Kurdish lands have become a battleground for imperialist competition, and every day brings accounts of new geopolitical machinations. Powerful leaders are building up their arsenals, making alliances, and issuing threats; and the political classes are turning a blind eye to the lessons of history. Their bellicose imperial rivalries invoke echoes from the early years of last century – and no one can be unaware of where past rivalries led to. Many Kurds have recognised the dangers by describing their situation as part of a third world war.
Of course, imperialism of various forms never ceased, but we are witnessing a competition for power and wealth that seems increasingly unrestrained. There is hardly even a pretence of higher motives – not even the “civilising mission” invoked by former imperialists.
We are sadly familiar with how the people of Syria have been treated by the power struggles between Russia, the United States, Turkey, and Iran; and with how the United States, Turkey, and Iran are all meddling in Iraq. The last two weeks have brought evidence of an increasing Chinese presence in the region too; and now that the world has escaped from the self-centred unpredictability of Trump, we are being reminded daily of the dangers of America’s “normal” foreign policy. European nations, including the UK, are unashamedly pursuing their own interests; the Israeli government appears unconcerned about pouring an occasional bit of petrol on the flames; and the military-industrial complex is welcoming every new opportunity.
Former Indian diplomat, M.K. Bhadrakumar, has laid out how Biden’s US is “soliciting Turkey’s services” and ensuring that Turkey is committed to NATO. The US sees Turkey as an important balance against Russia, and also against Iranian influence in Iraq, and Turkey has been made a special envoy to host talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban on behalf of the US and NATO. Bhadrakumar reminds us that, during a recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored his believe in the benefits of having Turkey in NATO. This year it is Turkey’s turn to lead NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, which was set up in 2014 to provide a rapid response in reaction to instability in the Middle East and Ukraine.
It seems that America has learnt no lessons from the previous occasions when they strengthened dangerous regimes to use as allies against what they perceived as bigger obstacles to their pursuit of world dominance. Indeed, Bhadrakumar has observed that a relaxed attitude to Turkey’s alliances with violent Jihadist groups has not only allowed America to use Turkey as a counter to Russia and Iran in Syria, but even to regard these alliances as a positive benefit for a Turkish role in Afghanistan.
Turkey supports Ukraine in their ambition to push Russia back out of Crimea and Donbas and to join NATO. Cooperation has already included arms deals, and, last week, with Russian troops building up on the Ukrainian border and tensions reaching new levels, the presidents of Turkey and Ukraine signed a joint declaration aimed at strengthening their strategic partnership. Turkey recognises an ethnic affinity with Crimean Tartars, but, more importantly, they want to limit Russian dominance in the Black Sea. When it comes to relations with Russia, Turkey is practising a difficult balancing act, and their Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, has claimed that they are not taking sides. However, their recent moves with respect to the Black Sea seem to be all about weakening Russian influence and rebuilding and strengthening links with the US and NATO.
The 1936 Montreux Convention gives Turkey control over the Bosphorus Strait (which links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean) and limits the use of the Black Sea by warships from non-Black-Sea states. It was conceived as a response to earlier militarism, and alarm bells have been ringing at the possibility that the Convention might be scrapped when President Erdoğan completes his plans for building a new canal that bypasses the Bosphorus Strait. Most attention has focussed on the Turkish government’s treatment of the naval officers who raised their concerns over what might happen, and who were rewarded by being accused of planning a coup, but this shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the implications of ending the Convention, as Fehim Tastekin has pointed out in Al Monitor. He observes that the Convention “gives Turkey a strong hand in balancing Russia and the West”, and is supported by Russia, which benefits as one of the Black Sea states. The US, on the other hand, has long pressed Turkey to break the Convention and allow its warships greater access to the Black Sea. This now seems a possibility.
In an added twist, it has been reported that China will play a major role in financing and constructing Erdoğan’s new canal, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative. While this gets over Turkey’s immediate financial difficulties, concerns have been raised that such a deal could be at the expense of future economic advantage and of political control over a key strategic node. China already has investments in the third suspension bridge over the Bosphorus and the railway tunnel beneath it.
At the same time, China has signalled its intention to build stronger ties with Iran. The Strategic Cooperation Agreement signed by the two countries on 26 March could increase Chinese power and influence, as well as help cut across Iran’s isolation, though the extent of its impact will depend on future developments. It is understood to be a general framework, without specific details, and has been described as non-binding.
I have looked in previous reviews at how European Union countries are guided by their own interests in their relations with Turkey. Uppermost in their deliberations are the role that Turkey is playing in keeping refugees out of Europe, Turkey’s key strategic position (especially as a member of NATO), and the trading interests of their big companies, including arms manufacturers. They are also very susceptible to US pressure, and the US would like to see Turkey brought firmly into the western fold through improved relations with the European Union.
The UK government has been brazen in its pursuit of economic ties with Turkey regardless of Turkish attacks on human rights and democracy, and they were delighted to have made a trade deal with Turkey on the eve of Brexit. Last week, Canada announced the cancellation of 29 export permits for military goods to Turkey – though only because it had been found that the Canadian products had been used by Azerbaijan in Nargono-Karabakh. However, the UK continues to supply Turkey with drone technology, and last week the Turkish defence minister was welcomed to the UK for talks on military cooperation and meetings with representatives of the British defence industry.
A further reminder of the role of the ever-expanding military-industrial complex was provided by Greek and Armenian lobbyists, who are calling for the US to ban the June launch of a Turkish communications satellite by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. This would be the second such satellite launched by the company. They are intended for both commercial and military use, including increasing the range of Turkey’s military drones.
While politicians talk, and arms dealers deal, the imperial powers also continue their actions on the ground. In Syria, despite ceasefire agreements, small-scale attacks by Turkey and their mercenaries have become part of daily life. They receive only a brief mention on Kurdish media, and pass unnoticed internationally. Early on Friday morning, a Turkish airstrike targeted the house where Abdullah Öcalan stayed when he first crossed into Syria in 1979, which is regarded as a place of particular historical importance.
Last week saw a temporary partial withdrawal of Russian forces from the area they are monitoring in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s Shahba canton, whose inhabitants include over a hundred thousand people displaced from Afrîn. These kinds of manoeuvres by the Russians, who are supposed to be guaranteeing the Turkish ceasefire, have happened many times and lead to fears of deals with Turkey or of new pressures on the Autonomous Administration.
One way that different powers can exercise control and apply pressure is through cutting off key border crossings. Russia uses their UN veto to prevent the opening of a crossing that could allow humanitarian aid into the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and Damascus has recently also closed its borders with the Autonomous Administration. The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) controls access from the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and, under Turkish pressure, ensures that, here too, little humanitarian aid gets through.
In Turkish-occupied Afrîn, human rights associations keep a rising tally of death and destruction. It has been reported that, in just the first quarter of 2021, there have been over 200 recorded kidnappings and 20 recorded murders. Actual numbers may be much higher.
In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a drone attack targeted the US-led Coalition base in Hewler (Erbil) Airport on Wednesday, and rockets were fired on the Turkish military base in Bashiqa. Both attacks have been blamed, as with earlier similar attacks, on Iranian-backed militias. Attacks of this kind are a source of international concern, but barely a murmur is raised in response to the constant and increasing Turkish air and ground attacks that are designed to make life impossible for people living in the areas of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq where the PKK has its bases.
And in Șengal (Sinjar), Yazidi inhabitants are continuing to refuse to hand over control of their region to the Iraqi government and the KDP. This handover was stipulated by an agreement drawn up last October, for which they were not even consulted. The agreement was coordinated by the United Nations and supported by two imperial powers: the United States and Turkey. The Yazidis argue that Șengal should, instead, be an autonomous region within Iraq, and they have faced down two deadlines from the Iraqi army. On Monday, the Iraqi Interior Minister and the Army’s Chief of Staff went to the area to consult with the Iraqi military on the ground.
In Turkey, violence continues to be meted out on the internal colony that is the Kurdish region, and indeed on anyone who criticises the government. These small-scale aggressions are so numerous that they could easily fill an article on their own, but a couple of examples will have to illustrate the nature of what is happening.
The casual brutality of imperialism was demonstrated this week by the reaction to a piece of graffiti written on a village wall in Diyarbakir, as reported by the Mesopotamia News Agency. The graffiti read, “We loved life enough to die for it” – a reference to the PKK struggle. Soldiers raided the village and brought all the young people into the village square, where they proceeded to beat and threaten them. When the villagers tried to intervene, they were told that a police station would be set up in the village and their electricity would be cut. After six hours, the soldiers detained twelve teenagers.
In Suruç, Emine Şenyaşar and her son Ferit are outside the courthouse on day forty of their vigil for justice. Emine’s husband, Esvet, and two of her sons, Adil and Celal, died in 2018 as a result of attacks by İbrahim Halil Yıldız and his relatives and supporters when Yıldız was campaigning for re-election as a deputy for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). A fourth son, Fadıl, has just been sentenced to 37 years and nine months imprisonment for the murder of Mehmetșah Yıldız, the politician’s brother, though the Şenyaşar family are clear that video evidence shows that this was not possible. The trouble started when İbrahim Yıldız, along with his relatives and bodyguards, was asked to leave the Şenyaşar family shop. An argument erupted and turned violent. In the subsequent fight, Adil and Celal Şenyaşar and Mehmetșah Yıldız were wounded. They were taken to hospital, and Mehmetșah Yıldız subsequently died of his wounds. The Şenyaşar brothers were killed inside the hospital, and their father, Esvet Şenyaşar, was killed at the hospital entrance. Enver Yıldız, another brother of the politician, was sentenced to 18 years for shooting Adil in the shop, as could be seen in the shop’s, surveillance video. But, despite the public location of the hospital murders, and the prosecutor’s claim that 23 people have been identified, no one has yet been taken to court.
Finally, in a piece of positive news, Turkey’s Constitutional Court has given its reasons for returning the Chief Public Prosecutor’s indictment for closing down the leftist pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) – and they are fundamental and damning. The indictment fails to prove a relationship between the party and the acts described, and the vast majority of those “acts” are only ongoing investigations. Of course, this is not the only attack on the HDP, and closure wasn’t even a form of attack favoured by Erdoğan – the demands for closure have all come from the ultra-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP).
There has been no let-up in the persecution of HDP members or in the wider assault on democracy. This week, Erdoğan filed motions to lift parliamentary immunity from prosecution for ten more parliamentary deputies. This time, three are from the HDP and seven from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), including the CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu. We can hope that this encourages the CHP to stop distancing themselves from the HDP, but we cannot forget that, despite their self-description as social democrats, the CHP have been wholehearted supporters of Turkish imperialism.