Bleak prospects for democracy
The latest atrocity once more draws attention to the fact that Turkey is at war, writes Esen Uslu
On March 13 a powerful car bomb shook the centre of Ankara, killing 37 and injuring 120-odd people. Earlier in the day high school students had been taking their university entrance examinations, the weather was fine and as usual there was a large crowd out and about enjoying the evening. The site targeted is very near the central intersection of several major roads, as well as a metro station serving two principal lines.
It is close to the thoroughfare leading to Çankaya Hill, which is topped by the former presidential palace - nowadays housing the prime ministerial offices and residence. Across the road is the high court of justice, while almost all the major embassies are located nearby. A couple of minutes walk away is the Grand Assembly building - Turkey’s parliament - and nearby are the headquarters of the army, navy, air force and gendarmerie.
The bombing took place just a couple of weeks after the government declared new measures to protect Ankara. Two rings of steel were to be thrown around the capital - the outer one to be manned by the gendarmerie and the inner one by the police. And, yes, it was the third major explosion in Ankara within the last five months. If, like most of the Turkish left, along with many a Turkish citizen, you are accustomed to excluding what has been going on in Kurdistan day in and day out, it was one of the most shocking and unexpected atrocities we have seen in Turkey for some time.
It came as a reminder that Turkey is at war. At war in Turkish Kurdistan, and at war with the fledgling self-governing Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish Kurdistan has seen an onslaught of massive military force: the ancient walled city of Diyarbakır; Cizre, the traditional seat of power of the Kurdish Bedirxahni dynasty; Nusaybin, the ancient Nisbis, near the border with Syria; Şırnak, the gateway to Iraqi Kurdistan; Silopi, where the oil pipeline between Kirkuk and Ceyhan crosses the border; İdil, part of the ancient Tur Abdin, where the last Assyrian mayor was gunned down in 1994; Yüksekova, the ancient Gaur, meaning ‘infidel’, with reference to its Zoroastrian inhabitants in the past; and many others cities and towns.
The makeshift barricades erected, the ditches dug by hand, the tunnels created by knocking down walls between houses - all were attacked, including by tanks and, when required, by air. Curfews lasting months were declared. The emergency services were not allowed in and the press was excluded. Such use of unrestrained force within inhabited districts caused massive destruction and cost many lives. More than 350,000 were made refugees.
The air force has been regularly bombing Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) positions in Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan. The US-led coalition in Syria was seen as a problem by Ankara, since it would not allow further military action against the Rojava Kurds. However, long-range artillery was used from the Turkish side of the border. A four-metre high wall was being built along the border with Rojava in an attempt to impede the physical unity of both parts of Kurdistan.
At the same time as it was conducting this war, the government has been busy clipping the wings of the last remnants of democracy and the rule of law in Turkey - it wants to amend the constitution to allow the unbridled rule of an elected sultan and his henchmen. Such a situation appears to be acceptable for the European Union and the USA, provided their plans for the Middle East are not hampered.
To create a favourable atmosphere in the region the Turkish prime minister visited Iran to rebuild bridges. Since the end of UN sanctions, well-to-do tourists from Iran have been flocking into Turkey, and Turkish businessmen are chasing opportunities in Iran. However, the underlying animosity is palpable.
The government has also been negotiating with an EU hell-bent on stemming the flow of refugees. Ankara is seeking substantial financial aid from the EU in return for agreeing to unrealisable demands, such as stopping the unauthorised movement of refugees to Greece. Turkey is also seeking visa-free travel for Turkish citizens in the Schengen zone - the government believes that would sugar-coat several bitter pills the population has been forced to swallow.
Predictably the government has blamed the Ankara bombing on the Kurdish freedom movement - without a shred of evidence. And within hours air force jets were bombing the not-so-secret headquarters of the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the Iranian border. The official press was full of rhetoric about the ‘revenge’ exacted, and the determination of the government to end all forms of terrorism.
The March 14 issue of Özgür Gündem, the daily newspaper of the Kurdish freedom movement, was duly seized amidst charges of aiding and abetting terrorism. The headline that day was “You cannot stop spring coming” - a reference not only to the approaching Newruz celebrations on March 21, but also to an approaching ‘Kurdish spring’. As a matter of routine, during the night unknown persons fired on the offices of the leftwing, pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP). Luckily there were no casualties.
The government also issued warrants to arrest four leading academics who had dared to sign the petition against the dirty war in Kurdistan. Three of them were lifted from their homes in the small hours (the fourth was abroad at a conference).
However, the real news was that two days before the bombing the US embassy had warned Americans in Turkey that an attack in Ankara was imminent. When government mouthpieces in the media hinted that perhaps the US itself had something to do with the atrocity, the US embassy made a further announcement: the source of its information was the Turkish government.
The prospects of democracy in Turkey seem very bleak. While most are waiting for ‘something’ to happen, many democrats and socialists are still reluctant to extend the hand of solidarity to the Kurds. However, unless we not only act in unison with the Kurds, but embrace the refugee communities and minorities to create a broad front and prepare for a long and protracted struggle, the potential for working class gains will remain an elusive mirage.