Yesterday afternoon, like millions of people around the world, I was marching for the people of Palestine. For the great majority of those demonstrating, of all religions and none, the emotions bringing them out were a mixture of human sympathy for people facing unbelievable brutality, and a desire for peace and for the justice without which real peace is not possible. But on both sides of this conflict – if that is the right word for something so ill-balanced – are leaders who claim to be following the will of God. This allows them to ignore mere human rationality, and to look down on those who do not share their religious insight. Hamas claims Palestine as an Islamic land, and they call for support from the umma – from Muslims around the world. Israel’s dominant religious right claims the whole land as the God-given inheritance of the Jewish people, and claims to speak on behalf of all Jews; and their American supporters include fundamentalist Christian Zionists.
In focussing on religion, I am not intending to deny the fundamental roles played by economic competition and the military industrial complex. Religious framing is combined with, and obscures, more worldly aims and ambitions. Religious belief plays an important part in making war seem acceptable – even good. It provides a powerful rallying cry, and it can be used to build barriers between peoples.
Recent history has familiarised us with the emergence of an aggressive political Islam that aims to rule the whole of society in accordance with Islamic law, but Christian societies have been equally intolerant, or more so. Some of the worst persecution was reserved for the Jews, however differences between Christian sects have also provided the excuse for large-scale violence.
The emergence of a similarly aggressive Judaism had to wait until Jews were in a position of power, but settler-colonialist Israel has provided fertile soil. Early Israeli society was predominantly secular and coalesced round ethnic nationalism, but Israel has been in the forefront of the international move to the right, and the religious roots of Jewish claims to the land have been seized on to justify the Judaising of the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is not himself religious, but half his coalition is made up of religious parties, and he is happy to dress his aggression in religious rhetoric.
The Clash of Civilisations
In the 1990s, an American Sociologist, Samuel Huntingdon, wrote an article, and later a book, entitled The Clash of Civilizations. These presented a simple theses that the world is divided geographically into different competing cultures. He claimed that “The dangerous clashes of the future are likely to arise from the interaction of Western arrogance, Islamic intolerance, and Sinic [i.e. Chinese] assertiveness”, and that peace was only possible through preserving these divisions. This is a recipe for an unstable equilibrium of antagonistic forces, and provides no way to address fundamental problems – such as economic exploitation – which Huntingdon just ignores. Huntingdon’s ideas found favour with conservatives who did not want to challenge the economic status quo, and both Western and Islamic leaders have embraced the concept to explain and excuse their aggression, and to disguise it in a simple message of good versus evil.
Netanyahu enjoys Clash of Civilisations imagery, and in a chilling speech to the Israeli people on Wednesday, he combined this with a reference to the book of Isaiah (Chapter 60), which describes a triumphant future for God’s chosen people. “We are the people of the light, they are the people of darkness… we shall realize the prophecy of Isaiah…”
The United States also employs the simple good and evil imagery of the Clash of Civilisations, and doubtless some of those who use it also manage to convince themselves of their righteousness. A disturbing number of American politicians are also evangelical Christian Zionists who believe that the creation of Israel is a fulfilment of Biblical prophecy and will bring about the end-times. For them, Armageddon is the gateway to the salvation of all Christians: a dangerous belief for those with the power to effect decisions about war and peace.
Also on Wednesday, Turkey’s President Erdoğan ended his uncharacteristic reticence and spoke out in support of Hamas. He told his party’s MPs, to strong applause, that “Hamas is not a terrorist organisation, but a group of mujahideen and liberators who fight to free its land and protect its citizens.” Erdoğan has been able to maintain Turkey’s strong economic, and even military, ties with Israel at the same time as presenting himself as a defender of Sunni Islam. Recently, he had been rebuilding ties with the Israeli government, but he appears to have made a calculation that this statement on Hamas would enable him to claim international Muslim leadership.
Unlike Netanyahu, Erdoğan has always been religious himself, but he also uses religion to maintain popularity among his poor religious voter base, who have suffered under his crony neoliberal capitalism. He could have supported the Palestinians without endorsing Hamas, but he has always had a close relationship with Hamas leaders with whom he shares a similar political outlook.
An opinion poll published the day before Erdoğan’s speech actually suggested that only 11% of people in Turkey wanted their government to support Hamas, while a further 18% wanted them to support the Palestinians. The majority wanted them to remain neutral or to mediate between the two sides. Of course, views may change with Israel’s increasingly heavy and relentless attacks.
Yesterday, Erdoğan invoked the Clash of Civilisations as he addressed the vast demonstration for Palestine in Istanbul: “O West, I am calling out to you. Do you want to start a Crescent-Crusader clash again?” The unconditional support for Israel shown by Western leaders has been a gift to purveyors of anti-West populism, which doesn’t care to distinguish between those leaders and the people they are failing to represent.
North and East Syria
In the same speech to party MPs in which Erdoğan praised Hamas, and chastised Israeli murderers and their international supporters, he repeated his determination to continue Turkey’s attacks in Iraq and in Syria, claiming, “We will crush the heads of terrorists with these operations”
On Friday, Turkey’s target in the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria was Ferhad Şibilî, a leading commander in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who was working as liaison with the US-led International Coalition Against ISIS in Deir ez-Zor. Şibilî was killed when a drone targeted his house. Should this choice of target be read as a public message to the Americans, whose alliance with the SDF Turkey has always rejected?
America’s failure to protect the people of the region – even people that they are personally working with – has been the subject of repeated criticism. The Autonomous Administration has called on the International Coalition to take up their responsibilities.
At the same time, the presence of American bases is putting the region under a new threat, as America’s active support for Israel turns those bases into targets. There have been attacks by pro-Iranian groups before, but last week saw around 19 such attacks against US or US-led coalition forces in Syria and Iraq. America retaliated with strikes on what they described as “two facilities in eastern Syria used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and affiliated groups”.
In further ‘spill over’ from Israel’s attack on Gaza, Israel has been carrying out air attacks on targets in the part of Syria held by the Syrian Government, especially on Aleppo Airport. Again, such strikes are not new, but there have been at least four attacks in the last three weeks, leaving at least ten people dead.
Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, the Assad regime, and pro-Iranian militias in both Syria and Iraq, together with Iran, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen are all linked in an informal alliance known as the axis of resistance, which opposes Israel and the West. The risk of more attacks and counter attacks within Syria is high, and these would put further strain on the Autonomous Administration. It is hard to imagine any sort of positive outcome for people perceived as friends of America.
The situation in North and East Syria has become even more vulnerable as a result of Turkey’s deliberate destruction of the region’s infrastructure earlier this month. This is especially true in Deir ez Zor, where Assad’s Government and pro-Iranian militias have been stoking unrest. Last Sunday, in response to the recent uprising in the area, the Autonomous Administration held a conference in Deir ez-Zor whose aims included strengthening participation in local democracy.
An article for the New Lines Institute, co-authored by the Institute’s Carolyn Moorman and by Myles Caggins who was spokesperson for the Coalition to Defeat ISIS, argues that America is likely to withdraw from Syria in response to internal pressures at home, as well as to pressure from all the other actors in the region. The authors speculate that when that happens, “the SDF would likely make a deal with Assad and Russia to delay an incoming Turkish invasion in exchange for the regime having more latitude to reclaim land in eastern Syria”, and that “The Iranian-aligned militias… would likely be part of a regime-backed offensive.” But all they can suggest for the people of the region, who lost 11,000 men and women defending the world against ISIS, is American visas for the people who worked directly with the US.
A new book has revealed this week that when, in 2019, advisors tried to persuade Donald Trump of the dangers that faced the Kurds if he simply pulled American troops out of Syria, the president responded, “Why would I give a fuck?” Other presidents may express themselves more politely, but the lack of concern over those living in the places where America intervenes is always the same.
While Turkey’s stance on Hamas and actions in North and East Syria will have further damaged Erdoğan’s relationship with the United States, he has softened the blow by finally submitting Sweden’s application for NATO membership to the Turkish parliament. However, there is still no guarantee if and when the parliament will ratify it. Erdoğan may continue to use Turkey’s veto to try and squeeze more concessions from Sweden or force the United States to commit to supplying Turkey with F16 warplanes.
At the same time as insisting that their devastation of the infrastructure in North and East Syria is part of the war against terrorism, Turkey – which has many times been shown to have given support to ISIS – treats any ISIS members who are captured and tried with extraordinary leniency. This week, after huge efforts by lawyers, an ISIS man is being charged with “international human trafficking” for smuggling a Yazidi child into Turkey and subsequently detaining her. He was caught three years later when, short of money, he tried to sell her on the dark web, and the child was taken into state protection. At the review of the case, it was revealed that the family who had smuggled her had been granted custody over her. She was only taken back into state protection after public outcry.
Elsewhere in the Turkish courts, a life sentence was handed down to a Kurdish man who was arrested in 2019 after he reported a forest fire. Instead of thanking him, the authorities accused him of “setting the fire on the orders of a terrorist organization”. The evidence included a picture of him holding a toy gun, taken when he was an extra for a television series.
Also last week, television journalist and editor, Merdan Yanardağ, was given a 2 ½ year sentence for his comments in June criticising the illegal prison isolation of Abdullah Öcalan.
On a rare positive not, the Constitutional Court has finally ruled for the release of Can Atalay, who was elected to Parliament for the Workers’ Party of Turkey (TİP). Atalay had been remanded in custody accused of “aiding to overturn the government” in the 2013 Gezi protests, but the constitution gives him parliamentary immunity.
The next plebiscite in Turkey will be the municipal government elections next March. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) appears to be preparing for the elections by registering its supporters en bloc in marginal seats. 600 soldiers and police officers have been registered as staying in a “guesthouse” in Mardin; local officials in Mersin have changed their registered addresses; and civil servants living in outlying parts of Ağrı have been pressured to register at addresses in the city centre.
On 19 October, across the border in Iraq, the PKK announced the withdrawal of their forces from bases near Makhmour camp. The camp houses families that originally came from North Kurdistan/southeast Turkey. It is run according to the principles of the Kurdish Freedom Movement, and the PKK had occupied the bases since driving ISIS from the area in 2014. The Iraqi army took control of the vacated bases, but this is an area that is disputed between the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government. Last Sunday, the Peshmerga of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) challenged the Iraqi control. In the subsequent clashes two men were killed on each side, including the commander of the 18th Peshmerga Infantry Brigade.
Turkey has repeatedly targeted the Makhmour camp, claiming that the camp is used by the PKK. The experience of Şengal, which now only has Yazidi forces but is still targeted, suggests that the removal of the PKK from the surrounding area will not of itself be enough to stop these attacks. The Iraqi government is hardly a friend of Makhmour, but it’s troops will be regarded as preferable to the KDP, which collaborates closely with Turkey.
News coming out of Iran has been bleak. Persistent Friday protests in Baluchistan had provided a weekly source of hope, but on Friday 20th, the Iranian Government cracked down hard. A report by Amnesty International, published on Thursday, recorded, “Hundreds, including scores of children, were violently arrested and many remain forcibly disappeared. Child and adult detainees were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment including severe beatings and injuries from paintball launchers fired at close range.” Last Friday, the protestors marched in silence watched by heavy security.
Hengaw Organisation for Human Rights publishes a steady stream of news on detentions and sentencing. On Friday, they reported the deaths of eight different people that day at the hands of government forces. And seventeen-year-old Armita Garavand, who fell into a coma after being assaulted by the morality police on the metro on 1 September, was declared dead on Saturday.
Despite this horrific record, a Kurdish political activist who had sought asylum in Norway has been apprehended and may be about to be deported back to Iran, at risk of his life.
Today is the centenary of the foundation of the Turkish Republic. Last week the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities was held at the Council of Europe, here in Strasbourg, and the Turkish delegation held a celebratory reception. Of the 65 mayors elected from the pro-Kurdish HDP at the last Turkish elections, most have been deposed and replaced by a government-appointed trustee. Now only five remain in place and many of those deposed are in prison or exile. No-one mentioned this inconvenient truth.