Mary Southcott says Turkey’s attacks on Kurds in northern Syria need to be seen in a wider context

As soon as President Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, another big man politician, Turkish President Erdogan, launched his Peace Spring operation against the Kurds who had been fighting with the US against ISIS. The Kurds have done most of the fighting, and much of the dying, in the battle to destroy ISIS which Turkey initially supported.

For Cypriots, awaiting a peace settlement and the removal of Turkish troops from a reunited Cyprus, this brings back memories of the Turkish Peace Operation in 1974 and Operation Olive Branch against Afrin in 2018. President Erdogan was not in charge in 1974, the Social Democrat Bulent Erdogan was, but what they share in common is the need to keep the MHP, the Nationalist Movement Party, the Grey Wolves, on board.

The Turkish Cypriot Leader, expected to meet with his Greek Cypriot compatriot in Paris in November 2019 to find a Cyprus settlement, made some anodyne remarks about war and Erdogan turned against him just as he did when the Afrika editor wrote that Afrin was similar to the 1974 Cyprus invasion.

It is time to think about Turkey in the context not just of the current invasion and clearance of the corridor in north Syria. We need to go back to WWI which was the War of Ottoman Succession. So many recent wars flow from Ottoman geography and its Byzantine mixing of different minorities based on religion. Do we study their war of Independence (1918 – 1923), the huge ethnic cleansing and exchange of population with Greece and the extermination of about a million Armenians, the Lausanne Treaty and Ataturk’s version of secularism, safeguarded by the military by coups in 1960, 1971, 1980 and the failed one in 2016? Have we followed Turkey’s war on the Kurds or the Cyprus partition? It was always a mistake to see Turkey as a model for a moderate Muslim state during the Arab Spring.

Turkey has had much European money for holding back Syrian refugees. One of the excuses for this war is to create a Kurdish free corridor, a security zone, in northern Syria so some refugees can return. Turkey’s buying Russian S400s, and British firms supplying arms for the current attack, create a conflict of interest for NATO which has no article 50 and has turned a blind eye to Turkey’s lack of human rights for Alevites as well as Kurds. There is even the proposal for acquisition of British Steel by the Turkish Armed Forces Assistance Fund (Oyak).

Turkey’s treatment of the Kurds, who Trump says are “no angels”, means the imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and their designation as terrorists, and Salahattin Demirtas, the elected representative of the People’s Democratic Party, the HDP and their former Leader.

We need to examine our relationship with Turkey. A recent book Why Turkey is AUTHORITARIAN: from Ataturk to Erdogan, by Halil Karaveli, for the Left Book Club, (Pluto Press), helps with the background. The author acknowledges what happened to the Armenians, and points to Bulent Ecevit,Turkey’s Prime Minister,1974, 1977, 1978-79 and 1999-2002,as the only 20th century politician who bucked the authoritarian trend. When asked for hisproudest achievement, Ecevit did not reply invading Cyprus or the Ocalan arrest but giving workers trade union rights. None of his legacy survives in today’s Turkey.

Ataturk and Erdogan can be seen as the same side of a right wing nationalist coin, the Kemalist and the Islamist. President Erdogan’s grip on power is loosening. His AKP lost the 2019 local elections, the rerun Mayoral election in Istanbul, and now his former Foreign Minister, Ahmet Davutoglu has broken with the AKP forming his own party.

The real divide in Turkey is not between religious and secular but between rich and poor. Karaveli makes comparisons with Bonaparte III and warns that not only in Turkey but in the UK and USA, the Sans Culottes are voting for the Aristocrats! Ecevit criticised the intelligentsia for being “haughty and spineless, lazy and dyspeptic, or fearful and lacking in belief”. Turkey has stayed right wing authoritarian, not because people are backward but partly because the progressives’ contempt for them has contributed to the disabling of the left. The recipe is to take democracy seriously because it teaches humility to intellectuals, to heed the concerns of the majority and to interest themselves in their concerns.

Other interesting insights from the book cover the Cuban Missile Crisis, the quid pro quo for Khrushchev’s withdrawal was the US withdrawal of its missiles aimed at the USSR in Turkey. Ecevit told Jimmy Carter that the USSR was less of a threat to Turkey than Greece. The US encouraged the Turkish military to get rid of Ecevit, leading to three years of right wing military dictatorship, hundreds of thousands of leftists imprisoned, some tortured to death. Neoliberal economics were imposed and Islam bolstered as a counterweight to the left.

The Grand National Assembly voted against the US using the Turkish bases for their attack of Iraq in 2003 when Erdogan had just become Prime Minister, the military arguing this would lead to Kurdish secession. After this Erdogan changed track. In the Ergenekon trials of the deep state in 2012, 325 military officers were sentenced to life imprisonment on trumped up charges but freed in 2014. The reality emerged via Wikileaks. The Eurasion faction in the military, looking to relationships with Russia and China and obstructing US-Turkish relations, were purged.

By 2012, nine thousand university students, journalists, lawyers and trade union activists were serving prison sentences for “terrorist activities”. Ironically when the 2016 coup happened it was by remnants of the Eurasion military who took on the Gulenists, who were pro US. The Russian supported attack on Afrin in 2018 risked US retaliation not least because they had trained and sided with the Kurdish troops fighting IS that Turkey had supported.

If you learn anything from this book, it is that most Turkish despots are got rid of when they fall out of favour with the US but not until thousands on the left have been sacrificed, or in this case Kurds and others living in northern Syrian. You can see the Turkish Foreign Minister, Merlut Cavusogluon Hard Talk but most onlookers in this David against Goliath fight believe the Kurds have been betrayed by the US. Their administration seems to be rolling back from Trump’s decision to pull out, leaving Turkey to invade, the Kurds to release their ISIS prisoners, the Russians to move into the vacuum and Assad to stay in place. There is a threat to destroy the Turkish economy. We need to watch Turkey.

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