Perhaps one day historians will look at the bomb crater left behind by last week’s suicide attack on the Turkish-Syrian border town of Suruc, which left 32- left-wing students dead, and consider it a turning point in what is benignly referred to as ‘international relations’.
A storm is slowly gathering. The situation is comparable, as veteran war journalist Patrick Cockburn has suggested, to the early murmurs of the Iraq war. Turkey, Kurdistan, and parts of the Middle East currently risk descending into the bloodiest chaos seen in a generation. How has this come to be?
Seyh Abdurrahman Alagoz, the suicide bomber who targeted Suruc, was a Turkish citizen and known Daesh (ISIS) sympathiser who had travelled illegally to Syria the previous summer. The place and time of his initial attack was devastating. The victims, members of the Federation of Socialist Youth Associations, were en route to war-torn Kobane, where they intended to help build a children’s playground and 'liveable city'. They’d stopped off in the vibrant Kurdish social centre Amara - a sanctuary for refugees, meeting point for journalists and activists, and base of coordination for relief efforts - for a celebration of the third anniversary of the Kurdish Rojava revolution in Syria. The festivities soon turned to hospital visits and mourning. Apart from those killed, hundreds more were injured in the attack.
The response to this attack has been an unexpectedly swift and brutal assault on Kurds and leftists by the Turkish state. Thousands of politically active Kurdish and leftist activists have been rounded up and detained. A smattering of symbolic Daesh arrests has created what is, in truth, a diplomatic smokescreen for a full on crackdown on opposition within Turkey, creating a domestic atmosphere reminiscent of the 1980 coup d'état.
The repression intensifies every day. Two days after the bombing, last Wednesday, Twitter (and later all Kurdish websites) were taken offline. On Thursday around 5000 Turkish security forces conducted raids in at least 13 provinces - all left-wing strongholds. Thousands of politically active Kurds and leftists were detained. According to a government spokesman, of the 1,302 people arrested so far, 847 are accused of links to the PKK, and only 137 to Islamic State.
In Istanbul, street conflicts became particularly heated when Turkish police attacked an Alevi house of prayer in the Gazi. Alevi are a mostly Kurdish religious group in Turkey of over 12 million who have suffered waves of massacres, attacks and general marginalisation throughout the 20th century. The status of Alevi, as with most Kurdish peoples, has always been politicised. Their particular veneration of The Prophet’s son-in-law, Ali, is considered by some Muslims to be heretical. The heterodox beliefs amongst Alevi communities undermine the Turkish Republic’s foundational project to create ‘one language, one flag, one religion’. They resist various assimilation attempts by the state, which constantly attempts to ‘Sunnify’ them - attempts that Erdogan has stepped up during his tenure. Many such conflicts revolve around the precarious legal status of their cemevi houses of prayer, and Turkey’s non-recognition of these found them 'guilty of religious discrimination’ in December 2014. These reasons made the police attacks on cemevi and Alevi districts especially inflammatory. The outlawed, far-left, and mostly Alevi Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP/C) have been brought onto the streets by recent raids. One saw the communist lawyer Günay Özaslan killed by police. In retaliation there have been armed groups fighting on and off for the past week, and one policeman was killed. Mass demonstrations are a daily reality throughout Turkey at present, mostly met with water canons, rubber bullets, and increasing police brutality.
The bombing of PKK bases in Iraq was a de facto end to the Turkey-PKK ceasefire. The two-decade long conflict has left 45,000 dead, over 30,000 of them Kurdish. On Tuesday, two Daesh-supporting policemen were assassinated in their homes by the PKK as revenge for the Suruc bombing. A gas pipeline boarding with Iran, one that supplies a fifth of domestic production, was blown up by PKK militants. Retaliations may increase if Turkey clamps down much harder, potentially leader to civil war. This is a likely outcome given the Turkish state’s absolute determination to prevent Kurdish autonomy in the region.
The state’s biggest fear is the Kurds’ revolutionary experiments in stateless democracy in Rojava. Experiments that Erdogan has vowed to stop 'whatever the cost'. Three years ago, the YPG, a Syrian branch of the PKK, decided to avoid joining any side in the uprising against Assad. Instead, they grabbed a region of land in which to run their own experiments in ‘democratic confederalism’ - a non-state paradigm of democracy originally developed by the American anarchist Murray Bookchin, and further developed by the incarcerated PKK-leader Abdulla Ocalan on his prison island off the coast of Turkey. The YPG famously put women’s liberation at the forefront of their practice. Half of their political and military personal are women. They believe that in order to destroy capitalism, you have to destroy the state, and to destroy the state, you have to destroy patriarchy. Suffice to say, they have created one of the most accomplished and sophisticated examples of popular bottom-up democracy ever known.
The success of these projects has ensured that the Kurds’ power base and popularity has steadily been growing. In Syria, while building this revolutionary movement, they have also been fighting Daesh. Stories of their bravery garnered them mass support not just in Turkey, but globally. The Battle of Kobane inspired fighters from around the world to move to Syria, as well as a range of international solidarity movements that raise money and awareness. America, recognising that the YPG are the people best placed to combat Daesh, previously provided them with weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies. After a six-month, highly publicised battle, the YPG came out victorious and were seen as heroes. In Turkey, the movement, combined with a populist anti-austerity campaign, helped the Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) emerge from nothing to win 13% of the national vote in June’s general election. Apart from pro-Kurdish and anti-austerity policies, they have a 50% gender quota and a 10% LGBT quota for their members, and a duel male-female leadership. This was a historic moment that saw the traditionally most excluded and marginalised peoples of Turkish society enter the corridors of power.
As the ruling AKP failed to win a majority, they must either go into coalition or call another election. If the former, it will probably be with the right wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Some have speculated that their current attack on minorities is an attempt to woo the nationalist vote. If the latter is the case, their attacks can be read as an attempt to smear the HDP by provoking the PKK, and then drumming up nationalist fever against them, creating an increasingly anti-Kurdish climate in the centre ground of Turkish politics. Erdogan has already demanded that the HDP politicians are stripped of their immunity from prosecution to make them 'pay the price' for links to 'terrorist groups'. Eighty HDP members then voluntarily renounced their immunity and demanded that every MP do the same. Immediately after they did so, the HDP co-leader and charismatic public face Selahattin Demirtaş was charged with ‘provoking people to take up arms’ during the Kobane protests, and is now facing up to 24 years in prison. The AKP continually have tried to smear the HDP as PKK terrorists in disguise. This attempt to criminalise HDP is a reaction against the increasing solidarity between Kurdish groups and leftists; an alliance considered threatening by both the AKP and MHP.
This is AKP prerogative, not fighting ISIS. Since Turkish bombing started on Friday 24th July, there have been only a few air strikes behind Daesh lines, and ISIS commanders claim that in the initial strikes only abandoned buildings have been hit. On the other hand, there have been at least 185 air missions against 400 PKK targets. Apart from shared hatred from the Kurds, the AKP’s peculiar mix of neoliberalism and Islamism makes them natural bedfellows with the pseudo-religious Daesh. All roads suggest a kinship and active cooperation between the two.
A Columbia University report published last September has compiled an extensive list of evidence for Turkish collusion with Daesh; including examples of military equipment and training provided, transport and logistical assistance, medical care, financial support through purchase of oil, and particular help during the battle for Kobani. They also identified a shared worldview between the two parties. Hurriyet Daily News reported one Turkish civil servant saying ’they are like us, fighting against seven great powers in the War of Independence.' Another exclaimed, 'rather than the PKK on the other side, I would rather have ISIL as a neighbour.' Images have circulated on social media of groups of police marching through Kurdish neighbourhoods proudly declaring the one fingered ISIS salute.
Through the purchase of its oil, Turkey has been one of the main financial backers of Daesh. The Guardian reported on July 26th that an 'estimated $1m-$4m per day in oil revenues [is] thought to have flowed into Isis coffers over at least six months from late 2013'. The New York Times reported in September 2014 that despite the efforts of the Obama administration, it could not convince Turkey to clamp down on an extensive network of oil sales with ISIS. The evidence for collaboration between them is overwhelming. If Turkey had been serious about stopping ISIS, it could have easily ceased trade. That is no longer an option. ISIS have grown too powerful to rely solely on Turkish oil sales. With the very real potential for IS to dispose the royal family in Saudi Arabia - where a recent online poll suggested 92% percent of Saudi citizens agreed that ISIS 'conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law' - the Daesh are not far off running an empire - in large part, thanks to Turkey.
In only the fifth meeting of its type, Turkey invoked NATO’s article 4 to call all 28 member states to have an emergency meeting. NATO supported Turkey in their current military actions, but, rather meekly, ‘urged restraint’. The meetings had no purpose other than for Turkey to flex their political and diplomatic muscles and force the international community the legitimise their war against the Kurds. In Turkey’s documents to the summit, they avoided any specific mention of either ISIS or the PKK, except to treat them both as ‘terrorists’. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: 'There is no difference between PKK and Daesh [Isis]. You can’t say that PKK is better because it is fighting Daesh. The PKK is fighting ... for power, not for peace, not for security ... We expect solidarity and support from our Nato allies.' Ankara has been making (patently absurd) accusations that the YPG is conducting ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Syria in an attempt to establish an independent Kurdish state. Rumours like this are part of a campaign of disinformation by the AKP to slur the YPG, PKK, and HDP.
Increasingly, it appears ISIS have a presence in the skies: the air force of an ostensibly NATO country. Turkish tanks have been firing shells at Kurdish camps fighting ISIS in Syria. America has betrayed the Kurds in exchange for access to Turkey’s air bases, from which they plan to bomb Syria. Given US and UK armies have confirmed time and time again that air strikes alone have continuously insufficient in fighting ISIS, it seems idiotic of America to betray their most competent allies in the region for such an inept strategy.
Turkey’s strategy against ISIS is not simply too-little, too-late. The PKK camps being hit in Iraq are taking out fighters who would otherwise be fighting ISIS. The ‘buffer zone’ they now aim to create in Syria, supposedly to keep their boarders free from ‘terrorists’, is, in reality, a barely concealed ploy to prevent YPG forces taking the final ISIS-controlled Syrian town which borders Turkey. HDP leader Demirtas said in an interview 'So, the safe zone is intended to stop the Kurds, not IS. In fact, Turkey should work with Kurdish forces to create this area. They should collaborate.'
Hopefully, Turkey will soon accept that it cannot win - history has shown 'the impossibility of winning a war against irregular guerilla forces'. With some political will, they could stop preventing the secular Kurds in Syria from forming an autonomous region. The establishment of a YPG-zone would allow them to shelter displaced Syrians, fight ISIS, and practice democratic confederalism - solving the problems of Turkey, America, and the Kurds in one swoop. A peace process is needed now more than ever.
Text by Heathcote Ruthven (@heathcoter), Deputy Commissioning Editor at the International Times