The Turkish government has taken action referred to as a “synchronized fight against terror” to cultivate a sense of fear in its population. It’s a classic textbook ploy to go to war or use the “terror card” to defame political opponents and create a climate of jingoism that rewards the sitting government in elections. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is cynically endangering his own citizens (and tourists) to provide himself an opportunity to gain absolute despotic powers. “He is gambling the peace of the country and even the economy for the sake of his personal gains,” said Svante Cornell, director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.
Erdoğan is a reckless and power-hungry leader hell-bent on calling snap elections to give his Justice and Development Party (AKP) another crack at a two-thirds parliamentary majority. [Update: On August 21, Erdoğan announced that Turkey will indeed plan for snap elections, likely taking place on November 1.] If successful, this would enable his party to change the constitution and provide Erdoğan with Putin-like presidential powers. Erdoğan has torpedoed any prospect of forming a coalition government by the August 23 deadline.
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For the first time since 2002, AKP lost its two-thirds majority in June’s election because of the emergence of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). It is the first Kurdish party to be represented in Turkey’s parliament.
Turkey’s most popular female writer, Elif Safak, not known for her support of the Kurds, stated in Time magazine, “It is one of the biggest ironies of Turkish political history that the Kurds – once belittled by the elites as a “backward culture” – have become the major progressive force in the country … Selahattin Demirtaş, the co-chair of the HDP has played a crucial role in this sea change.”
HDP attracts voters beyond its Kurdish base due to an inclusive platform. It is the only party in Turkey that applies a 50 percent gender quota and a one man, one woman cochair policy. HDP defends the rights of women, gays, ethnic minorities and workers’ movements. The party is green, while Erdoğan is pro-cement, addicted to building shopping malls – the reaction to which erupted into the Gezi Park protests. In a Guardian UK article, political scientist Ahmet Insel stated, “The HDP became the synthesis of the Gezi Park movement.”
Turkey’s motivation for a buffer zone has little to do with the Islamic State. It is a direct result of Erdoğan’s obsession with preventing a unified Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) on Turkey’s southern border.
Erdoğan believes the key to capturing two-thirds of the vote is slandering the HDP, especially casting the HDP in cahoots with the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK began an armed insurgency against the Turkish government in 1984 due to Turkey’s long history of forced assimilation of ethnic minorities, including imprisoning and massacring Kurds. For the past three years, there had been a fragile peace process, which was likely destroyed in late July by Erdoğan’s decision to bomb the PKK in their hideout in Iraq’s Qandil mountains. Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency claims 260 PKK rebels were killed and around 400 wounded after the first week of raids. Fighting between the PKK and Turkey’s military has accelerated throughout August in the majority Kurdish southeast. There are also reports by the pro-Kurdish Jinha news agency of Turkish security forces reportedly opening fire on civilians.
Reigniting war with the PKK is a cynical calculation by Erdoğan to provoke PKK “terrorist” reprisals. This will make it easier for Erdoğan’s AKP party to smear the HDP with terrorist links and gain nationalist votes when a new election is called.
So far in August, there have already been several terrorist attacks in Istanbul by far leftist organizations but none directly linked to the PKK. The attacks include gun battles at the tourist destination Dolmabahçe Palace and also the US Consulate.
On August 18, it was reported the Islamic State produced a video threatening the “conquest of Istanbul and war against ‘treacherous’ Erdoğan.”
The decision to bomb the PKK coincided with the US finally gaining Turkish permission to use the İncirlik airbase in Adana, which is about 60 miles from the Syrian border. Instead of relying on bases and carriers in the distant Persian Gulf, US airstrike and drone capability are within close range of Raqqa, the heart of the Islamic State (IS) caliphate in Syria.
In return for use of İncirlik airbase, the US relented to Turkey’s long-sought goal of creating a buffer zone inside Syria. (The propaganda term is “Islamic State-free zone”). Because the US and NATO desperately want Turkey’s cooperation in the fight against IS, Erdoğan used the IS deal as cover to unleash its most intensive attack on the PKK since 2011. Turkey’s motivation for a buffer zone has little to do with the Islamic State. It is a direct result of Erdoğan’s obsession with preventing a unified Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) on Turkey’s southern border.
The proposed buffer zone would block the northwest Kurdish canton Afrin from linking with its Kobane canton. Erdoğan recently stated: “We will never allow a state to be formed in northern Syria, south of our border.” Never mind that Syrian Kurdish leaders have not asked to become a state. Their goal is to be part of a democratic Syria and function within an autonomous or federal Kurdish administration. Erdoğan has the bigger mouthpiece and routinely blurts misinformation or sticks his foot in his mouth.
Details of the air base and buffer zone agreements are murky. Both sides have contradicted each other in public comments, but a few things are clear.
For the past four years, the Islamic State has had Turkey’s tacit cooperation to use the border as a conduit for thousands of IS recruits, as well as a weapons and smuggling corridor. Smuggling Syrian oil into Turkey has been an important revenue source for the IS economy. With the planned creation of the buffer zone, the US believes Turkey is finally serious about sealing its border.
The new agreements give the illusion of Turkey directly entering the Syrian war against IS, but reality is different. Turkey conducted cosmetic bombing raids inside Syria against IS, yet also shelled US allied Syrian Kurdish forces. Concurrent with the agreements, Turkey prioritized the massive bombing campaign against the PKK. The US and NATO (of which Turkey is a member) are not pleased but appear to be looking the other way. The PKK, along with the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ) have been the only effective ground forces in the fight against the Islamic State in northern Syria.
The best hope for the predominantly Kurdish regions of northern Syria and southeast Turkey is for Erdoğan’s quest for dictatorial powers be repelled at the ballot box.
The US has militarily collaborated with the PKK although mainstream media is silent regarding this cooperation. President Obama used his address to the nation on the Islamic State on September 10, 2014, to justify US airstrikes in Iraq: “When we helped prevent the massacre of civilians trapped on a distant mountain, here’s what one of them said: ‘We owe our American friends our lives.’ ” This refers to the rescue off Sinjar Mountain of the ethnic minority Yazidis, who faced imminent genocidal slaughter at the hands of IS. What was left unsaid was the rescue could not have happened without a ground force to escort thousands of Yazidis off Sinjar Mountain into refugee camps inside Turkey. That ground force was the PKK.
Many Yazidis were not able to escape. Children died of thirst and hunger. “In one day, they killed more than two thousand Yazidi in Sinjar” according to a Yazidi profiled in a heartbreaking New Yorker story from August, 2014. A New York Times article called ISIS Enshrines a Theology of Rape reports a total of 5,270 Yazidi women and girls were abducted last year. At least 3,144 are still being held, most being used as sex slaves.
Turkey bombing the PKK hurts and complicates the US allied ground attack against IS. On the other hand, the recent airbase agreement provides the US with more efficient air strike capability. The proposed buffer zone should theoretically stop or slow the flow of IS recruits, weaponry and oil through the Turkish/Syrian border. The rest of the 510-mile border is controlled by the Kurds.
Erdoğan fears a united Syrian Kurdistan on Turkey’s southern border more than the Islamic State. At one time, Erdoğan spoke with similar venom against Iraqi Kurds, yet Iraqi Kurdistan is now autonomous and its biggest trading partner is Turkey. The key difference between Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan is ideology. Iraqi Kurdistan is capitalist. Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) and Turkey’s PKK share the teachings of PKK founder, Abdullah Öcalan whose thinking is reportedly now based on US philosopher (and former Bernie Sanders consultant), the late Murray Bookchin. He was a one-time Marxist-Leninist philosopher who changed to espouse “direct democracy.” Öcalan grew disenchanted with a Marxist-Leninist approach to social revolution and warmed to Bookchin’s principles of governance. The Rojavan Constitution is an excellent standard for countries to live by.
The best hope for the predominantly Kurdish regions of northern Syria and southeast Turkey is for Erdoğan’s quest for dictatorial powers be repelled at the ballot box. Turkey needs a leader willing to negotiate with the PKK in good faith. Constitutions should be the foundation for guaranteeing rights of all citizens, including ethnic minorities. A constitution should not be altered to become the blueprint for entrenching despotic rulers.