While the world tuned into the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Kurds shared bitter memories of the Turkish invasion of Afrin, in the predominantly Kurdish autonomous region of Syria, three years before. Afrin provides a stark reminder of the perfidy of international politics. Putin’s Russia and Trump’s US stood by and watched the destruction of what had been one of the most peaceful, as well as socially progressive, parts of Syria. Eighteen months later, Trump ordered the withdrawal of US troops, making way for Turkey’s attack on Serê Kaniyê (Ras al-Ayn) and Girê Spî (Tell Abyad) – though not before persuading America’s Kurdish allies to dismantle their border posts. Both invasions were followed by “ethnic cleansing” and gangster rule. No wonder many Kurds have invested their hopes in Trump’s successor.
As one of Trump’s favourite bullies, Erdoğan was able to persuade him to give orders that were not only disastrous for the Kurds, but which also shredded America’s international reputation and ceded power to both Turkey and Russia. For Trump, satisfying Erdoğan was actually more important than putting America first – but, while most leaders won’t say it so bluntly, putting your own nation first is the underlying driver of most international relations. International politics is all about competition between national interests, or rather the interests of national elites. Biden’s approach to the Kurds in Syria and elsewhere will be primarily guided by what he and his administration understands as American interests.
Despite Biden’s paean for democracy, US understanding of this is limited to a cross on a bit of paper every few years. While American society actually expects a lot of the daily graft of keeping life running to be done by community organisations, these are not seen as part of the political sphere. Most US politicians will have little sympathy with the type of grassroots democracy that is being developed by the Autonomous Administration of North East Syria, where people are encouraged to come together and organise their own lives in the interests of their communities – and not of big business. They will have even less sympathy with leaders and activists who describe themselves as anti-capitalist, even though the tactical demands of the fight against ISIS has brought them together.
One way that US and European strategists have justified their alliance with a group that demonstrates such dangerous radical tendencies in support of democracy and social justice is to treat this as an immature phase that the Autonomous Administration will grow out of. But they are also actively involved in trying to dilute these ideas. Kurdish unity talks between different political parties within Syria have been broadly welcomed as a way to defuse destructive tensions, but the encouragement given to these by the US – and by France – can also be understood as an attempt to tame the radicalism of the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD) by forcing them to make concessions with conservative groups. The leaders of the Autonomous Administration have to steer an extraordinarily difficult path between different forces, none of whom want to see them succeed on their own terms.
The US has been an active supporter of Turkish attacks on the PKK, and will remain so under Biden. Last week, both Bagdad and Hewler (Erbil) were visited by a Turkish delegation made up of the Defence Minister, the Chief of General Staff, and the Head of Intelligence (MIT), raising expectations of further Turkish military action in Bașur (the Kurdistan Region of Iraq). Regions controlled by the PKK guerrillas can expect more attacks from Turkish forces, and an attempt to increase the area that is already effectively under Turkish occupation. Turkey will pressure the KDP, the main ruling party in the Kurdistan Regional Government, to continue to mobilise the KDP Peșmerga in support of their actions.
The agreement, facilitated by the US, for the takeover of Yazidi Șengal by the Iraqi army and the KDP, and the ousting of the Yazidi’s autonomous administration that was established and trained with the help of their Syrian Kurdish liberators, is part of this new, US-approved order.
The KDP’s involvement in attacks on the PKK risks escalation into an intra-Kurdish civil war and has been condemned by all other parties in Bașur and by prominent Kurdish voices across the world; but, despite this, and despite their deadly crackdown on recent protests, the Kurdistan Regional Government continues to receive support from western governments. The UK has just launched a training programme for the region’s judges, and they are helping to modernise the Peșmerga, which Consul General James Thornton happily describes as “a splendid fighting force”.
While the Turkish Defence Minister was visiting Iraq, Turkish-trained mercenaries were carrying out military exercises in the disputed region of Kirkuk. As ANF News observes, although Kurdish forces were expelled from Kirkuk by the Iraqi army in response to the Kurdish independence referendum of 2017, these soldiers, who support a Turkic ethnic nationalism and believe that Mosul and Kirkuk belong to Turkey, are left unrestricted.
If Western governments seem unconcerned about effectively aiding Turkey’s imperial plans in Iraq, this is not because Turkey has hidden its ambitions. On 18 January, in a video address to his party’s provincial congresses, Erdoğan reiterated his contempt for existing borders: “[W]e are laying the groundwork for a historic transformation outside our borders. We have shown our determination to the entire world in this regard thanks to the strong will we have displayed on critical matters, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Karabakh… Turkey is shaking up a century-old order built on oppression and exploitation. The maps drawn at tables in other parts of the world can no longer be implemented in our region”.
For most people in Turkey itself, critical accounts of their government’s actions are hard to come by. Every week another selection of brave journalists is dragged through the Turkish courts. The International Press Institute’s trials calendar, which keeps track of what is happening, informs us that this week saw five cases concerning six journalists, and next week will see a further five cases concerning fourteen journalists.
When it comes to social media, the trawling of individual accounts for “incriminating” posts is now being accompanied by control over the social media platforms themselves. The social media law that came into effect in October requires all social media companies that get more than a million hits a day to appoint a local representative based in Turkey. This representative must respond to requests for post removals, and do so within 24 hours, or be held personally liable. They can easily be swamped by large numbers of requests, so the opportunities for resisting a requested takedown are almost negligible. Data on Turkish users must be kept in the country, and the local representative will be required to hand it over if requested by a court, therefore undermining people’s right to comment anonymously, in a country where the smallest criticism can land you in prison.
Social media organisations that fail to comply are punished first with fines, then by a ban on the advertising that provides their revenue, and then by a reduction in bandwidth that would make them almost inoperable (a 50% cut in April and 90% cut in May). LinkedIn, YouTube, TikTok, VK, DailyMotion, and Facebook have all caved to Turkey’s demand, with Facebook announcing that they would set up a local office just the day before the deadline for the imposition of advertising bans. So far, Twitter (which includes Periscope and Pinterest) is still holding out, but the bandwidth cut would give little scope for resistance.
Without a hint of irony, and as if straight from the Trump playbook, Turkey’s Deputy Minister for Transport and Infrastructure commented, “We will never allow digital fascism and anarchism to dominate in Turkey”.
Although the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights publicly criticised the Turkish legislation when the draft bill was drawn up in July, there are major concerns about the UN’s own proposed cybercrime treaty, which could provide further scope for widespread censorship and breaches of data privacy.
This week has also seen mixed messages from another international institution. At the same time as the Turkish foreign minister visited the EU, the European Parliament voted almost unanimously for a resolution calling on Turkey to effect the immediate release of Selahattin Demirtaș, in compliance with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, and to drop all charges against him and against other imprisoned members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). The resolution expressed concern at the general deterioration within Turkey of fundamental rights and freedoms, and while it “reiterates the EU’s openness to a new start”, it also underlines that “better and deeper relations are fully dependent on, inter alia, tangible improvements in respect for democratic principles, the rule of law and fundamental rights within Turkey”.
So far so good. However there is little by way of a plan of action. Despite all that has happened, Reuters observes an “improved tone” in relations between Ankara and Brussels since 9 January, when Erdoğan and the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, held a video conference “in which both stressed the importance of the bilateral relationship”. After noting the resolution, Reuters comments, “But Turkey remains a big destination for EU trade and investment and also hosts some 4 million Syrian refugees. The EU aims to agree fresh funds for the refugees from 2022 to discourage them from coming into the bloc”.
While these talks were taking place in Brussels, the Turkish government did not hold back from attacking an HDP protest in Istanbul that had been called to give support to the 2,500 political prisoners who are on hunger strike to protest the illegal prison isolation of Abdullah Ocalan. The previous day, police had raided HDP offices and confiscated banners and leaflets. Now they blockaded activists inside the HDP district office, and when demonstrators responded with a sit-down protest, eight people were violently detained.
The European Parliament resolution also urged the Turkish government to comply with an earlier European Court of Human Rights judgement and release the philanthropist, Osman Kavala, who is also remanded in prison. But, yesterday, Kavala’s hopes for release were actually set back further, as a Turkish appeals court overturned his acquittal in an earlier case.
People in Turkey may not be able to read critical reports about their government, but they can’t escape the results of its neoliberal economic policies. As recorded in a new report by the public services union, Turkey is suffering from exceptionally high levels of inequality, poverty, and debt. Inflation is high, especially for food, and markets are jittery. For Turkey, their trade agreements with the EU are more important than ever – giving the EU leverage in negotiations if they chose to use it.
But if we want world leaders to stand up to Turkish fascism, then we will need to put our politicians under a lot more pressure. They need to be worried that failure to defend rights and freedoms will cost them support.