The Rejection of Peace
Turkeys war against its Kurdish population in its current iteration is as much about Erdogan and the Turkish power structures consolidating and maintaining their power as is their crackdown against journalism. It has not been waged as a war to protect Turkish civilians from Kurdish insurgents but instead as a means to “protect” the oppressive power hierarchies that exist which seek to maintain the disparate position of the political-economic elite. Instead of listening to the legitimate grievances of the Kurdish population, Erdogan and the AKP have chosen a strategy of violence, terrorism, and xenophobia in order to degrade the growing political power of the Kurds and to consolidate their rule and the continuation of their criminal policies.
The pro-Kurdish People’s Democracy Party (HDP) and the Kurdish military wing Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) have not been demanding independence, instead they have been calling for autonomy. This in the face of Turkey’s political establishment historically treating the Kurds as second class citizens and denying them the right to be educated using their native language. In response they have organized societal institutions in a radically different manner than the Turkish state, prioritizing the ideal of local, non-hierarchical forms of direct democracy. In their view, as Professor of Economics at the University of Greenwich Mehmet Ugur explains, this is because “the nation state is now considered an anachronistic institution; and local democracy (including recognition and representation of distinct identities) has been embraced as a solution not only for the Kurdish question but also for democratisation in Turkey, Iraq and Syria.”
The Turkish government was never serious about officially devolving meaningful power for the Kurds to exercise over their locality, and has balked on agreeing to any kind of political peace negotiation. This is due in part to the ideological currents running through the political establishment that as well permeate elite sectors of business and other societal institutions.
This very nationalistic way of thinking sees the unilateral designs of the winning electoral party as encompassing ‘the national will,’ and thus equates dissent against them with ‘treason.’
Professor Ugur further explains: “The national will is expressed through elections that the party wins through multi-party competitions… All other parties and civil-society organisations critical of the majority party can be demonised as collaborators of internal and external forces bent on preventing the nation from expressing its will. That is why AKP rhetoric has been based on ‘national will’ rather than democracy. That is also why AKP practice has been geared towards removal of legal, administrative and civil-societal checks and balances that could prevent the government from exercising absolutist majority rule. That is also why the AKP elite has gradually but increasingly deployed state power to equate dissent with treason.”
In the logic of the AKP, “institutional checks and balances are dysfunctional because they make the exercise of the ‘national will’ cumbersome.”
This way of thinking has a historical basis, which sees Turkey’s history in the context of 3 sets of beliefs: “(i) the Turks have established sixteen states, fifteen of which collapsed and the last one (the Republic of Turkey) must not face the same fate; (ii) the state is a father figure and the first duty of its sons (daughters are excluded explicitly or implicitly) is to obey the father’s authority; and (iii) the Turkish state is surrounded by all sort of enemies who work with internal collaborators to destabilise the country and prevent it from fulfilling its full potential.”
Because of this, a relationship of patronage between business and state has emerged in which business interests and state-subservience co-exist: “Organised interests in Turkey (business organisations, their lobby groups, bosses of co-opted trades unions, most university rectors, the religious establishment, etc.) have read this script correctly. They presented their specific interests as true reflections of the national interest, which the Turkish state served in return for continued loyalty. That is why both sides have always been in tune when it comes to suppressing any opposition that questions the de jure or de facto rules of the game.”
Not surprising then is the Turkish governments unwillingness to devolve autonomy powers to the Kurds. Indeed, it was Turkey that withdrew from a mostly farcical peace process just after the Kurdish HDP dealt a huge blow to Erdogan’s AK Party in the June 2015 elections.
As the pro-Kurdish HDP gained enough votes to cross the threshold to enter parliament their victory forced the AKP to form a coalition government instead of exercising majority rule. Their success was a sign of growing political influence as well as a symbol of the growing sympathy towards the Kurdish cause that had been building within the country. Rising Kurdish political influence coupled with a threat to Erdogan’s own power was the driving impetus for Turkey to reignite a violent conflict with the Kurds.
The attacks against the Kurds were never a necessary exercise of state power, nor were they a reaction to a legitimate security threat. Instead, like most groups stuck under the thumb of a much stronger and oppressive power, there has been a clear consensus for peace and resolution through political negotiation among a wide range of the Kurdish population. That is why it was the Kurds who supported the peace process and it was Turkey who rejected it.
The Dolmabahce Agreement was a political framework for resolving the Kurdish issue that was negotiated in February 2015 between the HDP and the Turkish government. Its aim was to create a long-term roadmap for peace, and for a short time it appeared highly promising. On February 28th, 2015 Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister of Interior, and three deputies of the HDP announced the agreement in a joint-statement at Istanbul’s Dolmabahce Palace. However, following the HDP victory and the AKP defeat in the July elections, Erdogan backtracked and rejected the deal.
When rejecting the Agreement, Erdogan argued that it was invalid because it did not originate in parliament, and such an agreement only has legitimacy through congressional authority. Therefore he told reporters on July 17th that he did not “recognize the phrase ‘Dolmabahce Agreement,’” and effectively buried the deal. The underlying reason was thus apparent: the inroads the HDP achieved within parliament increased their prospects of being able to use their rising political influence to push for peace through official parliamentary channels. This, combined with the agreed-upon roadmap for peace that Dolmabahce represented, made the possibility of a peaceful settlement all too probable, and Erdogan had no intentions of sharing power.
The strategy was to reject negotiations and use violence and war to both attack the Kurds militarily while as well rallying votes throughout the country by exploiting nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments, thereby regaining a parliamentary majority. A state of fear brought on by violence and conflict, coupled with the scapegoating of the problem on Kurdish ‘terrorists’, was used to rally the public under the AKP banner of “security” and “stability.”
As Professor Ugur explains it, “The political objective was to ensure the continuity of AKP rule, preferably with a large majority required to change the constitution and institute Mr Erdogan as a president with no checks and balances… Given these liabilities and the risk of failure to win a majority in the snap elections in November, the AKP government has initiated the process of state-orchestrated violence,” against the Kurds.
The strategy proved highly successful.
Strategy of Tension, Violence, and Aftermath
When ISIS began assaulting the Kurdish town of Kobani in 2014 Kurdish militias rose up to defend it, yet Turkey and Erdogan were silent.
When the town looked poised to be defeated, Erdogan’s position of abandonment was made clear when he simply concluded of the situation that “Kobani is about to fall.”
It was clear that he saw the ISIS attack as an opportunity rather than a threat. The likely chance of being barbarically subjugated by ISIS was used to leverage demands from the Kurds.
When the leader of the Kurdish PYD came to Turkish military intelligence to plead for aid, he was told he would only receive it if the Kurds surrendered: they were told they needed to give up their claim for self-determination, give up the localities they governed, and agree to a Turkish buffer zone in Syria.
The Kurds refused.
However, it is not as if Turkey had simply been sitting on the sidelines while refusing to intervene: they had been intimately involved in supporting the Islamic State, most ostensibly by securing their free passage into Syria through the Turkish border but as well through direct contact with ISIS members, coordinating arms transports, providing them a safe haven inside Turkish territory, and by transporting their fighters across the border into the warzone. Reports would later surface that they were hospitalizing wounded ISIS fighters, and that sarin precursors were smuggled into ISIS-held areas with the help of Turkish authorities. (See part 1) Just days prior to these events Vice President Biden told Harvard University students that it was the Turks, Saudis, and the UAE who had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and Al Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world.”
Turkey was using the threat posed by the terrorist proxies they had fomented to force the Kurds to capitulate, and absent that capitulation would gladly see Kurdish towns overrun by their ISIS allies.
As the ISIS proxies assaulted the Kurdish village, Turkish aircraft used the opportunity to bomb Kurdish positions inside Turkey for the first time in two years. Yet an ISIS victory in Kobani would have been a humiliating defeat for the newly formed “anti-ISIS” coalition, and would have routed a key potential ally in the region for the Americans. Therefore, under heavy pressure from the US, Erdogan finally allowed a contingent of Iraqi Peshmerga fighters to cross into Kobani from Turkish territory, and with further support from the US air force the Kurds were able to repel the ISIS attack.
Yet come June 2015, directly after the AKP’s electoral defeat, car bombs exploded at the Kobani border and convoys of cars carrying up to 40 ISIS fighters again attacked the Kurdish village simultaneously from three sides.
Kurdish witnesses said that the jihadis crossed into the city from the Turkish border, “If they entered from the Syrian side, they would have first come up many more important targets related to the YPG (the Kurdish militia), such as the main headquarters building where there are tens of fighters and leaders, or the local administration HQ,” a Kurdish activist said. He noted that it was extremely unlikely they would have been able to pass by these obstacles unnoticed, and therefore the attack must have originated from Turkey.
If not in some way orchestrated or tacitly supported by Turkey, the attacks then represent a generous gift to Erdogan from old allies.
The situation escalated in July when a suicide bombing, of which ISIS claimed responsibility for, killed 32 and wounded another 104 in the Turkish town of Suruc. The victims were pro-Kurdish university-aged students who were holding a press conference on their planned trip to help reconstruct Kobani. It was theorized that the attacks could have been in retaliation for increasing measures that Turkey had been taking to clamp down on the jihadis. Yet if so, how would attacking Turkey’s main domestic enemies constitute a retaliation? Furthermore, the clamp down was only symbolic, used to portray the image that Turkey was getting tough on ISIS while not taking any substantial steps against them. Following the events, in an interview with a Turkish journalist an ISIS commander denied there being any conflict with Turkey.
The Kurdish PKK for their part blamed the Turkish authorities and accused them of collusion with ISIS. In response they claimed responsibility for the killing of two Turkish police officers they said were responsible for the attacks. Given the fact that just a year ago secret audio recordings were leaked of Turkey’s prime minister and the head of the secret service planning a false flag attack against Turkey as a pretext to invade Syria, there is a high probability that Turkey was in some way complicit.
Further supporting this is the fact that the attacks were then utilized as the pretext for Turkey to enter into the “anti-ISIS” coalition, a guise used to initiate a war against the Kurds.
In the days that followed Turkey agreed to a deal with the US allowing them to use their Incirlik air base to fly bombing missions against the Islamic State. The ostensible terms of the deal were that Turkey would let the US use their base, and Turkey would itself enter the fight against ISIS. However, the actual terms were likely that the US had agreed in some form to Turkey’s longstanding demands to set up a “no-fly zone” inside Syria, which in practice was a plan to annex Syrian land and to attack Syria’s air-defenses. Also very likely was that the US agreed to sell out the Kurds by acquiescing to the fact that Turkey’s attacks against ISIS would in actuality just be a cover for waging a war against them.
With the deal firmly in place the Turkish air force thus “initiated the process of state-orchestrated violence” by launching airstrikes against the Kurds and ISIS, except those against ISIS were only symbolic.
The operation began on July 24th, yet after July 25th airstrikes were only continued against the Kurds, including those in Iraq and Syria. In conjunction a large-scale domestic operation billed as an “anti-terror” crackdown was initiated. Under the guise of going after ISIS Turkish police conducted massive raids against the Kurds and arrested over 1,000 people it labelled as terrorists. According to one HDP member, of those arrested 80% were Kurdish.
Following this Turkey continued to relentlessly and murderously attack Kurdish villages. They have imposed arbitrary, round-the-clock curfews of entire neighborhoods which the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights describes as a “massive restriction of some of the most fundamental human rights of a huge population” that does not “satisfy the criteria of proportionality and necessity in a democratic society.” The assault includes artillery shelling in densely populated civilian areas, disconnection of water and electricity to entire towns, denying the victims access to medical treatment, preventing burials, and abusive and disproportionate force against any and all peaceful protests that dissent against the atrocities. Turkish military operations “had killed hundreds of civilians, displaced hundreds of thousands and caused massive destruction in residential areas.”
The irony of all of this should not be lost: Turkey has been supporting the ISIS terror organization which has repeatedly attacked his domestic enemy, the Kurds. Turkey has then used the terrorists as a justification to wage his own war against the Kurds, while further exploiting the terrorism and the instability as a means to gain political power for himself and his party.
On October 10, 2015 Turkey witnessed the deadliest terror attack ever in the country's modern history, carried out by two suspected Islamic State suicide bombers. The attack effectively shepherded Erdogan and the AKP back into a parliamentary victory. In the climate of fear that followed, couple with the violence and chaos from the war with the Kurds, Erdogan’s AKP made a resounding comeback in the elections the following month in November.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, Erdogan’s AKP “regained sole control of Parliament as millions of voters who had been disillusioned with the party returned in force.” “Pro-Kurdish parties lost significant ground” as “the AKP’s rise drained votes from the… HDP.” Erdogan would now have “a clear mandate to press ahead with the military campaign against Kurdish separatists.”
The remarkable turnaround came “amid a deteriorating security situation that had made terrorism a top concern for voters. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Turkish televisions were filled with grim images of deadly attacks carried out by suspected Islamic State bombers, military crackdowns on Kurdish cities, and funerals for Turkish security officers killed by Kurdish fighters.
“The dangers culminated in a devastating Oct. 10 attack by two suspected Islamic State suicide bombers who killed more than 100 people at a peace rally in Turkey’s capital. The bombing, which some called “Turkey’s 9/11,” was the country’s deadliest terrorist attack, and it cemented fears that the increasingly polarized country was facing unchecked instability.”
Erdogan and the AKP then won voters over with "its message that one-party rule was the only way to fight a two-front war with Islamic State extremists and Kurdish militants.” The message resonated “not only with nationalists who backed Mr. Erdogan’s decision to renew the country’s fight with the outlawed… PKK, but also with Kurdish residents rattled by renewed violence that had consumed their communities.”
Erdogan, while cynically supported the most extreme forms of terrorism in an attempt to overthrow the Syrian government, has utilized those same terrorists as a pretext to wage a full scale war against the Kurds, using the situation to degrade Kurdish influence and capitalize on a state of fear and war for political gain, championing himself as the answer to ‘Kurdish terrorism’ while it was his policies that reignited the violence. Following a defeat in parliament at the hands of the Kurds, while simultaneously facing a peaceful resolution to the Kurdish issue, the orchestration of state-violence was commenced. Further aided by some of the country’s deadliest terrorism, committed by a group that Erdogan supports, the desired outcome was realized.
“The election results show that the politics of fear and division worked,” said David L. Phillips, a former State Department adviser who now serves as director of the Peace-Building and Rights Program at Columbia University.”
The strategy of tension had succeeded.