Coup attempt in Turkey: war on Kurds continues

turk beat reuters

The failed coup attempt of 15 July 2016 demonstrates the fragility of Turkish society and has accelerated its descent into fascism and war. President Erdogan said the coup attempt was ‘a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army’. At the latest count some 60,000 people have been detained or sacked; soldiers, academics, journalists, judges, civil servants, teachers, anyone who opposed Erdogan’s government, is at risk of being accused of backing the coup. Captives have been paraded before cameras showing signs of beatings. Under the state of emergency declared on 20 July all constitutional constraints on the president have been removed. With a third of Turkey’s generals and admirals arrested and 2,745 judges, a quarter of the judiciary, sacked, the military and the courts will have difficulty functioning. As the Financial Times put it, ‘Turkey faces a risk of institutional collapse’ (22 July 2016). Trevor Rayne reports.

During the coup attempt over 290 people were killed and 1,400 injured. Factions of the military commandeered bridges over the Bosphorus in Istanbul, F-16 fighter jets flew low over the city, the parliament building in Ankara was bombed, as was a special operations unit outside Ankara, killing 47 police officers. The walls of the presidential palace were also bombed. Erdogan was on holiday staying in a hotel on the Turkish coast and must have been alerted to the coup attempt because he left it minutes before rebellious soldiers raided the hotel looking for him. Erdogan quickly blamed Gulenists, followers of the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, for the coup attempt. Gulen and Erdogan had been allies until 2013, when Erdogan accused Gulen of being behind accusations of corruption against him, his family and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) cohorts. It was an argument between different factions of the ruling class. Gulen himself condemned the coup attempt and no political party supported it. Selahattin Demirtas, co-chair of the predominantly Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) described the attempted coup as ‘the coup attempt of putschists against putschists’.  

Turkey’s National Intelligence Organisation (MIT) had been informed of the plot beforehand. The MIT director, Hakan Fidan, told the military high command. This forced the coup plotters to act six hours before they had intended to. One of the main plotters, Brigadier General Semih Terzi, was killed by a junior officer. Insufficient members of the high command backed the coup. Noticeably, the commander of Incirlik air base and the head of the Turkish military responsible for Syria and Iraq are among the generals arrested. 283 members of the presidential guard, which numbers 2,500 men, have been detained. Others held include state officials who worked closely with the President.

Erdogan has announced that the National Security Council has declared a three-month state of emergency. This gives Erdogan the power to rule by decree, unchecked by the Constitutional Court. The government announced that the European Convention on Human Rights was suspended, and Erdogan said that if parliament agrees to it, he would support the reintroduction of the death penalty, having removed two Constitutional Court judges who might have prevented him from doing so. Under state of emergency powers the period that suspects can be held without charge has been increased from four days to 30 days, people’s movements can be restricted, warrantless searches permitted and public assembly can be banned. 24 television and radio stations have had their licences revoked and been shut down. Using his powers, Erdogan has closed 15 universities and over 1,000 schools for alleged links to Gulenists, plus 15 trade unions and 35 medical institutions have been shut down.

Given the scale of the arrests and sackings it likely that the coup plotters acted to pre-empt a move by the government against them; lists of targets seem to have been prepared.

While the coup attempt was in motion, Erdogan called on his supporters to take to the streets. Prime Minister Binali Yildirim called their intervention a ‘festival of democracy’. Many of those who confronted the rebellious soldiers were from religious organisations backing the AKP government. From mosques, imams called for action in the streets in support of the government. Conscript soldiers were lynched and had their throats cut. Rather than acting for democracy, the crowds called for sharia law and the death penalty. Istanbul’s Gazi district, where Alawites, Kurds and other minorities live, was attacked, as were Syrian refugees and people wearing what those mobilised considered to be immodest clothing.

Demirtas summarised these developments: ‘pro-ISIS groups, including those from HÜDA-PAR [an Islamic political party organized in Northern Kurdistan], AKP, all the religious, reactionary groups are engaging in a power-show in city squares and are displaying what their understanding of democracy is. They don’t want to view anyone apart from themselves as citizens of this country…these reactionary groups are a major threat, let alone being promising for democracy. We must take on a struggle against them as well because they will become more impudent and reckless in all areas of life. They might engage in lynching campaigns against Kurds, Alawites, leftists, progressive forces; they may even attempt massacres since these mobs will be feeling much stronger from now on…The coup attempt was defeated thanks to the united stand by all political parties including us’.

The Kurdish struggle is the key

The US, British and European governments said that they opposed the coup and supported the ‘democratically elected’ Turkish government. There were parliamentary elections in Turkey on 7 June 2015 and 1 November 2015 but they do not make Turkey a democracy. Prior to the 7 June election, the HDP reported at least 250 attacks on its members and offices. Despite this repression the HDP achieved success, getting 80 MPs elected and preventing the AKP forming a majority government. Erdogan responded with escalating war against the Kurds. Journalists, academics, judges, politicians and anyone who spoke up for Kurdish rights were denounced as supporters of terrorism and arrested or sacked. Half of the co-mayors in the Kurdish region of Turkey have been arrested or sacked by the government. On 20 May 2016 the immunity of several dozen, mostly Kurdish, MPs was removed by a temporary amendment to the constitution. In the past year academics have been sacked and put on trial for ‘terrorist propaganda’ for signing a letter opposed to military operations against Kurdish towns and cities. Shortly before the coup attempt, Erdogan signed a bill to give soldiers immunity from prosecution while taking part in security operations, chiefly against Kurds.

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, the Turkish, Iraqi, Iranian and Syrian states were formed, in part, on the basis of the suppression of Kurdish rights. The struggle for Kurdish self-determination is central to the advance of democracy in the Middle East. From 1984 the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) waged an armed struggle against the Turkish state. In 1999 its leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and gaoled on Turkey’s Imrali island. The PKK declared a ceasefire in 2013 and peace talks with the AKP government were initiated. The Turkish state sought the demobilisation of the Kurds and disarming of their guerrillas. Ocalan was put in isolation on 5 April 2015, the Turkish state thereby ending any pretence at peace talks. Before his isolation Abullah Ocalan warned that, ‘The coup mechanism will activate in Turkey if the Kurdish issue isn’t solved.’ When the Kurds in Syria successfully resisted Islamic State (IS) forces in Kobane in January 2015, President Erdogan, his government and military chiefs considered the Kurdish struggle to have become a threat to their power, they decided on war and the Kurdish question was handed back to the armed forces. The role of the military in Turkish society was consequently vital to state power and the likelihood of a coup increased. As the Kurdistan National Congress stated, ‘When Erdogan veered off towards war, the army became the main player. Tayyip Erdogan and the AKP were dependent on the army in their war against the Kurdish Freedom Movement’.

The struggle for self-determination has never been stronger in all parts of Kurdistan. In Rojava, northern Syria/West Kurdistan, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), backed by US air-power, have been the most effective opponents of IS. In Turkey the self-defence resistance mounted by Kurdish guerrillas and their supporters is taking an increasingly heavy toll on Turkish state forces. On 26 July 2016 the People’s Defence Headquarters released the balance sheet of war in Kurdistan over the past year: the Kurdish People’s Defence Forces carried out 1,199 actions resulting in 2,982 Turkish soldiers killed and 1,146 wounded at a loss of 435 guerrilla lives and 16 guerrillas imprisoned.

However, Turkey’s Human Rights Association reports the results of continuous military repression: in the first six months of 2016 296 people were killed and 110 people were injured in south east Turkey/North Kurdistan; 3,860 people, including 112 children, were detained. Approximately 600,000 people have been displaced, with parts of Kurdish towns and cities reduced to rubble by Turkish jets and artillery. The Turkish government has said it intends to grant citizenship to some of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees it hosts. The plan is to install them in Kurdish areas, presumably as a population loyal to the Turkish state.

Strategic significance

Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia are key allies of imperialism in the Middle East. With 600,000 troops, Turkey has NATO’s second largest armed force. Turkey is strategically important, being at the juncture of Europe and Asia. Both the coup attempt and President Erdogan’s response to it will worry NATO. Incirlik air base in Turkey’s south east is used by US, British and German planes to attack IS and potentially threaten Syria. It reputedly houses 90 nuclear warheads. During the coup attempt the base was locked down and then denied power for five days. Prime Minister Yildirim said that any country supporting the coup plotters is ‘at war with Turkey’. Turkey’s labour minister, Suleyman Soylu, blamed the US for being behind the coup attempt. Erdogan may demand that the US hand over Gulen in exchange for continued NATO use of Incirlik. The head of US National Intelligence denies that Gulen had any part in the coup.

The German government said that no country that applies the death penalty can ever become a member of the European Union. French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, said the Turkish government should not use the coup attempt as a ‘blank cheque’ to crack down on its opponents. Erdogan told him to mind his own business. A second coup attempt may be in the offing; either way Turkey’s accession negotiations with the EU and the deal whereby Turkey controls the flow of refugees to Europe in exchange for €6bn and visa-free travel for Turks in the EU, are in jeopardy.

On 27 June 2016 President Erdogan sent Russia’s President Putin a letter apologising for the shooting down of the Russian plane last November. Erdogan had the pilots who shot down the plane arrested, claiming they were Gulenists. Also in June, Turkey sacked its intelligence officer responsible for Syria and then on 13 July Yildirim said he wanted to ‘return ties with Syria to normal’. Erdogan and Putin are due to meet in early August. The Turkish state wants the US to stop backing the Kurdish YPG/YPJ in Syria and would need support from the Syrian government for attacking and dismantling the Rojava autonomous region. President Erdogan may ask the Russian president to pressure the Assad government to give that support. For the Turkish ruling class the suppression of the Kurds remains its priority, before and after the coup attempt. For the Turkish working class and democratic forces the Kurdish struggle is the key to their advance as it challenges the entire apparatus of repression constructed by the Turkish state.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 252 August/September 2016


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