Turkey’s endless war

Phil Buyum Jackson discusses the latest bombing in Ankara, Turkey’s endless war against the Kurds, and the hypocrisy of the EU’s refugee deal.


There were few profiles on British social media that were deluged with Turkish flags this week, no equivalent of  “we are Charlie”, no “we are Paris” – this is Ankara, Turkey. These things happen there, don’t they? Events fall away into the parts of people’s brains that file “violence in the middle east”, de-sensitised and compartmentalized here by so much of the European press.

The latest attack is the third since October in the Turkish capital of Ankara alone. 103 people died in the first, in an attack on an HDP rally by what was deemed by the state to be an attack by Daesh; 37 have died so far in the latest bombing, with hundreds more injured. Even before they identified themselves as the bombers, signs pointed to TAK, a breakaway group from the PKK, who barely three months ago claimed responsibility for an attack on a passenger aircraft in Istanbul.

Who were the victims? Basically students, local workers, a security guard, working folk – this was not an attack on a military convoy. That one was a few weeks ago, also in Ankara. This latest bombing comes on the heels of those in Suruc and Diyarbakir, and a brutal war without end in the Kurdish east of Turkey. With very few pauses, this has now gone on for 40 years, and the Turkish state has long known it to be unwinnable.

Well over 40,000 people have died in this period, thousands of Kurdish communities have literally been wiped from the map and their populations dispersed. Thirteen times more have died in the conflict in Kurdistan than in the entire modern British war in Ireland, including 1,300 – many of them civilians – since the resumption of all-out war a year ago. To put this in context, this number equals around 30% of the entire number of deaths in the full 30 years of the Troubles.

Barely had the latest victims of the attack been named when Turkish F16s were again in the skies bombing the Kurdish mountains.

The Sur district of Diyarbakir is only one of several centres in Eastern Turkey that have been put under what is basically a siege, for months on end, by the Turkish military, with even basic medicines and food supplies blocked as the area was shelled. How many civilians died, we will probably never really know. In Kurdish areas, civilians don’t really officially die, militants do – even when they are 6 or 75.  

The scenes of destruction from Sur resemble Beirut at the height of the civil war.

And yet, despite the premature reporting of the collapse of the Turkish state and its gradual implosion into a sea of violence, as some of the press have breathlessly written,  on the streets of Istanbul, Zara, Gap, Benetton, Cartier and all of the other flagship symbols will be open. The stock market will be functioning, the new bridge over the Bosphorous is just being finished, and there is a Banksy show on at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art.

The war, even in Istanbul and Ankara, largely goes on elsewhere – in the east, in assaults that are shielded from view. But it hangs in the air everywhere and the sense is not of “if”, but “when again”.

Ankara and Istanbul are not, however, teetering on collapse – they are not the Beirut of the Civil war period, nor Aleppo. The system, however, is under tremendous tension, for many reasons.

And this is perhaps the key to understanding the latest bombings: they were carried out to bring the war home.

To those of us who lived through the IRA mainland bombing campaigns that hit England, this is not completely unfamiliar.  When all channels of dialogue appear closed, no amount of F16 bombings will stop this war.

There was a time, not so long ago, when it seemed that there was the beginnings of a peace process. At first cautiously and secretly and then more publicly, the ruling AKP had begun between two or three years ago what was a courageous attempt to set out a comprehensive peace agreement with the jailed Abdullah Ocalan and the broader PKK leadership. That initiative, in a Turkey still influenced by an intense Turkish Nationalism and frankly anti-Kurdish rhetoric – but also facing a slowing economy and war fatigue – was a rational approach to ending an unwinnable war. That initiative, however, foundered on the shoals of electoral expediency and political arrogance.  

In the run up to the elections of June 2015, Erdogan’s AKP was under pressure from multiple fronts. First was the lasting impact of the Gezi Park protests of 2013, which had triggered revolts and protests across all areas of Turkey; this was followed shortly after by the Soma mine disaster and the utter disregard shown by Erdogan to the largest industrial catastrophe in Turkish History. Finally, there was the ongoing set of leaks and investigations into massive corruption, which implicated a number of AKP ministers, and Erdogan and his brother personally.  

These factors, together with a slowing economy, saw the far-right MHP and the left/liberal pro-Kurdish HDP both make significant electoral gains – eroding for the first time in a decade the absolute parliamentary majority the AKP had held, and with the HDP winning almost 14%, thereby breaking the massively important 10% rule to enter parliament in numbers for the first time. This critically ended any hope Erdogan had of passing a law granting him a form of strong Presidential powers along the line of the those exercised by Putin.

In the face of this trend, even before the votes were cast, the AKP made a very conscious decision to walk away from peace talks and use any provocation, any incident, to escalate the war in the East. And escalate it did….massively. The goal of the escalation has been two-fold: first, to marginalize and neutralize the pro-kurdish HDP and blunt the rise of the right wing MHP; but more fundamentally to present to the Turkish public the notion of a nation under siege from within and without, against which only a strong system of power could offer protection.

Erdogan’s drift to autocracy has marched in lockstep with an escalating narrative of conspiracies and internal threat – translating into brutal approaches to popular protest, to press freedom, and to the judiciary. But Erdogan is also basically a neo-con economic modernizer, who has seized on past strong growth rates to consolidate a base which is a combination of both a new middle class, which has grown rapidly, often from outside the ranks of the westernized elites – no small number of whom have benefitted from a vast expansion in construction and mega projects –  and those more conservative, less secular members of society, who had been traditionally marginalized and often politically persecuted under long periods of military rule – military rule which had viciously targeted both the left and the predecessor organisations of the current AKP.  

So where are we now?  

An increasingly authoritarian AKP government, and especially Erdogan, prosecute a war that is not winnable against sections of the Kurdish community who are increasingly divided. TAK itself is a breakaway from the PKK; the HDP the civilian party that made such spectacular gains such a short time ago is under attack and increasingly facing challenges from both the state – it is highly likely that a number of its leaders could be jailed – and from elements that have broken away from the PKK, as well as from a youth-led revolt in a number of Kurdish towns that in many ways appears to have initially grown organically and outside of formal PKK control.

But alongside this, there is the inconvenient fact that between the June and the November elections, AKP support in a number of Kurdish areas actually increased.  There is insufficient space in this article to go into some of the factors behind this, save for one: while there is mass support for resistance among Kurds, a smaller section of the Kurdish population feel resentment at the PKK for “bringing the war into the cities“ and placing urban centres such as Diyarbakir in the crosshairs of the Turkish military. War fatigue is not only a Turkish issue; it also permeates a section of the Kurdish population – alongside the anger, alongside the burials, alongside the defiance.

Erdogan, Europe and the Refugee Agreement.

You cannot begin to really discuss the EU’s proposed agreement with Turkey without first opening the window to get rid of the utterly disgusting stench of racism and hypocrisy in which this entire debate has been framed. The question of dropping what is frankly a racist tax in terms of visa fees for Turkish visitors to the EU is recast as “Turkey at the gates of Europe” and endless racism about the threats that this brings. “Erdogan the new sultan”; “Erdogan is bartering like a trader in a Turkish Bazaar”; “Turkey must do more on Refugees”, say people who do nothing. And so on and so on.

We need to start by dismissing this hypocrisy. There is legitimate debate as to how many refugees Turkey have taken in: the Turkish government claims 2.7m; some point to the fact that this figure is inflated by those who “transited” the country – a polite euphemism for “fled” or “drowned”; others say it is an underestimation as many have never been registered. But whatever the number – 2 million, 3 million – it is 100 times what the UK has done or has plans to do over the next five years, with an economy a fraction of size. We start with a recognition of that and our own government’s culpability in refugee deaths.

Secondly: the €6 billion being asked for by Turkey from the EU translates into about €2,300 per refugee. It is a one-time payment, not ongoing, and frankly doesn’t even begin to address the costs already borne by Turkey.

But this isn’t the real issue, which is of course the off-shoring of a refugee crisis and European legal duties under international law, by what is the repulsive purchasing of, in effect, a holding cell to keep refugees at the gates of Europe. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and many others have already vocally pointed out the sheer hypocrisy and dangers of the one-in-one-out policy, which de facto will reward Turkey for people returned from the Greek Islands and elsewhere, thereby encouraging a continuation of a deadly and treacherous route that Europe alone has the power to end by fully legalizing entry processes. And there is a particular hypocrisy for the EU on the one hand to support the Greek designation of Turkey as a “safe country” and at the same time cite violations of international law and human rights as a case against Turkey entering the EU.

Finally, it is quite remarkable how quickly people – including many on the left – will express abhorrence at the idea that Turkey could potentially enter the EU. For many, the lack of press freedoms, the jailing of multiple lawyers, the well documented abuses of the war in the east and the suppression of political protest are reasons enough to deny entry – these too are echoed by other EU states and various UN agencies.

Here we have to call out hypocrisy and double standards at every opportunity – the EU, whose multiple member states have systematically allowed thousands to drown in the Med; erected razor wire and walls, and turned dogs, tear gas and batons on those fleeing from war; demolished camps, stolen the last belongings of those fleeing – even debated whether refugees should hand over their gold fillings from their teeth. To these people, we need to say “you have no moral authority. Your actions over the largest refugee crisis of people in need in Europe since World War II speak volumes, they speak louder than pious lectures.” Turkey has a terrible record on human rights, press freedom and attacking protests – all true. But the job of resolving this rests with the people of Turkey and their true allies – it does not lie with hypocrites and racists.


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