Turkey: Erdoğan’s Cynical New War Against the Kurds

Coordinated attacks took place on 8 September against the leftwing HDP in Turkey – attacks for which the stage has been set by the ruling AKP party. In an article written before 8 September and originally published by Marx21 in Germany, Erkin Erdoğan writes about the renewed escalation of the conflict between the Turkish state and the Kurdish people. He argues that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his AKP party are using every means at their disposal – from fresh elections to war against the PKK, the Kurdish national liberation organisation – to assert their power. For this reason, the struggle for peace is decisive for the left.

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A new era has emerged in Turkish politics. In the general election on 7 June, a new left-wing party, the HDP, was able to gain 13 percent of the votes, so overcoming the ten-percent hurdle and entering the National Assembly. This development has disturbed the sensitive balance between the ruling parties, and indeed the whole system that has characterised Turkey in recent years. The ruling AKP and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reacted to the HDP’s electoral victory with confrontation. They terminated peace negotiations with the PKK, the Kurdish national liberation organisation, and scheduled new elections for 1 November. This means that these elections will take place while martial law is in force in Kurdish areas. The ruling class is taking an enormous risk as regards the economic and political stability that have characterised Turkey in the recent past. But the AKP leadership have long ago lost the ability to make rational decisions when it comes to issues concerning their control over territory.

The end of peace negotiations with the PKK

It’s now two and a half years since representatives of the Turkish authorities brought a message from the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan to the Newroz festival in Diyarbakır, the largest Kurdish city in Turkey. In it, Öcalan proclaimed an armistice and announced that it was time for the Kurdish liberation movement to become a demilitarised and democratic force, which was to negotiate about the rights of Kurds with the Turkish state. The peace process that began as a result had its ups and downs in the following years. Nevertheless, it reached a point where both sides came together at a press conference in the Dolmabahçe Palace, the former residence of the Turkish sovereign, to announce the points of agreement reached in the negotiations. Two years of dialogue were thus followed by some concrete results.

The dynamic behind the recent sudden change in government policy is not easy to explain. The deciding factor was the fact that Erdoğan and the AKP leadership have lost the motive that led them to enter negotiations. While the HDP could double its vote with a programme based on peace and democracy, the AKP lost nine percentage points and – more significantly – its absolute majority in parliament. Above all, in the cities with large Kurdish populations the voting figures for the AKP fell significantly.

The military offensive against the PKK

Tensions were already increasing in the run-up to the elections. First, President Erdoğan accused the government of Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu of not informing him of the details of the Dolmabahçe agreement. There was no truth in this, but it represented an attempt by Erdoğan to distance himself from Öcalan, the PKK and the HDP. The AKP’s strategy towards the Kurds was to attempt to divide them, with supporters of “terror” on one hand, and supporters of the establishment on the other.

The fight between the two parties escalated during the election campaign. Erdoğan briefed the press that there were currently no negotiations taking place with the PKK and that the peace process had come to a stop. His plan was probably to aggravate the situation to an extent which he could control it, rather than aiming to destroy the peace process as a whole. This was accompanied by the strict solitary confinement of Öcalan since April of this year. Many Turkish people believed that these were tactical moves, in order to win votes from the conservative camp. But it was more than that.

The June election results represented a huge success for the HDP. For the first time in the history of Turkey, a radical left party – consisting of the Kurdish liberation movement and other parts of the left – had succeeded in getting over the ten percent hurdle, which had been introduced after the military coup of 1980 to keep radical parties out of parliament. With this result in their favour, the Kurdish side were clearly able to improve their negotiating position.

Erdoğan’s tactics

The AKP were clear from the start that they didn’t want to enter a coalition with the Kemalist CHP – even if large sections of the bourgeoisie would have favoured such an alliance. Erdoğan’s goal was, instead, to restore the previous state of affairs in Turkey: a parliamentary majority for the AKP, which gave it the power to make changes to the constitution. The only way that this could be achieved was to push the HDP back under ten percent.

From the AKP point of view, the simplest way to win votes is to appeal to Turkish nationalism. In the past the party has used this tactic with great success.

In July a suicide bomber, linked by the government to Islamic State (IS), murdered 34 young left activists in the Kurdish city of Suruç. Erdoğan took advantage of this tragedy to start a new bombing campaign against IS – but, in particular, against the PKK in the Qandil mountains. The ruling party hopes to win votes from nationalists by waging a new war against the Kurds.

To bomb the south of Kurdistan it was necessary to get the agreement of the USA, particularly in view of the war against IS. The PKK is one of the most powerful forces impeding the advance of IS. Its Syrian sister party, the PYD, is the most important political current in Rojava [Western Kurdistan] and its armed wing, the YPG, has enjoyed outstanding success, such as the defence of Kobane.

Ankara allowed the USA to use Turkish bases for air strikes against IS in Syria. So it was fairly easy for the Turkish government to win the Americans round, in return, to the bombing of the Kurds. On the basis of this deal, the USA defined the recent Turkish air strikes against Kurdish soil as an act of self defence. The bombing was followed by a wave of criminal prosecutions against HDP supporters. All of a sudden, Turkey became involved in a war against the Kurds.

The response of the PKK

The HPG, the military wing of the PKK, reacted quite cautiously to these developments. They destroyed some of the Turkish military’s infrastructure and conducted operations against Turkish ground troops, but on nothing like the scale of their opponents. Reports from Turkey suggest that 400 PKK members died in airstrikes. In addition, the Turkish air force also targeted civilians, for example in Zergele in the Qandil mountains, where ten civilians were killed and 14 wounded. This small village was as good as razed to the ground. As well as this, the Turkish air force also shelled its own territory. Cobra helicopters bombed Varto, a town in Muş province, since many people had taken part in a rebellion there.

The political response of the Kurdish movement was to declare autonomy in certain towns. To date, three cities and eight districts have responded to this appeal, and have to some extent been given military protection by the HPG. This mass involvement in the struggle against air strikes and war made it possible for the Kurdish liberation movement to gain sympathy in the whole of Turkey. Cemil Bayık, a leading figure in the PKK, argues that her organisation reserves the right to take reprisals against Turkey. On the other hand, the PKK is very well aware that an intensification of the conflict will not benefit the Kurds. They demand a resumption of the negotiations with Öcalan.

The position of the HDP and the left in Turkey

Erdoğan’s manoeuvres are aimed primarily at the HDP. It’s not hard to imagine that the pressure on the party will increase in the run-up to the coming elections. Its leadership has therefore repeatedly emphasised that it stands for peace. The HDP has built peace alliances under the name “Peace bloc”, particularly in western Turkey, so as to prevent the country being drawn again into war. Selahattin Demirtaş, deputy chair of the HDP, has distanced himself in the name of his party from all acts of violence. By doing so he has responded to the attempt to brand the HDP as part of the conflict. The HDP has sent a delegation to Qandil to document Turkish war crimes, and has turned to the Security Council of the United Nations to initiate legal proceedings for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.

Demirtaş has exposed the AKP’s agenda as a strategy to simply reduce the country to ashes and so gain absolute power. The struggle for peace, and for a larger HDP vote in the coming elections, is therefore decisive for the Turkish left. The goal of the HDP is to increase its vote to 20 percent. Some opinion polls suggest that the party is currently at around 15 percent – which demonstrates the wide support that can be won to an activist politics of peace.

Translated from German by Colin Wilson

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