Turkey, the Kurds and the war in Syria

Yildiz Önen will visit Australia for the Keep Left conference next month. She spoke to Solidarity about Erdogan’s Turkey, the Kurds and the war in Syria

Can you explain the situation in Turkey following President Erdoğan’s victory in the referendum to secure greatly increased powers earlier this year and his turn to increased authoritarianism?

Let me summarize the situation in Turkey as follows:

The main process of the last two years is a new alliance built between President Erdoğan and the state.

The Turkish state bureaucracy in particular the army was skeptical towards Erdoğan’s AKP (Justice and Development Party) since 2002 when it won the general election.

The AKP tried to reduce the power of the army and its influence on politics in order to remain in government. [Turkey has experienced four military coups since 1960, the most recent in 1997, with the military reserving the right to have the final say in politics.]

After 2013 the AKP started to change its strategy; it started to act according to the so called policy of “the survival of the state”. This was the long standing policy of the Turkish military and the state. In order to keep the state strong you could do anything necessary including trampling on and overturning democracy. President Erdoğan, with his mass support base, allied with the Kemalist state and built a nationalist alliance.

One of main reasons for this alliance is the war in Syria. After ISIS attacked Kobane, the Kurdish area in the north of Syria, the US and its allies supported the PYD (Democratic Union Party). [The PYD is the main Kurdish party in Syria and is linked to the PKK, which has waged an armed struggle for self-determination inside Turkey since the 1980s.]

After a while the PYD started to receive military support from the US and the European Union, the world’s biggest imperialist powers.

The Turkish state and Erdoğan did not want a strong Kurdish party running an independent state on its border. So Erdoğan announced the end of the peace process with the Kurds in Turkey and resumed the war on the PKK which had stopped in 2013-2015.

The peace process in 2013-2015 showed that there is a democratic way of solving the Kurdish problem in Turkey. The end of the armed clashes in Kurdish areas meant there was a chance to talk and discuss Kurdish rights.

With the end of the peace process more than 6000 people were killed according to the state, around one million people had to move out from their homes, and thousands of HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) members [the political party that supports Kurdish rights] are in prison. Every day soldiers are killed, and there are big funerals all around Turkey which boost nationalism.

We have to understand that the new strategy of Erdoğan is linked with the Syrian war. If not we could not understand why Erdoğan has changed his strategy.

Just in 2013 Erdoğan said that “we will trample nationalism”. Now he is building an alliance based on nationalism.

This change did not affect only the Kurdish population in Turkey. Turkish foreign policy towards Syria changed as well. Turkey started bombing raids in Syria, and Turkish troops entered Syrian territory.

Last week we heard that the Turkish army is ready to enter the Afrin area of Syria where there is one of the Kurdish cantons.

Of course the Syrian war was not the only reason for this shift. After the success of the HDP (Peoples’ Democratic Party) in the 7 June election in 2015—winning 80 seats in the parliament—the AKP had a big shock. Plus the effect of economic crisis forced the AKP into the new alliance.

After the 7 June election the AKP could not form a government, there was a political instability, and bombings took place in different cities which all created a sense of danger among the people.

All of these events led people to vote AKP again in the 1 November election re-run and the AKP won. Although the AKP won the election, political and economic instability continued.

While the war in Syria, economic instability, and the state pressure on the Kurds continued we then had the military coup attempt on 15 July last year.

It was a big shock all across Turkey. In all 248 people died including 200 civilians, the parliament was bombed, TV stations were captured.

It was ordinary people who saved the democratically elected government and stopped the coup attempt. Crowds took to the streets and stood in front of tanks, testing the army’s resolve.

But there was shock when the government announced a state of emergency in response. The state of emergency was used to arrest the people who staged the coup attempt but at same time to put pressure on democratic rights in Turkey.

The state of emergency strengthened Erdoğan’s new alliance. Thousands of police and public sector workers who the government claimed to be members of the Gulen movement were sacked; thousands of them arrested; thousands sent to prison. [The Gulenists are a mass Islamic movement who fell out with Erdoğan and were blamed for the coup.]

At the same time thousands of members of the HDP including its party leaders, MPs and mayors were arrested and sent to prison. Thousands of members of left-wing trade unions were sacked and some were arrested. The state appointed administrators to take over the municipalities run by the HDP.

At same time the state of emergency caused an economic and state crisis. The economy was shaken, the value of the currency dropped and people suddenly become poorer in a few days.

The sacking of thousands of public sector workers created problems in a lot public offices including the education, justice and police departments. The state of emergency effected relations with the EU. Its criticisms about infringing democratic rights were answered quite harshly by Erdoğan and other ministers.

The new nationalist alliance was designed to save the state, but the military coup attempt and the state of emergency created a major state crisis.

In January 2017 there was a new shock not only for Turkey but for the world generally: Donald Trump was elected.

The Trump presidency encouraged the right-wing all across the world, which worsened the political situation in Turkey. Trump showed that he would be more aggressive in the Middle East and even in the Pacific region.

This new American policy suited Turkish policies in Syria, as well as encouraging the Saudis’ move against Qatar etc.

Erdoğan had wanted to change the Turkish political system to a presidency for a long time. The coup attempt and the state of emergency gave him the chance to do it.

[This was designed to install a US-style President with wide powers to form a government and appoint judges, and abolish the post of Prime Minister responsible to parliament as head of government.]

Erdoğan won the referendum on 16 April this year under the continuing state of emergency but only with 51.5 per cent of the vote.

Although the new presidential system will not come into force until the 2019 elections, Erdoğan has already started to act as the only leader and ruler of the country.

In reality this has not changed a lot because since the AKP’s Binali Yıldırım became the prime minister everything had already been under the control of Erdoğan.

Why were the sackings in schools and the public sector so large, and has there been much resistance?

When you look at the whole process of building the alliance between Erdoğan and the state in Turkey there is no room for freedom of speech, especially when it comes to supporting the Kurdish people.

Academics for peace for instance were a threat to this new alliance as well as other democratic organisations which were willing to speak out against state policy.

When the attack on academics started, support and resistance started as well. The teachers’ union organized many demonstrations to protest the sackings. They supported teachers and academics financially.

There have also been other forms of resistance for instance there are two teachers on hunger strike for more than 120 days following their sacking, and academics giving alternative lessons in different cities.

The no votes in the referendum were in a way also a protest against all the injustices of the state of emergency including the sackings.

On 1 May there were strong protest demonstrations all around Turkey. The march from Ankara to Istanbul, started by Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the main opposition party the CHP (Republican People’s Party), starting on 15 June is another big protest against all the injustice of the state of emergency.

What is the situation for the millions of Syrian refugees who had fled into Turkey, and now remain trapped there with the EU having sealed its borders?

Over the last few weeks there have been terrible attacks against Syrian people including vigilante attacks on Syrian refugee shanty towns.

Syrians do not have proper refugee status in Turkey. The Turkish state gives refugee status only to people from Europe. If you come from elsewhere they grant only temporary status which gives you only the right to stay in Turkey, no right to work, study or anything else. And as soon as they decide you can return you are sent back.

Living conditions in refugee camps are quite poor, you have to live on a small amount of food and clothes, far away from the cities and population centres.

Yildiz is a member of Academics for Peace in Turkey and the Revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (DSIP).

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