International leaders seem ever more ready to go to war: ready to resort to force in pursuit of their own power, and ready to accept military aggression by others as inevitable. The Turkish government, especially, has no qualms about seeking a military solution to every problem – including the problem of dwindling political support – and other countries seem to have little problem with Turkey’s actions. Today’s pro-war leaders face little challenge from an, often-compliant, media; and commentators discuss the possibilities of invasion as though this were some sort of intellectual game and not the future of lives and communities. Anti-war movements seem to have given up when they are most needed. However, tomorrow in Istanbul, thousands will respond to the call of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) and rally against “war and exploitation” – against the fascistic Justice and Development Party (AKP) government and their oppression, both internally and externally.
Turkey and Russia
As I was writing this review, Turkey’s President Erdoğan was meeting with Russia’s President Putin: two leaders who have shown themselves very ready to use the military option, and also to cut a beneficial deal. Turkey has gained both power and prestige from brokering the agreement that has enabled the vital export of Ukrainian grain. They can offer Russia arrangements that enable them to bypass the sanctions imposed by the US and other western nations, and Russia can help secure Turkey’s supply of gas, and put money into the troubled Turkish economy. (Russia is already building a nuclear power plant in Mersin. Erdoğan also hopes to persuade Russia, which controls much of the airspace over northern Syria, to turn a blind eye to his promised invasion of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria – as they do to Turkey’s ongoing daily attacks.
First reports of the four-hour-long meeting emphasise economic agreements and cooperation – including transition to national currencies for the gas trade – and an increasing closeness between the two countries, but reference to Syria is (perhaps deliberately) ambiguous. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Aleksandr Novak, has stated that Friday’s talks “took the development of our relations in trade, economy and almost all sectors to a new level.” On Syria, the leaders “confirmed their determination to act in solidarity and coordination in the fight against all terrorist organizations in Syria”, which leaves plenty of room for further discussion and dealing.
Even without a full invasion, Turkey’s daily attacks continue to make life impossible in Syrian border areas, as well as to bring death and injury to those who live there. On Thursday, a farmer was fatally shot by a Turkish border guard while he irrigated his fields east of Kobanê, and a drone attack on a busy market in the centre of Tel Rifaat injured at least nine people, including six children. A 17-year-old woman from the Shehba district, where Tel Rifaat is situated, has died of wounds inflicted by a Turkish drone attack when she was working in the fields. Tel Rifaat is one of the places that President Erdoğan is threatening with invasion, and is currently home to the majority of the people displaced from Turkey’s 2018 invasion of Afrîn.
The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) issued a press release last Sunday announcing a new operation to find and arrest spies who have enabled Turkey to carry out targeted assassinations of leading figures: people who defended the region against ISIS or were working to meet society’s needs. The SDF claim to have arrested 36 people and to have a lot of hard evidence of their activities. They observe that Turkey’s aim is to “occupy our areas, spread chaos and destabilize security”.
As has been pointed out many times, attacks on North and East Syria also risk affecting the SDF’s ability to guard the captured ISIS fighters and their families who the Autonomous Adminstration has been left to manage. Last week, security forces thwarted an attempted break-out from Al Hol Camp, which houses ISIS families, intercepting a truck that was carrying 17 women together with 39 children.
North Press Agency reports that Kobanê, which used to receive help from NGOs for development and for caring for IDPs, is now finding that donors don’t want to support projects close to the border that could come under attack at any time.
In the areas occupied by Turkey’s earlier invasions into Syria, human rights organisations document a regime of violence and lawlessness. The Human Rights Organization Afrîn-Syria recorded 43 people kidnapped in Afrîn in July and five killed. Kidnappings were carried out by both the Turkish secret service and military police and by the various mercenary groups that have been awarded day to day control of the area. They also recorded the destruction of 3,300 olive trees, and the construction, on stolen land, of some 40 new homes that will be used to house people brought into the area as part of Turkey’s ethnic cleansing. Over the last five months, Girê Spî, taken by Turkey in 2019, has seen the arrival of over 4,000 Syrian refugees deported from Turkey. These are people who originally came from other parts of Syria. They are currently housed in homes of displaced families, and new homes are being being built with help from Kuwait and Qatar.
In Iraq, Turkey’s attacks continue to escape international notice. After a moment of fame at the United Nations, even the recent murder of nine tourists appears to have been largely forgotten, as though the mere fact of a debate had resolved the issues. Instead, media has been focussed on the battle for control of the Iraqi parliament. Since the general election last October, no new government has been able to form and alliances of different political groups have only been able to block each other. Last weekend, action was speeded up by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose group was the largest in Parliament but not large enough to break the deadlock, even in alliance with others. In June al-Sadr’s group resigned from parliament. Last Saturday, in response to the presidential nomination made by their main rivals – the Coordination Framework, which is also Shiite, but pro Iran – al-Sadr led his supporters to occupy parliament, calling for “fundamental change to the political system”. On Wednesday, al-Sadr called for new elections, and the next day the Coordination Framework supported this demand.
As the HDP’s Foreign Affairs Spokesperson, Hişyar Özsoy, points out, turmoil in Iraq provides Turkey with an opportunity for greater influence in the region, which could be welcomed by European countries, who see Turkey as “NATO’s spearhead in the Middle East”.
While the politicians protest in Baghdad, Turkey has continued their attacks in the northern part of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, now with the reassurance, based on recent events, that they can act with impunity. The massive power of the bombs Turkey has directed at the PKK’s mountain bases has left the guerrillas baffled as to the nature of the weapons used, but, although they have sustained casualties, they continue to resist the invading forces from their war tunnels. To get the guerrillas out, it has been reported that Turkey makes frequent use of chemical weapons, and last Sunday, a video was published showing the Turkish military sending in a dog.
Turkey has been supported in their attacks by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) which is the dominant force in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. The KDP would rather allow Turkey to control large parts of the region’s mountains, than concede any control to their rivals in the PKK, and, like the Turkish government – they crack down on opposition. Some of the activists and journalists they have imprisoned have been on hunger strike to protest state intervention in their cases that has kept them behind bars. The Kurdistan Regional Government has not responded, and the strikers’ condition is getting serious. They are supported by many others who are on hunger strike outside the prison, and there is also someone on supportive hunger-strike in London, where she has brought her protest close to the prime minister’s house in Downing Street.
Wednesday saw the eighth anniversary of the Yazidi genocide, but the anniversary commemorations demonstrate how far the survivors are from a peaceful future. Even apart from the 2,717 people who remain unaccounted for, many of whom may be held as slaves by their ISIS, or former ISIS, purchasers, almost a quarter of a million are still living in IDP camps, predominantly in Iraq. One of the principal reasons preventing their return to Şengal (Sinjar) is lack of security, and especially fear of falling victim to a Turkish attack. But none of the countries who have professed their concern about the Yazidis has anything to say about this. Public statements on the attacks are rare, and never call out Turkey as the aggressor.
The internationally accepted solution for the Yazidis’ future, as restated by the United Nations on this anniversary, is that “The Sinjar Agreement must be fully implemented”. But that agreement, which hands control of Şengal to the Iraqi Federal Government and the Kurdistan Regional Government, was made over the heads of the Yazidis, who have been running their homeland themselves as an autonomous region of Iraq. They have their own civil authorities and their own defence forces, which are officially recognised as Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) under the umbrella of the Iraqi army. The agreement would close all this down. In 2014, when ISIS attacked, the Yazidis were given no protection by the Iraqi army, and the peşmerga forces attached to the KDP ran away. When the whole world appeared to be failing them, thousands of Yazidis were rescued by the PKK, who, together with the Syrian-based People’s Protection Units (YPG), helped them to win back their homeland from ISIS and to set up their own structures and their own defence. They have no intention of giving all that up and being left to rely on the very forces that abandoned them to genocide. While the UN pushed the Sinjar Agreement, demonstrations in London and Munich called for recognition of the Yazidis’ autonomous status.
There was Turkish pressure behind the Sinjar Agreement; and leading commanders of the PKK’s 2014 rescue mission have since been assassinated by Turkey. Turkey is not one of the countries that have recognized the Yazidi massacre as “genocide”, and HDP MP, Feleknas Uca – herself a Yazidi – can hardly have expected a positive response when she submitted a law proposal to the Turkish parliament for that recognition. Another HDP deputy, Dilan Dirayet Taşdemir, submitted a parliamentary question – actually comprised of a set of questions – that included questions on allegations that ISIS carried out some of their trafficking of women within Turkey. The previous day, the HDP commemorated the National Day of Remembrance of the Roma Genocide by the Nazis, and also drew attention to the “most severe conditions” that Roma face in Turkey today.
Discrimination and oppression within its borders are the other side of Turkey’s aggression abroad. Prejudices are nurtured to create internal enemies and unite the majority in populist hate.
The persecution of Alevis goes back centuries and is reinforced by legalised discrimination. Last Saturday there were simultaneous attacks on Alevi institutions and places of worship in seven cities. Alevi institutions have put out a statement that claims that the government’s derogatory approach prepared the ground for the attacks.
Kurds provide the main target of prejudice, with Kurdish culture regarded as separatist. Last week, Kurds received another reminder of the depths of this prejudice when Kurdish Soprano, Pervin Çakar, was refused use of Mardin Artuklu University hall because her concert programme included Kurdish pieces.
And any politics that supports Kurdish rights is equated with support for terrorism. In the ongoing Kobanê case, 108 politicians and political activists (including leading members of the HDP) face potential life imprisonment without parole. The conduct of the case has been deeply problematic throughout. This week the court insisted on questioning former politician, Aysel Tuğluk, who has now reached an advanced state of dementia. Tuğluk’s lawyer told the court, “It is clear that Tuğluk cannot defend herself. Defense is denied. The right to defense is essential to a fair trial. This is ill-treatment, torture.”
Glimmers of hope
I will try and finish on a more positive note: the following examples are all cases of too little too late, but perhaps they will encourage others to go further.
Some months back, Kemal Kiliçdaroğlu, leader of Turkey’s biggest opposition party, the Republican People’s Party, made a promise to seek reconciliation for Turkey’s past mistakes. This week, he went to Roboski and met the families of the victims of the Roboski Massacre. In 2011, 34 Kurdish children and young people died when they were struck by the Turkish military under instruction from Erdoğan’s government. Kiliçdaroğlu has promised to get them justice.
I noted at the beginning, how accepting other countries have been of Turkey’s aggression, but there have been a few moves in a more critical direction. The German Government has tended to be sympathetic to Turkey and to clamp down on Kurdish activities, but last week, when their Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, visited Turkey, she made it clear that Germany did not support Turkey’s planned invasion into North and East Syria, and, unlike her predecessors, she made sure to talk with opposition leaders as well as with government ministers. And 102 French MPs from different parties have signed an appeal, initiated by Laurence Cohen of the French Communist Party, that not only condemns Erdoğan’s war policy and calls on European leaders not to be intimidated by him, but also actively praises the achievements of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, and calls for its official recognition and for the protection of a no-fly-zone.