As the battle for Aleppo comes to an end, all eyes are on Syria. But the international and regional powers that have kept this conflict going for so long should be paying much more attention to what’s going on across Syria’s northern border. Because Turkey, a key Western ally, is descending further and further into chaos.
From peace to war in Turkey
The Canary has covered the deteriorating situation in Turkey since 2015. From elections to crackdowns on media freedom. From arrests of elected officials to acts of terror. And from coups to assassinations.
But it all started with Turkey’s ruling AKP party.
In 2012, the AKP entered peace talks with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) after decades of war. But it showed little commitment and made insufficient steps to ensure peace. It also sought to block the influence of the PKK-inspired democratic experiment taking hold in northern Syria (Rojava). And this tough stance, along with Ankara’s alleged and perceived support for Daesh (Isis/Isil) attacks on Rojava, added tension to the peace process. The PKK stressed its commitment to peace, for example, but criticised Ankara for being more prepared to negotiate with Daesh than with Kurds.
The AKP’s perceived inaction (or even complicity) in attacks on Kurdish and other left-wing activists saw the opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) gain votes in the June 2015 elections. Everything then spiralled out of control after a Daesh massacre in Suruç on 20 July. Many Kurds in Turkey felt they could no longer trust the state to protect them. And they organised to defend themselves. In response, Ankara launched a crackdown on ‘terrorism’, in which over 800 of around a thousand arrested in the first week were ‘alleged PKK members’ (people with no role in the events of Suruç). The peace process was over.
The regime now launched a war against its political opponents. And Kurdish communities once again became enemies of the state. The military campaign against largely Kurdish areas like Nusaybin and Cizre claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians. And it ignored the fact that most Kurds (and the PKK itself) want peace.
All war is terrorism
In short, NATO’s second biggest army is at war with an ethnic minority group with the open support of no major international power. A lop-sided conflict if ever there was one. The AKP calls dead Turkish soldiers ‘martyrs’, and dead Kurds ‘terrorists’. And Turkey’s Western allies support that assessment. Even though the PKK and its allies are among the most effective forces fighting against Daesh on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. The phrase ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ has rarely been more appropriate.
Indeed, after 1933, Adolf Hitler used the rhetoric of fighting ‘terrorism’ to consolidate his own power. And in Turkey, the AKP has essentially done the same. It has started a war and called anyone who resists a terrorist. It’s their way or nothing.
Even with the AKP’s most controversial opponents, context is important. The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), for example, has launched a number of attacks on military and police targets in the past year; killing civilians in the process. The latest attack came on 10 December. And the AKP has used these acts to rally people behind its anti-Kurdish war; even though the TAK is not the same as the PKK (which has condemned all attacks on civilians).
In wartime, the horrific reality is that civilians get caught in the middle. And few combatants come out of conflicts with clean hands. In fact, if civilian deaths always meant terrorism, then the Western bombing of 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 would probably count as one of history’s biggest ever terrorist attacks.
Likewise, the TAK definitely has innocent blood on its hands. But it’s precisely the bloody hands of the AKP regime which led it to act in the first place. It insisted after December’s attack, for example, that:
when the Turkish Republic-AKP’s fascism continues torturing our mothers and abusing the corpses of our young women and when children continue being massacred, people should not expect life to be normal in Turkey… The AKP’s fascism is solely responsible for this chaos…
More repression will not bring peace
The reality in Turkey today is that there are almost no democratic avenues for people to oppose the AKP’s war. The regime has essentially taken them away. Authorities shut down protests; close media outlets; and arrest pro-peace MPs and journalists on what Amnesty International has called “trumped-up terrorism charges”. This process intensified in November with the arrest of HDP co-leaders Figen Yüksekdağ and Selahattin Demirtaş.
Demirtaş is currently in a maximum security prison alongside al-Qaeda convicts and other dangerous criminals. Authorities have even detained his lawyers. But despite all this, and a recent heart spasm, he still condemned “in the strongest terms” the TAK’s attack on 10 December. “However difficult our circumstances,” he said, “we should not abandon our claim for peace, we should not lose our hopes.” The AKP, meanwhile, began another wave of arrests against HDP members.
The EU’s latest Turkey Civil Commission (EUTCC) conference – designed to “monitor the accession of Turkey to the EU, to promote respect for human rights and a peaceful, democratic and long-term solution to the Kurdish situation” – was held on 7-8 December. It called for a return to peace talks and the release of all political prisoners. And it said Europe should treat the PKK not as terrorists but as a party to the war in Turkey.
Why the West should care about further escalation
There are a number of reasons why the West should be increasingly worried about Turkey’s intensifying war. For example:
- Over decades of war, Turkey didn’t defeat the PKK. And the PKK didn’t defeat the Turkish regime. It’s not a winnable contest. So further conflict will only bring more death, destruction, and dictatorship. Not peace or democracy. And even less stability in the Middle East is the last thing the world needs right now.
- Turkey is getting in the way of progress in the fight against Daesh in both Iraq and Syria.
- Does the West really need another dictatorial ally to make it look bad? No country can genuinely call itself democratic if it imprisons elected representatives for no justifiable reason. And Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has also slammed Turkey’s “increasingly authoritarian tendencies” and the number of journalists currently in jail. Its secretary-general Christophe Deloire, meanwhile, has said that “an all-out witch-hunt has… turned Turkey into the world’s biggest prison for the media profession… [and] crushed all media pluralism”.
All signs suggest that a peaceful political solution is the only way to stop Turkey’s current descent into chaos. And that means respecting freedom of expression; listening to citizens’ voices by not arresting their elected representatives; and resurrecting peace talks with the PKK. The stability of the Middle East and the success of the fight against Daesh depend on it.
Featured image via anonymous Canary sources in Nusaybin, Turkey