In a way that revives the memories of the Armenian massacres from 1894-1915, the Turkish state is now embarked on a new wave of ethnic cleansing against the ‘separatist-terrorist’ Kurds. It can be argued that the military onslaught on Kurdish towns and cities is a farce given that the Turkish state is still not sure of its unity a century after the Armenian genocide. However, the farce is already producing tragic consequences. Since July 2015, 108 civilians have been killed, of whom 54 are children. The death toll is set to increase, given the number of troops mobilised, the duration of the sieges around towns and neighbourhoods, the military’s deliberate targeting of drinking water and electricity supplies, and the approaching cold winter in the region.
Yet, the international community has been largely silent. There is very little information about the scale of the military operation in the Kurdish region. Whatever information we have reflects official statements from the Turkish government and briefings by European and US governments. As the latter justify the onslaught on the grounds that the Turkish state has the right to defend itself against terrorism, Western media outlets roll out cheap information that depict the situation in the Kurdish region as clashes between the PKK guerrillas and Turkish security forces. In what follows, I will make a plea to reconsider the facts.
Turkish State’s Fear Of Its Citizens
Once, quite a few academics made successful careers writing about the ‘strong state tradition’ in Turkey. This argument was well received because it coincided with extensive state involvement in the economy and import-substitution policies. The more the statist model got into trouble, the more the argument has featured in journal articles and PhD theses. But then Turkey embraced the market in the 1980s. Since then the narrative has been about Turkey’s potential to be a secular and democratic role model for Muslim countries in the Middle East.
Both lines of arguments are simplistic and reflect the wider ideological currents of the time. As I argued in the late 1990s, the Turkish state is strong against individual citizens but weak against organised interests. This was the case not only during the early Republican era, but also throughout the following decades. That was why Turkey’s commitment to EU membership has not been credible; several coups have been staged as and when the state felt it was losing control; Kurdish demands for recognition and autonomy have been met with mass killings in the 1920s and 1930s; and with mass torture, imprisonment, displacement and extrajudicial killings in the 1990s.
The Turkish state has not been able to come to terms with the concept of individual liberty because it has woven an ideological cocoon around itself with three 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.
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. Any change in the rules can happen only when the ‘father state’ and its allies are happy to grant it. Because this unholy alliance lacked generosity, demands for institutional change have continued; and so has the suppression of demands for fairer institutions – whether made by students, workers, farmers or the Kurdish people.
Are The Kurds Threatening Turkey’s Unity Or Security?
There are three issues to consider before an answer can be attempted. First, the Kurds feel that they had been robbed of a promise for autonomy after the Lausanne Treaty of 1923, which recognized the boundaries of modern Turkey. Under the treaty, Turkey relinquished any claim to its former Arab provinces and recognized British possession of Cyprus. In return, the Allies dropped their demands of autonomy for the Kurds in Turkey. Yet Kurdish autonomy had been promised by Mustafa Kemal from 1919-1922, with a view to securing Kurdish support for the War of Independence. The Turkish state’s failure to deliver on its promises was the main driver behind a number of Kurdish insurrections in the 1920s and 1930s.
Secondly, the Turkish state and the ‘white Turks’ have treated the Kurds as second-class citizens and denied them the right to be educated in their mother tongue. In fact, during the military regime of 1980-1983, the Turkish state fabricated ‘theories’ that asserted that the Kurds are nothing but mountain Turks, who came to be known as Kurds because of the sound they made when walking on the snow. (See also here).
Finally, neither the PKK nor the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) is demanding independence from Turkey. True, for a period in the 1980s and 1990s, the PKK was deliberately vague on the issue. However, since the arrest of its leader in 1999, the PKK has been demanding autonomy. 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.
Despite these facts, and detailed findings and recommendations by an international delegation of human rights lawyers in 2005, the Turkish government has been reluctant to agree to meaningful peace negotiations and eventually pulled out of a half-baked ‘peace process’ just after the elections in June 2015. Indeed, the withdrawal from the peace negotiations, the following rise in state-orchestrated terror from June to November 2015, Turkey’s interference in Syria and its support for terrorist organisations including ISIS were all hallmarks of a political choice made by President Erdogan with the government and other state institutions in his tow. 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. The Turkish military both agreed to and supported this move because it appealed to its security-based approach to the Kurdish problem – and also promised a more prominent standing for an institution that has lost part of its halo among conservative Turks.
To put it bluntly, there is no ground to justify the Turkish state’s ongoing assault on the Kurds as a reaction to a security threat – let alone any threat of secession. On the contrary, there has been a clear consensus and a genuine desire for peace across a wide spectrum of Kurdish groups and organisations. That was why the latter signed the Dolmabahce Agreement with the AKP government on 28 February 2015.
The agreement consisted of 10 articles that set the framework for resolving the Kurdish issue, including the ‘national and local dimensions of the democratic solution’. It was President Erdogan who scuppered the Agreement in July 2015, after the AKP failed to win a majority in the elections in June. The government, five months after it announced the Agreement publicly together with HDP representatives, had to backtrack and follow the line of denial imposed by Mr Erdogan.
The President and the AKP government has put an end to the peace process because they feared a ‘Turkish Spring’. The scare had a material basis because successive AKP governments have been involved in widespread corruption, violent oppression of peaceful protests, interference in Syria, and support for terrorist organisations operating in Syria. 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 that I discussed in an earlier Social Europe article.
Facts About The Military Onslaught On The Kurds
Turkey is now a de facto divided country. Whereas people in non-Kurdish provinces pretend business is as usual, people in the Kurdish region fear dying any minute as a result of unprecedented state violence perpetrated both by the military and special paramilitary units. Known for his blunders, the Turkish Prime Minister, Mr Ahmet Davutoglu, inadvertently revealed that the military build-up and the arbitrary curfews in the Kurdish region were planned already in November 2013. Speaking to a sympathetic journalist, he said:
We had considered 12 critical towns in our deliberations in November 2013. If you look at the struggle over the last 2-3 months, you can see Lice, Silvan, Varto, Kulp. Cizre is still going on. Next we have Dogubeyazit and Yuksekova. We have established control in most of these towns. Now there are only 4-5 towns where the struggle is intense: Sur, Cizre, Silopi, Nusaybin, Dargeçit. We are concentrated there at the moment.
As to what this ‘struggle’ involves, we can refer to a recent report by Human Rights Watch. It involves: artillery shooting in densely populated neighbourhoods; disconnection of water and electricity supply; denying access to medical treatment; preventing burials; and abusive and disproportionate use of force against any peaceful protest. According to the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights:
Imposing open-ended, round-the-clock curfews in entire neighbourhoods or towns until further notice represents a massive restriction of some of the most fundamental human rights of a huge population. Their frequent and widespread use in South-Eastern Turkey since August does not appear to satisfy the criteria of proportionality and necessity in a democratic society.
There is also evidence that the Turkish military is using school buildings as garrisons. Schools are empty not only because of curfews but also because the Turkish government has ordered teachers to leave their schools in many towns and cities, including Diyarbakir. The graffiti on the walls and class whiteboards written by security forces include: “in the name of god, the Almighty”, “time to send you to hell”, “it is our turn to educate you”, “obey or leave”; “my teeth had the smell of blood”.
The mainstream Turkish media does not report these atrocities – with the notable exception of Cumhuriyet, the chief editor of which is currently in prison charged with treason for reporting on Turkey’s arms supply to terrorist organisations in Syria. Instead, the Turkish media depict all people in besieged towns as terrorists. Its ‘reporting’ is embellished with photographs of top brass officers drawing attack plans in front of town/area maps or with masked military personnel equipped with deadly weapons. Casualties are reported as “annihilation of terrorists” as opposed to the “martyrdom of security personnel”. The judiciary is completely in the government’s tow: even the High Court has recently rejected an appeal by an HDP MP to rule on the legality of arbitrary curfews on the grounds that the petition was not submitted by somebody affected by them.
Why The Turkish Government Has A Free Hand
A recent article by Seymour Hersh sheds some light on why the Turkish government is having a free hand in its onslaught on the Kurds.
Obama now has a more compliant Pentagon. There will be no more indirect challenges from the military leadership to his policy of disdain for Assad and support for Erdoğan. Dempsey [the retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] remains mystified by Obama’s continued public defence of Erdoğan, given the American intelligence community’s strong case against him – and the evidence that Obama, in private, accepts that case. … The Joint Chiefs and the DIA [Defence Intelligence Agency] were constantly telling Washington’s leadership of the jihadist threat in Syria, and of Turkey’s support for it. The message was never listened to.
It is this US support that Turkey counts on in its onslaught on the Kurds.
Turkey also counts on political support from Germany and the UK, and from France despite evidence of some movements of the perpetrators of the November 13 Paris attacks through Turkey. Chancellor Merkel rushed to be photographed with Erdogan after sealing a deal on refugees while the UK Prime Minister still has not uttered any critical word against the AKP government’s conduct either in Syria or against its Kurdish citizens. This political support also explains why NATO is putting a positive spin on its air defence support to Turkey even though the Turkish government is not wholly trusted. It also explains why the EU postponed the publication of a critical progress report until after the elections in November and agreed to ‘energise’ EU-Turkey relations on 29 November 2015 against a background of excessive state violence in the Kurdish region.
This complicity is unfolding in a context where Kurds in Turkey and Syria are the only effective political actor with secular and democratic policy objectives. They demand autonomy and local democracy within existing state boundaries. They have realised significant achievements in the empowerment of women. They have demonstrated that they are highly effective in the fight against ISIS. They have secured significant support in two elections in Turkey, despite mob attacks on HDP offices and state-orchestrated violence that killed hundreds of participants in rallies organised or supported by HDP. Last but not least, the Kurds have not been involved in any hostility towards Western interests in Turkey, Syria or Iraq. The only exception is the Barzani-led administration in Northern Iraq, which receives full support from the US and European governments despite conspiring with Turkey to allow the latter to violate Iraq’s sovereignty.
Since the early 1920s, the Turkish state has oppressed political dissent in general and committed repeated atrocities against the Kurds in particular. The motive has always been the same: preserving the oppressive mould of the state and the power asymmetry between the political-economic elite on the one hand and the ordinary individuals on the other. This is a recipe for state failure – as Acemoglu and Robinson have warned. More to the point in the context of this article, this is also an indication that the US and Europe are propping up a state and a regime that tick all the boxes of bad governance and may be liable for trial under international law.
Given this background, European and US governments may be repeating the historical mistake that Germany committed in 1915, when it turned a blind eye to the massacre of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in return for the latter’s declaration of war against Russia.