While political pundits continue to debate the implications of Turkey’s U-turn towards President Assad, and to speculate on responses from the Syrian government and from the opposition groups that had been enjoying Turkish support, the cruel realities of life under Turkey’s authoritarian government continue to bite, both in Turkey itself and in the areas under Turkish military attack. Like all authoritarian regimes, Turkey’s ruling class pursues popular support and working-class division through the promotion of virulent racism. Prejudice is encouraged from the top, and intolerance spreads to exclude ever more “others”. But Turkey is far from unique. Right-wing authoritarianism is on the rise across the globe, including in places that regard themselves as models of liberalism. As has been seen many times, people are slow to respond to such prejudice and oppression until it affects them directly, when it is often too late. Both within countries and in international relations, there is a dangerous tolerance of intolerance. This week I want to look, through recent examples, at how this poison is destroying lives.
Last week I noted the killing by a Turkish drone of four girls in a school near Tal Tamir, in northern Syria, but details were sketchy. We now know that the four girls, Rania Eta, Zozan Zedan, Dilan Ezedin, and Diyana Elo, and their 11 injured friends, had previously left their families to join the Women’s Protection Forces, the YPJ, in order to defend their homeland, but had been discovered to be underage. The school that was targeted by the Turkish drone was set up by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria’s Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), in collaboration with the United Nations, to provide a safe environment for girls who have been demobilised for being too young to join up, and who are not able or willing to return to their families. In other words, it was a model of the rights-based values that international politicians claim to support.
When the attack happened, the girls were playing volleyball. The horror of schoolgirl deaths got this attack noticed by the British Daily Mirror. Their journalist spoke to a couple of the survivors. One told her, “We heard a drone and suddenly it attacked us. There was blood all over the place and we kept hearing explosives and piercing screams”. The other commented, “There was so much fear, witnessing our friends being covered in blood, being burned, calling for their mums and suffering in pain. It was awful.” She also told the Mirror, “What shocks us is that this happened before the eyes of the coalition and they don’t do anything”. The US-led coalition operate a base just 2 km from the attack. They control the airspace and are meant to be guarantors of the ceasefire agreement signed by Turkey in 2019. Even their public condemnation of the attack was widely acknowledged as worse than useless for its failure to name Turkey as the perpetrator.
When Turkey invaded Afrîn in 2018, after making a deal with Russia, a large part of the population left in anticipation of the terror that would be brought by the invaders. Most of the people who fled Afrîn took refuge in the district of Shehba where, with characteristic resilience, they have attempted to re-establish their grassroots organisational structures in IDP camps and temporary squats. For Turkey, the clearing of the majority of Afrîn’s Kurdish population was not enough. They have continued to target these people in Shehba with attacks almost every day. On Wednesday, a Turkish drone hit the main market in Tell Rifat killing three civilians and injuring eight others, including two children. One of those killed was a young man who was looking forward to his wedding that day.
Russia is the guarantor of another ceasefire agreement with Turkey, which includes implementation of joint Russian-Turkish military patrols in the border areas. There have been numerous protests against Russia’s lack of response to Turkey’s ceasefire breaches. This week, when protestors got in the way of a Russian-Turkish patrol, Russian helicopters doused them with tear gas.
Lack of action by the ceasefire guarantors has left the SDF to carry out their own retaliation. Fehim Tastekin argues that in their response a week ago, the SDF “appear to have changed the rules of the game… mounting overt attacks on Turkish border posts and patrols, something they have hitherto avoided.”
Both Turkey and Russia attempt to force control by depriving civilians of basic services. Turkey has especially targeted water supplies, and has again cut off the Alouk pumping station, which provides water to some 460,000 people in Heseke. Russia imposes blockades on essential goods, and is again preventing fuel and foodstuffs from reaching the Aleppo neighbourhoods of Sheikh Maqsoud and Ashrafiyeh, which have set up their own civil administration as part of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria. Attacking essential services is regarded as a war crime. The United States is targeting civilians too – indirectly – through sanctions that have crippled the Syrian economy.
Turkey has fed the growth of even more reactionary systems in the form of the Islamist militias that they have backed and have put in control of the areas under Turkish occupation. They even promoted ISIS, which continues to find a safe haven for its cells in the Turkish-occupied areas. And, despite ISIS attacks in Europe, the threat of ISIS resurgence is not being met with the seriousness that is needed.
The YPJ reminds us, “yes, we defeated their caliphate, but ISIS remains a threat. ISIS activity includes: active sleeper cells, especially in Deir ez-Zor province; forcibly collecting money from people: intimidating people working for the Autonomous Administration; attacking SDF forces… While ISIS still poses a threat to international security, Turkey is assassinating those who continue the fight against terrorism.”
Khaled al-Khateb, in Al-Monitor, reports fatal ISIS attacks on SDF and Syrian government forces and describes ISIS death threats that have made people working for the Autonomous Administration quit their jobs for fear of their lives.
Al-Hol Camp, which houses captured ISIS families, poses a huge danger, both now and for the future. Rojava Information Centre reports that, already this year, “ISIS cells and families carried out 43 terror operations in the camp, killing 44 people. Thirteen kidnapping attempts were also documented, as well as efforts to engender situations of chaos through burning tents, destroying service institutions, and removing camp walls.” The Autonomous Administration’s internal security forces (Asayish) have begun another operation to attempt to clear the camp of active ISIS elements, similar to the operation carried out in Spring 2021. In announcing the current operation, they stated, “we hold the international community responsible for the recent situation that has reached this degree of seriousness in the camp, and its disregard for the networks of communication and financing that link terrorist cells with their leaders in the areas occupied by Turkey.” They also commented that the operation was “long overdue and has been postponed due to the recent Turkish attacks and threats”. On Friday the Asayish reported the arrest in the camp of 27 members of ISIS sleeper cells.
Turkish troops are continuing to pound the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s (PKK) bases in Iraq with increasingly heavy explosions, and the guerrillas report repeated use of chemical weapons, which the international authorities refuse to investigate. Every morning, outside the offices of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in the Hague, a Kurdish activist from Germany holds up a sign that reads “The Turkish state killed my niece with chemicals. Why won’t you investigate?”
As in Syria, the Turkish invasion is devastating the local population and forcing them to leave. A new report by the Community Peacemaker Teams lists all the known civilian casualties. It details how Turkey has targeted vehicles used by the PKK and other fighters just as they were passing through towns and villages and has also targeted local people as they worked their land or attended to their animals. It notes that the attacks have forced the abandonment of at least 500 villages and caused massive environmental destruction, and that they have decimated livelihoods and brought trauma and anxiety.
The report also records “a pervasive, widespread sentiment of abandonment by the government and the international community”. It observes that European Union countries and the USA “bear a degree of complicity for the civilian harm done by Turkish forces, both due to the sale of arms and the non-recognition that Turkey is committing a series of crimes against the Kurdish, Assyrian, Yezidi and other people”.
In the Turkish republic itself, the large Kurdish minority has always been used as a focus of hate through which to win the support of Turkish ethnic nationalists. Anti-Kurdish racism is pervasive both in Turkish institutions and in the society that they foster. A few recent examples must stand in for a much bigger picture.
The Turkish justice system is in crisis, both with respect to court decisions, which are almost entirely guided by politics, and in the conditions experienced in its prisons. Prisoners are being deprived of ever more basic rights, including, in the case of some prisoners with poor physical or mental health, the right to life. Opposition to government and expression of Kurdish identity are both treated as “terrorism” offences, so Kurds are especially targeted. Political prisoners are increasingly subjected to long periods of isolation. For prisoners, possibilities for resistance are limited, and their ultimate weapon is the hunger strike.
Gökhan Yıldırım, who is serving a 46 ½ year sentence, has been on hunger strike since Christmas Day. His main demand is for a fair trial, and he is also calling for the release of sick prisoners and an end to rights violations. On Monday, Bianet reported that Yıldırım was isolated in a hospital ward under intensive care. When he was first taken to the hospital, he found that by waiting for the correct light he could wave to his brother out of the window. When this was noticed by the authorities he was taken to a room where he couldn’t look out. The hospital board has said he can be taken back to prison, where he is expected to add to the number of prisoners who have died behind bars. The hand in the window may be the last his family sees of him alive.
Ömer Faruk Gergerlioğlu is an MP for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP), the party that campaigns for Kurdish rights. He is not a Kurd, but a religious man who takes the concept of human rights seriously – which, from the point of view of the conservative, religious, anti-Kurdish establishment, makes him particularly irritating. Last week, Gergerlioğlu appeared as a guest in a popular YouTube talk show where a hostile ultra-right audience attempted, through their questions, to portray him as a traitor and paint the HDP as terrorists, and to deny that there were any problems associated with being a Kurd in Turkey. Turkish news reports delighted in portraying Gergerlioğlu as having been given a hard time, but many Kurds have written to him to share their own experiences of oppression and Gergerlioğlu has been using his Twitter account to get these out to a wider public.
At the start of the week, news was dominated by two fatal multi-vehicle road crashes that left a total of 37 people dead and many more injured. In both cases, the authorities failed to close the road after an initial accident and further vehicles crashed into those helping. The catalogue of errors that allowed these disasters to happen is a product of the contempt shown for the people of the predominantly Kurdish southeast, and of the license given to those in power. In the Derik district of Mardin, where 21 people were killed, large articulated lorries were allowed to drive though busy urban streets narrowed by roadworks. One such lorry, belonging to Cengiz Holding, which has close links to the Turkish government, careered into people and vehicles when its brakes failed. Twenty minutes later, a second Cengiz Holding lorry crashed into the first and into the crowd around it. The government responded by imposing a media ban on discussion of what had happened.
One of Turkey’s aims is to settle Syrian refugees in those parts of Syria that are currently largely Kurdish. Refugees are a favourite target of racist societies, and this policy has a double aim; as well as removing the refugees from Turkey, it is also a method of affecting demographic change in northern Syria. Turkey hosts the largest number of refugees in the world and has enjoyed international praise for this, but all the main political parties other than the HDP are overtly nationalist and are competing with each other to show how they will send refugees “home”. The messages coming from the politicians further stoke anti-refugee sentiment. The interior ministry has boasted that so far this year they have deported 72,578 people and prevented the entry of 197,482. Turkey does not award full refugee status to anyone who has come from outside Europe, but Syrians have been given a temporary protection status that should prevent them from being deported to unsafe areas against their will. These protections are being systematically flouted. Denying entry to asylum seekers is against international law, too.
European governments are mainly concerned that the refugees be prevented from entering the European Union. So long as Turkey keeps to their agreement to act as Europe’s border guards, European leaders won’t ask too many questions. Some European countries have started their own forced repatriations of Syrian refugees, and Europe has been ruthless in pushing asylum seekers back from its borders. As I write, images are being shared on Twitter of a boat full of Kurdish asylum seekers that lost engine power in the Ionian Sea on its way to Italy. The terrified passengers are running out of food and water and their boat is in danger of capsizing, but they are being denied rescue by the Greek coastguards.
The refugees on the boat are said to come mainly from Iran and Iraq, though also include a man who was given a 98-year prison sentence in Turkey. Kurds in Rojhelat, or East Kurdistan, the Kurdish region of Iran, suffer both from severe economic deprivation and brutal securitisation. Information on what happens in Iran is not so readily available, but a newly published academic paper, by Allan Hassaniyan and Mansour Sohrabi, sheds light on the Iranian government’s colonialist exploitation and destruction of natural resources in the Kurdish areas, and the resistance being mounted against it. It is no coincidence that marginalised groups are at the forefront of environmental activism everywhere.
The lack of economic opportunities in Rojhelat has pushed Kurds of all ages to work as cross-border porters, or kolbars, and take their lives in their hands for a pittance. As convoys of kolbars make their way over the mountain passes, they are at risk from border guards who will shoot to kill, as well as from abandoned minefields and from the dangerous terrain. Last month, at least six kolbars were killed by state forces in the border regions between Iran and Iraq, and a further 35 were injured – by direct fire, by falling as they tried to escape, or by mines.
Resistance in Iran is hard, but many people have little to lose. The oldest of the Kurdish resistance parties, the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI), was founded in 1945 and was the party of the Mahabad republic, which achieved a brief existence the following year. The KDPI has had a difficult history, at times being reduced to just a handful of members, and twice suffering the assassination of its leaders – in Vienna in 1989 and Berlin in 1992. It describes itself as a social democratic party struggling to achieve Kurdish rights within a federal and democratic Iran. Last Sunday, a reunified KDPI announced the end of a sixteen-year-old split over party leadership, and also called for greater coordination between Kurdish parties in Iran.
Across Iran, people’s determination to resist the regime, despite the risks involved, is always impressive. The strength of anti-government feeling made itself felt in a Tehran football stadium on Thursday, when booing drowned out the patriotic anthem.
It has been a good week for football supporters. Last weekend in response to a call by the Internationalist Commune, the stands of several German football matches were decorated with large banners in support of Rojava – helping to raise public awareness of a part of the world and a people that governments might rather forget. The answer to authoritarian popularism is grassroots popular resistance.