Turkey is undergoing a trial by fire, and the flames are illuminating a deeply damaged society as well as a failure of leadership. Wildfires are always a risk in the Mediterranean summer, and, this summer, drought conditions in many areas have made that risk much greater.
As everywhere, climate change is taking its toll. Some 191 wildfires have broken out since 28 July in 44 different provinces, and (as I write on Friday) 33 are still burning. Eight people have lost their lives and thousands of acres have been razed to the ground.
Despite the known risks, Turkey has shown itself to be woefully unprepared. And, despite physical conditions that have also brought fires to neighbouring countries, dangerous rumours quickly surfaced that Turkey’s fires were started by Kurdish arsonists. These rumours have spread even faster than the flames and have ignited a society that government-nurtured racism has made as inflammable as the parched forests.
Even before the fires, this summer had witnessed a spate of racist attacks that were alarming both for the virulence and scale of the violence and for the complicity of the authorities. Two weeks ago, I detailed three attacks from the previous week, and noted that the state was providing support and protection, not for the victims, but for the aggressors. As I was writing last week’s review, news came through that seven members of one family had been shot dead in Konya, in a bloody culmination of eleven years of racism from their neighbours. We know a lot about that case because the same family had been violently attacked before, when a mob of around sixty ultra-nationalist ‘Grey Wolves’ left seven people seriously injured. The leniency being shown towards the attackers had left the family facing daily abuse and fearful of further attack. Barış Dedeoğulları, who was killed last week and spent three days in intensive care following the earlier attack, observed shortly before he was murdered, ‘We have now given up hope on security and law. I know now that justice does not apply to the Kurds.’
Despite all the evidence that this attack was driven by racism, the Interior Minister and the Chief Public Prosecutor insist that it was just a fight between neighbours, and the local chief of police even tried to persuade the family’s lawyer to make a statement supporting this perversion of the truth. The government not only denies the actual racism, it claims discussion of racism is dangerously divisive.
Justice was also lacking in the responses to two attacks on Kurdish seasonal agricultural workers that were reported this week. Last weekend, a mob of around 300 people, who again identified as Grey Wolves, forced a family to return home after two days of attacks and threats, including threats to burn down the house where they were staying, with them inside. And on Wednesday, other seasonal workers were set upon with knives by a village mukhtar (headman) and his sons in the presence of a gendarmerie sergeant, who took the side of the attackers.
While anti-Kurdish racism is as old as the Turkish republic, there have been times when it has been especially encouraged and foregrounded. This is one of those times. The Turkish government uses the Kurds as a scapegoat on which to blame all the country’s problems. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) and the supporting Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which is linked to the Grey Wolves, call on the Turkish people to come together in national unity in support of the government against the Kurdish enemy within, as also against Kurds in neighbouring Syria and Iraq. Blame for these racist attacks lies not only with the immediate perpetrators, it lies firmly with the government. Politicians can enact racist violence without getting their hands dirty. They sow the seeds of prejudice and watch them grow.
The security services have protected the perpetrators and suppressed any sign of opposition. The massacre in Konya a week ago prompted anti-racist demonstrations across the country. In Istanbul, when counter-demonstrators attacked with sticks, the police joined in. Journalists were especially targeted, and Mesopotamia Agency’s Muhammed Enes Sezgin recounted how he was first attacked by four counter-demonstrators and a policeman, and then taken with other journalists to the police station, where they were beaten and left with bruises all over their bodies. The people who attacked the demonstration were not detained. In Van, ten of the anti-racist protestors were detained and three of these have now been arrested.
We have seen how Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government labels every form of Kurdish resistance as terrorism and linked to the PKK, which they have classified as Turkey’s mortal enemy. This labelling is used by the state to crack down on democratic opposition and NGOs, to send thousands of members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) to prison, and to threaten the party with closure. And these ideas have also been absorbed into the public consciousness. So, when social media started spreading rumours that the PKK was responsible for the fires, and pro-government media took up and amplified the claims, a large part of the population was ready to believe that this was the case. The Daily Sabah called the PKK ‘prime suspects’. Yeni Safak’s columnist, Ibrahim Karagul, went further, with his claim that the PKK is burning Turkey and that self-interested opposition leaders are supporting them. He attacked the leaders of the Republican People’s Party (CHP) and the Good Party (İYİ), and also “hostile structures like the ‘Turkish’ Medical Association”. And in a rant that would embarrass even the UK’s notorious tabloid press he claimed “PKK burned, they supported… They sabotaged the country’s struggle. They acted with the PKK. They acted with HDP.” CHP leader, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, is suing. While the official government line is that there is no evidence of sabotage, they have done nothing to reign in these rumours or prevent their brutal consequences.
Shadowy claims of Kurdish responsibility suggest the hand of the Turkish secret services, who have a long history of framing the PKK. A statement from the Kurdistan Communities Union, the umbrella organisation that includes the PKK, clearly labels “reports that the forest fires in Turkey were set by Kurds and the PKK” as a “lie”, and notes that the fires are a “catastrophe not only for the countries directly affected, but for all humanity and all other living beings”.
When it comes to the Turkish military, however, the burning of Kurdish landscape is a common practice. HDP MP, Hasan Özgüneş, claims that the government destroys the environment to prevent Kurds returning to the villages that they were driven out of in the 1990s.
A scorched earth policy has also become the Turkish military’s standard response to guerrilla activity. Just this last week, even as the world wept over the burning of western Turkey, the military set fire to large areas in the eastern province of Dersim, and soldiers prevented the extinguishing of fires caused by military operations in Nusaybin.
But on the Turkish street, or at least the nationalist populist part of it, none of this matters, and the anti-Kurdish rumours frame understanding. By last weekend, there were already reports of Kurds being threatened and attacked with sticks and guns for being ‘fireraisers’, and of cars being stopped because they had number plates from Kurdish majority areas.
The passengers of one of the cars stopped on Tuesday included HDP Döşemealtı District Co-Chair, Mehmet Deniz. He recounted that they were surrounded by around twenty people with guns, and although he was released unhurt, Mezopotamya Agency reports that ‘scores’ of people have been beaten.
Those hoping that this scapegoating of the Kurds would distract from government failings will, however, be disappointed. The scale of government incompetence has been too great. #PKKyaktı – “PKK burned” has trended on Twitter, but so has #TayyipErdoğanİstifaET – “Tayyip Erdoğan resign”. Anger against a president who has poured money into a fleet of thirteen presidential aircraft, as well as multiple palaces, but allowed every one of the county’s firefighting planes to rot unmaintained in their hangers, cannot be easily suppressed.
Erdoğan’s surreal visit to fire-ravaged Marmaris last weekend only highlighted his distance from the realities facing most Turkish citizens. He arrived in an ostentatious convoy of over 100 vehicles and threw packets of tea into the crowd. The government has also been criticised for its failure to work with CHP-run local authorities, which lack essential resources, and for turning down a loan of planes from Greece.
Erdoğan and his government seem more concerned about controlling the narrative than controlling the fires, but are failing at both. They have warned news broadcasters that too great a focus on the chaos of the disaster, and not on successful responses, could be rewarded with “most severe sanctions”, and they are investigating the spreading of social media calls to ‘help Turkey’, on the grounds that they spread panic and insult the state.
But the pundits are seeing the writing on the wall for Erdoğan. Metin Gurcan, for al-Monitor, writes of “a massive public outcry that might prove a critical juncture in Turkish politics”, with “criticism over Ankara’s failure to efficiently tackle the crisis” approaching an “existentially threatening level” for the government.
And İrvin Cemil Schick, for Bianet, draws comparisons with the Gölcük earthquake of 1999, which exposed the failures of the government of the time and heralded its demise three years later. The clouds of smoke that are covering Turkey could eventually prove to have a silver lining, but, meanwhile, as Erdoğan sees power slipping away, he will, no doubt, be tempted to unleash an even greater tyranny.
The Turkish government’s inadequate response to the fires has been matched by their failure to respond to devastating flooding in the Van district in the majority Kurdish south-east of Turkey. Here, heavy rain, compounded by poor infrastructure, has cause many houses to collapse completely and damaged very many more, and has killed hundreds of sheep; but the area has not been declared a disaster zone and there has been very little help from the authorities. Residents report being told, if you vote for the HDP, bring them your problems – though the HDP mayor has been removed and replaced by a government-appointed trustee, and, of course, help should not depend on a person’s politics.
The wildfires have not interrupted Turkey’s military aggressions. They continue to attempt to increase their footprint in north Iraq (South Kurdistan), and they continue their military operations in south-east Turkey (North Kurdistan), where, in pursuit of PKK guerrillas, they force whole villages to face collective punishment – as well as purposely burning more forest. In Syria, their breaches of the Russian-brokered ceasefire are constant, and on Tuesday, a Turkish tank shelled a house in the strategic town of Ain Issa, killing four members of a family and seriously injuring two others.
For the people of East Kurdistan, in Iran, the situation is often even worse than in Turkey, but very little news gets out. Last week I wrote about Turkey’s attacks on its exiled critics. This week, Middle East Eye spoke with the widow of an Iranian Kurdish activist – a supporter of the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK) – who had come to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq as a refugee and had recently been murdered in Sulaymaniyah by Iranian security forces. Iranian Intelligence officers had asked him to work for them, threatening to kill him if he refused. His ambush and shooting, by occupants of a car with tinted windows and no numberplate, is recorded on CCTV. The article compares the killing to the murder of another Kurdish Iranian activist three years ago, and notes that hundreds of Iranian Kurds have been assassinated in Iraqi Kurdistan since 1991.
This week also saw the seventh anniversary of the Yazidi genocide, which was marked by calls for its international recognition. The future of the surviving Yazidis remains caught up in the machinations of competing imperial powers.
One reason that governments can be so oppressive is that they face very few consequences when it comes to international relations, so it was interesting to read an article by Richard Ghazal in The Hill this week that describes a recent hearing on Turkey in which the United States Under Secretary for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, was questioned by members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The article explains that, despite concerns shown by members of both parties in Congress, the US State Department “continues to turn a blind eye to many of the NATO stalwart’s misdeeds”. Committee members “pulled no punches”, but Ghazal notes, “Among Nuland’s most troubling statements was her assertion that Turkey’s presence in northern Syria ‘protects Syrians from indiscriminate targeting by the Assad regime.’ While Bashar al-Assad’s government is indeed responsible for untold human suffering, to classify Turkey as the savior of the Syrian people — particularly, Kurds, Syriacs and Yezidis in the north — is misguided and dangerously tone deaf.” If Turkey is ever to be held to account, there will have to be some serious pressure from below to force the Biden Whitehouse to overcome attitudes such as this.