Turkey descending into chaos

Turkish President Erdogan ‘risks making the country ungovernable. Turkey is showing alarming signs of a descent into chaos’ (Financial Times 23 September 2015). With the failure of his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to win a sufficient majority in the 7 June 2015 elections to form a new government and change the constitution from a parliamentary to a presidential system, Erdogan has unleashed war and repression against the country’s Kurdish people. Army commanders have control in Turkey’s south-eastern provinces. Kurdish communities have been placed under martial law; civilians have been murdered by soldiers. Turkish jets have been bombing Kurds in northern Iraq and Turkey wants to establish a military buffer zone in Syria.

When the Kurdish-led People’s Democratic Party (HDP) broke through the 10% general election threshold and gained 81 MPs, the AKP made no effort at forming a coalition government with any other party and the Turkish military began preparations for an assault on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The Turkish government agreed to US warplanes using Incirlik Air Base to attack Islamic State (IS) forces on 23 July 2015. Within a day it became clear that Turkey had made the concession to gain acquiescence from NATO for its relaunch of war on the PKK. Three bombing raids were mounted by Turkey’s army on IS, 300 on the PKK in northern Iraq. Thousands of HDP members and supporters were arrested across Turkey compared to a handful of known IS sympathisers.

Turkey is a member of NATO and candidate member of the European Union. The PKK is designated a terrorist organisation by the US, EU and Britain. ‘The arithmetic is brutally obvious [one] western diplomat said: “On one side, you have mostly poorly armed Kurdish villagers. On the other, you have the second biggest army in NATO. The Turks know their worth”’ (Financial Times 7 August 2015). The US and EU called for Turkey to avoid disproportionate measures against the PKK, but recognised Turkey’s ‘right to self-defence’. The US, Britain and EU know full well the role of Turkey and the Gulf States in fostering and sustaining IS and other jihadist groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, but refuse to confront them for doing so, preferring to retain these states as regional allies. Writing in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn said, ‘In return for the use of Incirlik Air Base just north of the Syrian border, the US betrayed the Syrian Kurds who have so far been its most effective ally against Islamic State’ (20 August 2015). The Syrian Kurds of the People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) are allies of the PKK. They were moving towards Raqqa, the IS capital, when Turkey attacked the PKK.    

Erdogan and his AKP supporters are suppressing all opposition. Over 300 journalists have been sacked following government pressure since the Gezi Park protests in 2013 and 254 fines were issued to television channels in 2014. Can Dundar, editor of Cumhuriyet, faces espionage charges after publishing evidence of Turkish military intelligence forces delivering arms to jihadists in Syria under the guise of humanitarian supplies. Two British journalists from Vice News and their Iraqi-born assistant were arrested in Diyarbakir on 27 August to warn off international media from reporting on Turkey’s Kurdish areas. Three judges fled Turkey this summer after being suspended and accused of belonging to a ‘criminal organisation that has attempted to overthrow the government by force’. Senior police officers have been sacked for suspected opposition to the government.

Turkish prosecutors have started a criminal investigation into Selahattin Demirtas, joint leader of the HDP. Possible charges include humiliating the Turkish people, incitement to violence and disturbing public order, which carry a potential 20-year sentence. On 8 September thousands of people chanting nationalist slogans set fire to the Ankara headquarters of the HDP. On 9 September Demirtas said, ‘Over the past two days more than 400 party offices and businesses have been attacked.’ Some of these attacks took place with police and fascist Grey Wolves participation. The offices of Hurriyet newspaper were attacked; Hurriyet has been critical of the AKP government.

From 4 to 12 September the predominantly Kurdish city of Cizre was put under military curfew and on 14 and 15 September the district of Sur in Diyarbakir was attacked by police and the army. On 6 September Erdogan gave the order to police to shoot civilians on sight if they were considered a threat and called on the public to inform on anyone they considered to be suspicious. For nine days in Cizre water, electricity and mobile phone connections were cut off and the city was surrounded by 5,000 police and army tanks, with police ordered to ‘shoot to kill’. At least 21 people, half of them children, were killed by the police and army shells and rockets. Snipers occupied rooftops and minarets, police blockaded hospitals and ambulances (Margaret Owen, Kurdish Question, 23 September 2015).

The PKK says it expects Erdogan to keep the war going until 1 November and beyond if he does not think his AKP will win a sufficient majority in the elections to change the constitution. Erdogan has contempt for constitutional procedures; he said ‘There is a president with de facto power in the country, not a symbolic one.’ The Turkish government demands that the US does not use its planes based at Incirlik to support the YPG/YPJ fighting IS because of their affinity to the PKK. YPG/YPJ guerrillas are poised to capture Jarabulus on the Euphrates River, the last remaining crossing from Turkey into Syria, and thereby stop the flow of recruits from Europe to IS. In Turkey the Kurds are declaring democratic self-government and support for HDP is rising in the polls. One journalist, Kadri Gursel, sacked under government duress, warns Erdogan, ‘Cancelling the elections will create a huge loss of legitimacy and unleash all the demons’. The risen Kurdish people will not surrender.

Trevor Rayne

FRFI 247 October/November 2015