the Kurdish Friendship Group in the European Parliament, Sinn Féin, the French Communist Party, the Progressive International, and the Scottish Trade Union Congress. This week, the Party of the European Left put out a condemnation of the attacks by Turkey and by the Iraqi army, and the Catalan Parliament agreed a cross-party statement against Turkey’s invasion of Iraq and wider war against the Kurdish people.