‘TAMAM!’ (Enough!) is the cry that greeted Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan when he arrived in the UK on March 13th for a state visit. It is a response to a recent pledge to step down ‘if, one day, our nation says “enough”’. But it is a cry that falls on deaf ears. This is because Erdoğan, a vicious autocrat, has made clear that he defines ‘the nation’ of Turkey not in relation to its borders or formal citizenship but only in relation to his political allies and an essentialist notion of ‘Turkish’ identity.
Violent nationalism is key to a complex but precarious political strategy meant to keep the opposition divided at all costs in the run-up to Turkey’s upcoming snap elections in June, the results of which are meant to dramatically expand the powers of the president and functionally sideline parliament.
This has involved empowering Erdoğan’s most passionate supporters – members of far-right Islamist, nationalist and neo-fascist groups – to foment among the general population a fear of dissent and a fear of ‘outsiders’. Political critics and ethnic minority groups within Turkey, particularly Kurds and their allies, are branded as criminals, conspirators, and terrorists, enemies of ‘the nation’.
Erdoğan’s strategy draws on long-standing policy in Turkey that has, since the founding of the state in 1923, involved systematic denial of identity, disenfranchisement, and conflict with Kurds living within Turkey, particularly in Eastern and South-Eastern Anatolia Region (the part of Kurdistan known as Bakur, or ‘the North’). Since the termination of the peace process between government and the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in 2015, this policy intensified.
A failed coup attempt in 2016 allowed Erdoğan to harness the post-911-era security discourse and institute a never-ending state of emergency to tighten political control within Turkey. This has justified the expansion of military powers and the prolonged imprisonment of opposition political leaders and elected MPs. It has allowed a staggering and unprecedented ‘purge’ of tens of thousands of civil servants, journalists, teachers and academics for non-violent political dissent within Turkey, and the escalation of a full-on war against Kurdish people both inside and outside of Turkey.
As documented in the verdict of the recent Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal on Turkey and Kurds presented to the EU Parliament in Brussels on the 24th of May, this has involved assassinations, permanent displacement of Kurdish people, extrajudicial executions, indiscriminate bombings, mass imprisonment and mass killings of Kurds inside of Turkey, war crimes for which Erdoğan was deemed ‘directly responsible’.
Since Turkey and its ‘reformed’ jihadist auxiliaries in the so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ (FSA) began the assault on Afrin in northern Syria this January, analysts have decried the state’s justification of the aggression. The story of eliminating a terror threat ostensibly posed by the Kurdish-led political institutions and defense forces within the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria, a region of Kurdistan known as Rojava, does a poor job of hiding the fact that the invasion is an extension of Turkey’s long-held domestic policy to meet Kurdish self-expression and self-governance with suppression and violence.
The revived FSA is essentially a collection of various armed mercenary gangs. Their particular motivations vary, but they are all committed to destroying Rojava’s emancipatory project. Despite the identification of most Kurds in Rojava as Sunni Muslim, Turkey’s jihadists commonly refer to Kurds as ‘infidels’ and treat them accordingly.
In addition to forced religious conversions, widespread looting of homes and shops, torture, kidnappings, rapes, executions, and the destruction of non-Islamic places of worship and sacred spaces have been documented. Women are being forced to obey the reactionary codes of public behaviour – forbidden from leaving the house without a husband or male family member. In news reminiscent of the so-called Islamic State’s 2014 attempted genocide of Yazidis in Northern Iraq’s Sinjar region, recent reports suggest Turkey’s jihadist mercenaries are forcing Afrin’s Yazidis and others to convert to Islam at gunpoint.
Erdoğan is cynically using the lives of refugees as pawns in his strategy of securing a demographic shift in Afrin, to dilute a troublesome concentration of ethnic Kurds. Even before the capture of Afrin, Erdoğan suggested that as many as 500,000 of the estimated 3.5 million Syrian refugees inside of Turkey might be sent to Afrin. Already reports indicate massive population displacement and ethnic cleansing, and that that jihadists and their families displaced from East Ghouta by the Assad regime are being resettled in Afrin and are being given the homes of residents who fled the Turkish onslaught. As many as 50,000 people displaced by the fighting in Idlib are scheduled for resettlement in Afrin as well.
The sad irony here is that, prior to Turkey’s invasion, Afrin had already absorbed and integrated tens of thousands of refugees seeking the peace and security afforded by Afrin’s radically inclusive democratic system. This point cannot be over-emphasized. But Erdoğan;s goals are wildly different – far from some humanitarian effort of repatriation that will address the international refugee crisis, he seeks to ‘de-Kurdify’ the area through a project of settler colonialism involving ethnic cleansing and demographic replacement.
Meanwhile in Turkey, the gambit of calling early elections is designed to cement Erdoğan’s power ahead of a several mounting systemic problems. In just one example, Turkey’s economic growth since 2017 has been facilitated by heavy reliance on debt-financed stimulus. This profligate borrowing alongside Erdoğan’s adventurism in Afrin has led to a downgrade of Turkey’s credit rating to junk status and the lira has hit record lows in recent months. Erdoğan’s stated economic policies have ‘baffled’ investors and the political environment he has created has led to a situation of ‘imminent financial crisis’. In response to all this Erdoğan has blasted investors, claiming the lira was under attack by his enemies.
As Theresa May, Queen Elizabeth and British investors rolled out the red carpet for Erdoğan’s state visit, demonstrators across the UK mobilized to say ‘enough is enough!’ Activists in Bristol took the opportunity of Erdoğan’s UK visit to stage a spectacular banner drop from the rooftop of an Airbus facility in Filton to commemorate Anna Campbell, Barîn Kobanê, and Arîn Mîrkan, three women who have been killed fighting with the YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) in Rojava. From the factory’s rooftop, the activists explained that the site was chosen because of Airbus’s military hardware sales to Turkey.
Anna was a British volunteer who was killed in a Turkish airstrike along with two of her comrades, whilst they were protecting civilians fleeing Turkey’s invasion of Afrin. Because of the continued fighting and occupation, Anna’s comrades have been unable to retrieve her body and return her to her family in England. She still lies where she fell defending the people of Afrin and the Women’s revolution in Rojava.
The UK and Europe are turning a blind eye on Erdoğan’s atrocities, and in fact he has found affinity (and billions to prop up a failing economy) with leaders who stake their own careers on post-Brexit promises, arms deals and vows to keep people displaced by the Syrian civil war out of their communities at all costs. Erdoğan is a war criminal and a mass murderer who builds power on force, fear and disinformation. His central positionality as an instigator in the Syrian Civil War, supporter of violent jihadists, and located on the political and geographic margins of Europe makes the world unsafe, but the simple fact is that he is in a situation of duress.
Without European money, weapons and complicity that he relies on, the emperor would have no clothes. The flimsy façade of strength and indomitability that he presents his supporters would crumble and his precarious electoral gambit would likely fail spectacularly.