When western nations were engaged in wars against Al Qaeda and ISIS, the growth and spread of these violent and intolerant interpretations of Islam was widely regarded as a threat to peaceful existence. Men and women recruited by such organisations are still not accepted back into their countries of origin because of the danger they pose. And yet, everywhere that Turkey goes they bring in mercenary gangs of brutal jihadi fighters and consolidate their occupation with settlements of the jihadists’ families – and western governments hardly even comment. Turkey’s latest deployment of their jihadi mercenaries is in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan, as part of an invasion and attempted occupation which most of the world does not bother – or does not want – to talk about. There is, however, no excuse for this silence. Turkey has made no secret of its expansionist aims, and they hold regular discussions with western leaders.
The PKK, who are resisting this Turkish invasion, are clear that the current attack is of a different scale to those Turkey has carried out in the past – that PKK guerrillas are involved in an existential struggle to preserve Kurdish gains and ultimately the very possibility of a distinct Kurdish culture. Kurdish politicians and activists know that the attack on the areas where the PKK have their bases is also a threat to every other part of Kurdistan. Turkey will stop at nothing in their war against the Kurds, and world indifference ensures there are few external restraints. The PKK has shared evidence of chemical weapons used against their guerrillas, but even this is not mentioned in the mainstream media. Turkey would not be content with incapacitating the PKK. They have their sights on Rojava and on the rest of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, and beyond.
Commenting on the progress of this war is not really possible. There are no independent reports, and each side might as well be talking about a different conflict. However, we know that herdsman and their families have had to evacuate mountain villages to escape Turkish bombing, and that the PKK guerrillas have carried out air strikes in Turkey. Much has been said about drones giving Turkey a new ability to target mountain fighters, but drones, albeit of a simpler kind, have also given the guerrillas the ability to attack from the air. On Wednesday night, drones targeted the runway of the Turkish air force base in Amed (Diyarbakir), and the PKK claimed to have temporarily grounded Turkey’s fighter planes. On Thursday night, attacks, as yet unclaimed, targeted a gendarmerie division in Șirnak (Șirnex) and a drone base in Batman (Elih).
We don’t have to look far to see the Turkish vision for the area’s future. In the Turkish-occupied areas of Syria, much of the original population has been forced to leave and has been replaced by Turkey-approved ethnic groups, especially the families of jihadi fighters. Those former inhabitants who remain must submit to forced Turkification and violent gang rule. Women dare not leave their homes and children are taught to make the sign of the fascist Grey Wolves.
Population displacement, deliberate destruction of everything associated with the cultural and religious identity of other peoples, and promotion of jihadi gang rule, are not only a source of human misery now. They are creating conditions for generations of political instability. As Irish history reminds us, ethnic cleansing and the imposition of an antagonistic group can make divisions that last for centuries.
Western nations will not be immune from the consequences either. But those countries who professed the most concern over the ISIS threat and the risk of ISIS terrorism within their own borders have done nothing to prevent the propagation of more groups with a similar ideology. Meanwhile, Turkey’s promotion of their clerical-fascist blend of Turkish nationalism and violent Islamism is not restricted to lands they have occupied. Everywhere that there is a Turkish diaspora, the Turkish government attempts to recruit emigrant Turks to this intolerant politics through sponsoring mosques and community organisations, and through encouraging the establishment of groups of Grey Wolves, violent gangs linked to Devlet Bahçeli’s Nationalist Movement Party (MHP), which the Turkish government relies on for support. Turkey proselytises among other Muslims, too, reinforcing divisions along religious lines.
Within Turkey itself, President Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) are already far down the dangerous road of authoritarian control and destroy social and communal relations through viscous divide and rule populism. As they have found themselves struggling for political survival, their politics has grown ever murkier. These last weeks, Turkey’s politics watchers have been glued to YouTube for the latest revelations from the mafia boss Sedat Peker, who has been turning against his former friends – notably the Interior Minister, Süleyman Soylu – from the safety of self-imposed exile in the United Arab Emirates. So far, his accusations have not touched Erdoğan himself, which raises questions as to who is scratching whose back here, but, as Fayik Yagizay pointed out yesterday, the activities of the recognised mafia are relatively small fry compared to the mafia behaviour of the recognised government.
Meanwhile, anger is growing at the government’s contempt for ordinary citizens, as highlighted by the reaction to the recent video put out by the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, which had to be quickly withdrawn. The video featured smiling tourism workers wearing masks printed with ‘enjoy – I’m vaccinated’, while surrounding tourists were not masked. Tourism workers have protested that it makes them into branded slaves, and they also point out that that they have been given no financial aid to help them survive the collapse of their industry. While tourists are already exempted from curfew and lockdown rules, the great majority of Turkey’s population is yet to receive a vaccination. The masks in the video have been compared to the tags put on dogs’ ears to show that they are neutered and safe.
Turkey’s pursuit of authoritarian control (and suppression of minority groups), has given the courts a busy week. The Kobanê Case resumed on Monday and the Gezi retrial started on Friday. In the Kobanê Case, 108 leading members of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) face life imprisonment for calling people to protest against ISIS’s siege of Kobanê in 2014 and against the Turkish government’s refusal to let people cross the border to help in Kobanê’s defence. The protests were attacked by the state security forces and counter protestors, and, instead of investigating the lethal violence, as the HDP has repeatedly called for, the government has blamed the HDP for the resulting the deaths, alongside their usual charges of terrorism and separatism.
The Kobanê Case defendants have been giving their statements with the resistance and resolve that we have come to expect but that we should never take for granted. These are people whose integrity has led them to the threshold of a life behind bars.
No one observing this case could see it as anything other than political, but former HDP co-chair, Selahattin Demirtaș, hammered this home: “I am sorry that the politicians who made sacrifices for the peace, democracy and freedom of Turkey are sitting in defendants’ seats. This case is not the Kobanê Case; this case is a case of plot and political revenge targeting the HDP. The Kobanê Case will be filed one day and the real responsible parties, the ones who committed massacres and those who instigated them will be brought to light. But everyone must be sure about this: When that day comes, we will not be the ones sitting in defendants’ seats… In reality, there are no judges or prosecutors in this trial. Erdoğan, Bahçeli and Soylu sit in the seat of the judge, while the pro-government media and troll army sit in the seat of the prosecutor.”
Demirtaș also outlined procedural irregularities, including the mistranslation of the most critical sentence in the European Court of Human Rights judgment that called for his immediate release, and the fact that the indictment was approved in much less time than would be needed just to read it.
Former MP Sırrı Süreyya Önder observed in his statement: “The sensitivity shown today for Palestine is exactly the same as the sensitivity shown for Kobanê in 2014.”
Among this week’s irregularities, witness statements were accepted by the court that had been made without the presence of a lawyer.
The sixteen Gezi defendants in Friday’s hearing are charged with attempting to overthrow the government on the basis of their prominent roles in the Gezi Park protests of 2013. These protests began as resistance to the development of a rare remaining Istanbul green space, and grew, in the face of government crackdowns, into an all-encompassing movement against government oppressions and authoritarianism. The prosecution is calling for sentences ranging from 606 to 2,970 years.
One of the defendants is businessman-philanthropist Osman Kavala, who has been held on remand for over three and a half years, despite a European Court of Human Rights ruling in December 2019 calling for his immediate release. Kavala and eight others were acquitted in February 2020, but this acquittal was reversed on appeal in January. After the acquittal, Erdoğan told his party “The person who stirred up Gezi was behind bars. They tried to acquit him with a manoeuvre.”
But it was Erdoğan who was to employ manoeuvres, in which he has become an expert. An enquiry was launched against the judges who had made the unacceptable decision; and when Kavala emerged from prison, he was immediately rearrested on new charges associating him with the failed coup of 2016. Kavala has described these new charges as “a kind of window dressing” to justify his continued imprisonment: “A new crime was invented, using the same evidence, to circumvent the ruling on the violation of my rights.” Both cases against Kavala have now been combined. At Friday’s hearing the case was adjourned to 6 August.
Both Demirtaș and Kavala have received judgements calling for their immediate release by the European supreme court, but, so far, the Council of Europe has applied no sanctions for Turkey’s refusal to comply with the rulings. Relations with Turkey reveal European hypocrisy, but before looking at the current test facing the European Union, I will look quickly at two further international failures, the first in the Autonomous Authority of North and East Syria, and the second concerning refugees from Iran.
The dangerous short-sightedness of the “international community” is exemplified by their failure to address the problem of ISIS prisoners and ISIS families – their refusal to take responsibility for their own ISIS citizens and their dismissal of repeated calls from the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria for an internationally administered court to try those accused of war crimes. Instead, the burden of looking after and controlling the captives and their families has fallen on the already hard-pressed Administration. The sprawling Al Hol Camp, which houses some sixty thousand people consisting mainly of ISIS families, has been described as a bomb ready to explode. This week’s murder of two Iraqi women refugees brought the total number of murders to six since the large-scale security sweep of the camp at the beginning of April.
And this week in Hewlêr (Erbil) in South (Iraqi) Kurdistan, a young Kurdish asylum seeker from Iran, who had been waiting for four years for the United Nations to make a decision on his asylum application, set himself alight outside the UN offices. Before dousing himself with petrol, Behzad Mahmoudi said to camera, “Do we have to live this way because of my political activity? Is this life? We’ve been living like stray dogs for four years.” From his hospital bed, he told reporters “They have to help me. We have no work, no money and our only hope is the UN and the UN doesn’t answer us. It is our right.” The video of his action caused outcry as people asked why the filmmakers had not intervened to stop him; but, two days later, his dreadful protest inspired a demonstration by other asylum seekers from Iran, many of whom have been waiting considerably longer.
In a reminder of what these asylum seekers have escaped, the Democratic and Free Society of East Kurdistan (KODAR) is calling for a boycott of the forthcoming Iranian elections, which they describe as a “fraud and deceit”. They don’t want to risk giving the Iranian government any semblance of legitimacy: “Every vote cast returns as a bullet fired at kolbars and as environmental pollution, it strengthens the occupation and accelerates executions.”
The current conflicts in the Middle East have their roots in the ignorant arrogance of the imperial powers that carved the region into states a century ago. In general, those same western powers show no more sensitivity and understanding in their political engagement with the Middle East today – and little desire to learn from history. But Europe is finding it harder to ignore what is happening in Turkey – or at least the European parliament is. There seems to be a considerable gap between the reluctance to make any concrete response to Turkish authoritarianism demonstrated by the powerful European Council, and the majority view of the elected European Parliament.
This week, a few days after it was reported that Turkey had applied to take part in a European defence project, the European Parliament endorsed a highly critical report on Turkey that calls for suspension of Turkey’s EU assession talks, which were begun in 2005. It also calls for an examination of the possibility of adding the Grey Wolves to the EU’s terrorism list, banning their organisations, and monitoring their activities; noting that this “racist right-wing extremist” movement is spreading in the EU and “is especially threatening for people with a Kurdish, Armenian or Greek background and anyone they consider an opponent”. In their angry response, the Turkish Foreign Ministry leapt to the defence of the Grey Wolves. Turkey’s arguments should only serve to increase concerns over the dangers that they are promoting, including their frighteningly dismissive comment that “Racism and fascism are the concepts that belong to western political jargon, and this political line should not be confused with the perception of nationalism in Turkey.”