This past weekend a stroll through a middle-class section of Turkey’s capital revealed nothing out of the ordinary besides a somewhat unusually high number of flags in store windows. Beneath the crescent and star against a blood-red background there appeared occasionally messages of grief for fallen soldiers and condemnations of “terror.” Terror is a good word for what the Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) Parliamentarian Mehmet Ali Aslan (Mardin) reports from the Kurdish city of Cizre under police curfew:
“All through the night artillery and mortar fire continued. All power lines have burst. At this moment there is no electricity. Infectious diseases are beginning to spread, for days the trash has not been collected…Sharpshooters have been stationed in the minarets of the mosques…the civilian population is being destroyed, so far all people killed have been civilians. Just as 1400 years ago Yezid cornered Hussein and his friends in Kerbala, so have they cornered the people of Cizre today. If it goes on like this, rather than by bullets, the people are going to die of hunger and thirst.”
Aslan’s report squares with those of others trapped in the blockaded city. For a week the people of Cizre could not leave their homes, receive food or water, get medical help for the sick, or bury their dead. Ambulances sent to retrieve the sick and the wounded were stopped on police orders. Fires raged on in neighborhoods that firefighters were not permitted to enter. Corpses lay in refrigerators or molded in chicken coops. Though on September 10 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu claimed there had been not a single civilian death in Cizre (by that point HDP sources had already counted twenty-one), one of the first events held on September 12, when the curfew was lifted, was a collective funeral.
Pro-government media spoke of an ongoing battle with “the PKK and its urban wing,” which it held responsible for the blockade strangling Cizre. Some on the Left have shown partial agreement with this view, castigating the militants for using the city as a “weapons depot” and local politicians for making declarations of “autonomy” that could not but bring down the wrath of the state. Yet reports from those trapped in Cizre this past week do not corroborate the story of civilians caught between two armies, or used as human shields. One teacher whose handwritten letter somehow reached the national press emphasized that, “there are no munitions here. Civilians are getting killed, children are getting killed in front of their homes.” Youth forming barricades in the streets, she explained, were civilians “defending themselves” because, in the teeth of the curfew, they had to go outside to procure the means of survival.
Spending her nights in the basement “in communal fashion” with her neighbors, the teacher said she could not know “which of her students” were being wounded or killed by the artillery fire overhead. The heaviest night of the bombardment was September 9, the night a convoy of supportive parliamentarians had arrived on a long march through the countryside and was being denied access to the city. The convoy included HDP co-chairman Selahattin Demirtaş as well as several party colleagues and some from the Republican People’s Party (CHP). A separate contingent of lawyers was also turned away after reaching Cizre on foot; with all bus travel to the city canceled, the security forces had effectively cordoned it off from the world. It goes without saying that there were also no journalists present to witness this round of Turkey’s “war on terror.”
If the global reign of terror that bears that name began in unfocused response to the massacre of September 11, 2001, its current Turkish aftershock let loose on the heals of a convulsion closer to home: the Turkish general election of June 7, in which the Justice and Development Party (AKP) lost its parliamentary majority. The new Peoples’ Democracy Party (HDP) played a large role in this outcome and its supporters have since been made to suffer for it.
The massacre of thirty-two Socialist Youth activists in the border city of Suruç was the first shot in a war permitting the AKP to pose as the guardians of national security. The activists were on their way to deliver toys to Kobanê, and their murderer an “Islamic State” adherent of the type that has moved roamed freely across the border throughout much of the Syrian civil war. Soon afterward two Turkish policemen were abducted from their lodgings in Mardin and killed; PKK leaders first accepted responsibility, but later backtracked. Kurdish militants had singled out the two victims as point men in alleged Turkish collaboration with the “Islamic State.”Though senior journalist Can Dündar has been threatened with multiple life sentences for investigating similar claims, anonymous pro-Kurdish websites overflow with specific allegations of cooperation between IS and Turkish security forces.
The government took the abduction as its cue to recommence military operations against the PKK, suspended since a ceasefire had been reached in 2013. Heavy bombings of PKK hideouts in the Kandil Mountains of Northern Iraq killed an untold number of militants, as well as ten civilians, when a nearby village of was hit. As violence escalated on both sides of the border, the Turkish security forces began sustaining heavy casualties as well. Their most devastating losses occurred as two back-to-back ambushes in the environs of Iğdır and Dağlıca claimed the lives of sixteen soldiers and fourteen policemen in early September. At military funerals, away from the television cameras, anger stirred against the chicken hawks of the AKP. Chants of “Tayyip, send your son to fight!” alternated with curses aimed at the PKK.
Kurdish civilians were soon to bear the brunt of the anger as well, especially when fanned by party operatives. The HDP sustained damage to party branch offices in 128 cities, including Ankara, where its national headquarters were set on fire. In some cities such as Kırşehir in central Anatolia, Kurdish-owned businesses were torched, their owners and customers attacked with clubs and machetes. In Istanbul one young man was stabbed to death for speaking Kurdish on a cell phone. In many places the leaders of organized attacks marketed their actions as “marches against terror.”
AKP supporters bussed in to the oppositional Istanbul neighborhood of Beşiktaş last week chanted, “we don’t want a [military] operation, but a massacre!” The Facebook pages of two journalists at the state-run Anatolia News Agency (Anadolu Ajansı) featured demands for “a massacre…without regard to pregnant women and children.” Calls to permit the army and police the right to extrajudicial killing spread across social media. Such sentiment is sadly not new in Turkey, where in the blood-soaked 1990’s security forces effectively worked outside the law and constant “states of exception” demoted the Kurds of the Southeast to third-class citizens. Remarkable this time around is the spread of hostile rhetoric to cover anyone unfavorable to the ruling party, including not only ethnic but also religious minorities, as well as troublesome journalists.
On the nights of September 6 and 7, a mob of club-wielding AKP supporters stormed the headquarters of Hürriyet newspaper in Istanbul, smashing windows and furniture while the police looked on. One of the leaders of the attacks was the AKP Youth Group Chairman and Istanbul Parliamentarian Abdurrahim Boynukalın. Six days later he was made a member of the party high council at the annual AKP congress in Ankara.
While street mobs denounced infidels, Erdoğan’s advisor Burhan Kuzu tweeted that soldiers should check the genitals of any PKK fighters they kill: no doubt many of them will turn out to be uncircumcised. The implication was spelled out more clearly in the ominous insult that captive Cizre civilians report the police shouting at them: “you are all Armenians!”
The siege of Cizre raises the question of what qualifies as “terrorism.” To some, the word has come to mean any organized violence pursued for political purposes by non-state actors or without the permission of the state, but a more traditional definition focuses instead on violence targeting civilians. In the recent round of fighting, the killing of civilians has been disproportionately, though not wholly, the work of the Turkish state. In addition to dozens of policemen and soldiers the PKK has also killed a number of bystanders, including a doctor driving through one of their checkpoints and a young man waiting tables in a Diyarbakır café while some policemen drank tea there.
For the Turkish government as for the United States, the “war on terror” serves as a cover for pursuing other agendas in sensitive regions. Still, one might wonder what the U.S. makes of its ally using the all-purpose “war on terror” for a bait-and-switch in which it overwhelmingly targets those resisting the “Islamic State” rather than the IS itself. In the time that Turkey’s war with the PKK has raged on, the would-be Caliphate has gained ground in Northern Syria, yet so far Washington has been largely content to let Ankara have its war, in return for permission to use the İncirlik military base as a launching pad for air incursions into Syria.
What is the true purpose of these incursions? It should by now be clear that the only way to fight the IS’s army of rape and slaughter is to enable all regional forces to unite in defense of their civilization. For that a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria is imperative. To this day the western powers have not taken a single meaningful step in this direction. The intermittent Geneva peace talks between the Assad regime and the (western-selected) opposition foundered on the rock of great power intransigence.
Instructing their allies to reject any regime proposal that stopped short of full relinquishment of power in Damascus, western capitals effectively scuttled the possibility of reconciliation. As the civil war dragged on, its camps splintering into several different warring factions, the “possibility” U.S. diplomatic cables enigmatically mentioned of “establishing a Salafist principality” in the Syrian desert materialized and began to threaten lands more well-watered and urban as well.
In these conditions the world’s attention has now turned to the prospect of providing Syria’s doctors, engineers and teachers safe passage to Bavarian asylum houses, rather than striking the deals that would make it easier for them to stay at home and rebuild what is left of their country. If the Kurdish YPG, non-Jihadist rebels, and the coastal and Alawite interests represented by the Ba’ath Party and its Syrian Arab Army were now pooling their resources to defeat IS, with the understanding that all anti-IS parties were to share power, benefits and amnesty after the war, the reconstruction of Syria would have a fighting chance. As it is, the US, Turkey, Gulf State Islamists, Israel, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah go on pursuing their separate and sometimes overlapping interests, to the detriment of the country. Dropping more bombs now into the four or five-way conflict without having a unified, local fighting force on the ground will likely just deepen the chaos, driving still more people onto the high seas or into the arms of jihadist groups.
In a more equitable world, the purpose of great power policy would be to hasten conditions in which the peoples of Mesopotamia—especially Kurds, Alawites and Shi’i, secular or anti-Jihadist Sunnis and Christians—can fight effectively together on their own behalf. Yet cooperative policies of this kind can rarely be great power policies, because countries in the habit of practicing them are unlikely to become great powers. As the sadly apt cliché would have it, to that purpose it is more effective to divide and conquer.
For years the Justice and Development Party (AKP) practiced a more peaceful version of that strategy for the sake of ideological hegemony and a lock on power within Turkey’s borders, seeking to co-opt the Kurdish movement through selective concessions and a grassroots politics aimed at displaced Kurdish workers in large western cities. In a complex strategy I have discussed at more detail elsewhere, the party of neoliberal Islamism in Turkey both exploited this section of the “informal proletariat” and cultivated its support.
The “peace process” the AKP government fitfully pursued with the PKK from 2009 onwards was meant to secure Erdoğan’s movement lasting support from enough Kurds to split the Left and outflank the secular Turkish opposition. Instead the process legitimized a new party made up of Kurds and left-wing Turks unsatisfied with the choice between nationalism and religion. The shift of working-class Kurds from the AKP to the HDP played a major role in delivering the new party its unprecedented 13% vote count, thus denying Erdoğan’s party the majority. To win back hard-core nationalists, the AKP has reverted to a bellicose assertion of national unity in the face of treasonous and unbelieving enemies.
It remains to be seen how this new nationalism affects the international ties on which the AKP still relies for global prestige. Since 1945 Turkey has been a cornerstone of western policy, first as NATO’s front line in the confrontation with the U.S.S.R., later as its beachhead in the contentious Middle East. At a time when the West was beginning to discover fundamentalist Muslims—hitherto part of its reactionary alliance in the battle with Soviet and Arab nationalist enemies—as a new primary threat, Turkey’s border positioning “between East and West” was recoded in terms of a friendly bridge to the “Muslim world.”
Current Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu was more than anyone the theorist of this shift. As a Professor of International Relations before he became Erdoğan’s Foreign Minister and then Prime Minister in 2014, Davutoğlu popularized the notion that Turkey’s combination of Muslim religion and historic ties to the West gave the country geopolitical “strategic depth.” This “culturalist” approach to diplomacy (to use Samir Amin’s term) made a diplomatic asset of the oft-cited statistic that the Turkish population is “99% Muslim.”
This fact is however an artifact of decades of both physical and discursive violence aiming by turns to eliminate or render invisible a rich tapestry of religious diversity. Nothing reveals its underlying contradiction better than the status of the Alevis, who are both “Muslim” (the entry for “religion” on their identity cards reads “Islam”) and not (their houses of worship do not count as such and do not receive state funding from the Directory of Religious Affairs).
The Alevis remain a thorn in the conservative eye because they are still there in large numbers, unlike other historically significant minorities. Even after the near-eradication of Anatolia’s Armenian population in World War I and the subsequent peaceful exchange of populations with Greece and Bulgaria, which led Turkey’s Christian communities to dwindle along with the Balkans’ Muslim ones, there followed a long series of further purifying measures, by turns legislative and criminal, in which both “modernizing” and “conservative” governments had a hand.
The brunt of the “wealth tax” passed by İsmet İnönü’s CHP government in 1942 fell by design on Christians and Jews, ruining not only moneylenders and rich merchants but also many small artisans, and forcing many to emigrate. Yet a later government sympathetic to religious conservatives proved no more friendly to minorities than the secular CHP. On September 6-7, 1955, Adnan Menderes’s government conspired with local extremists to drive out much of the remaining Greek community of Istanbul in two nights of rape and pillage in response to international tension over Cyprus. Last week’s first night-time assault on Hürriyet newspaper by AKP supporters chanting Allahü Ekber fell eerily on the sixtieth anniversary of Menderes’s pogrom.
The current rhetorical conflation of Kurds and Armenians is a cunning ploy, no mere play to naïve xenophobia but an attempt to rewrite the script of Turkish national identity in order to justify a crackdown on the Kurds under an Islamist regime. It is an important strand of the Turkish national story that Turks and Kurds fought together in World War I and again during the Independence War (Kurtuluş Savaşı) against the occupying British, French and Greeks. Greek and Armenian Christians, on the other hand, entered the textbooks as “internal enemies” with ties to imperialistic foreign powers. Already in 1915 the Ottoman state employed religious identity politics in its drive to eradicate Armenian communities, according to the historian Raymond Kevorkian: one witness from the Cizre area recalled a member of the then ruling Committee for Union and Progress (İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) exhorting local Kurds to let the Christians’ “children be orphans, their wives widows and their property be left behind for Muslims.”
Erdoğan’s 2013 assertion that Mustafa Kemal’s armies “evicted those who entered the mosque with their shoes”—an infidel act of which he also accused Gezi protestors—was of a piece with the public service message he recorded for television this spring to observe the hundredth anniversary of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli, prominently featuring an image of Erdoğan himself praying. Both messages work to frame Turkey’s struggle for national liberation as a Sunni Muslim triumph over unbelievers. It is distressing how little Erdoğan has to alter the traditionally “secular” national narrative in order to make this point.
This sectarian vision is what the AKP now stands for, and it is what the West tacitly endorses so long as it relies on Turkey as a partner against terrorism. It is not the first time that the supposedly ideologically neutral imperative to “fight terror” lends a state carte blanche to pursue lawlessly whatever resists the national interest: there the preservation of the petrodollar system, here the recovery of one-party-rule in the name of ethno-religious unity. Decades ago, Noam Chomsky decoded State Department talk about maintaining “stability” as the jargon of those who destabilize other countries for the sake of preserving U.S. dominance. With apparent American approval, Turkey’s current rulers continue to destabilize Mesopotamia in the hopes of remaining a regional power. Meanwhile, the theorist of “strategic depth” remains confident that controlled chaos will give him the same outcome in the country as a whole: when pressed on the prospect of holding the new elections planned for November 1, Ahmet Davutoğlu replied, “we are doing what we can to lead to a single-party government. The votes aim for stability.” This stability has a price, and it is easy to guess who will pay it: barely two days after the curfew was lifted on Saturday morning, Cizre is once again under lockdown.